Saturday, February 26, 2011

And the Rest

If I were part of a small group, say, a small group stranded on a deserted island, I think I’m the type that might be offended if referred to as “and the rest.” When I have a small group of leftover ingredients, however, and want to figure out what to do with “the rest,” I actually get a little excited about the challenge. (Unless one of those ingredients is beets. Then, I cry.)

Having tahini and cooked chickpeas leftover from making this salad really doesn’t pose much of a challenge, but it does still make me excited. That’s because I love hummus. Pureed chickpeas with thick and rich sesame paste, lemon juice and olive oil? Simple but oh so flavorful. Definitely a promotion for “the rest” of those chickpeas and that tahini.

It’s easy to find prepared hummus in supermarkets these days, and some of them are even pretty good, but homemade hummus is actually quite easy to prepare, as long as you have a food processor. I must have made it in a blender at one time, because I found some notes to “be patient when processing in a blender.” I’m guessing it took some extra time and some extra stirring.

Freshly made hummus is also, well, fresher-tasting. The lemon juice (there’s a lot of it in this recipe) brightens and lifts the heavier tahini and you can make it as creamy as you want. (I often find store-bought hummus to be a little grainy.) You can even take a cue from some of the flavors in which the store-bought stuff is available and add things like sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives, especially if you have “the rest” of a package of them left from other recipes.

Hummus is a great dip for pita chips or tortilla chips. I cut up some of “the rest” of these tortillas and baked them until crisp to serve with my hummus. Carrot sticks (I’ve got enough carrots from our winter CSA share to qualify for a name much more massive than “and the rest”) and bell pepper strips are good dippers, too, and they have fewer calories, which might be something to consider after you look at the nutritional information on the side of a jar of tahini. I suppose you could get on the treadmill to take care of “the rest” of those calories if you’re so inclined. Okay, okay, I’ll give “and the rest” a rest.

This is a very lemony recipe, with not much added spice. Adjust the seasoning to your taste.

1 ½ cups cooked chickpeas (about 1 15-ounce can), drained
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 tablespoons well-stirred tahini
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra-virgin

1. Place the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, salt, pepper and cumin in the bowl of a food processor. Process until well-pureed.

2. While the processor is running, slowly pour the olive oil in through the opening in the top of the lid. Process until very smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust as desired. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Makes about 2 cups. Leftovers can be refrigerated, covered, for several days.

Other recipes like this one: Winter Squash and Chickpea Salad with Apricots and Tahini Dressing, other Dips and Spreads

One year ago: Naan with Whole Wheat Flour

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Whites: Parsnip Souffle

As much as I look forward to finding my new cooking magazines in the mailbox, I must admit that I’ve been facing the coming of the March issues with a bit of dread. It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter here in southeastern Minnesota, and there’s more to come, I’m sure. I couldn’t stand the thought of facing a magazine cover produced by perky people who think it’s spring and that we should be planning meals with green things like fancy lettuces, asparagus and peas. Those foods will have to be shipped here from someplace green like the Emerald City, taking quality damage along the way, for a few more months.

The March issue of Bon Appetit magazine, however, was kind to me in my time of distress. Its cover recipe was a beautiful crock of macaroni and cheese. Thank you for recognizing that it’s still cold outside, Bon Appetit. Now I can make something hearty and comforting in the oven, using my well-stored winter vegetables, and still be chic and en vogue and not at all passe. I have permission, at the end of February, to make the parsnip soufflé I’ve been thinking about for months (and then had to further delay because my souffle dish was buried at the bottom of the freezer full of spaghetti sauce that I couldn't remember making.)

As I described in detail in this post from last spring, I got my soufflé confidence from Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. I applied the basic soufflé theory of a flavorful base lightened with beaten egg whites, but instead of a béchamel sauce in the base, I took a cue from a casserole recipe (Tortellini Gratinata with Mushrooms and Parship “Bechemel”) from that same Bon Appetit issue, and made a parsnip “béchamel” of my own with pureed parsnips and garlic mixed with milk and flavored with black pepper and nutmeg. I added even more flavor to the base with shredded Gruyere cheese and enriched it with a couple of egg yolks.

The resulting soufflé was delicious, subtly sweet from the parsnips and salty, tangy and nutty from the Gruyere. Since none of the ingredients are overwhelming in flavor, the black pepper and nutmeg were pleasantly perceivable as well, lending a bit of a spicy note to the otherwise mild and gentle dish. The texture was nice and puffy, at least for the few minutes immediately after I took the soufflé out of the oven, but it was just a bit watery around the edges of a served scoopful. This might have been because the parsnip “béchamel” was not quite as stable as a roux-thickened white sauce would be, or I could have over-baked it. Heck, I don’t know. This is only the second soufflé I’ve ever made, and my trouble-shooting skills are a bit weak in this area.

Of course, a hot, puffy soufflé is an elusive thing as it tends to collapse so quickly. I don’t mind so much, and even ate reheated leftovers. The texture of a collapsed soufflé is still fluffier than an omelet or frittata, and all of the great flavor stays where it always was. It’s all worth the little bit of extra effort it takes to make a fancier winter dish, and I really like this new (to me) way of embracing the humble winter parsnips I get from the CSA. Since the white and the winter will be around for a while, I might as well match them and be in style.

Parsnip Souffle with Gruyere

6 ounces parsnips, trimmed, peeled and sliced
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
½ teaspoon coarse salt, plus more for cooking parsnips
1 cup milk, divided
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
3 ounces grated Gruyere or other sharp-tasting cheese
4 egg whites at room temperature
Butter or cooking spray for the soufflé dish

1. Place the parsnips and garlic in a medium-size saucepan. Add a small handful of coarse salt and cover with cold water by a few inches. Bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool slightly. (The parsnips and garlic can be cooked a day or two ahead and refrigerated until ready to use.)

2. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 1 -1 ½ quart (about1-1.5 liter) soufflé dish, or spray it with cooking spray. Set aside.

3. Place the cooked parsnips and garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Add ½ cup milk and ½ teaspoon salt. Process to a smooth puree. Pour the parsnip puree in a large bowl. Whisk in the remaining ½ cup milk, black pepper and nutmeg. Whisk in the egg yolks. Stir in the Gruyere cheese.

4. Place the egg whites in the very clean bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer or a very clean large bowl. Beat the eggs on medium speed using the whisk attachment of the stand mixer or with a hand mixer until frothy. Increase the speed to high and beat until stiff peaks form.

5. Spoon about ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the parsnip. Gently mix together, preferably with a rubber spatula or a wide, flat spoon. Fold in the remaining egg whites, about half at a time. To do this, cut down through the whites with the edge of the spatula and turn it to bring some of the base up over the whites. Gently stir this way until the whites are incorporated with the base, leaving a puffy mixture. Try not to deflate the egg whites.

6. Spoon the mixture into the buttered soufflé dish. Bake at 375 F for 35 minutes or until the soufflé has puffed up significantly, but is still a bit wobbly if very gently shaken, and the top is golden brown. Serve immediately.

Makes about 4 servings. Leftovers are still good reheated, but will not have the same airy texture.

Other recipes like this one: Spinach and Feta Souffle, Cream of Carrot and Parsnip Soup

One year ago: Chickpea Stew with Dried Apricots

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Last Squash

 Pardon me if I sniff a little as I communicate this. Our extended winter CSA share has just concluded and I won’t be getting any more boxes of beautiful vegetables until something like June. As the snow falls once again and the cold returns from wherever it went for a week or so (it’s mean and sneaky like that in this part of the country), I feel a little sad to think of how far away spring really is.

Well, I’d best just get over it. It’s not like there’s nothing to eat around here. I’ve got a refrigerator full of carrots, turnips and daikon radishes that need some creative attention. And I had one last whole Heart of Gold squash left.

Normally I’d just roast, puree and freeze this super sweet squash and decide what to do with it later, but I had come across this salad recipe on the blog smitten kitchen, and really wanted to try it. In addition to the squash, the salad has chickpeas and a thick and tart tahini dressing with lots of lemon juice. I had plenty of cooked chickpeas in the freezer, and an entire jar of tahini (sesame paste, in case you’re not on a first name basis with the stuff) that I couldn’t remember what I was planning to do with. This recipe looked like it was going to be an easy but flavorful way to send off that last lonely little squash.

Probably taking a cue from this stew, I decided that this salad needed some dried apricots. I happened to be right, at least to my taste (and to Harry’s). I prefer California dried apricots because they are more tart than Turkish apricots, and in this salad they seemed to form a flavor bridge between the sweet squash and lemony dressing. I also went out on a limb just a bit and added some za’atar seasoning blend, which was looking somewhat abandoned in my cupboard. The blend I had (from Penzeys, where they spell it “zatar”) contained sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and a little salt. The slightly sour sumac blended in with the lemon juice and the thyme provided a little herbal back note. You wouldn’t have to use za’atar here or any spice, but I think a little something would be good, perhaps even just a bit of cumin and coriander.

This salad is best served a little warm, which makes it comforting in these still-winter days. I ate leftovers a bit cold, however, and they were still very good. The tahini dressing is quite thick, and does lose some of its smoothness when chilled. That nice thick dressing is really well suited to chunkier, starchier salads like this one, and I’m already starting to think of other salad combinations with which to drench it, or things I could dip in it. Hmmm….maybe I could start with all those carrots someone stored in my refrigerator.

Winter Squash and Chickpea Salad with Apricots and Tahini Dressing
Adapted from smitten kitchen, who adapted it from other sources.

A 2 to 2 ½ pound winter squash
2 medium garlic cloves, divided
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
¾ teaspoon coarse salt, divided
¼ cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste), well stirred
2 tablespoons water
1 ½ cups cooked or canned chickpeas (about a 15-ounce can), drained
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
½ cup sliced dried apricots
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ teaspoon za’atar (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Peel and remove the seeds from the squash. Cut into 1- 1 ½ inch pieces. Place the chopped squash in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet.

2. Finely chop one of the garlic cloves and add it to the squash along with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Toss to coat the squash. Bake at 425 F for about 30 minutes or until the squash is tender. Set aside to cool slightly.

3. Make a paste with the remaining clove of garlic and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Place it in a small bowl. Add the lemon juice, tahini, and water. Whisk together to make a smooth mixture. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set aside.

4. In a large bowl, combine the roasted squash, chickpeas, red onion, and apricots. Add the black pepper and za’atar if using and stir to combine. Add the dressing mixture and toss to coat well. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 4 servings. Chilled leftovers are best when allowed to return to room temperature. If time does not permit, eat it cold. It will still be good.

Other recipes like this one: Chickpea Stew with Dried Apricots, Chickpea and Olive Salad with Greek Flavors

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pot of Beans Volume 2: Re-cooked Beans with Tortillas

So, I made that big pot of Soup Beans a while back, and was left with a rather large amount of leftovers. Really, I’ll have to call them plan-overs, because I did this on purpose. I fully intended to make the rest of those beans into refried beans.

Well, really it would be more accurate to call them re-cooked beans, since I don’t add any extra fat to the pan when refrying. They just don’t need it. There’s plenty of flavor in the original Soup Beans recipe, and if I want more, I’ll just add extra herbs and spices. Really, the somewhat overcooked beans just need to be smashed up, perhaps seasoned a bit, scooped together, and applied wherever you need them. These re-purposed leftovers are delicious simply scooped up with a tortilla chip as an appetizer or snack. They are also good in this layered dip or spread on a pizza crust as the base of a Mexican-style pizza or simply plopped on a tortilla with plenty of the type of garnishes that taco-lovers have come to count on.

I was going to go on a bit more about the re-cooked beans and how to make them, but I did that quite a bit in this post. This is pretty simple stuff, and I probably don’t need to go over it again. What I will go on about, however, is the homemade tortillas with which I made my soft bean tacos.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been making flour tortillas, although it makes sense to assume I was making them several years ago when we lived in south Texas. Not only were tortillas more in line with the local cuisine, but they also were a way to make something bread-like without running the oven in the unbearably hot climate. (I’m no fan of the heat!) I do remember not being very good at rolling out the dough to make round tortillas. A good-looking tortilla in those days resembled a map of Australia more than the perfect circle in the supermarket packages.

I also remember that I’ve always made my tortillas from Gourmet Tortillas by Karen Howarth. The book is packed with recipes for different flavors of flour tortillas as well as recipes that use the tortillas to great advantage. I’ve been revisiting some of these recipes to see how they go with a bit of whole wheat flour in place of the all-purpose flour. There is a whole wheat flour tortilla recipe in the book, but I wanted to apply the whole grain philosophy to one of my favorites: Yogurt Tortillas.

I like these tortillas because they are especially soft. Since they turn out a bit thicker than store-bought tortillas, they get slightly chewy and a bit pillowy. The yogurt contributes to this texture and also provides just a bit of tang to the flavor. The added whole wheat flour did no harm whatsoever to that texture, and I think it actually contributed quite favorably to the taste.

Flour tortillas aren’t difficult to make and they’re even better than most of the packaged ones. They are time consuming, however, since each tortilla needs to be rolled out and griddle-cooked. That makes a simple filling like re-cooked Soup Beans or grated cheese (for a quesadilla) the perfect accompaniment, since they don’t take much time to prepare. I’ve become a much faster tortilla-maker over the years, and my tortillas are even more circular than they once were. I wouldn’t want them to look exactly like supermarket offerings anyway. If they were perfect, no one would know about all the love and effort I put into making them myself.

Yogurt Tortillas with Whole Wheat Flour
Adapted from Gourmet Tortillas by Karen Howarth

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup water, plus more as needed

1. In a medium-size bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt and baking powder. Whisk together.

2. Work the butter into the flour mixture with your hands (or with a fork or pastry blender) until it is in very small pieces that are well-coated with flour.

3. Mix together the yogurt and 1/3 cup water. Add to the flour mixture and stir to combine as much as possible. Continue to work the dough gently with your hands or a spoon until all of the flour is moistened and you can pull it together into a ball that holds together. Add more water a little at a time as needed. (If the dough is too moist you can add more flour.)

4. Knead the dough briefly, just enough to make it come together firmly. Form into a disk and cut into 8 equal wedges. Form each wedge into a ball. Cover with a towel and let stand for 15 minutes.

5. Preheat a cast iron griddle (preferred) or a frying pan on the stove over medium-low heat. Take one ball of tortilla dough and flatten it slightly. Place on a well-floured surface. Roll the dough into a circle (or as close to one as you can) about 8 inches in diameter and 1/8-inch or less thick.

6. Place the tortilla on the preheated griddle and cook for about 1 minute or until it is beginning to get a few browned spots and the top looks bubbly. Carefully flip the tortilla and cook on the other side about 1 minute more or until just beginning to brown. Repeat with the remaining dough. You can roll out the next tortilla while one is cooking, but be sure to keep an eye on the stove. Stack the tortillas on a wire rack as they are done. Wrap them in a towel to keep them warm until ready to serve.

Makes 8 8-inch tortillas. Keep leftovers in a zip-top bag for a day or so. Rewarm in the microwave to serve.

Other recipes like this one: Rustic Homemade Crackers with Thyme, Naan with Whole Wheat Flour

One year ago: Black Bean and Corn Croquettes and Cilantro Cream Dipping Sauce

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine Cheesecake

I made a cheesecake for Valentine’s Day. Well, I made it late last week, but that’s just extending the holiday. We’re still going to eat some tonight.

Why cheesecake? Weren’t these cookies enough. No, I wanted a dessert for a special occasion. Cookies aren’t a dessert. Sure, you can have cookies for dessert. But they are not a dessert. And this cheesecake is more decadent, more romantic, sweeter. And it has a pink swirl.

I’ve been wanting to fiddle around with cheesecake for a while. Since last spring, in fact, when Fine Cooking magazine published a sort of cheesecake primer in their “Cooking without Recipes” column. It’s just this sort of Grand Unified Recipe with Endless Variations that I’m interested in, so I filed it. For about ¾ of a year. (Actually that’s a pretty short time for me.)

I adapted this light cranberry-swirl cheesecake recipe from Cooking Light magazine and tried to rework it with the Fine Cooking template, and for a first run at such a thing, it turned out really well. I suppose most people these days are trying to turn a full-fat recipe into a low-calorie one, but I thought, just this once, I’d take back the calories and see what it did for flavor. I have to say that unfortunately, as a general rule, calories have flavor. Flavor and texture and sensuality and pleasure and …well, you get the idea. And having the real thing a few times a year is much better than having something fake or almost there (and those are the good ones) more often.

This cheesecake is basic, with only a little orange juice and zest thrown in, but the cranberry swirl is fruity and puckery. I added orange zest to that as well. It’s very similar to homemade cranberry sauce, but I added an egg so it would mesh better with the cheesecake batter. The chocolate crust is dark and bittersweet (I used Nabisco Brand “Famous” chocolate wafer cookies). You could use something else to make the crust, such as graham crackers or vanilla wafers, but the chocolate crust says, “Be my Valentine.”

I didn’t allow this cheesecake to cool long enough before cutting into it, so it was a bit oozy about the middle, especially the cranberry swirl. It firmed up before we dug into it again, however, so the later slices held up much better. There’s also a lot of concern about cheesecakes cracking on the top as they cool. I, however, have one foolproof way to deal with these cracks that works every time: I get over it and just eat the cheesecake.

Cranberry Swirl Cheesecake with Chocolate Crust
Adapted from Fine Cooking and Cooking Light magazines

For the cranberry swirl
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup fresh orange juice
6 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
grated zest of 1 orange
1 large egg

For the crust
8 ounces chocolate wafer cookies
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 ½ ounces (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

For the filling
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup fresh orange juice
grated zest of 1 orange
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
¾ cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature

1. To make the cranberry swirl. Place the sugar, ¼ cup orange juice and cranberries in a medium bowl. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries have popped and are tender and the liquid has thickened slightly (it will thicken more as it cools). Remove from the heat and cool completely.

2. Pour the cooled cranberry mixture into a food processor. Add the zest of one orange and pulse to combine. Add the egg and pulse to mix completely. Refrigerate until ready to use.

3. To make the crust, preheat oven to 375 F. Place the chocolate wafer cookies in afood processor. Process into crumbs. Add the sugar and pulse until well-combined. Pour in the melted butter and process until the crumbs come together, but before they form a tight ball.

4. Pour the crust mixture into a 9-inch springform pan. Press the mixture firmly and evenly on the bottom and about 2-3 inches up the sides of the pan. Use your hands or the outside of a measuring cup to press.
5. Bake at 375 F for 9-12 minutes or until the crust appears firm, dry and slightly darkened in color (although this may be difficult to see with in a chocolate crust.) Cool on a wire rack until ready to fill.

6. Reduce oven to 300 F. In a heavy-duty mixer with a paddle attachment, beat together the cream cheese, flour, ¼ cup orange juice, and salt. Continue beating at medium speed for 5 minutes or until very smooth, scraping the bowl and paddle often. There should be no lumps in the mixture before you proceed to the next step.

7. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add vanilla and zest of one orange and beat until blended. Add eggs one at a time and beat just until blended before adding the next one.

8. Pour the filling into the prepared crust and spread evenly. Pour the prepared cranberry swirl mixture over the cream cheese mixture. Swirl the two mixtures together with a knife or rubber spatula.
9. Bake at 300 for about 1 hour or until the center of the cheesecake still jiggles slightly when nudged, but the edges appear dry or are beginning to brown slightly. Cool completely. Cover and chill for at least 8 hours.

Makes 1 9-inch cheesecake, at least 10 servings. Keep in the refrigerator for about 3 days, or wrap the whole or partial cheese cake or individual servings and freeze for a month or so. Thaw in the refrigerator.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chocolate and Cherries

I was going to make these cookies way back at Christmas time, but I didn’t get around to them. I wish I could have, because of the three new holiday cookie recipes I did try one was pretty boring and the other two were complete duds. I had much more confidence that these cookies would be good, however, because they’re simply a variation of this recipe, which we love. I think the chocolate and cherry idea has a certain romantic feeling, so just about now is a good time to make some for your Valentine. I did.

I’m kind of pushing the chocolate and cherries (actually dried tart cherries) here, but he real stars of these cookies were the fresh black walnuts I put in them. They have a sort of fermented fruity flavor that permeates the cookie and enhances the chocolate and cherry flavors. I acquired these lovely things from my aunt and uncle, who live somewhat nearby and are the proud owners of black walnut trees.

Okay, so they’re not so proud of these vegetable beasts because they’re messy when they’re on your property and do not give up their tasty nut meat without a fight. It’s my understanding that my uncle is the one who took on the unenviable task of cracking open all the black walnuts (at least my aunt gave him the credit), and I am overwhelmingly grateful. I love them! (If you can get your hands on fresh nuts, keep them refrigerated or frozen so their oils have less of a chance of spoiling and creating off flavors.)

Like most drop cookies, these are very easy to make, especially if you can allow a stand mixer to do all the work. The batch is relatively small, so you can eat them all up right away without a lot of pesky leftovers. I tend to bake them in even smaller batches and freeze the remaining dough to use later. Fresh cookies are always best, and if you can eat these while they’re still warm, so much the better. The bittersweet chocolate is a little gooey, the cherries are soft and sweet-tart, and the black walnuts are crunchy, perfume-y and almost liqueur-like. That sounds sensual enough for a simple Valentine’s celebration to me.

Chocolate Cherry Oatmeal Cookies with Black Walnuts
Adapted from Cooking Light, May 2007

You can use English walnuts if black walnuts are not available.

I recommend freezing dough, well-wrapped, to make small batches of fresh cookies on demand.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup regular oats
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 large egg
½ cup dried tart cherries
½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup chopped black walnuts or English walnuts

1. In a medium-size bowl combine flour, oats, baking soda and salt. Stir together with a whisk.

2. Place sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat at medium speed until well blended and beginning to get fluffy, at least 1 minute.(Alternatively, you can beat by hand in a bowl with a spoon.) Add almond extract and egg and beat well.

3. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat until blended. Stir in the dried cherries, chocolate chips and walnuts.

4. (If time allows, keep the dough well-covered in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. I think cookie dough is improved by this little rest.) Preheat oven to 350 F. Scoop about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough at a time and roll it into a ball. Place the dough balls on the prepared baking sheet. Bake at 350 F for about 12 minutes or until lightly browned.

5. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet 2 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool. (They are great slightly warm).

Makes about 2 dozen small cookies. Keep leftovers well covered for a day or two.

Other recipes like this one: Apricot and Almond Cookies with White Chocolate, Milk Chocolate Chip and M&M Cookies (make them with Valentine-colored M&Ms)

One year ago: Stout Bread with Chocolate and Cherries

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pot of Beans Volume 1: Soup Beans

I don’t think I’m a food snob. Sure, I prefer high-quality ingredients when I can get them, but the fact is that such products are not always affordable. And now that I also try to consider such things as how my food was grown, the distance my food traveled to get to me, how it had to be stored during its journey, and how much it has been processed, there’s a whole other world of choices, and expenses, to consider. Then, there are the new USDA dietary guidelines, just in case you’re interested in how to keep yourself healthy with your food as well. Like me, you may be wondering how you’re going to provide enjoyable food for yourself and the people you love that will neither kill you nor bring on the next national financial crisis.

Well, if I knew the answer, I would probably have a much more important job than “amateur food blogger.” I can, however, tell you how I’ve taken steps to deal with this dilemma, and it involves picking my battles and making some compromises. For example, I really prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sustainably raised animal products, and fair trade coffee. When I can, I purchase these foods rather than their alternatives (there hasn’t been a green can of cheese in my refrigerator for at least 10 years). Yes, they are expensive, but I try to balance out the grocery bill with inexpensive whole foods, and frequently make cheap but healthy eats like this big pot of beans.

We call these Soup Beans, and I think I got the idea for making them from one of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books several years ago. Basically, I cook pinto beans long and slow until they get soft and creamy and start to fall apart. The cooking liquid transforms into a thick, flavorful broth that’s great served over brown rice or mashed potatoes. The result is a simple, homey, comforting dish that can be jazzed up with garnishes such as cheese, onions and spicy salsa. A pound of dried beans goes a long way and the leftovers can be reheated or made into a healthy version of refried beans (a subject for a future post).

The slow cooker is great for this dish, providing just the right kind of low and slow heat and making this dish mindlessly easy to prepare. I usually don’t even make any measurements when I cook this dish, but have tried to give some guidelines in the recipe below. I like to cook the beans with some onion and garlic, then add spices like cumin, chili powder and crushed red pepper. Salt is also important, and I have given a range that might be on the low end as far as saltiness is concerned. Just taste the beans and add salt as you like.

Perhaps beans have received a bad reputation as a food of poverty, but that doesn’t have to mean they aren’t delicious. And their very cheapness is what makes them a great tool for balancing the budget and allowing for grass-fed steak, organic dairy products, and imported wine. At least that’s how I see it. Beans are also super-easy to prepare. Even if you think you can’t cook, you can make Soup Beans. And if you can cook, give yourself a break and make this cheap and easy but surprisingly flavorful bowl of humble, wholesome goodness. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t consider a bowl of “just beans” to be a proper meal. I don’t know what their problem is. Maybe they’re just food snobs.

Soup Beans
I used a moderate amount of salt in this recipe. Taste your beans and add more salt (or other seasonings) as desired.

1 pound dried pinto beans (about 2 heaping cups)
½ of a medium-sized onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1-2 teaspoons chili powder
1-2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2-3 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste

Suggested accompaniments
chopped onions or scallions
chopped cilantro
shredded cheese, such as cheddar, Monterey Jack or pepper jack
sour cream

1. Rinse the dried beans in a colander. Sort through them and remove any broken beans, stones or clumps of dirt.

2. Place the beans in a large pot or bowl and cover with water by at least 2 inches. Let stand about 8 hours or overnight.

3. Drain the soaked beans. Place them in a large slow cooker along with the onion and garlic. Pour in about 6 cups water, or enough to cover the beans by 1-2 inches.

4. Cover the slow cooker and cook the beans on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-6 hours. They are done when they are beginning to fall apart and the liquid has thickened significantly.

5. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, crushed red pepper flakes and salt. Replace the cover and cook on high about 30 minutes more (enough time to prepare rice or potatoes). Serve over rice or mashed potatoes.

Makes at least 8 servings. Leftovers can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for a few months.

Other recipes like this one: Bean Dip with Sour Cream, Salsa and Cheese; Squash and Pinto Bean Chili

One year ago: Bittersweet Almond Amaretto Truffles

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Red Flannel Hash

I was going to make Red Flannel Hash to celebrate the Red Green Wit and Wisdom show that I attended back in November. If you’re not familiar with Red Green (Steve Smith), he’s the star of The Red Green Show, a Canadian television comedy that aired from 1991-2006 and has been a huge success in the northern reaches of the U.S., where it is still broadcast by regional public television stations. The show satirically and hilariously celebrates small-town and backwoods living and all manner of “man stuff” at Possum Lodge where cars are cut up and turned into Zambonis, the handy-man’s secret weapon is duct tape, and the local color is plaid. (And for you Lake Wobegon fans, the men are definitely below average.)

The Wit and Wisdom show, stand-up comedy by Red Green himself, was brilliantly funny, but what wasn’t so funny was the ingredient list for the Red Flannel Hash. That’s right, the “red” in Red Flannel Hash is brought to you by the beet, my least favorite resident of the vegetable bin. I couldn’t ruin my amusement by serving beets to celebrate it.

Eventually, however, I had to do something with the beets from the CSA that accumulate in my refrigerator, so I thought I’d toughen up and give this a try. Each of the recipes I found called for canned beets, however, and while I can’t imagine going out and acquiring beets in a can on purpose, the first run of this recipe made evident the advantage of beets that have already been at least partially cooked. Raw beets just don’t cook like other vegetables do. It’s not enough, apparently, to just taste unpleasantly, they also have to take a long time to cook and end up still crunchy when other ingredients are nice and tender.

To remedy this difficulty, I partially cooked beets in the microwave for the second attempt at this recipe. (You could certainly use canned beets if you like them, you weirdo.) Yes, there was a second attempt, because this stuff actually tastes really good. Taking a cue from Beet and Carrot Burgers, which I love, I added carrots along with the beets (and potatoes). The carrots seem to tame some of the beets’ unusual sweet earthiness. I also put a hefty dose of spicy mustard and some horseradish into this hash and both accompany beets very well (and hide some of their flavor).

It’s important to cut the vegetables into very small pieces for this dish if you want everything to cook in a timely fashion. As it is, this isn’t exactly a speedy recipe with all the chopping and cooking raw vegetables over medium-low heat so they get tender before they burn. If the carrots and potatoes are in large pieces, they’ll never cook. Of course you could use leftover or partially cooked vegetables, but I haven’t tried that myself.

I topped my hash servings with a fried egg (over easy), which made it a complete meal. You could top it with whatever form of egg you like, or stir in leftover cooked meats or deli meats, such as corned beef, smoked turkey or pastrami. And if you’re a beet hater like me, I think you should give this a shot. The beets aren’t exactly hidden. In fact they lend their maroon essence to the whole dish, but their taste is not overwhelming. I think I can even appreciate their flavor in this case, and this is definitely going to be a new favorite for tackling all those fine beets that I manage to accumulate.

This kind of food is homey and comforting and just right for accompanying undemanding entertainment like lumberjack competitions and north woods comedies. Just remember to keep your sense of humor, especially about the beets, and, as Red Green signs off, “Keep your stick on the ice.”

Red Flannel Hash with Spicy Mustard
Based on a recipe in Cooking Light, March 1999

If serving with eggs, be sure to plan their preparation while cooking the hash.

I had the best results using a nonstick pan for this dish. You may be able to use cast iron or another type of pan, but may need to use more oil to prevent sticking.

1 large or 2 small beets, about enough to make 1 cup when diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup diced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup diced peeled carrot
1 cup diced peeled potato
1 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
½ cup finely chopped scallions
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons spicy mustard, such as Dusseldorf style
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Scrub the beets well and trim the ends to remove any dirty or leafy parts. Place the beets in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high 3-4 minutes or until softened and partially cooked. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

2. When cooled, peel and dice the beets. Set aside.

3. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook about 5 minutes or until softened and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds more.

4. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the carrot, potatoes, partially cooked beets and salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

5. Stir in the scallions and parsley and cook 2 minutes more.

6. Combine the sour cream, mustard, horseradish and black pepper in a small bowl. Remove the cooked hash from the heat and stir in the sour cream mixture. Cover and let stand about 3 minutes (or as long as it takes to fry an egg.) Serve with a fried, poached or boiled egg on top or with another accompaniment.

Makes about 3 servings. Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Souper Bowl

The Green Bay Packers are in the Super Bowl!!!!

Like most fans, it has taken me some time to really believe it, but now I’m celebrating. And what better way to celebrate than with some essence of Green Bay. How about a beer and cheese soup? How about we put some bratwurst in there as well?

If you’re extremely health-conscious (or a Pittsburgh Steelers fan) you might want to look away now. This isn’t exactly light fare, although I did take the creamy sausage-y cheesy-ness down a notch from the original recipe. You could always take back some of the calories by adding more cheese and more bratwurst or by using whole milk or cream. In that case, you might want to reserve this soup for special occasions, such as these. We want you to still be around to experience the next time the Packers are in the Super Bowl.

This soup is pretty fast to make. The aromatics (onions, carrots and celery) are cooked slowly in the pan before adding any of the liquid. That way, the soup doesn’t have to cook much once the dairy products and thickening flour are added. I’ve make longer-cooking thick soups before and ended up with a lot of burned gunk on the bottom of the pan.

There’s lots of great flavor in this soup, with the sharpness of the cheddar balanced by the bitterness of the beer and supported by the meaty bratwurst. Since there’s nothing to hide the beer and cheese, however, it will only be as good as the ingredients you put in it. Wisconsin cheddar is preferred, of course. Vermont or Irish cheddars are good as well, but you didn’t hear that from me, at least not this week. I must admit I used an imported pale ale, simply because someone is going to have to drink the rest of the 6-pack and I had to choose something that was palatable to the only beer-drinker in the household (not me.) The beer has no time to cook away in this recipe, so you’re better off with something you like (and demanding photo ID from anyone to whom you serve it.)

Even if you aren’t from Wisconsin (I’m not, but I’ve lived near one Wisconsin border or another for most of my life) I think you can appreciate the great combination of beer and cheese and sausage. All this meal needs is some rye bread and sauerkraut (I served a vinegary slaw instead of the kraut.) And even if this isn’t the kind of high-in-saturated-fat dish you’d typically eat every day (you probably shouldn’t), this is a celebration, because have you heard?


Beer Cheese Soup with Bratwurst
Based on a recipe in Midwest Living magazine

I used fresh Johnsonville brand Beer n’ Bratwurst, which I first par-boiled then browned to cook it through and give it some color. Fully cooked bratwurst or smoked sausages would probably be good here as well.

2 tablespoons butter
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped peeled carrot
½ cup finely chopped celery
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, coarsely crushed
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken broth or stock, preferably unsalted or reduced-sodium
1 cup milk (I used 2%) or half and half
2 links cooked bratwurst, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 12-ounce can or bottle beer, preferably pale ale or lager
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese, about 2 ½ cups

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrots and celery and cook about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and lightly browned, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Stir in the caraway seeds and black pepper.

3. Slowly stir in the broth. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve any lumps of flour, for about 2 minutes. Stir in the milk and cook 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent any sticking.

4. Add the bratwurst and beer and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add the cheese and cook, stirring, just until the cheese melts.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Other recipes like this one: Corn Chowder with Edamame, Sausage and Spinach Soup

One year ago: Potatoes Anna with Hidden Beets