Thursday, October 28, 2010

Quick and Adaptable

Phyllo cups
Having recently moved to a new city and met a whole crowd lovely people to call my friends has been exciting in a number of ways, one of them being the chance to get to know all of them better over a good meal and a few pints. I've had more dinner guests and get-togethers at my place in the past two months than than I've had all year. I can only hope that it keeps up. There's really something to feeding the people you care about.
One of the challenges of feeding this crowd in particular has been keeping things vegan (and by extension, inclusive). Though this has ruled out a lot of approaches and flavours that I really enjoy, I've relished it and taken it as an opportunity to be more creative and adventurous in the kitchen. Last week, for instance, I freely adapted one of my favourite quiche recipes into mini phyllo cups filled with tender slivers of braised leek and port-laden slices of mushroom. Though the resulting hors d'oeuvres were a little lacking (namely in butter and silky custard), I won't be discouraged. Some recipes are just eminently more adaptable than others.
Skillet Cornbread
Take this cornbread, for instance. Pictured here, this particular incarnation involves butter, eggs, milk, a generous helping of scallion and jalepeno, coarsely ground yellow cornmeal, and finely ground blue cornmeal. However, it also does wonderfully as originally intended, i.e. vegan--just swap out the butter for corn oil, and the eggs and milk for water. Either way, you'll end up with some very satisfying cornbread--crisp, golden edges, a tender, jalepeno-flecked crumb, and subtle, corny sweetness. And, maybe best of all, it comes together quickly--unlike, say, my other favourite cornbread, which needs a bit of head start. I can't always be expected to plan for cornbread a whole day in advance, now can I?

Skillet Cornbread
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

Note: for a vegan version of this cornbread, replace the two eggs and milk with 1 cup + 1 tablespoon of water and the butter with an additional 2 tablespoons of corn oil in the wet mixture; do not use whole grain coarsely ground cornmeal--for one reason or another, this stuff never quite softens up, and you will end up with very chewy nubs of cornmeal in your bread.

1 cup unbleached white bread flour
1/2 cup coarsely ground yellow cornmeal (not whole grain, see notes above)
1/2 cup finely ground blue or yellow cornmeal or masa harina
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 tablespoons cold butter
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 jalepeno pepper, seeded and minced
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch cast-iron skillet, 8-inch square baking dish, or 9-inch pie pan.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeals, and baking powder. Add butter to dry mixture and rub into pea-sized flecks with fingertips.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, corn oil, maple syrup, scallion, jalepeno pepper, and salt.
Using a rubber spatula, fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Be careful not to overmix, a few lumps won't matter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the corn bread comes out clean.
Cool in the pan for 15 minutes before serving.
Serves 4 to 6.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All in a Day's Work

Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day debating over, getting to, or returning from brunch. I am not entirely sure if eating stuffed brioche french toast with roasted pumpkin and dulce de leche makes for an accomplished day, but it was a damned good one nonetheless--crisp fall air, afternoon sun, and four friends with whom to switch plates when the sugar became too much. Lula: so good and so far away.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Capital-R Romantic

Yesterday, we biked along the lake and found ourselves wrapped in a sudden fog. Standing out on the wind-swept shore with the deep turquoise of the water stretching before us and the fog rolling off its surface, we were the mere mortals of a Friedrich painting, in the thrall of Nature.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Beginnings of a Ritual

Potato Pizza
I could not have hoped for more when it comes to how things are turning out here in Chicago. I simply cannot get over how lovely this place is. One of these days, instead of going to class, I might just lie down in the green grass of the quad and drink in the bright stretches of blue sky and the spires and the gargoyles and the bells, oh the sweet bells, before it all fades into winter dreariness.
And then there's the people. I can't get enough of them either. Last Saturday, all eight of us newbies squished into my living room, listened to Bill Evans, and snacked on Jim Lahey's pizza patate--the beginnings of a Saturday night ritual. Tonight, it's Mozart and apple crumble.
I like this pizza for a number of reasons. First, it's incredibly simple--paper-thin slices of potato, diced onion, and a sprinkling of rosemary on a thin crust with just the right amount of chew and crunch. Admittedly, it takes a bit of planning, since the potato slices need to soak in brine and the dough needs to proof, but the results are well worth it. The potato slices are creamy and soft in the centre and prettily caramelized and crunchy at the edges. The onion adds a bit of sweetness, and the rosemary plays off of both. And though you might be tempted to add a little crumbled blue cheese or a dusting of parmesan, I think it's pretty much unnecessary. This pizza is perfect as is. Just crack open a beer and let that jazz piano wash over you.

Pizza Patate
From Jim Lahey's My Bread via Gourmet

Note: the recipe below calls for a mandoline, and I'm sure that using one would really expedite the process, but I've had great success without one--with a good-quality vegetable peeler, it's quite possible to just peel slices of the right thickness directly into the brine. My slices probably aren't as shapely as their mandolin cousins would be, but no one has complained so far.

1 quart of lukewarm water
4 tsp (32 grams) table salt or fine sea salt
2 lbs yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
about 1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 recipe of pizza dough (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F, with a rack in the middle.
In a medium bowl, combine the water and salt, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes very thin (1/16 inch thick), and put the slices directly into the salted water so they don't oxidize and turn brown. Let soak in the brine for 1 1/2 hours (or refrigerate and soak for up to 12 hours), until the slices are wilted and no longer crisp.
Drain the potatoes in a colander and use your hands to press out as much water as possible, then pat dry. In a medium bowl, toss together the potato slices, onion, pepper, and olive oil.
Spread the potato mixture evenly over the dough, going all the way to the edges of the pan; put a bit more of the topping around the edges of the pie, as the outside tends to cook more quickly. Sprinkle evenly with rosemary.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the topping is starting to turn golden brown and the crust is pulling away from the sides of the pan. Serve the pizza hot or at room temperature.
Makes enough for one 13 x 9 inch pizza.
    Basic Pizza Dough
    From Jim Lahey's My Bread via Gourmet

    3 3/4 cups (500 g) bread flour
    2 1/2 tbsp instant or active dry yeast
    3/4 tsp table salt or fine sea salt
    3/4 tsp sugar
    1 1/3 cups (300 g) room-temperature water
    extra-virgin olive oil for the pans

    In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, salt, and sugar. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until blended, at least 30 seconds. Turn out onto the countertop and knead for 5-8 minutes. Return to the bowl and cover, letting sit at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
    Oil two 13-by-19-inch rimmed baking sheets. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape half of the dough onto an oiled pan in one piece. Gently pull and stretch the dough across the surface of the pan, and use your hands to press it evenly out to the edges. If the dough sticks to your fingers, lightly dust it with flour or coat your hands with oil. Pinch any holes together. Repeat with the second piece (or put it in an oiled freezer bag for up to 1 day in the fridge or up to 1 month in the freezer, thawing the dough overnight in the fridge and bringing it to room temperature before using).
    Makes enough for two 13 x 9 inch pizzas.