Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Recipe? Yeah not so much.

Chef Michael Smith has encouraged people to cook "without a recipe" (and has cookbooks to back that up.... wait, what?).  He really is wonderful, and has helped many people look at cooking through a different lens.  A lens I grew up with.  My mother seldom pulled out a recipe, unless she was baking.  She either whipped up tried and true meals, or made things up as she went along.  Those things didn't always turn out, mind you (charred grilled chicken glazed with soy and dried oregano comes to mind).  But that's how she cooked.  And as I taught myself to cook, I let recipes guide me, but not necessarily dictate the end result.  I love reading cookbooks, and have watched cooking shows for as long as I can remember (Celebrity Cooks with Bruno Gerussi, anyone?), and I've always had a passion for food.

So when my husband and I tried a smokey onion dip at a local barbecue restaurant, I knew I had to recreate it (and not just because my husband gave me that look of "You're making this when?" after his first bite).  I googled and found a recipe on the Food Network site from Diners Drive Ins and Dives that looked promising, but when it came down to it, I didn't have the time to smoke onions.  So I ditched the recipe and struck out on my own.  The result was an ever so slightly sweet, deeply smokey dip with a savoury edge and a little texture that would make an amazing burger topping.  People raved and asked for the recipe.  I'll do my best to make this somewhat easy to follow, since I have no exact measurements for anything.

I started by slicing up a monster Spanish onion and caramelizing it in butter in a stainless pan (non-stick pans just don't give you that sticky, brown goodness).  I sprinkled it with a little sugar and a smoked salt that I have, but I'm sure that regular salt would be fine.

As the onion cooked, I grabbed a bowl and combined roughly equal parts mayonnaise and Greek yogurt (maybe a cup and a half of each?).  To that, I added about a teaspoon of garlic powder, a generous squirt of brown sauce (A1 or HP, take your pick), a good splash of Worcestershire, about a teaspoon of smoked paprika (easy to find - even WalMart carries it) and a very generous couple of teaspoons of liquid smoke (check the condiment isle - I use the Hickory).  That went into the fridge.

Once the onions were lovely, brown and pretty soft (but not mush), and the bottom of the pan was covered in that beautiful brown fond, I added another teaspoon or so of smoked paprika, and deglazed the whole thing with some beef broth.  Honestly the liquid doesn't matter too much.  It could have been chicken stock, beer or just water.  I used just enough to get all of the bits scraped up from the bottom of the pan.  Then I scraped it into my food processor and pulsed it until no large pieces of onion were left, but there was still some texture.

After chilling the onion paste in the fridge, I stirred it into the creamy mixture that I'd set aside and tasted it.  At that point I played with the salt and smoke.  Go with your own preference.  Add more garlic powder if you like.  Or some cayenne (or chipotle, for extra smokiness).  Stir in some crumbled Feta or Bleu cheese if you think it would be good.  Once you're happy with it, you're done.  It will mellow in the fridge, so if you're making it in advance, taste it before you serve it.

I served it with wedges of whole wheat pita, but as I said, it would be equally great on a burger.  My husband used it as the creamy component to some chicken salad.

I'd insert a picture here, but my 4 year old just polished off the last of it.  So here's a flashing chicken.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Niagara Wine and Food Expo

I began looking forward to this weekend last year, as I walked out the doors of the first Food and Wine Expo this area has hosted.  It was incredible.  So much truly great food!  My husband and I ate our way through row after row of delicacies and treats.  The most incredible sliders, amazing Asian dumplings, grilled pineapple in cinnamon syrup, Kobe style beef, fresh lobster (which I tried for the first time), as well as a myriad of wine choices and an almost equally dizzying array of beers.  We'd budgeted for a spendy date night, and indulged accordingly.  I'm sure there were things we never did get to, but by the end of the night we were full.

This year my middle sister came with us.  I tried to not build up the show too much.  We've been to a variety of events which, for one reason or another were spectacular the first year, and disappointing the next.  My husband had just come back from a trade show where he experienced that very thing.  Sophomore slump?  Maybe.  I was hoping that wasn't going to be the case this time.

I want to say straight away that I was encouraged to see new vendors.  My dear friends, Roger and Joyce of Mr. Vinegar, were there.  I met them ages ago at a craft show, and their products are truly one of a kind.  There were also a few gadgets, and more than a couple olive oil purveyors.  There were also a lot of chocolate vendors, it seemed.  But there also seemed to be less variety in the savoury foods.  A lot of pulled pork.  I guess it's cheap and easy to keep warm.  No Kobe style beef, no amazing sliders (one booth had some burgers, but "amazing" did not describe their grey appearance).  There were many wineries represented, several of them smaller, which I loved to see.  There wasn't as much beer, and my husband was disappointed that he couldn't get a beer float again this year.  LOL  It was a bit of a highlight for him the last time, though he did enjoy a Mocha Porter this time around.  I briefly contemplated testing my culinary bravery again this year, tackling another never before eaten food - oysters.  But I couldn't bring myself to do it.  I tried lobster and scallops last year, and crossed them off of my list, but the oysters proved to be too much of a challenge.  Maybe another time.

Lots of pineapple for $1, courtesy of a friendly gaucho at the end of the night

We tasted some great cheese at a free seminar, but the seminar itself was a bit like "Cheese for Dummies," so we ate ours and continued to wander the floor.  Some vendors were offering a lot of food for a dollar (one ticket).  Like a thick slab of peameal bacon on a bun, or a mixed plate of tasty bites.  Others offered a tiny morsel for two or more tickets, as though the goal was to make a profit.  Some favourites were there again.  Namely Brasa and their delectable pineapple.  Sliced with a piece of their salty sausage and piled on one of the cheese buns they were serving (all for a single ticket), it was a perfect bite that would have made a great breakfast sandwich!  And there were the exquisite chocolates from Nighs.  Such creative flavour combinations (milk chocolate with fig and almond, dark chocolate with dried cherry and Merlot salt).  We went back to that booth a couple of times.  We were hoping for some Vietnamese nibbles too, but every time we walked by, they were sold out.  Good for them!  We also enjoyed a giant strawberry on a stick, dipped in chocolate and covered in Skor bits.  Simple, but still so tasty. 

All in all, had I not experienced the fabulousness that was last year's Food and Wine Expo, I probably would have enjoyed this one much more.  We were hard pressed to spend all 20 of our tickets, whereas last year we used a lot more.  I'll go next year, with the hope that some of last year's vendors return (Syndicate and Seneca Casino come to mind), and that there is a greater variety again.  Judging by the crowd, it seemed like a success again, but time will tell, I suppose.

And now to climb on my soapbox... I can't close this entry without touching on a pet peeve when it comes to food events.  If you follow me on Twitter, you know I've gone off about this before.  I cannot stand watching people handle food and money with the same hand.  Even if that "money" is just tickets, it's still something that has been handled, perhaps by unwashed bathroom hands, maybe dropped on the floor... I saw one vendor handling food with no gloves at all, and also handling tickets with the same hand.  She did not wash her hands between customers.  We declined their offerings.  And at one booth where I really wanted to try the food, I asked the girl to change her gloves after watching her not only handle tickets and food for multiple customers in a row, but also wipe sweat from her brow (and then plunge her hand into a container of shredded cheese - I didn't get cheese on my dish).  She didn't seem put out by the request, but she didn't seem thrilled to have to break stride either.  I understand that when things are busy there's a rhythm that develops, but there should be one person handling the currency if changing gloves or washing hands after every customer is an issue.  /soapbox

Monday, May 21, 2012

Happy Victoria Day!

What an insanely gorgeous long weekend.  Here in Canada, Victoria Day is the official kickoff of summer.  It's not always as summery as it is this year, mind you.  This weekend has been downright hot compared to many years.  And consistently so.  Temps in the mid 20's all weekend, with nary a cloud in the sky.  There's a huge Food Truck event happening nearby, as well as a carnival, and I imagine both are benefiting tremendously from the amazing weather.

Here at home it's been great.  Hubby has been off since Friday, and is still off tomorrow.  We bought a spinning composter, lots of good manure, and 9 tomato plants from Tree And Twig Heirloom Veggie Farm.  Save for 2, they're all cherry varieties (yard snacks) and are all going into pots. The garden space is reserved for cucumbers, melons, beans (LOTS of beans) and root veggies this year.  We've been sharing our raspberry canes with friends, in an attempt to thwart any plans the thorny plants have for neighbourhood domination, and I've harvested a few purple radishes already.  The peas that we planted during an unseasonable warm spell in March are a few feet high already, and our late season planting of horseradish is really looking good.  We have yet to buy any flowers to pretty up the front yard.  Priorities and all that.  LOL

It's a bit of a lazy afternoon here.  The yard is in full sun now, with the morning shade long gone and the evening shade many hours away.  Hubby is playing with his audio gear in the basement and the kids are glued to a Phineas and Ferb marathon.  I've been blogging, prepping and cooking/smoking a chicken.  We're breaking in the rotisserie tonight.  So I soaked the bird in a mixture of 1C kosher salt, 1C sugar and about 16C of water.  Then I took it out, rinsed it and let it dry well on a rack in the fridge. 

Resting before the big spin

Given the salt in the brine, I didn't salt my seasoning mix very much, or add sugar to it like I would for a normal barbecue rub.  Instead, I eyeballed a blend of garlic powder, onion powder, sage, allspice and paprika, and added just a pinch of salt.  The allspice may sound unusual, but I've found that it is really nice on grilled poultry (and also amazing with pork).  I rubbed the chicken with olive oil and sprinkled it with the seasoning mix.  Then I set foil packets of dry and soaked wood chips on the outer two burners on my grill and once they began smoking, we got the rotisserie turning.  Later the bird will get a basting of honey, white wine vinegar and a dash of bitters.  It should take 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  I can't wait.  I can smell the smoke as I sit here in my kitchen.

From this...

To this...

To this gorgeously lacquered bird that we will be eating in a few minutes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Homemade Yogurt - Take One

I've been meaning to try my hand at homemade yogurt for a while.  I'd hesitated because of the whole "incubation period" thing.  I don't have an electric hot pad or other such device, nor do I wish to shell out money for a yogurt maker.  So when I read about yogurt made in a crockpot, my interest was piqued.

I did a little research, checking out blog posts at Macheesemo, One Good Thing By Jillee and another blog that I cannot for the life of me remember or find again.  #annoyed

Anyway, the basics were all pretty much the same.  And after a little digging and discovering that the step to heat the milk to the 180 degree range can be skipped without risking death (scalding the milk first was primarily done when the milk was used in its raw state, rather than already pasteurized), I was ready to begin.  Well, after my husband came home with more milk.  *Note to self - check your inventory before jumping into a project.

I poured 2L of 1% milk into my crockpot, popped on the lid and set it on low for an hour.  Then I checked the temp every 15 minutes or so after that, until the milk reached about 110F.  I took 1/2C of plain Greek yogurt, mixed it with a little of the warm milk and stirred it all back into the pot.  Then  turned it off, covered it and wrapped the whole thing in a thick bath towel.  And there it sat for about 6 hours.  Once done, I ladled it into a cheesecloth lined strainer over a large measuring cup and left it overnight.

What did I learn?  A few things...

  • Six hours isn't long enough to get a nice, tangy yogurt.  I'll go for eight the next time.
  • Straining it overnight creates something more like cream cheese than Greek yogurt.
  • It's all but impossible to incorporate the whey back into the yogurt once it's gotten that solid.  The texture is like slightly milky cottage cheese.  I may take my stick blender to it. 
Based on all of that, I think I'll invert my timing the next time, making the yogurt before bed and straining it for a couple of hours in the morning.  Over all making it, even with the loss of volume that comes from straining it, seems worth it.  The least expensive Greek yogurt is still about $4 for 500ml.  And if I can get the flavour and texture right, the kids will happily eat it.  The bonus is the whey, which I can use in bread dough, pizza crusts, smoothies, marinades....

Source: macheesmo.com via Mama on Pinterest