Ninja Caltrops

29 Sep

No, I am not a witch and I do not practice black magic. These creepy looking creatures with horns are not my “sacrifice” or offerings.  As a matter of fact, they are a type of aquatic plant and totally edible (only if you dare!). “Water Caltrops”, these nut-like plants are in the same family as water chestnuts. Measuring about 2 inches in diameter, water caltrops are commonly referred to as “Bull’s Horn” due to their resemblance to–bull’s horn.  Water Caltrops are usually available in the autumn/fall season and when the Chinese celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival. It’s during that time of the year that they can be found in the market.  They grow in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia and Africa. Do bear in mind that they CANNOT be eaten raw because they contain a harmful parasite. If you want to try them out, cooking method for water caltrops is plain and simple. Just steam or boil them in water, add a little salt, and crack the shell to reveal the creamy flesh and just eat them as it is.  Inside the tough skin, this nut is pulpy and rich in starch.

On a side note:During medieval times, a popular weapon called a caltrop was used in European warfare. This was an iron device with four points so designed that one was always facing upward, whichever way it landed, to impale the hooves of enemy cavalry horses. If you play video games or read manga, you’d know that Ninja warriors throw metal caltrops on the ground to stop their enemies from getting close to them.  Now, if you really want, you can pile up on water caltrops and throw them at your foes whenever you want!  Just cook them first to avoid a trip to the hospital.

I find that a caltrop makes a great moustache.

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Simple Mussels and Clams

29 Sep

I absolutely adore almost anything that comes from the sea, and this love is particularly strong when it comes to anything that resides in a shell.  Crayfish, scampi (also known as slipper/shovelnose lobsters), crabs, prawns, conch – they’re all marvellous, but one shell-residing critter that I adore but seem to rarely enjoy are the mussels and clams.

At the T & T market last week, I was meandering around the fish vendors when I spotted a metal water fountain-like box filled to the brim with these live beauties and I couldn’t help but wander over. Their gleaming black shells looked so beautiful under the rippling water that without any further hesitation, I nabbed a half-kilo, eager to cook them up for another feast with the family.

The recipe is much sparser than any other poached mussel recipes that I’ve tried, but if you’re looking for a simple preparation that will take these babies from sink to plate in less than 10 minutes, give this a try.
 
Simple Clams and Mussels in Red Wine Sauce

Ingredients:
250g fresh, live mussels
250g
1 cup light red wine (Don’t get fancy! Cheap red wine is best.)
A few sprigs of Thyme
2 Bay Leaves
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/2 onion
1 can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp salted butter
2 tbsp Olive Oil
Parsley
Lemons to serve

1. Clean those clams and mussels – scrub and debeard them and discard any that appear dead and/or have cracked shells (clams mussels very quickly become toxic once they die).

 

2.  Heat the oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat and once hot, add the thyme (with sprigs as you will fish them out later anyway), garlic, onion. Fry till the garlic and onions have softened, then add the wine and bring to a boil. Once at a boil, lower to a simmer and reduce by 25%., pour diced tomatoes and let simmer, then first toss in the cleaned clams.  Clams take one minute longer to cook than mussels.  Then throw in some Parsley, then the mussels.  Put on a tightly fitting lid and allow to steam for 4-5 minutes.

3. Once time is up, turn off the heat and remove the lid of the pot. Remove the cooked and open mussels and plate up, then strain the poaching liquid over the top. Serve with wedges of lemon to freshen the flavour, and more chopped parsley for a little colour.  

Positano

10 Sep

The drive to Positano from Salerno takes about 1hr, shooting west through the Amalfi coast, out past the spectacular views of the shores, cliff side residences, restaurants, and thick, gravity-defying orchards of lemons and olive trees.  Every dwelling, plant or billy-goat in the coast is pretty much built, grown and live cliff-side, all of what looks to be carved into the mountainside.  It is absolutely one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever laid my eyes on.  The ride was a bit scary (ok, it was frightening) on the coast due to the extremely narrow roads and the fact that the local drivers (scooters included) are so used to driving these streets, they lack caution one would normally have. Thankfully, we had a private driver –a local!

                                                                           

We stayed at La Fenice (La Feh-Nee-Cha), a piece of paradise, in my opinion.  The property is built separately (split by the road which runs through it), extending up 300 feet above sea level with white stucco villas with varying dimensions, all with terraces, reached by many steps up and long-term cottages situated many steps below the dividing road.   Descending yet more steps, you’ll come to the curved seawater pool and Jacuzzi carved against the rock of the mountain with a terrace partly covered with grapevines and bougainvilleas with picturesque views of Positano’s colourful houses and the spectacular coastline.  And descending yet more stairs, you will find the most enchanting, small, private lagoon, accessible only by guests of La Fenice.  There you’ll find blue and white striped beach umbrellas with loungers, kayaks and row boats, all at your disposal, at any time of the day. *The picture is of the private lagoon. 

Food Stuff: Restaurants here are extremely proud to serve traditionally prepared seafood.  You can taste the freshness just like it was brought in that very morning by the fishermen.  Our first couple of nights, we dined at La Cambusa, which came highly recommended by our driver, and at Buca di Bacco.  They are located on the Spaggia Grande Beach (thus an outstanding view), across from each other.  It’s in the center of the main square and staffed by some of the friendliest waiters you can find in Italy.  In fact, our waiter in La Cambusa spontaneously serenaded a couple sitting behind us and he wasn’t too bad at all!  *In the picture above, La Cambusa is located left of the orange awninng (upstairs and Buca di Bacco is in the centre, second floor under the white awning. 

You must try the clams in this region.  They are slightly smaller, but the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.  All of the seafood dishes we ordered were never too overdone –all very simply and traditionally prepared done to showcase the freshness.  Our favourites: Whole Sea Bream, Carpaccio of what local fish they offer, Frutti di Mare (Buca di Bacco’s is to die for) and of course, the clams!

Our last night there, we had the pleasure of dining at La Sponda.  You cannot prepare yourself enough for what you are stepping into at La Splonda.  The restaurant is straight out of a Julia Roberts  movie.  There are, literally, hundreds of candles lit all around you, there are men serenading you romantic Italian songs (at a good volume and not intrusive at all) and we had about 4 waiters attending to us and a sommelier.  It was almost funny (in a good way).  They were prompt, attentive and managed to do it all without creating a stuffy atmosphere.  Here, you drink champagne, you order entrées with shaved truffles, served amuse-bouches with complimentary pre-dessert, then the actual dessert, followed by yet another complimentary (ready for this) POST-dessert!  The location, atmosphere, food and service created a very memorable dinner.  I will never forget one of our many waiters as he looked so much like Anthony Bourdain!  Post-dinner was also most memorable because we took the elevator instead of the stairs and somehow hopped off on the wrong floor and it took a good half hour and many goofy pictures to escape the hotel.  The champagne, bottle of wine, limoncello and vin santo probable hampered our departure or maybe deep down, we really didn’t want to leave.

Do As The Romans Do

8 Sep

I haven’t gone back to Italy since 2003.  I tried to, but then I had to be a responsible, tax-paying adult and abandon my go-with-the-wind, backpacker lifestyle. Then – poof! – 8 years had gone by and I’ve been back everywhere but there.

P. and I had been talking about going to Italy pretty much since we started to travel together.  We first casually talked about it in-flight to New York, daydreamed about it while we sipped on our hot chocolate in Lake Louise, envisioned the hills of Tuscany while digging our toes in the sandy beaches of Mexico and thought of the Mediterranean Sea as we rode the Chicago Architectural Cruise.  P.’s not one for all hat and no cattle and so he booked the trip to seal the deal.  So what was booked a few months then, Italy felt a millennia away.  We put our noses to the grindstone, looked up for a second and – boom! – it was time to go!

In 2 weeks, we ate our way through all the amazing places we visited making for an unforgettable epicurean experience that resulted in more photos of food than of myself.  First up, Rome.  For most people, Rome is the natural starting point to a trip to Italy.  And why not?  It’s full of amazing things to see, and equally amazing things to eat.  And while few things ruin an appetite like jet lag, we still managed to pack quite a bit of eating into three days.  Okay, we ate a lot in three days.  So rather than bore you with every detail, I’m only going to talk about the highlights.

Our first stop was Gusto-Osteria.  We were only one hour from landing and we badly needed to have our first taste of Italy.  Gusto-Osteria is known for their tasting plate-style menu, Italian charcuterie and a cheese boutique to-die-for served with homemade breads; and a trendy loft wine bar stocked wall-to-wall (literally) with a solid selection of wines.  This is the place you can pop into at any time of the day, for a coffee, snack, an indulgent meal or a late night cocktail.  It is overall very warm and welcoming.  We had (if I remember correctly) the, “Cinque Formaggio Tipo della Regione” (5 regional cheeses) e “Piatto di Tre Salumi” (3 cured meat platter).  The entire menu was in Italian and we figured that since our craving for a nice glass of Italian wine was greater than the need for nourishment, what better (safer) way than to order the cheese and meat boards.  Right? 

The cheese board was a decadent mix of strong, mild, old and young cheeses (names we will never know, but all from the region of Roma –I think), accompanied by some honey, black currant compote; and the meat platter had prosciutto di Parma, mortadella and a Tuscan finocchiona (a handmade fennel salami) which all made for the perfect snack.  It was especially good paired with their red house wine which was very smooth, almost no tannins –which I really like.  In Italy, at times in the summer, they serve their red wine cooler than room temperature.  It was particularly nice since August temperatures often climb above 85F/30C.

 

When in Rome, it’s only polite, and possibly also advantageous, to abide by the customs of their society when one is a visitor.

Gusto-Osteria, Via della Frezza, 16 vicolo del corea, Rome, Italy.

An Italian State of Mind

28 Jun

Lately these days, I have been feeling the need to overly indulge in spicy food; could it be that I have a massive alien baby in my belly?  Maybe?  [ps. I’m NOT pregnant] But because of this craving, I have been putting Pepperoncini (peh-per-ron-chee-nee) on EVERYTHING like it is going out of style.  What is Pepperoncini you ask?  Well, it’s just the best thing the Italians have brought to this earth!  It is one of my recent flavour obsessions.  The Italians call it one of two things: Pepperoncini or Olio Piccante.

It’s most frequently served in traditional Italian restaurants or pizzerias. The first time I tasted Pepperoncini, I had it with some homemade pasta dish, spooned out of a mason jar, made by and given to P. by an actual Italian NonnaOkay maybe not an actual Nonna, but that’s how I imagine it and that’s what it tastes like: Like-a-Nonna-Made-PEH-Per-Rohn-CHEEEE-neeh!

Go on…say it like Joey Tribbiani.  It’s fun!

I add it to everything -Pasta, pizza, sauces, meats, everything!  You can also use the pepper-infused oil for making salad dressing.  Since getting my first taste of the homemade stuff, I searched high and low for a recipe so I can stock up on my own.  I had to make it or I would have had to find a Nonna and steal one from her cupboard!

                                                                          Since the fresh Italian pepperoncini is harvested in late August or early September, I thought to give my Olio Piccante a little Asian twist.  Instead of using the pepperoncini, I bought some Siling Labuyo.  It’s better known as Bird’s Eye Chili, and frequently seen in Thai cooking.  Chili peppers are seasonal and generally very inexpensive, so if you find a chili you want to pickle in oil, grab it and get your Nonna on.  Had I known how much joy they would bring me, I would have made a bushel’s worth!

I read up on the best way to make hot pepper oil, but it took me a while to really find a recipe that stood out as exceptional or authoritative.  I asked an actual Nonna!  Teresa and her husband, Gaetano, had been kind enough to share their Pepperoncini recipe (with a small sample, straight from Gaetano’s cupboard.  A Nonno!).

This is how I made my Pepperoncini.  Be sure to have plastic gloves on if you’re handling the hot peppers:

1. Cut chilli peppers in small pieces and lay out onto a tray, sprinkle with salt, and let it fry out for a couple of days.  If you want to speed up the process, you can preheat your oven to 140F and bake dry for about an hour (which I did).  If baked dry, let the peppers cool to room temperature.

2. Wash your container (mine: glass bottle) out with hot soap and water.  If you can, boil it in water to sterilize properly or throw it into your dishwasher.

    3. Pour your oil of choice (seed, corn, peanut, olive) into your clean container.  Note: Using a high-quality (extra virgin) olive oil is not suggested as the hot pepper will override any nuances in the oil – i.e., it won’t harm the final product, but it won’t improve it, either, so save your money.  A canola or other seed oil is a good choice, too.
    4. Pour the dried pepper pieces into the oil. I didn’t include the stems, but I think you could if you like. The seeds are the spiciest part of the pepper so they will help keep things nice and hot!

A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE:  Some of you may have heard about botulism and how there is a risk when canning at home (more info here). I am not an expert or nutritionist, so please make sure to take the necessary precautions and inform yourself when canning or making infused oils, with whatever method you choose. Be on the lookout for cloudy or mouldy particles in the oil. ON A SIDE NOTE: While researching this, I was shocked to realized that Botox is actually a purified version of this bacteria!

A Good Egg

28 Jun

There’s something about an egg. Apart from the fact that they come out of a birds bum that is.  There is something wholesome and good about an egg, something noble about one.  “He’s a good egg”, you might have said in the 50’s, if referring to someone you liked or respected, and I think, yes, all the qualities of an egg are the ones I want in a friend.  Singular in purpose, yet incredibly versatile, strong in some ways yet fragile and always able to surprise me.  Not surprise me literally, I don’t scream when ever I see an egg, but surprise me in just how good they can be, and particularly in the simplest ways.

 Take a soft-boiled egg.  Once you have figured out the delicate process of making one and peeling one (safely without breaking it), you have something magical.  The addition of a soft-boiled egg to almost anything gives it a lift.  A nice salad with smoked fish? Plop one on top.  Soup on a cold winters night? Suspend one in there for added comfort.  Boom, Pot-Au-Feu!  Of course, just on a piece of toast with some bacon and mushrooms will do just as well.  Breaking the yolk and watching that liquid gold spilling out over your toast is possibly one of the finest sights in the morning.

There is something wonderfully uplifting about the process of gently simmering an egg, pulling it out of the water, cutting off the top, then sitting down with this single egg and spooning it out of its shell. 

How to Make Soft Boiled Eggs: In a small/medium saucepan, bring water to a boil and turn down to a simmer.  With a slotted spoon, gently lower the eggs into the water.  Be sure the water covers the eggs by at least an inch.  Simmer for five minutes.  Pull the eggs out of the water and briefly run under cold water.  Slice the tops with a sharp knife (I have had the best luck cutting the egg in the egg cup with a paring knife, although some think it is easier to lay the egg on its side on a towel and slice the top off before transferring it to a cup.)  Sprinkle the egg with salt and pepper

Baker’s Man, Buy Me A Cake As Fast As you Can….

3 Jun

….roll it, pat it, mark it with a “P”

….put it in the oven for the doggies and me!

Because many (many!) of you have inquired about the mysterious “P.’s’” littered amongst my posts, this here post is an introduction.  World, meet P.  P is for Prince.  The prince who stole my heart, that is.  Since this is a food blog and not an emo blog, I’ll try to keep this post in line with culinary musings.

P. is my partner in crime, fellow restaurant critique and collaborator in the kitchen.  He has a highly educated palate and a growing wine collection to match.  He prefers Reidel over Eisch and a tawny vintage must be drunk from a port glass.  Though he’s particular with many things, his taste in restaurants is not limited to the Michelin-starred or the private supper clubs.  Aside from fine dining, we also hunt for the holes-in-the-wall (a green pass a must), hidden spots where a lot of the authentic and delicious cuisine live.  We’ve also greatly enjoyed sharing bags of potato chips with the Mayans after a day of diving into the Cenotes.  To him, good food is good food –no matter the location and as long as he’s with good company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If at any time I’m too exhausted to cook supper, I can turn to him for help in the kitchen –but he’ll already have the lemon risotto cooking and the steaks on broil.  He is phenomenal in the kitchen and very creative without the help of a recipe.  But P. is no baker of cakes, nor maker of pastry.  I’m convinced that he doesn’t have the hands for it.  They are far too warm.  With the hottest oven one can find, he is the one guy who doesn’t really need a pair of protective oven mitts.  His hands –asbestos.  He’ll melt the butter in a dough with just a touch!

While this means he can warm my freakishly frozen fingers and toes no matter where we are (being a girl means being in constant cryonic suspension) it means that he has no chance of making pastry.  Baking is an exacting process.  It’s not like cooking really, it’s pure science which through trial-and-error and endless repetition gives you the expertise for the flakiest choux puff pastry, filled with a velvety pastry cream for a towering croquembouche or the lightest angel cake, covered with the smoothest lavender fondant.

Baking Puff Pastry and Angel Cakes is definitely not P.’s area of culinary art expression.

Of course, the great thing about no-bake-P, is that he obviously just buys a cake, which is P.’s preferred manner of baking.  His taste for patisserie is of course, just as decadent as his salty tooth, and we’ve all been spoiled by the delicacies from one of his favourite spots:

DT (Dessert Trends) – Bistro-Patisserie. 154 Harbord Street (at Brunswick Avenue), Toronto, 416 916-8155 ****

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minimalist decor leaves centre stage for the main event: exquisite cakes and pretty pastries that line glass showcases.  P. says their brunch menu is as good as everything in their showcase.  I’ve yet to try.  My favourite P. – DT Bistro treat: Almond Brittle.  Goddamn, it is good!  I had no idea a simple brittle could be so good.  It’s melt-in-your-mouth addictive!  It needs nothing but a cup of tea and a quiet place where no one can hear you moaning, and in my case swearing, with pleasure.

I’d have taken a picture of the brittle but I ate it before I had the chance.