Sunday, March 22, 2009

Italian Sausage Ragu

Pasta is one of my favourite dishes in the world, there is no comfort food better than a gigantic bowl of good quality handmade pasta with some old-fashioned meat sauce. Serve that with a piece of crunchy garlic bread and a good bottle of Chianti, and that's the most perfect dinner you will ever have.

Every Italian cook has their own special ragu i.e. meat sauce. Chances are, you will never find the one "authentic" Italian ragu. Some people like it without garlic, some without celery, some add milk, others don't, etc. etc. Well, as someone who has experimented a lot with creating the perfect ragu, I can tell you that the basics are always to start off with a soffrito (onion, celery and carrot mix), use good tomatoes (peeled and seeded) and keep herbs to a minimum. The only time you really want to use lots of fresh herbs is when you're preparing a simple tomato dish, otherwise, you should let the meat do the flavouring.

This recipe is a Konosur concoction, and combines both spicy Italian sausage with ground beef to create a rich and deeply satisfying ragu. I omitted milk from this recipe because of the usual dairy-free fiasco, but I think you will find that it works just fine. Remember to serve this with flat noodles, fresh ones if you can. Just a thin shaving of real Parmigiano would suffice for this. I promise you, you will think twice before buying that bottle of sauce from the grocery aisle.

Italian Sausage Ragu
Makes 6 servings

2 spicy Italian sausage links(you can also use mild), quartered with casings
1 lb lean ground beef (we used < 9% fat)
1 large yellow onion
1 medium carrot
2 ribs celery
1 small red pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp double concentrated tomato paste or 4 tbsp tomato paste
3 14.5oz cans ground and peeled organic tomatoes
1/4 cup good dry red wine
2 tsp sweet basil
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp olive oil

Prepare the soffrito by chopping the onions, carrots, celery and red pepper together. I used a food processor and roughly pulsed everything.

Heat the olive oil on medium-high heat in a large pot or dutch oven. Saute the soffrito for about 5 -7 minutes until the onions are translucent. Add in the minced garlic, meat and sausage. Saute for another 10 minutes until the meat is browned and fragrant.

Add in the tomato paste and stir to combine. Saute for a couple more minutes until the tomato paste has blended in to the meat mixture. Add in the tomatoes, wine, basil and nutmeg, turn the heat down and cover. Simmer for at least 3 hours (4 if you have time), stirring from time to time. If the sauce becomes too thick, you can add in a little beef broth at a time - but this probably just means you've kept the heat on too high.

After 3 hours, season with salt and pepper to taste. The meat sauce should be thick. Stir through and turn the heat off. Serve with tagliatte and grated parmesan and chopped parsley on top. Remember not to oversaturated the noodles with the sauce since the sauce is very thick and a little goes a long way.

Note: To store, cool the sauce completely and freeze in airtight glass containers or double Ziploc bags. They freeze well for at least 3 weeks.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gastronomic Salad with Homemade Garlic Croutons

I don't know about you, but there are some days I just feel "icky". Sort of in the way when you've waddled out of a fast food joint and you smell sickeningly like grease. Or when you've been too greedy at a diner buffet. Or when you've been eating nothing but Twinkies and potato chips for three days. That sort of icky.

So when you're feeling icky, there's nothing better than to keep things light with lots of vegetables and fruits. I like to combine both in a salad with a light dressing - nothing creamy or thick, just a garlicky dressing with olive oil and wine. To make it more satisfying for dinner, I usually add my own homemade croutons (less oil/butter than store bought ones) and some form of meat.

La Panzanella (it's a Seattle institution and the bread and crackers are beyond superb) at the Farmers' Market had a really splendid loaf of focaccia today and I thought it would be good to make some garlic croutons and toss it with one of my favourite Konosur concoctions. The recipe combines spring greens (butterhead lettuce and a herb salad mix), prosciutto and blood oranges to make it a seasonal salad that help rids the "ickyness" of having eaten badly for the past week. It makes a satisfying dinner and is complemented well with a glass of 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from California (Try 2007 Vintage Bogle for a good, cheap Sauvignon Blanc under $10).

Gastronomic Salad with Homemade Garlic Croutons
Serves 4

1/2 loaf foccacia bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp orange juice
2 tbsp white wine
2 cups butterhead lettuce, torn
1 cup herb salad mix (combination of arugula, dill, tarragon, parsley and endive)
1 large blood orange, peel removed and sliced
3 slices prosciutto, sliced into strips
2 tsp fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1/4 cup sweetened, dried cranberries
2 tbsp roughly chopped pistachios

Preheat oven to 325°F.

To make croutons, combine cubed bread, two tablespoons olive oil, rosemary and 3/4 of the minced garlic in a large bowl. Season with a little salt and pepper. Toss well to mix all the ingredients together. Spread out on a baking sheet lined with foil. Toast in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, stir with a spatula and toast for another 10 minutes until croutons are crunchy and golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, make the dressing by combining the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil, remaining mince garlic, orange juice, white wine and dash of pepper in a small bowl. Whisk and set aside.

Assemble the salad: On a large platter, arrange the salad leaves, sliced orange and sliced prosciutto. Scatter the cranberries and pistachios over the top. Drizzle with the dressing. Toss everything together and serve with croutons on top.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Homemade Low-fat Tropical Fruit Granola

There's something always satisfying about waking up in the mornings and knowing that breakfast is there waiting for you. I think that's the reason we all resort to boxed cereal. My usual quick breakfast usually consists of a bowl of homemade granola with skim milk, half a banana and two tablespoons of yogurt. And of course the default mega-size cup of black coffee.

Part of my early diet strategy from a few years ago involved store-bought granola, which if you're not careful in choosing, can contain tons of saturated fat and sugar. The reason why factory-made toasted oats taste so good is because it's slathered with lots and lots of honey, maple syrup and sugar! Add that with plump, juicy, sugar-cured fruits and you've got a candy factory masquerading as health food. Some companies substitute the maple syrup/honey with manufactured sweeteners in order to lower the calories, something which I think takes away from the wonderful flavor of real granola.

The truth is that granola isn't the best kind of breakfast food for you. You'd be better off with cooked oats, a dash of cinnamon, a teaspoon of honey and some sugar free dried fruit. But in moderation, granola can be a nice crunchy topping to some yogurt or cottage cheese, which will be high enough in protein and should keep you feeling jaunty for the rest of the morning.

The secret to good granola is to toast the oats over low heat in the oven until they turn a beautiful brown color. I use applesauce to substitute the oil and to sweeten the granola. Then I toss the toasted oats with some unsulphured dried fruit mix - you can use unsweetened fruit, but because I use less sugar/sweetener than most recipes call for, I think it's perfectly fine to use sweetened fruit.

Homemade Low-Fat Tropical Granola
Makes 12 servings of 1/4 cup

Granola Mix
3 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
3 tbsp ground flax seed
1/2 cup chopped pecans (you can also use almonds or walnuts)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
1 tbsp vegetable oil (I used Smart Balance 3-oil blend)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt

Dried Tropical Fruit Mix
1/2 cup unsulphured Tropical Fruit Mix: Pineapple, Mango Papaya, Banana chips (I buy them from the bulk aisle at Whole Foods or they are also available at Trader Joe's)
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup low sugar dried cranberries (I use Eden Organics)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a large sheet pan with parchment paper. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the granola using two large spoons. To create clusters, use your hands to squeeze the mixture together.

Spread the granola mix onto the prepared sheet pan in one layer. Toast in the oven at 325°F for 25 minutes until the granola is crisp and brown. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.

Mix in the dried tropical fruits. Store in airtight jars for up to two weeks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

St. Paddy's Day calls for Some Cupcakes

For a long time now I've sworn not to be sucked into the cupcake blackhole that is swirling around on the food blogosphere. Cupcakes! What?! Those tiny little cake/muffin wannabes often decorated to look like sickly cottage drawings; so cute you want to throw them against a wall just to rid them of that sickly pastel hue used in a gazillion pounds of butter and cream and sugar.

Cupcakes! Sold in overpriced shops in the chicest of neighbourhoods, charged at $5 a pop for a malt-button, candy-cane, marzipan topping in the shape of effing "Hello Kitty" or god knows what species of hydrangea and posies. Those bloody cupcakes. I told you I swore not to be sucked in.

But I've come to the realization that cupcake resistance is futile. They're easy to make, come in bite-size amounts, AND you can slather tons of disasterous artery-clogging fat on it, and it will still turn out beautiful. That's the unfortunate and evil beauty of cupcakes.

I thought and thought for days about something to make for St.Patrick's day in order to satisfy my ever-burgeoning sweet-tooth. Somehow the idea of clover-patterned cookies just seem so cliched. Enter the liquer-infused cupcake. Alcohol? Check. Sugar? Check. Butter and cream? Check.

I've been trying for aeons to figure out how to get rid of the bottle of Irish Cream sitting in the back of the liquor cabinet for a long time now. I would drink it neat but it just seems like such a 1990s "mom" thing to do. So here, with my Irish cream buttercream, cream-filled face in hand, I present the beast that is my green-coloured Irish Cream Cupcakes for St. Patrick's Day. They're moist, smell slightly of coffee and topped off with silly little shamrock rosettes. Póg mo Thóin indeed!

P/S: As I write this, I promise you I am NOT drunkk.

Irish Cream Cupcakes
Makes 6 cupcakes (because hey, these can and should be illegal).

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1/8 cup brewed coffee, cooled
1/3 cup Irish Cream

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 6 cupcake tin with liners.

On a piece of wax or parchment paper, sieve together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2-3 minutes using a stand mixer or 5 minutes using a handheld mixer.

Add in eggs, vanilla, liqueur and coffee. Beat until just combined. Gently fold in the flour mixture and beat for about 1 minute until the mixture starts to form. DO NOT OVERBEAT. Turn off the mixer and use a rubber spatula to fold all the ingredients until completely combined.

Divide the batter into the prepared tin, filling the liners until about 2/3 full. DO NOT OVERFILL. Bake in preheated oven at 350°F for 15 - 20 minutes until tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn the cupcakes out and cool completely on a wire rack. Top with buttercream frosting (recipe follows).

Irish Buttercream Frosting
2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1/4 cup and 2 tbsp powdered sugar
2 tbsp Irish cream
Green food coloring

Cream the butter, powdered sugar and Irish cream in a bowl for about 1 minute until fluffy. Add in a few drops of green food coloring and stir thoroughly. Spoon buttercream into pastry bag and use a 22 star tip to pipe little rosettes in the shape of a shamrock onto the cupcakes.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Apple Spice Cake with Coconut Caramel Sauce

The boyfriend ages a year today. By the unspoken law of dating courtesy, I can't reveal his age, but let's just say it warrants a nice home-cooked dinner and a delicious cake to go with it. It's always hard when someone has allergies, and with dairy-allergies it's even worse, because store-bought cake is usually out of the question. More often than not, I have to settle with baking a coffee-cake instead.

This is my take on a classic spice cake which I have tried to turn into an apple spice cake with a fluffier and lighter texture than a coffee cake. The boyfriend's mum first shared with me a spice cake recipe which was called "Wacky Cake" just because it had really weird ingredients like vinegar. I have modified that to include chopped apples and nuts, topped with a coconut caramel sauce, and is best served with some creamy vanilla ice cream on the side. The one good thing about cakes that don't have goops and goops of cream on it is that it's usually quite good for you, and you can always have an extra helping without worrying about the calories.
By the way, I have to make a huge plug for Green and Black's Organic Vanilla Ice-Cream which, when served with the apple spice cake is the most delicious thing in the world. Of course, if you're going completely non-dairy, then you can serve it with soy ice cream, otherwise, Green and Black's Organic Vanilla Ice Cream will satiate your decadent fix.

Apple Spice Cake with Coconut Caramel Sauce
Makes one 8-inch cake

Dry ingredients
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda

Wet ingredients
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup apple sauce
1 large egg
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp good quality vanilla essence
1 tsp French brandy

To fold
1 large apple (Fuji or Granny Smith, depending if you like it tart), peeled and chopped
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
2 tbsp chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan if you're using a traditional aluminum pan. If using a non-stick pan, do not grease.

Sieve all the dry ingredients onto a parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat all the wet ingredients together on high speed until fluffy. Turn the mixer speed down to low. Lift the parchment paper with the dry ingredients and fold into half. Gently pour in the dry ingredients into the wet ones bit by bit. Beat gently until the ingredients come together. Turn off the mixer.

Fold in the apples, walnuts and pecans gently. Spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake at 350°F for 50 minutes until a thin knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Then turn out onto a wire rack and let it cool completely. Serve with coconut caramel sauce (see below) and vanilla ice cream.

Coconut Caramel Sauce
Makes 6 servings

3 heaping tablespoons brown sugar
1 tbsp butter (or vegan cooking margarine)
2 tsp vanilla essence
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup light coconut milk

In a saucepan over very low heat, gently melt the butter and sugar. Once melted, add in the remaining ingredients and whisk until everything is combine. Reduce and thicken the sauce over low heat for about 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes and drizzle over the apple spice cake and ice cream.