Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

You can use egg to bind a lot of things, but how do you make a habit stick?

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted an entry here since the spring. Having let it go so long, it's hard for me to return. I wrote when I was out of work, to create a portfolio piece. Once I had a job, I felt I neither had the time to write, nor the inclination to work on a portfolio I felt I wouldn't need for a long time, maybe never.

I work with food, and I write about food in a personal blog. At times I considered writing my food-related entries for this blog instead, and each time I talked myself out of the extra effort involved in writing a smoother, more professional, portfolio-worthy entry. Even the extra log-in to Blogger became a stumbling block.

When I'm finally ready to stop stonewalling and start problem-solving, I find the step where I'm stalled, and overcome the obstacle. For instance, I'm afraid of pie crust. I will decide that I have irrevocably lost the only good recipe I ever had, can never recreate it, and beside that, the dough will stick to the rolling pin, parchment paper, and the counter, will tear into a million pieces on the way to the pie dish, and after it's baked it will taste like shoe leather.

At some point, I will commit myself to making a pie: I will make the filling, I will not make alternative plans for dinner and, unable to put it off any longer, I will search Cook's Illustrated's website for the no-fail recipe that uses vodka, or I will use one of the two other pie crust recipes around the house and substitute some vodka for the water, and I will roll out pie dough, and on transfer to the pie plate it will break into only half a dozen pieces, which I will solder back together with my fingers, and it will bake up tender and flaky, because it's harder than that to screw up pie crust.

My anxiety around not being the best can prevent me from attempting to do things, even if I am competent. I will think I'm in competition with the best pie I ever ate, or the most amusing food blog I've ever read.

Home cooking is a homely art, like blogging. There are limitations on what and how I cook that are particular to me: the region where I live, my family's tastes and dietary needs, the growing season, and our budget are just a few of the factors, and how I function creatively within those constraints is the flavor of my home cooking. Home cooking is the personal, privately practiced art of feeding family and friends. What I hope to share in my food blog is just as unique to me, and in competition with no one else.

So how do you make a habit stick? Make your life your art. Savor your own cooking.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hadley Grass and Fiddlehead Risotto

The May/June issue of Cook's Illustrated has an article titled "Rescuing Spring Vegetable Risotto." My risotto didn't need rescuing so much as a sunnier approach: my usual recipe results in a richly colored and scented rice, full of mushrooms and stock. I always use brown arborio rice, and sometimes I make it with lamb stock, for an extra-dark flavor. It's great for late fall, but not what I wanted now that the first spring vegetables are available. I was so excited to see Hadley grass (what the locals call asparagus) and fiddleheads for sale that I wanted to put them in a really special dish. So yesterday I took the Cook's Illustrated recipe and made a few modifications: I replaced the arborio rice with whole grain rice, and doubled the vegetables, including the garlic. You might be tempted to think I make these substitutions solely for health reasons, but I truly love the flavors of whole grains and fresh vegetables. I also replaced the peas in the recipe with fiddleheads, because—do you need a reason? If you're Kevin, you do: he plucked all of his out and put them on my plate. More for me: I love these little things. They always remind me of shrimp, because of their shape, and how delicious they are sautéed with butter and garlic.

This recipe introduced me to "gremolata," a muddled combination of fresh chopped parsley and mint with lemon zest, which makes a bright garnish, perfect for spring vegetable dishes. It also gave me a great use for all the trimmings from these fresh vegetables and herbs: you stew them in the stock and water used to make the risotto, thereby infusing the rice with their flavors. I'm planning to make a batch of vegetable stock this week, so I reserved half the trimmings from the asparagus, fiddleheads, garlic, and leeks for this purpose, and put the other half in the stock as below.

Hadley Grass and Fiddlehead Risotto

Makes 6-8 servings as a side dish.

1/4 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley, stems reserved
1/4 cup spearmint leaves, stems reserved
1 lemon
2 lbs asparagus
1 lb fiddleheads
2 leeks
2 shallots
1 head of garlic
5 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
1/4 lb butter
salt and black pepper
2 cups short-grain brown rice (arborio is preferable)
1 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Zest the lemon, reserving the lemon for its juice, and finely chop the parsley and mint leaves, reserving the stems for the stock. Combine the lemon zest and herbs, and set aside.

Snap the asparagus to remove the woody ends; reserve the tough ends of the asparagus for the stock. Chop the tender parts of the asparagus into roughly one-inch lengths.

Trim the ends from the fiddleheads, and reserve the ends for the stock. Slice the white and light green portions of the leeks. Trim and slice the shallot. Trim and mince the garlic.

Put all of the trimmings from the leeks, shallots, and onions with the trimmings from the asparagus and fiddleheads into a large pot with the stock and water. Bring to a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes, then strain out the vegetable trimmings. Turn heat to lowest setting and keep stock pot covered.

Warm three tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Toss the fiddleheads with the chopped asparagus and three or four minced cloves of garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté in the butter for about five minutes, until the vegetables are bright and beginning to soften. Remove vegetables from the pot and set aside.

Into the same pot on medium heat, put another three tablespoons of butter with the sliced leeks, shallots, and remaining garlic. Sauté until the leeks are soft, then add the rice. Stir to coat the rice with the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and stir, allowing to cook until the wine has cooked off. When dry, add three cups of the water/stock combination. Stir occasionally until the bottom of the pot is dry, then begin adding the remaining stock, half a cup at a time, and stirring occasionally, allowing the stock to cook off completely so the bottom of the pot is dry before adding more stock.

When you've added most of the stock, start tasting the rice for doneness. It should be slightly chewy, but not hard and crumbly in the center. If you run out of stock, add water until you reach the desired level of doneness. If you seem to be running out of stock too quickly, turn the heat down.

When the rice is done, turn off the heat. Add the remaining two tablespoons of butter, Parmesan, and juice from the lemon. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the vegetables. Top with the gremolata. Serve hot.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Alternatives to microwaving

A few years ago, when Kevin and I were still living in Brooklyn, we threw out our microwave. I'd inherited it from an old girlfriend, and it still worked fine, but we'd come to a tipping point: the microwave was not in keeping with our values around food.

When I was a kid, in the early '80s, my parents bought their first microwave oven. I remember them consulting the manual that came with it, for instructions on reheating chicken wings, and then zapping them on high for ten minutes, until the meat and skin had been rendered as tough as the bones. They got better at it, and learned the microwave's strong suits as well as those jobs best left to the stovetop or oven. Among the new technology's failures were microwave cake mixes that yielded sad, wet cakes in the same length of time it took to bake perfectly good ones in the oven. Popcorn that takes about five minutes in the microwave instead of ten on the stovetop is still popular, no matter how many bags get burned and carried outside to stink. Further, both of these could be made more cheaply and naturally using standard ingredients.

I'm not orthodox about any philosophy of food: I prefer to take inspiration from a variety of schools of thought, rather than taking a hard stance, and haven't sworn off microwave ovens altogether. At the office, for instance, when it's time to eat last night's leftovers for lunch, I consider what I'm willing to eat cold, like roasted meat, and microwave the rest for as little time as possible. When I'm at home and need to reheat food in my own kitchen, I use either the toaster oven or steam the food on the stovetop.

Some foods are undeniably better when warmed in a toaster oven versus a microwave oven. Pizza is a perfect example: the bread becomes crisp instead of soggy or rubbery, and the cheese, instead of becoming dangerously hot and melting off the sides of the crust, melts more slowly and stays put. A toasted burrito is more crisp and stays intact better than the soggy results of microwaving. Fried foods are much better reheated in a toaster oven: the dry heat restores the crispiness of the outside, while a moderate heat warms the insides thoroughly.

When I'm heating food in the toaster oven, I usually heat it at 350 degrees, leave the food uncovered, and heat it for about ten minutes per serving of food. Toasting works well for foods with some moisture: sauced pasta, steamed vegetables, and roast chicken all reheat well this way.

For wet foods, the stovetop is a faster route. You can warm soup or stew in a saucepan on the stove on moderate heat, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking. A great way to steam up leftovers is to put them in a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, add a few tablespoons of water, and heat on very low for about ten minutes per serving. Today for lunch, I reheated last night's dinner this way: a stuffed, broiled tuna steak, a piece of baked butternut squash, and some cooked brown basmati rice, all in one pot on the stove. The trick with foods that will not stand up to stirring, is to keep the heat very low, keep the lid on, and resist the urge to check frequently. You can reheat a whole saucepan of rice or pasta this way, with very little sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Medicine food: dal

On a typical night, I spend more than two hours cooking and cleaning up from dinner. The fastest meal I can prepare from scratch, as timed last night, takes me an hour and fifteen minutes to put on the table. I don't know what to think about recipes that claim to put dinner on the table in thirty minutes. Do they count the time it takes to set out tools and ingredients, or wash and chop fresh vegetables? Is it how long a professional chef takes to prepare the meal? I never take the prep times seriously. I know it takes me a longer time than advertised to get it done. I prefer to concentrate on doing it well, and slowly enough to enjoy it, rather than rushing to a deadline.

This dal dish is a regular on my weekly meal plan: we typically eat it once or twice a month, all year round. It's fast, easy, flavorful, made from ingredients that keep well, and so ideal to make the day or two before shopping day. It's also vegan and gluten-free, though not Atkin's-friendly, in case any of that is important to you.

The word dal is applied to split peas or lentils as well as to a porridge-like dish made from them. For this dish, I use the tiny, salmon-colored lentils known as masoor dal or red lentils. They cook very quickly and like all lentils, don't need pre-soaking. Kevin calls this dal "medicine food," because the lemon, cayenne, and garlic are especially welcome as a tonic in the winter or when one of us is sick. You can steam any kind of vegetable you like with this. I especially like dal with pod vegetables, or a mixture of cabbage and carrots.

Dal with Rice and Steamed Vegetables

Serves 6

heads of garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
About 1 lb. of skinned, cored, and seeded tomatoes, whole canned (not diced) or fresh. A large summer tomato, or four Roma tomatoes, weighs about one pound.
2 cups red lentils
1/4 tsp or less cayenne pepper (optional)
tsp salt
2 T lemon juice, or the juice of lemons
4 cups water

2 cups brown rice
cups water

About 4 cups of chopped vegetables for steaming

Peel the garlic and press it into a cold Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Add the oil and place the Dutch oven on the stovetop over a medium flame. Stir the garlic frequently to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot, until it just begins to change color to a very pale tan.

Add the tomatoes to the garlic. Use a wooden spoon to chop the tomatoes into the garlic and oil mixture so they will cook together into a sauce, about 10 minutes. Don't worry if the sauce is not very smooth. If you were lazy and didn't skin your tomatoes, you can pluck the skins out of the sauce at this point.

Add the lentils and cayenne to the pot, then after a minute, add the water. From this point, it will take 45 minutes to cook the lentils until they're tender.

In a saucepan with a tight lid, put the water for the rice on a high flame to boil.

Chop the vegetables for steaming, and put them in a steamer with some water.

When the rice water boils, add the rice, then lower the heat to the lowest flame possible. Keep the lid on and do not stir the rice. Cook for 45 minutes, then turn off the heat and let stand at least five minutes.

When the dal comes to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and stir occasionally.

Fifteen or twenty minutes before the dal and rice are scheduled to be done, start the vegetable steamer. After the steaming water comes to a boil, let the vegetables steam for 5-10 minutes, depending on how crisp you like your steamed vegetables.

Taste the lentils to ensure they are tender and cooked through to their centers. When they are, turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and salt, stir, and taste. You may add more salt or lemon juice as needed.

Serve the dal in generous spoonfuls over the rice and vegetables.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Making sausage

For high-fat frying, I use organic, refined canola oil, or sometimes safflower oil, as long as it's indicated for high heat. When I'm sautéeing vegetables, I usually use organic extra virgin olive oil. I use the same oil when I'm baking bread or pan-roasting vegetables. When I want a creamier flavor, such as when I'm making risotto, I use butter. For some dishes, like kasha varnishkes, and sometimes for sautéeing vegetables that will go into a meaty stew, I use chicken fat.

I rotisserie-broil a chicken once a week or so, and make chicken stock using the carcasses. Both provide me with a supply of chicken fat, which I use for cooking. After I rotisserie or oven roast a chicken, I get a delicious pan of "chicken jelly," a gelatinous stuff that cools to a mix with the fond, as well as the chicken fat, which rises to the top as it cools. When I make stock, after it cools I scoop off the fat and use it for cooking, as well. Fat keeps for a relatively long time in the refrigerator, and freezes well.

I don't eat pork, so when we eat bacon and sausage, it's from duck or turkey. We eat turkey breakfast sausage patties two or three times a week: scrambled into eggs during the week, on the side with pancakes or French toast on Sundays. After trying several varieties, we settled on Shelton's brand sausage and ate it for a long time. It had a good flavor and texture, wasn't too dry—a typical problem with the relatively low-fat turkey compared to pork or duck—and we could usually find it at Whole Foods. For months now, I haven't always found our preferred brand, spurring me to develop a recipe for breakfast sausage using ground meat from the butcher counter.

The spices were easy: almost all breakfast sausage is flavored with sage, nutmeg, salt, and black pepper. Like the commercial brands, I used ground turkey thighs, which are more flavorful and have a higher fat content than breast meat.

At first in making sausage I only used pan drippings from roasted chicken, both the fat and the jelly. When I hand-mixed this like meatloaf, the hard bits of fond didn't break up as well, and the tiny globs of jelly were not visually appealing. Mixing the sausage in the food processor distributed the bits of fond and jelly more evenly. Using the pan drippings gave the sausage a pleasant, roasted flavor. Sausage is also good made with the fat from stock, with detectable but not overpowering celery and carrot flavors. The differences are not very strong, so I use whatever fat I have on hand when it's sausage-making time.

I am annoyed when a recipe tells me to to salt "to taste" a raw meat mixture, or marinade, or anything else I'm not inclined to eat as-is. Also, I am too lazy to make tiny test patties, fry them, and taste for salt. Having made one too-salty batch, I backed off the second time to the amount you see in the recipe below. This amount of salt makes a good sausage. If you are inclined to make this more than once, adjust the salt the second time around, if this does not salt to your taste. Or you can make tiny test patties.

I use parchment paper squares to separate the patties before freezing them. This makes it easy to pry the frozen patties apart with a butter knife. There are three of us eating breakfast sausage here on a typical morning, so I package patties in stacks of three: a piece of parchment on the bottom, one each between patties, and one on top. If you want stacks of two, cut up 36 squares of parchment. The formula is: S + 24, where S is the number of stacks of patties.

Turkey Breakfast Sausage

Makes 24 patties

2 lbs ground dark meat turkey (thighs only, or legs and thighs)
Pan drippings from two roasted chickens, or up to 1 cup of chicken fat
2 T dried sage
2 tsp salt
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until the fat is evenly distributed. Form the mixture into 24 meatballs, about two inches in diameter. Cut at least 32 squares of parchment paper, four inches on a side. Lay a meatball on a square of parchment and press it flat. Lay another square of parchment on top of the flattened ball, and place another meatball on top. Press it flat, doing your best not to press the patties into a wave pattern, but to keep them as flat as possible, so they will come apart more easily once they've frozen.

Continue to alternate parchment and sausage until you have as many as you want in a stack, then top with a piece of parchment paper and put the stack into an airtight freezer bag.

When you want to serve the sausage, take it directly from the freezer and cook it through on a griddle or skillet over medium heat, turning it after it browns.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

When recipes fail: falafel

When I want to make a classic dish, I often start with a single recipe, or with two or three that I amalgamate into a single plan of action. Then I make changes. I replace refined flour and sugar with whole wheat flour and evaporated cane juice. I often add vegetables. If I already know how, or want a challenge, I make the called-for prepared items from scratch. When I have adapted the recipe to my satisfaction, and it has been received with sufficient enthusiasm, I document my process.

Ideally, anyway. Some of our most reliable recipes are written in my programmer-boyfriend's shorthand on a spiral-bound book of index cards, in no particular order. Last night I wanted to make falafel, forgot that the tried-and-true recipe was in this book, and instead used a recipe out of a cookbook, Pita the Great. (We have many cookbooks with groan-worthy titles. Most of them are Kevin's.) This recipe called for cooked chickpeas instead of dried, soaked beans. I knew this wasn't the method I used the last time I wanted to make falafel, but the cookbook in question was one that specialized in pitas and things that go on or in them, so I figured they'd know from falafel. For my naïve trust, I was rewarded with a pot full of oily, crisp bean sludge. I baked the remaining croquettes, with passable results.

To its credit, Pita the Great's tips on baking pita, and the recipe for tomato-onion salad, were both good, although even excellent tips weren't enough to save my pitas from pocketlessness this time: I have only my dough-rolling skills and possibly a sub-optimal oven temperature to blame. There are a lot of tomato-onion salad and pitas left over, so for lunch today I made salmon croquettes, which Andy and I ate with the salad and pitas.
Here is the One True Recipe (at our house, anyway) for falafel.


Makes about 6 servings

1 ½ cups dried chickpeas
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp coriander
1 whole onion
4 cloves of garlic
10 sprigs of parsley
several cranks of fresh ground black pepper
2-3 cups of canola oil (or other oil suitable for high-heat frying)

Soak the chickpeas overnight in plenty of water. Drain and pick over the beans. In a food processor, puree the chickpeas, soda, salt, spices, onion, garlic, and parsley.

NOTE: My food processor bowl will hold a quart, but will not process this correctly if I put all the ingredients in at once. I processed it in two batches.

NOTE: The mixture will turn green from the parsley. If this freaks you out, don't put the parsley in the food processor. You can just process the beans, soda, salt, and spices, and finely dice the onion, garlic, and parsley (or just the parsley), then add them to the processed bean mixture.

Heat the oil in a deep, heavy pot. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about two inches in diameter, then press each ball to flatten it into a patty about an inch thick. When the oil is very hot, fry the patties in the oil until they are dark brown: this takes just a few minutes. Flip each patty to fry the other side, then remove to a paper towel-covered cooling rack to drain.

At the table, put two falafel into an opened pita, top with tomato-onion salad, and eat as a sandwich. Tahini sauce and sliced cucumbers are also good with this. In the winter, I steam vegetables to eat with this, and in the summer I serve it with a green salad.

Tomato-Onion Salad

Adapted from Pita the Great, by Virginia T. Habeeb.

Makes about 3 cups.

4 medium tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch wedges
4 scallions, sliced
1/4 of a medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
At least 12 sprigs of cilantro, leaves and tender parts of the stems only, finely minced
4 sprigs of spearmint, leaves only, finely minced
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper (2-3 cranks)

Combine the tomatoes, scallions, onion, and herbs in a bowl.
Press or mince the garlic, then use a fork to mash the garlic and salt into a paste.
Beat together the oil, lemon juice, garlic paste, and pepper.
Pour the oil mixture over the vegetables and herbs and toss lightly.