19 December 2010

Op ALPHABET SOUP: I is for Innovation!

The company where I work – monstrous behemoth that it is – has a comprehensive dictionary of "competencies" for its employees and managers. The idea, of course, is that as you create positions or perform evaluations of existing employees, you can refer to the set list of competencies as a sort of standard. It's a bit unwieldy, but I quite like the standardization aspect of it. Besides, it's full of nifty terms like "resiliency" and "relationship building".

But my very favourite has to be "innovation". At a company that moves as quickly as ours, innovation is more than a desirable trait – it's a requirement.

In the kitchen, innovation applies in a couple of ways. It could be trying new ways to accomplish a task – out of necessity (as in no rolling pin or no food processor?) or just for kicks. Or it could be in adapting recipes, or coming up with entirely new ones. Hardcore chefs innovate with both the how and the what, coming up with foams, emulsions, or other innovative dishes that push the boundaries of what's usually done.

Either way, I fully believe that innovation or inventiveness in the kitchen is something to embrace. While there are some occasions where the tried and true is more than good enough, there are so many times when pushing boundaries and being creative is just the right thing.

In that spirit, two innovative recipes that take the standard and turn it into a creative new twist. One is a great party dish or weekend entree, and the other, well, it's good for any time at all.

Take your standard meatball and barbecue or sweet & sour sauce and blow it out of the water. You can use any large game for this – venison, elk, or bison will work just fine. Resist the temptation to use lean beef in your mixture, as the game is extremely lean, and you'll just end up with dry meatballs. You can also swap in pork or veal for the beef, as they give a completely different texture and flavour. The key is to let the game be the star of the show. As for the sauce you could easily make a cranberry alternative if blueberries aren't your thing (just make sure to add a bit of sugar to the sauce or your guests will be puckered up for hours!).

For the meatballs:
1/2 pound (250g) ground bison or venison
1/2 pound (250g) medium ground beef
1/4 cup bread crumbs (or 1/4 cup dry quick oats)
1 egg
1 shallot or 1/4 medium white onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried oregano
Salt and Pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mince the onion and garlic. Add to a bowl with all other ingredients and add generous amounts of salt and pepper. Using your hands (latex gloves are a great option here!), form into 1 inch balls and place on a cookie sheet.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely if freezing, then put into a freezer bag or airtight container. If using immediately, allow to cool slightly before placing in a serving dish or crockpot.

For the sauce:
2 shallots or 1/2 white onion
1 clove garlic
4 cups blueberry juice (or blueberry/cranberry juice)
4 cups beef stock
1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries
Black pepper
1 tsp dried marjoram or oregano
3 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary, gathered in a bunch with string
2 Tbsp Cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
Olive Oil

Mince the shallot and garlic.

In a heavy saucepan, over medium heat, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil (enough to generously cover the bottom of the pan). Put in the onion and garlic and give a couple of stirs before adding the dried herbs, beef stock, fruit juice and 3/4 cup of the blueberries. Add pepper and whole sprigs of herbs. 

Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove the sprigs of herbs. Using an immersion blender, blend the sauce in the pan until smooth (if you don't have an immersion blender, you can either do this in small batches in your regular blender, or skip this step altogether).

Add the remaining blueberries to the sauce. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you see fit.

In a small dish, mix the cornstarch with 1/4 cup cold water, and whisk with a fork until smooth. Add to the sauce, stirring over medium heat to thicken. As the sauce reaches a boil it should thicken up. If it's really thin, repeat this step once.

To serve, put your cooked or cooked-then-frozen meatballs in a casserole dish (or crockpot, if serving over a period of time at a party) and cover with the sauce. Heat through slowly, either on low in the crockpot, or in an oven set at 250 degrees, fully covered. The ideal is to have them warming for about three or four hours in the sauce, so they get nice and flavourful.

Serve from the crockpot/casserole dish with a slotted spoon, or skewer meatballs onto toothpicks and serve from a platter.

Using yogurt in the batter gives these more body, and a tiny bit of a tang. Adding a bit of orange and toffee to the mix makes a tastier cupcake. So tasty, in fact, that you'll have trouble keeping them on a plate.

5 Tbsp butter, softened but not melted
3/4 cup white sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup plain yogurt (or sour cream)
1 3/4 cups cake & pastry flour (or all-purpose)
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
pinch cream of tartar (if you have it)
2 tsp grated orange rind
1/3 cup Skor toffee bits

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin tins with cupcake papers.

In a large bowl, with a hand mixer, beat the butter until it is creamy (about 2 minutes). Add the sugar in two batches and beat about 4 minutes, until light.

Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla, as well as the orange rind. Set aside for a moment.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt. Toss in the Skor bits and stir.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar and butter mixture by halves, alternating with the yogurt. Confused? Just add about half the flour mixture to the butter mixture, mix it in, then add about 1/2 the yogurt. Repeat. Mix until it's smooth.

Wash your beaters and dry them. In a medium bowl, put the egg whites together with the cream of tartar. If you don't have cream of tartar, don't sweat it – you'll just have to beat the whites a little longer. Beat until they're stiff (when you stop the beaters, the whites hold a peak). Don't overdo it.

Fold 1/2 of the whites into the batter with a good spatula. Then fold in the remaining half.

Scoop batter into the cupcake tins you prepared ahead of time. Fill to about 3/4 full.

Bake for 20 minutes, until golden and firm when pressed in centre. If adding more time, check again every 2 minutes to be sure they aren't burning around the edges. Remove from oven and cool on racks before removing from pan.

When completely cool, ice with vanilla or chocolate icing. After icing, sprinkle over with a few toffee bits.

If you'd like to freeze the cupcakes, do so before icing them, and put them into an airtight container separated with a bit of waxed paper. You can then ice them as they thaw, before serving.

No comments: