Sunday, April 19, 2009


One of my absolute favourite meals is a cheese plate. Although it is one of the simplest things to throw together, it is a gourmet experience that I find very special. I've read the rules on how to pair different cheeses for a plate, but I don't care to follow them. I'm not sophisticated in my cheese likes and dislikes; I just like what I like! So, I choose three or four cheeses that taste good, and, if you ask me, they always go together perfectly.

Sometimes when Jeff and I have planned ahead for a cheese plate, we go all out with cured meats, different chutneys, balsamic vinegar and spiced olive oil, nuts, and fruit. However, in its most basic form, all you really need for your plate is the cheese, some good bread, and maybe some olives. (Wine is a given, of course). A really easy way to bring a simple cheese plate to the next level is by making your own toasted bread slices, crostini (Italian for "little toasts.'') The small effort it takes to make them is nothing compared to what they bring to the meal, and they are a million times better than anything that comes in a bag.

All you need is a fresh baguette, sliced on the diagonal. You then brush both sides of each slice with olive oil, and sprinkle them liberally with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

In they go to the oven for a few minutes, until they look like this:

At this point, if you want to punch up their flavour, you can rub the hot toasts with a peeled clove of garlic (a trick I've learned from Giada De Laurentiis from Everyday Italian). But, since I wanted the flavour of the cheese to take centre stage in this particular meal, I simply let them cool to room temperature on the pan.

Once cooled, there is no limit to the toppings you can use on crostini: you can make bruschetta, top them with sundried tomato or olive tapenade, spread cream cheese on them and sprinkle them with fresh herbs, or just pile them in a basket and eat them plain with a selection of good cheese and olives.

If perfection has a taste, it is crostini. They are delightfully crispy on the outside, yet slightly chewy when you bite into them. The olive oil and seasoning, combined with the toasting, makes them much more interesting than a plain baguette, and far more satisfying than crackers. I can't tell you how worth it it is to take a few extra minutes to make them; you'll just have to trust me and try it yourself.

The next time you find yourself unsure about what to make for dinner, consider a simple cheese plate with crostini. I guarantee you will feel very special. Also, I know from personal experience that if you have a spread like this ready for your significant other when they get home from a long hard day, they will love you forever. Sounds good to me!

Crostini: The recipe

Fresh baguette (I like whole wheat, for extra flavour)
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Clove of garlic, peeled (optional)

Preheat oven to 350C.

Slice baguette into 5mm slices, on the diagonal. Brush both sides with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and fresh black pepper.

Bake on a cookie sheet for about 6 minutes on each side, until golden brown on the edges.

Rub warm toasts with the garlic clove, if desired.

Let toasts cool to room temperature. Top with whatever your heart desires. Enjoy!

Store toasts in an airtight container.

Crostini on Foodista

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cheesy Stuffed Zucchini Boats

Although I enjoy eating meat, I would say that I fall on the lower end of the scale when it comes to average meat consumption; my breakfast, snacks, and lunches are almost always vegetarian. I usually have a small portion of deliciously prepared meat at dinnertime, but vegetables or legumes, sometimes accompanied by a small amount of whole grains, definitely constitute the bulk of my nightly meal.

The reason I watch my meat consumption is that I’m picky about the origins of my food, and, since I don’t mind paying slightly more for locally-raised cuts of meat, I’m happy to eat a little less of it to compensate. Therefore, in order to cut down on the amount we buy, I like to try to have one vegetarian supper per week. It’s not a strict rule that I’ve set for our household; it’s just something I try to think about (I also like to think that the fact I usually forget to take meat out of the freezer about once a week is a total coincidence; no, really, I’m just very responsible!). The only two main dishes I find myself making again and again for vegetarian suppers are refried beans, and pasta. As you can see, I needed a little inspiration.

Lucky for me, my vegetarian sister, Kristin, saved the day. She told me about these stuffed zucchini boats that she makes on a regular basis: she cuts them in half, seeds them, and fills them with a mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, tops them with paprika, and bakes them until the filling is nice and golden. They sounded amazing! So much so, that I couldn’t imagine them getting second billing in an omnivorous supper; no, these zucchini boats would have to shine as the main component of a vegetarian meal.

I tried them myself, and made them my own by substituting the mozza with my always-present favourite, asiago, and adding some dried basil and oregano to the mixture.

I baked the boats until the cheese was nice and bubbly, and then turned on the broiler until a golden brown crust formed on the tops.

I'm happy to report that the stuffed zucchini boats were even better than I expected. The zucchini shells were nice and tender, but still firm enough to stand up to the filling. The latter was very creamy, gooey, and flavourful; the combination of the two cheeses was a marriage made in Heaven, and the lemon juice brought in a nice tang. I scarfed them down, not caring that the bubbly cheese was kind of burning my mouth.

Since the stuffed zucchinis were so special, I served them very simply with some buttered brown rice, and onions and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil. It was a wonderful, light spring meal that I intend to recreate on a regular basis. I’m already imagining how the zucchini boats might taste if I add diced onions to the stuffing, and then top them with breadcrumbs tossed with melted butter…but that will be another story!

Stuffed Zucchini Boats: The recipe
2 servings as main dish, 4 servings as side

Amanda’s Notes: As I mentioned before, Kristin uses mozzarella in her zucchini boats. I think any of your favourite Italian cheeses would be fantastic with the ricotta in this dish.

The amounts for the filling depends on the size of the zucchinis, and, of course, how much you want to stuff them (be aware that if they’re overfilled, the cheese will seep out over the sides as it melts). Make lots if you’re not sure; the filling was very tasty on its own, and I think any extra would be great spread on bread.

2 large zucchini
1 to 2 cups ricotta cheese
½ to 1 cup grated asiago cheese
fresh lemon juice (start with a half lemon, taste as you go)
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 450C

Trim ends off zucchinis, and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp, leaving ½ inch shell.

Mix remaining ingredients together, and divide evenly into zucchini halves. Top with more freshly ground black pepper.

Place zucchini halves on a roasting pan. Bake until filling is bubbly, about 20 minutes.

Broil until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Serve immediately. Enjoy!

Zuchinni Boats on Foodista

Monday, April 6, 2009

Brussels Sprouts: Take Two

As I stated in an earlier post, I have loved Brussels sprouts since I was a child. I loved them so much, that I happily eat them simply boiled and served plain; in fact, they were the first thing I rushed to whenever my siblings and I managed to convince our parents to take us to the local Ponderosa buffet. I still love them, and, like a lot of my favourite foods, I associate them with fond memories. Brussels sprouts remind me of my childhood, and I had a happy childhood; ergo, Brussels sprouts make me happy! Aside from the nutrients, what more do I need from a vegetable?

As I got older, I realized that a life-long deep love for boiled Brussels sprouts is a rarity. When I met Jeff, I found out that he hated Brussels sprouts; in fact, he would shudder at the mention of them. While at first I thought, “to each their own”, once we started living together, I began to miss incorporating Brussels sprouts into my meals. I therefore embarked on a mission: to bring Jeff over to the Brussels-sprouts-loving side. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined to get him not only to tolerate them, but to enjoy them.

I started questioning Jeff on his history with Brussels sprouts, and found out that he had only ever tried them once, also at a Ponderosa buffet; unfortunately, his experience was not as positive as mine. Apparently, this one taste of Brussels sprouts was enough to traumatize him for life. However, I had also noticed over the years that Jeff is more picky about texture, rather than taste, when it comes to food, and figured that perhaps he visited the Ponderosa on a particularly over-boiled, mushy sprouts kind of day. So, I decided that, in order to erase the memory of these unfortunate sprouts from his mind, I would find a whole new way to cook them for him. “OK,” Jeff said, a little uneasy, “but please don’t be too disappointed when I don’t like them.” Ooh, a challenge.

Like I said before, I was so happy with the simplest preparation of Brussels sprouts, that I wasn’t even aware that they could be cooked more than one way. I decided to try roasting them; I had no idea how they would turn out, but I figured that a little caramelization could do no harm. I cut them in half, seasoned them with lots of salt and black pepper, let them roast almost to the point of burning them on the outside, topped them with Parmesan, and broiled them until the cheese melted. When I set a small serving of my reinvented Brussels in front of Jeff, he gave them a bit of a skeptical look; but, since he had promised to be open to my favourite childhood vegetable, he put on a brave smile and dug in.

The rest is history, really. Roasting resulted in Brussels sprouts that were nice and crispy on the outside, but so soft and tender on the inside. He truly loved the sprouts, practically inhaling them all in a matter of minutes, and gushing about them for days. I was proud of him for trying them, and proud of myself for recruiting a former hater to greener, sproutier pastures.

Roasted Brussels sprouts are now a regular side dish at our place. It gives me such satisfaction to see Jeff picking out a basket of sprouts at the market, all on his own. Every time we eat them, he thanks me for reintroducing him to them, because otherwise, he says, he never would have known what he was missing. A life without Brussels sprouts? I shudder at the mention of it!

Roasted Brussels Sprouts: The Recipe

Amanda’s notes: Like the roasted chickpeas, I prefer my Brussels Sprouts salted like fries. They are also delicious when roasted with a chopped onion.

Bunch of fresh Brussels sprouts
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Parmesan or Asiago cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 450C.

Trim the ends of the Brussels sprouts. Remove any dry and yellow leaves on the outside.

Cut sprouts in half. Arrange on a cookie sheet, and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with lots of salt and pepper, and toss sprouts with hands to coat.

Roast sprouts until very browned (or blackened, if you like) on the outside (about 30-40 minutes for large sprouts). Turn sprouts halfway through.

Preheat broiler. Top sprouts with grated cheese.

Broil until cheese melts. Serve immediately.

Brussels Sprouts on Foodista

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spicy Salted Roasted Chickpeas

Chickpeas, also known as Garbanzo beans, are one of my favourite foods. I love them in their pureed form, as hummus, but I also like to throw them whole into salads and pasta. They’re a great way to add texture to just about any dish; although, I enjoy them so much, that I often find myself eating handfuls of them right out of the can (after draining and rinsing them, of course). I just can’t get enough!

Lucky for the chickpea-obsessed, they can be made into an amazing snack. When chickpeas are roasted, they become nice and crunchy, and absolutely addictive. Throw in a ton of salt and some spice, eat them warm out of the oven, and find yourself in Snack Heaven.

I have noticed that this recipe is featured on a lot of diet blogs, which is kind of a shame, because they are delicious enough to be enjoyed in their own right, as opposed to a passable substitution for another craving. My philosophy is: if what you want is chips, just eat some damn chips! Nothing else will satisfy, and you’ll be craving them again the next day, anyway. I don’t think it’s fair to approach these roasted chickpeas as just a healthy substitute for junk food, because you will not appreciate them for what they really are: an awesome snack that can be made at any time out of pantry items. Believe me, you will crave these; they are are that good.

I’ve been perfecting the recipe over the last couple of years, and the trick to getting the best, most crunchy texture is to dry the rinsed chickpeas as much as you can. Although you can roast them straight after rinsing with fine results, a little extra work is worth it. I even go so far as to remove the papery skins off of each chickpea, which I find makes quite a difference in the end result (but may only be advisible to the extremely anal-retentive).

I like my chickpeas to be as salty as fries or popcorn, so I really pile it on. Don’t be shy! Chickpeas are very forgiving, because they require a lot of help in the flavour department; so, you can’t over-salt them. My favourite way to spice them is with cayenne pepper, but I’ve had good results with cumin, and curry powder as well. I’ve never tried it, but I bet a sweet version could also be made, perhaps with cinnamon sugar. Mmmm…I think an experiment is in order!

Amanda’s Spicy Salted Roasted Chickpeas: The Recipe
2 servings

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Extra-virgin olive oil (approx. 2-3 tbsp)
Cayenne Pepper

Preheat oven to 425C.
Line a cookie sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Spread chickpeas on top of paper towels. Using another double layer of paper towels, roll the chickpeas around on the pan to dry them (this will also remove a lot of the skins).

Remove the rest of the skins, if desired. Repeat drying with paper towels. 

Remove paper towels, leaving chickpeas on cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle liberally with salt, and add a few pinches of cayenne pepper.

Shake the pan until all chickpeas are evenly coated. (At this point, you can taste a raw chickpea to see if the salt and spice is to your liking.)

Roast for 30-40 minutes, shaking the pan every 10 minutes. Chickpeas are ready when they are browned and crunchy (and noisy when rattled).

Add more salt if needed. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

Although I have yet to encounter left-overs, you could store them in an air-tight container for several days.