School Bento

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I don’t know if my kids really appreciate it, but I’ve been on the Bento bandwagon for the past year or so. It’s a great way to add interest and variety to otherwise dull schoolyard lunch.

The Bento, or a single serving meal usually prepared in an enclosed container, comes to North America by way of Japan. It can be found commercially prepared almost anywhere food is sold in Japan–from convenience stores to train stations–but it is very commonly prepared by homemakers and those on the go as a healthy alternative to fast food and restaurant meals.

While perusing the local Korean market sometime ago I found these handy divided snap lid containers and began my Bento explorations at home. For today’s post I’ve taken a shot of a somewhat typical kids’ bento that I prepare daily. While many bentos found online fall into the kawaii (cute) category–complete with cut-out animal shapes and flowers created from shaved carrot pieces–my early morning preparations often involve just repackaged leftovers from the previous evening or when I’m short on time, preparing neatly cut sandwiches or something like today’s bento–burrito, fruit, crackers and vegetables. To this I will add a container of milk or yogurt and usually a piece of easy to store and eat fruit such as an apple. A relatively healthy meal consisting of a protien, a carbohydrate, two or more servings of fruit and vegetables, a dairy product and usually a little treat.

I’ll add more bento creations here as time goes on, some very cool and some very simple. In the meantime do checkout some of the bento oriented blogs listed in the “Blogs I Follow” section to the right of my posts.

Aaron

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Coffee Anyone? – A stove-top espresso how to

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Gawd I love coffee. Strong black and bittersweet, coffee gets me going and keeps me there. At my house the six cup stove-top espresso maker (the lower portion pictured above) is king. While the full size steam or pump driven espresso machines and the stove-top coffee pot all produce espresso, this style of pot is referred to as macchinetta in Italian to distinguish it and the coffee it makes.

Ours is a stainless steel Bialetti unit. It has both stainless water and coffee reservoirs and a stainless filter unit. Due to some concern over the use of aluminum coffee pots, we made the switch about two decades ago. Whether the fear is real or imagined, I have seen the corrosion that coffee can be produced on aluminum pots and felt that I probably didn’t need any more base metals in my diet. This is our third unit. Through trial and error we found that constant torquing on the pouring handle while tightening the two main sections together will eventually lead to breakage (I’m not always the sharpest tool in the drawer). Tip #1: Don’t tighten the two pieces using the handle for leverage.

It took a while to determine the optimal grind of coffee to get a full flavoured brew. Initially we opted for the “stove-top espresso” grind at the local Starbucks, but found that even with tight packing it always produced a weak espresso. Gradually we changed to a grind somewhere between “filter” and full on “espresso” grind, and stopped packing it very tightly. Since purchasing a burr grinder about eight years ago, we’ve settled on a grind one notch up from espresso (not very scientific I know, but it closely resembles the grind we used to buy). You should be aiming to find a grind that balances body/flavour without being too fine. Tip #2: Find your grind.

With the grind figured out, the next step was filling the water reservoir. We used to be very cavalier about the how much water we put in. You should be careful to keep the water level below the steam escape valve that all these units come with. A friend (not me this time) recounts the story of an accidentally submerged steam escape valve exploding off the base with enough force to embed it in the wall of his apartment. Tip #3: Always leave the steam escape valve above the level of the water in the reservoir.

We also used to be pretty loose with the water used in the unit, but we found that the chlorine in water treatment and the hardness of the tap water effected the quality of the coffee–particularly when we traveled outside of our home base (which has fairly soft low chlorinated water). Now we use filtered water. It makes a difference, particularly with a high acid coffees like those found in Central America. Tip #4: Use filtered or bottled water when possible.

Filling the coffee filter unit is something of an art depending on the grind you’ve settled on. I learned to make coffee from an old Italian who had been making it literally since childhood, and he was always insistent upon packing the coffee firmly but not tightly into the filter. Overpacking the filter with fine ground coffee will cause the coffee to “burn” as the heated water is forced to try and get through the tight plug of coffee–i.e. the water will superheat under pressure and leech bitter alkaloids into your finished brew. I slightly overfill the reservoir and then tamp it level with the rim using light finger pressure. I call it an art because it takes practice to get it right–not tight enough and you can see water left in the coffee filter unit when you open it, too tightly and you’ll see that the coffee has taken on a nasty black colour. Tip #5: Tamp the coffee into the filter keeping it level with the rim of the filter unit.

One more thing about filling the filter unit that you’ll notice the minute you do it incorrectly–always make sure the lip of the filter has no grounds stuck to it. It will break the seal between the water and coffee reservoirs and allow steam and water to escape. Tip #6: Always clean the lip of the filter unit.

Now that the coffee is in the filter, screw the coffee and water reservoirs together tightly, and start brewing. I always do this at high heat, but if you have time doing it medium high or even medium heat will often produce a richer cup of coffee. Watch the coffee as it slowly fills the reservoir. The time to take it off the heat is when the rich coffee “crema” (the light mocha coloured foam) starts to pour from the inlet pipe in the centre of the reservoir. If you leave it until the steam flows from the inlet valve you will again end up with a poor product as the steam and residual water heat the grounds and leech bitterness into the now finished coffee. Tip #7: Remove the pot from the heat as the crema forms and before the steam begins to escape.

If all as gone according to plan you’ve ended up with a rich full bodied espresso ready to tip into your preheated demitasse and enjoy… or like if you’re like us, use it to make “Americano” style coffee (I really hate this made-up term) by adding 2 parts hot water to 1 part espresso–creating basically a heavy-weight, North American style coffee.

Aaron

PS You’ll notice I haven’t made any recommendations about what kind of coffee to use. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal choice, but we’ve found that most coffee sold for espresso use is generally over roasted. Look at the beans in a true Italian coffee shop and you’ll see they are a blend of lighter and darker roast beans–but never black. Pass on the French Roast or even the Espresso roast found at most retailers and look for a good, full bodied, medium dark roast coffee (dark but not too dark). My preference is for low acid Indonesian coffees (usually grown in volcanic soil), but many people like the high acid Central American beans–let taste be your guide.

Thai Style Fish Stock

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It’s funny how a trip to the grocery store can change a meal plan.

After taking some chunky halibut fillets out of the freezer on Friday evening, I had decided to go with something relatively simple for Saturday–herb crusted pan seared halibut with a light cream sauce–but a trip into the bowels of Vancouver’s old China town, changed things up pretty quick. I rarely make the trip into down town Vancouver,  but my daughter had some work to pick up at the artist supply shop on the edge of China town and I decided to come along.

My first stop was South Seas Market, 265 East Hastings, to replenish my stock of lime leaves. This market stocks almost every Thai product that the aspiring foodie could desire. While there, I couldn’t resist picking up some fresh galangal root, Thai holy basil, a few mukrut (kaffir) limes, a couple of large containers of sambal oelek, and of course a large bag of lime leaves.

Next stop was the venerable Sunrise Grocery on Powel and Gore. Sunrise Grocery has been supplying the immediate area’s inhabitants and restaurants with cheap fresh local and imported ingredients for well over 50 years. I stocked up on incredibly inexpensive huge bags of bok choy, small orange and red bell peppers, pineapples, mangos, strawberries, and of course tofu (produced by the store’s owners under their Sunrise brand). In fact I went a bit overboard in my shopping spree and ended up dividing the spoils with my friends and neighbours.

Once home I realized that my original menu was out the door. I couldn’t bear to leave these fresh ingredients for a single day. Having made a Thai yellow curry only a few days before I opted for a clear Thai fish soup accompanied by a pineapple/pepper sweet and sour and Thai scented rice. Scanning my books and online sources for soup recipes, I found that almost all called for the inclusion of Asian chicken stock–unfortunately absent from my pantry. Faced with a crucial missing ingredient, I opted to wing it (happens a lot, I’m afraid).

Recipe: Thai Style Fish Stock:

  • 1 Medium Spanish or Red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbs Canola oil (or other flavourless light oil)
  • 4 Cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1″ Piece of ginger, minced
  • 1-1 1/2″ Piece fresh galangal root, grated
  • Fish bones for stock
  • 1 Tbs Fish sauce
  • Water to cover ingredients
  • 1 tsp brown or palm sugar
  • 4 Lime leaves, torn
  • 1 tsp Cumin seed
  • 2 tsp Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp Shrimp paste (optional)
  • 1-4 Red Thai chillies, chopped or 1 Tbs sambal oeleck
  • Salt to taste

Method:

  1. In a wok over add oil and saute onions until lightly browned medium-high heat
  2. Add garlic and stirfry until very lightly browned
  3. Add cumin and coriander seed and ginger and stirfry for a minute or two
  4. Add galangal root, chilies (or sambal oeleck), and shrimp paste and stirfry for another minute or two
  5. Add fish sauce to deglaze the pan
  6. Add fish bones and continue to stirfry for another minute or two
  7. Add torn lime leaves and sugar
  8. Add water to cover all the ingredients and bring to a slow simmer for 20 minutes (do not boil)
  9. Add salt and/or fish sauce to adjust the salt level
  10. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a heat proof container

Notes: Please be aware that this is the recipe for a stock and not a soup as such. It serves as a base for soups sauces or curries. I didn’t use lemon grass (one thing I forgot on my shopping trip) but you could add a stalk or two of the chopped and lightly crushed lemon grass along with the galangal in step 4. I used a salmon head for the bones, but any fish bone sections will do. Do not boil the bones, as the stock will become cloudy and a little thickened. If you are making soup you will need to add a little acid (lime juice or palm vinegar) to balance the sweet and salty stock before serving.
Aaron

Bento Equipment and Tips

Bento tray liners

I’m not usually one to cross post other blog articles, but this one is definitely worth it for the newbie Bento maker. It contains a bunch of elements that I was going to cover in future, but why recreate the wheel?

Cooking Cute: Bento Equipment

Worth checking out!

Aaron

Cocktail du jour – The Cypress Brandy Sour

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This is the latest “house” cocktail–the Cypress Brandy Sour. It’s a nice and refreshing take on the basic whiskey/brandy sour that your father or grandfather might have ordered back in the day. I find that it works any time of year, but particularly when the weather begins to warm. Since malaria is a thing of the past in most parts of the world, this makes a nice change from the ubiquitous gin and tonic.*

Cypress Brandy Sour

  • Juice from half a lime or lemon
  • 1 1/2 oz Brandy
  • 3 to 4 oz Bitter lemon soda or ginger-ale (see note)
  • Ice

Add ice to a short collins or highball glass.
Add lime/lemon juice, and stir vigorously to chill.
Add bitter lemon soda to top up.

Notes: This is one of several sour variations I’ve found. Others call for lemonade in place of the soda, but there’s something to be said for the bitter lemon soda (I use the San Pellagrino Limonata pictured above). It also works with a dash of angostura bitters, but it’s a question of personal taste.  When making it at home I use the inexpensive French St-Remy, but on a recent trip to Hawaii I used the American E&J VS brandy and the result was quite acceptable. I would personally avoid using the better grades of brandy, first because wasting good booze in a mixed drink is a sin and secondly because the aging method used for the good stuff often imparts a dryness and subtle flavour changes that don’t suit the cocktail. If you find it a bit tart for your taste or feel like saving coin, a lightly flavoured ginger-ale such as Canada Dry can be substituted for the lemon soda. We often take the latter course if the bitter lemon soda isn’t available.

Aaron

*A silly reference on my part, but Tonic water was used as a preventative/cure for malaria in the 19th and early 20th centuries because of the quinine it contains.

Spanish Style Rice – Lazy Sunday Dinner

Some Sundays you’re racing all over hell’s half acre driving the kids to sports, birthday parties or to the mall (oh the joys of having a teenage daughter). When dinner rolls around the energy to cook has often flown and you’re left trying to figure out the easiest way from point A to B.

This past Sunday was no exception for me. I pulled into the local grocery store wondering what to do. I had vegetables on hand at home (peppers) and leftover rice from Saturday’s dinner. The obvious answer was something combining the two. So I came up with a quick Spanish inspired rice dish along the lines of a paella.

Menu

  1. Spanish Rice
  2. Cut Apples with Lime
  3. Beverages: Milk for the Kids, Red Wine for us

Menu wise, it doesn’t get much simpler.

Spanish Style Rice*

  • 1 1/2 to 2 c Long grain rice (I use Thai scented, but basic long grain white will do)
  • Chicken Broth (sufficient to cook rice)
  • Pinch of saffron
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 2-3 Mild Italian/Portuguese Sausages
  • 1 Medium red pepper, diced
  • 1 Medium Spanish or red onion, diced
  • 1 Medium ripe tomato, diced (optional)
  • 2 Cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp Cumin
  • 1/4 tsp Oregano
  • 1/2 tsp Garlic powder
  • 1 to 1 1/2 tsp Spanish or Hungarian Paprika
  • White Wine
  • 1 Tbs Fresh Parsley, chopped fine
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Cook rice, substituting chicken stock and saffron for water–salt the rice prior to cooking if using a low sodium broth.
Poke the sausages two or three times with a fork to allow fat to escape.
Boil the sausages in water for 3-5 minutes, remove from water and dry.
Fry the sausages over medium heat in a very small amount of olive oil.
Remove sausages and drain most of the fat from the pan.
Cut sausages into 1/4 to 1/2″ thick slices on the diagonal and reserve.
Return the pan to the element, add a teaspoon or two of olive oil.
Saute the onions and peppers until softened.
Add sliced sausages, minced garlic and spices and saute for one to two minutes more.
Add white wine to deglaze the pan and add moisture (about a 1/4 c).
Add tomato if using and cook for a few minutes to soften.
Add cooked rice a cup at a time, blending the ingredients into the rice until the desired consistency is reached (rice should be moist but not soggy).
Add chopped parsley, salt and pepper to taste.
If you find the mix a little dry then add a little butter or additional olive oil.
Serve on pre-heated plates or bowls.
Total prep about 60 minutes including cooking the rice. Serves 3.

Notes: This is free form cooking at its best. Adjust quantities of meat, vegetables, spices, oil, wine, etc. to taste and according to the number of servings required. I left out the heat as a courtesy to my son, but a little ground chili or sambal oelek wouldn’t go amiss in this dish. The recipe above is for about three moderate eaters and will leave you with a little left over rice for the next day’s lunch–better to have too much than too little. Don’t forget to taste as you go (after the sausages are cooked of course).

Aaron

*This can be considered a good GF meal providing the sausages are gluten free (many are not).

Dashi – Everyday Japanese

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Dashi is the basis for so many Japanese dishes that it’s a must know for anyone aspiring to capture an authentic taste. In it’s basic form, it’s a stock that marries two key elements: Konbu (dried kelp) and Katsuobushi (shaved bonito). However, it can be modified to yield a more complex base for cooking depending on substitutions or additions–including a koni (crab) or vegetarian option. It serves as a base for most miso soup and a wide variety of sauces. My basic Dashi (the one given below) involves the addition of dried anchovies, but the addition of brined crab pieces seriously elevates the stock and if available is what I use in dishes such as Shabu Shabu (Japanese Fondue).

Anchovie Dashi

  • 4 to 6 c Cold water
  • 1 to 2 square inches of dried konbu sheet per cup of water
  • 2 to 3 Dried “dashi anchovies” per cup of water
  • A handful of katsuobushi flakes (shaved bonito), more or less to taste

Add the cold water to a non reactive pot and add the konbu.
Place pot over a medium high element and slowly bring to a simmer.
Remove the kelp from the water before boiling and add the Anchovies and Katsuobushi.
**Do not boil the Konbu–it will make the resulting stock bitter**
Cook on a low boil for a few minutes.
Remove from heat and strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a heat proof bowl.
Let cool or use while hot
Keep the remaining dashi in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a up to a week.

Notes: This recipe is what the Japanese call ichi dashi or first dashi. If you come across a recipe calling for ni dashi simply repeat the above process using new water and the removed/strained ingredients from the first batch. Ni dashi is used in some dishes where a lighter flavour is required. Depending on the strength of the ichi dashi, I will sometimes make a ni dashi as the basis for the traditional miso soup, but for the most part I rarely take this step.

As you can see from the above the ingredient list, this is very much a “make it to taste” recipe. Drop the anchovies if you’re going for a lighter less fishy version; add more katsuobushi if you want a heavier smoked flavour; wipe the konbu with a damp paper towel to remove the crusted salt if you want a less salty version; add the above mentioned brined crab (only a small piece is required) to turn it into something extravagant… It really is a very flexible base and easily adapted to your needs. Always make a little more than required–it is called for in so many Japanese dishes and can even find it’s way into some Western recipes.

…Or you could just skip all the above and buy the little msg laden packets from the Japanese or Korean grocer. Your choice.

Aaron