Bean and cheese stuffed poblanos and “stuck pot” red rice

Food Blog October 2014-0674I must have been this busy last year. I just don’t remember. When I get to work, I sit down at a desk on which the stacks of papers have been rearranged so many times they might as well be dancing. When I get home, I sit down at a table slowly succumbing to a pile of opened and unopened mail, notes and lesson plans, and yes, more papers. I am freest when standing, and when I am standing I am either stalking the classroom (a practice that, though necessary, regrettably and inevitably produces yet MORE papers), walking my sweet dog-daughter, or leaning over the stove to smell or to stir or to taste.

Food Blog October 2014-0645 Food Blog October 2014-0651 Food Blog October 2014-0652 It’s mid-October. It is at once much later in the year, and much earlier, than I’d hoped it would be. Recently my parents phoned to confirm a flight time for Thanksgiving; could N. or I pick them up from the airport if they arrived at x time? My brain flew ahead, thinking of food, thinking of games, thinking of the family closeness of the winter holidays and longing, longing, for that to be now, now, right-now-thank-you-very-much. But at the same time, there are so many things I wanted to accomplish, as always, that remain undone.

Food Blog October 2014-0648

Food Blog October 2014-0653All I can do is what I have. And what I have for you this week is, as promised, a pair of dishes that fit together so well I can’t, in retrospect, imagine presenting them here separately.

Food Blog October 2014-0655These dishes, a bean and cheese stuffed poblano and a take on the sort of rice you find shaped in a mound or a scoop on your enchilada plate at a certain type of Mexican restaurant, came into being for me during one of our dinners this past summer with our closest graduate school colleagues. Dinner was made by T., previously featured here as a salt expert, and she presented us a casserole dish approximately the temperature of hot magma, laden with fragrant peppers piled with beans and cheese. Beside them, she wedged a heavy dutch oven filled to the brim with “red rice,” a medley of tomato-laced long-grain rice shot through with aromatics and spice. It was one of those dinners where everyone ate without speaking.

Food Blog October 2014-0657I had to have it again, and I knew it would take some tinkering. T.’s rice was fluffy and almost dry, whereas recipes I’d tried for this style of rice produced something wet and floppy – a Mexican risotto, if we’re trying for politeness – and that wasn’t my aim. I wanted something toastier, more like a pilaf. Inspiration and guidance came, as it so often does, from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, in a simple, hearty little feast she calls “Stuck Pot Rice and Lentils.” Inspired by Middle Eastern rice dishes that praise the tahdig, a crispy layer on the bottom of the pot, this rice gets parboiled vigorously, then mixed with other ingredients and cooked slowly, with very little additional liquid, until it adheres into a massive round cake you can, with some care and bravery, flip out onto a plate in a large, crunchy-topped wheel.

Food Blog October 2014-0673Food Blog October 2014-0679Are you hungry yet? There’s more. The peppers, which get roasted over a gas flame until their skins split and peel away and their flesh hangs like wet velvet (you could likely also do this in the oven at high heat or under the broiler, but I haven’t tried it – if you do and it works out, leave your procedure in the comments!), get delicately split and seeded, and then gently loaded with a mixture of smashed black beans and cheddar cheese before being baked for a half hour to bring everything together. Upon emergence from the oven, as if all this weren’t enough, they are subjected to a shower of crumbled queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds and (if you’re the sort who appreciates this sort of thing) a sprinkling of cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.

Food Blog October 2014-0660This is a play of heat. The pepper is a gamble – some poblanos (they may be labeled pasillas in your grocery store) are moderately spicy, while others are barely hot enough to tickle the back of the throat. The beans keep even the spicier peppers from overwhelming the palate, and if you are steaming, the cool avocados and a big forkful of the starchy rice relieve the sting. If you really want to tease your taste buds, you could add some diced jalapeño to the rice along with the other vegetables. I resisted, since the poblanos we used were aggressive enough.

Food Blog October 2014-0668This is, I must admit, not a quick weeknight dinner. The peppers must be addressed in several stages, the beans are seasoned and cooked separately, and the rice collectively takes the better part of an hour to complete. But it’s worth it, especially as temperatures cool. At this point in the season, I’d rather be warmed from within by a well-seasoned pepper than I would by the relentless sun (did you hear that, Southern California?!). It’s a warmth that almost, almost, chases away the busyness.

Food Blog October 2014-0667*** I’ve presented these recipes with the peppers first, since they require a bit more advanced planning. But I’ll inject spots in the procedure for each where you can switch between dishes to get both on the table at roughly the same time.

Food Blog October 2014-0676

Bean and Cheese Stuffed Poblanos
serves 6
6 large, shiny, firm-fleshed poblano peppers (they may be called “pasilla” peppers at your market)
2 cans (14 ounces each) black beans, one drained, one with liquid reserved
8 ounces cheddar cheese, as sharp as you like it
½ a red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon cumin
(you may find you want salt for this, you may not. It will depend on your taste and how salty your black beans are. Taste first, add second)
¼ cup crumbled queso fresco
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1 whole avocado, cut into small chunks
2 tablespoons cilantro
squeeze of lime juice

  • If you have a gas stove, turn the burners on to medium-high heat and set the whole poblanos over the flame, charring them on all sides. Turn as needed until the skins are uniformly black and crackly and the flesh feels soft; for me this took 10-15 minutes. As they finish roasting, pop them into a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Leave them to steam (this helps the skins peel off) until they are just warm to the touch (I, um, forgot about mine while I did some other chores; they were quite certainly ready half an hour later…).
  • If you don’t have a gas stove, I suggest using your broiler. Since I haven’t tried this I can’t give indication of times, but put them close to the heat, watch them carefully and turn as needed.
  • When the peppers are cool, use your fingers, a paper towel, or the edge of a knife blade to scrape and peel the skins off. A few black specks here and there is okay, but the skins are a bit bitter, so the more you remove, the better.
  • (While you wait for the peppers to cool, you can turn your attention to prepping ingredients for the rice)
  • As you relieve each pepper of its skin, carefully cut a slit through just one side of the pepper and excavate the seeds and ribs inside. You want an empty, in-tact pouch, and this takes some delicacy. The flesh is quite tender at this point. Wedge the skinless, empty peppers into a greased 9×13 inch baking dish.
  • Saute the onions and garlic with a pinch of salt and pepper in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until they are starting to shade gold, but are not burned. For me, this took 5-10 minutes with frequent agitating.
  • When the aromatics are toasty and golden, add the beans – one can that has been drained, one complete with the liquid. Add the cumin and stir to combine. Then, use a potato masher to smash about ¾ of the beans into a thick paste. A few whole or half stragglers are okay – they break up the texture nicely. Cook over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated: 15-20 minutes.
  • This is a good moment to preheat your oven to 350F.
  • (While the beans cook, you can shift your focus to the rice for a bit. Just don’t forget to give the beans an occasional stir to ensure they are not cementing themselves to the bottom of the pan.)
  • When the liquid in the beans has mostly disappeared, turn off the heat and add the 8 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese. Stir to combine.
  • To assemble, load up each empty pepper pouch with about ½ cup of the bean and cheese mixture. This takes a bit of finagling – get the mixture in there, but don’t tear up the peppers too much. Use the sides of the neighboring peppers to help everyone stand up straight and hold in their own filling.
  • If you wish, you may sprinkle on the ¼ cup queso fresco at this point. I found I preferred it as a post-baking addition, but it’s also nice baked on.
  • Bake in your preheated 350F oven for 25-30 minutes.
  • (While the peppers bake, carry on with your rice – if you are setting it over a low flame as you put the peppers in the oven, both will be ready at the same time)
  • When the peppers emerge from the oven, set them aside for 5 minutes. Then, serve, sprinkling as desired with queso fresco, avocado chunks, toasted pumpkin seeds, and cilantro. At the last possible moment, squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top.
Stuck-pot red rice
Serves 6-8
1-½ cups long grain white rice
¼ cup olive oil, divided
½ a large onion, diced (the other half of the one you used for the peppers is convenient)
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
part or all of 1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced (optional)
½ cup fresh or defrosted frozen corn
juice of 1 lime
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
Water as needed (see procedure)
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon salt
fresh cilantro to serve, if desired
queso fresco to serve, if desired
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the rice all at once, clamp on the lid, and cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Drain and set rice aside in a large bowl.
  • In the same large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the onion, garlic, corn, and jalapeno, if using. Stir in a pinch of salt, then put the lid back on and cook 10-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are browning nicely. Be sure your corn is defrosted before adding, or it will take longer to cook off the water it emits.
  • While vegetables cook, drain the canned tomatoes, reserving their juice. Add enough water to the tomato juice to reach ⅓ cup, then add an additional 2 tablespoons.
  • When the vegetables are nicely browned, add them to the rice and mix well to distribute evenly. Add the canned tomatoes, the cumin and coriander, the salt, the lime juice, and the mixture of tomato juice and water as well, stirring to combine.
  • (The mixture can sit for a bit at this point if you need to go back and pay attention to your beans and peppers)
  • In the same pot you used to boil the rice and cook the vegetables, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Quickly and carefully, add all of the rice mixture and use a spatula to smooth it down into an even layer.
  • Now, being sure to keep edges away from the burner, place a clean kitchen towel over the open top of the pot, clamp on the lid, and securely wrap the edges of the towel around the handle of the pot lid. This creates a tighter seal and prevents extra water from dripping from the lid back onto the rice.
  • Once your towel and lid are securely situated, lower the heat to medium-low or low and cook, undisturbed, for 30 minutes. After about fifteen minutes you should start to smell a lovely toasty rice-y smell. If it smells closer to burning, turn the heat down a bit but don’t remove the pot from the heat. Check Deb’s post (linked above) for more on the procedure, if you like.
  • When 30 minutes has passed, turn the heat off and let the pot sit for 5 minutes to allow the rice to firm up. Then, using pot holders or a thick towel, carefully position a large plate or round platter over the top of the pot and, over a counter, invert the pot onto the plate and set it down. The rice should plop down onto the plate or platter; if you’re lucky, it will do so in a single round wheel.
  • Scatter it with cilantro and crumbled queso fresco, if desired, and serve.
  • If you don’t want all that fuss, just scoop the rice into a bowl, scatter on the optional garnishes, and be done with it.

Two-fer

Real talk, friends. It’s October. I want treats, no tricks. The semester is plunging ahead at an alarming rate – week 8, the halfway point, begins tomorrow. There are papers (so many papers). There is lesson planning. There is Chaucer. There is conferencing. There is Toni Morrison. This professor thing is serious.

Though I’ve been cooking up the storm I wish we were having (c’mon, Fall! Hit me!), in between all the other responsibilities that have to come first because, well, that’s what I get paid for, the posting thing is a slow process this tortoise has run out of time for. Again.

Here, then, is the deal. No post today. Sorry. I know. BUT! I’ll make it up to you. I’ve got a doozy for next week with two recipes, and for the week after with another two. That’s right, it’ll be 4 recipes for the rest of October, and all I ask of you, friends, is for this week to get my business in order.

Here’s a preview of what you’ve got to look forward to:

Food Blog October 2014-0674Be well. I’ll be back soon.

Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts

One of the great things about the last house we lived in during our tenure in Eugene – the best house – the party house – was its location. Just over a mile from campus, it was also within walking distance of downtown (for the incredible produce and local craft market each weekend) and the fairgrounds.

Food Blog September 2014-0616The Lane County Fairgrounds played host to … well, let’s call it an interesting line-up of events. Among others, a gem and mineral show, a bridal show and wedding expo, a model train exhibit, and (I am not kidding) a wool festival. In the summers during the County Fair, we could smell the fried food and hear the cover bands from our backyard as the sun fell. Sometimes they were fun. But sometimes it was someone covering Huey Lewis and the News again. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the power of love. After all, it don’t take credit cards to ride that train, and far be it from me to critique the theme song from Back to the Future! But several nights in a row, even if it’s only once a year, is pushing it.

Food Blog September 2014-0607Despite its foibles, the fairgrounds also hosted an annual event that N. and I went to every single year. The Friends of the Library Book Sale happened in the spring, and with most books priced at 50 cents or $1, the season was important, because we ended up having to establish rules. A household with two English literature PhD students may lack many things, but what it does not lack are books. By our third year in the program, we already had at least four bookshelves jammed so full we were piling books atop each other and committing the shelving equivalent of double parking with some of the smaller paperbacks. Every shelf sagged in the middle from the weight. Cheap books were a danger zone.

Food Blog September 2014-0611We ended up instituting a rule that we had to walk to the book sale. This required us to get some exercise and celebrate the season, but more importantly, it meant we were limited in what we could add to the collection by our own biceps. If you can’t carry it home, you can’t have it. It helped. A little.

Facing a room full of tables full of books, with more books in boxes underneath, is a daunting task. After I’d perused the “literature and fiction” area and the “classics” table, I would routinely wander to the cookbooks section. Selections here were usually hardback, which meant I’d be able to carry fewer of them, and (surprise, surprise) usually a bit pricier than the twelve ratty copies of Heart of Darkness with torn covers gracing the literature area. But for people with limited willpower, these kinds of hard and fast prohibitions are a good thing. They mean you have to really want what you’re getting, and that leads to better purchases.

Food Blog September 2014-0610Food Blog September 2014-0612I acquired several good cookbooks via this method, including one containing the first yeast bread I ever made (and it was a success!). But by far, the star has been an old annual collection of Food and Wine Magazine recipes, and within that collection itself, the single page that receives the most attention contains a pasta dish by Mario Batali. It features goat cheese, hazelnuts, and red pepper flakes coaxed into a sauce to coat a pile of orchiette, those little domes of pasta named for their apparent resemblance to little ears (though to be honest they have always reminded me more of a lady’s cloche hat).

Food Blog September 2014-0614Batali’s recipe is delicious but basic. He blends the aforementioned ingredients with a smattering of chopped parsley, a glug or two of olive oil, and a healthy pour of starchy, steamy pasta water into a creamy sauce. After tossing the pasta in all this tangy, spicy, nutty glory, Batali adds a dusting of toasted bread crumbs for some needed crunch.

My version, though it maintains the procedure, plays to my own tendency for gluttony. Unsatisfied with just goat cheese, I add some shredded white cheddar for extra savory tang. N. is a fiend for bread crumbs, so I nearly triple the quantity called for in the original recipe. In an attempt to atone for these culinary sins, I also add a tremendous half pound of fresh baby spinach leaves, lightly wilted in the pasta water during the last minute of cooking. Further, it’s gluttonous in its allowances for laziness: the sauce, such as it is, is constructed in the serving bowl, the spinach cooks with the pasta, and though you do have to dirty up your food processor, you can process the bread crumbs and the hazelnuts in it one after the other with no need to do more than tamp it out a bit in between.

Food Blog September 2014-0617The finished dish is a mountain of pasta, caressed with sauce and threaded through with enough wilted spinach to eliminate the need for a side salad (though if you still want one, be my guest!). It’s a study in textures, with the orchiette themselves retaining a lovely chew, the spinach soft, the sauce silky but rumbling with pebbles of hazelnut resistance, and topped off with the perfect golden crunch of the toasty bread crumbs. Behind all this is the steady heat of the red pepper flakes, which I alternate quantities of – sometimes just enough to add a suggestion of spice, sometimes enough to clear the sinuses of the persistent fall allergies the LA basin is kind enough to grant me. Either way, it’s a dish that I forget about in between instances, but once I’ve tasted a fresh, steaming forkful, it becomes the only thing I want to eat ever again. Again.

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Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts
adapted from Mario Batali
Serves 8

1-1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (whir 4-5 slices of sourdough in a food processor)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
6 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces extra sharp white cheddar, grated, at room temperature
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to your taste; this quantity produces a moderately spicy flavor)
1 pound orchiette, preferable, or another vaguely shell-shaped pasta
8 ounces fresh baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Once you’ve processed your bread into 1-1/2 cups of fine crumbs, spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven until golden, tossing and fluffing occasionally. Depending on the density and size of your crumbs, this will take 10-15 minutes. Once golden and crisp, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • Use the same food processor, shaken free of bread crumbs, to grind the hazelnuts into a gravel with individual pieces about the size of coriander or mustard seeds (i.e. we want them small, but not quite ground into a paste).
  • Heat well-salted water to boiling in a large pot and cook orchiette according to package directions.
  • Meanwhile, put the goat cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, parsley, and ground hazelnuts into a large serving bowl. Mash it about with a rubber spatula to combine into a thick, lovely, cheesy paste.
  • In the last minute of the pasta’s cooking time, add the 8 ounces of baby spinach leaves and push them down into the boiling water with a wooden spoon.
  • When the spinach is wilted but still bright green and the pasta is tender but still pleasantly chewy, drain both, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water.
  • Add pasta and spinach to the serving bowl with the cheese and nut mixture. Begin to add the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring, until a thick, sauce forms that coats the pasta evenly. This may not take the entire cup of water; thin the sauce just to your desired consistency.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper, then scatter on the breadcrumbs immediately before serving.

Apricot Bourbon Barbecue Sauce

Food Blog September 2014-0579I wasn’t expecting that a barbecue sauce would be one of the dozen pourable concoctions I developed this year. Call me a snob but, barbecue sauce? It just seems so… pedestrian. Break out a bottle, squeeze it over some drumsticks, and reach for the wet-naps.

Food Blog September 2014-0570But that’s exactly what happened. Faced with a summer that just won’t end (upper 80s/low 90s predicted for the first weekend of October. October, people!), we couldn’t bear to waddle back to the butter-laden list of French classics. Brimming from the success of last month’s gastrique, I found myself continuing to think about fruit-based sauces – at once sweet and tart and deep in flavor from long simmering – and realized that barbecue sauce is, at its core, something like a gussied-up gastrique. There’s almost always a molasses or brown sugar component, and there’s usually vinegar of some kind, even if that is hidden within one of the most ubiquitous barbecue sauce ingredients of all: ketchup.

Food Blog September 2014-0575I’ve never been a huge fan of ketchup, so I decided to steer clear of it here and build my own collection of flavors. I’d been considering the merits of combining the flavors of apricot and bourbon, and what better place to do that than in a sticky, bubbly sauce, well-spiced, just aching to be brushed gently over some lucky poultry? Deeply caramelized onions, a squeeze of dijon mustard, a whisper of cayenne, and some cider vinegar joined the party, and then, because the richness and depth of concentrated tomato is such an expected note in this sort of sauce, I gave in and added some tomato paste for verisimilitude.

Food Blog September 2014-0573The important thing about this sauce is the time you give it. The onions must be cooked down and toffee colored. The simmer must last at least twenty minutes – I did mine for thirty before I was satisfied. The thick, slightly lumpy result can be used as is, or you can give it a quick whir with an immersion blender or standard blender to make a glossy, velvety smooth glaze you’d eat just as happily on a piece of toast as on a grilled chicken breast or pork chop (at least, if you’re me). I briefly considered using fresh apricots here rather than preserves, but since the prep time already promised to be the better part of an hour, I decided to take just one shortcut. Besides, the sweetness quotient in fresh apricots is unpredictable, and dealing with their thin, impatient skins did not sound like a welcome addition to my weekend plans. The guaranteed sticky thickness of a pectin-laced jar of preserves was the kind of guarantee I wanted.

Food Blog September 2014-0576It should not come as a surprise that apricot and bourbon, balanced against a meaty tomato backdrop and laced with just enough spice, are a beautiful match. The chicken thighs we lacquered this onto never stood a chance. Neither would pork, or salmon, and I’d even venture that with a splash of soy sauce, this could make an interesting adaptation of teriyaki to sauce a bowl of perfectly steamed rice and veg. What’s more, even though it’s still summer here, the blend of fruity sweetness and dark caramel from the bourbon make this sauce a lovely offering for fall as well, if you are lucky enough where you are to be watching the seasons shift.

Food Blog September 2014-0582

Apricot Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 cup (will generously sauce 6-8 chicken thighs)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion (about ½ a large onion – I like the purple ones)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup apricot preserves
½ cup bourbon + 1 tablespoon, divided
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
6-8 boneless chicken thighs or desired protein

 

  • In a 10-12 inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the finely diced onions with a pinch of salt. Slap on the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely caramelized. Lidding the skillet will help the onions brown faster while allowing for less burning.
  • When the onions are caramelized to your liking (deeper brown = deeper flavor), add the tomato paste, mustard, and cider vinegar and stir through. Then add the apricot preserves, the water, the salt and the black and cayenne peppers.
  • Remove the skillet from the heat and add the ½ cup of bourbon (reserve the remaining 1 tablespoon for later). We are doing this off the heat to prevent an accidental flame-up; alcohol can and will catch on fire!
  • Stir all ingredients together, bring to a simmer, and reduce the heat to low.  Simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 20 minutes (but 30 is better).
  • When sauce is thick and shiny, remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Puree if desired for a smooth consistency, then stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of bourbon.
  • To use, season your chicken thighs to your liking (maybe just salt and pepper, maybe a fancy spice rub). Preheat your grill to high heat and oil the grates.
  • Add the chicken thighs to the grill, spreading them out for faster, more even cooking, and brush the exposed side with the sauce. Close the grill lid and cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.
  • After 5 minutes, flip the chicken over, brush with more of the sauce, and close the lid to cook for another 5 minutes.
  • With a clean brush, slick the chicken one more time with the sauce and cook for a final 1 minute, just to get the surface really sticky and glazed and good. Serve hot, with whatever you deem best for a barbecue. For us, that meant potato salad and corn on the cob.