Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fire up the slow-cooker and get cozy - Fall is here.

The autumnal equinox has passed, leaves will be falling; temperatures cooling. Time to pull out the fuzzy, wuzzy socks, head-to-toe long underwear and, of course, the slow cooker. But that sad old slow cooker of yours has seen better days. The cord began to fray two years ago, the dog bit off the temperature knob in ‘98 and the recipe book went missing in ’85. Now you’re thinking of applying for an archaeological permit to excavate it from the recesses of your basement or donating the hot, dangerous and dusty little number to a cooking museum.

If the idea of using a slow cooker has you humming Helen Reddy’s “I am woman, hear me roar”, visualizing harvest-gold kitchen appliances or dreaming of wearing hot pants, STOP! You’re in desperate need of a slow cooker update. First of all, know this: new slow cookers cook food faster than their grandparent models. Second, slow cookers today are jam-packed with a mother load of counter intelligence, like programmable digital timers, automatic on/off switches and dual cooking compartments. Third, they’re very snazzy, sleek and hip; available in many contemporary colours and sizes (one to seven quarts), as well as round or oval shapes. There’s nothing retro, square or slow about the slow cooker today. This smart little 70’s baby is all grown up!

Either way, whether your slow cooker is young or old, there’s no dating the relief of arriving home to the aroma of a slow-cooked pot roast, chili, stew, spaghetti or hearty soup for dinner. OK, maybe the time(s) your partner made a “gourmet” dinner and set a romantic table with flowers and candles is date worthy too.

Use these tips and recipes if you’re still a little slow to warm to the slow cooker’s charms:
· Half empty or half full? The slow-cooker pot should be half full but no more than three-quarters full of food.
· Size up the situation. A medium (3-41/2 quart) slow cooker yields 4-8 serving recipes. A large (5-61/2 quart) cooks 6-12 servings.
· No peaking! Don’t lift the lid during cooking. Add 20-30 minutes per peak to cooking time if you do.
· Order please. Layer ingredients as instructed in the recipe; pour liquids over meats and place vegetables on the bottom, under meat. Veggies take longer to cook.
· Timing is everything. One hour on HIGH equals about two hours on LOW.
· Lose the fat. Remove fat from meat before cooking. Fat keeps the heat in and overcooks the meat Your heart and waistline will love you for losing it too.
· Watch your stock liquidity. If you don’t want your dish to be saucy, don’t add a lot of liquid. Liquid seeps out of veggies and meat during cooking, anyway.
· Tough love equals cash saved. Choose less expensive, tougher cuts of meat. The simmering process will soften them and bring out their flavour.
· There’s a catch. Add fish or seafood near the end of the cooking time to preserve their delicate flavours.

Blue Plate Chili
Serves 4-6
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb lean ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cracked black peppercorns
1 28 oz can tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
½ cup condensed beef broth, undiluted
1 19 oz can red kidney beans drained and rinsed
1 green bell pepper

In a non-stick fry pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add beef and cook, breaking up with wooden spoon, until no longer pink. Using a slotted spoon, transfer meat to slow cooker bowl.
Reduce fry pan heat to medium. Add onion and celery and cooking, stirring often. Add garlic, chili powder, caraway seeds, salt and peppercorns and cook for one minute. Stir in tomatoes and beef broth and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, add beans and transfer to slow cooker.
Cover and cook on LOW for 8-10 hours or on HIGH for 4-5 hours.. Add green pepper, increase heat to high and cook for 20 minutes, until tender.

Red Lentil and Carrot Soup with Coconut Milk
Serves 4-6 as a main coarse or 8-10 as a starter.
2 cups red lentils
1tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black peppercorns
a few drops hot pepper sauce (to taste)
1 28 oz can tomatoes, including juice
2 large carrots, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 14 oz can coconut milk
thin slices or lemon
finely chopped cilantro

In a colander, rinse lentils thoroughly under cold water. Set aside. In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until soft. Add garlic, turmeric, cumin seeds, salt, peppercorns and a few drops hot pepper sauce. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil, breaking up with back of spoon. Stir in carrots, lentils, lemon juice and broth. Transfer mixture to slow cooker. Cover and cook on LOW for 8-10 hours or on HIGH for 4-5 hours until carrots are tender and mixture is bubbling. Stir in coconut milk and cook on HIGH for 20-30 minutes, until heated through. When serving, garnish each serving with lemon slices and cilantro, if using.

Zesty Pears
Makes 6 servings
6 fresh pears
½ cup raisins or currants
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp grated lemon peel
¼ cup brandy
½ cup sweet white wine or ice wine
½ cup macaroon crumbs or gingersnap crumbs

Peel and core pears. Cut into thin slices. Combine raisins (or currants), sugar, and lemon peel. Layer alternately with pear slices in slow cooker. Pour brandy and wine over top. Cover and cook on LOW for 4-6 hours. Spoon into serving dishes and sprinkle with cookie crumbs. May also be served with frozen yogurt, Sherbet or gelato.

Ms. Friendly Chocolate Mud Cake
Serves 8 (3 quart cooker is ideal)
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp butter
1/3 cup semi sweet chocolate chunks or chips
1 cup white sugar, divided
½ cup cocoa, divided
1 tbsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup fat free milk
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups hot water
Vanilla ice cream

Spray slow cooker with cooking spray. In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder. Set aside.
In a large microwave able bowl, melt butter and chocolate and microwave. Mix well. Whisk in 2/3 cup white sugar, 3 tbsp of cocoa, vanilla, salt, milk and egg yolk. Add flour mixture. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Pour batter into slow cooker. Spread evenly. Whisk together remaining sugars, remaining cocoa, and hot water until sugar is dissolved. Pour over batter in slow cooker. Do not stir. Cover and cook on high for 1 to 2 hours. The cake will be very moist and floating on a layer of molten when done. You’ll know it’s done when nearly all the cake is set and its edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pot. Turn off slow cooker and remove lid. DO NOT let the lid’s condensation drip on the cake! Let cool 25 minutes before spooning into individual bowls and topping with ice cream or frozen yogurt.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Appoint a plum to lead your next entrée or dessert! Try this devine Plum Phyllo Pie.

Add the word plum as a term of endearment in addressing your loved ones and you may be pleasantly surprised with the helpful, cheerful cooperation you receive. To your partner try something like “Sugarplum darling, could you empty the dishwasher?” or to your offspring “my cherub-cheeked, plum-ducky, could you please promise to be home by 11 pm?” There’s something, just so indelibly sweet about the plum, the mere utterance of the word brings music to our ears and visions of whimsy. This, thanks to Russian composer, Peter Tchaikovsky, who gave the plum a cheerful, bouncy sound of its own in his bubbly Christmas ballet hit, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.

And as we Ottawans know, the fruity, four-letter “P” word pops up here on the Parliamentary stage quite frequently because it rings a few bells with politicians who especially love plums--as in plum-appointments! If we savvy capitalists hear of any sour or shady plum political deals, however, the politicians do a different dance to the tune of, My Popularity Doth PLUMmet. I digress. The plum is neither scandalous or shady. It is in fact an innocent,colourful character on the fruit stands and plays a melodious and surprising accompaniment to any entrée or dessert. Plums play lovely duets with pork or chicken, cinnamon or ginger in desserts and add a sweet soprano note to salads with sharp cheeses.

Hundreds of years ago, wild plums grew in perfect harmony in temperate climates around the world in Canada, the US and Europe. Eventually, these wild varieties were replaced in North America by cultivated European plums and Japanese varieties from Asia. The dried plum, AKA “the prune”, has a chorus of regular followers for its “digestive assistance” and scored a big hit in ancient times as a popular, dietary staple among old world tribes. US marketers [or should I say the KGP (Plum Police)] have now ordered us to call prunes, “dried plums”. Apparently the word prunes is undesirable and causes some age-phobic folks to shrivel and cringe.

Plenty of fresh varieties of Ontario plums are available throughout September in red, yellow and purple, and in all sizes. To choose a perfect plum, look for a smooth skin and a little bit-of-give when pressure is applied at the base of the fruit. Try these recipes to get you and your “sugarplums” tuned into eating this marvelous Ontario-grown fruit. Bon Appétit!

Delicious Plum and Sausage Kebabs (from Foodland Ontario)
3/4 lb (5-6) mild Italian uncooked (or other meat) sausages
8 small bulb Ontario Onions, 2-inch (5 cm) green stem attached
4 large Ontario Red or Blue Plums, pitted and quartered

For the basting sauce, mix together:
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp Dijon Mustard
1 tsp liquid honey

Pre-cook sausages by boiling them in a saucepan for about 10-15 minutes. Poke each sausage with a fork to release any fat. If onions are large, partially cook them, then cut in halves or quarters. Steam or microwave onions with 2 tbsp water for 2 minutes.

For skewers: Cut sausages into 1-1/2-inch chunks. on metal skewers, alternately thread sausages, plum quarters and onions onto skewers. Place on oiled rack in preheated barbecue over medium heat; grill, brushing with basting sauce, for 3 or 4 minutes per side or until onions are barely tender. Serves 4. Serve over couscous or rice and your favourite veggies.

Devine Plum Pie
¼ cup all purpose flour
½ cup white sugar
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp cinnamon
1/3 cup sliced almonds (optional)

6 cups (10 med plums) pitted, quartered, unpeeled plums
¾ cup dried apricots cut into strips
2 tbsp lemon juice

Mix together flour, sugar, spices, then almonds in a large bowl. In a separate bowl mix together plums, apricots and lemon juice. Add plum mixture to flour mixture and toss gently. Spoon into a spray-greased a 13x9” baking dish.

Phyllo pastry topping:
1 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 sheets phyllo pastry
¼ cup melted butter or margarine

Tip: Work fast! Phyllo dries out quickly and must be kept covered to stay moist while you are working with it. Keep “work in progress” pastry completely covered with plastic wrap and lay a slightly damp tea towel on top. Don’t let the damp tea towel touch the phyllo sheets or they’ll go mushy!

Mix together sugar and cinnamon. Lay one sheet of phyllo on a wax-paper covered work surface. Brush the entire phyllo sheet with some of the butter and sprinkle one-quarter of the cinnamon mixture over it. Continue laying on sheets and topping with butter and cinnamon until done. Lay stacked phyllo layers on top of fruit mixture. With scissors, trim one inch beyond the edge of dish, roll edges under fruit and press into sides of dish. Using a sharp bread or steak knife, cut slits in the top of pastry and score 8 squares. Place the baking dish on a rimmed cookie sheet to avoid bubble-over mishaps. Bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes or until golden. (Lay a large sheet of tin foil on top if the pastry browns too quickly.) Serve warm with icing sugar sifted overtop, or with frozen yogurt.