November 2009


Food, family, friends and fun often end up at the same table together, whether it’s in sharing a homey pot of spaghetti and meatballs, a tray of knockout appetizers that promises an even more spectacular meal to come, or an intimate celebration of a special anniversary or other event. The key is that good food and drink, lovingly prepared and served, are the body and soul-satisfying threads that knit us together. Join me as we look at three very different books all covering the same subject: The celebration table.

Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations; Seasonal Recipes for Festive Occasions
By Eric Akis
Published by Whitecap Books 2009, softcover, $24.95; 261 pages

This is Akis’ fifth book and carries through on the appealing and easily accessible dishes that have made his previous books so popular. Akis, a trained chef and food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist and other CanWest newspapers, knows that the average cook wants to create dishes that are relatively easy to prepare with ingredients that are easy to find and yet ones delicious and impressive enough for even the most finicky table mates.

He goes the extra mile, too, in adding helpful hints on what can be prepared ahead or substituting ingredients that might be more popular with your crowd. The book is arranged seasonally, beginning with winter gatherings and ending with the year-end holidays in which we now find ourselves.

In between, he offers recipes and menus for romantic dinners, spring celebrations and those long and lazy summer weekends that we always hope will never end. But, alas, they do and in this season of short days, we turn inward to share a tipple, defy the darkness with blazing light displays and prepare tables laden with the rich harvest of just-past seasons. (more…)

Everyday Indian

By Bal Arneson
Published by Whitecap 2009, softcover, $29.95; 184 pages

When Bal Arneson realized that “quick, healthy” and “Indian food” were words that were not often used in the same sentence here in Canada, she knew her work was cut out for her.

Punjab-born Arneson came to Canada as a young woman who had already learned the seasonal and seasoning secrets of authentic Indian cooking from the women in her village. The heavily sauced and  caloried dishes we have come to think of as Indian were not what she had been eating and cooking, and Arneson was encouraged to begin teaching Canadians her way of creating the fresh, fast and very flavourful dishes she grew up with. “My mother and other women in the village never used butter, relying on a few spices and seasonal fresh herbs and vegetables for flavour,” she says in the  introduction. Her passion for healthy, organic and fresh foods is clearly evident here and is repeated throughout the book like a mantra. (more…)

Savory Baking
By Mary Cech
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2009, softcover, $29.95; 168 pages.

What better accompaniment to our current lust for homey, comforting soups and stews than a book full of ideas for savoury scones, quick breads, rolls, pastries, cobblers, dumplings, cookies and other irresistibly starchy things to go with them.

The sweet side of baking has been extremely well-covered on our cookbook shelves but few baking experts have ventured so completely into the savory side. Thus I’m all ears — and tastebuds are on full alert, too — as Cech tempts us to consider peppered pear and goat cheese scones, potato and scallion butter biscuits, buttermilk tarragon loaf, onion and sherry cream turnovers and thyme, lemon and sea salt shortbread.

Can’t take the suspense! Let’s get right to a recipe.

SCONES STUFFED WITH CARAMELIZED RED ONIONS AND BRIE
Creamy brie and the sweetness of caramelized onions are locked inside these tender cream scones, which are great served for brunch, as a snack, or as an accompaniment to warm soup. Try camembert or cambozola as a pleasing substitute for the brie.

Onion Filling
2 medium red onions, peeled,cut in half and cut into ¼-inch slices
4 tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsps. sherry wine vinegar

Scones
3½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
2 cups plus 3 tbsps. heavy (whipping) cream
8 oz. brie, cut into ½-inch pieces

To prepare filling, sauté onions in the oil in a large, wide-bottomed skillet over high heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook onions for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice for even cooking; they will start to turn translucent and soften. Decrease heat to medium, add sherry wine vinegar and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden brown and very soft, 20-25 minutes. Transfer caramelized onions to plate to cool.

To prepare scones, preheat oven to 375°F and line baking sheet with parchment paper or nonstick baking mat. Stir flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in medium bowl. Pour 2 cups of heavy cream over flour mixture. Mix flour and cream with your fingers, forming a soft, slightly sticky dough. Mix dough gently and briefly. Don’t worry if you see a few dry flour patches.

Turn moist dough out onto a floured work surface and divide into two equal pieces. Gently knead each piece several times, then flatten each into a ½-inch thick disc, about 9 inches in diameter. Dot one disc of dough with the brie and spread the caramelized onions evenly over the top. Place the other disc of dough on top of the onions and gently press down the edges, sealing the two discs together. Lift the sandwiched disc onto a cutting board With a long sharp knife, cut the round disc into 12 pie-shaped wedges (see note below).

Evenly space scones on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between each one to allow for slight spreading. Brush tops with remaining 3 tbsps. cream. Bake until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove baking sheet from oven and place on cooling rack. Serve scones warm. Makes 12.

Note: I like using a sharp chef’s knife for cutting the scones. Push down into the scones quickly, rocking the knife back and forth, like cutting wedges of pizza. Clean knife between each cut by running  it under hot water. This ensures the knife does not stick to the dough and the scones are neat in appearance.

– From Savory Baking

Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever With More than 400 Easy-to-Make Recipes
By Diane Phillips
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2009, soft cover $29.95, 544 pages).

Hard to believe that Christmas is only six weeks away, when it seems like only yesterday we were marvelling at this most amazing of summers we were having.

At our house, we’re still eating heritage tomatoes from the garden, though admittedly they’ve had to be ripened in paper bags because an early frost threatened to make short work of their spectacular promise. The colder weather has also re-ignited the soup and stew gene and our freezer is once again bursting with a variety of soups and soup bases.

One of them is a traditional beef and barley soup made with a little twist — a splash of hearty red wine, an addition that adds a ton of flavour. The recipe I used is from this, the 14th cookbook Phillips has written.

The best cookbook ever? Well, that’s arguable, but her book does have plenty of pickings for anyone looking to set up the slow cooker with a welcoming main course, side dish, party specialty or dessert. It had me at soups, the first of 12 chapters. Who wouldn’t be seduced, reading recipes for the following:

Creamy Loaded Baked-Potato Soup: No baked potatoes here. Instead, “This smooth soup is made flavorful by cooking the potatoes in chicken broth, then embellishing it with green onions, bacon and sharp cheddar.” Not to mention leeks and sour cream.

White Bean and Rosemary Soup: “Creamy, tender white beans, chunks of spicy Capicola or other ham, and rosemary combine for a hearty soup.”

Chicken and Spinach Soup: “Vibrantly colored spinach gives this beautiful soup its color, while garlic and ginger add to its personality.”

Saigon Chicken Rice Soup: “This simple soup with a complex character is . . .flavored with ginger and chili garlic sauce (and) is filled with shredded chicken, rice, and delicate ribbons of carrot, green onion, and Napa cabbage.”

Pacific Rim Pork and Noodle Soup: “This. . .is one of my favorites with its ginger-flavored broth, red cooked pork, noodles, and vegetables.”

And that’s just the first half of THAT chapter, which also includes yummy sounding variations on chilis, chowders, stews and minestrones.

Other chapters take equally interesting turns on casseroles (yes, you can make tuna noodle casserole in the crockpot), as well as poultry, beef, pork, lamb and vegetarian dishes. Even seafood gets a turn to shine in such intriguing slow-cooked options as poached miso salmon, garlic crab claws and olive-oil poached fresh tuna (similar to duck confit, the author says). As well, Phillips shows how to use the slow cooker to make gravies, sauces (sweet and savoury), chutneys, compotes, jams and marmalades. And there’s a whole chapter on desserts, too, from “perfect” crème brûlée to coconut jasmine rice pudding to brandied peaches, plus a final volley on the many ways to put the cookers to use at parties, for example, to keep mulled drinks warm, to serve up appetizers and dips, and to hold the many dishes in a big multi-course meal at optimum serving temperatures.

And why not? Although the inventors of the first slow cookers probably had a soup and stew fixation similar to my own, Phillips has figured out numerous other ways to use this deceptively simple appliance. Here’s a taste of what’s in the book, one a traditional recipe and the other, not so.

OLD-FASHIONED BEEF AND BARLEY SOUP

Barley thickens this hearty soup, and the aromas of the thyme, red wine and meaty broth are a nice welcome-home after a long day. Serving this soup in hollowed-out bread bowls is a great idea for serving a crowd – there is minimal cleanup because you eat the bowl.

2½ to 3 lbs. beef chuck, round or sirloin, cut into ½ inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
8 oz. fresh white mushrooms, quartered
1½ tsps. dried thyme
4 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery with leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tbsps. tomato paste
1 cup medium to full-bodied red wine, such as Merlot, Chianti, Barolo or Cabernet
6 cups beef broth
½ cup pearl barley

Sprinkle beef evenly with 2 tsps. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Add meat a few pieces at a time and brown on all sides. Transfer browned meat to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker.

Add garlic, onions, mushrooms and thyme to the same skillet over medium-high heat and sauté until liquid from mushrooms is evaporated.

Transfer contents of skillet to slow cooker. Add carrots and celery to cooker and stir to combine. Deglaze skillet with tomato paste and wine and allow wine to reduce by about ¼ cup, stirring up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Transfer tomato mixture to slow cooker and add broth and barley. Cover slow cooker and cook on low for 6 to 7 hours, until beef and barley are tender. Season with salt and pepper before serving. Serves 8.

POACHED MISO SALMON

Gorgeous pink salmon glazed with miso and flavored with ginger and a bit of honey is a simple dish to serve for dinner on a bed of stir-fried Napa cabbage or vegetables. Halibut or sea bass make equally delicious substitutions if salmon is not available.

3 lbs. salmon fillets
3 tbsps. white Miso
3 tbsps. honey
¼ cup rice wine (mirin) or dry sherry
2 tsps. freshly grated ginger

Place salmon in the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker.

Combine miso, honey, rice wine and ginger in a mixing bowl and stir.

Pour sauce over salmon in slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 1½ hours, or until the salmon is cooked through and registers 165°F on an instant-read thermometer inserted in the centre of a thick fillet.

Carefully remove salmon from slow-cooker insert with a large spatula. Remove skin from underside (if necessary) and arrange salmon on serving platter.

Strain sauce through fine-mesh sieve in saucepan. Bring sauce to a boil and reduce to a syrupy consistency to serve with the salmon. Serves 8.

– Recipes from Slow Cooker