Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lemon Chicken with Shallots

Summer is well on its way and one of the joys of this season is ‘grilling’ (which, in my childhood, was known as ‘barbequing’). For suburbanites with grills as big as convertibles or urban sophisticates with terraces be-decked with Conran furniture, summer is perfect for alfresco cooking and dining. But what about people without access to outdoor space? Well, there's the George Foreman Grill...

Another alternative is the old 'foil' trick – a simple and clean way to make chicken. You top each breast with marinade, wrap in foil and bake. It’s not quite as sexy as a Viking grill, but it will make moist chicken with little cleanup and no marinating (and it will save you several thousand dollars). We served our chicken with a green salad and spanakopita triangles – a delicious and easy meal.

This recipe calls for shallots, a mild and sweet relative of the onion. Shallots are used extensively in French, South Indian, Persian and Southeast Asian cooking. The Latin name, Allium ascalonicum, is derived from the city of Ashkelon in present-day Israel. It is believed that crusaders travelling to this region spread shallots throughout Europe. In some places, shallots are called scallions, leading to confusion with what are also known as spring or green onions.

Serves 4

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon paprika
cooking spray or olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 1 pound total weight
salt and pepper, to taste
2 shallots, diced
parsley for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice, zest, garlic, soy sauce and paprika.
3. Cut four pieces of aluminium foil, each 1 foot square. Use heavy duty foil or a double layer of regular foil. Spray with cooking spray or brush with olive oil.
4. Place one chicken breast on each piece of foil, brush with 1/4 of the lemon mixture, and season with salt and pepper. Top with shallots.
5. Wrap each chicken breast into a loose but well-sealed package. Place all four packets in a metal or glass baking dish.
6. Bake for 40 minutes and check the thickest chicken breast. Continue baking for an additional 20 minutes if the chicken is still pink in the center.
7. Unwrap the foil packets – be careful as steam may have built up. Using tongs transfer chicken to plates or serve on foil (for even less clean up). Garnish with parsley.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

French Pear and Chocolate Cake

Last week we moved apartments, which is often a stressful and disorienting experience. While I tend to think of myself as someone who has few things, I was surprised to see how many boxes I needed to pack up all my belongings. I used several boxes for my baking supplies including baking sheets, cake tins, mixing bowls and cookie cutters. However, I also had a few boxes of food and noticed that a number of items had been with me since my last move! I resolved to creatively use these ingredients as soon as possible.

Among the items I’d had for a while were three different types of cocoa and a large can of pears. The juxtaposition of these items in my pantry triggered the memory of a delicious pear and chocolate cake that my friend Francesca recently baked for a dinner party. I decided to create a recipe inspired by that combination, but in a lighter and less rich form.

In North America, pears are an under-used and under-appreciated fruit. Apples have Biblical significance, oranges have a color named after them, and bananas are a phallic symbol. What about the humble pear? Each of these common fruits are also associated with a popular food item – apple pie, orange juice and banana bread. No such dish comes to mind when someone mentions pears.

Pears have been cultivated for about 3000 years and were common in ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese cuisines. Today, China produces more than half of all the pears grown in the world. Despite the advocacy of the U.S.-based Pear Bureau, North Americans consume far fewer pears than their European counterparts. Pears are especially common in French cuisine and are used in tarts, cakes, jams and pastries. They are also served in salads and sauces, as an accompaniment to cheese, and poached for dessert. In addition, the French, Irish, British and Swedish make a pear cider known as Perry.

In this recipe, pears provide a moist and sweet complement to an airy chocolate sponge cake.

Serves 8-12

1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 29-ounce can pear halves
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons milk or soymilk

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment or wax paper.
2. In a small bowl mix flour, cocoa and baking powder. Set aside.
3. Open and drain a can of pears. Slice each pear half lengthwise into quarters. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat between each addition. Add vanilla and mix well.
5. Beat half of flour mixture into butter mixture. Add milk and mix well. Then add the remaining flour mixture and beat to produce a smooth batter.
6. Pour batter into springform pan and use a spatula to level the surface. Arrange pear slices in a fan with tapered ends in the middle of the cake.
7. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
8. This cake is best served one or two days old so cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container or under a cake dome overnight. Serve with sweetened whipped cream or vanilla (or coconut) ice cream.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chive and Cheese Scones

I recently made these savory scones for a brunch and was surprised to find that the chives I bought were grown in Ethiopia. I used to think chives were the same as scallions. Later, I learned that they are two of the more than 1200 members of the Allium (onion) family, which includes shallots, leeks and garlic.

Chives are the only Allium species native to both the Old and New Worlds. It has been grown in Europe since the Middle Ages, although evidence of its cultivation dates back 5000 years. The English word ‘chives’ comes from the French word cive which derives from cepa, the Latin word for onion.

The hollow, tubular leaves of the plant are used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Chives are commonly used in French, Swedish and Japanese cuisines. The herb’s sulfur-containing leaves repel insects, which make them a desirable addition to any garden. The flowers are noted for their dainty perfection and are irresistible to bees.

These scones are incredibly easy to make and contain no butter or egg – although they do require plenty of heavy cream! They are quick to prepare and are a perfect accompaniment to scrambled eggs or breakfast sausage.

Makes 16 scones

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives
1 3/4 cups sharp hard cheese (such as Cheddar), grated (about 7 ounces)
2 cups heavy cream plus 2 tablespoons for brushing

1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. Mix flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Add chives and 1 1/2 cups cheese.
3. Add 2 cups cream and mix just until a sticky dough forms.
4. Knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Divide dough in half, and roll each into an 8-inch round.
5. Brush each round with 1 tablespoon of cream. Using a butter knife, divide each round into 8 scones.
6. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup of cheese and bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
7. For smaller scones, divide dough into three or four rounds. Roll into a 6-inch round and divide into 8 scones.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Orange Cardamom Cake

This is an adaptation of shamali, a honey cake recipe from my Cypriot friend Nadia (who also provided this salad recipe). Like the ever-popular baklava, this cake is first baked and then saturated with sugar syrup. The main ingredient is semolina (known as sooji in North India and rava in South India) which is wheat endosperm. There are two types of semolina – durum wheat semolina which is used to make pasta, gnocchi and couscous and farina (known by the trade name Cream of Wheat in the United States) used in desserts and served as a hot breakfast cereal.

As a child, my mother made a semolina dessert that we called siro, though more commonly known as sooji halwa. The term halwa is Arabic-derived and refers to a large variety of confections popular in the Balkans, Central Asia, Middle East and South Asia. Semolina halwa begins by sautéing the semolina in butter or ghee, adding a sugar syrup, and folding in dried fruit and nuts. Sesame halwas, are made with sesame seeds or tahini (sesame paste). They are less sweet, more crumbly and have a nutty flavor.

This cake brings together the intense taste of orange, which I have come to better appreciate as a dessert flavor during my time in England, and cardamom which is a familiar taste from my childhood. It is dense so will serve many more people than a regular wheat-flour cake. It is best served with Greek yogurt, vanilla ice cream or unsweetened whipped cream flavoured with a dash of orange flower water or Cointreau.

Serves 12-16

2 1/2 cups semolina
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom powder
1 cup canola or corn oil
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 oranges
5 eggs
1 cup milk, warm
1 tablespoon orange flower water (optional)
1/2 cup honey
1 1/4 cups water

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a deep 9-inch pan and line with parchment.
2. In a small bowl, mix semolina, baking powder and 1 teaspoon cardamom.
3. In a large bowl, beat oil and 1 cup sugar. Add zest of 2 oranges and beat well. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat after each addition. Add milk and orange flower water (optional), and beat again.
4. Let the batter sit for 10 minutes. Mix well, pour into the pan and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
5. When the cake has cooled to room temperature, cut into 12-16 pieces using a sharp knife. This cake is very dense so small slices are recommended.
6. In a small pot over medium heat, dissolve 1 1/2 cups sugar and honey in water. Add the peel of 1 orange (optional) and 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder and bring to a boil for 10-15 minutes until syrup forms.
7. Remove syrup from heat and gently pour over cooled cake until absorbed. You may have to pour it in two or three batches to allow for full absorption.
8. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with yogurt, cream or ice cream. You can use fresh orange rind or the sugar-soaked orange peel as a garnish.