Wednesday, March 24, 2010

cheddar cornmeal scones

I have been keeping a cooking notebook since 2000, when I first lived away from home for an extended period of time. I was off to Hungary for a four month stint studying mathematics, and my Mum encouraged me to start a book of recipes. By the time I flew over to Europe, she had managed to help me get eleven recipes written in the book--including one for how to cook rice. Armed with the notebook and a 1953 version of The Joy of Cooking, I embarked on my great adventure.

Living in Hungary opened up a whole new world for me especially since I began to cook and eat only food I bought myself. Over those four months, more recipes started to be collected. Page numbers were added and I started an index in the back of the book. (Mathematicians like to organise, you know.) When I returned to Canada and back to my mother's care, I cooked a lot less again. I started to cut recipes out of magazines, saving for the future. One recipe I added to the notebook during this period was a mix-and-match recipe for buttermilk biscuits. It never got any use since I was rarely cooking, and by the time I had my own kitchen again I had more exciting things to try.

So this is actually the first use of the recipe I clipped so many years ago. I wish I had tried it earlier, though, since the scones are tasty and easy. The cornmeal gives them a distinctive gritty texture that feels so right when dipped in creamy soup or a rich stew.

Cheddar Cornmeal Scones
adapted from Canadian Living Magazine, May 2003

1 1/2 c (190 g) plain flour
1 T sugar
1 c (170 g) cornmeal
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 T dried sage
pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 c (115 g) cold butter
1 c + 1/4 c (120 g + 30 g) grated mature cheddar cheese
1 c (250 mL) milk
1 t mild vinegar
1 egg

Combine flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sage in a large bowl.
Cut in the butter and add 1 c (120 g) grated cheddar cheese.
In a second bowl, whisk together the milk, vinegar, and egg. Add to the flour mixture and use a wooden spoon to mix into a wet dough.
Press onto a prepared baking sheet and flatten to a height of about 1 or 2 cm. Sprinkle with remaining cheddar cheese.
Bake at 400 F/205 C for 12 minutes.
Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then cut with a knife into rectangles.

butternut squash and parsnip soup

I have been spending lots of time with Pari lately. I have been convincing her to cook more of her own food and she has been convincing me to exercise with her. It's a lovely symbiotic relationship. When she was over recently we cooked this soup since it was so easy and fast. And the time it saved us gave us lots of time to read our fitness magazines. Did we do any exercise? Maybe, if you count flicking pages and going back for seconds. At least the soup was healthy and delicious.

Butternut Squash and Parsnip Soup
serves 4

2 parsnips (400 g), peeled and chopped
1 butternut squash (400 g), peeled and chopped
a thumb-size piece of ginger root, peeled and minced
500 ml vegetable stock
1/2 c cream or milk (or more, if you like)
pinch of mixed spice or nutmeg

Put the squash, parsnip, ginger, and stock in a large pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.
Puree using an immersion blender (or by transferring to a blender in batches).
Add the cream or milk, stir, and serve, garnished with spice or nutmeg.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Light Box for Staging Food Photography: Step-by-Step

Photography runs in my family, and until recently I was lagging behind in a big way. My mother was an accomplished amateur photographer when I was younger. She got her first good camera as a hand-off from my Grandad. My two brothers are both skilled snappers--Micah is a symmetry-loving point & shoot man, while Paul is a professional in the film and photography business. He owns the fanciest camera I have had the pleasure of seeing. (When he first got it I told everyone about how it is calibrated to the shape of his eye, and anywhere he looks it automatically focuses!) He has had a big impact on me lately, and really encouraged me to learn to take pictures properly. So I asked for a proper (DSLR) camera for Christmas from Ant and my Mum and Dad, and I have been lucky enough to also receive a second lens for our anniversary.

Lighting has been my main problem. My kitchen and dining area are not the best for natural light, especially at night, when I am doing most of my cooking. (In fact, there is not any time during Monday to Friday when I am at home during daylight hours. Sad but true.) So Paul was telling me about how to rig up a desk lamp to give good light. Just a lamp on its own is too harsh, so he gave me some diffusion paper to soften it. And he sent me instructions to make a staging box. You can make one too; it's easy! All you need is some diffusion paper, an old cardboard box, some white paper (I used the back of plain wrapping paper), a ruler, some masking tape, scissors (or a craft knife), a ruler, and a set square or angle measure.

I used an old archive box, but any cardboard box could be used. Start by setting the box down with the front open. Then draw a straight line across the top of the box between 5cm and 10cm from the front. From here, draw a line at 45 degrees on each side, sloping away from the front, and then across the back of the box.

Cut along this line and remove the back corner of the box.

Cover the inside of the box with white paper.

Use an extra pice of white paper to create a rounded backdrop inside the box. This will avoid having a corner in the background of your photos. This paper is called a cove.

Cut a piece of diffusion paper to fit over the opening in the back of the box. Diffusion paper can be bought from photography shops, but it can be substituted with parchment paper or tissue paper. Since you are using masking tape, the diffusion paper can be changed for another material whenever you want a different look. You could even use a light, gauzy, fabric.

Tape the diffusion paper to the top of the opening. Leave the bottom unattached, so that you can drape a napkin or tablecloth from the front to the back over the cove if you choose.

Place the desk lamp behind the light box. Place it quite high and on a 45 degree angle so that the light is parallel with the diffusion paper. Use a tungsten or halogen light bulb. Don't use a compact fluorescent bulb (energy saving) since the colour cast is quite green (unless you want to correct all the pictures afterwards).

The photographs taken inside the box are well lit but not too harsh. The diffusion gives a soft look to the plate of food.

Making my own light box was easy and inexpensive--and it has made a huge difference to the lighting of my photos. Photography is just playing with light, as they say. So play on!

Update: July 2010

Since I first wrote this post, we have moved to Hong Kong. When we packed up, I recycled the old cardboard box and just brought the diffusion paper with me. I made a second light box after we arrived using one of our packing boxes. This time I cut out the bottom of the box; now I can place the light box down on an interesting surface, such as a nice wood-grained table, a slate tile, or even outside.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

party cheese balls

I was lucky enough to have Craig in the kitchen with me while I was prepping food for our party the other weekend. I was making artichoke squares and he was making cheese balls under my direction. I have to say, he did a stunning job.

Ant's friend Craig comes to visit us fairly regularly. He comes for the snooker with Ant, the freely flowing tea, and the food we eat together. He always pitches in when I'm cooking and he's full of good ideas. For example, he was the one who thought of the fork outline when I was photographing my tiramisu last month. Genius!

I'm so glad I set him to work on these cheese balls. They were delicious! And Craig had the patience to shape them all into small balls and roll them in herbs and spices. Then as soon as we brought them to the table, Ant grabbed one and squished it between two oatcakes. "Oi! I just rolled those into perfect balls!" What a shame. But they sure were tasty.

Party Cheese Balls
adapted from Tis the Season: Vegetarian Christmas Cookbook
makes about 30 balls

3 (8 oz/250 g) packages of cream cheese
2 c grated strong cheese
2 green onions, chopped
1 T fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper
2 t chilli powder
1 t dried oregano
2 T dried parsley

Mix together the cream cheese, grated cheese, green onions, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Cover and chill for 15 minutes.
Roll the mixture into small balls, about a heaped tablespoon each.
Mix the chilli powder, oregano, and parsley in a shallow plate or bowl.
Roll the cheese balls in the herb and spice mixture.
Cover and chill the balls until ready to serve.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

butternut squash and celery risotto

I have made risotto often in the past. It's a beautiful, comforting supper. A few months ago I quoted Nigel Slater talking about how calming it is to cook a risotto, stirring while it bubbles away on the stove.

The 2010 March Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Eleanor of MelbournefoodGeek and Jess of Jessthebaker. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make risotto. The various components of their challenge recipe are based on input from the Australian Masterchef cookbook and the cookbook Moorish by Greg Malouf. Making the chicken stock was part of the challenge as well, which I think is the perfect thing to have going in the slow cooker on the weekend.

Butternut Squash and Celery Risotto
serves 2

2 T olive oil
2 stalks (about 100 g) celery, finely chopped
1 c (100 g) arborio rice
2 T white wine
500 ml to 750 ml chicken (or vegetable) stock, hot
1 1/2 c (100 g) grated butternut squash
1/3 c (50 g) grated parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a large pan and then gently saute the celery until tender, about 8 minutes.
Add the rice and stir to coat all the grains.
Add the wine and stir until it is nearly absorbed.
Have the stock in a pot, keeping hot. Add a couple of ladles of stock to the risotto and stir from time to time. When the stock is nearly absorbed, add another couple of ladles.
Continue to add hot stock, stirring. After about three additions, add the grated squash.
Continue adding stock a couple of ladlefuls at a time. Taste the rice occasionally. Aim for the rice to be soft on the outside and have a slight bite on the inside.
Add the parmesan cheese and stir. Season well with sea salt and pepper. Then remove the risotto from the heat and cover. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

I learned two valuable things about risotto by using the Daring Cooks recipe. First, risotto can take less stirring than I am used to. In the past, the recipes I have used said, "stirring constantly," which I now see is not really necessary. This really takes the pressure off and turns risotto-making into the relaxing task Nigel described.

Secondly, risotto is a delicious base which can take any number of flavours. It's a great way to eat any number of vegetables. In this risotto I used one of my favourite "sneaking veg in" tricks: grating it makes it seem like a garnish, when actually there is a fair amount of veg there.

artichoke squares

I have served these easy squares at my last two parties. They are yummy, healthy, savoury (to balance out all the sweets at most of my parties!) and easy to make. They are just exotic enough that everyone wants to know what they will taste like, but they look very ordinary so they are not intimidating. Wonderful stuff!

Artichoke Squares
adapted from Tis the Season: Vegetarian Christmas Cookbook
makes 20 squares

2 cans of artichokes packed in water, or 2 jars (6 oz) of marinated artichokes
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 eggs
1 slice of whole wheat bread, crumbled
1/2 t dried oregano
2 t hot pepper sauce
2 c grated strong cheese

Drain the artichokes. If you are using marinated artichokes, reserve 2 T marinade. Finely chop the artichokes.
Saute the onion and garlic gently in a pan for 5 minutes. Let cool.
Mix the onion and garlic with the artichokes and all the remaining ingredients.
Pour into a greased 20 cm (8 inch) square pan.
Bake at 350F/175C for 25 minutes or until lightly browned.
Let cool and then cut into 20 pieces.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

apple and walnut pancakes

Pancakes are the perfect weekend breakfast--easy to make but special to eat. They are warm and comforting and I love maple syrup on top.

Apple and Walnut Pancakes
adapted from More-With-Less Cookbook (World Community Cookbook)
serves 2

1/2 c (60 g) whole wheat flour
1/2 c (60 g) plain flour
1/2 t salt
1 t baking powder
1 1/2 t brown sugar
1 c (250 ml) milk
1 egg, beaten
1 T oil
1/2 c diced apples (a half or one apple)
1/4 c (30 g) chopped walnuts

Mix the flours, salt, baking powder, and sugar in a large bowl.
Combine the milk, egg, and oil in a small bowl.
Add the wet to the dry ingredients and mix briefly. Stir in the apples and walnuts and stir just until mixed.
Fry in a hot pan with some oil, a few minutes on each side. Flip when bubbles are starting to appear on the top of the pancakes and the bottom is golden.


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