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Feb 2011 01

Pareve ice cream can be a thing of beauty – I kid you not. The little bit of extra effort required to create a gently thickened, cooked custard base is well worth the reward: rich, velvety ice cream that happens to be both pareve and not made of strange chemicals or those ubiquitous “edible oils” (so not my thing)!

So why Chinese five-spice? I have always loved topping vanilla ice cream with cinnamon. There is something about warm spices that works brilliantly with cold, creamy and sweet. As a delicious and unexpected combination of such, this makes this the ideal “winter ice cream,” if such a thing exists.

In this recipe I have you create your own Chinese five-spice powder, freshly ground and deliciously aromatic. Don’t stress out too much if you don’t have all of the spices in whole form, or if you don’t have the ideal equipment for grinding them. If, say, you haven’t got a coffee grinder, use a mortar and pestle to pound the spices. If you have neither, just use pre-ground spices — or, better yet, increase the amounts of the spices slightly and just use them, whole, in the milk. Whichever way you choose to go about it, the idea is to transfer those warm, spicy flavours into the milk, allow them to steep really well, and then strain out any solid spice-bits.

You will need:

-for the five-spice powder-

1 star anise
10 cloves
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp ground ginger (or substitute 1 tsp fresh ginger, grated or minced)
rounded 1/4 tsp cinnamon

-for the custard base-

2 c regular soy milk (I use PC Organics and So Good original)
2 c coconut milk
2 wide strips of orange rind (use a vegetable peeler)
1/4 tsp salt
1 c sugar, divided
1 vanilla bean (or, in a pinch, use 1 tsp vanilla extract)
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk

Place the anise, cloves, fennel, ginger (unless you’re using fresh ginger) and cinnamon together in a coffee grinder. Pulse the spices together to a coarsely ground mix.

In a saucepan, heat together the soy milk and coconut milk over medium heat. While it’s warming up, throw in the orange rind, salt, five-spice powder, and a 1/2 cup of the sugar. If you’re using fresh ginger, add it to the milk now. Make a long slit down the middle of the vanilla bean, and use the back of a knife to scrape the gooey black seeds into the milk mixture. Throw in the rest of the pod as well.

Bring the milk mixture just barely to a boil, then remove it from the heat. Allow it to rest, covered, for 20 minutes (this gives the spices a chance to really steep in the milk). Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and yolk with the remaining half cup of sugar in a bowl.

Strain the milk, then return it to the saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer. Slowly whisk some of the hot milk into the eggs (not too much, just eyeball about half a cup), then whisk the egg mixture back into the milk in the saucepan. Stir it over low heat until the custard has thickened enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (but don’t let it come to a boil).

Your custard base is finished! Chill it in the fridge overnight (or at least 8 hours – it should be as cold as possible). When you’re ready, freeze it in your ice cream maker, churning for about 40 minutes, then put it back in the freezer to firm up (about 3 hours).

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Oct 2010 08

I have to get something off my chest. I love my Persian momma, and I love her Persian cooking, but I’ll be frank. Persian food tastes fantastic, but it’s not the most esthetically attractive cuisine in the world. Take one look at some of Iran’s signature dishes and you’ll see what I mean. Ghormeh sabzi, a light and tangy beef and herb stew, looks like this, and check out our prized tender and flavourful kabob. But by far the most un-Martha looking dish happens to also be the most delicious (I’ll spare you the image… Google it if you really want to see). It is the gem of Persian cuisine, koresh fesenjan: duck stew with pomegranate and walnuts.

I love fesenjan, but I had to find a way to make it a little prettier. So I decided to forego the traditional route of simmering the bird forever in the walnut sauce (which results in a big, brown, tasty mess). Instead, the duck is braised in the pomegranate juice alone, then removed while it’s nice and red and shiny. The sauce is then finished with the walnuts to create that famously rich and complex gravy.

Traditionally, pomegranate molasses is used to make fesenjan, but since that may be hard to find kosher, I use bottled pomegranate juice (i.e., Pom Wonderful) instead. Just be careful to get the pomegranate-only version (with the dark red cap), as there are Poms that include a blend of other fruit juices.

This duck deserves to be served with something bright yellow and slightly sweet – mashed butternut squash or a saffron polenta. Or, if you’re more of a purist, serve it alongside a huge, steaming mound of saffron basmati rice.

You will need:

2 ducks, cut up (bone-in, skin on)
1 1/2 c diced onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp pepper
salt, to taste
1/2 tsp ground cloves
5-6 c pomegranate juice (3 bottles of Pom)
1 lb walnuts, lightly toasted
1 heaping tbsp honey
3 tbsp chopped parsley (to garnish)

Heat a large electric wok or dutch oven (add a little oil if substituting chicken; duck doesn’t need the added oil as it own fat will render in the hot pan). Sprinkle the duck pieces with salt. Working in batches, brown the duck on all sides over medium-high heat and remove to a platter. You will end up with a good amount of duck fat in the pan – use a spoon to remove about a third of the fat.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions, stirring constantly, until they begin to brown. Stir in the pepper, cloves and garlic, then deglaze the wok with about 2 cups of the pomegranate juice, using a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Arrange the duck pieces back in the pan, layering the legs on the bottom and the breasts on top (with the wings, if using). Add the rest of the pomegranate juice (it should almost cover the duck). Simmer, covered, about 30 minutes.

Remove the duck pieces and set them aside. Add the walnuts to the pomegranate juice and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. The walnuts will soften and the sauce will reduce. Use an immersion blender to puree the walnuts in the juice, until it is as smooth as you like it. Stir in the honey and season with salt to taste. You will end up with a lot of extra sauce, but c’est la vie.

To serve, reheat the duck in the oven, covered. Spoon the hot walnut sauce into the middle of the plate (or on the bottom of a large serving platter) and arrange the duck on top. Garnish the duck with chopped parsley, and pass the remaining walnut sauce around in a gravy boat.

Serves 6-8.

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Apr 2010 18

I love light, custardy desserts. I love caramel-y desserts. I also love individually plated, pretty “presentation” desserts. Ergo, I love creme caramel – a light, smooth, egg-rich custard bathed in a pool of bittersweet caramel – and it tastes amazing even when “pareved”!

This dessert can be made a day or two in advance and stored in the fridge. I made them in those little disposable aluminum tart shells, but you could just as easily use proper ramekins. I had initially tried this with saffron, but found that the dominant flavour of the caramel cancelled out any saffron taste – a waste if you ask me, considering the fact that saffron is the most expensive spice ever!

Creme caramel ranks about a medium in terms of the level of skill required. The custard part is easy, but making caramel can be tricky. A word of caution. Do not attempt to make the caramel when there are distractions around – curious kids, other things on the stove, etc. ESPECIALLY do not make the caramel with children around! Hot sugar is a gajillion times hotter than boiling water and any contact with skin can leave you scarred for life. (Have I freaked you out yet?)

Don’t be scared, just be organized about it. Clear off your countertops, get your little ramekins lined up. Then, when you are ready to tackle the caramel, put the dog in the basement and stick the kid(s) in the playpen or somewhere else where they can’t escape for 20 minutes. Turn your phones off, pull on some long rubber gloves and make sure your arms aren’t exposed. And NEVER add ANYTHING to the sugar once it has turned into liquid caramel, or it will explode in a very bad way! Hot sugar is scary stuff, you guys! (But when it’s done safely, oh, is it ever worth it!)

While the caramel is cooling, you can get on with the custard (but don’t let the kids roam free again until the caramel is cool).

You will need:

12 ramekins or mini pie shells

1 1/2 c sugar for the caramel

8 eggs
1 c sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
3 c soy milk (vanilla favoured is fine)
3/4 c coconut milk
1/4 c water
1/4 tsp ground cardamom – or 8 whole cardamom pods

To make the caramel, put the sugar into a medium stainless steel pot (preferably one with a long handle) over high heat. Using a long wooden spoon, stir the sugar continuously. After a few minutes, the sugar will start to clump together – that’s how you’ll know it’s working. Keep on stirring, and eventually the sugar will begin to liquify. When the sugar is all liquid, and starts to give off some colour, turn the heat down to meduim and keep stirring until the sugar is a rich golden/light amber colour. Then take the sugar off the heat and pour a little bit – quickly and carefully! – into the bottom of each ramekin, enough to coat the bottoms with caramel.

Then put the pot down, either on the floor or somewhere it won’t be touched or knocked over. After about 15 minutes it will have cooled and you can fill the pot halfway with water and set it on simmer – all of the hard candy will easily dissolve and cleanup will be a cinch!

Hooray, you’ve just made caramel! Give yourself a pat on the back – that was no easy feat! Now you can relax, and leave it all to cool while you get started on the custard.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla. In a pot, whisk together the soy milk, coconut milk, water and cardamom (if you’re using whole pods, bruise them by crushing them a little with the back of a spoon), and place on meduim heat to heat up gently. Keep an eye on it, as soy milk tends to curdle with too much heat.

When the milk begins to steam, remove it from the heat and whisk it into the egg mixture. Then strain this mixture into a large measuring cup, pitcher or bowl. This will ensure that your custard has an even texture and a smooth mouthfeel.

Preheat the oven to 320F. Pour the custard into the ramekins (you can fill them almost to the rim if you have enough).

Prepare a water bath by arranging the ramekins in a large baking/roasting pan (you may need to bake them in batches if your baking pan is not big enough to hold all of them). Then carefully pour water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 25-35 minutes. The custard will still be slightly jiggly when done, but it shouldn’t look liquidy. Allow the custards to cool and chill them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve them.

To serve, loosen the custards by running a knife along the edges. Place a dessert plate upside-down over a ramekin and invert it, then give the ramekin a little jiggle on the plate to release the custard. All you need as garnish is a fresh berry or two – or just serve, as you may prefer, au naturel.

Makes 12.

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Mar 2010 04

This is the chicken version of lamb tagine, a decadently rich Moroccan stew that is traditionally served on a bed of fresh couscous. I will always prefer lamb, but substituting chicken helps lighten the dish (in both calories and cost), while still retaining the slightly spicy, honeyed sweetness of the original. Don’t be put off by the idea of prunes – when simmered long enough, they practically melt in your mouth, and give the sauce body and richness. Try to use prunes with pits, if you can find them, as the pits keep the prunes moist and tender. The honey in this dish also makes it perfect for Rosh Hashana.

You will need:

2 lbs. chicken thighs (bone-in, with skin)
2 onions, sliced
1 tsp ground (powdered) ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp olive oil
1 c chicken or vegetable stock (or, in a pinch, water)
large pinch saffron
3/4 c unsweetened prunes
1/4 c whole unsalted almonds
1/4 c sultana or golden raisins
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp honey
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 – 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
salt to taste
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp chopped chives or cilantro (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a wok or heavy pot. (I often use a wok to prepare this dish, because it allows me to brown more meat at once. A regular heavy pot will do just fine, you just might have to brown the meat in batches.) On medium-high heat, sautee the onions until they are soft, then add the chicken. Sautee them together, sprinkling with the turmeric and ginger, until the meat is browned.

Add the broth, almonds, and prunes to the chicken. Rub the saffron strands between your fingertips to crush them, and add this to the chicken. Cover, reduce the heat to low and allow the chicken to simmer for about 30 minutes. (In the meantime, you can throw together a basic couscous.)

Stir the chicken around a bit, then add the raisins and simmer, covered, for another 20-25 minutes – the chicken should end up very tender. Transfer the meat to a casserole or serving dish and cover to keep warm. You should be left with a pool of sauce studded with fruit and nuts. To this, stir in the cinnamon, honey, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Simmer gently until fragrant and slightly thickened, about 2-4 minutes.

Spoon this sauce over the chicken, and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Garnish with an additional sprinkling of finely chopped chives (not green onion) or cilantro, if desired.

Makes 4 servings