Saturday, January 31, 2009

Weighing In: Salmon Baja Tacos

I started my diet today, so I ate two rice crispy treats to celebrate. As you can tell, I’m just hopeless. No willpower, no self control. You see the problem really lies in my love for food. I’m not a compulsive eater; I just can’t deny myself all that is buttery, gooey and rich. My second issue is that it is really hard to maintain a low fat, low calorie diet when I am trying to create a culinary masterpiece on a daily basis. In addition to this blog, I like to enter the occasional recipe contest. How can I possibly lose weight when the qualifying ingredients are usually some sort of refrigerated bread dough and an assortment of jams? I guess that’s why some of the prize money is so large, they must know that you will probably have to pay for liposuction after its all over.

Back in 2004 when I went to my first contest, I thought that I needed to lose a pound or two. Well, fast forward five years and I still have those couple of pounds and have collected a few more along the way. I figure it pretty much breaks down like this. After winning $10,000 in that first contest, I was hooked. Two years later I whipped up a recipe for little sweet potato cakes with toffee sauce that earned me another $10,000 and probably the five extra pounds that I have around my waist. Next, I experimented with a lorry load of cranberries, which I am proud to say, won me $25,000 and another five pounds. Now on the upside of this, I haven’t had a urinary tract infection or a cold in over a year. I’ve also won a few small contests here and there that probably account for a small part of the overall total. I don’t really resent these pounds because they were gained for the greater good. It’s the other twenty or so that I gained working on the contests that I didn’t win anything for that I resent. Curse you Mama Mary’s, Bays English Muffins, Sutter Home and the legions of other sponsors who have ignored my selfless efforts in the pursuit of perfection to showcase their products. Not a call, not a cheque, nothing. I do want them to know though, that my heart is big and my forgiveness is just a phone call away.

Well, I guess no matter who or what’s to blame; tomorrow morning I’ve got to get right back on that proverbial diet horse again. I’ll lace up my shoes and hit the trails with that drill sergeant of a husband of mine and his little fluffy white dog. We have walked every footpath in the Castle Rock area a hundred times over and some of them are angled straight up. My husband has lost forty pounds, our dog has lost five and I’ve lost, you guessed it, zippo, nada, nothing. I must confess, that my husband is slightly more dedicated than I. Besides, I’m a bit suspicious that walking just might cause weight gain in women. Oh well, what the heck, we’ve seen some beautiful scenery, had some great conversations and made one little dog very happy.

Scruffy, the fluffy white walking machine

In conjunction with my commitment to get my hot body back, I’ve decided to eat a bit lighter for as long as I can stand it. I have a collection of recipes that I love that aren't intentionally light; they are because that’s just how they taste best. I really try to avoid light mayonnaise, artificial sweeteners and other diet foods because I just don’t like most of them. Here’s one of my favorite healthy standbys.

Salmon Baja Tacos
The first time I ever saw fish tacos on a restaurant menu, I was intrigued. I couldn’t decide whether this was going to be the best thing I had ever eaten or the worst. Good thing, it was the best. There are two different ways of preparing these tacos, grilled or fried. I really can’t decide which one I like the best, so I usually go with this healthier version and save the fried for later.

1 tablespoon (15ml) freshly squeezed lime juice, divided
1 tablespoon (15ml) olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder, divided
1 teaspoon (5ml) ground cumin, divided
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) ground coriander
1 teaspoon (5ml) chili powder
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) freshly milled pepper, divided
1 pound (500g) fresh salmon fillet
1 cup (250ml) soured cream
1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh coriander, finely chopped
2 – 3 heaping teacups shredded green or white cabbage (iceberg lettuce works well too)
8 flour or corn tortilla pancakes
Sriracha garlic chili sauce
Lime wedges

In a small bowl combine 2 teaspoons (10ml) lime juice, 2 teaspoons (10ml) olive oil, salt, ½ teaspoon (2.5ml or 1 crushed small clove) garlic, ½ teaspoon (2.5ml) cumin, coriander, chili powder, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Mix well; set aside. Place salmon fillet, which has been rinsed and dried well, on a clean dry surface. Pour spice blend over the fillet and smooth over the entire surface (if skinless or just the top if skin is on one side) with the back of a spoon or with very clean hands. Cover with cling film or place in a zipper seal plastic bag and refrigerate for 1 hour.

While salmon is chilling, place soured cream in a small bowl. Add the remaining lime juice, garlic, cumin, fresh coriander and black pepper. Mix well, cover and set aside until ready to use. Place tortilla pancakes between two large pieces of aluminum foil and crimp edges to seal. Place in a preheated 350 F, 150 C oven or on the hot outdoor grill to heat for 10 minutes or so.

Heat an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan to medium high. Brush grill or pan with the remaining oil. Place salmon on hot grill, skin side up. Cook salmon on each side for approximately 5 minutes on each side or, depending thickness, until it is cooked through and flakey. Remove fish from heat and flake with a fork, cover with foil to keep warm. Remove hot tortilla pancakes from heat and place on serving plate. Place 1/8 of the flaked salmon in the middle of the tortilla. Top salmon with a drizzling of the soured cream mixture, followed by 1/8 of the shredded cabbage and then by a drizzling of the chili sauce. Fold in half and serve immediately while still hot. Repeat process with the remaining ingredients.

Serve with chili sauce and lime wedges.

Makes 8 tacos, enough for 4 hungry people.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Adventures in Traveling: Enchilada Casserole, Mexican Style Rice and Refried Black Beans

The holidays are over and it’s time to get back to business. My children have gone back to school and I’m left with a refrigerator full of leftovers and a mountain of dirty clothes. I make it no secret that I love being a mother; so far it has been the best part of my life. I love being needed but slowly I am being nudged out of my children’s lives. My son is a big fellow now who can cut his own meat and pick out his own clothes. My daughter now lives at university and actually requests vegetables for supper on her visits home. If that’s not a sign of maturity, I don’t know what is.

My previously mentioned, beautiful, all grown-up daughter is in New York this weekend to attend a ball with her new boyfriend in honor of third year West Point cadets. I’m sure I drove her crazy helping her pack and giving her endless instructions on what to do in the unlikely event that the worst case scenario came to fruition.

I was worrying because for the past eighteen years, during all of her pretty extensive travels, she has had her own personal concierge traveling with her. Not this time though, my personal assistance expertise was not needed or invited. She was going it alone. Bless her, she rolled her eyes only slightly and smiled sweetly at me as she headed toward the security queue.

You see, I was that silly woman that you sometimes see on the sidelines blowing kisses, ringing her hands, and pretty much hovering as usual. I was comforted a bit because she was armed with two well packed carry-on bags that had my personal stamp of approval and orders to text me as soon as she reached her gate so I could give her, her next set of instructions.

She did as she was told and was finally given permission to board her plane and head off to New York City and the handsome young man waiting there for her. She sent me a message as soon as she met her date in the city and they boarded their train enroute to their final destination and a blissful, motherless weekend of socializing.

I was now finally able to relax, figuring that West Point doesn’t maintain its sterling reputation by losing pretty young coeds who had come to visit for the weekend. I figured that it was smooth sailing from here. Mission accomplished. Chardonnay time.

But wait not so fast! The next phone call I received wasn’t one that I had requested or would even have wanted if I had known what trouble awaited me. The shaky little voice on the other end was my daughter informing me that she had left her bag with all of her clothing for the weekend in the overhead compartment of the train that was now on its way to parts unknown. Ugh! Now, as bad as this was there was an upside. Since the missing bag was stuffed with necessities for the weekend, we thankfully had packed the expensive, borrowed evening gown in the bag that she had with her. We can work with this, I thought.

To make a very long story short, instead of enjoying an elegant dinner with friends, the two of them spent their first evening together driving through Connecticut, chasing a commuter train to its termination point only to find out that the bag was either taken (and now being enjoyed by a very petite, smartly dressed thief) or rescued by the rail line personnel and safely locked up in lost and found until Monday between the hours of 16.00 – 18.00.

In any case, she not only faced wearing the same clothing for the remainder of the weekend but also sporting furry black boots with her gown. Like the millions before her who have faced this problem, she and her date made the pilgrimage to the nearest Target (our version of Asda on steroids) and purchased a skeleton crew of inexpensive necessities. Oh, by the way, she was able to find a pair of brown satin shoes that worked with her dress for the ball. If she ever questioned her faith, this is certainly proof that there is a God and she must be female.

During one of my heartsick calls to her, my sister assured me that my daughter’s well trained soldier date could certainly help her survive a weekend in the wilderness much less one without matching shoes or clean panties. Poor fellow, in my opinion, even the army couldn't possibly prepare him for this catastrophe. My heart really bled for this innocent young man who was raised with only brothers and trained by the military, trying to comfort her. If their relationship survives this weekend it is meant to be.

My little road warrior arrives home tonight, a bit battered but hopefully no worse for the wear. Even if she doesn’t get her bag back she will soon forget the adorable clothes that she lost and remember the valuable lessons that she learned. Keep a pair of clean underwear stuffed in your handbag and now that you have made your personal concierge redundant it is all up to you to have a successful and drama free trip.

Maybe she will now appreciate how effortless I made it all look. By the way, I learned my own lesson in Amsterdam when I set my purse down in the wrong place only to have it snatched up by a sorry low down dirty thief who will most certainly burn in hell for all eternity, and who benefited greatly by my carelessness. As you can see, I wasn’t born knowing it all either.

When Grace arrives home I’ll do what I do best and comfort her with food and an abundance of clean, smart clothing in her size. Since she loves Mexican food, I’m planning an enchilada casserole, refried black beans, Mexican rice and, of course, some fresh veg. I hope that maybe someday these recipes will comfort someone you love too.

Beef and Cheese Enchilada Casserole

Traditionally, enchiladas are made by rolling the cheese up in the tortillas to resemble tubes with the sauce poured over. This recipe simplifies this time consuming recipe without compromising the taste. Be careful to purchase mild chili powder unless you and your guests love spicy food. One more note, I have called for the more traditional onion garnish here but, fresh chopped coriander is delicious sprinkled over as well.

1 pound (500g) lean beef mince
2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil, divided
1 tablespoon (15ml) butter
3 tablespoons (45ml) all-purpose flour
2-3/4 cups (680ml) water
1 tablespoon (15ml) chicken bouillon granules (regular or low sodium depending on your preference)
1½ teaspoons (7.5ml) ground cumin
½ teaspoon (2.5ml) ground coriander
1 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder
2 tablespoons (30ml) mild chili powder
1/4 cup (60ml) whipping or double cream (optional for a creamier tasting sauce)
8 corn tortilla pancakes
2 cups (339g) mild or medium cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup (128g) sweet yellow onion or spring onion, finely chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F, 180 C, Gas Mark 4

In a large frying pan, over medium heat, brown mince in 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil until cooked through, approximately 10 minutes. Add butter and melt before sprinkling the flour over the top; mix well. Stirring constantly, gradually add the water, bouillon granules, cumin, garlic powder, and chili powder. Continue stirring until mixture thickens and bubbles; reduce the heat to low and add the cream and stir well. Remove the sauce from the heat. Pour enough of the sauce to just cover the bottom of an 8 x 8” baking dish (three or four dessertspoons).

Lay the tortillas on a flat surface, and cut into quarters (in the case of large tortillas, cut into sixths). Place the tortilla quarters over the sauce in the baking dish doing your best to cover the bottom completely. If you leave a few holes, that is ok as you want the sauce to permeate each layer. Top the tortilla layer with 1/3 of the sauce then 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat the layers two more times, ending with the cheese.

Cover the dish with foil and place into the preheated oven. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes before removing the cover and returning to the oven for an additional 10 minutes to brown slightly on top. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped onions or fresh coriander if desired.

Mexican Rice

This is a true example of Tex-Mex peasant cooking. Since I am a practical home cook, I use either jasmine or basmati rice for this recipe because I usually have one or the other in my cupboard. This is a wonderful side dish to any Mexican meal.

2 cups (500ml) water (or amount called for on rice package cooking directions)
1 cup rice
1 tablespoon (15ml) chicken bouillon granules or soup base
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) garlic powder
1 teaspoon (5ml) chili powder
1 dessertspoon or so frozen chopped pea and carrot mix

Place all of the ingredients in a medium size sauce pan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, stir, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork before serving.

Serves 6

Savory Refried Black Beans

I know that this sounds like a lot of beans for 4 – 6 people but, believe me, you will need them. This recipe is really at its best when made a day in advance and reheated shortly before serving. When reheating, have some extra water on hand to keep these at the consistency of creamy whipped potatoes.

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped into 2cm slices across, plus 1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil, if needed
1/2 small sweet yellow onion, finely chopped
2 – 15 ounce (2 x 420g) tins black beans, undrained
1 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) freshly milled black pepper

Place the bacon in a medium sized frying pan which has been set over medium high heat. If the pan seems too dry add additional oil to facilitate even cooking. Cook until almost crispy.

Add onion to pan and sauté until they are soft and transparent. Add the beans, bacon, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Stir until heated mashing beans with a potato masher as they heat. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve immediately or refrigerate overnight and reheat adding small amounts of water if needed to reach desired consistency.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Home for the holidays: Creme Caramel and Hoppin' John

It has been a very busy holiday season and I’m looking forward to getting back to normal for awhile. We made a flying trip to Texas from Colorado which, no matter how you slice it, is 1,000 miles of party fun in my car. Our children are big now so there isn't much whining, but still a quite a bit of sibling sniping just to keep us on our toes. I have to say that despite the obvious road fatigue, I really enjoyed our trip because for two days straight, it was just the four of us again.

I am originally from south Texas. I was born, raised, met my husband, and had one of my two children there. My entire family still lives there and every few years we have to make this journey to quiet the ache in my heart. The ache was great this year because my niece had just given birth to twin boys and we couldn't wait to cuddle with those two little guys. Needless to say, we weren't disappointed. The boys are beautiful and I am amazed at the grace with which their mother handles this often overwhelming responsibility. My sister should be proud, of the young mother she raised.

Our gatherings always include great food. I must report that I did indeed prepare my own version of Karen’s Stilton Soup to rave reviews. The only downside was that my niece doesn't own an immersion blender (guess what she’s getting next Christmas) so this ideally smooth soup was a bit heartier than planned. I know, I know, I can pour the soup into the bowl of a blender and blend it. I tried that once and am still nursing a few burns and cleaning soup off the ceiling. Other than that the Christmas Eve meal, which included grilled beef steak, smoked turkey breast, jacket potatoes and Greek salad, went off with out a hitch.

Christmas day was a bit more “Texas down-home” than the night before. My nephew had ordered a smoked turkey and ham so my sister and I came up with the side dishes. We prepared a cheesy green bean casserole (hey, don’t gag, it’s really delicious), cornbread spoon bread and mashed potatoes (my son’s request). For dessert I have started my own tradition of preparing a beautiful, dense yet light crème caramel. I just love how perfectly it turns out time after time. An extra bonus is that it can be made up to two days in advance of serving time so it works really well for entertaining.

Wrapping it up, we spent New Year’s back home in Colorado. A tradition in the south part of the US is to have black-eyed beans on New Year’s Day. It is supposed to bring good luck and heaven knows, with the economy in the toilet, I’m not about to tempt fate. This brings me to my second recipe offering, Hoppin’ John. Legend has it that this recipe was brought from Africa with the slaves in the early days of America. I really encourage you to invest in a tin of beans, and give this a try. I do have to apologize for the photo. You win some, you lose some.

Creme Caramel

1 cup (196g) sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
3 egg yolks, room temperature
2 teaspoons (10g) vanilla extract
1 – 14ounce (396g) tin sweetened condensed milk (such as Nestle Milk)
1¾ cup (450ml) full fat milk, warmed to room temperature
2 ounces (60g) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
Seasonal berries and whipped cream to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F, 180 C, Gas Mark 4.

Pour the sugar in a medium sized non-stick saucepan over medium high heat. Stirring sugar frequently, allow it to liquefy and turn a walnut brown. After sugar begins to turn brown, watch it carefully so it does not burn. Pour liquefied sugar in the bottom of a 2 litre glass pan. Working quickly, swirl the caramel around the bottom and up the side of the pan about 6 cm, to coat; set aside.

Place the eggs, yolks, vanilla extract, sweetened condensed milk, milk and cream cheese in the bowl of a food processor or blender. It is really essential that all of the ingredients be mixed together at room temperature to prevent the cream cheese chilling and turning into small lumps. If this happens, simply cover the ingredients and allow them to warm to room temperature on the counter top for 30 minutes or so before proceeding. Process or blend for at least 5 minutes.

Pour the mixture in the prepared glass pan. Place in the centre of the oven. Prepare a water bath by placing the filled pan in the middle of a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan so that it comes half way up the sides. Bake for 60 – 70 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. If mixture begins to brown too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely in the water bath before removing. Place in the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours. Before serving, run a knife around the edge to loosen. Place a deep sided serving dish on top of the pan. Invert on to the serving dish, pouring all of the caramel left in the pan over the top.

Slice creme caramel into 8 equal slices. Serve with caramel, whipped cream and seasonal berries if desired.

This dish can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Be sure to bake, cool and cover with cling film before storing in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Serves 8

Hoppin' John
4 rashers streaky bacon, sliced into 1cm slices
1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable oil, if needed
½ small onion, finely diced
½ small green bell pepper, finely diced (alternatively or in addition to the bell pepper, use 2-3 large chopped jalapeno peppers that have had their seeds and membranes removed)
1 large stalk celery, finely diced
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon (5ml) dried parsley
1-1/2 cups (375ml) water
½ cup (125g) jasmine rice
1- 15 ounce (411g) tin black-eyed beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons (30ml) butter
4 tablespoons (60ml) single cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh coriander or parsley to garnish

In a medium sized saucepan, place the bacon pieces and sauté over medium high heat until the fat starts to turn brown around the edges. If bacon is very lean, add the tablespoon of oil to provide enough fat for cooking the vegetables. Add the onion, bell pepper, jalapeno and celery to the pan; sauté for until vegetables begin to soften. Add garlic and parsley and sauté for 1 minute longer.

Add water to the vegetables and bring to a boil. Add the rice, give it all a good stir and quickly reduce heat to low and cover. Allow contents to simmer until all of the water is absorbed, approximately 20 minutes. Add black-eyed beans, butter and cream; heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with fresh coriander or parsley.

Serves 4 -6