An easy appetizer for the weekend

March 20, 2008

Naan toast

I mentioned our scotch-tasting party in Monday’s post. Although Martin had the meal figured out in advance, we realized — just before our guests arrived — that we hadn’t thought about appetizers. Given that people were coming mid-afternoon to drink scotch, it seemed imperative to offer a substantial nosh that could sop up the booze and help our guests stay standing for dinner.

Enter my trusted supply of make-ahead caramelized onions. Since time was short and our menu featured lamb curry, coconut-zucchini curry and basmati rice, I picked up a few packages of Naan bread at the grocery store, covered it in a thick swath of thawed caramelized onions and a generous amount of shredded extra old cheddar cheese. I cranked the oven to 400F (200C) and popped in my concoction. Voila! I had a hearty appetizer prepared in less than 20 minutes (fortunately, I live close to the store!).

So, if this weekend you find yourself needing an appetizer to appease your Easter feasters while they await the ham and scalloped potatoes, feel free to fall back on this easy idea. You’ll find the directions for making caramelized onions in my original post.

Tell me about the instant appetizer that saved the day when you needed a last-minute offering for guests by replying in the comments section below.

Flavoured salt 101

March 19, 2008

Flavoured saltIn my last Topline Trends newsletter, I talked about how salt is interesting because it is trending up as something we want to avoid as well as something we want to use as a gourmet ingredient. On the one hand, we’re trying to get salt out of packaged food so we can reduce our dietary intake of sodium. On the other hand, we’re buying exotic, interesting salts from around the world and adding them to food — both at the table and when we’re cooking.What’s interesting about the gourmet side of the salt trend is that, like wine, salt is always linked to a geographical location. I was on Canada AM last week talking about food trends and I had 14 different kinds of salt on set (one of my favourites from the batch is pictured above and you can see the others here); each salt was from a different exotic geographic area and had special characteristics (again, like wine) because of its place of origin.Interestingly, scientific research shows that our palates can’t discern the difference between the flavours of different salts when they are dissolved in water (once diluted, sodium is sodium). So, when we use a special kind of salt and find it more or less delicious than another type, it is the rate and the way the salt crystals dissolve on our tongues that is actually creating a different taste experience.How does it work, you ask? Different salts have different shapes and different sizes, therefore they dissolve at different rates which means our palates perceive differences in the flavour. Now some salts — such as ones that are filled with minerals (like volcanic salt) — do have distinct tastes, and flavoured salts offer many culinary opportunities. For instance, smoked salt is certainly on many chefs’ ‘must-have’ lists this season for its incomparable rich flavour. But if you were to dissolve any unflavoured salt in water in equal amounts of weight to equal volumes of water and tasted them, you would be completely unable to tell one from another.So, what I’m really trying to tell you is to save your specialty salts to use as a finishing salt. When you’re cooking with moisture, use the cheap and cheerful stuff. There is absolutely no reason to put expensive sea salt into pasta water. If purity is an issue for you, buy kosher salt to avoid the iodine and use it as your basic cooking ingredient.What do I mean by “finishing salt”? Basically a finishing salt is a salt that you use either at the table or just after food is cooked. For instance, if you’re grilling steak, you might sprinkle it with some finishing salt while it’s resting on the chopping board. (This is where smoked salt is a really delicious choice!)Expect to pay a premium for the specialty salts. In fact, a small bottle of fleur de sel can cost as much as $7 or $8, which gives you yet another reason to use it sparingly.How many kinds of salt do you have in your pantry?

Anyone can be a Cooking Mama

March 18, 2008

Cooking video game

Well over a year ago, I heard about a new Nintendo Wii video game that, instead of leading you through the motions to blow up towns or race cars around a track, required players to slice, dice, grate and knead to make various international recipes. Wacky, I thought. What kid would want to make virtual food when they could go in the kitchen and help mom make a salad?

Recently, a friend brought his Wii system over as well as a copy of this game and, I have to tell you, I was right: Cooking Mama is wacky. The graphics seem clunky and flat in this day and age of World of Warcraft and Pixar movies, and the music and narration are just kitschy. That said, Cooking Mama is also a lot of fun and surprisingly appealing (and a little addictive) to kids and adults alike.

The joke that day was that our group of Wii players was made up of 80 per cent professional chefs. We all thought we’d beat the Cooking Mama game in no time and rack up unprecedented scores. Instead, “mama” (the voice of the game) told us to “try harder” at least as often as she praised us for doing ‘better than mama’.

Is Cooking Mama going to teach kids how to make dinner? Not necessarily. Some of the cooking instructions are down right bizarre (how many of you have ever had to open a can to make a scrambled egg?) However, kids will learn that food doesn’t just come out of a frozen package and perhaps they’ll be encouraged to observe and participate in the real life kitchen more often. Likewise, for parents who have kids who like to play in the kitchen, Cooking Mama offers benefits: clean-up happens with the flick of a power button and no one eats extra calories that spoil their real-life supper.

Bottom line: If you need to play a video game, Cooking Mama is as innocent as you can find anywhere and it just may help kids to appreciate food a little more than they did before they played.

Scotch tasting and its connection to butterscotch

March 17, 2008


If any of you could see me as I write this post, you’d think me a totally decadent sloth: on the table I have my laptop, a finger print smudged Bordeaux glass containing a few saved sips of cabernet sauvignon, a sturdy silver dessert spoon and an open carton of Hagen Daaz dulce de leche ice cream. I think I should get up, put away the ice cream and go for a brisk walk. Instead, I’m going to keep sitting here and tell you about my recent butterscotch epiphany.

As you can see from the picture above, we decided that since winter wouldn’t leave us alone, we’d just embrace indoor activities and have a scotch tasting. Although I’ve been to Scotland, toured distilleries and been served great quality scotch many times, I really don’t know much about it except that it is strong and expensive. So, I was pretty jazzed when Martin brought home five bottles of Macallan scotch varying in age from 10 to 25 years and suggested we host an educational afternoon of scotch tasting for a mixed crowd of Pangaea staff and neighbours.

Martin purposely chose scotch from one distillery so that we could truthfully evaluate the effects of not only age on whisky but also aging whisky in different kinds of wood. It was a useful (albeit expensive!) experiment. We gathered 14 people, printed out the tasting notes and spider diagrams for each bottle (the Macallan website is amazing) and set out dozens of glasses.

Interestingly, many of our tasters preferred the 15-year old scotch aged in fine oak to the vastly more expensive 25-year old scotch aged in sherry washed oak. For me, there was no contest. While I could appreciate certain things about the younger whisky, I loved the 25-year old because it resonated with me as a chef and a lover of butterscotch.

After just a sniff and a couple of sips of this scotch, I understood where the word ‘butterscotch’ might come from. The 25-year old scotch may have been as dark as maple syrup but it definitely had to be the inspiration for one of my favourite dessert flavours: so smooth and jammy this drink was buttery textured and super smooth. The aged scotch notes had a lot in common with caramel so that at last, it was 100 per cent obvious that butterscotch, the candy, could be related to scotch the super potent potable.

High altitude bread baking

March 14, 2008

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the interaction I have with my readers (In fact, it was a craving for more contact with the outside world that led me to begin this blog in the first place, so feel free to comment and ask questions as often as you like!)

As you may have noted, there’s a ‘?’ icon on the right hand side of each page of this blog. If you’ve never clicked on it, you might not know that it opens up an email form so that you can ask me a question. While some people have used this feature to ask for clarification or more info about something I’ve posted, every once in a while I get a question that I think deserves to be shared with more people. A question recently posed by Joyce from Saskatchewan fell into this category.

Joyce wrote:
I live in southwest Saskatchewan on the prairies. One of my sons moved to Calgary. When we visit I take my bread-making machine, as they love fresh bread. They live in the southwest part of the city up by the top of the Olympic ski jump. The bread that I make here is twice the size of what turns out there. Could the altitude – I think they are about 1500 feet higher there than we are here – make a difference? If so do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

The answer is that yes, altitude can greatly affect your kitchen activities. According to Susan Purdy, an expert on high altitude cooking:

“As the elevation rises, three major factors may cause a recipe to need adjustment in ingredients, cooking times, and/or temperatures. The higher in elevation you go:
1. The lower the boiling point of water
2. The faster liquids (and moisture in general) evaporate
3. The more quickly leavening gases expand”

Needless to say, moisture and leavening are both important when baking bread so elevation is certainly causing havoc with Joyce’s baking. Since the yeast is acting more quickly at a higher elevation, it sounds like the bread machine is allowing the bread to over-expand and then it is falling before the machine starts to bake. So, Joyce and other high altitude bakers, if your bread machine won’t allow you to cut back on the rising time, you may need to pull your dough out and shape by hand and bake the bread in the oven before it has a chance to over proof and fall.

The best source I’ve found for overall advice on high altitude cooking is Susan Purdy’s book called Pie in the Sky. She also has excellent info posted in an article at Epicurious. For advice specific to cake and cookie baking you can also check out the Crisco website for free.

Thanks again for your question Joyce!

More on men and cooking

March 13, 2008

Men cookingIn the weeks since I first wrote about the cooking habits of modern men, I’ve noticed many Internet searches often bring people to that particular blog post (the other topic everyone seems to love is gourmet cupcakes!). As often as several times a day, my blog stat chart indicates that someone arrives here after searching for information about men and cooking. It’s obvious that people are curious to know what men are up to in the kitchen. I only wish I could see who’s doing the searching. Is it over-tired women hoping that change is in the offing? Male home cooks looking for camaraderie and validation that what they are doing is normal and acceptable? I can only guess.

Last week I missed a press event held by GE to promote their new Café series of appliances (if it had been hosted by Jack Donaghy I would definitely have made an effort to attend!). Although I couldn’t attend, the publicist sent me the media kit, which contained more info about men in the kitchen. So, since you seem so interested, I’ll share the details with you here:

• 80% of Canadian men report that they shop for menu ingredients, prepare the house, serve guests and help with clean up when they and their spouses entertain

• 60% of men are involved in cooking when guests come over

• 53% of men say they would cook more often if their appliances had a many, professional look and feel. (BTW, ladies, the picture above is of a kitchen that GE thinks will make men feel right at home and encourage them to rattle pans more often).

According to publicist Laura Garcia, these findings were the result of a random, national telephone survey conducted in January. The responses of 1,002 Canadian adults were used to calculate these statistics.

Sweet treats for dieters

March 12, 2008

Chimes ginger chewsOnce a sweet tooth always a sweet tooth, I suppose. Although I’m trying to maintain my slim and trim new self, I do find it difficult to make the right choice when I get a hankering for something sweet. Cravings for Cluizel chocolate or Fat Witch brownies are only partially relieved by apple wedges or a yogurt. I have an aversion to the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners like aspartame so my sweet snacks, even the virtuous ones, need to be made with real sugar.

Although I’ll always love a decadent chocolate treat above all else, I have discovered a few better choices are that are satisfying and don’t leave me feeling like I’ve settled for second best.

Chimes Ginger Chews: Bonus points for coming in such a fab package, these all-natural, intensely flavoured confections are just 16 calories each. Each candy is individually wrapped, so you have to think twice before you pop a second one in your mouth.

Peek Freans Lifestyle Selections Cranberry Citrus Oat Crunch: Satisfyingly crisp and just sweet enough to cut the bitterness of coffee well, these cookies are less than 50 calories each.

Do you have a skinny sweet treat that you’d like to tell us about?