Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cucumber Hummus Canapés

Canapés refer to small finger foods that include a base, spread, main item and garnish. The base is traditionally sliced bread, but can also be a cracker or puff pastry. The bread is often shaped and toasted or sautéed. It is then covered with a butter or cream cheese-based spread and topped with cheese, fish, meat, caviar, vegetables, foie gras, herbs or any other toppings and garnishes.

The term canapé comes from the French word for “sofa” since the base serves as a resting place for the spread, toppings and garnishes. In modern interior design, the term has become synonymous with sofa, though it also refers specifically to a distinctly-shaped 18th century, carved wood and upholstered French settee.

I borrowed and slightly adapted this simple recipe from my friend Tasneem. Cucumber slices make a great summer base for canapés, especially if you are looking to eat fewer carbs or calories. This recipe uses capers and parmesan but there are countless creative options for toppings these cucumber hummus bases including whole olives, olive tapenade, harissa, sundried tomatoes and cubes of feta cheese. You could also top the cucumber with cream cheese and garnish with smoked salmon.

1 cucumber
1 - 2 cups hummus
4 - 6 ounces parmesan cheese, cut into small chunks
capers (optional)

1. Slice the cucumber into 1/4 inch pieces. You can peel the cucumber if you prefer.
2. Top with a dollop of hummus – anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon depending on your taste and the area of the cucumber slice.
3. Garnish with a chunk of parmesan cheese and a few capers. If you would rather use less cheese, grate it and sprinkle it on top.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Oriental Swordfish

As a former vegetarian (I sometimes say vegetarian emeritus) I am still a bit squeamish about eating meat. Somehow eating only fish and fowl makes it easier for me to justify my new status since these creatures are relatively small. Eating chicken or a fish doesn’t seem quite as cruel as eating cow or pig. I regularly eat salmon, tuna, octopus and shrimp, but this week I tried my largest animal yet – swordfish. While the Trader Joe's package was quite small, a little bit of research reminded me that swordfish are among the largest animals in the ocean. They can reach up to 15 feet in length and weigh upwards of 1400 pounds.

Linnaeus first described the swordfish in 1758 providing the scientific name still in use today Xiphias gladius (gladius is Latin for sword). Swordfish are named for their sharp elongated bill which is used to slash (not stab) prey. They are agile, powerful fighters that have few natural enemies besides sharks and whales. Popular culture often references human deaths by swordfish, though this is relatively rare except when the fish are harpooned. They can put up a vigorous fight – damaging boats and their captors.

In the late 1990s the “Give Swordfish a Break Campaign” encouraged a number of prominent chefs to stop serving swordfish and led to a ban on harvesting swordfish in the Northern Atlantic. Later a Pacific ban on swordfish was enacted to protect sea turtles, whales and other creatures caught in the longlines that fisherman use to capture swordfish. As contested as swordfish harvesting is in the United States, many other countries are avid harvesters including Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Greece.

As with other wild fish, mercury toxicity is a concern. The USDA warns pregnant women not to consume swordfish and others to limit intake to one serving a week.

Despite these concerns, swordfish continues to be popular in American, Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. The fish is among the most dense and “meaty”, making it amenable to a variety of preparations and widely used as an alternative to beef or pork (as in swordfish burgers and kebabs). This recipe is quick and flavorful.

Serves 2

1/3 cup teriyaki sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 shallot, minced
pinch dried hot red pepper flakes
2 swordfish steaks (6-8 ounces each)

1. In a bowl stir together all ingredients (except fish) until combined well.
2. Pour 3/4 into a shallow dish. Reserve 1/4 in the bowl.
3. Marinate defrosted fish steaks, covered and chilled for 1-4 hours. Turn several times during marination.
4. Grill fish on a barbeque, indoor grill or broil in the oven. This will take about 3-5 minutes on each side. Check after a few minutes - do not overcook.
5. Serve topped with a little bit of reserved sauce. The sauce can also be drizzled on vegetables and rice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Simple Chicken Quesadillas

The quesadilla (literally translated as “little cheesy thing”) is a Mexican and Tex-Mex dish consisting of pan-fried tortilla(s) sandwiching melted cheese. Variations abound – involving various types of meat, vegetables and toppings. I prefer to keep the quesadilla simple and serve it with salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Quesadillas are traditionally made with corn tortillas, but in certain regions of Mexico and many parts of the United States wheat tortillas are preferred.

The quesadilla concept is extremely simple, but many people run into problems. Guest-blogger Sarah gave me a very useful tip – heat the cheese-topped tortilla in the microwave before placing it in the pan. This melts the cheese without browning the tortilla so that you avoid overcooking the tortilla (which makes it brittle). I avoid putting toppings (salsa and guacamole) and vegetables inside the quesadilla since they can release water (making the quesadilla soggy) or prevent the cheese from sticking to both tortillas. If you really want to add vegetables: cut them into small pieces, pre-cook them to release water (avoid tomatoes, which are very watery), and use extra cheese.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a starter

4 teaspoons butter
4 large whole wheat tortillas
1 cup jalapeno pepper jack cheese, shredded
1 cup rotisserie chicken pieces, at room temperature
Salsa, guacamole and/or sour cream to serve

1. Heat a large skillet on medium. At the same time, place half of the cheese on a tortilla and microwave for 30 seconds or until the cheese is just melted.
2. Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in the skillet, and place cheese-covered tortilla in the pan. Cook for 1 minute, then top with half the chicken, and cook for 1 further minute until the cheese bubbles and the tortilla has browned. Place another tortilla on top and remove to a plate.
3. Melt another teaspoon of butter and place quesadilla (uncooked tortilla down) into the pan. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes until the tortillas are stuck to each other.
4. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
5. Remove to a cutting board and slice with a pizza cutter. Serve with salsa, guacamole and/or sour cream.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Maine Blueberry Crumble Pie

I was in Maine in July, which is officially National Blueberry Month in both the United States and Canada. On the culinary front, Maine is well-known for its agricultural and seafood bounty, but especially for lobster, maple syrup and blueberries. The state produces 25% of the blueberries sold in North America, making it the largest blueberry producer in the world.

Blueberries are native to North America and there are two types – “lowbush” blueberries which are smaller (and are often called “wild”) and “highbush” blueberries which are typically larger. In the last few years, blueberries have been marketed as health-promoting and disease-preventing because of high levels of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K and dietary fiber. Bluberries contain various antioxidant pigments and phytochemicals that may have anti-cancer properties and may also play a role in reducing inflammation, reducing cognitive decline during Alzheimer’s disease, and lowering cholesterol.

As you can imagine, blueberry pie (and many other creative concoctions) were on menus everywhere in Maine. This recipe is inspired by a slice I had at a restaurant in Bar Harbor. The top crust is replaced with a crumble mixture (which uses less butter but more sugar).

Serves 8

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter , chilled
4-6 tablespoons ice water or chilled orange juice

5 cups blueberries (about 2 1/2 pints), washed and dried
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
half lemon, juiced
pinch of salt

3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled

1. To make the crust, in a large bowl mix flour, salt and sugar. Cut butter into small pieces and toss into flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter, food processor or two butter knives, mix butter into flour until it resembles coarse meal.
2. Add 4 tablespoons of water or orange juice to the mixture, and with a wooden spoon start to gather the dough. Add more liquid as needed.
3. Once the dough has come together, place it onto a cool, floured surface and knead a few times. Roll into an 11-inch circle. Drape pie crust onto rolling pin to gently transfer it to a metal pie tin. Fold any crust hanging over the edge onto the tin rim, and use your thumb and forefinger to create a scalloped pattern. Put it into the refrigerator or freezer while preparing the filling.
4. I usually double the pie crust recipe. An extra pie crust should be left in a flattened disk (not rolled out), covered in saran wrap, placed inside a Ziplock bag, and frozen immediately. To thaw, place frozen dough into the refrigerator overnight.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
6. To make the filling, mix all the ingredients in a large bowl (you can use the same bowl that you used to make the pie crust) and pour into the pie crust.
7. To make the topping, in a small bowl mix flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon. Cut butter into small pieces and add to the mixture. Use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour mixture. Pour the mixture evenly over the blueberries.
8. Place the pie on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 60 minutes or until the berries are bubbling and the crumble mixture has browned. Check the pie after 30 minutes. If you think the crumble is burning, you can shield it by lightly covering it with foil.
9. Remove the pie and let it cool for at least 15 minutes. It will still be slightly warm if you serve it two hours later. Best served with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.