Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pecan-Crusted Tilapia

There's a stall at my local famers market that sells the most amazing toasted pecans I've ever eaten in my life. I don't know how they do it, but they taste like happiness and I just can't get enough.

I recently tried pistachio-crusted halibut in a restaurant, and I really enjoyed the crunchiness of the nuts paired with the tender fish. Soon after, while savouring my daily snack of pecans from Heaven, I wondered how they would work in a similar recipe. Ooh, an experiment of the delicious kind!

I coated fresh tilapia fillets by submerging them in an egg wash, then a seasoned flour mixture, and once again in the egg; then, I pressed them into the toasted pecans that I crushed by putting them in a plastic bag and bashing them with a rolling pin (fun!) After a short fry in vegetable oil, the fish was ready for Jeff and me to enjoy.

The pecan-crusted tilapia couldn't have turned out any better. Both crispy and flavourful, it was a nice change from the usual bread crumbs (don't worry, panko, I still adore you! I just need a little variety!) This is a very special way to eat fish at home, and it's easy to do. I would eat it with guests at a dinner party, I would eat it by myself in my pyjamas; I would eat on a boat, I would eat it with a goat; I would eat it in the rain, I would eat it in a ditch somewhere (is that how it goes?)

As a little aside, fish needs a potato. I tossed some blue potato chunks with olive oil, kosher salt, and freshly cracked pepper, and roasted them with the rest of the fresh rosemary that I had kicking around from last week's lasagna, removing the stalks before serving. Rosemary and potatoes is a combination that I just love!

I don't know what else to say but to try this recipe as soon as possible. I'm sure any type of fish or nut would work, but trust me that tilapia and pecans are a great match. I love discovering new favourites. Here's to successful culinary experiments! 

Pecan-Crusted Tilapia : The Recipe

1 large egg
All-purpose flour
Kosher salt
Fresh cracked pepper
Smoked paprika

1/2 lb toasted pecans

2 fresh tilapia fillets
vegetable oil for frying
kosher salt

Place pecans in a sealed plastic bag, and crush with a rolling pin or a heavy mug.
Beat egg with a little bit of water and place in a shallow dish. Cover a shallow dish with all-purpose flour, mix with kosher salt, pepper, and paprika. Spread crushed pecans in a third shallow dish. Pour 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a skillet, heat to medium heat.
Pat tilapia fillets with paper towel to remove moisture. Coat both sides of fillet in egg wash, then flour, then egg wash again. Press both sides into crushed pecans, shake fillet gently to remove excess.
Fry fillets in oil, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle immediately with kosher salt.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Butternut Squash Lasagna with a Garlic and Rosemary Bechamel Sauce

This morning, when Jeff questioned me about what I wanted to make for dinner, nothing appealed to me. Did I want to cook the roast that we have in the freezer? No. Did I want chili? Nah. Chicken? Blah. Then, it dawned on me that I was feeling crummy because I had eaten out three nights in a row; instantly, I knew what I wanted. "Vegetables!," I cried out. "My body's saying it wants vegetables!" And right then, I knew it was time to make my butternut squash lasagna.

I'd never made my butternut squash lasagna until today, but I've been creating the recipe in my head for quite some time. Today was the perfect day to make it, too; Jeff was going to be out for the afternoon and I hadn't made any plans, it was snowing again so a heavier dish was in order, and, as I mentioned before, I had eaten out so much that I was happy to spend a couple of hours cooking. It was simply meant to be.

I roasted my butternut squash, gently mashed it, then mixed it with some spinach. Inspired by my zucchini boat recipe, I folded the vegetables into a mixture of ricotta and Parmesan cheese.

I wanted to add complementary flavours to my bechamel sauce, but I didn't want to overwhelm my star ingredient, the squash; therefore, I decided on an infusion: I added full sprigs of fresh rosemary and some smashed cloves of garlic to the simmering milk, straining the sauce before using it in the lasagna.

Having finished the filling and the sauce, I was ready to layer them with fresh pasta sheets.

Finally, I topped the lasagna with a layer of fresh mozarella, set it into the oven to bake, and proceeded to wash what seemed like every single dish I own. Oh well, at least it's a good way to pass the time when you're looking forward to your meal (three cheers for thinking positively! Hip hip hooray!).

This lasagna was everything I imagined it would be. I loved the sweet taste of the squash, the creaminess of the ricotta, the saltiness of the parmesan, and the subtle taste of garlic and rosemary in the smooth, nutty bechamel. The fresh and tasty mozarella was the perfect topping, stretching into long ribbons with every forkful of pasta.

By the time dinner was ready, Jeff was home and glued to my side, sticking his nose two inches away from the fragrant dish as I began slicing. I set a big square on each of our plates, adding a giant pile of lightly dressed greens alongside. As we sat down to eat our homemade meal, I could feel my body thanking me profusely for such delicious vegetables.

Butternut Squash Lasagna with a Garlic and Rosemary Bechamel Sauce: The recipe
Amanda's notes: When it comes to lasagna, I'm more interested in the filling than the pasta, which is why I have a small number of layers. If you want to use more layers of pasta, scale up the amounts of the filling a bit, and make as many thinner layers of filling between pasta as you like. Or, use the recipe as written but make the lasagna in a smaller pan.
This dish is time consuming, but not at all difficult. Try it this weekend!

Ingredients: filling
1.5 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 pkg frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 container ricotta cheee
1 cup Parmesan cheese
olive oil
kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400F. Toss squash with olive oil and salt and pepper, roast on a cookie sheet for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, mix parmesan and ricotta cheee. Allow roasted squash to cool slightly, then mash lightly, mix with spinach, and fold into the ricotta and parmesan cheese mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

Ingredients: Garlic and Rosemary Bechamel Sauce
Basic bechamel sauce adapted from Iron Chef Mario Batali
5 tbsp butter
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
4 sprigs rosemary
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 to 1 tsp salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour, whisk until completely smooth. Cook mixture, whisking constantly until golden, about 5-6 minutes. Meanwhile, add milk, garlic, and rosemary to a saucepan and heat to just below the boil. Add the heated milk mixture to the butter and flour mixture gradually, a cup at a time, whisking constantly to keep smooth. Bring the milk to a gentle boil, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes.
Remove sauce from heat. Strain into another saucepan. Add nutmeg, and salt to taste.

Ingredients: Assembly
1 pkg oven ready fresh pasta sheets (such as Olivieri)
fresh mozarella, sliced or grated

Preheat oven to 350F. Spread 1 cup of the sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 in baking dish. Add a layer of noodles, cutting the sheets to cover the surface, overlapping slightly. Spread half of the filling into an even layer on the noodles. Pour 1 cup of sauce over the filling, spreading evenly. Top with another layer of noodles. Press with your hands to tighten the layers. Repeat layering, ending with a 3rd layer of noodles. Poor remaining sauce over top layer, top with mozzarella, cover with foil, and bake for 35 minutes. Remove foil, bake 5 minutes more. Broil cheese for 5 minutes.
Remove lasagna from oven, cover, and let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Alton Brown's Onion Dip from Scratch

Is anyone having friends over to watch Olympic events? We might have a gathering or two for the gold medal hockey games when the time comes, so I've had my favourite snacks on the brain.
I made Alton Brown's Onion Dip from Scratch a few times last summer and at Christmas to rave results, and for good reason. Once you make this, you will never go back to purchased. Toss out the soup mix, readers, and get ready for the real thing.
This dip is not only delicious, but also extremely easy to make. Anyone who can chop an onion is already an expert. Simply saute your onion in olive oil until it's beautifully carmelized.
Then, once it's cooled, mix it with mayonnaise, sour cream, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. Now, it's going to be hard, but you'll have to let it sit before digging in. The sweet flavour of the carmelized onions needs to permeate the creamy surroundings. Just walk away! You can do it.
You will be rewarded in the end. Alton Brown has created the ultimate chip dip! Caramelizing the onions brings out a sweet, deep flavour that you just won't find in a purchased dip. Also, this recipe contains the perfect ratio of mayonnaise to sour cream.  Neither too thick nor too thin, it is the ideal consistency for your favourite rippled chips, crackers, or crunchy veggies. As my friend Emilee exclaimed, "Tastes like Ruffles! But better!" Set it out in front of your pals, and watch it disappear.

Alton Brown's Onion Dip from Scratch: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: I've used both yellow (stronger) and vidalia (sweeter) onions with fine results.
White pepper is a bit less hot than black pepper. I think that the only reason it's used here is to keep the dip white in colour. Use freshly cracked black pepper if you prefer.
I like to let my dip sit overnight, but a few hours should be fine if you're pressed for time.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups diced onions
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups sour cream
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

In a saute pan over medium heat add oil, heat and add onions and salt. Cook the onions until they are caramelized, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Mix the rest of the ingredients, and then add the cooled onions. Refrigerate and stir again before serving.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Grown Up Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

Are you looking to update your favourite childhood meal to your sophisticated, adult tastes? Simple!

Start with a homemade bowl of tomato soup. No need to put too much effort into it; just mix some canned crushed tomatoes with some broth (we had homemade chicken broth in the freezer, but a good store bought brand is just fine) and some flavouring agents and spices, and let it simmer for a little while.

Onto the sandwich. The foodie's secret to a phenomenal grilled cheese is quality ingredients. Choose wisely, keeping in mind that there are a few easy ways to sneak in extra flavour. For example, this fresh loaf we bought at the farmers market is a rye bread with caraway seeds. I love how fragrant it is!

Of utmost importance, of course, is the cheese. My suggestion is to go with either something that is flavoured (like an herbed Gouda, Havarti, or Monteray Jack) or something smoked. Pictured here is one of my favourites, apple wood smoked Cheddar cheese. The beauty of using it in a grilled cheese (or in just about anything, really) is that it tastes a bit like bacon. The taste of bacon in your grilled cheese without having to bother frying any? Yes, please!

Are you ready for this?

Oh, yes.

Mmmmmmm! Although reminiscent of everyone's familiar childhood meal, this gourmet version takes the concept of tomato soup and grilled cheese to a whole new level. Homemade soup, even a quick one such as this, always has a lot more depth and flavour than what comes out of a can, and the sandwich, when made with quality bread and cheese, is a little taste of happiness. I guarantee that this meal will put a smile on anyone's face. Personally, my inner child jumped for joy while my matured taste buds savoured every element.

Lastly, I think you all know what to do: dip that baby!

Quick Homemade Tomato Soup: The Recipe
Amanda's notes: If you would like to make a heartier meal out of your soup, add a handful of macaroni and a drained and rinsed can of beans.

olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced

6 cups broth (chicken, beef, or veggie)
2 large cans crushed tomatoes, plain
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
about a palm full each of basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add onion, saute a few minutes. Add garlic, saute a few minutes more. Add broth and tomatoes, bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Add rest of the ingredients. Simmer for 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Crab Cakes

I've mentioned before that I am trying to recover from a life-long irrational fear of seafood; now that I've conquered cooking fish at home, crab cakes were next on my list to try. Jeff and I looked online for recipes, but we were overwhelmed by all of the variations. After reading a few different ones, we decided to just forge ahead with our own ideas.

In addition to the crab and mayonnaise, of course, I was insistent on green onions while Jeff was insistent on corn; in they both went! We also added panko bread crumbs, fresh lemon juice, sriracha hot sauce, cayenne pepper, and an egg. Next, I pressed the patties into more panko before frying them in a skillet so that they would be extra crispy. I served the hot crab cakes with some tarter sauce into which I whisked a whole bunch of fresh lemon juice.

I really enjoyed these crab cakes. The corn brought out the sweetness in the crab while also adding a different texture to the mix. The green onions and lemon juice provided plenty of brightness, while the hot sauce and cayenne pepper made the cakes perfectly spicy. What can I say about panko? The contrast between the crispness of the outside of the cakes and the tender inside was to die for; I'll never use another kind of bread crumb.

Keep in mind that I've only tried crab cakes a couple of times, so I don't have the greatest frame of reference; however, Jeff, the household Crab Cake King, assured me that these were very, very good. With his endorsement, I am confident in recommending this recipe. Enjoy!

Crab Cakes: The Recipe

Amanda's notes: Next time, I may add another egg to this recipe because the cakes were a little fragile; however, it was nothing that gentle handling couldn't take care of.
The next day, I broke up the leftover crab cakes into the leftover rice, added some green peas, and fried everything in a skillet with a little bit of soy sauce. Tasty!

1 package frozen crab (approx. 1 lb), thawed
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
4 green onions, sliced
1 can corn, drained
1 large egg (2 if mixture isn't holding together)
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp sriracha hot sauce
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne (less or more, depending on how brave you are!)
1 tsp kosher salt
freshly cracked black pepper

Extra panko
vegetable oil


Mix all ingredients, form into patties (6 large, 12 small). Fill a shallow dish with extra panko, coat patties on both sides. Coat the bottom of a skillet with vegetable oil, heat to medium high. Fry crab cakes until golden brown (about 3 min per side). Drain on a cookie sheet lined with paper towel. Serve cakes with lemony tarter sauce. Enjoy!