April 27, 2011

Chicken Salad Salad.

Yep.. you read the title right.

No, it's not a typo. You'll get it in a minute, I promise.

In my younger years, I wasn't very adventurous with food (hence my grits anxiety, see this post).
If my parents ever managed to get me to try something new, one of two things would happen:

I would love it, and would add it into my (short) rotation of meals I would eat. If it was in a restaurant I would order the same thing EVERY time.
I would hate it, and would never go near it again. No matter who makes it for me, how great it looks, whatever you wanna call it.. I'm not having it.

When I left home for college and started preparing meals myself, I found that I was starting to really enjoy cooking; and by extension.. food. Eating food and ENJOYING food are two very different things it turns out. And once my eyes were opened, so were my mind and palate. It's still a work in progress, I still haven't brought myself to trying every single thing I wrote off as a child, but I definitely am making my way down the list.

In high school, chicken salad sandwiches were one of the items on my 'will eat' list.
(Looking back, my mother must have had a hard time managing two different lists for her two very picky children.. good thing Mother's Day is coming up, she really could use some pampering)
I would only eat chicken salad sandwiches from two places, however: a caterer that my parents used for cocktail parties and gatherings, and my school cafeteria. They were very different of course; the caterer served theirs as finger foods for a crowd, the sandwiches formed a ring that looked like a bundt and the chicken sat on bread topped with sesame seeds. At school the sandwiches were made with white sandwich bread, sliced on the diagonal, and wrapped in wax paper.

Despite the difference, the two sandwiches had one thing in common. The chicken salad. Shredded chicken and mayonnaise. That's it.

Of course I loved it then... there was nothing to taste.

When I started cooking, I would think of the foods I loved to eat and try to replicate it on my own. When the chicken salad sandwich came up, I started doing my usual prep work.

The ingredient list looked something like this:


Then, my 17 year old self thought something like this:
"This can't be right.. Then why did it taste so good? They must have made it with a flavoured mayonnaise or something. Yeah right, this is a high school cafeteria we're talking about. Ugh, this shouldn't be so hard. Think... Chicken Salad.. Wait, why is it even called a salad? What defines something as a salad anyway? Shouldn't you be able to eat a salad on it's own? I wouldn't eat chicken and mayonnaise on it's own.. bleh."

So, through the subsequent years of (still ongoing) research and experimentation, my chicken salad has evolved into a meal in itself. I have served it at family brunch, packed it as part of my father's lunch to take to work, made it for friends... and everyone loves it. The 17 year old in me is dancing around with pride and joy.

Much like my tomato sauce, I never make this the same way twice. Again, what's on hand plays a big part in what goes in the salad. But the basics are always the same.

I start by shredding up some roasted chicken. My mother roasts a chicken every Sunday afternoon, so I usually make the salad on Sunday night with the leftovers so that we all have lunch to carry with us on Monday mornings. It makes a big difference if the chicken is well seasoned on it's own. No matter what you put in the salad, if the chicken tastes like cardboard on it's own, it's just going to taste like cardboard covered in a really yummy dressing when you're done.

You can use white or dark meat, whichever you prefer. I use white. To the chicken add brown (deli style) mustard, mayo, chopped sweet pickles (and just a splash of the brining liquid it is packed in), cubed apples or halved grapes (or both!), chopped tomatoes, chopped parsley, chopped rosemary, and a splash of lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

For one serving (about half a cup of chicken), I add about a tablespoon each of the condiments, quarter (1/4) cup each of the fruits, and a teaspoon each of the herbs. This is a very rough estimation, next time I make it I will do a step by step post with precise quantities.Of course you can make the salad to suit your own tastes: use other fruits such as pears, oranges, or pineapples (love that idea, I'm gonna try that next time!); add more mayo and less mustard if you're not a fan of the taste... you can use sweet relish instead of pickles if you're tired of chopping. The idea is to make the salad full of flavour, colourful, and great on it's own.


I serve this on a bed of lettuce leaves and topped with slices of tomato and apple

April 26, 2011

Pepperoni Pizza Melts!

This afternoon, while trying to decipher my cravings for lunch, I was faced with a dilemna that I frequently encounter. I wanted two different things, and couldn't decide between them.

I LOVE grilled cheese sandwiches. As simple as they come. Gourmet versions with artisan cheeses and specialty breads are great; but there's something so comforting about the one you had when you were still missing teeth that the sophisticated restaurant versions can't deliver.

I'm talking two plain slices of white sandwich bread around a slice of American cheese; brushed with butter, and toasted until golden brown and crispy. Bonus points if the cheese oozes over the edges and crisps up when it touches the hot pan.

Wait, what was this post about again?

Right.. today I had a craving for grilled cheese, but I also have been eyeing the pepperoni I bought last week... and wasn't sure how much longer I could resist getting into it. The idea was to make pepperoni pizza but as I have been on a cooking hiatus, baking pizza dough just was not on the agenda.

So, as I usually do in a situation like this, I thought of a way that I could fulfill both cravings in one meal. The result was.. *cue lightbulb* the pepperoni pizza melt.

It would marry my favourite things from each dish.. the buttery sandwich bread and american cheese from the grilled cheese sandwich, and the pepperoni and flavourful tomato sauce from the pepperoni pizza.

I immediately stepped into the kitchen (which I am not supposed to do until May 1, but an avatar's gotta eat.. right??) Not-so-coincidentally, I already had all the ingredients on hand, so got right down to it:

Cook up the pepperoni in a skillet.. I added about half a teaspoon of vegetable oil
Drain the cooked pepperoni on a paper towel   

Mix one teaspoon each of tomato paste and water until it's almost the consistency of ketchup.

Add a pinch of each: garlic powder, parsley, oregano, basil, sugar, salt and pepper
Sounds familiar right? Remember how versatile my tomato sauce base was?

Here's where the grilled cheese comes in: spread the pizza sauce on the bread and top with the pepperoni and cheese.
Assemble the sandwich and toast in a skillet (I used the same one that I cooked the pepperoni in, just added a little butter). Use a weight - like a brick covered in foil, or a sandwich press - so the bread crisps up nicely.
And looks something like this. Gorgeous golden brown.
Slice and Enjoy!
Try this at home.. I would love to know what you think!

Note: I am not claiming to be the inventor of pepperoni pizza melts; I'm sure this has been done before. I just have never seen or heard of it.. but that's not unusual.

Pepperoni Pizza Melt on FoodistaPepperoni Pizza Melt

April 25, 2011

Shrimp and Gri.. er, Mashed Potatoes?

Now for those of you who reside in South Carolina or Georgia, Shrimp and Grits may be a staple in your diet. It may not even seem like a big deal once you've grown up around it and had it on a regular basis.

But, for me, Shrimp and Grits is very new. And a VERY big deal.

While doing my weekly troll on Food Porn Daily (I'm a masochist, don't mind me) I saw the most BEAUTIFUL picture of the dish and it brought me back to my first experience with Shrimp and Grits.

Shrimp and Grits from Simple Comfort Food

I first learned of Shrimp and Grits on an episode of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" on the Food Network. (see the recipes from the episode here) To be honest, I couldn't even tell you who won. I was too busy wiping the drool off my face.

Think perfectly cooked, juicy shrimp.. sitting on creamy, cheesy grits.. smothered in a pan sauce using the drippings from rendered pork (the recipes used either bacon or ham).

Now I was immediately ready to begin replication of this sumptuous looking dish, but I had a problem. Apart from the fact that I had never before seen quick-cooking grits in any of my local grocery stores, I had always written it off and up to this point in my life have never tried it. It reminds me of cornmeal porridge which I REALLY dislike. Needless to say, I decided that I was not going to serve my shrimp with grits.

Once again, if you are from an area where shrimp and grits is not only a staple, but a cultural icon, it was not my intention to spoil the dish. Apologies to the creators of Shrimp and Grits.. but I decided that my take would be with mashed potatoes.

Here's what I did:

  • First I chopped up some bacon - turkey bacon, because my pork intake is already ridiculous enough - and fried it up in a skillet.
  •  Set aside the cooked bacon, but leave the drippings in the pan. It serves as the base for the gravy drizzled over the dish when serving.
  •  I cooked 3 potatoes, just cubed them up and boiled them in vegetable stock for added flavour. You can cook them however you want, bake them, nuke them in the microwave, whatever.. just make sure they're cooked through so they're easy to mash. And seafood stock would be perfect here, I just used what I had in the pantry at the time.
  •  I drained the potatoes, leaving just about a teaspoon of stock at the bottom of the pot to keep the flavour in. 
  • To the potatoes, I added about 2 tablespoons of milk, 4 ounces of sour cream, a tablespoon of butter, and half a cup of cheese. White Cheddar would be ideal here, but I used Pepper Jack.
  • Mash it all together until you feel like your arm feels like it's not there anymore... then switch arms and mash some more. By that time the residual heat from the potatoes should have melted the cheese.
  • Once you have the potatoes to a silky smooth consistency, fold in the cooked bacon pieces and chopped green onions. I also added in crushed red pepper flakes for some heat. 
  • I seasoned the shrimp with a dry spice rub containing pimento, paprika, fennel, garlic, onion, red pepper, sugar, thyme and ginger; then sauteed the shrimp in the bacon fat, until JUST pink. This also adds more flavour to the drippings in the pan.
  • For the gravy, I could tell you to use your already exhausted arms to make a roux using the drippings and stand over the stove, slowly pouring in stock and stirring until the consistency was just right.. or I could say that I deglazed the pan with some white wine, added a tablespoon of heavy cream, and made the sauce bubble away til it reduced by half. Which would you prefer?
  • For serving: I spooned the potatoes into the bowl, topped it with a few shrimp, and drizzled the entire dish with the white wine and cream reduction.

I was so excited about stuffing my face that I forgot to take any pictures, the only one I have is from my blackberry the next day when I took some leftovers in a plastic container to work. Under fluorescent lighting *shudder*. It had been reheated in the microwave, but it was still delicious. The potatoes on their own could be a meal in itself because the bacon, green onions, and cheese each impart a different kind of flavour. But with the seasoned shrimp and white wine reduction... there are no words.

Leftover Shrimp and Mashed Potatoes at my desk at work
(taken with a blackberry, apologies for the terrible quality!)
Please comment and let me know what you think... even better, try it for yourself!


April 23, 2011

Caribbean Beach Fare

Picture this:

You're lying out on the beach on a Caribbean island.. basking in the sunlight and enjoying the light breeze traveling off the gentle waves and swaying the leaves of the palm trees.. and you feel something - in your stomach. You're hungry.. but what do you eat?

I know that the perfect thing when you're lying in the sun is a fresh, colourful fruit salad. Washed down with lemonade (or rum punch). But take a stroll down the beach - just follow the faint sounds of music and chatter - and you will find a group of local beachside eateries serving up delicious, fresh caught seafood.

Snapper, Parrot fish, Lobsters or Shrimp... Curried, Escoveitch, Fried, Steamed, Stewed, Grilled... Served with local favourites referred to as 'Bammies' and 'Festivals'.

If some of that sounded like gibberish to you, not to worry. Let me break it down:

Usually when you enter one of these eateries, you will see ice chests containing whatever the fishermen caught that morning. Most often the fish will either be parrot or snapper, and there will be lobsters in different sizes (different price categories). You choose the fish/lobster that you want, and you tell the attendee how you would like it prepared.

My favourite preparation for fish (I'm a snapper lover myself), is to have it escoveitched. This preparation evolved from the traditional Spanish dish Escabeche. Escabeche is the frying or poaching of a meat that has been marinated in an acidic environment. In the caribbean, this marinade consists of vinegar, carrots, onions and scotch bonnet (same family as habanero) peppers.

As mentioned before, a popular side dish for seafood on the beach is what is referred to as a bammy.

A bammy is a (not so) flat bread made from cassava, otherwise called yucca. I have never had the opportunity to see the actual processing of the cassava and how they get it to form the disk that is then fried or steamed, but I certainly have had it alongside my fish meal.

Another side is festivals, which are fried sweet breads with the dough containing cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and sometimes a little vanilla for depth of flavour. The dough rests for a while, and then formed into cylinders which are deep fried until crispy and golden. Perfect for dipping in the escoveitch or sauce on your fish.

Fried Snapper and Festivals on the beach in Jamaica

So next time you are on vacation, and a fruit salad is just not gonna cut it, ask around (preferably your hotel information desk) on where you can get prepared local seafood.

*Notes: Unlike North American culture, whole fish are served on the plate - the head and tail still attached. Scotch Bonnet peppers are VERY hot, more than 10 times the heat of a jalapeno, so please proceed with caution. Be sure to check with your hotel's information desk or your tour guide before venturing out to local spots; security comes before your hunger.

April 22, 2011

A marinara-bolognese fusion. Saucy!

To welcome you to my kitchen I'm sharing one of my standby recipes. A standby sauce to be exact I never make it the same way every time, that's just how I cook. It heavily depends on what's currently in the pantry, what I'm going to use the sauce for, what kind of mood I'm in, the weather outside..

No matter what though, the sauce ALWAYS contains*:

  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Olive Oil
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Pepper

The base of this recipe can be used on everything from lasagna, spaghetti and chili to sloppy joes, pizzas and tacos. It's so simple and versatile I can easily say that I make a batch every week.

Now, here's where the variations come into play. For pasta dishes, I usually have meat in the sauce - Ground lean beef; and once meat is added, so are onions. This variation is more a bolognese than a marinara, but still not traditional because of all the tomato in it. Here's how I do it:

I brown the meat along with the onions and garlic in a heavy saucepan. If the meat is super-lean then I help it along with a little of the olive oil. If there's alot of fat left in the pan I suggest you drain *most* of it before continuing. Once the meat is brown I add in the cans of tomatoes. DO NOT DRAIN THEM. The juice that the tomatoes are packed in are full of flavour and help the sauce form. Along with the tomatoes I add a can of tomato paste, the herbs, and the spices and let the sauce simmer for 30 minutes.

With the addition of beans, paprika, cumin, chiles, a cinnamon stick and whatever else your heart desires, this can easily transition to a chili recipe. Or taco meat.

Or you can use less tomatoes and more beef with diced bell peppers for a thicker sauce that can be used in sloppy joes.

See how fun this is?

Now, if I'm making more of a marinara type sauce, it would be meatless. Think pizza sauce, topping for parmigiana, dipping sauce for breadsticks..
These would only call for tomato paste, not whole tomatoes. I like to add a little grated parmesan in these as well. I wouldn't usually cook this variation on it's own, as it will be topping the pizza/parmigiana when it goes in the oven.

As I continue with the blog I will post more specific recipes that will utilize this sauce base, but for now you should try your own variations. This sauce is easy to modify and very forgiving. Have fun with it!

*Notes:  I use canned tomatoes and tomato paste, extra virgin olive oil, dried spices when I can't find fresh, brown sugar, and ground black pepper or crushed red pepper flakes depending on the recipe.