Asian BBQed Chicken 101

My go-to marinade for pork or chicken is Asian-style.  That means soy sauce, cooking sherry and lots of shredded ginger and garlic: four essential items I like to have in my kitchen despite ginger’s proclivity to go into hiding. That spicy root likes to sneak behind a box of cereal or get buried in my crisper thus a couple of chopped green onions often must substitute. Add a little sesame oil and sugar and this marinade transforms into a rich teriyaki sauce that is soaked up by the meat and translates into something caramelized and super-moist on the barbecue.

IMG_1175Chicken thighs are a perfect place to begin. I’m talking bone-in, skin-on to ensure real flavour. Forget those fat and expensive chicken breasts that often taste no better than the Styrofoam they are packaged on.  We want dark, flavour-filled meat and you’ll find that with the thighs.

img_1178.jpgBarbecuing chicken with the skin-on may create flare-ups if cooked on direct heat. But any BBQ-pro knows to use indirect heat, heating the two outer grills on high and leaving the middle grill off. According to my in-house BBQ specialist, you need to pre-heat the outer grills for 5- 10 min (lid closed) then lay on the thighs, skin side up, along the centre grill. Wait a couple of minutes, turn them over, basting with the remaining marinade. A long cooking time, lid closed, with constant turning and basting are the keys to success, says my BBQ king.

Dark juicy meat calls for 30-40 min depending on the size of the thighs and heat of your grill.  Be sure to test one thigh before serving, making sure the juices run clear and the meat is well cooked, especially near the bone. You aren’t apt to overcook or dry out an Asian marinated chicken thigh but you might be tempted to say the cooking is over before it is.  Give these babies the time they need and know that they can rest covered with aluminum foil for up to 10 minutes before serving, too.

IMG_1180Chances are you’ll be drinking some beer or wine while you cook and perhaps entertaining. Despite all that partying, promise me you’ll keep food safety first and remember that barbecuing is the number one cause of a dreadful affair called cross-contamination.

Remember that dish you carried the raw meat or poultry out to the barbecue in? Send it (and its raw juices/contamination) right back to the kitchen once your marinated meat is cooking.  Use a new, clean platter to receive your cooked goods and alas, you will cross over into a land free of food poisoning and full of Asian barbecue flavour.

I like to serve Asian bbqed chicken with hot, steaming Jasmine rice,  stir-fried Shanghai bok choy and/or a quick cucumber salad. This meal is quintessential summer food, in my books.

Asian BBQed chicken thighs

While chili paste is essential to this marinade it does not produce a spicy chicken thigh.  Trust me.

½ cup   cooking sherry

¼ cup   soy sauce

1 tbsp  sesame oil

1 tsp    sugar

1 tsp    sambal oelek

1 inch knob ginger, grated

2 garlic cloves, pressed or grated

8          skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

In a bowl, combine cooking sherry, soy, sesame oil, sugar, sambal oelek, ginger and garlic. Pour over chicken thighs (I like to marinate in a glass casserole with thighs in a single layer). Marinate for at least 30 min and up to overnight, in the fridge.

Barbecue thighs on indirect heat (as described above) for 30-40 minutes or until juices run clear and meat is thoroughly cooked.

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Stir-fried Shanghai bok choy

Most Asian markets carry this green leaf, green stem bok choy (about 8 inches long).

2 tbsp              canola oil

1-inch              knob ginger, grated

1                      large bunch Shanghai bok choy, stems and leaves separated, washed thoroughly and chopped

½ tsp               salt

Heat a wok on high.  Add oil and swirl around the sides of the work. Add ginger and stir rapidly for 10 seconds, add bok choy stems, stir 2 minutes. Add leaves, salt and ¼ cup water and cover with lid. Leave to steam/cook until leaves are wilted and stems are tender. Serve.

Easy Asian cucumber salad

English cucumbers are long and thin, wrapped in plastic and greenhouse grown, versus the pudgy, thick-skinned field-grown cucumbers.

1                      English cucumber, sliced thinly

2 tbsp              seasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp                sugar

1 tsp                sesame oil

Pinch               hot pepper flakes

¼ cup               chopped fresh coriander

Salt                  to taste

In a medium bowl combine all ingredients and serve.

 

 

 

Luxurious Lentils

I don’t think there is anything I make more regularly and with more satisfaction than soup. I never make a small pot, I always go big because soup is a mainstay of my diet and freezer. So is bread. One and one equals dinner or lunch, from season to season.

My friend Karen recently gave me a box full of pantry goodies.  She was cleaning out her gourmet cupboards for a move and decided she’d rather give me toys for my culinary sandbox  than put them in storage and out of usage for half a year.

“Mostly flavoured vinegars and lentils,” she droned, then spiced it up with “there’s a bottle of truffle oil, some wasabi and white Chinese fungus.”

It was the lentils that sung out for soup.

img_1202.jpgYet… lentils left to their own devices can create the most boring soup in the universe.

Under the spin of magic, lentils can also offer up mouthfuls of rich vegetarian Soup Bliss that is so complex, you’d want to shoot the writer who just wrote the last line’s blasphemy.

One such soup can be found in Myra Goodman’s delectable tome “Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm’s Organic Cookbook”.  Her Mediterranean Lentil Soup is layered and rich, despite missing one of the most quintessential ingredients found in my soups: homemade chicken stock. To make matters more envious, this lentil soup reaches the finish line with nary a piece of bacon, prosciutto, ham, pancetta, sausage or speck.

I couldn’t do it. My copy of that cookbook was in the wrong city’s kitchen and none of its magical equation could be dredged up from the swamps of my memory.  Meanwhile, evil cooking gnats were hissing and spitting in the dark gutters of my hesitation, taunting with incantations of “You’ve got drab lentils, drab lentils!”

IMG_1194Thus, I gave my blonde curls a good shake and pulled out the bacon.

This in tribute to what I imagine was either a Spanish scam or one of Karen’s most luxurious food purchases ever.  Here was a bag containing just three cups of brown lentils with two, not one, $25 price stickers.  Highway robbery! I had to give these Mexican lentils the respect Karen’s wallet deserved, so I pulled out the big guns: a litre of freshly made chicken stock, simmered for 8 hrs on my backburner the day before.

I started chopping.

First, a quarter pound of PC Applewood smoked bacon which went into a large hot pot shimmering with olive oil. IMG_1198Next, a very crisp Walla Walla onion (love our Stateside produce from Washington), two stalks of celery, followed by a red and green bell pepper. Next, I cracked open a 796 ml can of no salt-added, organic “Terra Dolce” tomatoes that I bought – brand unknown – at Costco, gambling on a whole box that has delivered thrice the flavour for all its economy. Finally, in went a cup of Karen’s precious lentils washed and drained, followed by a litre of chicken stock.

Despite the bacon and homemade chicken stock, these lentils were heading perilously close to the oblivion of bland and comprehensive seasoning was in order.  I started by squeezing five cloves of roasted garlic into the brew, and chuckled with a witch’s glee as I rubbed two teaspoons of dried oregano from Karen’s box. No truthfully, I cackled, because Karen’s dried oregano is wickedly strong and full of oomph compared to the dross I had just given the sniff test from my spice cupboard.

Once I had dumped my old oregano stash into the compost pile, I was ready for more foraging through flavour-land (a.k.a. my spice drawer). IMG_1210A fat pinch of smoked paprika, a teaspoon of Club House ground cumin, one “DAN-D-PAK” hot, red dried pepper from Gerrard Chinatown, half a teaspoon of mild chile guajillo molido from Kensington Market, one chopped fresh green serrano pepper, half a cup of chopped fresh coriander and juice from half a lime. Because my stock is made without salt, I added a teaspoon of course Mediterranean sea salt from Italy, straight from Karen’s box (but without a price tag).

In less than half an hour, a scrumptious soup was born. Esta la vita!

 

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Karen’s Pantry Mexican Lentil Soup con Bacon

This is a spicy, full flavoured soup that brings lentils out of the pantry so they can live a little.

1 tbsp              olive oil

¼ lb.                PC Applewood smoked bacon, chopped into ½ inch slices

1                      large Walla Walla, Vidalia or Spanish onion, chopped

2                      stalks celery, chopped

1                      green bell pepper, chopped

1                      red bell pepper, chopped

1                      796 ml can tomatoes

4 cups              chicken stock

1                      cup small green lentils, washed and drained

5                      cloves roasted garlic (or 2 cloves, chopped)

2 tsp                dried oregano, rubbed

1 tsp                ground cumin

¼ tsp               smoked paprika

1                      hot dried red pepper, crushed

1                      fresh green serrano pepper, chopped

½ tsp               chile guajillo molido or mild chile powder

½ cup               fresh coriander, chopped

½                     lime, squeezed

1 tsp                sea salt * or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot, add bacon and cook until golden and crispy.   Add onions, celery and peppers and sauté for five minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, stock, lentils, oregano, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, dried hot pepper, fresh serrano pepper and chile powder.  Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender soft. Season with fresh coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media night at Mistura

Media dinners are staged to impress yet publicists often have trouble filling a table full of food writers. We get lots of invitations. Plus, we aren’t always ready to write about each and every meal that comes our way. But last night’s meal at Mistura (265 Davenport Rd) is a story I want to tell.

Every mouthful was remarkable and shared in the most convivial fashion. It marked the first media meal I’ve attended where the owner sat among us, introducing each dish with the kind of detail only a cook can possess, then looking out at us warmly, raising his glass in tribute and eating hungrily.img_8451

“Our agnolotti is stuffed with wild boar,” explained owner Paolo Paolini, as he introduced our primi course. “We reserve the cooking juices and combine with port or wine. To finish, we add sun-dried sour cherries. They add dimension.”

I could barely stifle the swoon from my lips after devouring half of my portion in one gulp. I looked to my right and watched wine writer Tony Aspler expertly slice small, exquisite pieces while quietly rolling his eyes in ecstasy.

I should have exhibited more professional control with the crispy artichoke appetizer, but it too, left my plate in seconds, swathed in a creamy, piquant sauce of fresh herbs, caper, gherkin and boiled egg.

Paolini introduced the artichokes as “crispy and flaky, never leathery like some artichokes can be” and at that instant, deep-fried crumbs crackled at the bite, raining down on my dress as wine writer Margaret Swaine proclaimed loudly, “these are better than any I have tasted in Rome.”

We are a jaded, opinionated bunch, tasting delicacies all across the city and around the world. Aspler had just returned from the 300th anniversary Chianti celebrations in Florence and Swaine was heading off to Wenzhou, China on a morning flight. But both had time for Mistura’s lamb ribs last night.

“These are our pride and joy. You can’t find lamb ribs anywhere except here at Mistura,” proclaimed Paolini, introducing succulent, meaty ribs bathed in a sweet, finely tempered Balsamic glaze.

“Where do you get them?” asked someone.

“Ah, ah, ah… a butcher!” stammered Paolini, smiling broadly at his coy response.

Luckily, his right hand man entered and further questioning ceased.  Executive chef Klaus Rohrich was wearing a chef’s jacket and a Blue Jays cap, nervously scanning the table full of food writers. Extracted from his kitchen domain, Rohrich looked exposed and twitchy, perhaps more due to the imminent Jays’ game than our inquiring gaze.

“Chef, tell us where you’ve trained?” asked the first and Rohrich murmured a muffled response about growing up cooking then entering the Mistura fold, cooking for years under the man he has now replaced: Massimo Capra.

Before more questions ensued, Paolini came to his rescue, extolling Rohrich’s charcuterie skills and his ability to use local and seasonal ingredients to recreate the Italian fare that has kept Mistura in business for 20 years.img_8449

Bubbly Prosecco and a huge platter of cured duck prosciutto, bresaola, cappicola, prosciutto and bellota pata negra was set out on a table to welcome our arrival. But it was the crostini slathered in duck liver pate that captured my attention and the warm mushrooms and gorgonzola hit a close second.

Pacing is a virtue that wise food critics employ at every professional opportunity but last night, I lost any workable tempo and simply dove in. Who could blame me when the salty, crisp skin of a pan-seared Branzino beckoned, offset by plump Manilla clams and even plumper cherry tomatoes? img_8457

Others would say no to dessert, but again, duty called and I obediently spooned up a voluptuous vanilla panna cotta draped in a strawberry sauce and studded with blueberries. A perfect medley of thick cream and soft, whipped air, mouthful after mouthful floated down my throat in sweet, puffy clouds.img_8460

Next, Paolini offered grappa and I started to shake my head wisely in abstention until the wine writers among us voiced their interest in this first Ontario-made grappa.

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“You need a separate license to distill,” they intoned, knowing that grappa is a recycled liquor made from wine-making’s dregs, its flavor akin to fire water. But this delightful potion had been supplemented with maple syrup and cayenne, to create a bewitching sip of sweet heat that closed the evening’s meal like a kiss.

Swiss Chard Wonderfulness

IMG_7312My green thumb has always had a soft spot for Swiss chard. Forever, I grew luscious fields of these crinkly leafed greens, their yellow, red, pink or orange stalks sparkling like bright lights against the black soil.

Forever, that is, in my dreams!

IMG_7318For two wretched years, I watched Swiss chard not grow on my balcony garden. No matter how much I prayed when I tucked the seeds into the soil… No matter how sweet my gaze when I sprinkled water upon the seedlings… No matter, no matter, all I grew were stunted little dwarfs covered in a mysterious mildew.

Bleck.

So it came as a marvel that the veggie gods sang above my balcony this year and blessed me with a container so full of chard, I can cook at least two or three meals from the bounty.

IMG_7317Swiss chard tastes like spinach but differs slightly in the texture department. While spinach leaves cook down into a soft mass, one-tenth the original size, chard is more sturdy – but not nearly as tough as kale. Chard with red stalks will bleed crimson, just like its close cousin the beet green. Their earthy flavours bear similarity, too.

IMG_7320That’s why it doesn’t hurt to sweeten up a bunch in the pan. Toss in just a handful of dried apricots, raisins or currants and it will add currency to this green when serving it to Green Naysayers. Vidalia onions from Georgia are a spectacular addition, too. And toasting just a tablespoon of pine nuts in a dry frying pan at high for a couple of minutes adds the final finish to a recipe worth celebrating the harvest with.

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Swiss chard with apricots and pine nuts

2 tbsp                                     olive oil

1 clove garlic                          smashed

1 Vidalia onion                      thinly sliced

1 bunch Swiss chard            stalks chopped and leaves sliced into thirds

6 dried apricots                     sliced

2-3 tbsp                                 white wine, stock or water

½ -1 tsp                                 kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

¼ tsp                                      hot chili flakes  *optional

1 tbsp                                     pine nuts, toasted

Heat oil in a large frying pan at medium-high sauté garlic, onions and Swiss chard stalks until tender and golden, about 3 minutes. Add Swiss chard leaves, apricots and a tablespoon of wine, turn heat to high and cover pan immediately to wilt greens for 1 minute. Remove cover, toss greens with tongs add remaining wine, season with salt, ground pepper and chilli flakes, turning heat to medium and continue to cook until greens are tender. Serve garnished with pine nuts.

Thai soup heaven

chiang mai noodle soup

It wasn’t until I went to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai that I appreciated how a single soup can make a destination live forever in your memory. I was in my twenties, backpacking across Southeast Asia with my travelling buddy Anna. We had escaped Bangkok’s sauna bath heat and planned to make Chiang Mai just a quick layover – until we dipped our spoons into the creamy, golden contents of a certain noodle soup.

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Buttery Banana Bread

IMG_6129Oh, the trials and tribulations of banana storage! Buy a big bunch and they all reach the right eating ripeness at the same time. There’s that two-day “perfect banana” window, then black dots start to hit those yummy yellow specimens like a rash. Before you know it, you’ve got some sorry, black and withered bananas languishing in the fruit bowl. Continue reading