Saturday, February 18, 2012

Your morning cup of awesome

Hi there! Just a quick rant on coffee, because why not?

If you're anything like most North Americans, you probably need a decent cup of coffee in the morning to get your motor running. Lord knows I do! Now, I've developed a caffeine sensitivity over the years, so I'm limited to 2 cups a day (albeit I've been known to drink 2 Large-sized cups a day from one of the 8 million coffee shops near home and work). With that limited capacity for consumption comes a heightened sense of discerning taste when it comes to what kind of java I want in my mouth. In downtown Ottawa, most people get their coffee from one of the following purveyors: Tim Horton's, Starbucks, Second Cup or Bridgehead The standard Tim Horton's is swill, Starbucks is meh, Bridgehead's dark roast tends to have a lovely caramel-molasses aftertaste (reminiscent of sponge toffee), while Second Cup is more chocolatey. And, as far as local purveyors go, Bread and Sons make the best brewed coffee around. But I find nothing beats the coffee you make at home, if you have the right coffee and system.

Now, like most people, I have a cheap Mr. Coffee that makes 8 cups of decent brewed coffee. I usually get President's Choice West Coast Dark Roast. But this does not a cup of awesome make, more like a cup of sufficient...

Looking back on the various cups of Joe I've had over my lifetime, I have to make a confession: when I was in university and still living with my parents, most mornings they'd make a pot of coffee stronger than Thunderlips. And they'd usually make it at 5 in the morning. By the time I got to it around noon, it had turned into a viscous grey-hued brew of doom. And that was how I liked it! So, my coffee palette was underdeveloped. At least until I moved to Vancouver for a few months and started making coffee using roasted and sold at a local Portuguese café. My method was to simply place the grounds in a conical drip filter over an empty cup and pour hot water over the whole thing. It was really really tasty and up until recently, that was how I drank my coffee when camping.

But it wasn't until I met the lovely and vivacious Kari that I discovered the best cup of coffee in the world is actually Turkish Coffee! Turkish coffee is a preparation where you take ultra-finely ground coffee, out a tablespoon or two at the bottom of a cup and pour boiling water over it. You let it sit for a while and all the grounds sort of gel at the bottom. This stuff is so good that I don't even put any milk or cream in it; it's the only cup of coffee I've ever had black. Now, granted that she gets the "good stuff" straight from the owner of Byward Fruit Market (I don't even know if he sells it to the public!), but if you get a chance to try Turkish Coffee from a reliable source using the best beans possible, DO IT! You won't regret it. Just remember not to drink it right away unless you like a mouth full of coffee grounds...

So, that's MY morning cup of awesome. What's yours?

Riffin' on the Classics, part 2

Hi all!

Picking up where we left off, today we're going to look at my take on Shepherd's Pie (a basic dish of layered ground beef, corn and mashed potatoes). First, let's examine the history behind this fairly common classic. Turns out, if wikipedia is to be trusted, that Shepherd's Pie traces its origins to the late 18th Century when potatoes were becoming a staple food in poorer parts of England and Scotland. What we commonly know as Shepherd's Pie here was (and still is) called Cottage Pie in the UK. Shepherd's Pie was similar, but used lamb or mutton instead of beef, which makes pretty obvious sense to me! And yet, the beef version is what we know as Shepherd's Pie here in North America (well Canada at least). Even more odd is the French Canadian name for it: Pâté chinois (Chinese pie). S'il y'a des Québecois/Québecoises qui peuvent me reconter l'histoire de ce nom, ça sera bien apprécié.

Shepherd's Pie is a fairly simple classic that pretty much screams 'comfort food'. The great thing is, no one ever said you have to follow the standard model of ground beef, corn and mashed potatoes. So, being the kind of guy who always likes shake things up, I went on my own path of Shepherdspie-y goodness (that's a word, right?) I used a chorizo-onion-garlic base instead of ground beef, I added olives to the "corn layer" and instead of mashed potatoes I used mashed sweet potatoes and topped it with a layer of breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Also, instead of using just regular ketchup, I had the evil Ketchup of Doooooom as a condiment. What is the Ketchup of Doom? Well, I'll tell you!

Ketchup of Doom (spicy ketchup)

- 1 cup ketchup (I prefer organic or at least one with lower sodium)
- 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced, seeds included
- juice of 1/4 lime

- Mix all ingredients well, preferably in a near-empty ketchup bottle with a silly hand-drawn (and possibly misspelled) label:

I think the evil-looking "e" saves it...

OK, play time's over. Now we have to actually get into the making of this tasty dish.

Shepherd's Pie à la Nick


- 1 large sweet potato, cut into chunks
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 dry-cured chorizo sausage (I like it spicy, but that's a matter of taste), finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup frozen corn
- 5 Kalamata olives, pitted and thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese, grated
- pinch dried rosemary and/or thyme


- Place a large pot of water on to boil. Once boiling, add sweet potato and oil until fork tender (about 20-30 minutes).
- Once cooked, drain the sweet potatoes in a strainer. Place in large bowl. Add milk and butter and mash until creamy. Set aside.
- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large skillet, heat olive oil on medium-high heat. Sauté chorizo, onions and garlic until onions are soft and nearly translucent (about 10 minutes)
- In a bowl, mix breadcrumbs, Parmesan and rosemary/thyme.
- Using a (nearly) square bake pan (like the one pictured below, I don't remember the precise measurements), layer the chorizo mix, followed by the corn, then olives. Spread the sweet potatoes out for the next layer. Top with breadcrumb mixture.
- Put in oven for about 20 minutes (until breadcrumbs are golden brown)
- Serve in a bowl or on a plate with your favourite condiment!

Baked and ready to go with some Ketchup of Doom and a cold beer...

...which later became a glass of Rioja... MAGIC!

So, that's another classic given a radical and delicious makeover. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Riffin' on the classics, Part 1 - Caesar Salad and Garlic Bread

Hello there!

Today I'm taking a look at some familiar meals/food items that can sometimes get boring when done the old-fashioned way. But with anything from a few twists to an utter reinvention, you can get the dual advantage of eating something you know that you like, but still make it your own and make it new.
For the recipes in today's post, I want you to project yourself into any 'run-of-the-mill' restaurant you've been to and think of a few items that are inevitably on the menu. One's on the Salad menu, the other under Appetizers or Sides. Starting to get the picture? You digging what I'm talking about? Why, it's Caesar Salad and Garlic Bread, of course!

Now, what's interesting about Caesar Salad is that it's not from Italy at all. This well-loved salad has nothing to do with Roman emperors. It gets it's name from the chef who invented it, Caesar Cardini (who, to be fair, was an Italian immigrant, so I guess it's inclusion on Italian menus isn't completely off the authenticity mark) who, according to most of the stories I've read/heard/seen on TV, put it together in a pinch after running out of a lot of "normal" salad ingredients. Disputes abound, as with all recipes, as to who really invented it, but it is generally attributed to Mr. Cardini.

As for Garlic Bread, it would seem that it too has its origins in North America, at least according to the Internet...

Anyhoo, enough of the history lesson, let's get to the food dammit!

1 - Caesar Salad

So, why Caesar Salad as a meal? Well, Kari and I decided to make these classic "sides" as a main meal, mostly because we're trying to cut down on our meat intake (bacon doesn't count!) and eat more veggies. So, this seemed like a light enough meal to fit the bill.

The first step was figuring out a good recipe for Caesar Dressing. Now, there are a few basics to most salad dressings, namely vinegar and oil. But there are a myriad of variations on Caesar Dressing, so I had to cannibalize a bunch of them.

Thing is about "authentic" Caesar Dressing is that is calls for raw egg yolk. Which brings me to today's 'foodie rant'. Something that has been cropping up a lot lately in the 'gourmet realm' is the use of lightly cooked or raw egg yolk in dishes. Apparently the egg yolk is supposed to flow over other elements in dishes to tie them together and add a vibe of richness. Well, it's no secret that I'm not the hugest egg fan and when I do eat them I want them cooked to death. Runny yolk is about the least appetizing thing ever. Now this is just my taste, but I do wonder if there's a deeper split over the yolk issue out there... I encountered this phenomenon was when I ate at Beckta last year and a dish was supposed to have the "break the yolk so that it runs over everything" element to it, but much to my surprise and joy, the yolk was nice and firm. In other words, the cook might have screwed it up, but it was a screw-up I preferred.

So, with all grumbling on eggs being done, I'm still without a replacement for egg yolk in my salad dressing. Buuuuuut, then I realized that I had mayo! That would work!

So, with my egg replacement on hand and a few ideas rolling around my head, here's what I came up with for dressing (with a lot of guidance from the Food Network Web site):

Caesar Salad Dressing

- 1/2 cup mayonnaise (that's mayonnaise, NOT imitation dressing-type crap. Why? THIS is why! - many thanks to The Oatmeal)
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
- 1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- juice of 1/4 lemon
- a few dashes Worcestershire sauce
- 2-3 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
- 3-4 capers, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper
- pinch smoked paprika
- 1 tsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

- Blend all ingredients together in a non-reactive bowl or jar. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Next step is making the salad itself, which is ridiculously simple:

Caesar Salad


- 1 head romaine lettuce, base cut off, leaves washed and torn-or-cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 portion Caesar Salad Dressing
- 3 strips well-cooked bacon (it should be crumbly)
- 3-4 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup croutons (store-bought or homemade or Polenta Croutons - see below)
- black pepper to taste
- lemon wedges


- In a large non-metal bowl, mix lettuce, dressing and bacon with salad tongs or by hand.
- Serve salad individually with a lemon wedge and top with croutons, cheese and pepper.

NOTE: In an additional effort to be original, we made Polenta Croutons. Essentially we took some pre-cooked polenta, cut it into cubes, tossed it with olive oil and baked until crispy. The basics of cooking polenta can be found here: Essentially it's all about adding hot liquid into cornmeal a bit at a time and stirring constantly for 20-30 minutes. It's labour intensive, but think of how strong your forearms will be!

In the end, the use of mayo over egg yolk made it a lighter tasting salad, the Polenta Croutons were an interesting change of texture (crispy outside, slightly soft in the middle) and the addition of smoked paprika to the dressing added a little more 'oomph' to the whole thing. I was pretty pleased with the results! Also, it had bacon.

2 - Garlic Bread with Cheese (aka Garlic-Cheesy Bread)

Next on our list is a variation on the old standby, Garlic Bread with Cheese.

OK, I'm not going to go too crazy and start baking my own bread (although I do aim to try it one of these days), so I used a whole-wheat baguette from Hartman's (next time this comes up on the "to cook" list, I am definitely using the organic Sourdough Baguette from Bread and Sons Bakery). As for the rest of it, it got a bit tweak-crazy. First off, no garlic butter is complete without a splash or two of white wine; second, I figured caramelized shallots would be a nice accompaniment, so those went in as well; third, when you have a boon of fresh mushrooms, but they're getting a bit on the shriveled side, they really, REALLY, add some surprisingly delicious depth to Garlic Bread; and finally, who the hell said that the cheese has to be mozzarella? I see your mozz and raise you old Cheddar and Danish blue cheese!

Salivating yet? Well, let's get this sucker made then!

Garlic Bread with Cheese


- 3-4 cremini or white mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
- 2-3 shallots, minced
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup salted butter
- 1/4 cup dry white wine

- 1 baguette, sliced in half and each half quartered (for a total of 8 pieces)
- 1 cup old Cheddar cheese, grated 
- 3 tbsp Danish blue cheese, crumbled

- In a saucepan or skillet, melt butter on medium heat.
- Increase heat to medium-high and add mushrooms, shallots and garlic.
- Sauté for 4-5 minutes, then add wine.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and let cook for another 4-5 minutes, until veggies are well-cooked. Keep stirring to ensure nothing sticks and butter doesn't burn. Remove from heat.
- Set oven to Broil.
- Using a spoon, carefully coat each piece of bread with layer of garlic butter mix. Top all pieces evenly with cheeses.
- Broil in oven until cheese melts and turns golden, pay attention to bread to avoid burning. Serve with Caesar Salad.

So that's it! Verdict? Really tasty Garlic Bread! Try this method out, I think you'll be very pleased. Lord knows Kari and I were!

Garlic Cheese Bread, as it was meant to be!

That's it for today but I'll be back soon with Shepherd's Pie that doesn't use ground beef or mashed potatoes. Am I blowing your mind yet?!?!? Tune in next time!