Back to School

Poule au pot-2The streets are bustling with freshmen making their way through with beer chugging contest initiations, 99¢ pizza (or at least that’s how much it cost when I was a freshman) at closing time and a greasy spoon breakfast or their preferred hangover remedy. It got me reminiscing about my freshmen initiation and first year of university. I remember hating the taste of beer and having to chug pitchers during the McGill Pub Crawl. I remember my parents taking me out for a smoked meat sandwich at Montreal’s legendary Schwartz’s. I remember loading up on KD boxes and ramen noodles at Club Price. I also remember my parents saying “How is she going to manage? She doesn’t even know how to cook herself an egg!”

For those who know me, you would probably be surprised to hear that. For those who don’t know me, I spent my last three years of high school in boarding school; in other words cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner! And although i grew up with my parents preparing home cooked meals every night, I personally never stirred a pot. I think the only thing I ever cooked with my mom was home-made play dough when I was 4…which I ended up eating anyway. Growing up I knew a lot about food, loved to eat in large quantities but never learned how to prepare any of it.

All that being said, my culinary exploration and fascination with food started that first year at McGill, in my tiny apartment kitchen tucked away in a closet-like space. In that kitchen, I cooked my first soups, my first spaghetti meat sauce, my first salmon filet, my first cheese fondue, my first huevos rancheros, my first Irish stew, my first veggie lasagna, and after a few failed attempts my first successful hollandaise sauce.

Now that you’ve calmed down for the first weeks of intense partying, the readings are catching up on you, midterms are right around the corner and you’ve started burning the midnight oil on those term papers. So in tribute to all you poor souls recovering from your initiations and the rest of those starving first year students, I present my own first year staple: “poule au pot”, which directly translates to “chicken in a pot”. This dish is the meal of my childhood that I looked forward to on Sunday nights. It tops my list of comfort foods and my cousins (for lack of brothers and sisters) are always astonished with the way I can inhale this dish. In university I learned to be creative with it, meaning that I didn’t restrict this dish to only a stew-like meal but transformed it into other things. Before moving on, one must start with the basics!

The Freshman “Poule au Pot”

  • One chicken, whole and insides cleaned out
  • One large onion, cut up into large pieces
  • One leek, sliced
  • Carrots, sliced
  • Turnips, cut into large cubes
  • Potatoes, cut into large cubes
  • Bay leaves
  • One tbsp of Herbes de Provence
  • Cloves, whole
  • Pepper, whole
  • Salt

Grab the biggest pot you have, big enough to hold the whole chicken. If you do not have a pot big enough, then you’ll have to make a smaller portion simply by using a few chicken legs (bone-in).

Put the pot onto a medium heat, drizzle with olive oil, add the onions and leek, and sauté for a couple of minutes. You simply want to sweat the onions and leek, not brown them. If they start browning, lower the heat.

Put the whole chicken in the pot (make sure its been rinsed under cold water first) and add water until it covers the chicken. Add one heaping tablespoon of salt, a few whole black peppercorns, two bay leaves and the tablespoon of Herbes de Provence. Cover and simmer for about an hour depending on the size of your chicken. Obviously the smaller the chicken the less cook time it requires.

After one hour, using a spoon remove and discard any impurities and extra fat gathering at the surface. Add the carrots, turnips and potatoes. Let the pot simmer for another 30 to 45 minutes, checking regularly for impurities to be discarded. You may also want to check the vegetables for doneness; you want them to be fork tender. At this point your “poule au pot” is ready!

You can serve it in a bowl as a stew. You can remove the chicken and veggies from the pot and strain the liquid to make a clear broth – a great base for other soups, sauces, rice, etc. You can pull the chicken apart from the carcass and use the meat throughout the week in soups, sandwiches, salads, stir-fry, casseroles. Save the veggies and use them whole or purée them as a side. If you purée them, you can thin it out with the broth, add a little milk or cream and make a cream of vegetables. The possibilities really are endless with this classic Sunday night French dish. Be creative and enjoy reusing leftovers to make something new and interesting. This time I decided to make a simple chicken and vegetable soup: to the broth I added the chicken that I shredded, leeks, carrots, parsnips and mushrooms as seen in the picture.

To the students out there who decide to make this dish, go ahead and use its French name when referring to it. Not only does it have a nice ring to it but you can also pull out your pretentious first-year tongue when serving this up to your fellow intelligentsia and tell them that King Henri IV of France declared that every laborer of his kingdom should be able to afford “poule au pot” every Sunday.

Nil Bleu

I’d been waiting to try Ethiopian food for a while and many people had raved about the Nil Bleu here in Montreal. My experience there definitely did not disappoint.

Spicy, tasty, hearty, comforting and well rounded flavors – or as my friend Jon put it in his blog, we would be fat if we lived in Ethiopia.

Make sure you are entirely comfortable who you decide to go with since eating with your hands can be a touchy topic…

One question remains: would I pay for that? Yes, again and again – you cannot compete with good food at a decent price!

The Politics of Catering – Part Three

Tortilla Española

Tortilla Española

Kefta Meatballs / Roasted Red Peppers

Kefta Meatballs / Roasted Red Peppers

Grilled Bavette / Chimichurri

Grilled Bavette / Chimichurri

Japanese Crudité Bundles / Soy Sesame

Japanese Crudité Bundles / Soy Sesame

Black Olive Tapenade / Flat Bread

Black Olive Tapenade / Flat Bread

Event day! My boss graciously allowed me to leave the office early in order to do some last minute prepping and setting up. The campaign office doors are supposed to open at 6 pm. At precisely at 6 pm sharp and not a second later, supporters start filing in while I’m still setting up.

The trays and platters are filled a placed in the reception area, the menu and ingredient list displayed, napkins laid out and extra toothpicks ready at one’s fingertips. Little by little people start crowding around the food table, shaking hands with the man of the hour – M. Karim Boulos, and mingling amongst them.

Around 8 pm the crowd starts to dwindle and the trays become emptier. With this event I not only had the opportunity of meeting many interesting people but was showered with compliments. *blushing* 

120 tortilla cubes, 180 meatballs, 100 bavette skewers, 100 crudités bundles and 25 hours of labour later, the event can be deemed a success!

The campaign office doors opened, people were fed, people met, posters went up… the campaign is officially underway! 

An immense thank you goes to everyone who supported and helped me over that week, especially my better half who himself was busy with his own campaign prep. Most importantly, thank you Karim for giving me my first catering gig!

The Politics of Catering – Part Two

Sit back, relax and grab a glass of wine because this is going to be a long one, quite representative of how my prep week felt.

Wednesday at 5 pm, the night before Karim Boulos’ Campaign Launch event, I am rushing out of the office and over to the grocery store to pick up the last of the ingredients needed.

At 5:30 pm, I’m flaring up the BBQ to char the red bell peppers, roast the garlic, sear the bavette and cook the kefta meat balls.

Two hours later, help finally comes to the rescue! Together we start chopping, mixing, blending and skewering the various ingredients.

At 10:30 pm, the kitchen looks like a huge mess and we finally take a moment to sit and relax while the tortillas cook in the oven. Wine in hand, tired and exhausted from being hunched over cutting boards, blenders and food processors, we sit back and proudly glare at the result of our labour neatly packed in their respective plastic containers, ready to be prepped onto their serving trays. By 11 pm Layla heads home to catch some well deserved sleep but if she hadn’t offered to lend a hand (and a sandwich) I would have been up much later than I was.

At 11:15 pm, there is only one thing left to do: cut up the cucumbers, carrots, yellow bell peppers and scallions into juliennes, to have them ready to be wrapped in nori just before the event.

At 1 am, I’m lying in bed exhausted yet restless… still planning how the event will unfold later that day….

Tortilla Española, makes one

  • Eight eggs
  • One onion, chopped
  • Two potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes (about 1 cm)
  • One chorizo sausage, cubed (about 1 cm)
  • ½ tbsp paprika
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Begin by steaming or blanching the cubed potatoes until barely tender. You want the potatoes to hold their shape. If they start to break up they are overcooked. Strain, pat dry and allow to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, the paprika, salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Drizzle some olive oil in a medium oven-proof skillet and bring up to a medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent. You do not want the onions to brown. If they start gaining color, turn down the heat. Add the chorizo and potatoes, sauté a couple of minutes. Combine into the bowl containing the egg mixture and pour into the skillet. Cook until the bottom barely starts to set. Transfer skillet to the oven and allow the tortilla to cook through, about 30 minutes.

Remove the tortilla from the skillet by flipping it onto a plate (plate the plate over the skillet, then flip). This can be served hot or cold, in pie slices or cubes. Makes a great brunch or aperitif!

For this event, I needed to make three and I chose to serve the tortilla cold in bite-sized cubes, no dip necessary.

Roasted Red Pepper Dip, makes four cups

  • Eight red or yellow or orange bell peppers
  • Two tomatoes, blanched, peeled and cored
  • One head of garlic
  • ¼ cup olive oil + a few extra drizzles here and there as needed
  • Salt and pepper 

On the grill or in the oven on broil, roast the peppers whole until skin is completely charred. Remove from grill or oven, put in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to cool before removing the skin and seeds. 

Slice the top of the heads of garlic, place on a piece of aluminum, drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap it all up with the foil and throw it onto the grill or oven. Let the garlic cook for at least 30 minutes or until the cloves sweeten and caramelized. Remove from grill and allow to cool. 

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Score the bottom of the tomatoes with an X and drop into the pot of boiling water. Blanch for two minutes. Using a slotted spoon remove the tomatoes and immerse them into a bowl of ice cold water. At this point the skins should peel off easily. Remove also the core and put into the food processor. 

Place the skinned and seeded peppers into the food processor, squeeze out the roasted garlic from its skin into the food processor, add the olive oil, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. If the mixture appears too thick, feel free to add more olive oil. Thickness of this dip depends on how you like it. You can also make it extra thick and use it as a spread. 

For this event, I used this recipe as a dip for my Kefta meat balls.

Chimichurri, makes about two cups

Let’s take a little trip down south, to a small place called Argentina. It the condiment used for all types of grilled meats. Used as a dipping sauce or a marinade, chimichurri is at the epicenter of Argentinean asados – aka. barbecue. After a few trial and errors I have come up with my own combination for chimichurri, one that is reminiscent of my many culinary experiences in Latin America.

  • One bunch parsley, about 2 cups
  • One bunch cilantro, about 2 cups
  • Three garlic cloves
  • One red hot pepper, finely chopped
  • One lemon, juiced (about one tbsp)
  • One cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a food processor, mix together the parsley, cilantro, olive oil and lemon juice. You want the mixture to create a smooth blend. For the hot pepper, I recommend finely hopping it by hand so that it doesn’t get lost into the mixture. Don’t forget your latex gloves for this part!

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. This mixture can be stored in the fridge for a couple of days but don’t forget to let it come to room temperature before serving since olive oil tends to congeal when cold.

For this event I grilled up some flank steak simply seasoned with salt and pepper, thinly sliced it and skewered bite size pieces onto a toothpick. I served it cold with the chimichurri as a dipping sauce. Chimichurri is great as a marinade or condiment on just about anything: beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, veggies…

Japanese Crudités Bundles

Crudités are always a staple snack food for any sort of event. There is a reason they have stuck around for so long, they are crunchy, healthy and foolproof, but who says you have to stick with the old fashioned carrots and celery with ranch dip. In an attempt to make things more interesting without adding too much complexity I decided to give it a Japanese twist.

For this recipe use a variety of raw vegetables that can be easily julienned into about 3 inch strips. Combine a variety of colors to maximize visual appeal. Create bite-size bundles and wrap it together with a strip of nori – seaweed paper normally used to make sushi. Mix up a dipping sauce and you’re ready to serve! Although this requires a little prep time, it is still a very simple dish that brings a lot to the table. People will be impressed, I promise. 😉 Here are the ingredients I used to put this dish together:

For the bundles: carrots, cucumbers, yellow bell pepper and scallions, all julienned and wrapped in a strip of nori. The nori is delicate and susceptible to moisture so try to work with dry hands, moistening your finger only to make the end of the strip wrapping stick together. You can use clean and dry scissors to cut the sheets of nori into strips. Play around with different sizes to see what works best for wrapping. Unfortunately these bundles cannot be prepared too much in advance or else the nori will get gummy and unpleasant.

For the dipping sauce: four parts soy sauce, one part sesame oil, one part mirin, hot pepper sliced horizontally (use as much or as little as you want), a few pinches of sesame seeds. Mix all ingredients together.

Black Olive Tapenade, makes one cup

  • One can of black olives
  • One garlic clove
  • ¼ tbsp anchovy paste
  • One small bunch parsley
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Pepper to taste

Strain the olives but preserve the liquid, it will come in handy if the mixture needs to be thinned out. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix until coarsely blended. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Adjust thickness of the tapenade by adding some of the preserved liquid. Serve with crackers or any type of bread.

Don’t forget to check the cans of olives at the grocery store and make sure you’re buying the pitted kind. Or else you will end up like I did on Wednesday night at 9pm, spending over 30 minutes removing the pits from each individual olive. Thanks to my lovely friend Layla who generously offered to help with the catering prep work and provided Boustan sandwiches, we got a dis-assembly line thing going and finished in no time.

If ever you are faced with the unfortunate task of having to remove pits from olives, grueling as it sounds, there actually is a trick to doing this easily. Using the flat part of a chef’s knife (it’s the large one with a wide blade), press down on the olives. This should slit the olives and enable the pit to slip out easily.

An immense thank you goes out to Layla for not only helping with the prep work, but also for providing good conversation, great company and lots of fun!

The Politics of Catering – Part One

This is the part I like to refer to as “What the hell have I gotten myself into?!?!?!”

In the past couple weeks I have been volunteering – aka supporting my better half – in the municipal electoral campaign for M. Karim Boulos as City Councilor for the district of Peter-McGill. In the midst of helping with translations, doing door to door drop offs of reusable shopping bags for a “plastic bag free Montreal” and simply lending a hand here and there, the discussion of the Campaign Launch event came up. On a whim, the words “I’ll cater your event for you!” slipped off my tongue before my brain realized the implications of what I said. 

Before I know it my inner planner kicks in to high gear and I’m sending out menu items for a cold cocktail buffet. With the menu feedback I am also given the following parameters: there will anywhere between 60 to 100 people attending, the cocktail is this upcoming Thursday at 6pm, less than 6 days away, and there is no available budget. At this point, the inner planner slips into near-panic mode. I have never ever performed anything even close to this kind of reception. I’ve had prepared many 5 course dinner parties for 10 or more people, I have prepared eggs Benedict for more than 15 people for Jon’s birthday, but this kind of magnitude was way beyond my experience. I had no idea how much to prepare, how many dishes to present or how to manage with zero budget. 

I decided to set a menu with items I was comfortable with and had previously prepared on more than one occasion. Of course, my creative side likes to show its colours in these types of situations so I came up with a different take on the fool-proof and oh-so-boring crudités platter and ranch dip: julienned veggies wrapped in nori served with a soy sesame dipping sauce – aka. Japanese Crudités Bundles. 

Hell bent on getting this accomplished properly, I armed myself with my menu, ingredient list, shopping bags and headed to the market for my first round of shopping. Cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers (red and yellow), hot peppers, lemons, parsley, cilantro, scallions, garlic, 3 kg of Kefta meat = $45. Next stop is the dollar store for supplies. Napkins, toothpicks, tongs, plastic serving platters = $11.85. Final stop is the grocery store to pick up the menu’s staples. Eggs, potatoes, onions, chorizo, bavette (or flank steak), nori, sesame oil, soy sauce, black olives, anchovy paste, olive oil = $72.37. 

Total cost so far is $129.22. Whoohoo! Mission one accomplished! I must keep reminding myself that I am not feeding a meal to these people, simply providing a little something to nibble on while they mingle, and assuming only 60 people show up then $2.15 a head is not a bad deal! 

In any case, after the food prep frenzy I will have a better idea of what individual portions will look like. 

Here is the final menu that will be featured at Karim Boulos’ Campaign Launch event, this Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Tortilla Española

(eggs, potatoes, chorizo, onions, paprika, olive oil, salt and pepper)

 Kefta Meatballs / Roasted Red Peppers

(Halal Kefta meat / red bell pepper, tomato, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper)

 Grilled Bavette / Chimichurri

(beef / parsley, cilantro, hot peppers, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper)

Japanese Crudité Bundles / Soy Sesame

(nori, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, scallions / soy, sesame oil, hot peppers, sesame seeds)

Black Olive Tapenade / Flat Bread

(black olives, anchovy paste, garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper / courtesy of Arouch)

Pick up your tickets to the gun show!

Dill-Turmeric Mussels-1Mussels are the easiest and quickest meal to make at home. Not only is it cheap but you get to eat with your hands. One of my favorite sayings is ‘that everything tastes better when you eat with your hands’. Growing up, the only way my parents could get me to eat salad is by allowing me to eat it with my hands! Messy eating aside, let’s get back to the gun show: mussels!

My absolutely favorite way to make mussels is my spicy Thai version that I cooked up with my mom years ago when she was in town visiting. Although they are mouth-wateringly delicious, lately I’ve been finding myself looking for other ways of preparing mussels. Steaming them in a broth is the best way to get this meal done because it is so easy. Once you’ve settled on your “broth” base, it is only a matter of minutes before these little mollusks are ready to be scooped out. This is the latest version I came up with:

Dill-Turmeric Steamed Mussels

  • One tbsp oil, any regular veggie oil will do the job
  • One medium onion, halved then sliced
  • Two garlic cloves chopped
  • One bell pepper, julienne (aka. cut into thin strips)
  • One tomato, chopped
  • Two cups of dry Vermouth
  • One tbsp of turmeric
  • One tsp of cayenne pepper or to taste
  • One pound bag of mussels, scrubbed and rinsed
  • One bunch of fresh dill, coarsely chopped
  • Two green onions, chopped

The first thing you want to do when it comes to mussels is to scrub and clean them under cold running water. Keep an eye out for the ones with broken shells and discard them. Drizzle the oil in a large pot and sauté the onions, garlic and bell peppers on medium-high heat until soft and slightly caramelized. Add the tomatoes and stir in the Vermouth, turmeric and cayenne. Bring the heat down to medium and let the “broth” simmer for a couple of minutes. Add the mussels, dill and green onion. Stir delicately to coat them with the broth. Cover and steam until all the mussels are cooked, stirring occasionally. The mussels are ready when they have opened – should take no more than 10 minutes or so. Serve into bowls. A classic side for this dish is fries, so don’t forget to bake up your favorite frozen kind to dip in this flavorful broth.

Finally, there is no need for forks here: the best way to eat mussels is to use the shells to nab out the meat. If you encounter mussels that haven’t opened, better to discard them. In no time flat you have a perfect “moules frites” (aka mussels and fries) for two!

If ever you have some broth left over, it makes an excellent base to poach fish or even chicken. Not only are you reusing leftovers that you probably would have thrown out, but you are creating a second meal that requires minimum prep. Simply add some rice and sauté extra veggies as a side!

Beer Can Chicken

Ancho-Mango Beer Can ChickenA priceless indulgence of the summer BBQ! Well, perhaps it’s neck and neck with ribs but a great indulgence nonetheless. Simple or elaborate, it is just delectable, moist, tender and its skin perfectly crispy! Sprinkle your chicken with salt, pepper and herbs, or baste with store bought BBQ sauce or marinate the chicken with your own creation. Whichever you decide, it will be fabulous!

The first time I made beer can chicken at home it was a delicate balancing act. The can was too full, the chicken too heavy and the grills too far apart – or not enough for such a narrow base. It is needless to say that the chicken fell over many times. So for beer can chicken you have two options: attempt the balancing act or for $5 buy the contraption seen in the picture. This stand is specifically made for beer-can chicken and is available at most grocery stores. Let me tell you, this contraption is definitely a worthwhile investment!

On this particular beer can chicken day I had an over-ripe mango on the counter and recently purchased whole dried ancho chilies I had not yet worked with. These two key ingredients mated to create this ancho-mango marinade.

Ancho-Mango Beer Can Chicken

  • One dried ancho chili
  • One tbsp dried oregano (remove the leaves from a few sprigs if using fresh)
  • One tsp cumin
  • One tsp cayenne
  • One half tbsp salt
  • One mango, peeled and cut into pieces
  • Two garlic cloves
  • One whole chicken, cleaned and patted dry
  • One large can of brown beer
  • One cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup molasses

 

In a food processor combine the dried ancho chili, oregano, cumin, cayenne and salt until well blended. Add the mango and garlic, mix until smooth. Rub the marinade over the cleaned and dried chicken, making sure to get some of the marinade under the skin so that it can penetrate the meat. Latex gloves also come in handy here. Allow the chicken to rest and absorb the flavors at room temperature for about an hour.

In the meantime, use a can-opener to pop open the can of beer and pour out half its contents into either a glass for yourself or a saucepan if you decide to make a glaze. If you’re going for the glaze, then you should definitely go to your fridge and get a second beer for yourself to enjoy. In the saucepan, add the brown sugar and molasses. Bring up to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool.

Beer-can chicken must be cooked with indirect heat, which essentially means that you want to leave the burner located under the chicken in the off position. Also make sure you have enough room to close the lid over the chicken. Turn only one side of the grill burners to medium heat and let the BBQ reach about 350°F. While the grill heats up, take the time to place the can of beer in the contraption’s holster. At this point you are ready to mount the chicken onto its beer-can throne. Once securely set, place the chicken onto the grill, above the grill that is in the off position, so it is in indirect heat. Close the lid and let it cook. Every fifteen minutes or so baste the chicken with the beer glaze and turn it to make sure it cooks evenly. Total cooking time should be between one hour and a half and two hours depending on the size of your chicken (internal temperature should be at 180°F).

The skin of this particular chicken was crispy and so sticky that the tongs stuck to the chicken. The meat was juicy and tangy from the mango and ancho pepper.

If you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, the meat makes for awesome sandwiches!