This time of year can be very overwhelming. Our to-do lists are bursting at the seams and there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. It’s definitely the time when you need a few good entertaining options at the ready.
Look no further than the charcuterie platter for an appetizer that has something for everyone. One of the greatest things about this appetizer is its simplicity. It really is just a matter of arranging a selection of prepared items on a platter or cutting board–making sure to include a mix of textures, flavours and colours.
Charcuterie is the French word for cured, smoked and preserved meat products, such as pate and sausage, as well as the butcher shop that sells them.
It is also standard fare to add a few other items to your charcuterie platter, including spiced nuts, cheeses, pickles, mustard and bread or crackers. Cornichons and gherkins are a popular way to add a bit of acidity to the platter. I usually have a second platter or plate with the cheeses, but it really is a matter of personal preference.
Here’s a list of things that you can include on your platter:
- Mix of several meats — cooked and cured (I usually use three such as salami, bresaola and pastrami)
- Mustard — a good dijon and/or whole grain mustard
- Chutney or jam, such as onion or fig (I love to use camelized onion chutney)
- Cheeses – For example, 2 soft cheese and 2 hard cheeses, including mix of flavours and textures. I always include either brie or camembert, since they are a crowd favourite.
- Nuts – I like to use my paprika-smoked almonds
- Fruits – grapes and dried apricots are popular choices
- Bread/crackers – I like to have at least one type of bread and one type of cracker, but sometimes I include a couple of each. I usually have either a bread or a cracker with raisins. There so many great arisanal crackers to choose from these days.
- A good red wine — I think this is an ESSENTIAL ingredient to a good charcuterie platter!
If you want to elevate things a little bit, you can try your hand at making your own bread. I’ve started to make the Irish Soda bread below, which just happens to be the easiest bread in the world. You mix it up in less than five minutes, and it cooks in about 20 minutes. This is the first and only bread I’ve ever made and it amazes me how simple this is every time I make it.
No-Knead Raisin Soda Bread
Recipe from Cookery School at Eckington Manor
- 1-1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tsp salt
- 1-1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup raisins
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Place flour, salt and baking soda in a mixing bowl and stir together. Fold in buttermilk and raisins.
- Turn dough out onto a well-floured work surface and roll around to lose stickiness; form into a ball. Cover baking sheet with parchment paper and then add dough. Score a deep X on the top to allow steam to escape and bake for 17-20 minutes.
- For a buttermilk substitute, you can add 1 tsp of vinegar to 1 cup of milk. It is recommended that you let this sit for 15 minutes to allow the milk to sour.
- Here is the original recipe for the Raisin Soda Bread. However, I did make this without the raisins as the recipe suggests once, but I found it too sticky and added an extra 1/4 cup of flour to the mixture. In both cases, I did not add the cinnamon. I really prefer the version with raisins though.
- The charcuterie platter is very kid friendly. One of my girls needs to be watched because she will eat ALL of the salami . . . and they are both very BIG fans of the paprika-spiced nuts.
I’m pleased to report that Barb Bamber of Just a Smidgen is the winner of my cookbook giveaway. My eldest ponytail drew the winning entry. I’ve just heard from Barb and she’s selected Ina Garten’s new cookbook Foolproof. Congratulations Barb! A special thanks to everyone who left a message or signed up for email updates.
Parenthood certainly has its ups and its downs. I would say that the ups far outweight the downs . . . well, most days anyway. One of the unexpected ups has been all of the wonderful friendships that we’ve formed with the parents of our ponytails’ close friends. With no family here in Toronto, this amazing group of parents has become part of our “village” as we raise our girls.
There’s one member of our village who has taught us many things: how nothing helps you win an argument like speaking Spanish; how to style long hair into the perfect bun for a ballet performance; and the secret to light and fluffy rice. I’m talking about the one and only Mercedes, our friend from Puerto Rico.
Mercedes is known for cooking a range of authentic Puerto Rican dishes when she holds a dinner party. Apparently though, in the early days of marriage, her husband affectionately nicknamed her Adobo the Alcoholic Chef because of her tendency to add adobo spice to everything she prepared, while sipping on a glass of white wine. She’s obviously diversified her cooking skills since then, but she’s still known to enjoy a good glass of wine now and then.
According to Mercedes, adobo is one of three main ingredients that are part of quintessential Puerto Rican cooking: adobo, sofrito and achiote. Anxious to learn more about the dishes that we’ve come to enjoy at her place, I asked Mercedes to teach me how to make Arroz con Pollo and Stewed Red Beans a few months ago. Her mom also showed me how to make Tostones while visiting Toronto a few years back.
It was finally time to put all of these lessons to the test. This weekend I would try my hand at making a few traditional Puerto Rican dishes (Arroz con Pollo, Stewed Red Beans and Tostone) and then have Mercedes and her family join us for dinner. Fortunately, I was also armed with a popular cookbook authored by an award-winning Puerto Rican chef that Mercedes gave me as a gift, which helped to fill in the gaps where my memory failed me:
It is always nerve-wracking to prepare an authentic dish for an expert, so I was pretty nervous. After tasting one bite of my Arroz con Pollo, Mercedes shook my hand and said “now I’m going to call you Sofrito, My Puerto Rican Sister”. Whew. My rice wasn’t cooked quite perfectly, but the right flavours seemed to be there. Cooking rice perfectly really is an art form – one that Mercedes has definitely mastered! Fortunately, despite this, it wasn’t difficult to get the kids to eat their dinner.
I’ve included all of the recipes required to make this Puerto Rican meal in this post. I recommend making the sofrito, the dry adobo spice and achiote oil a few days in advance – it’ll allow you to focus on preparing the Arroz con Pollo perfectly.
This meal may seem daunting because of all of the steps involved — hopefully not, but if so, then I encourage you to at least try the dry adobo rub. You can use it as a seasoning for so many things (meats, fish and beans) and it works well as a seasoning for beef tacos as well — just add some paprika, dried cilantro and chili powder to the meat along with the adobo. Judy at Petit4chocolatier used adobo recently as part of a coating for tilapia that I can’t wait to try.
Arroz con Pollo [Rice with Chicken]
Recipe created using tips from Mercedes and Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors
- 1 ½ lbs skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
- 1 batch of wet adobe paste, optional [see recipe below]
- 3 tbsp achiote oil [see recipe below]
- ½ onion, diced
- ½ red bell pepper, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste
- 1/3 cup sofrito [see recipe below]
- 3 tbsp tomato sauce
- ½ cup small green olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced in half
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 cups long-grain rice
- 4 ½ cups chicken stock
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 cup shelled green peas
- Rub the wet adobe paste [see recipe below] on the chicken pieces and refrigerate covered for 2-3 hours, or overnight.
- In a caldero or dutch oven, warm the achiote oil [see recipe below] over high heat. Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and sofrito [see recipe below] and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and olives, and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom.
- Add the chicken and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Deglaze with the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and stir well to coat with the rest of the ingredients. Pour in the chicken stock, season with the salt and stir. Bring to a full boil and cook until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with some bubbling in between the grains, about 8 minutes.
- Lower the heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice grains are loose and fluffy, about 15-20 minutes (check after 10 minutes just in case). Add the peas, cover and cook for another 3 minutes.
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 12 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 cubanelle peppers, seeds and inner white ribbings removed, roughly chopped
- 10 ajies dulces seeds removed and roughly chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro (leaves and tender stems only)
- 30 leaves culantro (if not available, increase add extra bunch of cilantro)
- ½ cup fresh oregano (leaves only), loosely packed
- In a blender or food processor, combine the olive oil with the vegetable oils. Add the onion and garlic and process for about 30 seconds to obtain a pungent white puree.
- Add the cubanelle peppers and the ajies dulces, and blend for another 30 seconds to obtain a light-green puree. Add the cilantro, culantro (if using) and oregano. Pulse and then scrape the sides of the blender/food processor with a rubber spatula. Process for another 30 seconds to obtain an herbed-speckled light-green puree with a piquant taste and pungent aroma.
Can be sealed in a jar or a bag and stored in the freezer for up to one month. Because sofrito serves as a base for numerous recipes, no salt should be added to the mixture.
I didn’t make this as Mercedes gave me a bag of frozen sofrito that she brought back from Puerto Rico. It was made with culantro, so it was very authentic!
Achiote Oil [ah-chee-O-tay oil]
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2.5 tablespoons annato seeds
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat to achiote seeds and oil for 10 minutes without boiling until the oil has been coloured with the achiote. Remove heat, and steep for another 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and discard the achiote seeds. Allow the annato oil to cool then poor into a container with a tight fitting lid. (No refrigeration is necessary).
Wet Adobo Paste [ah-Do-bo]
(This is an optional step when preparing this rice dish and it is my own take on the recipe. It adds another layer of flavour to the rice.)
- 2 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tsp oregano
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
Smash the garlic with the salt until it forms a paste. Add the pepper, oregano, olive oil and lemon juice and combine well.
Dry Adobo Rub [ah-Do-bo]
Adapted from Wilo Benet’s Puerto Rico True Flavors
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tbsp oregano
- 2 to 3 tsp tumeric, according to taste
- ½ tsp ground white pepper
- 2 tbsp onion powder
Combine all ingredients in bowl and mix well. Store in a tightly sealed jar or bag.
Mercedes always uses Goya’s prepared Adobo all purpose seasoning; I’ve included this recipe since Goya’s version isn’t readily available internationally.
Stewed Red Beans
Recipe based on instructions from Mercedes
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ½ onion, diced
- 1 tbsp sofrito
- 1 tsp adobo dry spice mix
- 1 tsp salt
- One 398 ml tin of tomato sauce
- 2, 19 ounce cans of Mexican small red beans (or red kidney beans)
- ¼ cup chicken stock
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp cooked bacon, crumbled (or ¼ cup cooked ham, diced)
In medium-sized heavy bottom pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, sofrito, adobo spice and bacon/ham and cook for about 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Stir in the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Add the beans, chicken stock and water and stir well. Lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
Mercedes fixed my version (pictured with the rice and tostones) by adding the water and chicken stock to make it more of a sauce. The recipe above incorporates this. She also typically uses Goya’s ham flavouring, so we developed the recipe with bacon or ham as a substitute.
Based on instructions from Mercedes; Makes about 32
- 4 green plantains
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Salt water or garlic salt in a bowl of water; salt for sprinkling
- Peel the plantains: cut off ½ inch from both ends of the plantains. Using a sharp knife, score the skin lengthwise in three different sections Slide the tip of your knife or finger under the skin and begin to pull it away, going from top to bottom.
- In a frying pan, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil until sizzling hot. Cut plantain into 1-inch pieces and add to the hot oil. Fry for about 6 minutes until they start to turn golden and are tender inside. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Using the bottom of a frying pan (or tin can bottom/mallet), smash the plantains into thick tostones. If they stick to the pounding device, release them by quickly sliding a sharp knife under the tostones.
- Quickly dip the tostones into a bowl of salted water (but not too long otherwise they will turn soggy). Shake excess water off and carefully return to the hot oil (careful the oil will splatter). Refry for another 5 minutes until they begin to turn golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.
Mercedes’ mom likes to use garlic salt in place of regular salt in the salted water for dipping the tostones before frying.
Ingredients and Tools In the Puerto Rican Kitchen
Adobo [ah-DO-bo] is a widely-used all-purpose seasoning that is used to flavor and/or marinate meat, chicken, or fish. The key ingredients are garlic, oregano and black pepper. Other spices are commonly added based on regional preference. It can be made as a dry spice mix or wet rub paste. Adobo is used in Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain.
Aji dulce [ah-HEE-DUL-say] – This small pudgy pepper has a similar shape to the Scotch Bonnet, but it is sweet. It is usually green, but can range in colour from green to orange or red. It is an important ingredient in sofrito.
Annato seeds are a deep orange in colour and have a nutty flavour. They are used to make achiote oil, which gives Puerto Rican rice dishes their colour, in the same way that saffron gives colour to the Spanish dish paella.
Caldero (cal-DAY-ro] – A caldero (aluminum pot with lid) is a mainstay in the Puerto Rican kitchen. I bought this 24 centimeter caldero from Amazon.com and it works really well.
Culantro [coo-LAHN-tro] — Culantro is cilantro’s lesser known cousin and is very hard to find outside of the Carribean/Puerto Rico. It has long serated leaves and is also known as long leaf cilantro.
Plantain [plan-tane] – This tropical banana is used for cooking and is larger than an eating banana.
Sofrito [soh-free-to] – An important ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking that includes onion, garlic, peppers and culantro.
Tostonera — A tostonera is wooden tool commonly used in Puerto Rico to flatten/smash the fried plantain pieces when making tostones, although I found that my small cast iron pan worked like a charm.
- Mercedes says that the key to preparing fluffy rice is to ensure that you bring the rice and liquid to a full boil and cook (over low heat) until the water evaporates and the surface of the rice is visible with a bit of bubbling, then close the lid to finish cooking the rice for the last few minutes (also over low heat). This process helps to ensure lots of pegao — crusty rice at the bottom of the pan — which she and her family members always fight over.
- Mercedes’ rule of thumb is 1 cup of water or chicken stock for ever 1 cup medium grain rice and 1.5 cups of water or chicken stock for every 1 cup of long grain rice. I used long grain rice for the Arroz con Pollo recipe because I couldn’t find any medium grain rice.
- It is important to use green plantains when making the tostones. I bought my plantains at Phil’s Place at St. Lawrence Market (lower level) in Toronto.
- I found annato seeds in the spice shop (lower level) at St. Lawrence Market, although I didn’t need to buy any as Mercedes was kind enough to give me a few packages from Puerto Rico.
- I adapted many of these recipes from Mercedes because she likes to use a variety of Goya spices and products, such as Goya Adobo, which are readily available in Puerto Rico. Unfortuntely they are not as easy to come by internationally.
- Another great resource for Puerto Rican cooking is an old favourite cookbook Puerto Rican Cookery. I have a copy that was kindly given to me by Mercedes’ mom several years ago (thanks again!).
My friend Eva (at KitchenInspirations) and I have been joking around for a while now that we should start a blog called Fifty Shades of Grey Cooks. I guess that it was only a matter of time before someone connected this literary phenomenon with cooking. It was bound to happen. So, really I wasn’t that surprized when I saw this book in the window of an Indigo Bookstore this week:
A quick google search revealed a few of the recipes that this recently-released book has in store: mustard spanked chicken and learning to truss you. Hmmm, I wonder if my spatchcocked chicken recipe made the cut?
I’m not sure if Fifty Shades of Chicken is going to be on my Christmas list, but this cookbook definitely is:
In fact, I’m positive that my mom is going to get it for me because I found it hidden in the room where she stays when she comes to visit. I couldn’t resist having a peek at the book, and well, when I saw the recipe for Salted Caramel Brownies, I knew that I couldn’t wait until Christmas to make them. Fortunately, the recipe is already online so there aren’t any chocolate smears on the book to give my secret away. (But, please don’t tell my mom that I was snooping!)
The brownies were just as good as I imagined that they would be. They combine Ina’s outrageous brownies with caramel and salt, so really, how can you go wrong?
I’m really excited that I have this book to look forward to. But I’m not sure what other cookbook I should add to my Christmas list. Any suggestions? My husband reads this blog and he never knows what to get me, so I’d really love it if you could point him in the right direction by leaving your cookbook suggestions in my comment section.
Blogiversary Cookbook Giveaway
In fact, as a little incentive, if you make a cookbook recommendation or just leave a comment, you’ll be entered into a draw to win a cookbook. I’m in the mood to celebrate, since my one year blogiversary is coming up next week (Nov. 19). The winner will have a choice of either Fifty Shades of Chicken or Ina Garten’s Foolproof cookbook — I’ll contact you if you win and you can decide which book you’d like. If you also sign up to subscribe to my email updates from now until Nov. 19th, you’ll be entered a second time.
You can enter until November 19 at 12:00 EST. The draw will take place on November 20th — the winner will be drawn manually by one of the ponytails.
Even if you haven’t read the Fifty Shades books, you really must watch the trailer for Fifty Shades of Chicken by clicking here.
Salted Caramel Brownies
Slightly adapted from Ina Garten’s Foolproof
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 8 ounces plus 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (1 1/3 cups + 1 cup)
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 3 extra-large eggs
- ½ tablespoon instant coffee granules
- 1 ½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
- ½ cup plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, divided
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 to 6 ounces of caramel sauce (see note below)
- 1 to 3 teaspoons flaked sea salt (I used 1 ½ tsp fleur de sel)
Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9” x 13” baking pan.
Melt the butter, 8 ounces of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate together in a medium bowl set over simmering water. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee, vanilla and sugar. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature (see note).
In a medium bowl, sift together ½ cup of the flour, the baking powder, and salt and add to the chocolate mixture. Toss the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate chips and the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour in a medium bowl and add them to the chocolate mixture. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.
Bake for 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not overbake.
As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, place the jar of caramel sauce without the lid in a microwave and heat just until it’s pourable. Stir until smooth. Drizzle the caramel evenly over the hot brownies and sprinkle with the sea salt. Cool completely and cut into (12) bars or more, according to your preference.
- When making the brownies, it is important to ensure that the batter cools before adding the chocolate chips, otherwise the chips will melt and ruin the batter.
- Ina uses a 9′ x 12″ pan, but I find that the 9″ x 13″ pan is standard here in Canada. The 9″ x 13″ worked perfectly!
- Ina suggests using true caramel sauce rather than dulce de leche, which has a lot of milk or cream added. She uses Fran’s. (www.franschocolates.com).
- I used Lyons Caramel Sauce ,which I bought at Pusateri’s. I also really like Starbuck’s caramel sauce, which I have used for years.
- If you have trouble finding caramel sauce, you can make your own. Please see fellow blogger A. Boleyn’s recipe here.
- One 350 g bag of chocolate chips is approximately 12.7 ounces. Sissi, you’ll be happy to know that I finally bought a scale!
- I adapted the recipe by reducing the amount of coffee and increasing the amount of vanilla to make these ponytail-friendly.
- The giveaway is sponsored by me, not a publisher!
So, what’ll it be Fifty Shades of Chicken or Foolproof?
After several posts filled with practical dinner ideas, it felt like I should be bringing you a decadent dessert this week, but I’m afraid there’s something very large standing in the way of baking right now.
A very large bowl of leftover Halloween treats that keeps calling my name. I’m not sure how I ended up on a first-name basis with these little troublemakers, but I’m thinking of changing my name. How about Helga? Yes, I think that might work . . .
Which brings me back to the practical dinner ideas, as the last thing that I need right now is more calorie-laden desserts.
In my recent blog travels, I stumbled upon this intriguing dish called Toad in the Hole, made my British mate Emma over at her blog Food, Fork & Good. (She has a lovely blog, which I highly recommend you check out.) In North America and Australia (thanks Ali!) , Toad in the Hole (aka Frog in the Hole) is something completely different — it is bread with an egg in the centre cooked in butter or oil (also called Egg in the Basket).
However, across the pond (pun intended!), it is a traditional dish that combines two British favourites: sausages and yorkshire pudding. The sausages are cooked in a yorkshire pudding batter that puffs up around the sausages. I understand that it is usually served with onion gravy, veggies and mash.
So, while this isn’t exactly a low-calorie dish, I did lighten it up by using half-the-fat pork sausages and one percent milk. I modified the original recipe by keeping the onions on the side, as this ensures that the dish will appeal to the under five foot crowd.
As I’ve never made or eaten this before, I’m not sure if it turned out perfectly, but the yorkshire did puff up and it was very tasty. It was in fact a hit with the entire family, including my youngest ponytail’s buddy and my mom who joined us for dinner.
Toad in the Hole
Recipe from Emma at Food, Fork & Good
- 4-6 good quality sausages (English-style bangers or mild italian sausages)
- 2 tbsp grapeseed oil or olive oil
- 1 cup flour (125 grams)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Just under 1-1/4 cup milk + 2 tbsp water (just under 1/2 a UK pint)
- 1 egg + 1 egg white
- 1 tsp dried sage
- 1/2 onion + 1/2 red onion, sliced
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Cook your sausages and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 425°
- Prepare carmelized onions: add onions, honey and balsamic vinegar to a pan that has your slightly heated olive oil. Saute for 10 to 15 minutes until nicely carmelized. Set aside.
- Sift flour, salt and sage together in a medium bowl. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs to it.
- Add 1/4 of the milk mixture and mix well. Gradually add the remaining milk mixture and whisk until smooth (I used my magic whisk). Let the mixture stand for at least 15 minutes before using.
- While the mixture is standing, add grapeseed oil or olive oil to a 10″ skillet or 9″ x 11″ glass dish and pop into the oven for 10-12 minutes until oil is hot (or olive oil is smoking).
- Carefully add sausage to the hot skillet/baking dish (the hot oil will likely spit, so be careful), then pour the flour mixture over the sausages.
- Place into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the pudding has risen and is nicely browned. DO NOT OPEN DOOR!
- I got my conversions wrong, in that I did the 1/2 pint coversion for the US pint (16 fl. oz) and not the UK pint (20 fl oz) when I made mine. I’ve corrected this in the recipe above. Perhaps my yorkshire would have puffed up a bit more with the correct amount of milk (1-1/4 cups milk rather than the 1 cup milk that I used).
- I’ve added an extra egg white to the recipe, as one of Emma’s tips is that extra egg whites add height to the yorkshire.
- I used 1 tsp rather than 1 tbsp of sage, to appeal to a younger crowd.
- I’ve added balsamic vinegar to the onions to take the flavour up a notch.
- I used grapeseed oil for the yorkshire pudding because it has a higher heat threashold.
- Apparently if you open the oven door, your yorkshire will deflate!
- For more tips on making Yorkshire Pudding, please see Emma’s post.
- I used this chart for the flour conversion. Let me know if I’ve got this wrong …since I’m always nervous with the conversions!