Chimichurri’s the new ketchup

February 29, 2008

Chimichurri and steakChimichurri is an Argentine basting and dipping sauce that is served with grilled meats; it’s as common in Argentina as ketchup is in North America. Fresh, tangy and utterly terrific tasting, chimichurri is appearing more and more often on steakhouse and fine dining menus here in Canada.

Although there are a couple of bottled chimichurri sauce mixtures on the market, none of them compare to the taste of one made with fresh parsley.

Steak is the number one meat served with Chimichurri sauce in Argentina; my favourite steak to use with chimichurri is a rib steak, which is a well-marbled, flavourful cut that truly appreciates the astringency of this sauce (the picture today is a rib steak with chimichurri sauce from my latest book Dana’s Top Ten Table). That said, this sauce is also terrific brushed over shrimp as they come off the grill or used as a marinade for black cod or monkfish. In summer, I also like to barbecue a chicken over low coals or on the rotisserie and then serve chimichurri as a dipping sauce.

Fresh and Fabulous Chimichurri Sauce:

3 tbsp (45 mL) red-wine vinegar
2 tbsp (30 mL) water
4 cloves minced garlic
3/4 tsp (4 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) dried hot red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp (2 mL) coarsely ground black pepper
1 small bay leaf
1/4 cup (50 mL) olive oil
1/2 cup (125 mL) finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 rib, T-bone or porterhouse steak, about 2 lb (1 kg)
1 tsp (5 mL) salt

Stir vinegar with water, garlic, salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper and bay leaf until salt is dissolved. Whisk in oil and stir in parsley. Divide in half. Brush the half without the bay leaf evenly over the steak. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Learning to cook

February 28, 2008

Chicken MarengoFor everyone who enjoys cooking, there’s one dish that divides the time between when they were learning to cook and when they became someone who people acknowledge as a person who can cook. Quite a milestone!

The first dish I mastered came from a hardcover cookbook that my Aunt Doreen had cast aside. It had a lofty title like Great Dishes of France that should have intimidated a 12-year old but instead made me take it seriously. (In those days I believed that if information was in a book, it was sacred and special — I hadn’t read Shopaholic Takes Manhattan yet). Aunty Doreen’s cookbook was as thick as my grandmother’s family bible and just as impoverished for illustration. I remember thinking of the recipes in this book as so much more special and worthy than the ones in my mother’s Five Roses Cookbook and I took to studying my aunt’s book carefully.

I think I made quite a few things from that book but the one that I mastered, surprising no one as much as myself; was Chicken Marengo (that’s the version I made in the picture). At the time, I didn’t know this dish was connected to Napoleon Bonaparte but I knew that it was special because after I served it to them for dinner, my family looked at me in a new way.

I polled my Facebook group and foodie friends to find out what dishes they first mastered. Here are their answers.

• The first recipe I perfected, was shortbread cookies. I remember taking them — pretty classic butter, sugar and flour rounds, decorated with red and green glace cherries — to my mother who was visiting with a friend in the living room. Lavish praise ensued, and I was hooked. Who doesn’t like baking when the results are so pleasing?

Elizabeth Baird, Toronto, Ont.

• I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the first meal I mastered at a young age was Hamburger Helper!

Although, I remember a few mishaps in the cookie department — potato-chip cookies seemed like a good combination but never really came together well, then there was the shortbread made with coarse salt….

Regan Windsor, Sanford, Mba.

• I remember coming home from school for lunch to discover a dining room table lined with three to four different types of freshly baked homemade cookies. Once a week, my mom would bake up a selection to keep us happy at lunch and after school. That first decision to choose which cookie to have after lunch was a killer — chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, oatmeal raisin. Logically, the first recipe I mastered was the chocolate chip cookie. To this day, I follow the same recipe my mom pulled from her Canadian cookbook, which was so beautifully earmarked, with sugar, eggs and butter — a sign of a well-loved cookbook in our house.

Caroline Coulson, Toronto, Ont.

• I mastered making peanut brittle when I was nine. Watching melting sugar being transformed into amber liquid hooked me on cooking and baking. Sweet memories!

Norene Gilletz, Toronto, Ont.

• The first dish I mastered was chili. It’s so easygoing – measurements can be approximate – you can just add this and that and keep tasting until it’s about right. And it tastes even better the next day!

I knew I had mastered it when I won the Calgary Stampede Chili Cook-off at age 12. Not the kids’ cook-off, the grown-ups one! To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what exactly had gone into it!

Julie Van Rosendaal, Calgary, Alta.

• I was about 12 and I made this pineapple cheesecake. You know, the no-bake kind with gelatin and a tin of crushed pineapple? My Dad and my uncle Bob would polish off the 9” x 13” pan in one sitting.

Donna Paluk, Winnipeg Beach, Mba.

• My forte at the tender age of seven was cookies from no less than The Betty Crocker’s Girls and Boys Cookbook. I recall oatmeal chocolate chip were a triumph, shortbreads were a flop (given that I subbed out butter for “Betty Lou” Margarine — some neon-yellow nightmare my parents thought was better for us!) I’d sit my Curious George stuffed monkey on the counter and speak to him in my best Julia Child-inflected warble. It was love at first mix!

Mary Luz Mejia , Toronto, Ont.

• I gave my first dinner party at age 16…lasagna and Caesar salad. Friends still mention it and lasagna always takes me back there.

Ruth Daniels, Halifax, N.S.

• Believe it or not, the first recipe I made on my own (with my mother helping as needed) was bread. My sister and I took bread-baking as part of 4H Club in our early teens. I remember it was a braided loaf. It was my first encounter with the mysteries of yeast, kneading and egg wash. How wonderful it smelled and how proud I was to serve it to my family.

Later, when I had my own place after university, pasta with broccoli, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese was a staple one-pot dish.

Julia Armstrong, Toronto, Ont.

• The first real meal I perfected (with only a little guidance from Mom) was Creamed Ham and Peas on Toast. I was determined to make it to earn my Housekeeping Badge as a Brownie (I was in Grade 3 or 4). My mom showed me how to make the white sauce (I had no idea at the time that it was the classical French Bechamel Sauce) and I added the rest.

This effort was to make up for my first, miserable failure — I made Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches — the soup boiled over; I burnt the sandwiches; and after Mom wiped up the soup and my tears, she taught me the best lesson: that mistakes in the kitchen are not the end of the world and are the best way to learn!

Anna Olson, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
What’s the first dish you mastered? Please tell me by using the comments section below.

WTF Wednesdays

February 27, 2008

Cheese and champagneAs regular readers here know, I recently slimmed down by 15 pounds and pledged to lose six additional pounds before spring. Although I plan to maintain my new shape, I also realize that mental health is as important as physical well-being and certainly much more important than physical beauty. (Although if I were to wrangle a tri-fecta of fabulousness by achieving all three qualities of physical health, mental health and gorgeousness, I’d see no shame in the accomplishment!)

February is a cold and dreary month here in central Canada and, to be honest, the lack of sunshine can lead to vitamin D deficiencies that aren’t good for a girl’s mood. Not good at all. Just last Wednesday I found myself feeling a little blue and with an overwhelming urge for cheese and champagne (bubbles make me happy), so I wasted no time at all and laid out a spread of yummy cheese and popped a cork of Lanson. Immediately I felt a wave of good feelings!

A moment or two later when my chef sprocket hubby came into the room (the pop of a champagne cork is like a dog whistle for that man!) I was happier still to welcome him to WTF Wednesday, my impromptu party thrown for no reason than to spread happiness.

So if you feel your new year’s resolve slipping away as the days in 2008 accumulate, take a break. We all deserve a WTF Wednesday. Just be sure it isn’t followed by a Debauchery Thursday and you’ll be just fine!

Afraid of baking?

February 26, 2008

Betty Crocker circa 1996My entire life, I’ve been told by friends and acquaintances that I look like other people’s sisters, cousins and neighbours. But, I didn’t realize how truly average-looking I am until I was hired to be the spokesperson for Betty Crocker in Canada. I was attracted to working with the Betty team because I so often meet people who are freaked out by baking. My hope was that by getting them into the kitchen with mixes and tubs of frosting, they’d gain confidence and end up cooking more of all kinds of foods on a regular basis.

A few weeks after we made our agreement, I was in a meeting discussing how we could make videos that would teach people basic baking skills when one of the marketing folks came in with a copy of the current picture of the fictitious (yet much-loved!) Betty. Although this picture was developed in 1996 when I was only 30 years old, this person easily could be my older, slightly more conservative, sister.

What’s truly telling is how the latest incarnation of Betty came to be. Her picture is the product of a computer averaging exercise that blended the faces of women who embody the Betty Crocker core values. You know, qualities like valuing family, prioritizing sharing meals and stuff like that. Specifically, the designers scanned all of these women’s pictures, blended them together into a composite and created a picture of the quintessential Betty. In other words, she’s your average woman. Just like me!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy being average-looking. In fact, I think it has a lot to do with why I’m so often invited to be a TV guest. I look like so many people that almost everyone can relate to me. The happy result is that viewers can see themselves cooking the foods I demonstrate on air and cook more as a result. In a way, being average is my gift. Don’t buy it? Consider this: good ol’ average Betty Crocker is one of Ad Age magazine’s top 10 advertising icons.

How to eat 278 fewer calories a day

February 25, 2008

Fruit vs. fruit juiceDrink more water and eat fruit. Honest, these two small changes will make a huge difference to your caloric intake if you’re like most North Americans.

Late in 2007, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that since 1971, overall energy intake from sweetened beverages increased 135 per cent.

This change represents a 278 total calorie increase per person per day. If you do the math, that’s enough extra calories to result in a 25 lb. weight gain over the course of a year.

Although pop and energy drinks are often cited as one of the insidious causes of obesity, we need to remember that healthy-hailed fruit juices can be high in calories, too.

In fact, my colleague Amy Snider, a professional home economist who specializes in nutrition, recommends that we reevaluate our opinions about fruit juice: “Canada’s Food Guide makes the recommendation to ‘have vegetables and fruit more often than juice’,” points out Amy.

“There are scores of beverage products currently marketed that claim to contain superfruit-enhanced nutritional benefits. However, calorie-for-calorie, these beverages can’t match the nutritional benefits of eating real fruit. This is because whole fruits and vegetables contain more fiber and are more filling while containing fewer calories ounce for ounce. Likewise, the carbohydrates consumed while eating fruit are broken down less quickly than those from juice; helping to prevent blood sugar spikes.

“There’s also a school of thought that would say that eating fruit in its natural form should increase the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you consume. Research is still working to identify all of the healthful components in plant foods and studies are still determining the bioavailability of nutritious plant compounds when processed into products such as juice or added as supplements into other products but why not hedge your bets?

“In my opinion, drinking juice can be a refreshing way to gain additional nutrients but should not replace whole fruit in our diets or water as our primary beverage source.”

This is great advice from Amy especially, as so-called “healthy” versions of products like Pepsi are launched and marketed to us.

Easy, economical Lemon Parsnip Soup

February 22, 2008

lemon parsnip soup

The idea for this soup is borrowed from the repertoire of my husband, chef Martin Kouprie, who first made a similar version of this soup at his Toronto restaurant Pangaea.I love it since it is thick and satisfying but cream-free and low-calorie (In other words, it’s just perfect for someone like me who’s returned home from eating, drinking and gambling away her meagre fortune in Las Vegas! — more on that topic another time).

Lemon Parsnip Soup makes an excellent change from the ordinary and is interesting enough to serve to guests. Try a bowl with a rustic bread stick and a chickory-based salad for a homey, healthful, comforting dinner.

Lemon Parsnip Soup*

1 tbsp (15 mL) butter or vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp (5 mL) finely grated lemon peel
1/2 tsp (5 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) pepper
6 cups (1.5L) peeled, chopped parsnips
10 cups (2.5 L) chicken or vegetable broth
1 tbsp (5 mL) lemon juice
Thyme sprigs
Lemon slices

Heat butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onion, thyme, lemon peel, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often for 5 minutes. Add the parsnips, cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until parsnips were becoming tender. Stir in broth and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring, for 20 to 25 minutes or until parsnips are very soft.

Transfer parsnip mixture to a blender or food processor in batches. Puree until smooth. Stir in lemon juice and bring to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve in soup cups garnished with thyme and lemon. Makes 8 servings.

*Recipe from Dana’s Top Ten Table: 200 Fresh Takes on Family-Favourite Meals. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright (c) 2007 by Dana McCauley. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Rob’s 10 tips for making soup stock

February 21, 2008

Guest Blogger Rob Heidenreich

soup stockGood quality stock or broth is the foundation for making delicious soup. Although many people buy broth in a carton, stocks and broths are easy and inexpensive to make from scratch. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you make soup stock at home:

1. Choose an appropriate pot for the amount of bones you have. If you have a massive stockpot and only one chicken carcass, you will not end up with a flavourful stock. Similarly, do not try to cram too much into a small pot since bones and vegetables sticking up out of the liquid will not release any flavour. As a rough guideline, the total quantity of bones and vegetables should half fill the pot.

2. Choose fresh, quality aromatic vegetables for your stock. Essential for any stock preparation is the traditional French mirepoix (celery, carrots, onions), but many other vegetables (celeriac, parsnips, leeks, bulb fennel, etc.) make wonderful additions when used in small quantities.

3. Prepare the vegetables to be used in the stock according to the amount of time the stock will be simmered. The longer the cooking time, the larger the pieces of vegetable.

4. Always fill your pot with cold water and bring the ingredients up to a simmer slowly. Starting with cold water and slow-simmering allows for maximum extraction of flavour. Likewise, if you wish to keep the stock clear, do not allow it to boil rapidly and skim the surface of the stock while it simmers to remove fat and impurities.

5. Remember never to add salt to any stock before it is finished. Strongly seasoned stock can’t be reduced to make sauces and glazes without becoming too salty.

6. When considering herbs, add only the more subtle-flavoured varieties such as parsley, thyme and bay leaf.

7. The amount of time the stock is left to bubble depends on the type of bones you use. As a guideline, think six to eight hours for beef and veal, one and a half to three hours for chicken, and no more than 30 to 40 minutes for fish bones.

8. Allow the simmered broth to settle before carefully straining it. For maximum clarity, line a sieve or conical strainer with several layers of cheesecloth (a coffee filter will do in a pinch) and ladle the liquid through it into a sanitized container.

9. Cool the stock quickly to avoid the growth of bacteria: Set the pot in a sink with something underneath to allow the flow of cool water under the pot as well as around it.

10. Finally, if you’re not going to use all the finished stock for soup, it’s a good idea to freeze it. I like to portion stock into small containers so that I don’t have to thaw more than I need for a particular recipe. It’s a good idea to use muffin tins (or even ice-cube trays for highly concentrated stocks) to produce easy-to-use ”stock pucks” for adding to sauces or stews.

Dana’s tip: I freeze the carcass every time I make roast chicken in freezer bags. When I have three, I pull them out and use these bones as the basis for a big pot of chicken stock.