Category Archives: Appetizers

Baked Brie with Toasted Pecans

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We hosted a fondue night for friends last week and decided to try an appetizer of baked brie with toasted pecans, drizzled in warm maple syrup. Either of these on their own would easily make my list of top “stranded desert island” fare, but together they were a triad of decadence that did not last long on the plate.  

This is a quick and easy appetizer that offers a refreshing variation to the traditional Brie and baguette duo that many hosts foist upon their guests. Once you’ve tried a warm creamy Brie or Camembert, dressed in any fashion, your self restraint for second helpings will be nil, and you will forever turn your nose up at Brie that has not seen the inside of an oven. 

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Kalamata Tapenade with Tomatoes and Spinach

A few summers ago, my friend Luke had been bragging about salmon recipes he was experimenting with, which included daubing the fish with old fashioned mustard, on one occasion, or black olive tapenade. I was determined to try the tapenade recipe to prove my superiority over an obviously talented cook. I searched the grocery store, near the hummus section, but the only product in stock was a small container with a price so exorbitant that I nearly gagged. I was chastised by an elderly woman watching me as she saw that I gave serious consideration to the purchase. She was shaking her head and probably thinking what morons young people are. I had nearly forked out a good sum of money for a mush of capers and olives that literally takes seconds to puree. The woman explained the basic recipe to me, as I took mental notes, then she continued on her way.

I used to think that tapenade came from Italy, as I erroneously attributed olives with the land of vino, the Pope mobile and the Sistine Chapel, but it is actually the French who first had the insight of mashing up capers and olives to serve on bread. Perhaps there was a shortage of jam that year.

Like Luke, I’ve used tapenade many times on my salmon and am never disappointed. It’s so easy that it doesn’t really even warrant writing the recipe down: basically, spread the tapenade on the uncooked salmon, like a thick paste, then cook the salmon as normal. I also suggest eating tapenade, as the French had originally intended, with a freshly baked baguette. For my own take on tapenade, I use additional ingredients for taste and colour, and pureed them quite finely; you may prefer a coarser texture, in which case puree very briefly.

 

Ingredients:

3 tbsp capers from a jar (don’t use the water that comes with the jar)

24 Kalamata olives, pits removed

1 Roma tomato

1 tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup fresh spinach leaves, washed and dried

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

 

Puree all the ingredients in a food processor, in short bursts until the desired consistency is reached. If you want larger chunks of chopped olives and a coarser texture, add the olives last.

Black olive tapenade on salmon, with red quinoa salad and lemon butter brussel sprouts


Cranberry Tabouli with Pumpkin Seeds

I used to be very pretentious when it came to Lebanese food. If I went to a Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant and came across a dish that didn’t look the way my grandmother used to make it, I’d put on airs and make faces with every bite, like a fussy child. At a work potluck recently, someone brought in stuffed grape vine leaves filled with pork, instead of lamb, and I gave them the cold shoulder for nearly a week.

Tabouli has always been one of the greatest offenders, as there are countless variations on its preparation (and spelling), many of which sadly involve being too stingy on parsley. Grocery store tabouli is one culprit: it consists mainly of bulghur wheat and offers the same satisfaction as munching on kitty litter (I’m guessing). My preference is to throw in heaps of parsley, cucumber and tomato, and making a complete meal out of it. The trouble is that I’m sometimes too lazy to undertake the lengthy task of finely chopping 2 bunches of parsley. I own a food processor, but with tabouli is just feels like cheating.

This easy-to-make recipe is a far cry from my Sito’s tabouli, but requires much less preparation and chopping. Although taking liberties with the classic Middle Eastern salad – and hopefully not offending the omnipotent Tabouli Gods by doing so – I know you won’t be disappointed with this version. I’ve reduced the parsley amounts and replaced the other ingredients with roasted pumpkin seeds and cranberries for a pleasant tartness. I’ve still used bulghur wheat here, but it would taste equally good with couscous or quinoa instead. If my grandmother ever asks, this will be our little secret. Shh. Continue reading


Portobello Mushrooms with Honey-Garlic Glaze

Portobello mushrooms are still foreign enough to me that I usually pass them by in the grocery store without much consideration, like kumquats or celeriac. I’m sure I’m not alone, as the cashier gave me a quizzical look when she peered in the brown paper bag at check out, unsure of its contents. I’m trying however to be bolder in the kitchen and to seek out new items in the produce section that would normally seem daunting. Fennel root and jicama, here I come!

Although portobellos have been strangers to my countertop in the past, I actually do like mushrooms; I eat them raw, toss them into risottos and stir fry’s and always admire the striking orange chanterelles in wicker baskets at fall markets, flecked with earth and dew. Portobellos (or Portabellas, if you prefer) are large, meaty and extremely versatile; and although they are reminiscent of the large toadstool from Alice in Wonderland, they are really just overgrown, brown crimini mushrooms in disguise.

I ate this dish for lunch, but it also makes for an excellent appetizer and visually-appealing side dish.  There’s a lot of garlic here – the recipe calls for an entire bulb –  but don’t cancel your evening plans just yet (although do make sure you have mouthwash on hand). The honey weakens the bite of the garlic, as well as adds such tremendous sweetness and flavour once cooked that the act of consuming it almost feels sinful. If I were a smoker, I would probably have lit up as soon I relinquished my fork…it was that pleasurable. Instead, I washed the dish down with a glass of our family’s home-made dessert Riesling wine, accompanied by a local Saltspring Camembert so fresh that it literally oozed with creaminess the moment I cut into it.

This recipe is so simple you’ll want to make it every week. The step that takes the longest is waiting for the oven to preheat to 500 degrees F. The ingredient quantities listed make enough glaze for 6 mushrooms, but I wouldn’t necessarily reduce quantities if you bought less than six mushrooms. I actually made more glaze than I needed and refrigerated the remainder; it can be used up to two weeks later for other delicious purposes, such as drizzling on vegetables (especially asparagus) before grilling or baking and also for marinating chicken.

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Easy to Make Tuna Sushi Rolls

I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, but here in Victoria, British Columbia we have seen some strange health trends over the past few years (Vancouverites, I know you’ll agree): a cult-like obsession with yoga and form-fitting Lululemon pants, a substantial market of people who are willing to pay over $6 for a small loaf of organic bread containing enough seeds to keep the local bird population thriving through the winter…and then there is Sushimania, where the health-conscious pay through the nose for rice, seaweed and fish that the chef was too lazy to cook. Although I do enjoy things Japanese – the food, the tea ceremonies, the culture – and have voraciously read the novel Shogun, I have a difficult time paying such a hefty bill for something so inexpensive to make at home. I do that with coffee already and feel guilty enough.

A Japanese friend of mine showed me how to make very basic tuna sushi rolls which take under 30 minutes to prepare and only cost about $5 for enough rolls to plump up a roomful of hungry Victorians. There are many different ways to prepare Sushi, but this is one of the simplest rolls I’ve found, so it’s a good entry-level dish before attempting the preparation of eel, puffer fish or fish roe that pop in your mouth and set off the gag reflex.

Although sushi is relatively cheap to make, you’ll have to invest in a few inexpensive tools and ingredients that should last you a while: Continue reading


Fattoosh – Lebanese Herb and Toasted Pita Bread Salad

Ten days into 2011 and my resolve to eat healthier has not yet abandoned me completely, except for the short-lived Ferrero Rocher that I found in my jacket pocket this afternoon. In addition to starting a 21-day yoga challenge today to whip myself into shape, tonight I also decided to delve into my ancestry for a healthy and creative salad  – Fattoosh. I don’t normally get much satisfaction from eating salads; they are too light and unfilling, too limp and without personality, and they always leave me with dressing down my shirt – though this Levantine dish which sounds liked a sneeze makes other salads wilt in shame. The ingredient list for this salad reads very much like that for its close relative, tabouli (also recommended), except Fattoosh uses romaine lettuce, ground sumac for tartness and hardened pieces of pita bread crumbled in, originally conceived as a practical use for stale bread besides using it as a middle eastern frisbee.

Sumac is an ingredient that is hard to come by here in Victoria – at least I haven’t found it – though you may be in luck if you live near a middle eastern grocer. Sumac always makes me think about an ill-planned entrepreneurial endeavour from my high school days, when my best friend Jon and I ground up the fuzzy red berries from the sumac tree in my backyard, rolled them up in cigarette paper, and sold them to our grade 8 friends under the brand name “Smacs”. They tasted pleasantly sour and fruity when inhaled, though the trend never caught on with our peers. I wouldn’t advise trying this at home, but I do highly recommend that you add this spice to your kitchen collection for the purpose of cooking. If you can’t find it, I’ve added a variation to the recipe using lemon zest, which tastes close enough. Continue reading


Easy Tabouli Salad

Tabouli was one of the first salads I ever ate when I was young. My grandmother, or Sito in Lebanese, always had a heaping bowl of it ready-in-waiting whenever we dropped by, like her tin of Peek Frean cookies that never seemed to deplete in stock. At every holiday dinner or event at the house of a relative, tabouli was also featured on the menu. To a child, the salad represented a colourful and visually appealing ensemble of greens and reds; as an adult, it is a healthy and tasty alternative to other side dishes.

Every weekend I now make a bowl-ful of tabouli that lasts me for several lunches and dinners during the week; and although it’s probably getting old and tiresome, I typically bring tabouli to every potluck I’m invited to. It’s different that the usual potato salad or nanaimo bars that I used to bring, and is just so easy to make – 15 minutes…and voila!

Note that there are many different ways to make this salad – each time is usually different for me depending on what I have in the fridge. Continue reading


Thai Chicken Salad – Laap Gai

Our favourite Isan (North East Thailand) meal, which we have occasionally made since returning home from our travels there, is minced chicken salad, or Laap Gai. Like other typical Isan cuisine, it is spicy and rich in flavour. Traditionally it is made with ground, roasted sticky rice in it, though I usually skip this step for simplicity without noticing the difference. I enjoy eating this dish, as the Thai people do, with handfuls of sticky rice, or wrapped in lettuce leaves like a wrap.

Follow this link to read about my experiences in Thailand

 

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups chicken breast or turkey breast, minced or ground. Ground chicken is usually available at grocery stores.

4 shallots, thinly sliced

3 tbsp fish sauce – yes, it smells vile, but it’s an integral ingredient in Thai dishes

2 tbsp lime juice

1 tbsp chilli powder

2 tbsp finely chopped red onion (optional)

1 tbsp cilantro, chopped (optional)

1 green onion, chopped

1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped

 

Method:

1. Place the ground chicken, shallots, red onion, fish sauce, lime juice and chilli powder into a medium bowl and mix together.

2. Heat a wok and on medium heat and cook the chicken mixture for about 6 minutes until the chicken is cooked. During the last minute, add the mint, cilantro and green onion.

3. Serve with sticky or glutinous rice or in lettuce leaves, similar to lettuce wraps.


Easy to Make Chicken Satay

There are a lot of great peanut-satay products that one can buy, normally found somewhere in the asian food section of the grocery store. But I find it just as easy to make my own with an ingredient that is found in almost every cupboard – peanut butter.

 

Ingredients:

1 pound skinless boneless chicken, either cubed or sliced into 1 inch x 3 inch pieces

1/3 cup peanut butter, store bought or home-made

1/4 cup boiling water

1 tbsp grated ginger

1/2 tsp curry powder or paste

1 tbsp lemon juice

Red Chilli flakes, depending on taste (or 1 finely chopped chilli pepper if you are brave)

1 tbsp plain white yogourt or milk

1/2 tsp salt

 

Directions:

1. Cut chicken into pieces, as above. Mix remaining ingredients in medium bowl – the hot water will melt the peanut  butter into a creamy liquid consistency.

2.  Set oven to broil.

3. Immerse the chicken into the peanut butter mixture to cover each piece well and then line the coated chicken in an oiled pan or cookie sheet. Reserve 1/4 cup of the mixture for a second coating later on.

4. Broil the chicken for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and brush chicken with remaining mixture, then cook for another 5 minutes. Serve on a bed of jasmine or basmati rice. Sprinkle with chilli flakes if desired.


Thai Style Fish Cakes and Sauce

I worked and travelled in Thailand for one summer and ended up staying in Chiang Mai for 3 days in the desperate search to see an elephant. The 3 days then turned into 2 weeks, as I lost track of time. I never did get to meet an elephant in that particular city except for one sad, wizened elephant who accompanied its master through a seedy district of town as a novelty for tourists.  Although my exposure to these ancient pachyderms was a letdown, the rest of the city had plenty to offer.

I could spend countless posts praising or describing this incredible country, but will instead just focus on the couple of days when I signed up for Thai cooking classes at the renowned Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, run by Thailand’s answer to Emeril: Chef Sompon. Classes would typically begin after lunch and last until dinner time and would include the preparation of 5 or 6 traditional dishes. Even though meals were spaced out, I would still skip breakfast each day just to make room for the feast that would follow. The Thai fish cakes were one of the meals made on the second day of my class and it was probably one of the only seafood dishes I recall eating during my stay. I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Continue reading


Roasted Bagel Chips

Instead of buying crackers or pita bread for dipping, try bagel chips for something different and tasty.

Ingredients:

2 or 3 bagels, any kind

3 tbsp of butter or olive 0il

1/4 tsp of salt

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F

2. Place  bagels in fridge for 30 minutes. This step isn’t necessary, although I find it helps make the bagels easier to slice thinly.

3. Slice the bagels into 1/2 – 1.4 inch slices (4-5 slices per bagel, typically).

4. Lightly butter each side of the bagel slices or drizzle with olive oil, then coat both sides with salt, to taste.

5. Place bagel slices on ungreased baking sheet for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Flip part way through. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.


Smoked Salmon Dip

I’m not really a dip kind of guy, unless it’s hummus or spinach-artichoke. Not that I’m incredibly health conscious, but I’ve always been suspect of the calorie or fat count of store-bought dips. Even though this dip recipe includes cream cheese and mayo, the smoked salmon in it at least makes me feel a little less guilty pleasure when partaking. This tastes great on sliced cucumbers or with cut veggies.

Ingredients:

2 cups cream cheese (I use light cheese, in order to feel a little less guilty)

3 tbsp onion, minced

1/3 tbsp garlic powder

1/2 cup smoked salmon

1/4 cup mayonnaise (light)

2 tsp fresh dill, chopped

Directions

1. Whip cream cheese in a blender until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend well using a food processor or blender.

2. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.


Hummous

 

Ingredients:

2 cups canned garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained

1/3 cup or less to taste, tahini

1/4 cup lemon juice, fresh

1 tsp salt

2 cloves garlic

1/4 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp paprika

2 tbsp olive oil

Directions:

1. Add the tahini and the lemon juice to a small bowl and whisk until slightly foamy. This will help give the hummous a creamier consistency later on.

2 – 0ption 1: Add the tahini mixture with the garbanzo beans, half the olive oil, salt, cumin and garlic in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Transfer mixture to a serving bowl.

2 – option 2: I’ve thrown in this brief extra step, as an option. I find that hummous will turn out creamier if you first boil the canned chickpeas for 2 minutes, to soften them. You can add the garlic to the boiling water during this step. Drain, then add the chickpeas and garlic to the food processor with the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Serve.

3. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the garbanzo bean mixture. Sprinkle with paprika.

4. Serve with pita bread or home-made bagel crisps


Roasted Garlic

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Peel away a few of the outer layers of the garlic bulb, leaving the skins of the individual cloves intact. Using a knife, cut off 1/4 inch off the top of cloves, exposing the individual cloves of garlic.

3. Place the garlic heads in a baking pan; Drizzle a couple teaspoons of olive oil over each bulb, using your fingers to coat. Cover with aluminum foil.

4. Bake at 400°F for 35 minutes or until the cloves feel soft.

 

Eat as is or serve warm with Brie cheese or as a spread. Not recommended for a date night!

 


Easy Spinach Dip

For an attractive look, serve dip in a 1 pound, hollowed out Sour Dough bread loaf. Cut pieces of the bread and use for dipping.

 

Ingredients:

2 packages of frozen, chopped spinach, thawed

1 can water chestnuts, drained

1 cup sour cream

1 cup plain yogurt

1 cup green onions, copped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

1/4 teaspoon pepper

 

Directions:

1. Squeeze water from thawed spinach until dry.

2. Place all ingredients except green onions in blender and blend until desired consistency is reached. Add salt accordingly, to taste.

3. Cover and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.

 


Japanese-Style Steak Sauce (for rice)

If you’re like me, you have to order a serving of rice with sesame steak sauce every time you visit your local Japanese restaurant – there is something highly addictive about it. A friend of mine passed along this recipe, which I think tastes pretty close to the real thing.

 

Ingredients:

1/3 cup raw sesame seeds

1 tsp dijon mustard mixed with 1 tsp dry mustard; mix with a little water to make a paste

2/3 cup light soy sauce

2/3 cup light oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 small clove garlic, minced

1/3 cup mayonnaise

Directions:

1. Toast raw sesame seeds in a dry heavy saucepan on medium heat. Raise the saucepan in quick intervals off and on the heat, shifting and moving the seeds until they are a uniform light brown. Stay vigilant with this…the seeds can burn easily if left in one position too long.

2. Put seeds and remaining ingredients – except mayonnaise – in blender and blend until smooth, about three minutes.

3. Add mayonnaise and blend additional minute


Dan’s Salsa Mexicana

Ingredients/Directions:

1 can whole or chopped/diced tomatoes (drain liquid and reserve to adjust texture later).

2-3  large jalapenos baked in aluminum foil at 375 for 25 minutes (cool and pull skin where possible, cut in half and scrape away seeds) and dice.

1/3 cup diced onion (sweet if available).

1/3 cup cilantro chopped fine.

Stir together ingredients, as prepared, and serve with tortilla chips

Optional: dash of lime or vinegar, and/or touch of dried oregano