Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Night Shift

It's 5:15 P.M. . You rush out of a meeting. Toss the laptop, blackberry and a few files into your briefcase. Don't forget the dirty tupperware from lunch and the grade 3 math quiz you printed off the internet. 

Now the daycare detour. You race to the caregiver so that your kids are not the last ones left. (Don't you hate the looks of disapproval from the caregivers when you are that last parent at pick-up?) In the car, you do a head count to make sure you have everyone and their respective lunch boxes, backpacks, art projects, chocolate bars for the school fundraiser, etc.. 

You shut the car door and switch gears from hurried professional to harried parent. 

You try to sort out a dozen questions in your brain: Who's driving to piano? What time is soccer?  Did I pick up the dry cleaning? Is there enough food for dinner? Do I have time to make a quick milk run? Did I bring the math exercises? Your brain is fried. 

The kids are cranky. They start to fire off their own questions and comments:   

"My teacher got mad because she said I wasn't wearing a warm enough coat. It's all mama's fault." "I'm so hungry. You didn't pack us enough snacks." "I need to do my math homework now." "Can I have a playdate with Mathew?" If only you had a mute button.

I don't have a mute button to share -- if I did it'd be my ticket to gold and early retirement. But I do have a quick and delicious dinner that will help take the edge off mealtime prep. It's chicken with a sweet, moroccan-inspired sauce. The scent of cinnamon and cloves is guaranteed to put the kids in a sweeter mood. (I wanted to take a photo of the final dish, but it was devoured so quickly, I didn't have a chance.)

The secret to the sauce is honey. I like to use local buckwheat honey for its earthiness and aroma.
(More on local honey in another posting.) 

In addition to its natural sweetness, there are a tonne of home remedies that use honey:
- hair and skin conditioner
- with lemon and water for a sore throat
- with a glass of milk to help you sleep
- dabbed on a scrape or cut to promote healing
- a spoonful throughout the year to minimise seasonal allergies

AK's Spiced Honey Chicken
4 lbs chicken parts
salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup honey
2 Tbsp melted butter (or olive oil) 
Juice and grated rind from 2 lemons
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
optional : 1 cup slivered almonds, 3 cinnamon sticks 

1) Season chicken with salt and pepper.
2) Place chicken and half of the garlic in a large skillet. Add about half an inch of water.
3) Steam. Cover with a lid over medium high heat for about 10 minutes.
4) Add remaining ingredients. Stir. Reduce to medium heat.
5) Simmer until chicken is fully cooked.
6) Garnish with slivered almonds and broken cinnamon sticks.

If you're feeling a little adventurous, add a teaspoon of crushed szechuan pepper corns in the final minutes of cooking. This is add a zing to the dish. Serve with some vegetables and rice or pasta.

Now on to homework duty.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Raw Afternoon Delight

I was a little self-indulgent this weekend. I went on small shopping spree. When I left the store, I was giddy with excitement, anxious to sample my new purchases. Take a peek.

La Belle Verte in Gatineau, Quebec is one of my favourite restaurants. Its specialty is raw, vegan cuisine. I love the casual, ecclectic set-up and the open kitchen. Everyone who works there seems to have flawless skin, bright eyes and an over-all healthy glow about them. Must be the food.
I stopped in for some take-out desserts Saturday afternoon. As usual, I couldn't decide, so I bought at least one of everything: banana "cream" pie, chocolate bliss balls and blueberry tarts. Plus a bag of their out-of-this-world kale chips. (See my failed attempt in a previous post.)

Kale chips

chocolate bliss balls
The chocolate bliss balls are more like macaroons, loaded with coconut, cocoa and coconut butter.
 The blueberry tart was bursting with fresh flavour. The kids devoured those in seconds.
blueberry tart
banana cream pie
My favourite was the banana "cream" pie. There is not a trace of cream in the pie, but the banana filling is so rich and creamy, you'd never miss the cream. The crust is made of pressed, crushed nuts.
All the desserts are sweetened with agave.

The desserts are filling and loaded with nutrients. Two bites of the banana cream pie left me very satisfied. (Mind you, that was after tasting a chocolate bliss ball and taking a tiny piece of blueberry tart.) If you're in west Quebec, La Belle Verte is worth a stop. Or if you're craving a fresh, wholesome, sugar-free, guilt-free dessert, this is the place for a raw delight.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Curry in a Hurry

There's a fishy smell in the air and it's coming from AK's Kitchen. I had a craving for something warm, aromatic and spicy.  My Thai Curry Chicken fits the bill. This is my kind of comfort food. It's fast and easy to make. It's essentially a chicken stir fry/ stew.

Whenever I make my Thai curry chicken, the neighbours can smell it from the street. The smell of fish sauce is very pungent. But don't let the strong aroma scare you. It adds a deep and rich salty layer to  your dish. Start with a little and add drop by drop because the flavour is very concentrated. You can buy fish sauce at any Asian grocery store. It will keep in your cupboard for months.

The key to good curry is good quality Thai curry paste. I like "Thai Kitchen" brand. It's hard to duplicate because it contains galangal which is hard to find outside of southeast Asia. You can find green, orange and red pastes, green being the spiciest. Another sweeter, milder option is Roasted Red Chili paste. Many stores sell Thai Kitchen paste for about $5 a jar. I found the best deal at Food Basics for $3.99 a jar.
You will also need coconut milk for this recipe. It adds richness and colour to the dish. Here's a tip when using canned coconut milk: DO NOT SHAKE THE CAN. There is usually a layer of white coconut fat sitting on top of the coconut milk. Skim off the fat and use it in place of your usual cooking oil to stir fry your meat and veggies.

I've been making Thai curry chicken for so long that I don't use precise measurements. The recipe below reflects my best estimation of quantities. Feel free to adjust the amount of curry or fish sauce to suit your palate. If the taste isn't right, it's easily fixable. Add more coconut milk and sweetener to temper the heat. Add more curry paste, chili sauce or chopped chili peppers to kick up the heat. Remember, it's always easier to start mild and slowly turn up the heat, rather tone it down. When I make Thai curry for my for children, I do a mild version and add a can of chunked pineapples with the juice.
The recipe below is mild and sweet because it uses Roasted Red Chili Paste.

AK's Thai Curry in a Hurry 

AK's Thai Curry Chicken
Yields 6 generous portions
6 pieces skinless, boneless chicken thighs sliced into strips
1 can coconut milk
1/4 inch piece fresh grated ginger
3- 4 Tbsp Thai Kitchen's Roasted Red Chili Paste
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into small sticks
1 can baby corn
1 can mushrooms (shitake/straw mushrooms) 
1 sweet pepper, sliced into strips
1 package firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 handfuls fresh spinach 
2 limes
1 hot chili pepper (optional)
Large wok or skillet

Stir Fry Chicken in coconut fatSkim 2 tablespoons of the white cream from the top of the can and use it to stir fry the chicken over medium high heat. Add grated ginger. Cook until chicken is light pink.

Stir in chili paste and fish sauce. 

Stir in veggies and canned ingredients.

Add remaining coconut milk reducing heat to minimum.

Add zest and juice from limes. Stir well.

Let simmer for 10 minutes.

Add spinach.

Serve over a bed of basmati or jasmine rice or rice noodles. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Skinny Jeans Don't Lie - A Moratorium on Desserts

There's been far too much dessert tasting in AK's Kitchen. The proof is in my skinny jeans. The zipper is not happy. And so my resolve to cut back on the desserts.

I strolled down the aisle of my local Herb and Spice, and a robust leafy green called out to me. "Take me home chubby mama. I'm full of vitamin and minerals. You don't need more cookies!"

I picked up a bunch of fresh kale. I hadn't used kale in years, but was inspired by a recent cooking segment on CTV Midday during which Leanne Cusack made kale chips flavoured with a mixture of cayenne and cashews. She made it look so easy and idiot-proof.

To ensure my experiment wasn't a complete waste, I used half of the kale in a miso soup, and dehydrated the other half. I baked the leaves at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes with a sprinkling of sea salt. When I pulled the greens out of the oven, they looked nothing like the chips I saw on TV. Mine looked a sickly brown - like myself two weekends ago when I was recovering from a migraine.

When my kids came into the kitchen to inspect my latest experiment, I tried to tell them that it was Popeye chips, loaded with good stuff. No sale. They said it looked funny and smelled weird. Always reluctant to throw out food - no matter how unappealing- I whipped up a "salvage sauce".

I made my own version of Thai peanut sauce. My youngest is allergic to peanuts, so I used almond butter.  I also find almond and cashew butters tastier than peanut butter.

With a drizzle of my Thai sauce, and some coaxing, the kids did eat the dried kale. I had lots of leftover sauce for chicken and spinach salad lunches the next day. The Thai sauce is sweet, salty and a tad spicy with a rich nuttiness.

Thai sauce over chicken and spinach salad

Thai Peanut Sauce

1/4 cup nut butter
1Tbsp sweetener (honey, agave, maple syrup, sugar)
1 Tbsp sesame oil
Rind and juice from 1 lime
Chilli flakes/ Sriracha Thai hot sauce
1/4 - 1/2 cup water

Blend the first four ingredients together with a hand blender.  Add water in a slow stream to thin the sauce.  Add chilli flakes or hot sauce to taste. Done.
Drizzle over meats, noodles, spring rolls or kale chips.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

G-Free Banana Loaf - take 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a "G-free Flop". Well, I flopped in my transcription of the recipe. I messed up on the flour portion. I realized my mistake this evening after making a delicious batch of banana loaf. (I had to use up a bunch of browning bananas, and the fruit flies were becoming annoying.) Please ignore the recipe in my previous posting and use this one instead. It is free of dairy and wheat.
It yields 2 loaves or about 24 muffins.

Banana Loaf 

3/4 cup sugar  or 1/2 c agave

3 Tbsp vegetable or grape seed oil
2 eggs
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
pinch salt
4 large mashed bananas - the browner the better because you can reduce the sugar
1/4 cup sorghum flour 
1/2 cup white rice flour
1 1/4 cup brown rice flour.
optional: chocolate chips/ sunflower seeds/ shredded coconut sprinkled on top before baking

Pre-heat over to 350 degrees. Combine the sorghum, white rice and brown rice flours in a small bowl and set aside.  Mix together all other ingredients. Let the gluten-free batter sit for 10 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. For muffins, reduce baking time to about 15 minutes. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Meet my New Date

I never realized that a bulk laxative could be so decadently scrumptious. My new-found love is a healthy treat that is gluten free, dairy free and entirely natural. Move over chocolate. Make way for dates!

The skinny on dates: 
- dates are a good source of vitamin A, antioxidants, iron and potassium.
- dates are rich in dietary fibre which helps reduce the absorption of LDL cholesterol in the gut.
- dates contain tannins which help prevent inflammation. 

Need I say more about my new guiltless pleasure? 

I became a date convert last week when I helped my friend Tara prepare 150 dates stuffed with chevre and toasted almonds. We used Iranian dates, which are available at middle eastern grocery stores. I love the dark, velvety texture of Iranian dates. And at $4 for a box of at least two dozen, this dessert is cheaper and more nutritious than a box of chocolate truffles.

For the preparation in the photo, be prepared to get your fingers sticky, but it's so worth it. They keep  several days in the refrigerator, longer if you remove the almond which will soften over time.

Dates with Chevre & Toasted Almonds
Iranian dates (or Medjool dates)
Goat cheese or Blue cheese
Toasted almond (whole or slivered)

Carefully slice the date lengthwise.
Remove the pit.
Stuff with about a quarter teaspoon for cheese.
Place the almond onto the cheese.

If you have an old plastic syringe -- the kind that comes with children's cold medication -- use it to pump the cheese into the dates. I used this method the second time around, and found it much neater.

Another foodie friend, Aviva, mentioned that Argentinian Parmesan works beautifully with dates. Cut small chunks and place them into the centre of the dates.

I have a box of Iranian dates in my refrigerator. If you have any recipes or preparations with dates, please share so I can try them out and expand my repertoire.     

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pork for Thanksgiving?

This Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for. Mostly my improving health and the good health of my loved ones. We tend to take for granted our everyday blessings --  our ability to taste, the sensations on our skin, our mobility and ability to move freely without even thinking, my ability to read and write this blog. I'm going to take a long pause this weekend to be grateful. 

Back to the food... I had the opportunity to work with a real pro in the kitchen. My friend Tara has been a great cook since forever. She's currently going to chef school for formal training as she launches has her Ottawa catering company, OM Gourmet. Last Tuesday night, she catered a cocktail party for 100 guests. I had the privilege of watching her in action and sampling her creations.
She created an Indian-inspired hors d'oeuvres menu featuring cumin, cilantro and tamarind. What I learned from Tara is the importance of  balance both on the palate and on the serving platter. Tara made sure that each platter was neat, symmetrical and inviting. After all, we do eat with our eyes first.

Her cumin coriander crusted pork loin was a feast for the eyes that didn't disappoint the palate. The savoury pork was balanced with sweet caramelized onion marmalade and a tart fresh cranberry. Tara served the pork as appetizers. You can easily serve the dish as a main course. It's an easy alternative to Thanksgiving turkey. If you'd like the recipe for the Cumin Coriander Crusted Pork Loin, let me know and I'll try to coax it out of Tara.

Here's a picture of some leftover pork loin.

I'll have a new post after the long weekend. Until then, eat well and be well. I hope you enjoy all your blessings and good fortune this Thanksgiving weekend.

    Monday, October 4, 2010

    A G-free Flop

    I've been sampling a lot of gluten free breads and cakes in my neighbourhood. To date, it's been a unpalatable waste of money. Last summer, I picked up a loaf of quinoa bread. From the moment I opened the package, I knew it would be a tough sell in my kitchen. It smelled like a swamp. Not that there's anything wrong with swamp smell. I just don't want to eat swamp. The texture of the bread was like sand. The taste was just plain yucky. My daughter took one bite and immediately wiped off her tongue.

    I'm always reluctant to throw out good food, so I thought, why not turn a dry loaf into a decadent  bread pudding. I made a chocolate-coconut custard with my best cocoa and coconut cream.
    It was devine. Until I added the bread. As the bread pudding was baking, an unpleasant odour filled  the kitchen. It was an awful rotting stench. The end product tasted as bad as it smelled. Lesson learn: stay away from quinoa bread.

    A few weeks passed until I was adventurous enough to buy another loaf of G-free bread. It was an organic cheese loaf. It smelled right and it look right. I handed out slices to my children who were like Pavlov's dogs, eager for an after-school snack. They popped the bread into their little mouths. All three of them had the same reaction. A unanimous YUCK! I tried a slice and just couldn't swallow it. It wasn't much better than the quinoa experiment. Does anyone know where in Ottawa I can buy a decent loaf of gluten free bread?

    These days, after several frustrating failures buying G-free breads, I tend to stick to my own concoctions. The recipe below is a tried and true beauty for banana loaf.  An old colleague, Dean, would bring me freshly baked slices with a pat of melting butter. His mother, grandmother and great grandmother proudly baked the recipe. I feel honoured that he shared it with me.

    I toyed with the original recipe and have come up with a variation that is suitable for a dairy-free and G-free diet. I have used store-bought gluten free flour plus a quarter teaspoon of xanthum gum. I'm not crazy about using xanthum gum. I'm not keen on the smell nor the fact that it's 100% synthetic.
    That said, the end product is good in terms of texture and taste. You can't even tell it's gluten free.
    Still, if you're like me and prefer to use natural ingredients, try this flour substitution for the recipe below:
    1 cup of wheat flour = 1/4 cup buckwheat flour + 3/4 cup rice flour.

    The buckwheat will make it a denser and more filling loaf. This makes a hearty breakfast or lunchbox snack.  

    Quick and Dirty Banana Loaf
    1 cup sugar  or 1/2 c agave
    3 Tbsp shortening or 3 Tbsp vegetable or grape seed oil
    2 eggs
    1 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp baking soda
    pinch salt
    4 large bananas - the browner the better because you can reduce the sugar
    2 cups flour or 1/2 cup buckwheat flour + 1/2 cup rice flour
    optional: chocolate chips/ sunflower seeds/ shredded coconut.

    Pre-heat over to 350 degrees. Grease two loaf pans. Mix everything together. Add the mashed bananas and flour last. Let the gluten-free batter sit for 10 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees for at least 30 minutes.
    This freezes perfectly.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    A Sweet Divorce

    Last autumn, I divorced my sweets. It was no light decision. But I needed to get rid of one thing that was doing no good to anyone. I purged my pantry of refined sugar. It was one of the most healthful things I did for me and my family. 

    We still love our desserts. Now, we use sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup,  molasses or palm sugar in carefully considered quantities. 

    Another sweet staple in AK's Kitchen is agave nectar, which comes from agave plants native to Mexico. A fellow foodie in San Francisco turned me on to this “honey water” for its low glycemic index. 

    With agave, a little goes a long way. I find agave to be almost twice as sweet as sugar. I use it in most recipes that call for sugar, and I usually reduce the amount to 75 per cent of what’s called for in the recipe.

    My Little Black Dress of Desserts
    Here is one cake recipe that’s like my little black dress. It’s great dressed up or dressed down. And it's almost effortless to make.  Just one bowl to mix, and one pan to bake. It contains no wheat and no dairy. It's also sugar-free. The recipe came to me from Tia, a dear friend and pastry chef who is also gluten and dairy free. She convinced me that gluten free food doesn’t have to taste like a shoebox.


    ½ cup agave
    2 Tbsp baking powder
    Pinch salt
    1 cup brown rice flour (or ½ c white rice flour + ½ c brown rice flour for a smoother texture)
    2 eggs
    1 cup coconut milk
    1 can mandarin oranges
    dried coconut for garnish
    9-inch round pan
    Banana leaves (optional)
    Preheat oven to 350 C. If you have banana leaves, use two sheets to line the pan. Otherwise, butter the pan.
    Mix agave and eggs in a bowl.
    Add baking powder, flour, and salt.
    Mix in coconut milk.
    Bake 20-25 minutes. Garnish with mandarin segments and sprinkle with dried coconut.

    You can easily switch up the flavours and make a savory cake. Simply reduce the agave and sprinkle your favourite  fresh herbs -- such as rosemary and thyme -- across the top before baking. Makes wonderfully fragrant biscuits.

    I plan to make a dark chocolate-coconut version of this recipe on Saturday morning for some friends. I'll serve it with a pot of java.