Friday, December 31, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Due to crazy snow storms in NYC, our anticipated 24-hours of travel — Toronto - Vancouver - Hong Kong - Saigon — turned out to be a 48-hour mis-adventure of flight cancellations, lost luggage and unexpected overnight sojourns in both Vancouver and Hong Kong. However, throughout the mishaps, the airlines (WestJet and Cathay Pacific) and their ground crew personnel could not have been more helpful, friendly or courteous, which made our delays much more endurable. What a difference a smile and positive attitude makes in trying situations. 

So one day later than anticipated, we were thrilled to be greeted with the warm sultry air of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon — The Pearl of the Far East. Saigon (Sài Gòn) was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina from 1955 to 1975, and after the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, the government renamed the city after their pre-eminent, but by then deceased leader, Ho Chi Minh. These days Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam, is adorned with wide elegant boulevards, historic french colonial buildings, bustling markets and lots of fabulous restaurants.

Steeped in history, Vietnamese cuisine is one of the jewels of South-east Asia. The style of cooking, which has evolved over many centuries, is a wonderful blend of Chinese and Asian spices, flavours and techniques. The French colonization of Vietnam has also had a deep influence on Vietnamese cooking, infusing the cuisine with many of the ingredients and culinary traditions of classic french cooking.

The geography and climate of Vietnam have always played an important role in the country's cuisine. Bordered by Laos, Cambodia and China, Vietnam is a long slender country, stretching from Hanoi and the Red River Delta in the north to Saigon and the fertile Mekong Delta in the south. With its ten centuries of rule and proximity in the north, China has strongly influenced Vietnamese cooking, from the use of chopsticks, the art of stir-frying, and a use of noodles and bean curd. The Chinese introduction of Buddhism in Vietnam also led to a vegetarian cuisine that is remarkably varied and extensive. 

The mountainous middle section where Hue, the ancient capital of the Vietnamese kings was located, features a highly decorative, very spicy cuisine, reflecting the pleasures of the country's royalty and the abundance of spices the region's terrain offers. The south, hot and humid, is where French and Indian influences are most keenly felt, for Southern Vietnam was once a common stopover for Indian traders before their journey homeward, leaving behind a taste for the aromatic curries and exotic spices of traditional Indian cuisine.

Sophisticated and exciting, Vietnam's culinary heritage has been a creative blend of delightfully complex flavours that have helped shape a cuisine that is distinctly Vietnamese. Over the upcoming month, Scrumpdillyicious will embark on a culinary journey that will explore the cultural and culinary pulse of these diverse and fascinating cultures, and hopefully a recipe or two!

Tomorrow: New Years 2010 in Saigon!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Vietnam Cambodia and Laos - A Culinary Journey

A Culinary Journey to Southeast Asia
Dec 28, 2010 - Jan 26, 2011

Scrumpdillyicious will be touring Southeast Asia from Dec 28, 2010 to Jan 26, 2011, exploring the cultural and culinary pulse of this exotic corner of the world. Join me online each day as we journey through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, capturing the flavours of these fascinating cultures. 

Our Culinary Journey will take us from Saigon to Cambodia's Siem Reap, home to the magnificent Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat, then on to Laos, Hanoi, Hue and awe inspiring Halong Bay, as we explore the diverse culinary traditions and regional ingredients used in the aromatic cuisines of these three great nations. From the savoury in the north, spicy in the central region and sweet in the south of Vietnam, the delicious Khmer curries and noodle dishes of Cambodia to french-asian inspired Laotian cuisine, we'll embark on a culinary journey of the region's famed cuisines and time honoured customs — until then — Ăn ngon miệng — bon appetit!

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
 – Lao Tzu

 "Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away."

Amaya Prawns

Amaya is one of the finest Indian restaurants in Toronto, and certainly one of my favourites. We have a tradition of dining there with friends who love good Indian cuisine. One friend in particular adores Amaya's signature dish, Amaya Prawns, that we have to order two portions to share as an appetizer and two more again for the table as part of dinner. The dish features four perfectly cooked butterflied tiger prawns in a fragrant green mango sauce, with sautéed peppers and coconut milk. I became so enamoured with this dish that I scoured the web relentlessly in search of Amaya'a secret recipe. My tenacity paid off. 

Amaya Prawns
Inspired by a recipe from Amaya: The Indian Room
Serves 4 as a appetizer

12 large raw king size prawns, the bigger the better! 

3 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp curry powder (1 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp chili powder, ½ tsp ground turmeric)

2 tsp garlic purée

¾ tsp salt, or to taste

2 tbsp oil

1 onion, diced
 and cut into 1" triangles
1 orange and yellow pepper, diced and cut into 1" triangles
2 tbsp mango paste* (1/2 cup raw green mango, 2 green chilies finely chopped, ½ tsp garlic paste)
1 cup coconut milk

½ tsp kasteri mehti leaves (or dry fenugreek powder)

Peel and de-vein prawns, leaving tails attached. Rinse and pat dry.

Marinate prawns in lemon juice, curry powder, garlic and
 salt for 10 minutes, then drain the prawns.

Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and pepper and sauté 2-3 minutes until they start to soften. Add prawns and sauté for 60 seconds or until they start to curl.

Add mango paste, coconut milk and mehti and simmer gently over low heat for 2-3 minutes or more, until shrimp are just cooked through. Serve immediately with some peppers for garnish.

* COOK'S NOTE: I used canned mango pulp instead of paste, which turned out very well.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Turkey Soup Dingman

My friend Chris makes a great Turkey Soup each Thanksgiving and Christmas, which she makes with the leftover carcass and turkey meat. The key to any good soup is the flavour of the stock and a homemade roasted turkey carcass will make an extraordinary rich and delicious poultry broth — even better that chicken stock. Turkey stock is easy to make too, since it's as easy as boiling up some water and cutting up a few vegetables. A large stock pot and strainer come in handy also. 

Simply chop up the carcass or pull it apart so it fits in a stock pot, and cover it with water by an inch or two. Add a few basic vegetables and bring to a simmer. Skim off anything that rises to the top that you wouldn't want eat if you saw it floating in a bowl of soup! Leave the stock to bubble away gently for 3 to 4 hours, then strain it though a colander. If you chill it, the fat will congeal on the surface. It can then be removed before using it for the Turkey Soup. Both the stock and soup freeze beautifully, so you can be enjoying the fruits of your labour for the chilly months to come.

Turkey Soup Dingman

1 Turkey carcass, with 6-8 cups of good meat reserved
3 bay leaves
7 carrots, 6 diced fine and 3 coarse with fronds
7 celery stalks, coarsely diced
2 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 leeks, diced fine
2 cups of fresh parsley
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
1 1/2 cups frozen corn
1 cup wild rice, uncooked 

Chop up the turkey carcass to fit in a large stock pot (with a built in strainer if you have one). Add the bay leaves, 1 coarsely chopped carrot, 3 celery stalks coarsely chopped with fronds and 2 onions. Add enough water to cover the carcass and vegetables by an inch or two, and bring to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn the heat down enough so it maintains a bubbling simmer. Let it bubble away for 3 to 4 hours, replenishing with some water if it gets too low.

Remove the carcass and vegetables from the stock pot, using a strainer. Discard the vegetables and carcass, but save any good looking turkey meat. Meanwhile, keep the strained turkey stock at a gentle simmer in the stock pot until needed. 

In a skillet, sauté the leeks and celery until soft, about 6 minutes. Add to the warm stock, then add the parsley, carrots and wild rice; salt and pepper to taste. Simmer about 30 minutes, or until cooked through. Finally, add the peas, corn and turkey meat (good meat plus the meat that fell from the carcass).

The soup can be bagged and frozen for future use, or served hot with some lovely warm bread and a lump of good cheese.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas, born around 280 A.D. in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Much admired for his piety and kindness, St. Nicholas became the subject of many legends. It is said that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas, Dutch for Saint Nicholas. 

In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore, an Episcopal minister, wrote a long Christmas poem for his three daughters entitled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore's poem is largely responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus as a "right jolly old elf" with a portly figure and the supernatural ability to ascend a chimney with a mere nod of his head! Although some of Moore's imagery was probably borrowed from other sources, his poem helped popularize the now familiar image of a Santa Claus who flew from house to house on Christmas Eve "in a miniature sleigh" led by eight flying reindeer, leaving presents for deserving children. 

In 1881, political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus, depicted as a rotund, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack laden with toys for lucky children. It is Nast who gave Santa his bright red suit trimmed with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus. Curiously, Father Christmas himself wears red and white only because Coca-Cola put him in its colours for an advertisment back in the 1920s! 

The Coca-Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s with ads in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. At this time, many people thought of Coca-Cola as a warm weather drink only, so the company began a campaign to remind people that Coca-Cola was a great choice in any month. This began a campaign connecting a true icon of winter, Santa Claus, with the beverage. 

In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned American illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus. 
For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas or as it is commonly called Twas the Night Before Christmas. Moore's description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human. For the next 33 years, Sundblom painted portraits of Santa that helped to create the modern image of Santa — an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people all over the world.

The Night Before Christmas
by Henry Clarke Moore

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Home Cured Salmon Gravlax for Christmas

Salmon Gravlax is a perfect food, especially for salmon lovers. It can be made well in advance and will definitely impress your guests with it's fabulous colour and wonderfully fresh flavour — "And you made it yourself?" A little Mustard Dill Sauce on the side and you have an elegant first course. A slice or two on a slice of baguette with some chive cream cheese and a delicious appetizer is complete. And then there's Christmas morning and Eggs Benedict with Gravlax (or smoked salmon) and a generous dollop of hollandaise! Yummy.

The Swedes have celebrated the tradition of making Gravlax for the Christmas season for generations — on Christmas Eve in particular — a feast they call Julbord. Traditionally, the meal begins with fish; the most popular being Gravlax — salmon cured in sugar, salt and dill. Curing with salt is one of the oldest means of food preservation, and today, the time-honoured practice of curing foods with salt and spices has given us many delicacies we see in gourmet shops around the world. With just a few ingredients and very little work, Gravlax can be made easily at home, and at a fraction of the cost of what it sells for in the shops! Simply remove the large bones from a 3 to 4 pound salmon fillet. Prepare the cure by combining the salt and sugar, and apply it evenly on the fillet. Add dill or any other herb or spice desired, wrap the fillet, place it under a weight, and refrigerate.

There are about 20 minutes of work involved in preparing gravlax, then a waiting period of 24 hours. After removing the fillet from the refrigerator, wipe the salt cure from the salmon, and using a long thin knife, slice paper-thin slices from the fillet. Gravlax is a perfect hors d'oeuvre for the holidays and will impress your guests beyond belief! We make it every year and have made it our new family Christmas tradition — our own Canadian Julbord.

Salmon Gravlax
Makes 20-30 appetizer portions

1 3-4 lb salmon filet, deboned with skin on
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh dill

On a work surface, cut the salmon into 2 filets and place them skin side down. Mix the salt and sugar together and spread half of the cure mix over the surface of one filet. Lay the dill on top, then spread the rest of the cure mix over the dill and lay the second side of salmon, skin side up, over the first — thick part of one filet over the thin part of the other — so together they make a flat 'sandwich'. 

Place the salmon in a rimmed glass dish large enough to hold the fish, and cover firmly with cling film. Put a dish on top and weigh it down with some heavy cans or weights. Refrigerate for 24-36 hours, during which time, juices will accumulate in the bottom of the dish and the salmon with cure.

Take the salmon from the wrapping, remove the dill and scrape off any excess mix. With a long sharp knife, carefully slice thin slivers of the pink salmon on the bias, and serve with Mustard Dill Sauce.

Mustard Dill Sauce
Makes 1 cup

3 tbsp prepared mustard
2 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp wine vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
Fresh dill

Shortly before serving the salmon, dissolve prepared mustard and sugar in wine vinegar. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, whisking constantly to create a creamy emulsion. Finally, stir in a generous amount of finely chopped fresh dill. Serve in a decorative bowl along side the Gravlax.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oysters on the Half Shell

The Winter Solstice has always been a time of feasting, excess and indulgence, and one of the most celebrated dishes associated with the Christmas season are oysters. According to folklore, oysters should only be eaten in months with 'R' in them — September, October, November etc. — which we now know is nonsense, and likely due to times when oysters were shipped without adequate refrigeration. These days we enjoy oysters all year round. They're one of the most nutritionally balanced foods and an excellent source of vitamins. So not not only are they delicious, they're good for you too — especially with a glass of champagne or chilled Muscadet! 

Buoyed by this notion of oysters being a health food, we hosted an oyster party recently with some friends who are fellow shucking enthusiasts. The only drawback is that oysters tend to be quite expensive, especially when you need to order a few dozen. That is until we discovered a hidden gem — Diana's Seafood at 2101 Lawrence Avenue East in Toronto. They have the best selection of seafood I've seen in the city, with a spectacular selection of oysters, from Kumamoto, Fanny Bay and Beausoleil to Lambertini and Pacific Rim, available per shell or bound in boxes of 3-dozen, 5-dozen, 10-dozen at prices that will make you weep. We purchased 6-dozen Malepeques for our Oyster-Fest and left with change from $30.00 and Diana's staff even put the boxes on ice for us so the little beauties would keep nicely chilled on their trip back downtown! 

Later that day, the oysters were shucked and served on the half shell with fresh grated horseradish and chilled Muscadet, and the four of us dined like Royalty! In fact, they were so delicious, and affordable, that we've decided to make it a monthly tradition. As Diana says...Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer! Heck, some even say they're an aphrodisiac. Hello Fanny Bay!

Diana's Seafood
2101 Lawrence Avenue East
(between Warden & Birchmount)

Oysters with Mignonette Sauce
Sauce for 36 oysters

1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 shallot, finely chopped
white pepper to taste

Place wine and vinegar in saucepan and reduce to one-half. Turn off the heat and stir in the shallot and white pepper. Set aside to steep for at least 1 hour. Serve the sauce in small ramekins and let your guests spoon it on top of each chilled, raw oyster on the half shell. A wedge of lemon and fresh grated horseradish are also good accompaniments with raw oysters.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Molten Chocolate Lava Cake

This is a very naughty dessert. Warm, silky and devilishly good, Molten Chocolate Lava Cake is the quintessential chocolate lovers dessert. Best of all, it's gooey centre actually does erupt with a luscious molten core of chocolatey goodness. And unlike some other recipes I've tried, this recipe is fool-proof! Made with good quality dark chocolate, butter, eggs, sugar and flour, the mixture is simply poured into individual ramekins, baked about 15 minutes, and upturned onto decorative serving plates. A few fresh berries, a light dusting of icing sugar and your guests will be treated to a lovely warm dessert fresh from the oven. Now that's love!

Chocolate Lava Cake 
Serves 4
Inspired from a recipe by London-based Italian chef Aldo Zilli

4 tsp cocoa powder
4oz good quality dark chocolate, broken into pieces
4oz unsalted butter (1 stick)
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
4 1/2oz caster sugar
4oz plain or pastry flour, sifted
Icing sugar, to dust
Raspberries, for garnish

Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease 4 ramekins, about 2 ¾” in diameter, and dust with cocoa powder; set aside.

Melt the chocolate in a small pan over medium heat. Once half melted, add butter and continue to heat until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and combined. Set aside for 10 minutes, or until needed.

Using a blender or hand whisk, whip the eggs, egg yolks and sugar in a medium bowl until pale and thickened, then add to the chocolate mixture. Gently fold in the flour with a metal spoon. Divide the mixture between the 4 ramekins and cook in the oven for 12-15 minutes, until the cakes are firm on top. Using oven gloves, remove the ramekins from the oven and turn them out onto serving plates. Garnish with raspberries and dust all with icing sugar. Serve immediately.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Smoked Trout and New Potato Salad

Smoked fish is wonderfully versatile, perfect for hors d'oeuvres, chowders and this delicious luncheon salad with smoked trout and lovely little new potatoes. I buy my smoked trout filets from Milford Bay Trout Farm which is based in Muskoka, and coincidently just around the corner from our friends who have a cottage in the area! They sell the freshest, tastiest all natural hardwood smoked trout I've ever found, in addition to their ever popular smoked trout paté and delicate gravlax which they sell from a small barn on the property. Conveniently, they also retail in many shops around Toronto, including Summerhill Market and Pusateri's, so you don't have to head way up north to enjoy this unmistakeable flavour of Muskoka. If you loved smoked trout, give them a try. They are simply the best.

Smoked Trout Salad
Serves 4

1 whole smoked trout
8 small new potatoes
1 english cucumber

1 avocado, peeled and diced
1 bunch of baby spinach, washed and stems removed
1/2 Spanish red onion, sliced very thin

2 tsp finely chopped fresh dill
2 tsp whole egg mayonnaise
2 tbsp crème fraiche
1 tbsp small capers, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
chives, chopped for garnish

Boil the new potatoes until just tender but not falling apart. Drain and put aside to cool down a bit.

While the potatoes are cooking prepare the trout by removing the skin and taking out any bones. Flake the flesh into medium-sized pieces and place in a medium bowl. Peel the cucumber and slice in half length-wise, then cut into 1/8" pieces. 

In a small bowl, combine the dressing ingredients and mix thoroughly.

With a sharp knife, cut the cooked potatoes into quarters and combine with cucumber, half of the trout flakes, some baby spinach, chopped avocado and red onion. Mix through and dress to coat.

To serve, fan out some baby spinach leaves decoratively on a plate. Put a mound of trout salad in the middle and top it off with remaining trout flakes and some chopped chives. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and lemon juice for extra freshness and gloss. Serve with some warmed baguette as part of a lovely light lunch.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Homemade Baked Spinach Ricotta Gnudi

One of my absolute favourite recipes for 2010 is my Baked Spinach Ricotta Gnudi. It refers to little dumplings that are 'naked' of their pasta wrapper. These delicious little clouds of heaven are a cousin to gnocchi, but made with ricotta rather than potato, which makes them lighter, more delicate and pillowy, in a way gnocchi are not. 

It starts out with a simple mixture of spinach, ricotta, eggs and parmesan which are shaped into little egg-size balls which are then coated with a light dusting of flour. Placed in a baking dish, the gnudi are arranged in neat rows, and covered with béchamel and a splash of tomato sauce and baked for 35-45 minutes. It couldn't be easier or more light and delicious. Four or five gnudi make an impressive starter; eight or ten, a satisfying main course; the whole baking dish, a feast! Give this recipe a try. It's no-fail and absolutely scrumptious! You can thank me later.

Baked Spinach Ricotta Gnudi
Inspired by a recipe from Twelve: A Tuscan Cookbook by Teresa Kiros

Serves 3-4 (about 24 dumplings)

1 quantity of Béchamel sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups tomato sauce (homemade or good quality store-bought)
1 lb frozen chopped spinach (3 300g packages)
8 oz fresh ricotta cheese (1 330g tub)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil, chopped for garnish
Butter for greasing baking dish
½ cup all-purpose flour

Thaw the frozen spinach and squeeze out as much water as you can. In a medium bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta cheese, eggs, half the Parmesan cheese and a grating of nutmeg, to taste. Season with salt and pepper, and mix with a wooden spoon to make a soft mass. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. While the oven is preheating, prepare the béchamel sauce (see below). Liberally butter a 9"x12" baking dish. Spoon a little of the béchamel sauce onto the bottom of the dish to just cover it.

Put the flour on to a flat plate and pat your hands in the flour. Using your hands, form dumplings the size of a small egg, slightly elongated (about 1½ inches long by 3/4 inches wide). Dust them very lightly in the flour and put them onto the béchamel in neat rows. 

Cover with the remaining béchamel. Splash the surface with the tomato sauce and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is bubbling and lightly golden. Serve hot in warmed bowls, with a generous sprinkling of basil on each serving.

Béchamel Sauce (Bechiamella)

4 cups whole milk
7 tbsp unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
Salt and white pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the milk in a saucepan. In a separate medium saucepan, melt the butter, and then add the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon and cook for a minute or two until it is lightly golden. Add a ladleful of the warm milk and stir well so it does not form lumps. Continue adding the milk in ladlefuls and stirring constantly until all the milk has been incorporated. Season with salt and pepper, and a generous grating of nutmeg. Continue cooking and stirring on low heat for another 10 minutes to thicken. It should be very smooth. Remove from the heat. Just before using, give it a good whisking. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Brandy Alexander: A Memory

My parents used to host a Christmas party each year. It was always a wonderful time, catching up with many old family friends and for many of us, it marked the beginning of the holiday season. One of the signature drinks that my Dad made was a Brandy Alexander. Dad used to make it with eggnog, a jigger of brandy and a dusting of nutmeg. I don't like eggnog, so I make mine in the traditional manner — as it's served at the Savoy: brandy, a little light cream and creme de cacao shaken over ice and poured in a martini glass, garnished with a light dusting of nutmeg. Very rich, but also very delicious.

I shared a Brandy Alexander with my husband at the Savoy in London, on my birthday a few years ago. That night the Savoy's American Bar was almost empty except for the pianist and ourselves. The Bar is never empty. It was July 7, 2005. The day of the London bombings. During that morning's rush hour, three bombs had been detonated on the London underground in quick succession, with a fourth bomb exploding an hour later on a double decker bus in Tavistock Square. London transit shut down and all services were suspended. We watched as tens of thousands of people were evacuating the city on foot, many using the Waterloo Bridge, which we overlooked from our room at the Savoy. I will never forget that sight. I will never forget that day.

That evening, my husband and I talked with the young pianist who was playing to his small audience of two in the American Bar, and asked him how he was coping with the enormity of the day's events. He admitted that he was obviously shocked, but in typical British fashion, he felt he should just keep calm and carry on. That's why he was there, playing his piano. His wife was of a different mind. She was terrified for his safety and kept calling on his cell phone making sure he was alright. He assured her that he was fine and was being kept company by two friendly Canadians. Yes, two friendly Canadians, gripping our Brandy Alexanders, thankful that we were both safe, but aware that our world was changing before our eyes and would never be quite the same again.

Brandy Alexander
Serves 4

6 oz brandy
4 oz dark creme de cacao
4 oz light cream
Grated fresh nutmeg

In a martini shaker half filled with ice cubes, add the brandy, creme de cacao and cream. Shake well. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with some fresh grated nutmeg. Share this cocktail with good friends over the Christmas Season.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Festive Shrimp Canapés

Festive little nibblies can be a beautiful thing, especially when they look lovely and are easy to prepare. I love tiny cocktail shrimp and will often have them for lunch in an avocado half, mixed with some Lemon Dill Sauce. Yummy. This recipe features the wee crustaceans nestled atop artfully carved cucumber slices anchored by a liberal dollop of boursin, or herbed cream cheese, on little toasts or crackers. For the final flourish — a small slice of lemon, a drop of seafood sauce and a sprig of dill. Dee-lish. Pretty healthy too. You could use slightly larger shrimp, but the cocktail size shrimp are easier to eat!

Shrimp Canapés
Makes about 20 appetizers

1 english cucumber
1 cup (about 60) fresh cocktail shrimp, not canned
1 cup Boursin cheese, or herbed cream cheese
1 loaf multi grain bread
Cocktail sauce
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
Fresh dill

Pat dry the cocktail shrimp and set aside. Using a zester, score the cucumber length-wise creating long grooves. Cut the cucumber in half along it's length and thinly slice using a mandoline; set aside. 

Preheat oven to 350°F. Using a 1-1/2" cookie cutter or small glass, create circles from the bread slices and bake until lightly toasted. Let cool slightly.

To prepare canapés: spread a spoonful of boursin on each toast round, or cracker. Top with 3 thinly sliced cucumber halves, then 3 small shrimp, overlapping slightly. Garnish with a dollop of cocktail sauce and finish with a lemon slice and a sprig of dill.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Spinach and Feta Spanakopita Strudel

Spanakopita is one of my favourite appetizers — the tangy combination of spinach, feta and dill is a near perfect flavour combination. However, phyllo pastry can be a real challenge when faced with hand folding bazillions of the little Greek triangles before the delicate pastry dries up before your eyes. 

I recall watching the The Barefoot Contessa on the food channel one evening and Ina Garten was making one long rolled Spanakopita! Inspired by her ingenuity, I grabbed a pen and paper and quickly scribbled down the essentials of her recipe. The following day, I bought the ingredients and following my chicken-scratch notes, made Ina's strudel-style Spanakopita. 

Amazingly, it turned out brilliantly! Flaky, delicious and so much easier to make than the traditional triangles, I doubled the quantity and made it again for an out-of-town family Christmas party. I brought them on a baking sheet, uncooked and wrapped in cling film. Scoring the top of the pastry before cooking makes slicing the strudel into bite size rounds, very easy. Half and hour in the oven and out they came, golden brown and smelling unbelievably good. Too good perhaps, because they were all gone in no time at all!

Spanakopita Strudel
Inspired by a recipe by Ina Garten

1/2 cup olive oil
1 bunch chopped scallions, white and green parts

2 10-oz boxes frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
3 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
7 oz Greek feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
40 sheets (1 box) frozen phyllo dough, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
Tzatziki, for dipping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and add the scallions. Cook for 5 minutes or until soft. Meanwhile, squeeze most of the water out of the spinach and place it in a bowl. Add the scallions, dill, eggs, feta, salt, and pepper and mix together.

Keep the phyllo dough sheets covered with a damp kitchen towel. Unfold 1 sheet of the phyllo dough. Brush the sheet with melted butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Repeat the process by laying a second sheet of phyllo dough over the first sheet, brush it with melted butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs until all 10 sheets have been used. Spoon ¾ cup of the spinach mixture into a sausage shape along one edge of the phyllo dough. Roll it up. Place it on a parchment lined baking sheet, seam side down. 
Brush the top with butter and score the roll into 1-inch rounds. Repeat until all the pastry and filling has been used.

Place in the oven and bake for 12 minutes or until the edges are lightly golden and browned. Slice the Spanakopita on a diagonal, in 1" slices, using the score marks as a guide. Serve slices warm, filling side up, with a bowl of Tzatziki on the side for dipping!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chicken Pot Pie with a Crown of Puff Pastry

A great way to use up leftover roast chicken is to make a delicious and comforting Chicken Pot Pie. Taking advantage of store bought puff pastry makes the process even easier. The filling can be prepared in advance with any vegetables you have on hand, but I like to use diced potatoes, carrots and celery with a handful of green peas and blanched pearl onions which are sautéed in butter until tender. A rich thick creamy sauce is what brings the whole thing together, so it's important to taste for seasoning as you go along, adjusting the flavour to suit your palate. I like to use a cup of madeira or cognac for extra depth of flavour and a dash of cayenne pepper for some heat. 

Chicken Pot Pie can be prepared in a deep-dish pie plate or ladled into smaller ramekins for elegant single servings. The final flourish is fitting a round of puff pastry dough on top of each serving dish and with the excess pastry, decorating the tops with cut out shapes, and finally brushing the tops with an egg wash. The result is fabulous! A bubbling homemade chicken pot pie capped with a handsome crown of golden puff pastry.

Don't throw away any pastry scraps though, just toss them with a little parmesan cheese, a sprinkling of herbes de provence and twist them into bite size cheese straws. Bake them in the oven with the chicken pie and presto — a plate of tasty little appetizers

Chicken Pot Pie with Puff Pastry 
Serves 6-8

1 sheet frozen Puff Pastry
, thawed
5 tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

5 tbsp unsalted butter

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 celery stalks, sliced into 1/2" pieces
15 pearl onions
12 oz cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup Madeira or Cognac
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup whole milk or cream

5 cups cooked chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 cup frozen green peas

2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tbsp herbes de provence
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp freshly ground pepper

Egg wash:
1 large egg

2 tbsp milk

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a large heavy-bottom pot, melt 5 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add potatoes and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes and carrots are fork-tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. 

Meanwhile, trim the bottoms off the pearl onions and blanch in a small pot of boiling water, about 3-4 minutes. Rinse with cold water, remove outer skin, and set aside. 

Add mushrooms, celery and garlic to the potato mixture, and cook until the mushrooms are heated through. Add Madeira, or cognac, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring to thicken, about 2-3 minutes. Pour in chicken stock, milk and pearl onions. Bring to a simmer; cook until thick and bubbly, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add some more flour if you like a thicker 'gravy'. Stir in chicken, peas, parsley, thyme, herbes de provence and cayenne. Taste and season generously with salt and pepper, to taste. Transfer filling to your deep-dish pie plate or individual ramekins. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. 

On a lightly floured surface, rollout the puff pastry about 2" larger than the top of the baking dish. Place over the dish and trim leaving a 1/2" overhang, reserving excess pastry. Press overhang into and over edge. With a fork, whisk egg and milk; brush over pastry. Use excess pastry to cut out shapes and place on top. Brush egg mixture over pastry. Cut 5 or 6 steam vents into the top of the pastry using a small sharp knife.

Transfer casserole to a parchment-lined baking sheet, to catch any boil-over. Bake 30-40 minutes until pastry is golden brown. Cover the edges loosely with aluminum foil to prevent the crust edges from burning, if necessary. Serve hot. 

Cook's Note: I used half of this recipe for one pie and froze the other half. All you'll need is a sheet of puff pastry, and you'll have a second chicken pot pie in no time at all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is a deliciously decadent breakfast dish perfect for special occasions, and is even tastier when made with smoked salmon topped with luscious lemon-scented hollandaise sauce and a garnish of fresh chopped chives and salmon roe. Served with a flute of champagne and fresh squeezed orange juice, Christmas morning just got a little jollier.

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict

Serves 4

1 tsp vinegar
8 large eggs
4 English muffins
8 ounces smoked salmon
salmon roe and chopped chives for garnish

Hollandaise Sauce:
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 tsp white pepper
2 tbsp chopped fresh dill (optional)

To make Hollandaise Sauce:
In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk egg yolks until thick enough to coat back of spoon, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in melted butter, 2 tbsp at a time, until thickened; whisk in lemon juice, salt, white pepper and dill if you like. Keep warm until ready to serve.

To make eggs:
Pour enough boiling water into a skillet to come 3 inches up side; return to boil. Add vinegar; reduce heat to gentle simmer. Break each egg into small dish; gently slip into simmering water. Cook until desired doneness, about 5 minutes for soft yolks and firm whites. Remove with slotted spoon and drain well on paper towel to dry egg.

Meanwhile, cut English muffins in half and toast; place 2 halves, cut side up, on each pre-warmed plate. Top each with smoked salmon, poached egg and 2 tbsp Hollandaise Sauce. Garnish with chopped chives, and a dollop of salmon roe for an extra special treat. Serve with fresh fruit and/or sauteed diced potatoes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Trader Vic's Original Crab Rangoon

The first time I ever had Crab Rangoon was at Trader Vic's in London in the 1970's. Going for dinner was always a big deal — there was no other place like it. The Polynesian themed interiors were dimly lit and featured a quirky mix of tropical South Pacific artifacts, unique island infused cocktails and exotic pan asian cuisine. We always started with the Trader Vic's Pupu Platter of BBQ spareribs, crispy prawns, sliced char sui pork and of course, crab rangoon, which came with a double-dish of Canton Catsup and Mandarin Mustard. Although known for their Mai Tai's, I was partial to their Banana Daiquiri. 

Trader Vic's was started by Victor Bergeron in 1934 with a pub called Hinky Dinks in San Francisco. His colourful vocabulary and ribald air made him a popular host, as did his potent tropical cocktail concoctions and delicious Americanized adaptations of Polynesian food. It soon became a popular watering hole that attracted sophisticated urbanites. Vic became the Trader and Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic's. As Vic said at the time, "The south pacific theme intrigues everyone. You think of beaches and moonlight and pretty girls. It's a complete escape." 

                                           'Trader' Vic Bergeron

Among Trader Vic's more tantalizing legacies is the Mai Tai, the refreshing rum cocktail he created in 1944, and introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the 50's. Tahitian for 'the very best', Mai Tai became the slogan for his entire operation. In creating his new cocktail, 'Trader' Vic employed what was becoming the ever-present hallmark of all his food and beverage recipes: a light touch, meant to enhance but never disguise nor overpower the fine original taste of his main ingredients. All of his recipes reflected the man’s own personality: distinctive, lighthearted and memorable. However, this was not without controversy. “There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai, and I want to get the record straight,” said Bergeron. “I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”

South Pacific culture had a small but growing hold on the popular imagination in the 1930s. Primitive art from the South Seas had fascinated the cultural elite through the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and through a sort of obscure cultural alchemy, Trader Vic’s tapped into the spirit of the times, popularizing these primitive forms and marketing them in the form of the iconic Tiki statues — a symbol which has become synonymous with the Trader Vic's brand. 

Crab Rangoon is a perfect festive nibble to serve as an hors d'oeuvre during the holiday season. My version features sliced green onions and worcestershire sauce for added savoury depth, and a bit of fresh ginger and lemon juice to balance the richness of the cream cheese. The recipe couldn't be easier. The wontons do float to the surface as they cook, so a wire skimmer or spatula is useful to keep them submerged to ensure they brown evenly. So pour yourself a Mai Tai or Daiquiri, put on an old recording of Don Ho and slip quietly into tiki-mode.

Crab Rangoon
Makes 24 wontons

8 oz fresh or canned crab meat (or smoked salmon)
8 oz cream cheese with chives, softened (I use Western brand)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
1/2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 green onion, finely minced
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
24 store-bought wonton wrappers, round or square
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp water
1 egg yolk
vegetable oil for frying

In a large bowl, combine the fresh crab meat with the cream cheese. Fold in the remaining ingredients up to the wonton wrappers and blend to a paste. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

Create the wonton sealing mixture by dissolving the cornstarch in the 2 tablespoons of water. Add the egg yolk and stir until well-incorporated and smooth and set aside.

Place a heaping teaspoon on each wonton. Dip your finger in the egg/cornstarch sealing mixture and lightly paint the borders of the wonton wrapper. Encase the crab filling by folding over the edges of the wrapper to create a triangle or crescent, depending on the shape of the wonton wrapper. Press down to seal the edges with your fingertips. Using the back of a fork, ensure that the wontons are sealed by gently crimping the borders to create a fluted edge. To create a Trader Vic's style beggar's purse, gather all four corners together and pinch or twist to seal. Repeat with remaining wontons.

Preheat oven to 200°F. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches the temperature of 350°. Working in batches, fry the wontons until crispy and golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Drain the wontons on paper towels and keep them warm in the oven while you continue frying the remaining batches. Serve with plum sauce, or hot mustard for dipping, if you like.

Banana Daiquiri
Makes 4 cocktails

6 oz light rum
4 tbsp triple sec
4 bananas
6 oz lime juice
4 tsp white sugar

Combine all the ingredients plus 1 cup crushed ice in an electric blender. Blend at a low speed for five seconds, then blend at a high speed until firm. Pour contents into a tall glass and serve. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and a cherry.