Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good

Spring is officially here, and although I used to hardly bat an eyelash at its coming, this year I am pretty excited.

I'm not sure how it is possible for someone not to like springtime, but I do have some plausible theories, the first of which is due to the fact that I live on the west coast. The line between winter and spring has always been kind of fuzzy. It is mild and rainy in winter, and mild and rainy in spring. Another theory for my past non-excitement: although spring brings soft, gentle cherry blossoms, it also brings final exams and job searching simultaneously. I mean seriously, that is reason enough to make anyone in their right mind lose interest in the coming of another season. My final reason for my dislike of spring: no good holidays (which for me, is often indicative of how I feel about a season). Yes, there is Easter, but Good Friday has always seemed kind of depressing and I kind of loathe chocolate (no big deal...). Anyway, all this goes to say that I used to not like spring all that much, but my-oh-my how times have changed.

I can't exactly pin point when I allowed my love of the season to finally blossom, but I imagine it was somewhere between kicking my worrying habit in the butt and my discovery of Cadbury Mini Eggs. Not to mention, I'm about ready to start planting seeds in the vegetable garden, which has me daydreaming of fresh vegetables all day long. And speaking of vegetables, I am beyond excited about the arrival of springtime food. The way I see things, we have officially transitioned out of the heavy/hearty/complex autumn and winter foods and are now entering into edibles that are are lighter, fresher, and simpler. This is the time of year where an array of simple salads present themselves as possibilities for light lunches and dinners.
I'm taking it upon myself share one such a salad with you today.

So how about an avocado and grapefruit salad to jump start your spring?
Uh-huh, that's what I thought.

Last week we found ourselves in mother nature's good graces when a handful of 17 degree, sunshiny days presented themselves to us folk in the Fraser Valley. When my dad set to work in the kitchen on his practically famous thin-crust pizza one evening, I felt that a special salad was in order- one that would show spring the fine welcome it deserves. We had some grapefruit and ripe avocados kicking around on the counter and I found the perfect recipe within the pages of Bon Appetit. And so I set to work, slicing, segmenting, and arranging bits of avocado, slices of grapefruit, and crisp leaves of butter lettuce. The finished product was a thing of beauty, and I am proud to report that every little bit was eaten, despite the allure of another slice of homemade pizza. It looked and tasted exactly as I imagine spring would: bright, fresh, light, and awfully pretty.

I plan on enjoying spring from now on, no matter what it brings with it. The world is waking up again, and after a long, cold winter, that most definitely is worth celebrating.

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad
Adapted from Bon Appetit, July 2009

This salad is super beautiful and deceptively fancy, considering how simple it really is.
I used the white grape juice/apple cider vinegar method, opposed to tracking down and using the verjus.

2 tablespoons verjus* or 3 1/2 teaspoons white grape juice and 2 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1/4 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup olive oil
Fine sea salt
8 large butter lettuce leaves
3 ripe avocados, halved, pitted, thinly sliced, rinsed under cold water
3 large Ruby Red grapefruits all peel and white pith cut away, segments cut from between membranes

*Milder than vinegar, verjus is a tart juice made from unripe grapes, available at specialty food stores.

To Prepare

Whisk first 3 ingredients in small bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in both oils. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.
Arrange lettuce on platter. Top with avocado and grapefruit, then dressing.

Yield: Serves 8, as a side.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The One

The last few weeks of a semester are always tough. It's that time when, almost magically, everything is due at once: 3000 word research papers, presentations, short stories, final exams, blah, blah, blah. And to think that through this all I am supposed to be searching for a summer job / trying to understand how I am going to save up another five grand for tuition? No thank you! and Oh. My. Sweet. Goodness. I'm kind of freaking out.

But here, have a cookie.
Cookies cure just about anything.
I think everyone needs a solid chocolate chip recipe in their repertoire so today I am introducing you to mine. Don't you just feel better already?

Chocolate chip cookies are classic but I've come to find that they scatter along an invisible scale, ranging from just so-so to incredible. Some are bland, some are too sweet, some have an odd crunchy-chewy texture, and some are hard as pucks. I had to wonder: was I being too picky in my pursuit for the perfect chocolate chip cookie? Turns out I wasn't, and a few years ago I found it: the one I had been waiting for all my life. Turns out a little decadence in a cookie isn't too much to ask for after all. I made a batch, ate 2 or 3 of the massive golden mounds, and promptly declared them the best cookies on the earth. Unfortunately no one believes me anymore when I declare something the best thing ever, because I say that about nearly everything. (I'm an enthused person, what can I say?) I'm not kidding around about this one though. I take cookies very seriously and I think you will agree with me once you try a batch yourself. The sea salt is oh-so-good against the melty chocolate chips and the texture is perfect: crisp around the edges but soft, moist, and chewy in the middle. I have no doubt that you will find them to be yummy in an OH. MY. SWEET. GOODNESS, I'm kind of freaking out! kind of way.
And although these cookies won't write your papers or somehow land you five thousand dollars in you pocket, they will most likely be the best chocolate chip cookies ever to enter your mouth. They might even serve as a cure for your life stresses, if only for a while. That's gotta count for something.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from
The New York Times, David Leite, and Jacques Torres

I should mention that in typical Jacqueline style, I changed the recipe around slightly. First of all, I did not use the two kinds of flour suggested in the original recipe. I used all purpose flour, which as far as I'm concerned didn't make a huge difference. Also, I used a sprinkle of grey sea salt on top, instead of just regular. Between you and me, I did this to be fancy and because that's the way it's done at Delancey, but really, regular sea salt will do you just fine! And last but not least: USE A KITCHEN SCALE! Trust me on this one.

2 cups minus 2 Tbsp. (8 ½ oz.) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 ½ oz.) bread flour
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. coarse salt, such as kosher
2 ½ sticks (1 ¼ cups; 10 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups (10 oz.) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (8 oz.) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks, preferably about 60% cacao content, such as
Sea salt, such as Maldon

Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Whisk well; then set aside.

Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until very light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low; then add dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. (Unless you have a plastic guard that sits around the rim of the bowl, this will make a big mess at first, with flour flying everywhere. I found that carefully holding a dish towel around the top of the bowl helped a lot.) Add the chocolate chips, and mix briefly to incorporate. Press plastic wrap against the dough, and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. The dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F. Remove the bowl of dough from the refrigerator, and allow it to soften slightly. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat.

Using a standard-size ice cream scoop – mine holds about 3 fluid ounces, or about 1/3 cup – scoop six mounds of dough onto the baking sheet, making sure to space them evenly. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and bake until golden brown but still soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool a bit more.

Repeat with remaining dough.

Yield: About 24 (5-inch) cookies.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I wish I could say that I am one of those people who randomly pulls ingredients out of the fridge, gracefully throwing them together to create a masterpiece. I'm not really, and I'll tell you why: I think I may be one of the most easily distracted people on the planet.

Yesterday for example, I was making one of my favorite salads, one that requires the boiling of lentils and bulgar, which normally isn't a problem for me. But yesterday, something caught my eye and I left the lentils to boil madly away on the POWER BURNER for way, way too long. I had nearly forgotten about them entirely until I smelt something incredibly unpleasant, and apparently on fire. My lentils were toast, and so was my dad's favorite pot (sorry dad!). So lesson of the day: the power burner is not for the faint of heart.

I should really give myself the benefit of the doubt, though. I know what flavors taste good together, and I can create some wicked things off the top of my head, but more often then I'd like to admit things go awry, especially as of late. Without the guidance of a cookbook, I daydream, I sit down and do homework, and I wander off into another room while my grilled cheese sandwich dies a horrible death on the stove. My head, MY HEAD people, is in warp speed 24 hours a day, trying to plan and organize how I am going to get done what needs to get done. During the school year I am always one step ahead in my mind... I have to be. Whist reading chapters from my Psychology textbook, I am thinking up thesis statements for English essays. And while boiling lentils for my salad, I am watching What Not to Wear on TLC.

This goes to say that even though these days my head if often up in the clouds, sometimes I am able to focus. And when that happens, I am able to create. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I end up with a masterpiece.

Speaking of masterpieces, my dad, for those of you who don't know him personally, is clinical counsellor by day and a gourmet chef by night. Anything and everything I know about food, I learnt from him. I am a shameless"food snob" because he made me that way. He is one of those people who you could set loose in a cookbook-less kitchen blindfolded and you would, without a doubt, be in for one of the most incredible meals of your life. He is the first person I share my kitchen tales with and the only person I know who gets more excited about food then I do.

In my house, my dad is the one that does the cooking every night. He rarely ever cracks open a cookbook, which in my opinion is an incredibly enviable skill. Every single night, without fail, we are served an incredible meal. His food is elegant, beautiful and simple. "Less is more," he always says. He believes in eating local, something more of us should strive for, and last year for the first time ever we started our very own vegetable garden in our backyard. It was our pride and joy, with many a meal being focused on the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor. He is never without an idea, or a plan. He knows what he is doing and he is never, ever distracted.

A few days ago he suggested I make myself fried polenta with a slow-cooked tomato sauce for dinner. I've never made polenta in my life, and to say I am slightly afraid of the stuff is an understatement. I feel polenta has the tendency to be tasteless, starchy, and gluey in texture, making it the perfect candidate for my loathing. But my dad assured me it would be good, and I mostly always consider his word as the gospel truth as far as the kitchen is concerned. He gave me a fool proof ratio: 4 cups water, 1 cup cornmeal, and don't stop stirring, even if your arm feels like it is about to fall off. He told me to add a healthy dose of parmesan and black pepper for flavor. Then for a sauce, he told me to slowly heat diced Roma tomatoes, adding basil and garlic until it was thick and flavorful. It would be simple, but simple is often best. And so I improvised (improvised!) the whole thing, with major props of course, to my brilliant father.

What followed was bliss, sheer bliss. After a quick fry in hot pan, the polenta turned golden brown and had a thin crisp outer layer. It held up wonderfully against the ridiculously tasty tomato sauce that was spooned generously, messily over it's top. It was charming and homey- the perfect meal for a late winter's night.

It's amazing what comes about when we take the time to focus. No burnt lentils, wrecked pans, or fleeting thoughts. Just simple little masterpieces.
Black Pepper Parmesan Polenta with Tomato Sauce

For this recipe, I didn't really use any measurements, especially for the sauce. What I have given below are approximations. I don't think you can really go wrong with a pan filled with roma tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, so fear not. Improvisation isn't all that scary...

I like to serve this as a light meal, all on it's own with a nice mixed greens salad on the side. My family sauteed up some Halibut with lemon juice, salt, and pepper last week and ate polenta on the side, which was also lovely.

For Polenta

4 cups water
1 cup polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
a hefty dose of black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup butter

Boil water in a medium sized pot and add cornmeal. Stirring constantly, cook cornmeal for 15 minutes, or until fully cooked. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, parmesan, and butter, stirring well to incorporate. Working quickly (polenta will begin to firm up) pour polenta into a greased 9 inch square baking dish. Allow to cool. Polenta will become very firm.

For Tomato Sauce

8-10 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
A generous splash of balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes. Add balsamic and sugar, stirring to incorporate. Cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sauce should start to thicken. You want the flavors to have time to mix and mingle and the tomatoes to become soft. Add the basil, salt, and pepper and remove from heat.

To Serve

Heat a large sauce pan with a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Slice cooled polenta into squares (depending on how big a pan you used to let the polenta set, you should get 8 or so small pieces), remove from dish, and place in heated pan. You want the polenta to become golden and slightly crisp on the outside. Cook for 2-3 minutes and flip, allowing polenta to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and serve. Top with generous spoonfuls of tomato sauce and enjoy.

Yeild: Serves 3-4 as a main dish, and 5-6 as a side