Archives for January 2008

George’s Focaccia and a slice of history

A little over eleven years ago I was working as a nanny of two young boys, oblivious to the future I had in professional cooking and unaware of the wild and wonderful journey into the culinary world that I was about to embark on and never return from.
At the time, my family was fortunate enough to be friends with the owners of the best restaurant in our small British Columbia town. Two heads and shoulders above the Chinese buffets and truck-stop cafes that lined the highway, the Little Onion Restaurant offered succulent dishes such as Smoked Alaskan Black Cod and Jamaican Jerk Rack of Lamb. They were the best for countless reasons, among them being their homemade sorbet and ice cream, and perhaps most impressive of all, daily fresh-baked focaccia.
It usually was just coming out of the oven when the doors opened at 5-o-clock and as soon as clients were seated, it arrived at their table: warm, sliced into generous wedges and served with accompanying olive oil and balsamic vinegar. (remember the oil and vinegar of the 9o’s?)
There was no one in town eating better that night than those guests.

My path crossed with the Little Onion one day when the sous chef walked out on George, head chef and owner, hours before a busy Saturday night service. Over an espresso at the bar, George lamented to my father that he didn’t know what he was going to do and so my father offered:

“My Aimee is pretty handy in the kitchen. Why don’t you have her come in and help out?”
I guess George figured he had nothing to lose and so that evening I found myself thrust into the most thrilling environment I had ever encountered: a bustling, swinging, hot, professional restaurant kitchen.
I loved every minute of it.
At the end of the evening, George poured me a glass of chilled Riesling and spoke three words that I’ll never forget.
“You’re a natural.”
Then, to my delight -and terror- he offered me a permanent position.
The rest is history. George took me under his wing and gave me a crash course in culinary education. It was in that small kitchen where I got my first second degree burn from boiling sugar, left a piece of my palm in the mandolin, and got hooked, really hooked, on espressos.
It was the best of times.

George’s focaccia was something I never got sick of, even though I had it for dinner most nights, stuffed with some caramelized onions and homemade charcuterie. The smell of it baking never failed to make my stomach growl and it was one of the recipes I kept over the years.
It’s simple to make and always a crowd pleaser, whether you are throwing an antipasto party or just dining on a humble lasagna.

George’s Focaccia

400 ml warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil
Fresh rosemary
Coarse salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water, yeast and sugar. Whisk quickly with a fork, then leave to sit for five or ten minutes until the yeast starts to dissolve and bubble.
Add half of the flour and the salt to the yeast mixture. With a dough hook attachment, beat batter on medium high until well combined. Add remaining flour and combine slowly, scraping down the dough hook and sides of the bowl as needed, until mixture comes together in a smooth dough. Knead on low speed for 3 to 4 minutes until dough is soft and elastic. You may need to add another handful of flour or two. Dough should still be slightly tacky.
Remove from bowl. Wash bowl, dry well and coat with olive oil. Place dough back in bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk- about 1 ½ hours.
Preheat oven to 400F
Generously oil two 8-inch round pizza pans with olive oil. Turn dough out onto counter and without punching dough down, divide in two with a sharp knife. Place a round of dough on each pizza pan and press gently with fingertips to flatten slightly and fill out the pan.
Allow to rest 10 minutes.
Drizzle a little olive oil on top of the focaccia and sprinkle with your choice of fresh herbs and a generous helping of coarse salt.
Bake about 15 minutes until bottom of focaccia is lightly golden and the top has a nice color as well.
Cool slightly, then slice into wedges and serve warm.
This focaccia is best eaten the same day it is made, but it does freeze well. To reheat, crisp in oven.

Diving Back into Sweets with a Pecan Tart

For the first few weeks after the holidays I avoided sugar, a rarity indeed for me. It’s no secret that I have a sweet tooth and seldom is it satiated, however this month I found myself saying more than once:
“I don’t feel like anything sweet”
followed promptly by:

“It’s OK, sit down. No, I am not ill, I feel just fine”
as Danny would inevitably leap up, concerned that I must be very sick indeed!
But that didn’t last for long, and soon I was back battling my usual sugar cravings and whipped up this sugary treat. Not just one, but three different sweeteners – sugar, corn syrup and molasses – make this decadent tart a plunge back into the wonderful world of desserts!

A touch of rum adds an extra punch of flavor to this ever-popular classic. The recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.

Pecan Pie
Pate Brisée or pie pastry for one pie shell 5 large eggs 1 ¼ cups packed light-brown sugar 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 1/3 cup light corn syrup 1/3 cup molasses 1 tablespoon bourbon or dark rum 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract ¼ teaspoon salt 1 2/3 cups pecans, coarsely chopped, plus 1/3 cup whole pecan halves
Set a 9-inch cake ring on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; set aside. If you don’t have a cake ring, you can use a 9-inch springform pan.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie dough into a 13 inch round. Fit dough into cake ring or springform pan, gently pressing into the edges and up 1 ½ inches of the sides. Freeze until firm, then trim dough flush with the top edge of ring. Chill until firm.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Line chilled pie shell with parchment paper, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fill with pie weights (I use dried beans). Bake until the edges begin to turn golden, about 15 minutes. Remove parchment and beans and leave to cool.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, butter, corn syrup, molasses, rum, vanilla and salt. Stir in the chopped pecans. Pour filling into the cooled pie shell and arrange pecan halves on the top. Reduce oven to 350F. Bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes. Cool on wire rack.
Tart can be kept at room temperature, loosely covered with foil, for up to four days.

Chili’s Right for those Chilly Nights

I think I’m nesting.

No, not in a pull-fur-from-my-underbelly-and-make-a-nest kind of way, but more a hormonal-pregnant-woman’s-natural-nesting-instinct kind of way. I am usually a pretty organized girl, but when my sock drawer is tidy, my family photo albums up to date, my son’s toys categorically assigned to labeled bins and I’ve moved on to the ironing pile (my least favorite household task), warning lights start going off in my head. So far I haven’t done anything too outrageous and everything still seems justifiable, such as starting to stockpile frozen meals for when the baby comes. Totally practical, right?

This chili was one if the first dishes to be made in mass quantities and tucked away in liter containers. Now chili is not something I grew up with; beans, yes, in vast amounts, but chili would have required using ground beef and my mother usually kept us pretty far away from the stuff.

“Chock full of hormones” she would say.

It took a while before I could bring myself to buy ground beef, let along make a manly pot of chili for my man, but over the years it has slowly become something we enjoy once in a while during the cold winter months.

Funnily enough, Noah loves chili and that is reason enough to stockpile. Another reason is the massive bag of dried kidney beans that I have been working my way through for the past two years. I always get waaaaay to carried away in those bulk food stores. Oh, how I love them, with their eight different kinds of dried oats, pretty displays of colorful lentils, and vast assortments of dried fruit, but I inevitably end up leaving with far more than I need or could possibly use for a household of three. Hence the kidney beans.

You will find this chili convenient for making in large amounts and conducive to freezing, but there’s nothing pretty about it. It was rather hard to get inspired to photograph it–I mean, it’s chili. It just ain’t pretty!

Winter Chili.

This is a spicier version of what I usually make. Not so suitable for young children, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. If you want a milder version, just omit the can of chillies, the cayenne and reduce the chili powder by half, as I do.

1 ½ lbs ground beef

1 lb Italian sausages, crumbled

4 Tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cups beef stock

1 teaspoon saffron threads

3 large onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 10oz can of green chillies, chopped

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

8 oz tomato paste

16 oz canned diced tomatoes

4-6 cups cooked kidney beans (depending on personal preference)(1 cup frozen corn)

In a large saucepan, brown the beef and sausage in 2 tablespoons oil, drain off fat and reserve meat. In the same pot, add beef stock and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and crumble saffron into stock. Set aside to steep.

In another skillet, heat remaining oil and sweat onions and garlic. Add chillies and seasonings and stir.

In a large pot combine tomatoes, beef stock, onion/ spice mixture and meat. Stir well and simmer slowly, partially covered, for about 1½ hours. Check seasoning and adjust.

Add kidney beans and slowly cook another 10 minutes or so. Serve with crusty bread or cornbread. Garnish with any or all of the following: sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, sliced green onions or cubed avocado.

Let me be remembered for my Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

P (pancakes) + M (mother) = 100% Good Mother

Looking for the equation to perfect mothering skills? I’ve added, subtracted and simplified it down to a solution manageable for even the most challenged parent: making pancakes.

Think about it though, doesn’t one of your fondest memories of growing up involve pulling up a chair next to the stove (in my case, a wood burning one) and watching your mother pour batter into silver dollar circles into the waiting cast iron pan? If you never had a mother who made you pancakes, be they crèpes, blinis, flapjacks, drop scones, pannenkoeken, or hotcakes, depending on your background, may I respectfully say that you missed out on a ritual that transcends class and generational borders and offer my sympathies.

It’s a wonder that some thing so seemingly ordinary as pancakes can hold such a stack of pleasure and bring back memories as sweet as the maple syrup that doused them. In our home, just the simple familiar act of cracking eggs and sifting flour speaks of a tranquil morning, un-rushed, no where to head off to, just our family together without a care in the world.

I probably don’t need to mention that Noah absolutely adores pancakes and that was a major factor in my motherhood equation. There is nothing more satisfying than watching your two-year-old load up his fork with not just two or three cut-up pieces of pancake, but five or six before cramming it into his mouth, completely focused on consuming these heavenly pancakes as fast as they come out of the pan.

This recipe is adapted from the cookbook Fabulous Fairholme: Breakfasts and Brunches that is a collection of recipes from the award-winning Fairholme Manor Inn in Victoria, British Columbia. It is by far my favorite pancake; soufflé-like in it’s feather lightness, perfumed by bold citrus zest, and sweet enough to be eaten on it’s own with nothing but a dusting of powdered sugar or dollop of yogurt.

The world would be a much better place if all those troubled people could sit down to a plate of these pancakes on Sunday morning. Forget therapy and shrinks, we need more pancake chefs out there! Do your part and make some one you love some hot pancakes today, ideally your kids, no matter how old they are. They will remember it and thank you for it.

I know mine will.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

5 eggs, separated
Zest of large lemon or orange
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
Dash of salt

Preheat griddle or skillet on medium heat.

Mix the egg yolks. Sift and mix the dry ingredients and combine with egg yolks, lemon zest, milk and ricotta cheese.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold into the egg-ricotta batter.
Lightly oil griddle and pour a pancake-sized amount onto griddle. Cook until bubbles form. Flip and cook other side until golden. Do not flatten after flipping and only flip once.

Serve immediately with garnish of choice. I found maple syrup to be a bit overpowering for the delicate pancakes. Try with crème fraîche, plain yogurt or whipping cream.

WFD? French Onion Soup Canadian Style

January should be dubbed the Month of Soups. I mean is there anything you are craving more after the blitz of holiday feasting? What else could be more ideal to beat the January blahs when the weather is snowy and blowy and the daylight sparse? Dig deep into a piping hot bowl of onion soup and it will be like your very own sunbeam, defying those gray wintery skies out the window. We’re enjoying the post-holiday peacefulness and the dismal weather outdoors makes it even easier to cozy up inside and read the baby names book. Since we don’t know if we are having a boy or a girl, there is even more discussion of names than usual. It’s so hard to pick! French onion soup should not be rushed. Well, the onion chopping part, yes. Blitz through that as fast as you can while still maintaining five digits on each hand, then once they are in the pot, pour yourself a little white wine and read a cookbook or food blog while they slowly caramelize and take on that dark brown color.
In this version, the sweetness of the onions is enhanced slightly by a tad of maple syrup and the soup is given an extra Canadian touch with the addition of our own aged cheddar cheese.
French Onion Soup Canadian Style 2 tbsp canola oil
2 lbs sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper
6 slices baguette, toasted
2 cups aged Canadian cheddar such as Perron, or Gruyere, shredded Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until caramelized. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in maple syrup. Add the broth, wine and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat broiler.
Divide soup between 6 ovenproof bowls. Top with toast slices and equal amounts of cheese. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes or until cheese melts and lightly browns. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and serve.