Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Mediterranean Feast: Seafood and Chorizo Paella

Some girlfriends from work came over recently for a Mediterranean feast in the middle of our Canadian winter. It's a tradition I started last year, and once again, it was really nice to have so many happy faces in my tiny apartment :)

I put bright and colourful placemats everywhere and pretended it wasn't snowing outside. We all clustered around some olives, hummus and pita bread triangles to start. For the entrée, I made this yummy seafood paella, adapted from, although it ended up being more like a risotto because I added a bit too much liquid, I think.

Seafood and Chorizo Paella
serves six

2 chorizo sausages, sliced while partially frozen
olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 leeks, white parts only, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 large tomato, diced
150 ml white wine
1 cup arborio rice, rinsed four times
325 ml chicken stock
pinch of saffron, crushed
18 shrimps, zipperback, uncooked
18 mussels, rinsed, uncooked
60 ml chicken stock
1/2 cup frozen peas
parsley, roughly chopped for garnish (optional)
2 green onions, thinly sliced for garnish (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Keeping the chorizo sausages in the freezer for about half an hour makes them easier to slice and keep their shape. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and caramelize the chorizo slices on both sides until mostly cooked. Drain, pat away the excess oil, and place in a large rice cooker. (If you don't have a rice cooker, use a stock pot.)

Add the saffron to the chicken stock and set aside so that it can infuse for a few minutes before you use it.

Fry the onion, leeks and garlic until soft. Add the peppers and tomatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Fry a few minutes. Add the white wine and cook until reduced by half. Add the rinsed rice, and stock and saffron. Bring to a boil. Then add all these ingredients to the rice cooker. Stir the ingredients in the rice cooker and switch it to "on."

When my rice cooker switched to warm, I transferred everything to my bigger stock pot to finish cooking the dish. If your rice cooker is big enough to add more ingredients at this point, you don't have to use another pan.

Add the shrimp, mussels, remaining 60 ml of stock and the peas to paella. Stir and let cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, or switch your rice cooker on again. Let the paella rest for five minutes when done and then fluff up with a wooden spoon.

Garnish with spring onions and parsley and serve!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Secrets and Shortcuts: flavour friendships in braises

I just picked up another tip on braising from Michael Smith's Chef at Home show.

The secret to a great braise is to first brown your meat, then add a trio of chopped onion, celery and carrot to build a neutral flavour base. You can further personalize with another threesome of your favourite flavours that go together well.

Michael, for example, braised his lamb shanks with chopped apples, cinnamon sticks and brown sugar, three flavours that go together naturally, as he puts it :)

At the end of the braising period, add those same ingredients again in fresh form. But this time, instead of using a large dice, chop them finely. You just want them to heat through, but still be crisp enough to lend texture and taste fresh.

Michael also suggested some other flavour combinations that go well together in braises:
* orange juice and rosemary
* pineapple, rum and brown sugar

The celebrity chefs are always dropping hints about which ingredients are best friends. I'll blog about more flavour friendships soon so that we can all know which combinations make for happy tastebuds :)

Monday, February 18, 2008

History Bites: Saffron

Mass theft and piracy. Outrageous displays of extravagance! There are few bad behaviours that saffron hasn't inspired throughout its 3,000-year history.

Yes, if ever there was a spice that sank a thousand ships, it would be saffron, the dried stigmas of the flowering crocus plant, Crocus savitus.

Cleopatra scented her baths with saffron, thinking it enhanced sexual pleasure. The emperor Nero, in one of his many mad displays of decadence, ordered that the streets of Rome be strewn with it when he entered the city. Saffron has also been long renowned for its medicinal properties. When one shipment worth at least $500,000 in today's dollars was stolen from Rhodes during the plague years, the theft caused a 14-week war!

Saffron is still the world's most expensive spice. Its collection has so far defied automation, so it's still hand-picked from ancient fields in Spain where the best saffron is said to come, and Iran, Greece, Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean. Considering that one flower yields only three threads, and that about 500 threads make up a gram, it's no wonder that half a gram costs about two dollars.

Most dishes that use saffron only call for a pinch, about 20 threads. It's excellent in rice dishes, such as paella or seafood risotto. I also make a shrimp linguine that calls for it. (I'll post links to these recipes soon.)

The best way to prepare saffron is to soak it in liquid stock, wine or water for about five to 10 minutes. It will turn bright yellow-orange, at which point you can add the infusion to your dish.

Just don't use too much! Saffron is dangerous in large amounts five to 10 grams can be toxic to the central nervous system, and amounts beyond that are lethal. Thankfully, its shocking cost prohibits most people from tossing in huge amounts during cooking.

Lastly, beware of cheap imitations! Safflower, or American saffron, for example, comes from an aster family native to the Mediterranean. It looks like real saffron and may cost as much, but it's flavourless, scentless and used mainly as a dye.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Infused Vodkas

For the Gastronati's former USSR night, vodka was the drink of choice, naturally. Calimocho brought over a homemade pepper infusion, and PB and J made these delicious blackberry and peach vodkas and served them in glass pitchers. Their recipe also works with other kinds of fruit, so you can try it with strawberries, raspberries, passion fruit, pears or watermelon, too.

Fruit-Infused Vodkas

one 750 mL bottle of good vodka (PB used Stoli)
4 cups of cut fruit
1/2 cup sugar or honey
handful of fresh mint leaves (optional)

Combine all ingredients into a large bowl or jar and seal tightly. Refrigerate for at least five days. Taste periodically to enjoy and see if it's ready! Strain the mixture and discard the solids. Keep the vodka infusion in the fridge or freezer.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Veal Shank With Sour Cherries

Here's PB and J's recipe for the veal shank they cooked for the Gastronati's former USSR evening. They served it with egg noodles, but it would also go well with potatoes or rice.

Veal Shank With Sour Cherries

1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 Tbsp butter
4 slices veal shank
salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup chopped carrot
10 green cardamom pods, crushed (you can also use white cardamom)
One 16 or 17 ounce jar of sour cherries with their juice
1 cup veal stock (beef or chicken will work, too)
1 tsp grated lemon zest

Combine oil and butter in skillet at low heat and brown the outside of the veal shank on medium-high heat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Reduce heat to medium and remove the meat. Add the onions and carrots, cook and stir occasionally until the veggies soften. Stir in the cardamom, then the cherries and finally the juice along with the stock.

Return the veal shank to the skillet and cover. Cook until the meat is very tender and pulling away from bone (at least 90 minutes). Stir occasionally and turn the meat.

If the sauce is thin, remove the meat and turn the heat to high to thicken.

Stir in the lemon zest.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This is the borscht I brought to the Gastronati's Former USSR dinner. The recipe is courtesy of my Russian friend from French class. It turned out chunky and wonderful and people loved it - thanks Vlada!

I have heard of blended versions, but I chopped my ingredients into relatively large pieces, which gave the soup a great texture.

serves six

1 lb beef (I used stewing beef cubes)
about 10 cups water
2 carrots, chopped into a large dice
1 large onion, quartered
1 small onion, chopped
10 small beets (or four large)
1 potato, chopped in large cubes
1 small green cabbage head, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
fresh dillweed
sour cream

In a large stock pot, cook the meat and onion quarters for 2 hours in about six cups of water until very tender. I started with six cups of water, but added about four more during the course of the recipe.

Take the meat out and set aside. It will be very tender. Shred the cubes a bit with your fingers when cooler. Discard the onion quarters, but reserve the cooking liquid.

Sauté the chopped onion and carrots in a skillet. Set them aside with the meat.

Add the beets to the reserved cooking liquid and simmer until soft, about 15 to 20 minutes for small beets. Take them out and quarter when cooled off. If your beets are small, leave the skin on. If they are large, remove the skin before chopping them.

Cut up the raw potatoes and raw cabbage. Put all the ingredients - the sautéed mixture, meat, beets and raw ingredients - back into the pot with the broth. Boil until the potatoes are done, about 30 minutes. Add the red wine vinegar.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Gastronati have an Evening in the Former USSR

Why did the Gastronati choose the former USSR? Well, we were originally going to do a Russian night, but then we extended it geographically speaking, so that Squeaky could make cabbage rolls. From top to bottom in the photos, we ate borscht, cabbage rolls and mushroom casserole, and then veal shank with sour cherries, and washed them down with infused vodkas. J, who is a designer, even made us little place settings with our names in Cyrillic!

This has been S's favourite Gastronati so far and with good reason because it was truly fantastic! We surprised ourselves! S made the mushroom casserole and I made the borscht. I used a recipe belonging to my Russian friend in French class.

I learned that no ingredient is off bounds in cooking from this part of the world - there are fruits in savoury dishes where you wouldn't expect them, and other surprising ingredients. PB and J who hosted this time, made the veal shank with sour cherries, and also blackberry- and peach-infused vodkas. And Squeaky's cabbage rolls had a sauce made from ginger snaps!

Stay tuned for some feature recipes later this week!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Secrets and Shortcuts: Salads 3.0

Iceberg lettuce? Romaine? Dullsville. Bags of designer lettuce? Expensive. Short-lived. I was watching Jamie at Home today, and he inspired me with some sage advice about salads.

Basically, save all those boring varieties for the rabbits, or skeet-shooting if you are Jamie Oliver, and get yourself five or six interesting salad greens, such as:

You can also use fresh herbs as salad leaves if you keep the leaves whole instead of chopping them. Some herbs that work well this way are:
  • mint
  • tarragon (goes well with arugula)
  • basil
  • parsley
When you get them home, wash them in the sink in cold water, and then spin dry in a salad spinner filled halfway each time. Tuck the leaves gently in a giant, tea-towel-lined tupperware container, and store them in the fridge where they'll last for about four days.

Stay tuned for some nice salad and dressing ideas using these ingredients, coming soon!

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