Wherein I Come Out of Hiding and Say, “Don’t Panic!”

My goodness, four months!

So much has happened, I can’t even tell you. Just this past week, I made chocolate puddle cookies and added a mint twist to Nigella’s ultimate fudgy brownies (you can find these in How To Be A Domestic Goddess). I also made some lovely baked pearl barley risotto, which I’m about to heat up and finish, and a ton of green Thai curry with shrimp (or prawns, as they’re called over in these parts).

But what have I been doing since the beginning of the year? Well, this blog is officially under construction, while a web designer friend of mine and I are in talks on how to make it bigger, bolder, and yeah, maybe a little more beautiful. So stay tuned. My hope is that a new and improved version of The Fork Test will be up and running again by June. For now, I encourage you to visit the links page and check out some other blogs. Or maybe indulge yourself in some food porn. Whatever works!

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Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Serious Comfort

Christmas this year was a bit of a conundrum for me. Unlike in the States, where I’d have access to supermarkets on the day, or could at least order Chinese food for delivery, everything here is closed. It makes sense. Religion in Ireland is far less diverse, and besides, it’s traditional to allow everyone the chance to be with their families on the day. Believe me when I say I’ve no complaints—it’s not half-bad spending an entire day on the couch, snug in your PJs, sipping tea and watching classic films on TV—but not having the option to purchase even a liter of milk from the shop on the corner means one thing: improvisation. Planning ahead is key on Christmas, especially when you’re spending it by yourself, but this year, I didn’t exactly have the same luxuries I’ve had previously. Last year, for instance, I didn’t have a job, nor was I working on Christmas Eve, so figuring out dinner for the day wasn’t terribly difficult. This year, however, I not only worked on Christmas Eve, but until an odd hour, and so with an inability to buy a bird for a traditional roast (imagine fitting a turkey or chicken in a staff fridge the size of one you’d find in a college dorm!), I had to think of ways to make dinner special, but using non-perishable ingredients that I’d keep in my locker until it was time to go home.

I decided comfort food would be the way to go. While everyone would be gorging themselves on stuffed birds and ham, mash and mince pies, I would gorge myself on something that made me feel fuzzy inside—something that reminded me of home and kept me warm during a seriously cold (and somewhat lonely) day. I settled on tuna noodle casserole, an old favorite growing up, with a starter of carrot and coriander soup (canned, since I’ve yet to purchase a hand blender and I had to somehow exact my laziness in the kitchen). And then there was the question of dessert. What could I make that would suffice when everyone around me indulged in Christmas cake? Of course it was a no-brainer: my mom’s hot fudge pudding cake.

Over the summer, my mom gave me a journal she’s been collecting recipes in over the past three years. She’d actually given it to me during my time as an undergraduate, but somewhere along the way it wound up back in Chicago. While most of the recipes in the book are taken from Gourmet Magazine or are clippings from the food sections of various newspapers, there are a few she can call her own. My mom has always been immensely proud of her kitchen creations. I will always remember the day she figured out how to make crepes using matzoh meal, and then practically took on the giddiness of a child, having figured out a quick-fix solution to making a chocolate filling (hint: it involves Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake frosting and a microwave). Since she gave me permission to share her chicken soup recipe (which I will, some day), I figured I could also share her pudding cake recipe.

A quick note beforehand, though: I’m not sure how prevalent it is in Ireland, but in the UK, pudding is used as a loose term for many kinds of desserts. When I was first making my mom’s cake, I thought she was using the term similarly. But it really is pudding. And cake. You’ll see. From the outside, it looks like a big, globby pile of chocolate mush crammed into a baking dish. But on the inside…well, it is divine. Just be careful not to eat it fresh out of the oven, as it is pretty damn hot.

My Mom’s Hot Fudge Chocolate Pudding Cake

Ingredients:

BATTER

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder (I used Cadbury Drinking Chocolate for this, which I’d recommend if you’re lucky enough to have some lying around)
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp. melted butter

TOPPING

  • 1 cup firmly-packed brown sugar (I used Demerara, but I suspect dark brown sugar would be just as good)
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 3/4 cups hot water
  1. Preheat your oven to 350ºF/176ºC
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, sift dry ingredients together. Stir in the milk and butter, and mix until smooth.
  3. Pour batter into a greased and lightly floured 9-inch baking pan or dish.
  4. In another bowl, make the topping: combine brown sugar and cocoa powder in hot water. Once combined, pour this over the batter.
  5. Pop the cake in the oven and bake for 40 minutes (or until a fork inserted into the middle comes out clean—or at least warm).
  6. Eat and feel really good. Voila!

During the cooking process, the topping (which will be soupy when poured onto the batter) sinks into the rising cake, then seeps through whatever cracks may have surfaced. With any luck, your cake will look like the one above: a nice, oozy, chocolaty volcano.

The best part about the cake, though? It makes 8 servings, which means, if you’re like me, you’ll be eating it all week long. Now that’s some serious comfort.

Posted in Desserts | 4 Comments

Another Year

Well, I can’t believe it’s 2011. The year always picks up speed towards its end, but 2010 seems as though it went by particularly fast. Anyone else feeling the same way?

My apologies for disappearing for a bit there. Combine retail work with the Christmas season, and you’ve got equal parts exhaustion and an inability to do much beyond work, eat, and sleep. Even if I had been writing during the weeks leading up to and surrounding Christmas, what would have resulted might have been reviews on microwave meals, the different ways you can combine pasta with jar sauces, and diatribes about frozen pizza. No joke. During these past few weeks, my kitchen virtually turned into a non-entity, and even turning on my oven often seemed to much to bear. Such is life as a bookseller (or anyone else circumstantially forced to deal with the complete and utter insanity that is the Christmas-shopping public).

Anyway, seeing that it’s a new year and all, let’s forget my venture into obscurity and get down to business. In early October, my good buddy Jamie (he of “fork test” notoriety) celebrated his 30th birthday, and because he managed to receive three (or was it four?) cakes at the time, I felt it would be a bit redundant to bake him one. However, nearly two months passed, and I decided it was time to satisfy ye olde sweet tooth once more. Sure, I could have made a batch of cookies or brownies, but that felt old hat, at least in terms of my own baking adventures. No, something special needed to be made. Thirty is a nice, round number, after all. So I started researching cake recipes, and found something that would not only suit the occasion, but would allow me to put my own spin on things. Plus it would be delicious, of course.

Full confession: up until this point, I had only baked the most basic of cakes, and half the time, their origins involved cardboard boxes. I’m of the opinion that there’s no shame in cracking open a lovely red Betty Crocker box every now and then, because hey, it’s yummy, satisfying stuff. (The same goes for Trader Joe’s pre-prepared mixes.) But when you’ve got the ingredients to make your own, use ’em. Another admission is that I’d never made a two-tiered cake before, even though I’ve had twin cake/pie pans for a while now, so I decided this would be the perfect time to try it. Looking back, experimenting with tiers for a friend’s birthday cake might not have been the best idea—so much room for error!—but since this story has a happy ending, it’s all the better I went for it, no?

A few months ago, I inherited Green & Black’s Chocolate Recipes. This is a pretty sweet book to own (pun possibly intended), since the UK-based chocolate company does not mess around. (Don’t believe me? Check out their website for proof.) A lot of the recipes in the book are complicated and require a fair bit of ingredients and/or prep work, but the cake I finally settled on seemed simple enough to conquer, plus it gave me the chance to mess around with the filling, the original of which I don’t think Jamie would’ve liked.

A brief note before the recipe: I’m pretty sure G&B’s batter here would result in an equally nice banana bread. However, since the ingredient amounts are meant for two cake tins, you can either split the measurements in half (enough to fill a single loaf tin), or distribute the batter between two loaf tins. Or, if you’d prefer, you can save half the batter for another time (I reckon it will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but that’s an estimation, so don’t quote me). Also, as mentioned above, the filling I used is my own—or rather, borrowed from Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for strawberry shortbreads, but still not G&B’s. I’ll include their take on things at the end of the ingredients list.

Banana and White Chocolate Cake (found in Green & Black’s Chocolate Recipes)

Ingredients:

CAKE BATTER

  • 175 g/6 oz. unsalted butter
  • 175 g/6 oz. caster sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 250 g/9 oz. self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 100 g/3.5 oz. good-quality chocolate of choice, broken into pieces (I used caramel-filled milk chocolate) or a few handfuls of chocolate chips of choice*

FILLING**

  • 2 bananas, sliced
  • 3/4 cups crème fraîche
  • 5 tbsp. whipping cream
  • 2-3 tbsp. powdered sugar, to start

ICING

  • 200 g/7 oz. good-quality white chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 40 g/1.5 oz. unsalted butter

*This was my own addition. You can really put whatever you want in the batter, so long as it would taste good with banana and chocolate. I reckon mixing in ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves would give the cake a nice kick. Or you can throw in some shredded coconut to give it added flavor, as well as texture. Experiment—that’s half the fun!

**The original filling calls for 2 bananas, the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp. of rosewater, and 150 ml/5 fl. oz. of crème fraîche. A bit fancy, no? To make it, all you have to do is slice the bananas and toss them in the lemon juice, then mix the rosewater into the crème fraîche and spread this on top of once of the cake rounds (once cooled); top the mixture with the lemony bananas, then sandwich the two cake rounds together. Et voila!

Now get cracking:

  1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4. Brush two 9-inch cake/pie tins with melted butter and dust with flour, shaking off the excess. (I found putting a round of parchment paper in each tin before brushing with butter and dusting with flour was really helpful in terms of turning out the cakes later, but it’s optional, of course.)
  2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar needed for the batter, then whisk in the eggs and the mashed banana. Sift both the flour and baking powder into the mixture, then fold in well. At this point, you can also add your fix-ins, like the chocolate pieces (or whatever you’re using). Make sure everything is given a good mixing by hand.
  3. Divide the batter between the two tins, then bake for about 40 minutes. Once the cakes are finished, take them out of the oven and leave them in their tins to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack (or two) to cool completely.
  4. While the cakes are baking, make your filling: combine the crème fraîche, whipping cream, and powdered sugar in a large mixing bowl, then beat lightly until smooth and just thick. Do not overwhisk, but do add more powdered sugar until the mixture suits your tastes.
  5. Once the cakes are cooled, spread the filling onto one of the rounds, top with the sliced banana pieces, then sandwich the two rounds together.
  6. Now make the icing by melting the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl (like a glass one) suspended over a saucepan of barely simmering water. (You can also cheat and melt the chocolate and butter together in the microwave, mixing every 20-30 seconds or so.)
  7. Spread the icing over the top and sides of the cake. The book says to pour “it into the centre of the top of the cake and spread it with a palette knife until it begins to dribble down the sides of the cake.” At this point, you can also top the cake with extra slices of banana, like I did.
  8. Slice and serve! Voila!

Here are some visuals to get your taste buds going:

Here’s the batter before the chocolate pieces went in. Since I’m an adult now, I’m allowed to lick the batter as much as I want—and man, did it taste good! (Had to save some for the actual cake, though.)

The cake during its warm, baking stage.

The finished product! Interestingly enough, the white chocolate icing takes on a yellowish tint, which makes it appropriate for a banana cake.


Since Jamie refused to be photographed with his birthday present, here’s a close-up instead. The final verdict: very yum!

Anyway, hope that makes up for my absence—at least somewhat—and don’t worry: I’ll be ’round these parts more often now. Happy New Year, everyone. May it be healthy and full of good eats!

Posted in Desserts | Leave a comment

The Comforts of Couscous, Vol. 1

My good friend Naomi is one of the classiest people I know. She is also, it would seem, a phenomenal cook. During our final year at college, she, myself, and a few of our friends would often gather and make dinner together, and while what we made was always good, I particularly remember a night when quesadillas were on the menu, and she decided to add a little rosemary to the tortillas just before frying. It seems like such a simple, obvious move now, and at the time, I practically smacked my head, thinking, “Of course! Rosemary plus melted cheese equals heaven!” But it’s those little things she’s always thinking of—ways to play with flavor, to give a dish that extra-special touch. Things like that.

Naomi, who is currently living life as an au pair in Germany, already promised she’ll rear her head around here and offer up a guest post (maybe even two or three, if I’m lucky), but for now I’m giving you a sneak peek at one of the many tricks she has up her sleeve, because hey, she deserves the attention. This recipe, which she concocted out of thin air (and a little bit of improvisation), is ridiculously simple, but also ridiculously tasty. She recommended I try it, since I’ve been on a bit of a couscous kick as of late, and man am I glad I did. It’s been getting colder here—I busted out the winter coat just the other day—and this turned out to be the perfect dish to complement the weather. It’s filling without feeling too heavy, and comforting without all the usual guilt that accompanies so-called “comfort food.” Plus, it can be eaten as either a main or as a side, and as with most couscous-based dishes, you can make a lot at once, which means leftovers for the next day. Not too shabby, huh?

Not too sure what she’d call it, so I gave it a generic name until she inevitably comes up with something better:

Naomi’s Couscous with Tomato Spice Sauce (original recipe found here)

Ingredients:

  • 1-2 carrots, sliced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, chopped (more, if you like garlic a lot)
  • 1 tbsp. cumin
  • 1 tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1 medium onion, thinly-sliced
  • raisins (optional—I opted not to use them, since I don’t like raisins)
  • two pinches of sugar
  • two pinches of salt
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes (with juice)

For the couscous*:

  • 8 handfuls of couscous (or more, if you want to make a lot)
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil (or more—add an extra tbsp. for every 2 additional handfuls of couscous)
  • salt and pepper

*Naomi has her own way of making couscous, the method of which I’ll include below. I’m pretty satisfied with the Leon method, though I’d recommend testing Naomi’s version. I’ve provided the Leon method beneath this recipe and subsequent photos for anyone who would prefer that.

Onwards and upwards…

  1. After chopping/slicing everything that requires such vigilance, combine the tomatoes, carrots, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, onion, sugar, and salt in a saucepan. As Naomi notes in her recipe, “It is important to use canned tomatoes and put the whole can in, tomato juices and all.” Heat on high for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat and allow the sauce to simmer for 20 minutes.
  2. To make the couscous: put the dry couscous into a saucepan or pot, then add the olive oil and salt and pepper. Mix everything around using your hands, making sure to coat the grains. Using a kettle (electric or otherwise), boil some water, then add enough so that it soaks the couscous, but does not exceed the amount you’re making. Fluff with a fork, then put a lid on it and allow it to sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Once the couscous and sauce are ready, combine and serve in bowls. Voila!

And now, some photos:

Here is the sauce as it cooked (in extreme close-up, no less). The aroma is great, and I would recommend tasting the sauce before letting it simmer, adjusting the cumin, cinnamon, salt, and sugar to suit your needs.

And here is the dish itself, after I combined the couscous and sauce. So yum! For the record, I ate this as instructed. Naomi is a vegetarian, and wouldn’t dream of adding meat to this, and I must say the dish has enough depth to keep anyone satisfied. If you’re really tempted to make this with meat, however, chicken and lamb will probably do the trick. Just dice, season, and pan-fry both, and then add at the very end, during the combination stage.

For anyone curious about the Leon method of making couscous, here it is. Let it be known that I didn’t have any chicken stock cubes left, so I substituted veggie cubes, and the texture turned out the same, as I suspected it would:

Leon’s Near-Perfect Couscous (method originally found in Leon: Ingredients and Recipes)

Ingredients:

  • 8 handfuls of couscous
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups/500 ml chicken or vegetable stock (made with cubes or otherwise)
  1. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, add the olive oil to the couscous, mixing around with a spoon to coat.
  2. Add the chicken or vegetable stock, and give it a little stir.
  3. Leave a tea towel atop the bowl, allowing the couscous to absorb the stock, about 5 minutes.

The process will look like this:

Ta-da! So good, you could eat it off the floor! (Though depending on the cleanliness of your kitchen, you might not want to. Just sayin’.)

Posted in Mains | 2 Comments

48 Hours With Leon

About a year ago, I discovered what I consider to be the holy grail of cookbooks. No, it’s not written by Julia Child, and no, it has nothing to do with silver spoons or the joys of cooking. I am talking, instead, about Allegra McEvedy’s Leon: Ingredients & Recipes. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Allegra and her pals Henry and John founded the infamous London chain in 2004, along with the idea that “food can be both lovely and good for you.” In essence, Leon’s commitment is to making fast and comforting food, but with healthy ingredients and even healthier doses of love. From a cooking perspective, it’s a nice, philosophical place to start, and all one has to do is thumb through the recipes in the second half of the book to see these guys aren’t fooling around—this stuff looks good. But it’s the first half that knocked me off my feet the first time I laid eyes on the book.

Without sounding too obsessed, the ingredients section is something to behold. Not only is it informative, it is outright comprehensive, covering everything from seasonality to meat cuts to vegetable families to simple substitutions for spices and herbs. What’s more, the book includes a map of world cheeses, a pull-out wall chart of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and stickers. (Yes, stickers.) With its colorful, scrap book-inspired design, it’s ostensibly an activity book for adults. Consider yourself lucky if someone gets this for you as a birthday or holiday gift.

All the gushing aside (you’d think Leon hired me to write all this praise), the recipes are pretty top-notch. I’ve only made two dishes so far, but both left my senses sated. (Which is more than I can say for a lot of things.) Also, I’ve discovered something that’s made me happier than expected: their method for making couscous is near, if not perfect. While it’s somewhat disheartening to discover your own way of making couscous has been completely off the mark—no wonder it always turned out so hard and grainy!—it is a relief to be able to right the wrongs of your culinary past.

After a very lazy Sunday spent all day in my PJs, drinking tea and talking to my flatmate, I decided the least I could do was cook something good. I’d been planning on making a chicken dish, having left two fillets to defrost earlier in the day, but didn’t want to revert to my usual Stir-Fry Standby. It just didn’t feel like one of those nights. In the process of easing off my illness, I felt a craving for comfort food, or something akin to it, so I opened up my Leon book and lo and behold, found a recipe that not only triggered my taste buds, but contained an ingredients list almost completely made up of things I already had. Score, score, and score.

The following recipe is not only a treat to smell and taste, but is also extremely easy. Not that I’m not up to challenges, but on lazy—not to mention sick-fueled—days, sometimes all I want is to cook without fuss (hence things like the Stir-Fry Standby). It also contains that brilliant, aforementioned method for making outstanding couscous, which can be used independently of the dish, of course. It should be noted since I was making this for myself, I halved nearly everything in the recipe (except the garlic, because you can never have too much, right? and the ingredients for the couscous, including the couscous—the more the merrier!). Also, I did not make the garlicky tomatoes the book recommends, since I didn’t have any tomatoes on hand, but I’ll include them in the recipe, since they probably make a wonderful accompaniment (roasted tomatoes became one of my favorite things to make over the summer). And finally, I didn’t garnish my dish—bad, I know—but only because I didn’t have the recommended ingredients laying about. I’m all about adaptation, and am of the opinion that just because you don’t have something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prohibited from making a dish, or that your dish will suffer.

John and Katie’s (not too) Spicy Chicken Couscous

Ingredients:

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin cut off, cut into big chunks*
  • 2 tsp. dried chilli flakes
  • a few hefty pinches of ground cinnamon
  • 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • about 8 tbsp. of olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. good curry powder (I use the mild stuff, cos I’m a wimp)
  • about 8 handfuls of couscous
  • 2 heaped tbsp. of butter
  • 2 handfuls of raisins or sultanas (optional—I didn’t use them)
  • 500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
  • salt
  • pine nuts, mint leaves, coriander/cilantro, and lemon, to serve

For the tomatoes:

  • 6 ripe plum tomatoes, cut in halves (I’m pretty sure vine tomatoes would work well here, too)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

*A note on the chicken: if you’ve a carnivore, eat this as is. However, if you’re a vegetarian, I’m almost 100% sure this would taste great with tofu. You could also probably replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, and get the same effect with the couscous. Worth a test, anyway!

  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/430ºF/gas mark 7.
  2. In a small bowl, mix the chilli flakes, cinnamon, garlic, salt, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and curry powder together. Coat your chicken pieces with it, then leave them in an ovenproof dish to marinate, 20 minutes or so.
  3. If you’re making the tomatoes, here’s what you do: mix the garlic and oil for the tomatoes together. Lay the tomato halves on a baking tray (the book recommends it be thick-bottomed; you also might want to cover it in parchment paper or foil to keep everything from getting too greasy/messy) and “anoint” (this is what the book actually says!) with the garlic/oil mix. Season liberally. (If you’re not making the tomatoes, skip this step, obviously, and go read a book or watch TV for 10 minutes while your chicken marinates.)
  4. About halfway into the marinating process, make your near-perfect couscous: put the couscous and sultanas/raisins (if using) into a medium-sized, heatproof bowl and stir with the remaining 4 tbsp. olive oil, completely coating the grains. Cover with the chicken stock, then lay a tea towel over the bowl and leave the couscous to do its thang for 5 minutes.
  5. When the couscous is finished, fluff it with a fork, then pour it into the dish with the chicken. Mix everything around, pushing the sultanas/raisins below the surface, since they can burn. You’ll want the couscous to be coated in the marinade, as well. Dot the top with the knobs of butter (for the record, I completely forgot to do this, but it still tasted good) and cook on the upper shelf for 25 minutes, putting the tomato tray on the shelf underneath.
  6. If you’re using pine nuts as a garnish, toast them. Then, when everything is done, scatter on top, along with the chopped mint, coriander/cilantro, and squeeze of lemon.
  7. Plate and serve with the tomatoes. Voila!

When it’s all finished, it will look like this (but better, because my camera is old):

There are so many things to love about this dish, but one of the best parts is how the couscous gets a bit crusty in the oven, so it tastes slightly breaded during the actual eating process. Also, even though I made half of the recommended amount, I had enough for lunch the next day, which gave me something to smile about in work.

I was so pleased with how dinner turned out on Sunday, in fact, that I decided to give Leon another go on Monday. With some salmon defrosting during the day, I bought some ingredients to do up a really good piece of fish that night. I’ve a go-to recipe for white fish, involving orange juice and tarragon, but it didn’t necessarily sit right with the salmon, so I’ve been on the hunt for other ways to spruce the little fella up since. The following seemed simple enough (and it was, oh how it was), so I thought I’d give it a try. Couldn’t hurt, right?

One confession before the recipe: I have a problem with buying fresh herbs. It’s not an aversion, per se, but I’ve often found myself buying little bags of the stuff, only to use the contents for one dish and then watch as the rest withers away in the fridge. One day, I’ll live somewhere with a roof garden, and I’ll grow my own in a nicer climate, but until that happens, and until I start using herbs more regularly (as I do with spices, for instance), I’ll probably substitute dried for fresh. A bad habit, I know, but one that is more feasible for my dwindling bank account.

Mushroom, Shallot, and Tarragon Fish

Ingredients:

  • 250 g/about 9 oz. mushrooms, like shiitake, button, oyster, chestnut (the book says to “avoid field mushrooms, as they make everything go blackish-grey”)
  • 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 shallots, sliced (I used 2, since I was only making one piece of fish)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 glass of white wine (optional; I omitted it, and everything turned out fine)
  • 1 tbsp. capers, whole if small, chopped if big (optional; I also omitted these, and again, everything turned out fine)
  • a small handful of tarragon, chopped
  • a big handful of parsley, chopped
  • 4 x 180 g/6 oz. portions of fish of your choice (I used one portion of fish, since I was just feeding myself, so if you’re like me, just adjust the portions of everything else to suit)
  • a shot of Noilly Prat vermouth (really optional; I almost never have proper liquor on hand, and it’s so expensive to buy for one dish)
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas mark 7.
  2. Slice or cut up all the mushrooms, and slice the shallots.
  3. Heat up 2 tbsp. of the olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the shallots and garlic for a minute or two, until the shallots are slightly softened. Toss in the mushrooms and some seasoning, and sauté everything for a couple of minutes until softened. If using the wine, pour it in the frying pan, and let it sizzle/reduce/be scientific for a minute or two. While the wine does its thing, throw in the capers (if using) and herbs (if not using the wine, do this after the mushrooms and shallots soften). Stir everything for 30 seconds, then take off the heat. Add the remaining tbsp. of olive oil, stir, then check the seasoning.*
  4. Leon has its own method for cooking fish, which I will now describe as it pertains to this recipe: lay out however many pieces of foil will equal the number of fish you’re cooking (you’ll want these to be big enough to fold over and encompass the fish fully, much like a full-body sleeping bag); splash a bit of olive oil on the foil piece(s) and season it/them with salt and pepper; place the fish skin-side down on each of the individual foil pieces, then season it/them heavily with salt and pepper; top each fish with the mushroom/shallot mixture, then fold the foil over to meet the edge (this should resemble a taco); now seal the bottom and the side so that the fish is encased in its own parcel. Repeat with each fish packet. If using, add the vermouth through the top hole; if not, just seal the top, and you’re ready to bake!
  5. Put the fish parcel(s) on a baking tray and leave in the oven for 15 minutes. The foil should puff out, but don’t worry if it doesn’t completely.
  6. Once ready, serve the fish parcels with a slice of lemon and squeeze the juice onto the fish once the parcels (or sole parcel) are opened. Voila!

This is how mine looked. I served it with that near-perfect couscous I keep going on about:

I guess you can’t really see the fish, but it’s there! While the flavors didn’t quite mix the way I’d hoped, it was still a pretty damn good piece of fish. I will continue on my journey to find the best way to cook salmon, though I’ve an inkling it has to do with a barbecue sauce marinade…

*If you have any of this left over, spoon it over the top of some couscous, and then mix it in. You can thank me later.

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Chicken Soup For The (Sickly) Soul

I was really bummed when I realized I’d have to spend most of my weekend in bed. An entire two days off work, and what happens? Upper-respiratory infection. Excellent, non? The fact that this has occurred right on the heels of a foot injury (no pun intended) leads me to believe my body has completely decided to shut down until I cut it some slack. That, and maybe boost my immune system. (I’m looking at you, Vitamin C.)

Anyway, I was really bummed until this morning, when I woke up to an overcast sky and knew it wouldn’t be long before it started pissing rain. Which it is. Right now. Very autumnal, yes, but admittedly a nice deterrent from leaving the house. So now I’m not as bummed, and am, in fact, savoring all the goodness that comes with sitting in a dry, heated apartment. Even though I’m still sick, and am on fairly strong antibiotics, as well as codeine-infused cough syrup, this is okay so long as the only reason my hair is wet is because of the nice, hot shower I just took.

But I digress.

As cliché as it may be, chicken soup really is the go-to food of choice when sick. Or when healthy, but maybe just cold. Or warm, but just craving the basics. It’s a diverse, accommodating dish like that. The best part is how everyone (and their mother) seems to have their own recipe, whether it’s been passed down from generation to generation, or is a variation they’ve discovered while futzing about in the kitchen. While I’m hesitant to share my mom’s recipe (which I think is actually my great-grandmother’s) without her permission, here is an elementary outline of how to make the stuff, especially if you’re sick and weak and have only yourself to cook it for you:

Easy-Peasy Chicken Soup

Ingredients:

  • at least 4 cups (or 1 liter) of chicken broth, heated (if you want to cheat like me: boil water and use a stock cube or two)
  • diced chicken pieces, uncooked or precooked (however many you think will satisfy you—I’d go for 1 or 2 fillets worth)
  • 1-2 carrots, chopped
  • 1-2 celery sticks, chopped
  • a pack of button mushrooms, quartered or cut in half
  • half a pack of stringy pasta, broken into shortened lengths (taste-wise, egg noodles are best)
  • olive oil
  • a little salt and pepper, to taste

A note on the veg: believe it or not, you can eat this soup with just broth and noodles, and it will still be delicious! The vegetables are there for additional flavoring, and can/should be adjusted to suit personal tastes, or based on what one has stored in the fridge. Remember, this soup is meant to be healthy and comforting, but also free of hassle, so don’t put yourself out trying to make it.

  1. Boil a pot of water, and put all your vegetables in. Leave for about 10 minutes, or until they’ve softened a bit.
  2. While your veg is boiling, cook your pasta according to the instructions on the packet. In a frying pan, heat up a few tbsp. of olive oil and saute the chicken (if uncooked) until the juices run clear, about 4-5 minutes. You can also feel free to season the chicken if you want a little extra flavor once it’s mixed in with the soup. (If using pre-cooked chicken, skip this step.)
  3. In another pot, heat your chicken broth over medium or medium-low heat. (If using the stock cube method, boil water and add your cube(s), then reduce the heat.) You don’t want to boil the broth, since you’ll want to eat this soup right away, and everything going into it will already be cooked.
  4. Once the vegetables are soft, add them to the broth, as well as the chicken and noodles. Season with salt (and pepper, if that’s your thing). Leave everything to sit for a few minutes, so the veg, chicken, and noodles can absorb the flavor of the broth.
  5. Serve in bowls and eat with care. Voila!

See? So easy. Now excuse me while I go make myself another batch of this stuff.

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Mini-Monster Meatballs

Apologies for not posting sooner; it’s been a busy, stressful week. For the record, I was going to post this at the end of last weekend, but some things got in the way. I wish I could say it was all because of Halloween, and that I spent my nights as a certain socialite, partying it up with other costumed guests, and my days in a post-drunken haze, staring at the television with both eyes barely open, a pounding headache, and a mug of tea affixed to my hand. Alas, this was not so. Work coupled with a foot injury made last weekend extra-tiring and subsequently lazy, though I did manage to pick myself up off the couch last Friday evening in order to cook a delicious dinner and attend a football match.

I really must get new batteries for my camera, because my latest kitchen endeavor was nothing short of holiday-appropriate. Unfortunately, I’ve only a photo of the finished product (which can be viewed below, courtesy of my dinner buddy Jamie), but believe me when I say: I have figured out the trick to crafting guts for a low-budget horror movie. I am, of course, talking about making meatballs, and meatballs I did make.

While I think I prefer the Italian variety, I wanted to try my hand at the Swedish kind. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s because of a certain kitchen-themed IKEA ad currently running on Irish/UK television? (See below.) Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about Ann Sather’s lately, and craving their delectable cinnamon rolls? In any case, I was browsing CHOW’s “Summer Solstice” menu and happened upon the recipe, which sounded good and, to be honest, rather easy, so I thought I’d give it a go.

The first thing you need to know before embarking on a meatball-making mission is a) you will undoubtedly feel creative, though your creativity will be more akin to a child’s, because b) the process can be very, very messy. Unless you have a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, you’re going to be handcrafting the meatballs, which means getting your hands (and especially your fingers) dirty. And remember what I said about discovering the trick to making horror movie guts? The meat mixture you’ll be working with will look and even feel like innards, so if you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to give this one a miss.

Okay, here we go…

Swedish Meatballs (for the original recipe, click here)

Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1 white bread slice, broken into four pieces, with the crusts removed
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 lb./about 500 g minced beef (or ground chuck, as I guess it is called in the States)*
  • 1 large egg (or 2 medium)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt**
  • 3/4 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (freshly or otherwise—makes no difference!)
  • 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 3 tbsp. finely chopped parsley (though I cheated and just used dried parsley since I’m not picky)

*The original recipe calls for 1/2 lb. ground beef and 1/2 lb. ground veal, but I kind of have a personal, moral stance against eating baby cows (which is weird and entirely hypocritical of me, I know, since I love lamb). I’m not sure how different the meatballs will taste if you follow the recipe directly, but they were delicious with 100% ground beef.

**I didn’t have kosher salt on hand, so I used table salt. Supposedly, the rule of thumb is that kosher salt equals 1/2 table salt, so you should double the amount if using table salt. However, the meatballs were a bit too salty-tasting, even when tempered by the sauce, so perhaps 2 tsp. of salt (as opposed to 3) will be enough.

  1. After chopping your onion, melt 1 tbsp. of butter in a large frying pan over medium heat (I used a wok in this instance, since you’ll be needing to use this same pan later, and I don’t have any pans deep enough). Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until the pieces are soft. This will take about 4 minutes. Once they’re done, remove the pan from the heat and let them cool a bit.
  2. Assuming you don’t have a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, place the pieces of bread in a large bowl with the milk and leave them to soak up all the liquid, about 5 minutes. Once the milk is pretty much absorbed, add the cooled onion, the beef (and veal, if using), the egg (or eggs), salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Now this is where it gets messy: with a light touch, mix all the ingredients together, using your hands to really blend everything. You want to do this until the mixture is light in color and sticky to the touch.
  3. Wash your hands off, then fill a small or medium bowl (depending on how big your hands are) with water. Form the meat mixture into 1-inch balls and place them on a large sheet of parchment paper. (The original recipe says to use a greased baking tray, but parchment paper works just as well and makes for one less dish to clean. You won’t be baking these balls, after all.) Use the bowl of water to keep the mixture from sticking to your hands; I found wetting my fingers after the formation of every second or third ball helped.
  4. Here’s where the adult part kicks back in: wipe the frying pan you used for the onion with a paper towel (or washable cloth, so long as the fibers don’t get stuck), then melt the remaining 2 tbsp. butter over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add half the meatballs, turning them occasionally and browning them on all sides, until cooked through. This will take about 8-10 minutes. Once they’ve cooked, transfer them to a plate to cool a little, and repeat with the second batch. (You may actually have a third batch, depending on the size of your pan and how many meatballs you can fit in without crowding.)
  5. Once the meatballs are cooked, add flour to the pan drippings and whisk until the flour’s been incorporated with the brown bits, about 1 minute. Now slowly pour in the beef broth, whisking as you do in order to smooth out any lumps. Cook this until the mixture starts to thicken and boil, about 3 minutes. Once this happens, pour the mixture into a medium heatproof bowl, using a mesh strainer to collect the solid bits. Discard these bits and transfer the now-bit-free mixture back into the pan (or a new one, like I did, since my pan still had crusty, gross bits all over it).
  6. Reduce heat to low and whisk sour cream into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper as needed, then transfer the meatballs into the pan, covering them with the now-formed sauce. Heat the meatballs through, about 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate, spooning over pre-cooked egg noodles (tagliatelle and pappardelle work particularly well here). Last but not least, top with the parsley—or don’t, depending on your tastes.
  7. Eat, enjoy, and be merry. Voila!

Here’s a photo of the finished product:


Now you don’t need to trek all the way to IKEA (or Sweden, for that matter) to have these! Speaking of which, here is that ad I was telling you about:

Arguably good, but not as great as this one:

Okay, ad diversion over…now go enjoy those balls!

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