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Almond Jelly – Guilty Pleasures

In this picture you see one of the very few things I will make out of a box.

While I scorn Hamburger Helper, KD, and other things from a box, I will devour almond jelly from powder anytime I get a chance.

What exactly is almond jelly, you may ask?  It’s a traditional Chinese dessert that is made from almond extract, milk/cream, sometimes some gelatin, and the most important ingredient, AGAR-AGAR. No, no, that’s not the sound made by Bigfoot’s cousin.  Agar is a vegetable gelatin derived from seaweed, and is commonly used in Asian desserts, jellies, puddings, and the like.  It has a different texture than normal gelatin – it seems to have a stiffer surface tension and it kind of bursts under your bite.  Hard to describe, you just have to try it sometime.

You can think of almond jelly as a kind of Asian panna cotta, but the texture is really quite different.

I’m sure it’s quite easy to make almond agar from scratch with agar flakes, almond extract, and milk, and it’s probably far more delicious, but I’ve always made it from the box.  So far, my favorite brand is “Golden Coins Almond Flavor Agar Mix”.  I happen to love the taste of almond extract, so this saccharine pouch of jelly powder does it for me!  Just don’t read the ingredient list.

Someday I’ll make a dolled-up version of Almond Agar Jelly for the site, with from-scratch ingredients and some fancy topping like ginger-infused simple syrup and poached pears or something…but for the time being, I’m happy with my agar from a box and a scoop of canned mandarin oranges.  With syrup.

Hey, I did say it was a guilty pleasure, didn’t I?

Jalapeño Corn Pudding

I was perusing an old copy of Bon Appétit while taking a hot bath the other day, and a certain recipe caught my eye.  You know how at the beginning of the magazine they provide restaurant recipes that have been requested by readers?  Well, this one came from the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach, just a couple miles from our house!  Intrigued, I looked at the recipe in more detail, and boy did it sound good!

It was an easy recipe to make, although it did require a lot of chopping things into small pieces (oh if I had the knife skills of a chef).  But after that was done, assembling the corn pudding was a cinch.  It has all those wonderful southwestern flavors of corn, slightly spicy jalapeño (mine were not very hot at all), roasted red peppers.  And while being homey and comforting, it also had a hint of refinement with beaten egg whites giving it a bit of loft.  I’m not really familiar with corn puddings (I’m Canadian after all), so I kind of like to think of it as a cross between a flavorful polenta and a soufflé, with a bunch of stuff tossed in besides.

I’m going to have to make a trip out to the Dolphin Bay Resort one of these days.  Apparently their signature restaurant, Lido, from whence this corn pudding came, is supposed to be pretty awesome.  Chris might just have to take me there on a date sometime.  Is it weird to go to a restaurant because I’ve made one of their recipes?  I wonder if the corn pudding is exactly the same at the restaurant, or if they’ve simplified it for the home cook?  Would it be odd to order it?

By the way, who loves this vintage Pyrex casserole dish I found at Goodwill?  Me, me, me!  My favorite color!

Jalapeño Corn Pudding
From Lido at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, via Bon Appétit March 2011
The most time-consuming thing about this recipe is chopping all the ingredients and prepping them to go in the pudding.  Then, while the pudding is baking in the oven, prepare a fresh salad to go alongside.

2 tbsp butter
1 cup chopped onion (or one med onion)
1 cup fresh corn kernels
1/2 cup finely chopped, seeded, jalapeño peppers
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup chopped roasted bell peppers (from jar)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup grated cheese (I used less)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter 2-quart baking dish (it says to use a shallow one, but mine isn’t very shallow, and it still worked out).

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion, corn, jalapeño and garlic until onion is soft and translucent. Stir in the cornmeal (yes over the heat). Add milk and cream, and stir the whole mixture together until it forms a thick batter (like soft polenta).

Remove to a large heat-proof bowl. Mix in red peppers, green onions, cilantro, 1 tsp salt, and black pepper.

Let cool about 15 minutes. Meanwhile whip the egg whites in a separate bowl with a tiny pinch of salt until they form soft peaks.

Mix the egg yolks into the cooled-down pudding batter. Then gently fold the egg whites into the batter. It’s ok if a few streaks of egg whites remain.

Pour into buttered dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 35 minutes or until middle of pudding is set (doesn’t jiggle when you shake dish).

Dig in!

Green Pea and Basil Soup

It’s spring!  Glorious spring!

We spent a weekend planting our little container garden on our balcony.  I have a serious case of garden envy of anyone who has a little plot of land in which to plant a few vegetables.  But we are doing our best and we have a couple of tomatoes and bell peppers sprouting in some 5-gallon pots on the balcony.  We also planted some mixed lettuces and some arugula seeds, which are coming up like a little carpet of green.  And lots of basil, which we can never get enough of.  For some great inspiration on planting container gardens, check out this blog: Life On The Balcony.

We had this lovely green pea and basil soup a few nights ago, a nice light spring-time supper.  We had had a big lunch so it was the perfect amount to fill us up in the evening, with a heaping plate of garlic toasts.  I had been intending to make a pea and mint soup, but my mint plant is just sprouting baby leaves and there weren’t quite enough to make the soup without stripping the plant down.  But basil I had in plenty, so I looked up a recipe and the first one I came up with was one by Giada de Laurentis.  And it was REALLY good.  Light but filling, and the basil was the perfect counterpoint to the sweet, sweet peas.  We omitted the cream, and found it was delightful without it (the problem with creamy soups is often you just end up tasting the cream and not the soup).

Green Pea and Basil Soup
From Giada de Laurentis

2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 lb frozen petite peas (I used the ones at Trader Joe’s)
3/4 cup chopped basil leaves
3 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
Extra basil for garnishing

Melt butter with the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, salt and pepper, and cook until onions are translucent and soft.

Add peas and basil, stir around until peas are thawed and heated through. Set aside 1/4 cup of peas for garnishing the soup later.

Put the pea/basil mixture into a food processor and add 1 cup of chicken stock. Whiz until smoothly blended.

Pour the pea puree back into the pot and add the remaining 2 cups stock. Heat up the soup over medium heat, without letting it boil.

Serve garnished with extra peas and ribbons of basil.

Bourgignon-esque Beef Stew

My, my, what a lot of meat we’ve been eating lately!  Honestly, we usually don’t eat this much meat, it’s just that the recent dishes that I’ve thought worthy of sharing on here have been meat dishes.

Boeuf Bourgignon is one of those dishes that you almost HAVE to make as a rite of passage into the cooking world.  Remember all those agonizing scenes from Julie and Julia where Julie Powell makes the stew, twice, both times with rather disastrous results?  Not the fault of the recipe, of course.  But all that has kind of made Boeuf Bourgignon seem kind of difficult.

And, honestly, now that I’ve made a version of it, I can’t see why.  Granted, the original recipe is kind of fussy.  You have to brown everything separately, assemble the stew, strain out the over-cooked vegetables, add fresh veggies and mushrooms (that have also been browned separately), strain the sauce, boil the sauce down, and thicken it with a beurre manie.  Okay, yes, it’s fussy.  I’m too lazy for that kind of recipe.  Maybe I’d do it if the food editor of the New York Times was coming over for dinner, but for a weeknight meal….NAH.

In my version, everything gets down in the same pot.  I personally don’t mind overcooked onions and carrots in my stew, as I feel like they melt into the sauce anyway and you don’t really notice them.  And I dispensed with the need for reducing the sauce by simply not adding that much liquid.  Not too difficult. Oh, and pearl onions? They were 3.99 a pound, and I just used a regular onion. That way I didn’t have to blanch the pearl onions and peel them before adding them to the stew.

Bourgignon-esque Beef Stew
Serves 4

3 slices bacon, diced
1.5-2 pounds stew beef, cut into even chunks
2 heaping tablespoons flour
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
10-12 medium cremini mushrooms
1.5 cups Pinot Noir, or other dry red wine
3 cups beef broth
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp unsalted butter
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Heat a large oven-proof pot on the stove over medium-high heat. Brown the bacon, then remove to a large bowl.

Toss beef chunks with flour until more or less evenly coated. Using the rendered bacon fat, brown the beef in batches, removing them to the same bowl as the bacon.

Add a little oil if needed to the pot, brown the onions and carrots. Remove HALF of the browned vegetables to a separate bowl and set aside for later.

Add bacon and beef back to the pot with the remaining vegetables. Add wine, broth, tomato paste, thyme and bay leaf. Add a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a simmer.

Cover pot, set in oven and bake for 2 hours.

Meanwhile brown the mushrooms in a separate frying pan until they give up their water.

Remove pot from oven, add mushrooms and remaining browned vegetables. Return to oven for another 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes, then stir in the butter.  Taste for seasonings, add salt and pepper if needed.

Serve with egg noodles, potatoes, or in our case, the stew was really delicious over spaetzle.

Herbed Roast Pork Tenderloin

I was in Toronto for an extended visit with my family lately, which is part of the reason why I haven’t been posting much recently.  You know how it is, when it’s not your kitchen, you don’t feel entirely comfortable commandeering it.  But I had some great times catching up with my family, going to hot yoga with my sister, and gossiping with old friends.

My sister and I got married within about 6 months of each other, so we’ve been able to compare notes on the domestic life during the last couple of years.  And it’s always good to get out of your rut – I notice that I always tend to buy the same groceries!  How am I going to discover new recipes like that?!  So I’ve gotten inspired by some of my sister’s tried-and-true recipes and here I am sharing one of these winners with you.  An easy herb-crusted pork tenderloin that you simply season, sear, and roast.

Don’t trim off the fat!  Pork tenderloin is very lean, so it needs that bit of extra fat to stay moist.  And although it seems like a LOT of herbs, after roasting they are not too strong, but fill your house with a delicious fragrance and delicately flavor the meat.  I served my tenderloin with some paprika-roasted potatoes and broccoli slaw.  One 1.5-pound tenderloin was enough to stuff the two of us pretty full with a little extra meat to spare, so plan for two tenderloins if you’re hosting a small dinner party of 4-6.

Herbed Pork Tenderloin

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic puree (either minced SUPER fine or pressed through a garlic press)
2 tsp dried rosemary
2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 (1.5-2 lb) pork tenderloin roast

Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a small bowl, combine oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Coat tenderloin with HALF of the herb/oil mixture.

Heat a skillet over high heat. Sear the tenderloin on all sides until lightly browned.

Place in a baking pan and spread the rest of the oil/herb mixture over the meat (be careful not to burn your fingers!).

Roast 35-40 minutes or until juices run clear.