Beer Braised Beans

Food Blog March 2015-0444There is little glamour in a pot of beans. Beans are humble, simple food. They are inexpensive, they fill you up, and most often they serve as a neutral backdrop for flashier plate-mates: pork, beef, cheese… When it comes to aesthetics, things don’t get much more exciting. Photographing a pot of beans is not particularly rewarding. The overwhelming, well, brownness of the whole deal makes any tremendous infusion of flavors discernible in descriptors only. In short, I suppose, beans are not Pinterest food.

Food Blog March 2015-0435More and more, though, I’m appreciating beans – not as an excuse to shovel away great spoonfuls of bacon and brown sugar (though really, that sounds far from terrible), but for their savory value. Beans are a vehicle for flavor. They are, as a friend once remarked while I was preparing dinner, “Nature’s little sponges.” Aside from the fact, as I pointed out, that sponges are in fact Nature’s little sponges, this tends to be quite true. Beans learn by osmosis.

Food Blog March 2015-0436Typically I take advantage of this tendency to suck up flavors in Latin American directions: cumin, garlic, various chiles. A few months ago, though, needing another few minutes before dinner and not wanting the beans that had been simmering away on the stove for who-know-how-long to dry up, I cast about the kitchen and emptied a bottle of beer into the pot. I’m not going to say angels sang or the clouds lifted (because let’s be honest; this weekend’s welcome rain aside, this is Southern California. What clouds?), but the revelation was substantial in its own way. Beans already have an earthiness that separates them from the rest of the fruit and vegetable kingdom. Theirs is not the leafy greenness or plump juice of their compatriots, but a creamy, grounded neutrality. Brown. Earth. How odd that they grow on bushes and vines rather than beneath the surface, like potatoes.

Food Blog March 2015-0440Beer, I found, enhances this earthiness perfectly, especially a dark beer like a porter or a stout. The bitterness of an ale or even a lager is tempered in a darker brew, giving way to toasted, bready flavors that mingle well with the earthy pleasantness of beans. Since this discovery, we’ve charged through a number of bean-and-beer concoctions, including a chile that also contained hunks of slow cooked bison stew meat and a barrage of spices – a triumph. But the one I want to come back to for you is the original, simple combination. Beer and beans. A few flavor enhancers by way of garlic, onion, some almost-burned corn kernels, and a scoop of fire-roasted tomatoes, and you’re looking at a side dish that I’d push away the mains for.

Food Blog March 2015-0439If you like a good garnish, I recommend the standards: crumbled queso fresco, cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds, generous chunks of avocado, perhaps a dollop of sour cream or a few snippings of chives. But really, these beans don’t require much beyond a bowl, a spoon, and a belly in need of warming.
Food Blog March 2015-0442Food Blog March 2015-0445

Beer Braised Beans
Serves 2 as a main; 3-4 as a side dish
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 dried chile of your choice (I like ancho chiles for this)
½ cup diced red onion (about ½ a medium onion)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup corn kernels (defrosted, if you’re using frozen corn)
14-16 ounce can of black beans
1 cup drained fire-roasted tomatoes, from a 14 ounce can
12 ounces of dark beer like a porter or a stout
salt to taste
garnishes of your choosing: crumbled queso fresco, avocado, cilantro, pumpkin seeds, etc.

 

  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the dried chile and the onions and sauté for 1-2 minutes. The chile may sputter a bit, and the onions will start to turn translucent.
  • Stir in the cumin and coriander and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes, turning the heat down to medium-low if the onions threaten to burn.
  • Add the garlic and corn, turn the heat back up to medium if you previously lowered it, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the corn picks up some roasty color; about 3-5 minutes.
  • Now pour in the beans, canning liquid and all, along with the tomatoes and the beer. Turn the heat up to medium high, stir to ensure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan, and let it bubble away, stirring occasionally, until much of the liquid is absorbed. For me, they reached the consistency I wanted in 20 minutes – not totally dry, but not tremendously soupy either.
  • Taste for salt (canned beans can sometimes be quite salty, and reducing the liquid enhances the sodium content), pick out the dried chile, and serve hot with whatever garnishes you wish.

Olive Ciabatta for #TwelveLoaves February

Food Blog February 2015-0394The February assignment for Twelve Loaves left me stumped for a few weeks. Olives. What bread would I bake with olives? I couldn’t think of much that fit and sounded delicious. I mean, there was olive ciabatta of course, but apart from that… bagels? Pull-apart bread? Nothing sounded too inspiring except… oh. Well. I could make olive ciabatta. Sometimes the first ideas – the immediate ideas – are the best.

Food Blog February 2015-0375I tried making ciabatta once before, in the early days of my dough challenge. Though the rolls tasted fine, they were not the crunchy crusted, flour dusted, chewy, bubbly, homely smash of a loaf that makes a good ciabatta what it is.

Food Blog February 2015-0370Ciabatta is a reasonably recent Italian response to French baguette, and means “slipper,” which refers to the elongated, flattish shape – I imagine a well-loved pair of house slippers worn by an old man as he shuffles through his day. The lovely contrast of ciabatta loaves – the crisp exterior hiding a honeycomb of fat holes in a lovely chewy center – is achieved through several challenges: an overnight ferment of flour, water, and a touch of yeast called a biga (I kept saying it out loud. Biga. Bee-gah. Beeeeeegah), an extremely wet dough, and quite high oven heat.

Food Blog February 2015-0376For mine, I settled on the extremely clear directions from the kitchn. I’ve made only very minor adaptations, adding olives (as you might expect), and a glug of olive oil to pump up the olive flavor and add a touch of richness. A bit of fat in the loaf also prevents it from going stale quite so quickly, though you likely won’t need to worry about these loaves hanging around long.

Food Blog February 2015-0378Food Blog February 2015-0379Apart from the biga, which transforms overnight from a strange, unappealing paste to a bubbling puddle that smells vaguely alcoholic and is quite clearly alive, this bread follows the standard process: knead, rise, shape, rise again, bake. Here’s the deal, though. Above I mentioned “extremely wet dough.” I mean it. I wouldn’t make this bread without a stand mixer. Though it collects together a bit around the dough hook during its long knead, it never forms a real ball, before or after the rise. When you dump it out onto a board, it sticks to everything. I mean everything. That whole dusting of flour that makes a ciabatta so recognizable? That’s not aesthetic. That’s necessary. “Well-floured board” has never been such a serious statement of setting.

Food Blog February 2015-0381Fortunately, I’ve been making sourdough lately with a fairly wet dough, so the look of the olive-speckled, bubbly mass after three hours of expansion didn’t unnerve me too much. When it came time to shape the loaves (I opted for eight sandwich-sized rolls and one large loaf), I picked up the first one and just laughed. “Shaping” is a word you can use, but without a banneton or brotform of some sort, the dough just sort of sighs into the form it wants to be and stays there, a slightly contained puddle oozing its way threateningly toward the edges of the parchment paper you’ve so carefully flopped it onto. When I handled the rolls, in texture they reminded me bizarrely of – don’t laugh – a fresh oyster or an egg yolk sitting in my hand.

Food Blog February 2015-0383Despite the dicey textural proceedings, as bread so often and comfortingly does, it did what it was supposed to do in the oven. The loaves didn’t spring up all that high, but they did retain a network of lovely bubbles, and they did develop that moist, almost tacky texture that I, at least, require in a good ciabatta.

Food Blog February 2015-0387When I considered how to serve these, after I got past the urge to just tear into them and eat four or five (I stopped at one), I decided to go back to the first, unsuccessful attempt. In our previous, not-ciabatta meal, I’d used the rolls as vehicles for salmon burgers inspired by an old favorite restaurant in Eugene. Salmon burgers, then, it would have to be: a mixture of fresh and smoked salmon kneaded with egg and flour to help hold them together, parsley, a bit of garlic, and some salt and pepper. The olives in the bread were a nice addition, lending some light brininess to the burger appropriate to its marine origins.

Food Blog February 2015-0396I have to admit, though, as civilized as we were with those initial rolls, the remainder got packed into a Ziploc bag, stowed in the backseat of the car, and torn into just as they were when we needed a snack during this past weekend’s mini vacation. And that way – a day old, unheated, unadorned – they were just as good. Food Blog February 2015-0402

Olive ciabatta
Makes 2 large loaves, 16 sandwich-sized rolls, or 1 large loaf and 8 rolls
Adapted (barely) from the kitchn
For biga:
4 ounces (1/2 cup) room temperature water
½ teaspoon active dry yeast
5 ounces (about 1 fluffed cup) all-purpose flour
For dough:
17 ounces (just over 2 cups) water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
Rested biga
20 ounces (about 4 fluffed cups) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup drained, rinsed, and coarsely chopped kalamata olives

 

  • To make the biga, combine the ½ teaspoon of yeast and the 4 ounces of water in the bowl of your stand mixer. Stir and let sit to dissolve for 5-10 minutes. Add the flour (I highly recommend using weight measurements, as does the kitchn recipe) and stir by hand or with the paddle attachment for 1-2 minutes to start the gluten chains working. It will form a thick gluey goo. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature overnight.
  • The next day, the biga will look bubbly – rather like the top of a pancake when it’s ready to flip – and smell slightly fruity or alcoholic.
  • For the ciabatta, combine the 17 ounces of water and 1 teaspoon of yeast in a small bowl and stir to combine. I used my 2-cup glass measuring cup for this. Let sit for 5-10 minutes until the mixture is slightly bubbly and smells like bread. Then, dump the yeast and water into the rested biga and use a spoon or your hands to break it up a bit – this will feel disgusting but it’s necessary to ensure smooth integration.
  • Add the 20 ounces of flour, the salt, and the olive oil, and stir to form a thick, wet dough (though it’s more like a batter). Leave it to rest for 10-20 minutes to give the water time to hydrate the flour.
  • After 10-20 minutes, add the chopped olives to the dough/batter and knead on medium speed with the dough hook attachment for 15-18 minutes. On my stand mixer (brand KitchenAid), this was level 6. As the kitchn notes, keep an eye on your mixer, as it tends to walk its way across the counter at this speed.
  • The dough will remain very wet and fairly loose, sticking to the bowl, though the kitchn’s procedure says it will start to pull away from the sides of the bowl and begin slapping the sides around the 7 minute mark. Mine didn’t start this slapping pattern until I turned up the speed to medium-high for a minute or two. (If your machine seems to be heating up a lot and you are worried about it, pause halfway through the knead and let it cool down a bit – this won’t hurt the dough at all; it will simply collapse back into a wet batter while you wait.)
  • After 15-18 minutes, the dough will still turn into a loose puddle when you turn off the machine, but it should be smooth and shiny with bits of olives scattered through it. Cover it with a layer of plastic wrap and set it in a slightly warm place (70-75F) for 2-3 hours, until it triples in size.
  • Before we get into the messy part, preheat your oven to 475F and, if you have one, stow a baking stone inside. If you don’t, turn a cookie sheet upside down and place that on one of the racks instead. I used one baking stone and one inverted cookie sheet.
  • Now, here’s where the “well-floured surface” comes in. Scrape and pour the dough out of the bowl onto a very well-floured board, trying not to deflate it too much (we want those bubbles), then set two pieces of 9×13 inch parchment paper near your work surface. Sprinkle another layer of flour on the top surface of the dough. Use a pastry scraper or a pizza cutter, again dusted with flour, to cut the dough in half. If you are making rolls, cut each half into the desired number.
  • With floured hands, gently but quickly scoop the loaves or rolls one at a time from the board to the parchment paper. To achieve a dimpled, textured surface, press your fingers lightly into the dough. This will also flatten it into the expected “slipper” shape.
  • Let the loaves or rolls rise, uncovered, 30-40 minutes. They will puff a bit, but more out than up, and more big bubbles may develop.
  • When it’s time to bake, use the parchment sheets to slide the loaves right onto the baking stone or inverted baking sheet, parchment and all. Keeping them on the parchment ensures their bubbly structure won’t be disrupted by the relocation. Bake 20 minutes for rolls, 25 minutes for loaves, until golden brown, lightly crusty, and puffed. Remove from parchment to a wire rack to cool.

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs

I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.

Food Blog February 2015-0364The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.

Food Blog February 2015-0349I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.

Food Blog February 2015-0350In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.

Food Blog February 2015-0352The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and  breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.

Food Blog February 2015-0353In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.

Food Blog February 2015-0355Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2015-0356When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.

Food Blog February 2015-0360I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.

Food Blog February 2015-0366But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.

Food Blog February 2015-0364

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
For meatballs:
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
For gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
  • Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
  • While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well.  Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
  • Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
  • Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
  • For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
  • Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
  • Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos

Food Blog February 2015-0342I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn this, but I am one of those people who makes a meal plan. Every week, before we head to the grocery store, I write out a shopping list. I like to know what we’ll be eating most nights ahead of time, to be sure the pantry is adequately stocked, but also to prevent a lot of impulse buys or take-out emergencies (also I just love making lists. You probably aren’t surprised by that either). When I put the meal plan together, I usually ask N. for some input. Sometimes it’s because I need a little inspiration, sometimes it’s because I want to make sure he’s getting a meal or two he’s excited about, and sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s just because I want him to feel like he has some say about what happens in our kitchen.

Food Blog February 2015-0322This considerate move doesn’t always play out as helpfully as expected, however. Most weeks, without even looking at the list or at the meals I’ve proposed, he immediately says “tacos.” Nothing else gets this kind of instantaneous, definitive response. Tacos. Sometimes, when he says this, we’ve just had tacos. Sometimes, when I query him further, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about the suggestion he’s just made. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for tacos (I mean, we JUST had them) and so I nod and smile and write down something else instead.

Food Blog February 2015-0324Finally, though, I got curious, and yesterday I asked him why he suggests tacos so frequently. Does he really like them that much? What is it about a taco that he finds so compelling? Turns out it’s not the food, exactly, but the name. Be warned, people. This is what happens when you fall for a words person. He really likes the sound of the word “taco.”  It is, he claims, an interesting sounding word. You can put emphasis on each of the syllables in turn, you can change the pronunciation of the vowel, you can draw out the length of each part of the word, all with different sounds and results. He then proceeded to say “taco” four or five times. It is, I must admit, a fun word to say. I’ll wait while you try it a few times…

Food Blog February 2015-0328As much fun as the word is, N. noted that he likes the dish as well, and it got me thinking about the constituent parts – what makes a taco a taco? As I see it, tacos break down into three major components: the shell, the “meat,” and the sauce. Of course you can – and often should – add cheese and lettuce and other garnishes, but I think you have to have at least these three parts. Once you have these critical components, you can take your tacos in a variety of directions.

Food Blog February 2015-0335Perhaps because N. is so fond of them – whether it’s the word or the dish itself – I quickly tire of the standard ground-meat-with-cheese-and-things compilation, and look for other options. We’ve had grilled zucchini tacos with crumbled queso fresco and lime, dozens of incarnations of fish tacos (my favorite always involves a corn relish and plenty of smashed avocado), tofu tacos overloaded with pepperjack cheese, and I’m working on a potato taco inspired by an amazing version at – of all places – the Getty Museum cafeteria. This time around, though, I wanted something a little more outside the box (or should I say outside the shell? No, you’re right, I probably shouldn’t. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen). I’m not sure where the combination came from (if I’m honest, probably Pinterest), but I decided on a tumble of roasted cauliflower and chick peas, liberally spiced with a ras al hanout-esque blend and drizzled with a sauce of tahini and yogurt, tangy with lemon and flecked with parsley.

Food Blog February 2015-0332What resulted was not N.’s favorite taco ever (though I doubt it will stop him from requesting them), but I am finding, a day or two later, that I’m mildly obsessed with them, especially the sauce. It wasn’t fancy, but there was something quietly brilliant about how the yogurt and parsley lightened up the earthiness of the tahini. Roasted vegetables, though I will almost never say no to a bowl of them, can feel a little heavy. Blanketed with this sauce, they are bright and buoyant, and the creamy spread is just as fitting against the soft unctuousness of the cauliflower as it is against the toasted crunch of the chick peas.

Food Blog February 2015-0336This is one of those recipes where the list of spices looks daunting, and by all means, if your spice cabinet is not as ridiculous overflowing full as mine is, go easy on yourself and use a pre-mixed blend. I won’t judge. Ras al hanout is a North African combination of spices, one of those lovely warm mixtures incorporating options American dishes usually reserve for desserts. Really, though, any mixture of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern spices would be lovely here – choose your favorite and apply accordingly.

Food Blog February 2015-0338Once you’ve got the spices sorted, this dish is a multi-tasker’s dream. The cauliflower and chick peas need a good chunk of time in the oven at high heat, and while they are roasting you have plenty of time to whip up the sauce, warm the taco shells according to your favorite method, and even concoct a side dish (we ended up with sautéed cubes of butternut squash folded into a bit of cooked quinoa and a shower of green onions). By the time the filling finishes roasting, all you have left to do is scoop and serve, and if you’ve been reasonably efficient it has probably taken you just under an hour.Food Blog February 2015-0342*Note: you’ve probably noticed by now, and may be horrified by the omission, that these tacos don’t include a cheese component. With the yogurt and the deep earthy roasted flavors of the vegetables, I found I didn’t miss it. If you can’t do without, however, I suggest a few crumbles of feta to fill the void.

 

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos
Makes 10-12 tacos

For the tacos:

½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coarse salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and dried
1 cup loosely packed baby spinach leaves
taco shells
For the sauce:
½ cup tahini
½ cup plain greek yogurt
½ cup flat-leaf parsley
2-3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, or a combination
1 teaspoon honey
½ cup water, to thin
salt and pepper, to taste

 

  • Line two baking trays with aluminum foil and place them in the oven. Preheat oven, trays and all, to 450F.
  • In a small bowl, combine all of the spices and the salt, stirring to be sure they are well-blended. Add the olive oil and stir or whisk to combine.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with about ⅔ of the spiced olive oil mixture, then spread on one of the preheated baking trays in a single layer (if possible).
  • In the same bowl, toss the chick peas with the remaining olive oil and spice mixture, then spread onto the other baking tray.
  • Stow both baking trays in the oven and roast at 450F for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the tray of chick peas, shake them around a bit to deter sticking, and set aside. They should be toasty and crunchy. Shake and stir the tray of cauliflower pieces to promote even browning, then return just the cauliflower tray to the oven and roast for another 10-15 minutes, until both sides of most pieces are nicely browned.
  • While vegetables are roasting, combine the tahini, yogurt, parsley, honey, and lemon juice in a food processor and whir to create a thick paste. With the food processor running, dribble in the ½ cup of water slowly to transform the paste into a sauce. You may not need the entire ½ cup – thin to your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then set aside and prepare your chosen form of taco shells according to your preferences.
  • When the cauliflower is nicely browned and tender, toss it with the chick peas and stuff the mixture into taco shells with a few spinach leaves for freshness. Top with tahini yogurt sauce and serve immediately.

Grapefruit Bars

Food Blog February 2015-0311It’s citrus season. The trees are heavy. An amble through my neighborhood right now would send you past oranges, mandarins, tangerines, lemons, and who knows what other hybrids and splices, all sagging on their branches, almost unable to bear their own weight. When we first moved here in the summer of 2012, I couldn’t believe how much fruit was wasted. Who in their right mind could let it just fall to the ground and rot? And yet as I type, my own lemon tree – sequestered away in its little corner of our backyard – is groaning with a load I can’t reach, its thick, sharp tangle of twigs protecting it from an invading ladder.

Food Blog February 2015-0237So when I cast about for a subject to post about this week, you’d think I would have wandered out and reached up, pulling what fruits I could reach down from my own harvest. But lemons aren’t my favorite. Oh I love a fresh, pulpy lemonade. I could eat lemon curd straight out of the jar. And a tiny, hangnail-puckering squeeze into a chicken or a bean dish is almost essential. But if I’m going to celebrate citrus season and its glories, I’m going to go with my favorite: grapefruit.

Food Blog February 2015-0303Sometimes maligned for its stubborn, bitter pith and its curious ability to render certain drugs either useless or too effective, it is my favorite because it is so complex. Sweet, tangy, sour, infernally juicy, it, and not orange juice, is my choice of beverage when I’m sick. I love the smell of the peel under my fingernails. I could eat grapefruit (and have) until my tongue stung and my lips swelled with the tartness.

Food Blog February 2015-0304But if grapefruit is a bit testy as a raw product, it’s equally challenging in a dish. There are (at least compared to other citrus fruits) a paucity of grapefruit dessert recipes out there, which has always seemed like a shame to me. The lovely play of sweet and sour with that beautiful color (I prefer a red grapefruit myself) seems perfect to match with sugar.

Food Blog February 2015-0306Tired of the standard, tried-and-true lemon bar, then, I set out to conquer a grapefruit version. My first time through yielded highly positive results – grapefruit zest and lemon zest in the shortbread crust, just for some extra bright punch, a silky smooth custard layer of pale salmon pink, and a careful dusting of powdered sugar across the top. A few adjustments, a bit less flour, and it would be perfect.

Food Blog February 2015-0307Of course, I didn’t take any photographs of this perfect little bar, because I was only experimenting. Yesterday, when I made the batch to share with you, I learned what can go wrong. You see, the basic recipe for a fruit bar like this is to make a shortbread crust – flour, butter, sugar, a breath of salt and maybe a little flavoring agent or two – and bake it just until it starts to turn a bit golden. Then you let it cool a bit until the butter, now molten, solidifies to make a firm layer. You pour on a mixture of fruit juice, eggs, more sugar, and possibly some kind of thickening agent (cornstarch, in this case), and then carefully lever the quavering thing back into the oven to cook through.

Food Blog February 2015-0308The middle step – letting the crust cool – is important. Yesterday I forgot about that step. Here’s what happens when you don’t: the beautiful, pale pink liquid filling plunges straight down, bursts through the crust, and breaks it up into floating islands of mush. You despair. You yell. You say some words that make you glad the windows weren’t open. Then you put it in the oven anyway, and even though what comes out isn’t exactly what you were intending, it still looks passable and it tastes perfect.

Food Blog February 2015-0312Curiously, as my grapefruit bars baked, the disrupted crust layer floated up above the (apparently) heavier “filling” layer. What came out of the oven looked more like a cake than the bars format I was expecting, but aside from making it a bit harder to cut (the grapefruit filling smooshes out as you press the blade down), they were fairly acceptable. Tangy, sweet, a play of light crunch and velvet curd, and a huff-inducing layer of powdered sugar over the top to keep you from inhaling too fast.

Food Blog February 2015-0314So the directions I’m providing you are what you should do. They will give you the expected format: a layer of shortbread-like crust on the bottom, topped by a thick layer of soft, slightly jiggly essence of grapefruit. Just don’t forget to let the crust cool. Unless you’d prefer, to echo the persnickety challenge of grapefruit itself, my upside down version. Food Blog February 2015-0320

Grapefruit bars
Makes 9×9 inch pan
Crust:
8 tablespoons butter (½ a cup or 1 stick), at room temperature, cut into cubes
½ cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
zest of 1 grapefruit (for extra punch in the crust, add the zest of 1 lemon as well)
Filling:
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
zest of 1 grapefruit
1 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (2-3 large grapefruits)
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons cornstarch
powdered sugar, for dusting

 

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and prepare your baking pan: cut two 15-inch sheets of parchment paper and arrange them in a cross shape, then insert this cross shape into a 9×9 inch baking dish with the edges hanging out. This forms a kind of sling that will help you remove the bars from the baking dish without breaking them apart. Spray the inside of the dish (including the parchment paper) with non-stick spray, for extra insurance.
  • To make the crust, place the butter, sugar, flour, salt, and zest into a food processor and let run until the ingredients are combined and begin to clump together a bit.
  • Dump and scrape the clumpy crust bits straight into the prepared baking dish, and use your fingers or the smooth bottom of a measuring cup or a glass to gently but firmly tamp the crust down into an even layer.
  • Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes, until it is pale golden brown and has a tender crust. If it puffs up while baking, stab it a few times with a fork to deflate it. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes.
  • While the crust cools, make the filling. In the same food processor bowl (you don’t even have to wash it; so many of the ingredients are the same), place the eggs, sugar, butter, cornstarch, and grapefruit zest. Whiz to combine.
  • Add the grapefruit juice and whiz to combine again. The mixture will be quite liquid and will look curdled, but it will bake up just fine.
  • Note: there isn’t quite enough fat in this mixture to emulsify fully, which means if you leave it sitting for a while it will separate. Whir it up once more just before pouring onto the crust, or make and pour on immediately, and it should be fine.
  • Carefully pour the filling over the crust, then just as carefully, return it to the oven (the filling will slosh around a bit if you are too hasty about this) and bake for 40 minutes, or until the filling is just set. It may leave the barest sticky bit of grapefruit-y curd on your finger when you test it.
  • Let cool completely (seriously), then dust with a healthy layer of powdered sugar, if desired. If you dust it while hot, the bars will immediately absorb all the powdered sugar.
  • To slice for serving, use the parchment paper sling to hoist the whole square out of the baking dish onto a cutting board. Trim off the edges if you wish, then use a very sharp knife or a pizza cutter to slice into squares or rectangles of desired sizes. If the knife or pizza cutter gets gummed up along the way, dip it into a dish of hot water in between slices.