First ingredient: Duck

If truth be told, the subtitle for this post is Christmas Eve dinner for two. I had such good intentions to post, post, post during the holiday break, but there was always something more pressing to do (sip eggnog and brandy, make soup, listen to the radio, snuggle on the couch).
Having wrapped up all our gift and grocery shopping, David and I spent the day before Christmas at home — preparing for the trip to visit his family Dec. 25 and 26 and the arrival of my family Dec. 27.
I wanted dinner to be non-taxing, yet special.
After much inner debate, I settled on duck breast. Having never cooked or purchased it before, I called my local butcher for some information and he led me to King Cole Ducks. The home farm for this large producer is located in the north end of York Region and sells fresh, frozen and smoked duck to the public. I visited the busy store Dec. 23 and bought two fresh breasts for the very reasonable price of $8.
It provided the inspiration for a simple and seasonal yet elegant and delicious meal. We paired the duck with a jammy merlot.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream
This was a reprise of the soup I served at Thanksgiving. Really, a vessel for more of that maple allspice sour cream. I eyeballed the proportions for the sour cream this time around and it was better than I remember.
I made the soup in the morning, reserved two generous servings to reheat for dinner and packed the rest in the freezer for later.

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear
A simple salad of mixed baby romaine mixed with a white wine vinaigrette and topped with sliced pear and a generous wedge of room temperature gorgonzola.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote and pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote
This recipe comes courtesy of Bob Blumer.
I wanted a tart fruit sauce to complement the rich duck, but not one that involved buying imported fresh fruit. I had a bottle of cassis purchased at Finger Lake Distilling during a camping trip this summer. It was fate.

2 boneless duck breasts
2 shallots, minced
generous splash of cassis
30 mL (2 tbsp) of black currant jam
generous splash of balsamic vinegar

High heat and a well-seasoned cast iron pan made the duck breasts plump up and sear quickly.

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Using a sharp knife, score 4 (1/2-cm-deep) cuts across the skin of the duck breasts at a 45 degree angle. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat a well-seasoned skillet or non-stick pan over high heat. When pan is hot, add duck breasts, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes or until skin is brown and crispy. Flip and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove pan from and transfer duck breasts, skin side up, to a cooking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake on the top rack of the oven for 6 minutes.
Carefully discard all but 15 mL (1 tbsp) drippings from pan. Return pan to medium heat and add shallot. Stir occasionally for 3 minutes or until shallot begins to turn golden.
Add cassis to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to loosen up the browned bits left by the duck. Add jam, vinegar and more black pepper, and stir occasionally for 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove duck from the oven and slice each breast at a 45-degree angle into 1/2-cm-thick strips (properly cooked duck should resemble medium-rare steak). Arrange in a fanlike pattern on warmed plates and spoon sauce overtop. Serve immediately.

Pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes
A classic.

225 g (1/2 pound) Yukon gold potatoes, 1-cm dice
salt, pepper
15-30mL (1-2 tbsp) duck fat

Parboil potatoes until nearly cooked but still firm. Season with salt and pepper
After searing duck breasts, transfer 15-30 mL of fat to hot pan.
Add potatoes and fry to a golden brown.
Serve with pan-seared duck breasts.


In search of India

It’s easy to pull together a fairly tasty Indian dinner using the pre-blended spice mixtures, curry powder or garam masala, or sauces you find at the grocery or bulk food store. But for a meal that is more authentic and satisfying in its preparation and flavours, I am learning to start with the whole spices, then grind, toast, fry and blend.
We are hosting dear friends for an Indian feast this weekend. And, while I won’t spoil the surprise by detailing the menu here, I did want to post about the spices required to make six dishes from scratch — starter, main, two sides, condiment and dessert.
Although my spice cupboard (not rack, cupboard) is well stocked, I did need to add some items for this undertaking. Here is the sum of my list.

Perhaps the prettiest of spices, star anise.

These items (most of which I always have on hand) are readily available in my local Bulk Barn:
• green cardamom
• star anise
• coriander seeds
• cumin seeds
• fennel
• cinnamon sticks
• whole dried red chiles
• bay leaves
• saffron
• nutmeg
• mace
• tumeric
• cloves
• cayenne

Indian ingredients: mustard oil, dried fenugreek leaves, fenugreek seeds, kalonji, black cardamom and black mustard seeds.

For other items, look in the Indian section of larger grocery stores or an Indian grocer.
Since I happened to be in downtown Toronto Tuesday, I stopped by a stall at the St. Lawrence Market that had everything else on my shopping list:
• dried fenugreek (methi) leaves
• fenugreek seeds
• kalonji
• black cardamom
• black mustard seeds

I’m excited to start cooking.

Chocolate orange surprise cakes

Whether making or eating, I can generally take or leave desserts.
But if I feel a meal (or the company) calls for one, individual cakes are good bet.
Baked in ramekins, they encourage small portions appropriate for dessert, bake quickly while you’re lingering over wine after the main course and allow for nearly endless variations.
I made these cakes last week. I found a recipe on Two Spoons, which was in turn inspired by a recipe in Julia Le Clerc’s Made By Hand. Don’t you just love the way recipes travel and evolve? I followed this one pretty closely.
I changed the title and asked my husband to name the surprise ingredient. He guessed dried cherries, which was pretty close. The prunes, dark chocolate and cocoa make these cakes intense and rich — without the addition of butter or oil.

Chocolate orange surprise cakes

Chocolate orange surprise cakes — with the surprise ingredient.

50 g pitted prunes, finely chopped
125 mL (1/2 cup) fresh orange juice and water (use freshly squeezed juice of one orange
50 g dark eating chocolate (70 per cent cocoa)
30 mL (2 tbsp) cold water
1 large egg
60 mL (1/4 cup) brown sugar
zest of 1 orange
pinch sea salt
30 mL (2 tbsp) cocoa
60 mL (1/4 cup) flour
2 mL (1/2 tsp) baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Heat prunes and orange juice/water mix on medium heat to soften the prunes and reduce the liquid until thickened.
Beat the egg and sugar on high until pale and frothy.
Remove prunes from heat. Stir in chocolate and cold water.
Fold chocolate mixture into egg mixture. Add orange zest.
Sift in dry ingredients and fold until just incorporated.
Divide between 4 125-mL (1/2-cup) ramekins.
Bake about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Dust with icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

You can’t have too much corn

When David’s brother, sister-in-law and young nephew agreed to a last-minute visit on Labour Day weekend, they promised to bring a peach pie and corn. I’d already purchased a dozen cobs for the weekend, so David pulled out the Weber Ranch and grilled the whole lot, alongside some pork tenderloin, for dinner. Potato salad and mixed greens rounded out the meal.
Naturally, we had leftovers. And, with my sister and her young son joining us all for brunch the next day, a great reason to try a new recipe.
We liked these fritters so much (and had so much fantastic grilled corn stashed in the freezer), we made them again Thanksgiving weekend.

Corn fritter frying in my favourite cast iron pan.

Corn fritters
This recipe a slight modification of one by PEI chef Michael Smith.
I found I needed just a little more flour to stick everything together and I used less oil to fry the cakes.
I served the fritters with a choice of maple syrup, chili sauce and piquante sauce. My preference is the piquante.
Makes four generous servings.

3 ears of fresh corn, kernels removed from cobs (about 1 L or 4 cups of kernels)
3 eggs
60 mL (1/4 cup) flour
45 mL (3 tbsp) corn meal
salt and pepper
2 green onions, thinly sliced
250 mL (1 cup) grated cheddar cheese
vegetable oil

Whisk corn and eggs in a large bowl.
Add flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper and mix well.
Stir in green onion and cheddar.
Heat large skillet over medium heat. Add a little oil and spread to evenly cover pan.
Add spoonfuls of batter and flatten to form cakes.
Cook until golden, flip and cook other side.
Continue cooking in batches, adding more oil as needed.

Thanksgiving post mortem

Turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

Thanksgiving dinner was a success.
The turkey was stuffed and in a 325 Fahrenheit oven by about 2 p.m. The 9 kilogram bird would take about 4-1/2 hours to roast.
Our guests arrived around 3 p.m.
I had cooked the sausage, washed the apples and picked and washed the sage, so it only took a few minutes to pull together the sausage with apple and sage. We served these with the meringue nuts, sauvignon blanc and Creemore Springs Urboch before dinner.
After a walk around the garden, I started on dinner.
For the first course, I reheated the roasted squash and apple soup and whipped up the easy maple allspice sour cream garnish. The garnish was a surprise hit. The combination of maple syrup and allspice is something I will use again — perhaps as a flavouring for baked squash?
The fresh local turkey was tender, juicy and flavourful.
To accompany it, I served cranberry sauce, brown butter mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes and sautéed Swiss chard. For easy sweet potatoes, peel and cut into large cubes, then microwave with a bit of water until soft. Drain Add a little butter, brown sugar and nutmeg and microwave again for about a minute. The chard (the last from my garden) was sautéed simply in a little olive oil, red pepper flakes and chopped garlic.
My mother-in-law, who makes perhaps the best pastry I’ve ever tasted, brought apple and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Sausage with apple and sage

Sausage with apple and sage
I adapted this Laura Calder recipe only slightly. I used local Gala apples instead of Granny Smith (which tend to be imported) and in larger pieces than she suggests. I also cut down on the olive oil and butter.

2 pork sausages, cooked
1-2 apples, peeled and cored
20 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) olive oil
15 mL (1 tbsp) butter
pinch sugar
24 small sage leaves

Slice sausage into half-centimetre slices on the bias.
Cut apple into small cubes.
Heat oil in a saute pan and fry sausage slices on both sides until golden brown, remove to a platter.
Wash pan. Melt butter in pan. Add sugar and fry apple cubes tossing occasionally until golden on all sides.
Add a little more oil to the pan, if needed, and fry the sage leaves until slightly crisp, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Brown butter mashed potatoes
This is an occasion treat at our house, only served with big traditional meals such as turkey or prime rib. It is inspired by this recipe from PEI chef Michael Smith, although I use less butter and add a little milk or cream.

4-5 large potatoes
80 mL (1/3 cup) butter
60 mL (1/4 cup) milk or light cream
few pinches of nutmeg
salt and pepper

Peel potatoes and cut into large cubes. Place in pot with lots of cold water. Heat until boiling and simmer until cooked, about 20 minutes.
Drain and mash potatoes.
In another pot or pan, melt butter, swirling the pan, until it becomes golden brown and gives off a nutty aroma. Add milk to stop cooking.
Add butter and milk mixture, nutmeg, salt and pepper to potatoes and stir.

Thanksgiving prep, part two

With the menu decided, I needed to do some additional preparations Friday night so that I would be the picture of calm Sunday afternoon — and be able to take advantage of the lovely sunny, warm weather and spend much of Saturday and Sunday outside.
I checked two items off my list (yes, there is a list, complete with hand-drawn check boxes): meringue nuts and squash apple soup.
The nuts I will serve with drinks and sausage bites (recipe to come) before dinner. The soup will be our first course.

Meringue nuts

Meringue nuts
This recipe comes from Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal. It’s a family favourite. I usually make a double batch.

500 mL (2 cups) mixed unsalted nuts, such as pecans, cashews and almonds
1 egg white
125 mL (1/2 cup) packed brown sugar
5 mL (1 tsp) cinnamon
few drops of Tabasco (I use Frank’s Red Hot)
2-5 mL (1/2-1 tsp) salt

Preheat over to 300 Fahrenheit.
In a bowl, beat egg white until foamy. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, Tabasco and salt. Add nuts, stir to coat.
Spread mixture onto baking sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick spray Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until golden.
Cool on the pan.

Roasted squash apple soup
I was inspired by Christine Cushing’s roasted squash, celery root and apple soup. Here’s my version. I may add a little 35 per cent cream to give it a silky texture when I reheat it for dinner.

2 buttercup squash, cut into 2-cm pieces
2 Paula red apples, peeled and chopped
30 mL (2 tbsp) vegetable oil
salt and pepper
20 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) butter
3 onions, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 L (4 cups) chicken stock
10 mL (2 tsp) grated ginger
10 mL (2 tsp) fennel seeds, crushed
10 mL (2 tsp) ground coriander

Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit.
Toss squash with vegetable oil and roast until soft, about 30 minutes. Add apples, roast and additional 10 minutes.
In large pot, melt butter. Add onion, celery and carrot and cook until soft.
Add stock, roasted squash and apple and spices. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Puree with immersion blender or in stand blender until smooth.
Serve garnished with maple allspice sour cream.

Maple allspice sour cream
80 mL (1/3 cup) sour cream
1/2 mL (1/8) allspice
15 mL (1 tbsp) maple syrup

Mix all ingredients until well blended.

Shop, cook, eat: St. Lawrence Market

This post is a few months overdue. The seed of this blog was germinating when we planned and executed this field trip and meal with David’s parents. I had the foresight to enlist David as official blog photographer that day.
It began with a Saturday morning trip to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and ended with a fabulous four-course dinner at our house. We had no set menu — with the exception of the first course, which was to be our own version of one David had enjoyed at a restaurant nearly a year before. Instead, we decided, we would be inspired by what we saw and plan our meal accordingly.
We spent a couple hours wandering through the market’s stalls, salivating over the fresh meats, fish and produce and sampling mustards and cheeses.
Here, in no specific order, is what we bought:
large loaf of French bread
.7 kg piece of black cod
.5 kg thick cut organic beef striploin
crimini mushrooms
small eggplants
mini red potatoes
A well-stocked pantry, fridge, bar and herb garden, plus a quick stop at the grocery store for some cream cheese, offered everything else we needed for our four-course feast.
With the exception of dessert, all dishes were prepared without a recipe. So instructions are minimal, but offer enough detail, I hope, to provide inspiration to any home chef.
We served the first and second courses with an unoaked chardonnay — a nice match for the hollandaise and buttery black cod. The beef course demanded something big and red. We went with malbec.

First course: Asparagus crostini
1. Make hollandaise sauce.
After much patient instruction from my sister chef, David now makes a killer hollandaise. We like ours with a little hot sauce and lots of fresh squeezed lemon juice. He made the hollandaise, while I prepped the crostini and vegetables.
2. Add some butter and a little oil to a hot pan. Saute sliced crimini mushrooms until brown. Add asparagus (four spears per person) and cook until tendercrisp.
3. Cut thick slices of French bread (not baguette, bread) on the diagonal. Lightly toast in 350 Fahrenheit oven.
4. To assemble, place one slice of bread on plate, arrange mushrooms and asparagus spears on bread. Top with hollandaise. Serve immediately.

Asparaugus crostini

Second course: Grilled black cod and eggplant
1. Marinate cod for about an hour in a citrus marinade. I used lemon juice and lemon and orange zest, as well as minced chives, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Cook on oiled grill. Black cod looks lovely when it is grilled; the layers of flesh separate in a very attractive way.
2. Cut eggplant in half. Sprinkle cut side with salt and let rest for an hour. This will draw out moisture and bitterness. Rinse.
Rub cut side with olive oil, finely minced garlic, salt and pepper. Grill, cut side down, until soft.
Sprinkle eggplant with freshly grated Parmesan. Broil until cheese is slightly browned.

Grilled black cod and eggplant.

Third course: Bourbon striploin with rosemary potatoes
1. Combine 80 mL (1/3 cup) each bourbon and soy sauce, 30 mL (2 tbsp) each brown sugar, red wine vinegar and olive oil, 2 mL (1/2 tsp) or more freshly cracked black pepper and 1 garlic clove, minced. (Add a small chopped onion if you like.)
Marinate beef for at least a few hours and as long as overnight for larger roasts.
Grill on hot barbecue to medium rare.
2. Meanwhile, boil remaining marinade on the stove until reduced to a thick sauce.
Allow meat to rest for several minutes before slicing against the grain. Serve slices topped with a bit of the sauce.
3. Microwave potatoes until just cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with olive oil and chopped rosemary (dried or fresh). Grill until skins are slightly crisp.

Bourbon striploin with rosemary potatoes.

Fourth course: Bourbon pecan carrot cake
Carrot cake is my favourite dessert and I was waiting for an excuse to try out one of the recipes from the spring issue of the LCBO’s Food & Drink.
For the cake, I halved all the ingredients except the spices and made only two layers. For the icing, I omitted the vanilla and added some orange zest (which I grate when I eat oranges and keep in the freezer). The result was heavenly. But, for some reason, didn’t rate a photo. Blame all the wine perhaps.
Anyway, here is the original recipe, created by Monda Rosenberg.
1L (4 cups) grated carrot
175 mL (3/4 cup) golden raisins
75 mL  (1/3) bourbon, rum or orange juice (I used bourbon)
500 mL (2 cups) coarsely chopped pecans or almonds (I used pecans)
625 mL (2-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
15 mL (1 tbsp) baking powder
5 mL (1 tsp) baking soda
5 mL (1 tsp) salt
7 mL (1-1/2) tsp cinnamon
5 mL (1 tsp) nutmeg
2 mL (1/2 tsp) allspice
250 mL (1 cup) vegetable oil
375 mL (1-1/2 cup) brown sugar
4 eggs
10 mL (2 tsp) vanilla
2 pkgs (250 g each) regular cream cheese, at room temperature
175 mL (3/4 cup) butter, at room temperature
30 mL (2 tbsp) bourbon, rum or orange juice (I used boubon)
5 mL  (1 tsp) vanilla
625 mL (2-1/2 cups) sifted icing sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Spray or oil three 1.5-L (9-inch) round cake pans.
2. Grate carrots using a food processor. Measure out 1 L  (4 cups) and set aside. Plump up raisins by placing in a small microwave bowl and adding bourbon. Microwave on high 1½ minutes, stirring partway through. Bourbon should just start to boil. Set aside and stir occasionally. Chop nuts and toast in the oven for about 6 minutes, stirring partway through. Place flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle with baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Stir to blend, then make a well in the centre.
3. Combine oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape into well in flour mixture and stir with a spoon or spatula just until even in colour. Stir in carrots, followed by raisins and bourbon that hasn’t been absorbed. Sprinkle with nuts and just mix in. It will be very thick.
4. Divide batter between pans, adding about 550 mL (2-1/4 cups) to each. Spread evenly to pan sides. To remove air pockets, bang pans on counter 5 to 6 times. Bake until centres seem set when lightly tapped, from 30 to 35 minutes. Remove to a baking rack to cool. After about 15 minutes, turn cakes out of pans and cool completely on racks. It’s best to bake cakes a day ahead of icing and leave at room temperature overnight.
5. Cut cream cheese into chunks. Place butter in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until very creamy. Add bourbon and vanilla. Reduce speed to low and beat in cream cheese, piece by piece. Beating too much will cause thinning. Add about a third of the icing sugar and beat on low until just mixed in. Scrape sides of bowl and beaters occasionally. Gradually add remaining sugar, beating just until smooth. If too thin, work in a little more sugar. Can be refrigerated for about an hour before using.
6. To assemble, place a cake, top-side down, on a platter. Lay the other 2, top-side up, on waxed paper. Brush with bourbon if you like. Spoon an equal amount of frosting on each. Spread over cakes, leaving a narrow border of cake around edge of cake on platter and on 1 other cake. Spread frosting right to the edge of the third cake. Stack cakes, placing the fully covered layer on top. Garnish with whole pecan halves. It’s best to refrigerate several hours or overnight before serving.
Make 12 wedges.