Thursday, May 26, 2011

Beautiful Screw-ups

Note: Title is not to be confused with Beautiful Losers (I'm not much of a Leonard Cohen fan anyway). I already worry about breaking copyright when I reproduce someone else's recipe!

The thing that I might love most about cooking is its experimental nature, which I talked about a few posts back. What's even better about that aspect is this: even when you try something new or experimental, there's a darn good chance that when it doesn't go as planned, it can sometimes be for the better! Of course, there's just as good a chance, if not better, that when you do screw it up, it turns into an inedible mess of charred crud. It's on those occasions, if you're someone like me who can't stand wasted food, that you learn to pretend that "burnt" and "caramelized" are fairly similar... Really! But, I doubt I represent the norm in that respect.

But once in a while, things go wrong in the best way possible. Sometimes it's the simplest thing (like a few drops more booze than originally called for) and sometimes it changes the whole complexion of the dish.

So, with that in mind, I'm going to walk you through a couple of recent culinary escapades that involved "whoopsies" that ended up being better than what was intended.

1 - Praline Salad

In our first example from a couple of weeks ago, me and my "common-law missus" Kari (at least, according to the census) were engaging in our usual culinary pursuit of excellence. She was putting together a lovely veggie and polenta torte, which I always enjoy trying, while we were also putting together a simple tomato salad with a few tweaks. Before I get into that, I need to go on a tangent for you under-rock-dwellers.

What the frak is polenta? Basically, it's a mush made of yellow cornmeal that can be used to make a crust, can be fried to make a kind of cornmeal cake, or can be served as a kind of gruel, similar to grits in the Southern U.S. As the picture depicts, there's some culinary wonderment to be discovered through polenta!

Ok, that's polenta, back to the subject at hand.

What happened with the salad is where the whole idea of beautiful screw-ups came in. It started simply enough: a tomato-based salad, with some peripheral greens and herbs, boccaccini balls (boccaccini is a kind of fresh mozarella that has little flavour on its own, but absorbs flavours from dressings and oils magnificently, great in salads) and fresh blueberries. Now, at this point I thought of riffing on classic spinach salad, which usually has toasted walnuts or pecans in it. I thought it might be a good idea to lightly sugar some pecans for this salad.

Here's where the screw-up happened: Whipping up a combination of brown sugar, butter and maple syrup in a saucepan, I created clusters of, essentially, praline candy rather than lightly sugared pecans. Ooops. But, as I looked at those gorgeous chunks of sweetness, it totally hit me that we should stick 'em in the fridge to solidify, break up the clusters and throw it on the salad anyway!

Well, as it turns out, we inadvertently created (possibly) the first ever Praline Salad! Oh wait, Google says I didn't. Damn. Buuuuut, our version has probably never been done before! Now, let me say this right now, other than the praline part, this is Kari's recipe. She gets the credit.

Tomato-Praline Salad

- 12 yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
- handful spinach leaves, stemmed, washed and patted dry
- 1/2 cup small boccaccini balls
- 1/3 cup fresh blueberries
- 2 tbsp (handful) fresh Thai basil (or regular basil), roughly torn

- Toss ingredients together with Dressing, top with Praline (see below)


- 2-3 tbsp high quality extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 tsp maple syrup
- a couple of dashes of the best, most interesting hot sauce you have in your fridge (that sweet's gonna need some heat!). Failing that, a pinch of cayenne pepper. But as you can see, hot sauce is much more interesting!

- Whisk together or shake like crazy in a tightly covered jar. I find the shaking method works best and is quite therapeutic! Imagine it's a bully from grade school!

And there you go, well-shaken and tasty!


- 1/2 cup roughly crushed pecans
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp maple syrup

- In a small saucepan, melt together butter, sugar and maple syrup, until mixture is liquid and bubbling.
- Remove from heat, toss in pecans and coat well with mixture.
- Place a sheet of wax paper on a plate and set melted praline on that.
- Put in the fridge for 30 mins to solidify. Remove and break into small pieces.
- Sprinkle praline pieces over salad, toss and serve!

Above is the finished praline. Below is the salad, ready to go!

Looks good eh? Wait, what's that you say? "Give us the recipe for the Veggie Polenta Torte, you bastard!"? OK, fair enough, but as it stands, this post is getting awfully long and it's a pretty complex recipe. Tell you what, I'll give you the "Coles Notes" version...

First off, I asked Kari for her polenta recipe and she shrugged her shoulders and said there really isn't a foolproof method with polenta. It involves a lot of stirring and avoidance of getting scalded by molten cornmeal. So, here's a basic recipe filched from


- 1 pound or slightly more (500 g) coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour)
- 2 quarts (2 liters) boiling water (have more handy)
- A heaping teaspoon of salt


Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal in a very slow stream (you don't want the pot to stop boiling), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.

Easy, right? Now, the torte!

Basically, you take your polenta, pour it into a spring-form pan (the kind used to make cheesecake), top it with whatever veggies tickle your fancy (peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, etc.), and then top that with grated cheese of your choice and some breadcrumbs (or panko if you have it). Fire that in the oven at 350 F for about 30 minutes (until the cheese is golden and bubbly), remove from the oven, remove from spring-form pan, slice and serve!

So, in the end, we were presented with the following plate full of tasty (apologies for the blurred shot):

2 - Chocolate-Whiskey Pâté

It all started with the 'munchies'. Who am I kidding, it ALWAYS starts with the munchies (yes, I mean THOSE munchies).

It was a couple of hours after another awesome dinner of Striploin Steak dusted with Porcini and topped with Blue Cheese, a Mushroom Risotto, an Avocado Salad and Sautéed Fiddleheads (more on that epic meal coming in a future post) at the new place (forget what I've said about cooking in a tiny kitchen, big kitchens rule!) when Kari busted out yet ANOTHER brilliant food idea.

The day before we'd bought these really high end potato chips from a stand at Ottawa's Tulip Festival (I'll be damned if I can remember the name) and not quite finished the whole bag. So Kari's above-head light bulb went off: "Let's spread out the chips and cover them in melted chocolate, sort of like a bark!"

Ummmm, OK! Twist my rubber arm!

So, using a simple water bath method (take a small saucepan, boil water in it, place a metal bowl over the saucepan, melt chocolate in bowl - this allows a much smoother melting process and reduces the risk of burning the chocolate), she melted some chocolate. Right before she was going to pour it over the chips, I thought "Hey, why not add some whiskey?"

Well, here's where it gets interesting and a lesson was learned about mixing booze and chocolate. Somehow, the reaction between the whiskey and the chocolate caused the mix to solidify into what Kari described as a "fondant" (she meant to say pâté). It reminded me of my mother's Chocolate Mousse, but not quite light enough. There was a density to it that is hard to describe, but it was REALLY tasty. So, not being wastrels, we decided we'd go ahead and eat it. And, of course, melt more chocolate for the chip bark.

Cut to Kari's finger flying up in the "hey wait" position. "You go sit down, I have an idea." she says (I hear that a lot). So, I leave her to it.

Next thing I know, I'm presented with this spoonful of loveliness:

Below is a less flash-laden version:

She topped the "pâté" with cream, raspberry jam and cream cheese. And it was DEEEEEEELISH!

So, here's a more formal recipe:

Chocolate-Whiskey Pâté

- 1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 oz. Irish whiskey
- 1 tbsp raspberry jam
- 1 tbsp heavy cream
- 1 tsp plain cream cheese
- Using water bath method, melt chocolate chips
- Stir in whiskey until chocolate solidifies into "fondant"
- Spoon some of mixture into an Asian-style soup spoon
- Top with cream, jam and cream cheese
- Serve! (you could also garnish with chocolate shavings)

And, as a bonus (without the benefit of flash photography):

Chocolate and Potato Chip Bark


- 50g or so very high quality potato chips, roughly crushed
- 100g or so (1/3 package) semi-sweet chocolate chips


- Spread potato chips out over cookie sheet lined with wax paper
- Melt chocolate using water bath method
- Pour chocolate over potato chips, ensuring all are covered
- Put bark in fridge for about 30 minutes
- Break bark into bite-size pieces and EAT!

So, hopefully today's post removes another barrier to your sense of experimentation in the kitchen. Cooking is as much art as science, and neither is ever exact. But sometimes, as shown here, the unintended and unexpected is the best result any artist, scientist or cook can ask for.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Living out of boxes doesn't mean you're stuck with takeout

Hi  there! Ouch!

I moved in with my girlfriend Kari this past Sunday and, due to a combination of a) Sweet Jesus we have a lot of stuff! and b) being too effing sore and tired to unpack stuff, one would think that we'd be living off of pizza and McDonald's. Like heck! With a little bit of work and determination, you can make a pretty spiffy meal with a few tools and minimal space.

I consider this post a kind of throwback to the good ol' "Dude, Cook" days when the purpose of the blog was to demonstrate how to make a good meal with minimal tools, space and knowhow.

So, there I was on Monday, day after the move, wallowing in aches and fatigue and with zero clue as to what I could make for dinner (I had the day off but Kari had to work, so I was obviously in charge of cooking that night!). Luckily, I broke out my cookbook collection and found a book on Southwestern cooking I'd picked up from the discount rack at Chapters.

In it I found a simple quesadilla recipe that I was able to bash out fairly easily with a few twists. In case you've been living under a culinary rock, a quesadilla is basically when you take a flour tortilla, top it with cheese and other goodness, top that with another tortilla, and fry it or bake it until the cheese melts and the tortillas are crispy. It's almost a kind of Mexican grilled cheese.

But chances are you've had them a gazillion times in some pub environment.

Also, in case you're still under the rock, chorizo is a kind of Spanish sausage. It's super tasty. It can usually be found in hot or mild.

Anyhoo, here it is, the first meal made in my new apartment, using four implements (spoon, spatula, kitchen knife and frying pan) and a couple of plates.

Chorizo and Cheddar Quesadillas

Makes 3 large quesadillas (6 appetizer sized servings or 3 meal-sized)


- 4 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 red pepper, finely diced
- 1/2 tomato, finely diced
- 150 g chorizo sausage, sliced in half, then chopped (I prefer to use hot. Makes the jalapeno unnecessary)
- 1 cup grated extra-old cheddar, refrigerated (this helps with the mixing)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp minced jalapeno (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 6 flour tortillas (I prefer whole wheat)
- 3 tbsp vegetable or olive oil


- In a large bowl, mix green onion, red pepper, tomato, chorizo, cheddar, garlic, jalapeno (if using) and salt and pepper.
- Heat 1 tbsp of oil in large frying pan on medium heat. Swirl to coat bottom of pan with oil.
- Once oil is hot, gently lay one tortilla flat in the pan. Spoon 1/3 of the filling and spread across tortilla with back of spoon or spatula.
- Cover with another tortilla and press down using spatula (here's where the comparison with grilled cheese comes in)
- Flip with spatula once bottom of quesadilla is golden brown and crispy. Press down again with spatula, frying until golden brown.
- Cut quesadilla into quarters and place in warmed oven.
- Repeat steps with 4 remaining tortillas.
- Serve quesadillas with sour cream, salsa and/or favourite hot sauce. And cold, cold beer!

See, easy enough, delicious, and minimal clean-up!