Monday, May 26, 2008


...At "the spa." Details here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Ultimate Blueberry Muffin

Like cookies, there are a bazillion different muffin recipes out there. And, like cookies, some are better than others.

What do you look for in a muffin?

I personally like a muffin that isn't trying to be a cupcake (a la Costco), that isn't too oily, and that has a nice firm, even slightly crisp top. I look for a delicate crumb and simple flavours, a moist texture but one that isn't going to fall apart and crumble to to bits before I get it to my mouth.

This recipe is all these things. Adapted from Little Cakes from the Whimsical Bakehouse, I bring you...

The Ultimate Blueberry Muffin

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup milk mixed with 1 tbsp lemon juice; let sit 5 minutes)
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
zest of one lemon or one orange

Cream the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla. Whisk together the dry ingredients and add, alternating with buttermilk in 2 or three additions, to the butter mixture. Add zest. Fold in blueberries. Scoop into muffin tins, greased or with papers, and bake at 350F for 25 - 30 minutes. You should get 12 large muffins.

This is a versatile batter. You can replace the blueberries with any berry you want to, or make something like Orange Chocolate Chip, Lemon & White Chocolate Chip, Pineapple Coconut (drain the pineapple very well and pat dry with paper towels). Use your imagination; the sky's the limit!

NB: Nutritional information per muffin is here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Kazakh Family Loaf

As you may have read, last week I made a meal using recipes from Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. One of the items on the menu was Kazakh Family Loaf, made in a cast iron pot (see review). I feel the urge to make bread today, and that loaf turned out so well last week that I decided to use it as a base for my own version. It's a large recipe that would easily split into two smaller, more North American-looking loaves, and what I decided to do was make a square, flat version in a 9" dish and a more recognizable version in a loaf pan. After all, the original recipe has you baking the loaf in a pot; why not experiment with other shapes? We made loaves in springform pans in culinary school.

The flavour of this bread is impressive, and I think it has a lot to do with the addition of full fat yogurt. In my version, I've heightened the fibre content a bit by adding oatmeal and some seeds. I also used more yeast than the original recipe because not only am I high altitude (3500 feet) but I was skeptical that 1 tsp of dry yeast would rise up to 5 cups of flour (though I realized the yogurt contains its own bacteria, so who knows?).

Kazakh Family Loaf (adapted, by me, from Beyond the Great Wall)

2 1/4 tsp (or 2 1/2 if you're 3500 feet or more above sea level) quick rise or instant yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
4 cups bread flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oatmeal
1 tbsp each sesame seeds & poppy seeds
1/2 cup plain, full fat yogurt

See bread baking tutorial for instructions.

This is a lovely dough to work with. Split it in half for two small loaves, cook it in a cast iron pot as I did last week, or you could even make this into buns. It's very versatile. The crust is just as it should be - crusty! - while the inside is tender and sponge-like. It is, simply, awesome.


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cookbook Review: Beyond the Great Wall

The flap reads: "In the West, when we think about food in China, what usually comes to mind are the signature dishes of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But beyond these urbanized eastern areas lies the other China: the high open spaces and sacred places of Tibet, the Silk Road oases of Xinjinag and Qinghai, the steppelands of Inner Mongolia, and the sleepy terraced hills of Yunnan and Guizhou. The people who live in these regions - Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Miao, Hui, Dong, Yi, Dai, and others - are culturally distinct, with their own culinary traditions."

Beyond the Great Wall is indeed a cookbook like no other. It combines the best of many writing genres: travel, autobiography, National Geographic-quality photography, history, geography, and culinary literature. The content is as varied as the some fifty-five other minorities living in the three fifths of land of China not dominated by the Chinese majority, the Han. And the Han is what we typically see or think of when it comes to Chinese people, and their food traditions are the ones we are most familiar with, the ones that come from the well-known urban centres of Beijing and Hong Kong. The authors, couple Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, also authors of Hot Sour Salty Sweet, take the reader on a very experiential tour of those minorities that lay beyond the Great Wall of China, sometimes the tiniest, most isolated corners of a vast former empire that encompasses today an ethnic variety that is truly stunning.

The book is divided into chapters as most cookbooks are: soups, salads, breads, fish, etc. Accompanying each chapter and interspersed between recipes, we get small vignettes of travel stories written from the authors' own experiences while travelling beyond the Great Wall, in addition to histories written about the minorities being explored in the book. The photographs are lush and capture so well the unique qualities and characteristics of some of the worlds most fascinating, but little heard of, cultures.

The food is stunning, too. For the purposes of this review, I decided to have my family over for dinner last night and make a menu derived from the book. My initial response to the recipes was, Uh, I'm not going to be able to find any of the ingredients I'd need to make this here in the boonies. But the more I read, the more I was able to figure out substitutes, and the more recipes I found were very appealing and would involve simple ingredients prepared through simple methods. I now go through the book pretty much thinking that I could make any of these dishes, and bring some little semblance of these out of the way cultures into my home, a world away.

The menu consisted of:

Kazakh Family Loaf (page 195)
Napa & Red Onion Salad (page 86)
Beef-Sauced Hot Lettuce Salad (page 67)
Hui Tomato-Lamb Noodle Soup, which I substituted beef in for the lamb (page 59)
Savory Boiled Dumplings with Soy-Vinegar Dipping Sauce (pages 150-151)
Beef with Mushrooms & Cellophane Noodles, which I substituted chicken for the beef (page 280)
Green Tea Shortbread with Poppy Seeds (page 329), served with Watermelon

Here we have the Kazakh Family Loaf at two stages: dough and
fully risen. It's baked in a cast iron pot.

The salad is Napa & Red Onion, and this is the baked loaf and the shortbread.

These are the dumplings before cooking and after cooking, and the Hui soup.

And finally, this is the Chicken and Mushrooms with Cellophane Noodles.

Some dishes we liked more than others. The unanimous favourite was the dumplings, and the least popular was the soup. Not that it was bad at all, it was just a bit bland, so we used the dipping sauce left over from the dumplings to spice it up, and then it was great. I thought the mushroom dish was really good, too. The shortbread was excellent, as was the Kazakh Loaf, which I think will become one of my staple bread recipes.

All in all, Beyond the Great Wall is an excellent book. It's probably, at the moment, the nicest, most interesting book I own. It would make a great gift for someone with wanderlust or for a cultured friend who might appreciate the experiences the book narrates. Definitely a keeper on my shelves!

Friday, May 02, 2008

101 Uses for a Roasted Chicken #4

I am a huge fan of making homemade chicken stock. It's really easy once you get the hang of it, and the most time-consuming part is actually straining all of the stock ingredients out of the liquid and picking the bones of their meat. But, it's kind of a brainless activity you can do to settle down after a long day. Here are some directions on how I usually make mine. I use a large crock pot and it works excellently, and you can vary your stock ingredients according to your own tastes. I hate celery, for instance, so I don't buy it and I don't use it in any of my cooking. But I love lemon and cilantro, and these two things make a blah chicken stock brilliant.

I make two versions of this soup, an Indian Version and a Thai version. Both are awesome.

Chicken Curry Soup (Indian version)

12 cups chicken stock
1 large can (28oz) crushed tomatoes
2 cups shredded chicken, ideally from your stock bones/parts
3 cups shredded cabbage
1 can mini corn cobs
2 carrots
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 large onion, sliced
4 - 5 tbsp (or to taste) Patak's (or similar) Mild Curry Paste
3 (or to taste) cloves garlic

Basically, you can chuck all of these ingredients into a big soup pot and just simmer until the veggies are tender. I like using more robust veggies that freeze well and don't wilt or turn that unappealing military green colour when reheated. That's why I like to use cabbage a lot in soup: it stands up in the freezer and in the thawing/reheating stage of leftover usage. Mini corn cobs also freeze well and work beautifully in soup. You can get them cut up, or you can just roughly chop the whole ones. This soup should feed about 10, and I just keep some in the fridge to reheat and portion the rest into containers for freezing. For an approximate nutritional analysis, you can go here.

By all means, vary the veggies. That's what soup is all about: using what's at hand and what you like. There are no hard and fast rules.

And yes, I have a camera now!

Bon appetit!


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