The Relic

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So I paid a visit to my brother up in the Sunshine Coast region of BC, for the Canada Day long weekend. The food and drink has always been great at his place and this time was no exception.

Recently he has become enamored with some of the more classic aperitifs such as Lillet and Campari. The other day he picked up a bottle of the Italian aperitif Aperol.

He said he found it a little on the sweet side and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with it. I pointed out that I’d seen a few cocktails with Aperol, and that we should look them up.

Unfortunately, most we came across tended to involve very obscure mixes such as white crème de cacao or cucumber infusions. I decided instead to riff on the sours that I like so much and came up with the following recipe.

Recipe: The Relic

  • 1.5 oz Dry Gin
  • .75 oz Aperol
  • .75 oz Lime juice
  • 3-4 Ice cubes
  • Ginger ale to top up
  • Thin slice of lime for garnish

Method

  1. Combine first four ingredients in a tall Collins glass
  2. Stir well to chill
  3. Top up with ginger ale (about 2-3 oz)
  4. Garnish with a thin slice of lime

The name for this drink comes from a surly character featured in the 1970s drama, The Beachcombers, portrayed by the actor Robert Clothier. The show was set in the area where my brother lives–Gibsons, BC–so the name seemed fitting.

Cheers,

Aaron

How to Chop an Onion – An Idiot’s Guide

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I know it sounds a little silly. We all know how to cut an onion right? Peel and chop. Pretty simple. But what if you need to have reasonably consistent pieces? Or you need to work quickly without losing a digit in the process?

I used to watch the old Mexican street vendors preparing salsas. Those women could make short work of an onion and produce perfectly minced pieces without even using a cutting board. I’ve tried to copy their method (which involved cross scoring the onion) in my kitchen, but I was never able to duplicate it with any degree of skill, so I came up with my own way. While it doesn’t have the elegance of those skillful street vendors, it does a passable job in fairly short order.

Method:

  • Cut the top and bottom of the onion and peel.

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  • Half the onion. If there is a core (sometimes found on larger onions) cut a little V-notch in each half to remove.

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  • Turn the onion on the side and make fan shaped cuts to the onion’s centre at the desired width of the finished piece size.

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  • Cross cut the half against the grain, again at the desired width for the finished results. Use your fingers to keep the onion together as much as possible (not shown in the photo)

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  • Continue the cross cuts until complete.

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  • Break the pieces apart with your fingers to produce the finished product.

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The example pictured above is chopped coarsely, but much finer pieces are easily achievable using this method. It takes a little practice to perfect, but it’s worth the effort.

Aaron

Cookbooks – Hunting and gathering

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My wife and I have a classic hunter-gatherer arrangement–she hunts and I gather.

My wife is an addicted second hand store shopper. Every week or two she comes home with a find that plays to my tastes, be it books on fly fishing, new kitchen appliances, interesting serving plates and of course cookbooks.

They’re not all keeprs, but I’m always surprised at some of the treasures she finds. Over the years I’ve received beautiful hardcover books such as Shizu Tsuji’s, Japanese Cooking A simple Art; some fairly obscure ones like Sandra Cook’s, Salt and Pepper: The Cookbook; and some downright retro ones like the Sunset Book’s, Mexican Cook Book: Simplified techniques 155 classic recipes. Whatever the subject, I’m always pleased to discover something new and useful to add to the collection.

It’s great having a partner that revels in the thrift store hunt. I’ll post more of her finds as time goes by–you’ll be surprised.

Aaron

Tamarind Fish Curry (or how to keep your fish from falling apart)

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Have you ever tried adding a softer fish pieces to a curry or thick stew? Usually you end up with finely broken pieces of fish swimming around in the sauce. Annoyed by it? Me too.

Unless you are extremely careful when adding and stirring, fatty cuts of salmon, cod, soles and other whitefish have an unfortunate habit of not staying together when added to sauces–and even with care the chances of the fish pieces staying intact are poor at best.

I encountered this when I first started making fish curries–in particularly an otherwise excellent Salmon Curry by author Das Sreedharan. In it he instructs the reader to add cubed salmon to the finished curry until cooked then to stir in coconut milk to finish. I tried to make this dish several times, only to be met with tiny bits of fish spread evenly through the curry instead of the rich savoury salmon chunks shown in his accompanying illustration.

If nothing else I can be a bit stubborn, so I modified the dish with a simple trick and the result was fantastic–so much so that my family won’t have it any other way. The trick, which I’ve applied to other delicate dishes, is to shallow fry the fish pieces (after marinating and a light dusting of chana flour) before adding them to the finished curry. The fish chunks come out moist and just burst with flavour in the mouth. Along the way I’ve tweaked the curry a bit to create a very memorable if somewhat different dish from what Sreedharan originally created.

Menu

  • Tamarind fish curry
  • Basmati rice
  • Spiced peanuts
  • Garlic green beans
  • Fresh cut strawberries
  • Milk for the kids, Malbec for the adults

Recipe: Tamarind Fish Curry

Marinade and Fish:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 1 tsp Cummin seed, ground
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Hot Indian paprika or ground chilies
  • 2 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Sea salt (optional)
  • 2-3 tsp Palm or white vinegar
  • 3/4-1 lb Salmon, lingcod or other whitefish cut into 1″ cubes (see method/notes)
  • Cooking oil for frying

Flour:

  • 1/4 c Chana (chickpea) flour, or bleached wheat flour (the latter is not GF of course)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Curry:

  • 1-2 Tbs Light cooking oil (Canola)
  • 10 Kari (curry) leaves
  • Pinch Fenugreek seeds, whole
  • 2 tsp Black or brown mustard seeds, whole
  • 1 Med Onion, Finely diced
  • 4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1″ pc Ginger root, minced
  • 1-3 Tbs Sambal oelek or 2-3 small fresh red chilies minced
  • 2 tsp Cumin seed, ground
  • 3 tsp Amchur powder
  • 1/2 tsp Tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Chilies or Indian paprika, ground
  • 3/4-1 c Tamarind liquid (see method/notes)
  • 1 12oz can Stewed or diced tomatoes, or 2 whole tomatoes diced
  • 1-4 tsp Palm or brown sugar to taste
  • Salt to taste

Method

    Part 1: Fish

  1. Prepare the fish with an optional 15 minute salt cure (see notes)
  2. Cut fish into approximately 1″ cubes and set aside
  3. Whisk together remaining marinade ingredients in a medium bowl
  4. Add the cubed fish to the marinade and stir lightly to coat
  5. Transfer fish and marinade into a plastic bag, remove air and seal
  6. Let fish marinate for at least 20 minutes. While the fish marinates prepare vegetables and other ingredients for the curry
  7. Setting the fish aside, combine the chana flour, salt and pepper in a shallow soup bowl or similar container
  8. Remove fish cubes from bag, wipe off excess marinade, roll in flour mixture to lightly coat
  9. In a wok or medium saucepan add cooking oil for shallow frying–approximately 1/4″ deep, and heat over a medium-high element
  10. When oil is hot, carefully add the fish cubes (about 6 at a time) and fry on all sides until golden brown
  11. Transfer cooked fish pieces on to a plate layered with paper towel to absorb excess oil and place in a warm oven (approximately 175 F)
  12. Repeat process until all the fish pieces are cooked
  13. ——–
    Part 2: Curry

  14. Add 1-2 Tbs oil to a wok or deep bottom saucepan and heat over a medium-high element
  15. When the oil is hot, add kari leaves, mustard seeds and fenugreek and cook for about 30 seconds until the leaves and mustard seeds stop spitting
  16. Lower the heat to medium and add the onions, sauteing until soft or lightly brown (about 10-20 minutes)
  17. Add garlic, ginger and sambal and stir for a minute or two
  18. Add remaining dry spices and stir for another minute
  19. Add tamarind liquid and tomatoes and stir until well combined
  20. Reduce heat and let simmer until the tomatoes are well softened and the flavours have combined (about 20 to 30 minutes) adding water as required to prevent the dish from drying out
  21. Taste and add sugar as required to balance the sourness of the tamarind
  22. After the curry is finished add the fish pieces, stirring gently to combine and heat
  23. Serve the dish in a suitably sized bowl

Notes: It took a while to write this one up because of the steps involved, but it’s really less work than it would seem. Salt curing the fish before cooking is an optional step, but one that changes the texture and firms the fish up. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but essentially it involves lightly covering the fish pieces with kosher or pickling salt, wrapping them in absorbent paper towel or cloth for about 15 minutes, then rinsing the salt off under cold running water. It adds very little salt to the finished dish, but changes the texture and allows the fish soak up any marinade it’s placed in. The tamarind liquid is made by placing 2-3 Tbs of tamarind pulp in a cup of boiling water. Leave it to soften for 5 to 10 minutes before breaking it up with either fingers or a fork, then strain the water and pulp through a fine sieve pushing as much pulp as possible through the sieve. You’ll end up with slightly less volume than you started with, but the result is a delicious sour-sweet liquid called for in many South and Southeast Asian dishes.

Serves 4-6

Aaron

Basic Lamb Curry

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Lamb is a bit of a staple in our house. When I see a good deal at our local market I like to take advantage of it. This past Saturday I happened upon a couple of inexpensive lamb shoulder chops marked down by an extra dollar each. My plan was to do them “slow braised” and divide them in four for the family, but a surprise guest (a friend of my daughter) showed up for dinner and I had to extend them to feed five. I decided on going with a simple lamb curry. This killed to birds with one stone, as my daughter has been bugging me to make lamb curry since the last time I prepared it.

Menu

  • Lamb Curry (for 5-6)
  • Braised carrots with butter and cardamom
  • Rice
  • Cut watermelon
  • Milk for the kids, wine for us

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Lamb shoulder chops are highly underrated by most North Americans, who when they hear chops almost exclusively think of the tasty, tender and hellishly expensive loin chops. But shoulder chops are an incredible deal, delivering far more flavour at a fraction of the price. The trick with the shoulder chops (which admittedly are a tougher cut) is a long moist-heat cooking time. As a cooking method, curry is a natural for such cuts–drawing out the rich flavour inherent in the meat, fat and bones.

Recipe: Basic Lamb Curry (Tomato based)

  • 2 tsp Cumin seed, ground
  • 2 1/2 tsp Coriander seed, ground
  • 2-3 tsp Amchur powder (dried green mango)
  • 1/2 tsp Tumeric, ground
  • 1/2 tsp Indian paprika, ground
  • 1 tsp Chilies, ground (optional)
  • 1 tsp Cumin seed, whole
  • 1 x 2″ pc Cinnamon bark
  • 2 Black cardamom,  lightly crushed
  • 2-3 Bay leaves
  • 1 Tbs Light cooking oil (canola)
  • 2-3 Lamb shoulder chops
  • 2 med. Onions, diced
  • 4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
  • 1″ Ginger root, grated
  • 2 -3 tsp Sambal oelek (optional)
  • 12 oz Can diced tomatoes and juice (or 2 good quality lg fresh tomatoes, chopped)
  • Salt
  • 2-3 c Water

Method

  1. Liberally salt lamb chops on both sides
  2. In a large wok or deep heavy bottomed pot, heat oil over medium-high heat
  3. When hot, add prepared lamb chops and fry until nicely browned on each side (about 3-4 minutes a side depending on temperature)
  4. Remove lamb from pot and set aside to cool
  5. Add chopped onion to pot, lowering the heat slightly, and saute
  6. While the onion is cooking, chop the lamb into very small pieces, trimming off the fat and reserving the meat and bones
  7. Set the meat aside and add the larger bones to the onions, continue cooking until the onions just start to brown
  8. Add garlic and ginger (and sambal if using) to pot and saute for a minute or two, stirring to prevent the ginger from sticking to the pot
  9. Add dry spices (first six ingredients), plus cinnamon, bay leaves, and cardamom to pan and cook for a minute or more stirring to make sure that the spices cook lightly but don’t burn
  10. Add reserved meat, stirring to coat it in the onions and spices
  11. Add a cup and a half of water and stir to deglaze the bottom of the pot
  12. Add  tomatoes and bring to boil
  13. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the lamb begins to soften (20-30 minutes or more)
  14. Add water through the cooking process keeping the curry thin enough to simmer the lamb, letting it thickening just prior to serving
  15. Salt to taste
  16. Remove any bones, bay leaves, cardamom, and cinnamon prior to serving
  17. Serve in a large ceramic bowl

Notes: Our dinner guest didn’t strike me as being very heat tolerant so I added very few chilies to the curry. My family members (except for my youngest) suggested that it could use more heat, and were it not for the guest I would have included at least the optional chili based ingredients indicated in the recipe above. Even with these additions it would qualify as a mild heat. As you can see the this curry is tomato based and tends to favour Northern Indian spices–but there are quite probably hundreds of “lamb curry” recipes from across South and Southeast Asia.

Aaron

Mirepoix Stock Base

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Mirepoix is the basis for so many stocks and sauces that it really deserves a bit of discussion.

At its most basic it simply represents a collection of finely cut vegetables sautéed in oil or butter. Traditionally the three main components are onions, carrots and celery, but other flavourful vegetables such as bell peppers, asparagus, garlic, mushrooms or zucchini can be added or substituted. Another addition that I like to include is fresh chopped parsley or chives. Your choice of components comes down to an intuitive understanding of what will go best with the finished dish.

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I try and keep the proportions of cut vegetables fairly even (maybe a little heavier on the onion) and scale up or down as required. The example shown above involves a single small onion, a medium to large carrot, a stalk of celery and a good hank of flat leaf parsley. Unless used in a dish where the finished vegetables will actually be eaten whole, the chopping doesn’t have to be particularly precise–just small enough to saute easily and quickly. The only vegetable that needs to be cut finely is the carrot–mostly because it takes the longest to cook and soften.

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Melt the required amount of butter in a non-stick or regular heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat. If the recipe calls for caramelizing or browning the vegetables a regular pan is best, because it can take the heat required and works better for deglazing. Olive oil can be used if you are concerned about saturated fats in your diet, but nothing beats the flavour of butter (in my humble opinion).

Add the vegetables to the butter and saute to soften. The length of time required will vary with the amount of heat applied, the quantity of vegetables and even the size of pan used so I can’t offer a definite guideline, but I would plan on at least 20 minutes or so–longer if you plan on browning the vegetables. On that note I would recommend sauteing the vegetables until almost done before increasing the heat a little to brown. This will prevent the butter from browning before the vegetables have finished cooking and will reduce the amount of water in the mirepoix. You’ll just have to experiment a little and find what works best for you (standard operating procedure in my kitchen).

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Next comes the wine. What’s traditional french cooking without the wine? As I note on my condiment page, a simple unoaked sauvignon blanc is my cooking white wine of choice. It has lots of fruit flavour and for the most part low tannin and acid. If you’ve ever had cream curdle with the addition of wine, you’ll understand why a low acid wine is best. I also like the subdued flavour profile of sauvignon blanc because it doesn’t overpower a dish–cooking wine should be a supporting character and not the star of the show.

Add the wine to the now cooked mirepoix for a little softening, a little flavour and to deglaze the brownings if any. Add enough to moisten the vegetables, but not drown them if you will be eating the finished vegetables in a dish, add more if it will form the base for a stock. Saute the vegetables and wine at least until the alcohol in the wine has evaporated, but before it begins to lose flavour. If using for a stock, I like to add a little water or bullion at this point. Alternatively, when you go to strain the vegetables in the next step, hot water can be used to rinse the finished mirepoix and extract more flavour. You can “finish” the mirepoix at this point with the addition of fresh chopped herbs, salt, pepper, etc. if desired.

Straining the mirepoix into a heatproof container is the final step in producing your base stock. I’m fortunate enough to have a traditional metal cone-shaped sauce strainer (another thrift store find courtesy of my wife), but if you don’t, fear not–simply line a fine sieve with a cheesecloth slightly larger than the sieve, add the vegetables and when mostly drained gather up the edges to create a ball and (when cool enough) squeeze as much liquid from the ball as possible.

Your mirepoix based stock is now good to go. It can be used as is in any number of dishes or as the base for other more elaborate sauces. For use in some sauces where colour is important, using neutral coloured vegetables such as parsnips and white mushrooms in place of the carrot and parsley is suggested–but I personally don’t bother too much with such considerations.

One last thing. I hinted above that the resulting mirepoix can be eaten rather than used as a stock base. While I won’t provide a recipe here, at some point in late summer or early fall when the Pacific salmon start to run, I will post a recipe for saumon au papillote that uses the soften vegetables as a key ingredient.

Aaron

Octodogs (aka takodogs)

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The infamous “Octodog,” or Takodog (literally octopus dogs) if you prefer an engrish version, is a staple in a lot of Japanese kids’ bento boxes. They are dead easy to make in the simplest form, but like most things Japanese you can go a little crazy using specialized cutters and adding touches such as black sesame seed eyes. I opt for the simple version as my kids are past the point when the extras mean anything to them.

Recipe: Octodogs

  • 1 Gluten free hot dog

Method:

  1. Cut hot dog into three equal sections
  2. Using a sharp paring knife make three 1/2″ slits in a pie shape at each exposed hot dog end
  3. Boil cut pieces in a small pot (better) of water for a minute, or microwave (faster) on high for about 40 seconds
  4. Transfer cooked hot dogs to a piece of paper towel to drain, dry and cool
  5. Use as required

Notes: It really doesn’t any easier. It’s almost embarrassing to provide a recipe, but I had to look it it up when I first started.

As an aside, I was first shown a version of these by a friend during a fishing trip. He made deeper slits on either end of a whole hot dog (about a third of the length deep), skewered them in the middle, roasted them over an open fire until the legs curled, and called them squid-dogs. They tasted really good and made a great campfire treat for the kids.

Aaron