Thursday, January 31, 2008

George's Focaccia and a slice of history

A little over eleven years ago I was working as a nanny of two young boys, oblivious to the future I had in professional cooking and unaware of the wild and wonderful journey into the culinary world that I was about to embark on and never return from.

At the time, my family was fortunate enough to be friends with the owners of the best restaurant in our small British Columbia town. Two heads and shoulders above the Chinese buffets and truck-stop cafes that lined the highway, the Little Onion Restaurant offered succulent dishes such as Smoked Alaskan Black Cod and Jamaican Jerk Rack of Lamb. They were the best for countless reasons, among them being their homemade sorbet and ice cream, and perhaps most impressive of all, daily fresh-baked focaccia.

It usually was just coming out of the oven when the doors opened at 5-o-clock and as soon as clients were seated, it arrived at their table: warm, sliced into generous wedges and served with accompanying olive oil and balsamic vinegar. (remember the oil and vinegar of the 9o’s?)
There was no one in town eating better that night than those guests.

My path crossed with the Little Onion one day when the sous chef walked out on George, head chef and owner, hours before a busy Saturday night service. Over an espresso at the bar, George lamented to my father that he didn’t know what he was going to do and so my father offered:

“My Aimee is pretty handy in the kitchen. Why don’t you have her come in and help out?”

I guess George figured he had nothing to lose and so that evening I found myself thrust into the most thrilling environment I had ever encountered: a bustling, swinging, hot, professional restaurant kitchen.

I loved every minute of it.

At the end of the evening, George poured me a glass of chilled Riesling and spoke three words that I'll never forget.

“You’re a natural."

Then, to my delight -and terror- he offered me a permanent position.

The rest is history. George took me under his wing and gave me a crash course in culinary education. It was in that small kitchen where I got my first second degree burn from boiling sugar, left a piece of my palm in the mandolin, and got hooked, really hooked, on espressos.
It was the best of times.

George's focaccia was something I never got sick of, even though I had it for dinner most nights, stuffed with some caramelized onions and homemade charcuterie. The smell of it baking never failed to make my stomach growl and it was one of the recipes I kept over the years.
It's simple to make and always a crowd pleaser, whether you are throwing an antipasto party or just dining on a humble lasagna.

George’s Focaccia

400 ml warm water
1 tablespoon dry yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

Olive oil
Fresh rosemary
Coarse salt

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water, yeast and sugar. Whisk quickly with a fork, then leave to sit for five or ten minutes until the yeast starts to dissolve and bubble.

Add half of the flour and the salt to the yeast mixture. With a dough hook attachment, beat batter on medium high until well combined. Add remaining flour and combine slowly, scraping down the dough hook and sides of the bowl as needed, until mixture comes together in a smooth dough. Knead on low speed for 3 to 4 minutes until dough is soft and elastic. You may need to add another handful of flour or two. Dough should still be slightly tacky.

Remove from bowl. Wash bowl, dry well and coat with olive oil. Place dough back in bowl and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk- about 1 ½ hours.

Preheat oven to 400F
Generously oil two 8-inch round pizza pans with olive oil. Turn dough out onto counter and without punching dough down, divide in two with a sharp knife. Place a round of dough on each pizza pan and press gently with fingertips to flatten slightly and fill out the pan.
Allow to rest 10 minutes.

Drizzle a little olive oil on top of the focaccia and sprinkle with your choice of fresh herbs and a generous helping of coarse salt.
Bake about 15 minutes until bottom of focaccia is lightly golden and the top has a nice color as well.
Cool slightly, then slice into wedges and serve warm.
This focaccia is best eaten the same day it is made, but it does freeze well. To reheat, crisp in oven.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Diving Back into Sweets with a Pecan Tart

For the first few weeks after the holidays I avoided sugar, a rarity indeed for me. It’s no secret that I have a sweet tooth and seldom is it satiated, however this month I found myself saying more than once:

“I don’t feel like anything sweet”

followed promptly by:

“It’s OK, sit down. No, I am not ill, I feel just fine”

as Danny would inevitably leap up, concerned that I must be very sick indeed!

But that didn’t last for long, and soon I was back battling my usual sugar cravings and whipped up this sugary treat. Not just one, but three different sweeteners - sugar, corn syrup and molasses - make this decadent tart a plunge back into the wonderful world of desserts!

A touch of rum adds an extra punch of flavor to this ever-popular classic. The recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook.

Pecan Pie

Pate Brisée or pie pastry for one pie shell

5 large eggs

1 ¼ cups packed light-brown sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/3 cup molasses

1 tablespoon bourbon or dark rum

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

1 2/3 cups pecans, coarsely chopped, plus 1/3 cup whole pecan halves

Set a 9-inch cake ring on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; set aside. If you don’t have a cake ring, you can use a 9-inch springform pan.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie dough into a 13 inch round. Fit dough into cake ring or springform pan, gently pressing into the edges and up 1 ½ inches of the sides. Freeze until firm, then trim dough flush with the top edge of ring. Chill until firm.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Line chilled pie shell with parchment paper, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Fill with pie weights (I use dried beans). Bake until the edges begin to turn golden, about 15 minutes. Remove parchment and beans and leave to cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, butter, corn syrup, molasses, rum, vanilla and salt. Stir in the chopped pecans. Pour filling into the cooled pie shell and arrange pecan halves on the top.

Reduce oven to 350F. Bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Tart can be kept at room temperature, loosely covered with foil, for up to four days.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Chili's Right for those Chilly Nights

I think I’m nesting.

No, not in a pull-fur-from-my-underbelly-and-make-a-nest kind of way, but more a hormonal-pregnant-woman’s-natural-nesting-instinct kind of way. I am usually a pretty organized girl, but when my sock drawer is tidy, my family photo albums up to date, my son’s toys categorically assigned to labeled bins and I’ve moved on to the ironing pile (my least favorite household task), warning lights start going off in my head. So far I haven’t done anything too outrageous and everything still seems justifiable, such as starting to stockpile frozen meals for when the baby comes. Totally practical, right?

This chili was one if the first dishes to be made in mass quantities and tucked away in liter containers. Now chili is not something I grew up with; beans, yes, in vast amounts, but chili would have required using ground beef and my mother usually kept us pretty far away from the stuff.

“Chock full of hormones” she would say.

It took a while before I could bring myself to buy ground beef, let along make a manly pot of chili for my man, but over the years it has slowly become something we enjoy once in a while during the cold winter months.

Funnily enough, Noah loves chili and that is reason enough to stockpile. Another reason is the massive bag of dried kidney beans that I have been working my way through for the past two years. I always get waaaaay to carried away in those bulk food stores. Oh, how I love them, with their eight different kinds of dried oats, pretty displays of colorful lentils, and vast assortments of dried fruit, but I inevitably end up leaving with far more than I need or could possibly use for a household of three. Hence the kidney beans.

You will find this chili convenient for making in large amounts and conducive to freezing, but there’s nothing pretty about it. It was rather hard to get inspired to photograph it--I mean, it’s chili. It just ain’t pretty!

Winter Chili.

This is a spicier version of what I usually make. Not so suitable for young children, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers. If you want a milder version, just omit the can of chillies, the cayenne and reduce the chili powder by half, as I do.

1 ½ lbs ground beef

1 lb Italian sausages, crumbled

4 Tablespoons vegetable oil

4 cups beef stock

1 teaspoon saffron threads

3 large onions, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 10oz can of green chillies, chopped

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

8 oz tomato paste

16 oz canned diced tomatoes

4-6 cups cooked kidney beans (depending on personal preference)

(1 cup frozen corn)

In a large saucepan, brown the beef and sausage in 2 tablespoons oil, drain off fat and reserve meat. In the same pot, add beef stock and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and crumble saffron into stock. Set aside to steep.

In another skillet, heat remaining oil and sweat onions and garlic. Add chillies and seasonings and stir.

In a large pot combine tomatoes, beef stock, onion/ spice mixture and meat. Stir well and simmer slowly, partially covered, for about 1½ hours. Check seasoning and adjust.

Add kidney beans and slowly cook another 10 minutes or so. Serve with crusty bread or cornbread. Garnish with any or all of the following: sour cream, grated cheddar cheese, sliced green onions or cubed avocado.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Let me be remembered for my Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

P (pancakes) + M (mother) = 100% Good Mother

Looking for the equation to perfect mothering skills? I've added, subtracted and simplified it down to a solution manageable for even the most challenged parent: making pancakes.

Think about it though, doesn't one of your fondest memories of growing up involve pulling up a chair next to the stove (in my case, a wood burning one) and watching your mother pour batter into silver dollar circles into the waiting cast iron pan? If you never had a mother who made you pancakes, be they crèpes, blinis, flapjacks, drop scones, pannenkoeken, or hotcakes, depending on your background, may I respectfully say that you missed out on a ritual that transcends class and generational borders and offer my sympathies.

It's a wonder that some thing so seemingly ordinary as pancakes can hold such a stack of pleasure and bring back memories as sweet as the maple syrup that doused them. In our home, just the simple familiar act of cracking eggs and sifting flour speaks of a tranquil morning, un-rushed, no where to head off to, just our family together without a care in the world.

I probably don't need to mention that Noah absolutely adores pancakes and that was a major factor in my motherhood equation. There is nothing more satisfying than watching your two-year-old load up his fork with not just two or three cut-up pieces of pancake, but five or six before cramming it into his mouth, completely focused on consuming these heavenly pancakes as fast as they come out of the pan.

This recipe is adapted from the cookbook Fabulous Fairholme: Breakfasts and Brunches that is a collection of recipes from the award-winning Fairholme Manor Inn in Victoria, British Columbia. It is by far my favorite pancake; soufflé-like in it's feather lightness, perfumed by bold citrus zest, and sweet enough to be eaten on it's own with nothing but a dusting of powdered sugar or dollop of yogurt.

The world would be a much better place if all those troubled people could sit down to a plate of these pancakes on Sunday morning. Forget therapy and shrinks, we need more pancake chefs out there! Do your part and make some one you love some hot pancakes today, ideally your kids, no matter how old they are. They will remember it and thank you for it.

I know mine will.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

5 eggs, separated
Zest of large lemon or orange
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
Dash of salt

Preheat griddle or skillet on medium heat.

Mix the egg yolks. Sift and mix the dry ingredients and combine with egg yolks, lemon zest, milk and ricotta cheese.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold into the egg-ricotta batter.
Lightly oil griddle and pour a pancake-sized amount onto griddle. Cook until bubbles form. Flip and cook other side until golden. Do not flatten after flipping and only flip once.

Serve immediately with garnish of choice. I found maple syrup to be a bit overpowering for the delicate pancakes. Try with crème fraîche, plain yogurt or whipping cream.

Friday, January 11, 2008

WFD? French Onion Soup Canadian Style

January should be dubbed the Month of Soups. I mean is there anything you are craving more after the blitz of holiday feasting? What else could be more ideal to beat the January blahs when the weather is snowy and blowy and the daylight sparse? Dig deep into a piping hot bowl of onion soup and it will be like your very own sunbeam, defying those gray wintery skies out the window.

We’re enjoying the post-holiday peacefulness and the dismal weather outdoors makes it even easier to cozy up inside and read the baby names book. Since we don't know if we are having a boy or a girl, there is even more discussion of names than usual. It's so hard to pick!

French onion soup should not be rushed. Well, the onion chopping part, yes. Blitz through that as fast as you can while still maintaining five digits on each hand, then once they are in the pot, pour yourself a little white wine and read a cookbook or food blog while they slowly caramelize and take on that dark brown color.
In this version, the sweetness of the onions is enhanced slightly by a tad of maple syrup and the soup is given an extra Canadian touch with the addition of our own aged cheddar cheese.

French Onion Soup Canadian Style

2 tbsp canola oil
2 lbs sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper
6 slices baguette, toasted
2 cups aged Canadian cheddar such as Perron, or Gruyere, shredded

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until caramelized. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in maple syrup. Add the broth, wine and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat broiler.
Divide soup between 6 ovenproof bowls. Top with toast slices and equal amounts of cheese. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes or until cheese melts and lightly browns. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and serve.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Year that Was

2007 was a fantastic year for cooking and I am so glad that a portion of it is documented here on Under the High Chair. Several factors helped make it the year that was...

This summer my garden finally decided to start producing and gave me plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs to work with. My son Noah was old enough to pull up a chair and obedient enough for us to try slightly more complex dishes together. Certainly being pregnant for the second half of the year gave me a voracious appetite that spurred me on to keep cooking. I didn't crave much in particular except FOOD and lots of it (sweets in particular!)

I found inspiration in every season from the crisp asparagus and Quebec strawberries in spring to the ripe peaches and fresh fish of summer. Fall produce tempted me to start canning jams and jellies and the arrival of snow brought an onslaught of comfort food such as warm gingerbread and bread pudding.

Christmas is practically a season of its own and I got a jump on my holiday baking with an early batch of fruitcake and a successful cookie swap that even made the local paper.

Yes, I so enjoyed cooking every dish and sharing them with you, but at the end of the day, what really makes blogging worthwhile is the feedback that I get from my readers. Thank you to all who have commented and sent personal emails! They are always encouraging and great to get.
Some of the feedback never fails to really astound me. For example, Dana from the UK writes that a new resolution of hers is to try as many recipes as I post! A truly ambitious and flattering goal. New mom Michelle emailed to say that she is addicted to UtHC and her 7-month-old son loves tartiflette. Sounds like a foodie in the making, Michelle! Laura also dropped me a note from Vancouver and said she and her sister spent a few hours browsing UtHC over the holidays and they are two new hardcore fans!

These comments are much appreciated and I thank each and everyone who takes the time to drop me a note.

I hope that I can continue to inspire you to get cooking in the year to come!
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

About Under the High Chair

Welcome to Under the High Chair, a blog about all things food related with a little baby talk thrown in!

Here’s who we are:

Aimée is the writer of UtHC, chief photographer, chef, and young mama.

Growing up in an artistic family, Aimée has poured her creativity into cooking ever since she could hold a spoon. Her enthusiasm earned her the Lieutenant-gouverneur’s award in culinary school—not to mention as the irksome nickname ‘Martha Stewart’.

Before her children arrived, Aimée worked as a personal chef and was happy to have her life revolve around food. After she fell in love with motherhood and determined to never return to work, she married her two passions by becoming a food/mommy blogger. She still does what she loves best, only now she has two little helpers to keep her on her toes. Not surprisingly, she’s busier as a home manager than she ever was in the fine dining industry!

Aimée’s rural upbringing on Canada’s West Coast instilled a permanent connection to nature and the simple things in life; camping trips and pulling carrots in the kitchen garden are part of passing that bond on to her boys. She has traveled to over sixteen countries on four continents, yet still gets itchy feet; her fondness of travel only rivaled by her dedication to food (read: bacon).

On days when there are too many cloth diapers to fold, Aimée wishes she could escape to her parent’s farm, but usually copes by baking something sweet. Even though she spent ten years in the professional cooking industry, her pickiest customers to date are her children. Since they scorn her efforts, this blog is a necessary outlet for her creative cooking juices and showcase what is ultimately ending up Under the High Chair...

Danny is Aimee’s favorite person and husband; he is also her most honest food critic and biggest fan. He’s really a foodie-in-hiding behind the engineering façade, and the trusty techie behind UtHC. He works hard to bring home the bacon for the Carbonara. Although he is a Montrealer to the core, Danny also enjoys scaling mountain peaks, going for runs with the boys in the jogger stroller and fishing for salmon in British Columbia’s rivers.
His ongoing project is to build a chicken coop.

Noah is five and has been apprenticing as a chef in the UtHC kitchen for three years already. He can roll a mean meatball, count two dozen eggs, and flips pancakes with pizzaz. If he’s not getting his apron dirty, he’s probably reading or digging for worms in the garden. His currently hates tomatoes, blueberries, and cottage cheese but loves olives, grapes, avocado and bean & cheese burritos; however this can all change in the blink of an eye.

Mateo is our leap year baby, born February ’08, and won’t be turning one for a few years. That’s OK, because he’s a great cuddler and we don’t want him to grow up too fast. He’s recently discovered the joys of eating spaghetti with two fists and his hero is his big brother.

Celebrating in Comfort

A New Year's Eve celebration at home was always my preferred party mode and now that we have a little one, it's an even more attractive way to ring in the new year. No babysitter, no cover charge, no late-night winter driving, just a good time in the comforts of our own home. Of course, it's also a great excuse to cook mountains of party food, chill bottles of champagne in deep tubs of snow, and invite a few close friends over.

Happy New Year everyone!

My guests were more of a conservative crowd as far as palates are concerned (no ceviche or sashimi here!) so I chose a retro comfort food theme for my menu. We feasted on foods that were probably served at parties in the 70's or 80's such as chocolate mousse and mini quiches. Everything was gobbled up pretty quickly, so I suppose I guessed it right for this crowd.

The menu:

Finger Food
Gouda Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with Dill Pickle
Shrimp with Parsley-Garlic Butter
Mini Margerita Pizzas
Spanikopita Triangles
Tomato Bruschetta
Mini Bacon and Cheddar Quiches
Crudité and Dip
Smoked Salmon Spread on Crackers
Cheese Board
Mini Crème Brulé
Chocolate Mousse
Domino Brownies
Cherries & Grapes
Assorted Cookies and Sweets

We had a Vegas theme for our little party and guess who surprised everyone by winning the big pot? That's right, moi, and not just because I was the only one sober, but because I have some serious poker talent!

Today snow is falling in huge flakes outside and we've got naps planned all around. Later on we're heading to the in-laws for turkey dinner-and the feasting continues! I'm contributing a chocolate layer cake large enough for an army (guess I am continuing the whole 'comfort food' theme).

Hope everyone is recovering well from last night's fêtes.
Here's wishing everyone a very happy and healthy 2008!


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