Chicken and potato and leek stew – a recipe

It’s getting cooler now, with the autumn coming, so I thought I’d do a stew, it’s perfect cold weather food. This recipe is based on the French soup, vichyssoise, a cold, creamy soup made of potato and leek. This stew is a take, and when cooked, looks a bit like the filling of a chicken pot pie. This recipe was supposed to be a quick one, but it took me a minute to make it -nearly an hour.

The main difference between this recipe and the vichyssoise recipe is that the vegetables can be browned in this recipe. The vichyssoise recipe is meant to be snow white, so when you cook the food, you have to be careful not to brown the veg to color the soup.

Also, a vichyssoise is cold, meant to be served chilled, but this stew is meant to be served hot as it’s the kind of stew you eat when it’s chilly and rainy outside.

Ingredients:

  • 2 chicken breasts, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 small bag of baby potatoes, diced – I do this because I want the potatoes to cook quickly
  • 1 leek, sliced – you can include the green bits, because we’re not going for that bone china white look – also be very careful that you clean the leeks, there’s a beach-worth of sand and grit in the leaves
  • 4 green onions, sliced – separate the greens from the white – slice the white bit, and mince the green bit and keep aside for serving at the end
  • 2 small shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 small white onion, diced
  • 8 oz of button mushrooms, diced
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 can of cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup of soured cream
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • olive oil

Heat the oil in a large, heavy nonstick pan and throw in the chicken and cook over a moderate heat, letting it brown lightly. This will take about 5, 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, raise the heat and let the food brown a bit – leave it alone for a bit to color the bottom of the pan and shake to loosen. The idea isn’t to cook the chicken and potatoes through – you’ll be braising, but you want to cook to add some color and to brown it a bit. You’ll also create a nice fond on the bottom of the pan.

Fish the potatoes and chicken and set aside and cover. Lower the heat on the pan and add the leek, onion, the white bit of the green onion, the shallot, the mushrooms and stir, scraping up the bottom of the pan. Add some salt, which will draw some moisture out, making it easier to scrape the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, letting it caramelize. Add some of the water and stir, letting the water becoming thick and syrupy, and add the rest of the water and throw back the chicken and potatoes.

Raise the heat to high and let the water come to a boil and stir before lowering the heat to medium heat, and cover and cook until the potatoes are tender, 15, 20 minutes. Uncover and cook some more until the water is reduced, and then pour in the cream of chicken soup and stir, combining the reduced, thickened water and the soup until well mixed. Add the cream and continue to stir and make sure that there are no streaks of cream left.

Grind some pepper and sprinkle the minced green bits of the onion. Oh, and enjoy.

Quick ‘n’ easy sausage and lentil stew

So, I owe a great debt to Sandra Lee. Though people teased her mercilessly for her “semi-homemade” recipes which weirdly boasted 70% store bought products – and she deservedly got dragged by the Internets for her hate crime of a Kwanzaa cake – she did inspire me to look to purchased pantry items when I’m putting together my cooking. While the ratio for my cooking is not 70/30, I do like to use some packaged stuff when I’m cooking.

This evening, I thought to make sausage and lentil stew. It’s starting to get cool and rainy today, so I thought a stew would be in order. But it’s Monday, a weekday, plus I had a crazy early morning, so I wasn’t in the mood to stand over a stove for hours. So I cobbled together my recipe with bought items. Lentils take time to cook, so I bought cooked lentils in a pouch, and instead of just getting vegetable broth, I thought it’d be a nice idea to use tinned vegetable soup. Along with those two packaged items, I used fresh ingredients. It’s a great compromise, and the dish only took me about half an hour to cook.

Ingredients:

-4 fresh sausages – I get the Co-op skinny sausages because they have practically no fat
-1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
-1 medium carrot, sliced into coins
-a handful of green beans, with the tops chopped
-1 package of baby bella mushrooms, chopped roughly
-3 shallots, chopped finely
-4 garlic cloves, minced
-1 tin of vegetable soup – I used Heinz Classic Vegetable, which is 400g (don’t throw away the tin!)
-1 packet of pre-cooked lentils – I used Merchant Gourmet Tomatoey French Puy & Green Lentils
-Olive oil
-Herbs de provence
-Salt and pepper

This recipe is super easy and quick to cook. So first, heat the oil over medium heat and when the oil is hot, add the sausages and cook, brown on all sides. The sausage casings can sometimes burst, so it may do to puncture them. Don’t be tempted to stir too much and move the sausages, because you’ll want to brown the sausages and to create some kind of fond. I cooked the sausage for about 5, 8 minutes until they were browned all over, I then fished them out and lowered the heat to low (careful that you don’t set off the smoke detector like I did with the cooking)

So set the sausages to the side and throw in the onions, shallots, garlic, green beans, and carrot into the pan and cook, stirring, letting the vegetables brown a bit and color. This isn’t a stir-fry, so don’t cook over a high heat, but you don’t want to cook it to a mush (There’s going to be more cooking later). Saute the vegetables for about 8 minutes, letting some of the vegetables color a bit. Add the mushrooms and cook for another 5, 8 minutes, until the mushrooms brown and shrink.

Add the vegetable soup and then fill the can, 2/3rds full with water and add, and then raise the heat to high and stir, letting it get to the boil. Add the sausages back and stir carefully, so you don’t splash the food. Add the lentils, and continue to stir and cook. Sprinkle the herbs and grind some fresh pepper and keep on cooking. You’ll want to cook the food for about 15, 20 minutes – you’ll want the liquid to reduce significantly and become a thick gravy. The lentils will become soft and tender. The lentils will get tender as you cook – if you let the food set for a bit and stir, you can create a crusty bottom, which can be nice. That’s up to you.

Once the lentils are cooked, scoop it out and serve it with some crusty bread. Oh, and enjoy.

My attempt at making Thai basil fried rice

When living in Chicago, I ate a great Thai restaurant in Old Town called Tiparos Thai. Unlike most people who go to Thai restaurants to order Pad Thai, I always got the spicy basil chicken. It’s a mouth-scorching dish of chopped meat, bell peppers, green beans, Thai basil leaves, and steamed jasmine rice. The dish was studded with tiny bits of hot chilies. After eating it, my lips were swollen and numb as if I had stopped by a Michigan Avenue plastic surgeons to get my lips done. This dish was so hot that it almost hurt to drink water afterwards…

Despite the pain of eating the dish, I ordered each time I went to Tiparos.

It’s difficult to explain the draw of this dish because the taste is so spicy sometimes it feels almost unpleasant to eat it. The basil Thai has a different, silvery, tea-like taste, that gets a pleasant green swampy taste because it’s cooked and steamed. The meat is crumbled and sauteed, the nuggets crispy, giving the rice a nice bite. And the sauce acts as a base for the dish – it’s salty, sweet, and slightly pungent. I always add a bit of Sriracha, to add a fruity sweetness, as well.

Since moving to London, I’ve eaten at lots of Thai restaurants, and have eaten the dish, and enjoyed it, though for some reason I’ve never tasted it as good as Tiparos, though I’m trying (I went to an amazing Thai restaurant in Amsterdam that was pretty good)

Anyways, this is my attempt at making Thai basil rice with chicken. Obviously, this won’t be a 100% accurate – I don’t have all the ingredients in a proper Thai basil rice, and I don’t like buying ingredients I probably won’t use again, so I’ve had to do some improvising.

Also, I used boughten rice. I don’t like cheating but I’m terrible at making rice, and it’s much easier to just buy rice already boiled in the shop. Also there are recipes that call for mince, but I bought chicken and chopped it myself…The texture of mince is a bit too pasty and fine for a dish like this – I enjoy it more with the chopped chicken.

As with most of my recipes, these measurements are at-best, guesses…

Ingredients:

-Thai basil, a handful, to taste, chopped in strips
-Coriander, a handful, to taste, chopped
-300g of boneless, skinless chicken breast, chopped finely – almost to a mince (or go ahead and get chicken mince) if you don’t like chicken, you can also use pork, turkey, or beef – whatever you like, or if you’d like, you can leave the meat out, I’m not the police
-1/2 of a red bell pepper chopped
-3 small shallots, sliced finely
-4 cloves of garlic, minced
-4 finger chilies, minced finely – super finely – I seed the chili and remove the rib because these things are spicy AF
-1 jalapeno pepper – I just added this because I had one left in a bag that needed eating
-8, 10 green beans or string beans, with the ends chopped off, and cut the beans in half
-half a white onion, roughly chopped
– 3 large cremini mushrooms – normally, this dish doesn’t have mushrooms (I’ve never seen this dish with mushrooms) – but I had some that I wanted to use
-1 cup of chicken broth (you probably won’t use all of it)
-1 tbl of sriracha sauce (to taste, really)
-2 tbl of fish sauce (this stuff has a very strong taste/smell, so be mindful of how much you use it)
-3 tbl of soy sauce (I use the reduced sodium soy sauce, which still has loads of salt)
-1 tbl of chili paste – I used Gochujang (Korean chili paste)
-2 tbl of sugar
-some white pepper, to taste
-2 packets of cooked jasmine rice
-1/8 cups of cooking oil, something without flavor (peanut, corn, vegetable, groundnut, that sort of thing – not olive, which has too distinct a taste)

This feels like a lot of ingredients, and it is, and it’s going to be a lot of cooking and adding…You’ll be cooking over a high flame for a lot of the cooking, so keep a window open and turn on a fan (if you have one)

Before cooking, create the sauce. In a bowl or large cup, add in the broth, sriracha, fish sauce, soy sauce, chili paste, sugar, and white pepper and mix, seeing that the sugar is dissolved (I heated the broth which made the sugar melt easily)

Heat the oil over a high flame in a nonstick pan. Throw in the beans, onions and bell pepper and cooking for about four, five minutes, stirring constantly, don’t stop. The onions probably won’t color too much, and you’re not looking into browning the veg. Add the meat and stir and continue to cook, you’ll want to get a good browning on the meat – cook for about four, five minutes. Depending on how small you’ve chopped the meat, you might already have cooked the chicken at this point, but if it’s still a bit raw, no worries, it will cook.

Add the garlic and the chilies and cook for another few minutes, until you smell the garlic cooking (it’s a great smell, btw) and then add the shallots and stir and saute for another few minutes

Remember you’re cooking over a high heat, so don’t stop stirring, you don’t want anything to burn.

Add the sauce and cook…You’ll want to let the sauce get sticky and tacky, and so that it coats the veg and meat and get browned, stirring constantly. Depending on the heat, this can take about five, ten minutes. Fold the cooked meat and veg, stirring seeing that the food is coated with the sauce.

Add the basil and the cilantro and stir, letting the cilantro wilt.

Add the rice and stir constantly – you don’t want to cook this too long, because overcooking the rice will blow it out. Depending on if you like the rice to be crispy, you can let it sit for a few seconds and brown. Sprinkle some white pepper – white pepper’s got a very funky, manky smell, so be careful…

Once the rice is warmed through (remember the rice is already cooked), and you can’t see any white in the rice anymore, then you can plate it. I served it with boughten gyoza. Oh, and enjoy.


Arroz con pollo

London is experiencing a heatwave at the moment – but that didn’t deter me from using my new Dutch oven. We found a nice, little green Dutch oven at a charity shop and I wanted to use it for the longest time.

Cooking during a heatwave is a bit extra, but I’ve been dealing. For dinner last night, I wanted to do something with the Dutch oven and thought arroz con pollo, a Latin American dish that combines wonderful flavours like spiciness, heat, brininess. There are lots of versions of arroz con pollo and this one I cobbled together from a variety of people and sources.

The trick to good arroz con pollo is to get a great fond in your Dutch oven. Once you got that, then you’re golden. Weirdly enough, my arroz con pollo turned out greener than the kind I remember, but who cares – it tasted good. I used dark meat because I knew I’d be stewing the chicken and I didn’t want to overcook the meat, but you can use chicken breast if you’re worried about health – also as I was cooking the dish, I realised that it’s possible to do this vegetarian, just leave out the chicken or substitute it with mushrooms.

Ingredients:

  • Chicken – I had three drumsticks and two thighs – bone-in and skin-on; this is where it’s up to you to decide how you want to do this dish, I used dark meat because I wanted to stew the dish for a little bit; also the the skin and bone add flavour to your dish
  • 1/2 onion, chopped finely – I mean finely, grated even
  • 1/2 carrot, chopped finely
  • 1 stick of celery, chopped finely – see above
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped finely – like the celery and onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely – you see a theme, right?
  • a large bunch of cilantro, leaves and stems, chopped finely
  • 1/2 an onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 envelope of any kind of Mexican-style seasoning – I used some leftover taco seasoning
  • 1/4 cup of olives, chopped – the olives are of your choice, whatever you got in your refrigerator door. I used the pimento-stuffed kind
  • 3 tbl of capers, rinsed and drained – this is important, ‘cuz these suckers are salty AF
  • 2 cups of chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup of frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 packet of pre-cooked rice (I know, very slatternly of me)

So, first what you need to do is make the sofrito – a base for your dish. Sofrito is usually a mush of aromatics. I don’t have a blender or mixer because a London kitchen is too small for that nonsense, so I had to use two sharp knives, a cutting board, and a lot of patience. For my sofrito, I used the onion, carrot, celery, bell pepper, garlic, and cilantro, and just chopped that up over and over again, until I got a messy, gloppy, salsa-like mush. You can do this easier in a mixer, and in fact, I recommend this, as making sofrito by hand was a little much. Once you have the sofrito put it in a bowl and set aside for a moment. 

Next heat oil in your dutch oven over a low flame and place the chicken, skin side down. I choose to do it on a cold surface because I want the skin to render. As soon as the skin starts to brown and sizzle, let it cook, undisturbed for about 7 minutes on one side. I say undisturbed because you want the skin to darken and start to render its fat and crisp up – otherwise, if you mess with the chicken too soon, it’ll just stick to the bottom of the pot (which isn’t the end of the world, btw)

After about 7 minutes, turn the chicken over and cook for an additional 7 minutes and then remove and place on a platter. At this point, I quickly add the sofrito, reserving about half of it. while that’s sweating, remove the skin from the chicken, chop into tiny, tiny bits and add back into the pan – it’s a bit like the lardons of a coq au vin – see, fusion!

Anyways, cook, stirring, letting the skin crisp up – and let the sofrito soften. Add a bit of salt to draw out the moisture and continue to cook, making sure to scrap up any of the browned chicken skin bits. Add the seasonings – I did a quarter of the envelope – and stir, letting the oil and chicken fat bloom all those Latin spices. You gotta stir though because it’s easy for the spices to burn. 

Add the roughly chopped onions and stir, cooking to get the onions to turn translucent. This will take about 8 minutes. You’ll see that you’re getting quite a fond – it’ll be dark brown (well, mine was, anyways)

Start adding the broth a little bit at a time, scraping the browned bits and darkened spices, stirring to loosen the bottom of the pan. Once you get the two cups in, return the chicken and its accumulated juices. Raise the heat to high to get it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer…If you’re doing chicken breasts, this won’t take very long, with thighs and drumsticks, it takes longer, at least 25 minutes. Your chicken thigh is safe to eat when it registers 75° C on a meat thermometer. When it gets to about 75° C, fish the meat out and set aside and raise the heat to high again and boil down to reduce to about 1 cup of liquid – it should be nice and thick. Add the shredded chicken. Then add the olives and capers and stir. Add the rest of the reserved sofrito and keep cooking. Then this is the most controversial bit of my recipe – I add a packet of the pre-cooked, parboiled rice (the kind that comes in a pouch you gotta squeeze apart to distribute it) Most recipes call for raw rice to be added to the pan right after the sofrito to toast – but I don’t like cooking rice because I always get it wrong. With the pre-cooked stuff, all you’re really doing is heating the rice through. Often these pouched rice comes in clumps, so just make sure you’re breaking up the clumps with your wooden spoon. Add the peas and stir until they thaw (you don’t really want to heat them). Add some cilantro as a garnish (you can also add a chopped green onion – do what you want, I’m not the police)

Oh, and enjoy. 

Cajun-style stew

I like Cajun cooking and like Mexican food, I haven’t really eaten a lot of Cajun food in London. I like gumbo and étouffée and when I lived in Chicago, I used to go to Heaven on Seven. I used to enjoy watching the daytime television appearances of Paul Prudhomme who was hilarious and personable and introduced Cajun cooking to me. The other sharp memory I have of Cajun cooking is Justin “I guarantee” Wilson, who I watched on PBS when I was a kid (as a kid, I thought is TV kitchen set looked like the Keebler Elves’ tree hollow) I got a couple of his books – used – at the Newberry Book Fair (unfortunately, none made it in the move to London)

So I thought I’d try my hand at Cajun cooking. I imagined this recipe up – and please, I understand, this is not authentic Cajun cooking. I’m sure that I’m breaking many rules whilst making this, which is why I’m calling this dish a Cajun-style stew – style letting you know that I am aware of my non-Cajun-ness.

Anyways, below is the recipe – just a quick thing: in London, andouille is hard to find, so I had to replace it with kiełbasa – something that’s way easier to find in London, ‘cuz we got lotsa Polish people running around this city.

This recipe isn’t the kind of recipe you chisel on stone – I improvised a lot of it as I was shopping at Sainsburys (on a Saturday, no less – so there were many screaming children up in there)

Ingredients:

  • 400 g of smoked sausage – for an authentic version of Cajun cooking, you’d want to use andhouille, but given that this is London, I found smoked Polish sausage, instead – chopped in bite-sized pieces
  • 1 green bell pepper – so Sainsburys was out of green bell pepper so this time I used yellow bell pepper -diced
  • I large yellow onion diced
  • 1 chili (green or red) diced
  • 1 rib of celery diced
  • 1 400g of chopped tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup of flour
  • 1/4 cup of vegetable oil
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a bunch of flat-leafed parsley, chopped finely
  • 1 cup of fish broth
  • 200 g of cooked rice
  • ketchup to taste
  • hot sauce to taste – Tobasco is good, but I used Cholula hot sauce
  • Cajun seasoning to taste
  • 150 g of cooked cold water prawns
  • salt and pepper

So to assemble the dish, you first have to make a roux. Usually it’s made with flour and butter, but I’m trying to do something a little healthier, so I made the roux with oil and flour. It doesn’t cook the same way as you’d do it with butter (probably not as good), but it’s worth a try. Over a small flame, I dumped the oil and flour onto a heavy-bottomed pan, and stirred continuously, making a paste, working to get a nutty brown color. I kept a careful eye on the cooking so I won’t burn the shit. You can’t leave the pan, though, otherwise it can burn very quickly…Keep watch so you don’t destroy the roux (and set off your smoke detector)

Add the bell pepper, onion, celery, and chili and mix. Add some salt and some of the Cajun seasoning and stir. The roux will coat the vegetables. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the vegetables sweat – you don’t have to let the vegetables brown. Add the fish broth and stir, scraping any sticky bits from the bottom of the pan (there shouldn’t be too much – it’s not a fond). Let the mixture simmer for a bit, before adding the chopped sausage.

Add the can of tomato and add some water – about half of the tomato tin and stir. Add some more Cajun seasoning and stir, raising the heat to high, and let it boil. Stir and let the stew thicken a bit. Add the parsley and green onion and let it boil for longer to let the stew thicken and to let the liquid cook away.

Once the stew gets thick, add the cooked rice, the hot sauce, and ketchup and keep stirring – it’s a lot of stirring, it’s not a dish from which you can walk away – you’ll want a very thick, reddish stew. It’ll smell great. The whole cooking process should take about 40 minutes, and at the last minute add the prawns, and remove from the heat, and stir a bit to heat the prawns through (you don’t want to cook them as they’ll get rubbery if you do)

Serve in bowls, hopefully you got some cornbread (we didn’t – this is London – the closest thing is corn muffins from Gail’s). Oh, and enjoy.

 

Cooking with Margaret Costa

The other night, I went to a cookbook club with a dear friend of mine. The ingenious idea behind the cookbook club is that the group is assigned a cookbook – in this case, it was Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book – and each of us was assigned a recipe. My friend had to do ratatouille and I did Costa’s recipe for peperonata. We then bring the dish to the club and share it with the other members, each of whom brings his/her own dish, as well. It’s a great, friendly way of learning about cooking, and even more importantly, talking about cooking. Everyone’s dish was wonderful and there were leftovers to take home.

Costa’s peperonata reminds me a bit of ratatouille or sausage and peppers, hold the sausage. It’s a very simple, vegetarian dish, and I chose it because it’s summer and I didn’t want to take the hot Tube with meat or dairy and possibly get people sick. I also work in an office with a tiny dorm fridge, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get the food in the fridge.

I won’t go into too much detail about how to make Costa’s dish – you should get the book to do that – but I’ll go over the basics. Essentially, it’s a side dish to be eaten hot or cold. For a serving of four, I chopped up 10 medium-sized tomatoes, 6 red bell peppers, two cloves of garlic (just two) and a little bit of salt. And that’s it. It was so simple, that I kept looking back to the recipe to see if maybe I was missing something. I almost threw pepper in it, but caught myself because there was no pepper in Costa’s recipe.

At the class we were discussing Costa’s recipes which are “of a time” – a bit like those Mad Men-style recipes that charm us with their silliness or weirdness. These are the kinds of recipes that are supposed to impress dinner party guests.

The peperonata went over well with the other guests, though I have to admit, it’s a hard dish to mess up.

Margaret Costa is a great food writer, and though the recipes are probably not dishes I’ll be cooking, I do own her book. I was one of a handful of people who knew who Costa was and was familiar with her book. When someone asked “who would buy this book now?” I raised my hand – I buy midcentury cookbooks because I love the kitsch/camp value. I also appreciate what cooking looked like when folks didn’t have access to many of the ingredients we take for granted now. Reading writers like Elizabeth David or Julia Child is an interesting education in social studies – particularly class and gender – what middle-class women were expected to do and how they were expected to do it.

The other we talked about was the dated format of the book. Unlike contemporary cookbooks, the recipes aren’t laid out with the ingredients listed in bullet points, nor are there gorgeous photographs of the dishes. Costa’s recipes are written far more casually and conversationally – she’ll write something like “heat the oil and throw in the onion and garlic which you have chopped up” – so as a warning, read the recipes in their entirety because the ingredient lists don’t indicate what you do with the ingredients, you have to read the instructions themselves (which are written out in paragraph form)

Along with the format, we also talked about the cover. There are a few editions of the book with the latest being a tasteful, grey cover. I own the goofy, campy cover as seen below:

Yup, that’s a dead bird, nestled among the veg and herbs

So the cover is so ugly that I had to get it – it’s hideous, especially the dead bird that’s taking centre stage. It looks stuffed (taxidermied) I find it funny that the food stylist thought that including a dead pigeon would make the book seem enticing.

I’ve made the dish before last night, though my version had anchovy and olives, and I’ve added parsley and pepper. The peperonata took on a sweet, summery taste (even though it’s firmly ensconced in Costa’s ‘autumn recipes’).

Brown rice and quinoa with mushrooms and peas

I’m shifting to a plant-based lifestyle, slowly but surely. I haven’t given up meat, yet, but have started to gradually move toward vegetarian food. It’s easier to do if one doesn’t go cold turkey. I’ve been eating oatmeal and muesli for lunch and trying to do plant-based dinners. Tonight I made a brown rice and quinoa dish with mushrooms – I love mushrooms because for meat-eaters, mushrooms are a great substitute (it’s the umami – the salty flavor that is contained in ‘shrooms) The dish isn’t 100% vegetarian because I used beef broth (I couldn’t find my mushroom broth), but any broth will do (though chicken broth might be too light)

Anyways, this recipe is totally easy to make – and one that is adaptable to whatever ingredients you have in your kitchen.

Ingredients (serves two)

  • 1 package of Tilda brown steamed basmati rice & quinoa (250 g)
  • 1 200g package of chestnut mushrooms, chopped finely
  • 1 200g package of white button mushrooms, chopped finely
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely
  • 1 bouillon cube (I used beef, but you can use anything you want)
  • 4 green onions – both green and white parts, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup of frozen peas
  • 2 cups of hot water (you probably won’t use all of it)
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 2 tbl of tomato paste
  • 1 tbl of olive oil
  • 1 tsp of lemon zest
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • pepper
  • salt

In a large, nonstick pan, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the chili flakes and throw in the chopped mushrooms. It’s going to look like your pan is pretty crowded, but that’s okay – mushrooms shrink like crazy when you cook them. You’ll have to cook the mushrooms for a bit – 10 minutes, until the mushrooms shrink and release the juices and then let the juices evaporate and start to create a fond. Add the tomato paste and mix and cook until the raw taste of tomato paste is cooked away, and the bottom of the pan is sticky and covered with browned bits. Add a little bit of the hot water – just enough to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Stir and loosen the bits and mix, adding a bit more water and cooking until all the water is gone.

Add the shallot and stir and cook until the shallot becomes translucent. More fond will be created, so add more water to loosen the browned bits. Add the broth cube as well and stir and cook until the cube is dissolved and there’s a thick, syrupy sauce. Add the package of rice and quinoa (it’s already cooked) and cook, breaking up the chunks of the rice, making sure it’s coated in the sauce. Add the green onions – both green and white parts. Add the lemon zest and the cheese and mix. Add the green peas (it’s okay if they’re frozen – they’ll thaw while cooking) and stir, heating the rice through (just make sure you don’t overcook the peas) Grind some fresh pepper. Serve, and Oh, enjoy.

My second Easter Sunday in London

Easter is a big deal in Polish Catholic homes – more important than Christmas, even. As a kid, my grandmother took the Easter season very seriously. On Palm Sunday, we decorated our palms with extravagant tackiness (mine always turned out looking like something from a mini-challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race), and the Easter baskets were also key to the celebration. Unlike the American Easter baskets – of which I was very covetous – the Polish Catholic Easter baskets were all about feeding the poor and honouring Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead. We didn’t have cute bunny rabbits, cartoon characters, or toys, wrapped in colourful cellophane. I remember my baskets would have jars of horseradish, smoked sausage, butter carved into the shape of a lamb, and a sweet Easter bun (which wasn’t really all that sweet) At the end of mass, we were expected to leave something behind on the alter, which would later be – I hope – donated to the poor.

Once I stopped being Catholic, the holiday was never that big a deal for me, and it was just an excuse for me to go out with my friends to brunch. Easter usually fell sometime in latet April, early May, so the weather started to turn, and it felt very city to get dressed in light linen and go to a trendy restaurant to eat eggs and drink mimosas (this was before I became a teetotaller)

A year and a half ago, I moved to London. Easter is a huge deal here, and we get lots of time off around the holiday. My mother is in town, visiting, and so I decided instead of going out for Easter brunch we’d have dinner at home. I also invited my dear friend Sheila (who’s from Australia), and Cara, a fellow Yank-turned-Londoner (she even grew up in Chicago, so we traded Chicago trivia like neighbourhoods and city haunts)

This year was interesting because I wanted to combine the traditions of my partner, who’s American, my Polish mother’s traditions, but I also wanted to be sensitive to Cara, who’s a vegan. This brunch would be an interesting challenge.

Before I go on, I would like to say that when I write cooking vegan food is a “challenge” I don’t mean it in a “ugh, what a burden – vegan food is so weird, what am I gonna do?” way. It’s not…Vegan food is great and accessible, and vegans should be given more options for their dinner than lettuce leaves and chickpeas.

That being said, I never cooked vegan food before, so I thought it would be fun to see what I can do. I decided that I wouldn’t go the fake meat route and make some kind of fake ham (Sham?) or tofu lamb chops. Instead, I looked to beans and veg for my menu. I looked at different bean stews, and settled on a Mexican-style bean stew. I didn’t go by a recipe, and instead worked with the kinds of vegetables I thought would work well with Mexican style stew.

That means I bought cans of black beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, corn. I also got tinned tomatoes. I love cooking with beans – I do meatless Mondays and beans are a go-to for me when cooking vegetarian dishes. I chopped an onion and sautéed it in a large pan with some corn oil (olive oil is too distinct and peppery), and once the onion got translucent , I sprinkled in some taco seasoning (I know, I know – I live in London and so my access to the right herbs is severely limited, so I have to sometimes rely on El Paso). I chopped some red pepper and chili pepper and threw that it – I also rubbed my nose and started to scream and rinse my nose out. Be very careful when chopping chili peppers – wear gloves if you can. After throwing in the peppers and letting them sweat for a bit, I poured some vegetable broth and threw in the tinned veg with their waters (except for the chickpea water – I reserved that for vegan latkes) I cooked over high heat until it was reduced, thick and soupy – like a Mexican-spiced ratatouille. I transferred most of the stew into a Pyrex baking dish, and reduced the remaining stew further until it took on a dark, chocolate colour and poured that on stew and baked in a moderately hot oven for about an hour.

I also made vegan latkes – Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory (is it weird that I don’t reference Blossom anymore?) has a YouTube video in which she makes vegan latkes from a mix. I’m not sure what the benefit is of making it from a box, because I used fresh ingredients, and all was okay. I grated onion and potato and used the water from a tin of chickpeas. I added matzoh meal and created a batter. I seasoned with salt, pepper, and some dried dill (use a light hand when using dried herbs) I fried in batches in hot oil and drained on paper towels. I noticed that not using real egg made the latkes cook longer and the texture was slightly different – softer, maybe? But they still came out crispy and good. I served the latkes with cranberry sauce.

As a side, I also made curry chickpeas, since I opened a tin. This recipe is too easy – I almost don’t need to write it. Fry the chickpea over a high heat, stirring constantly, and add some chopped broccoli and stir fry. Add some curry powder and let it bloom. I then added some frozen peas, frozen garlic, and frozen ginger (I like frozen veg) and stirred cooking until the veg took on some browning (the pan got a bit dry at certain points, so I added a bit of water at a time to deglaze the pan)

The final veg dish was also very simple – pan fry some asparagus and pouring balsamic vinegar and spinning, stir frying constantly, letting the vinegar reduce and get sticky and sweet.

The nod to my Polish culture came with the white borscht soup. It’s also known as żurek, a white sour soup made with sourdough starter. Last year I made this soup and made my own sourdough starter (the yeasty stuff that gives sourdough its name), but this year, I was like, “bump that noise,” and instead got some żurek packet soup and used that as a starter, instead. I sautéed some onion, parsnip, turnip, onion until the veg softened a bit. I then added chicken stock and threw in chopped sausage. I used some smoked Polish kielbasa (a variety made of chicken)

Interesting side story: normally, one would use a white sausage, similar to a brat, that’s sold fresh. I went to the local Polish deli in my neighbourhood the other day. I walked in to store to see a low-hum of contained chaos. There was a large crowd of people getting in their last-minute Easter shopping, and so lots of baskets crammed with food. I went to the meat counter and saw a crowd forming. An angry crowd. As I took my place in the queue, I overheard a lady ahead of me ordering some ham and the girl behind the counter announced to us that there was a power outage and so the digital scale wasn’t working, so we couldn’t buy anything that needed to be weighed. This caused a great amount of consternation among the crowd full of Polish aunties and grandmas who were aghast at this news. “How long is this going to last?” One woman asked. The girl shrugged and said she couldn’t answer. Another woman suggested that the girl eyeball how much she was selling, and the young girl shot back with, “Madame, how could I guess how much meat I’d be selling?” There were more shouts from these women and my partner and I got a bit worried that there’d be a riot dotted with looting, so we skidaddled out of there before it stuff got ugly and just went to a regular supermarket.

So because of that, we used the “wrong” kind of sausage for the soup – which was okay, because it turned out well, anyways…I threw in the
żurek mix and cooked for about an hour, adding a spoonful of horseradish, mustard, dried dill and cooked over a low heat, simmering.

To round out the meal, we served it with pierogi and my friend brought some vegan bread. For dessert, I made a quick smoothie by crushing frozen summer fruits (strawberries, red currants, blueberries) and mixing it with vegan yoghurt (made with soy and almond – yum) My Aussie friend also brought dessert – millionaire’s shortbread – and I served some liquor (I drank Pepsi)

We served the food buffet-style, and I was thrilled to be done with my cooking. I planned on serving gooseberry gelatine with peaches, but the gelatine never gelled – I even set it near a window to be cooled – but it stayed as gloppy, lime green slop.

At the end of the evening, I looked at the kitchen and was startled at how destroyed it looked – like a kitchen kabloom took place. I was startled at how secular all this was, though. Like Christmas, Easter is more cultural now – I mean Cadbury eggs? What’s that gotta do with Jesus?

Our party continued as we finished up our food – there weren’t a whole lot of leftovers – I gave some to my friends, and I have to figure out what to do with the leftovers we do have. I’m thinking of baking the leftovers with elbow pasta, not sure…We also have some bread, so maybe a panzanella?

Anyways, Happy Easter!

Cooking with Peg Bracken

One of the best cookbook writers is a woman who hated cooking. In fact, the title of her most famous cookbook is The I Hate to Cook Book, which was published in 1960. It recently enjoyed a re-printing with an introduction from Bracken’s daughter, Johanna. The I Hate to Cook Book speaks to housewives and working moms (a growing demographic in 1960) who are burdened with the task of feeding families – often on budget – even if they hate cooking. The genesis of The I Hate to Cook Book is a klatch of women who share the recipes that saved a weeknight dinner.

I read The I Hate to Cook Book like a novel, because recipes, for the most part, are uncookable now. All the recipes have midcentury ingredients that I’d be hard-pressed to find now – like, for example, a surprisingly large number of recipes in Bracken’s book call for canned or frozen cream of shrimp soup. My local Co-Op has cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, and maybe cream of tomato, but I’ve never even heard of cream of shrimp. I had to look enough, and sure enough, I did find that Campbell’s does do a cream of shrimp soup, but I’ve yet to run across it (or taste it – to be honest, it sounds kind of disgusting)

The recipes in Bracken’s book reminds me of Sandra Lee, the woman who revolutionized home cooking with her semi-homemade ethos (70% prefab ingredients, 30% fresh….yum…) A lot of Bracken’s suggestions include a can of this or a tin of that. Lots of the veg she suggests to include are tinned. Interestingly enough, for a dish that calls for mushrooms, she writes about using fresh mushrooms as a treat or extravagance, which leads me to believe that not only were tinned veg a convenience but also an economy, too.

But the reason for reading Bracken’s book is because of her writing. She is the voice of every woman who’s just over it. Bracken cooks because she wants to feed her family and in 1960, moms were expected to feed their families (it was in the job description), but she wasn’t a June Cleaver-type who lived for her domestic duties. She wasn’t a fan of cooking and she realized that a lot of women felt the same way. This isn’t Julia Child who finds joy bursting out of every cherry tomato.

Of cooking, Bracken writes, “some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” All of her recipes include shortcuts so that the reader doesn’t have to spend one extra second in front of the stove. Sometimes her recipes sound like outtakes from Mad Men as she suggests “you may now put your feed up and have a highball” while making a rather far-fetched Indonesian curry.

Speaking of curry, another charming thing about this book is that because it’s written in 1960, its reach for multicultural recipes is hilarious and also disgusting. For example, one of the dishes she includes in the book is something called a tuna-rice curry: a questionable concoction that includes canned cream sauce, a can of tuna fish, leftover rice, hardboiled eggs, and curry powder. It’s like someone tried to give her the recipe for kedgerre, but forgot some of the ingredients, so Bracken improvised the rest.

Another tuna-related recipe that Bracken has sourced from the East, calls for chow mein noodles to be cooked with cream of mushroom soup and a can of tune – you’re supposed to bake this mess at 177°C – and voila – it’s like you’re in Beijing!

Even though Bracken hates to cook and has made it her schtick, it’s clear that this isn’t just some jokey book to entertain her readers. Yes, that’s a major part of it, and burnt-out housewives who are wasting their journalism degrees while tending to a raggedy litter of kids probably found Bracken to be a kindred spirit, but Bracken does try to impart actual advice and skill to her readers. The recipes aren’t spoofs and are a perfect snapshot of midcentury cooking and entertaining, when women started to look around their Formica surroundings and ask themselves, “Is this it????”

Chicken and broccoli casserole

This recipe came out of me wanting to make a healthier version of mac n’ cheese. Macaroni and cheese is one of my favourite dishes, and as I did research on the Internet, I looked for healthier options that called for whole wheat pasta and less cheese. I thought about the kind of mac n’ cheese I like – Pret a Manger has a really good mac n’ cheese with cauliflower, and I thought about adding some kind of vegetable to my version. I liked the cauliflower of the Pret, but I prefer broccoli to cauliflower, so I chose that instead. I also had half a red bell pepper, so I chopped that up to include in the recipe.

One time I had something really amazing called lobster mac n’ cheese, and oh my god it was good. I don’t really like lobster on its own, but in a mac n’ cheese it was insane: the delicate meat nestled in the velvety sauce.

Oh, I forgot to mention how much I love that thick, gooey, silky sauce. That kind of viscous consistency can only be achieved by using Velveeta which is magic cheese food product that emulsifies beautifully. I live in the UK now, so Velveeta isn’t a thing here. They like cheese – mostly cheddar, in various degrees of sharpness, but I can’t find that familiar orange, yellow box with the familiar red letters.

So, back to the lobster thing. Since I’m not a billionaire, I opted out of boiling lobsters. Besides, cooking something alive would worry me to no end: I don’t want to re-live the scene from Annie Hall, as charming as that film is, so I decided to use chicken breasts which I poached.

The other thing is, now my kitchen is clean and the sink is empty of dishes. I wanted to do a one-pot recipe, or as close to one-pot as possible. That means I used the same sauce pan to boil the veg, the pasta, and poach the chicken. To amp up the flavour, I boiled the chopped bell pepper and broccoli until tender (but still al dente), then the chicken to create a stock, and finally the pasta, so that the pasta can absorb any of the flavours in the cooking liquid.

At the end of cooking my meal, it looked less like mac n’ cheese and more like a casserole, instead (which is what mac n’ cheese is, anyways) Mac n’ cheese has a white sauce, which adds cholesterol and fat, so I did away with that. I also used low fat cheese, and a little bit of it. As a result, the casserole was pretty good, but not the thick, luxurious mac n’ cheese I was aiming for, but that’s okay, it still worked.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 200 g of elbow macaroni (or any other small, tubular pasta)
  • 60 g of sharp cheddar, shredded – I used low-fat
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 300g of chicken breasts, chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 60g of broccoli, diced
  • 1 can of cream of chicken soup
  • 2 tbl of mustard – I like brown mustard
  • 1 tbl of soured cream
  • 1/3 cup of crushed potato crisps – I used slightly salted
  • Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 C

So the first thing I did was boil some water in a small saucepan, and threw in the broccoli and red pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, so that the woody part of the broccoli is tender, but the veg is still vibrantly green. I fished the veg out and put in the chicken and poach until cooked through, 15 minutes. Afterwards, I fished the chicken out and diced into bite-sized pieces, and added the pasta and cook in the broth until the macaroni is tender, but al dente – about 6 minutes. Drain and leave aside.

Take the saucepan, rince it out with cold water and dry out and return the pasta to the pan. Add the veg, the chicken, and the cheese and stir until well-combined. Add the chicken soup, the sour cream and stir – it’ll look like the innards of a pot pie. Spoon in the mustard and mix to blend.

Oil a small-ish casserole with your olive oil (you can use butter – it tasted better with butter, but olive oil is healthier – do want you want, I’m not the police) Pour your gloppy mixture into the casserole and smooth the top with a spoon. Then take the potato crisp and crush and sprinkle over the top of your casserole until you cover the whole surface in a thin layer of potato crisps crumbs. If you have any chips left over, shove them into your maw, while you stand over the sink, looking out the window of your kitchen.

Put your casserole on the middle rack and bake for about 20, 25 minutes. I keep an eye out to make sure the crisps don’t burn – my oven has a glass door so I can keep an eye on it. Once it’s 20, 25 minutes, and the crisps are browned and the sauces is bubbly, pull out and leave it out to rest for about 10 minutes. Then spoon some – not just some, but a lot – really, you’re not meant to be restraint when eating this, you’re supposed to devour this. Oh, and enjoy.