Simple Spiced Rice

What, you were expecting Italian or French food?

As I know I’ve noted before, when we come home from any kind of vacation, even though I’m often flooded with food inspiration, we tend to start out with simple dishes; it takes a week or so to reorient myself to the kitchen and be prepared to let those inspired ideas actualize. Besides, at least for this vacation, there have been so many photos to edit I haven’t had much time for the kitchen…

So this time around, I was making a simple pot of rice as a side. But you know me: I can’t just make a plain pot of white rice. So as I put the water on to boil, I added a couple of bay leaves. Then after a minute or two, I plopped in some peppercorns as well. And as we were eating the perfumed grains, lightly warmed by the peppercorns, I thought some cracked cardamom pods would make a nice addition.

There you are, then. Simple spiced rice. The bay and cardamom are quite subtle (enhanced by an overnight stay in the fridge, if you’re looking for do-ahead), and the peppercorns add warmth that is not quite spicy. It’s simple, but it’s a really nice upgrade for a pot of rice you might, say, serve with tandoori chicken or kebabs or saag paneer, as we did.

The only downside, as N. would hasten to tell you, given the chance, is that there are an awful lot of whole peppercorns in the scoop you level onto your plate, and crunching one of those between your teeth is exciting, but not necessarily in that pleasurable way. You miiiiiight want to spend a minute or two in extraction duty before you start your meal.

Simple Spiced Rice
About 20 minutes
Serves 4-6
3 cups cold water
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaves
4-6 green cardamom pods, lightly cracked
1½ cups long-grain white rice, such as basmati
optional: salt to taste, and a pat of butter to serve

 

  • Pour the water into a medium pot, then add the peppercorns, bay leaves, and cardamom pods. Put the lid onto the pot and bring the water to a boil.
  • When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the rice, stir to break up any clumps that form and to distribute the spices, then lower the heat until the water is just simmering.
  • Simmer over low or medium-low heat until the water is absorbed and the rice grains are just soft in the middle, around 15 minutes. At some point during the simmer, the water will likely threaten to boil over. Just take the lid off, stir gently, and replace the lid again.
  • Serve hot, with a sprinkle of salt and/or a pat of butter if desired.

 

Reflections

Well, we are back. After two and a half weeks roaming France and Italy, we returned with tired feet, dazzled eyes, full minds, and happy stomachs. And since there’s no way, since our flight landed on Friday and we’ve barely unpacked yet (though I’ve made a pretty good start catching up on the TV I’ve recorded – the Colosseum out of gingerbread? Did you see it? I WAS IN THE REAL ONE A WEEK AGO! – ahem), that I’m going to have a recipe for you today, I thought instead I’d share a few food-based reflections and revelations from our trip.

In no particular order:

Prosciutto and butter sandwiches are really, really good. Especially when they are on fresh, high-quality bread. I know, prosciutto is already fatty. But that fat, combined with the saltiness of the meat and the sweet, creamy butter, is perfection. I thought briefly about the merits of adding something fresh, like arugula or sliced cucumber, but it wouldn’t be right to tangle with perfection. If you must, have a side salad instead.

French and Italian croissants are quite different. Both are delicious and rich and buttery, but they are clearly distinct. French croissants are devastatingly flaky and crisp on the outside, with delicate, soft-but-separate layers inside. Sometimes they contain chocolate, but those are a different shape – the classic crescent croissant wrap is just for the plain and original. Italian croissants, on the other hand, often have fillings. Apricot is pretty common, and I had one with pistachio cream inside that I’m still thinking about. The lurid green oozing out was a bit of a shock at first, but it was a stellar flavor. To that end, Italian croissants tend to run a bit sweeter than their French counterparts, and they are breadier inside – more like brioche or challah. The layers are still there, but they aren’t as distinct. Sometimes the exterior is swept with a sweet glaze, which renders a less shattering bite.

Rosé is just the best. I already knew this, but when you can sit down at any French café, say “rosé, s’il vous plait,” and wind up with a moderate-to-great glass of wine, often for less than 5 euros, it gets even greater.

Though my go-to remains rosé, my new favorite summer cocktail is an Aperol spritz. Everywhere we went in Italy, from lunchtime on I saw people sipping on large, bright, almost salmon-colored cocktails with half-slices of orange sunk inside. I finally figured out this was an Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol, an herb-infused Italian aperitif, prosecco, and soda water. Sometimes the spritz is made with Campari instead, which is a bit more bitter than Aperol. It’s intensely refreshing, not terribly alcoholic, and pairs well with every savory snack I can think of.

This is really N.’s revelation more than mine, but tarte aux citron is an amazing dessert. More specifically, the tarte aux citron with passionfruit sorbet and lemon gel he allowed me to share at a bistro in Arles is an amazing dessert. I read about this spot, a more affordable kind of sister to the playground restaurant of one of France’s very well known chefs. Since we were staying in Arles, I knew I wanted that to be our splurge dinner, and when the chef himself very kindly talked the seating manager into giving us a table (what? Get a reservation? It didn’t even occur to us), we were in for a lovely dining experience. N. concluded his meal with this tarte, which arrived as a wide slice of lemon curd and piped, perfectly toasted meringue atop a crumbly just-sweet crust, accompanied by a perfect quenelle of intensely flavored sorbet and mouth-puckering dots of lemon gel. I’m now charged with recreating at least the pastry portion. More on that as developments arise, I suspect…

In summertime in Italy, “grilled vegetables” on anything, from sandwich to pasta, means you are going to get zucchini and eggplant.

Italian food is just really… simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just good, fresh ingredients, cooked well, and that’s that. With a few exceptions for aesthetic appeal, there isn’t a tremendous amount of manipulation to the ingredients, and at least in what we wound up ordering, there aren’t that many of them in any one dish. This results in pure flavors: you can taste almost everything the cook used.

Polpo. Or poulpe, depending on which country you’re in. This is my new favorite seafood. It might be my new favorite food. I’ve eaten octopus before – in fact, it’s one of the foods that made me realize even as a child that I was not a picky eater. But I haven’t had it very often, and where it is served in the U.S. it tends to be out of our typical restaurant price range. It’s a difficult protein to cook, since it can take on the texture of rubber bands if it isn’t cooked correctly. We were fortunate enough to have octopus cooked perfectly in two meals. Once was at that French bistro I mentioned above, when lovely chunks of the stuff were included in my squid ink pasta. The other, and the one that really converted me, was an appetizer we shared on our last night in Venice. The menu description was so spare we didn’t know what to expect: “octopus, potato, tomato, onion.” What we got was a gorgeous plate of food including potato puree well doctored with lemon, fresh, bright tomato sauce, just-burst cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled slips of onion, and two perfect, tender, meaty fingers of octopus that, to me, were reminiscent of nothing more than roast chicken. And I mean that in a good way. So now I’m determined to learn how to cook octopus. Perhaps not for an exact restaurant recreation, but because this heretofore underappreciated meat needs to cross our table much, much more often.

 

Rain Check

Do you think a major rain check is a flood check? A monsoon check? A climate change check?

I’m taking one of those.

Once again, I don’t have a post for you. And I won’t next week either. Or the week after that. But I do have a reason for this.

That’s right. We’re going to Europe. France and Italy, to be exact. And there are so many things we want to see and do, but to be honest with you, because I always try to be honest with you, I think eating tops my list. It’s true; eating is usually right up there, but France? Italy? The pastries. The bread. The cheese. The wine. The pasta. The pastries (oh, did I say that already? Yeah…).

So I obviously won’t be posting (or cooking) while we’re away, but I hope to come back brimming with ideas. If you’d like to follow along on our adventures a little closer to real time, come on over to Instagram: my username there is blackberryeating and I suspect I’ll be recording a lot of what we see and do. And eat.

So au revoir for now, and arrivederci! See you in August.

#zucchinidaysofsummer

Afraid I don’t have a recipe for you today – between returning from one trip, prepping for another, and the general distressing state of The News, I haven’t produced anything I felt confident sharing with you. You can see from my hashtag title here, though, what I’ve been up to. If you follow me on Instagram (or if you’ve checked out the little Igram photo further down the page recently), you’ll have seen that I’m aiding and abetting perhaps the most prolific zucchini plant I’ve ever encountered. From its rooted stem to the tips of its highest leaves it probably stands four and a half feet tall, and the dark green, curved baseball bats I’ve been snapping off the thing are both awe inspiring and distressing, since I’m running out of ideas to use them up. These aren’t zucchini anymore; they’re proper marrows. Look out neighbors… I’m almost to the point of leaving “gifts” on your doorsteps in the dead of night.

Since I don’t have a real post to share with you, I thought instead I’d tell you a few of the ways I’ve been working through my harvest. In addition to last week’s zucchini bread, I’ve dabbled in a goat cheese and zucchini tart, a triumphant ratatouille adapted from Thomas Keller’s confit byaldi, and a shower of thin slivers added to fajita vegetables. Tonight I’m planning what I hope will be a triumphant stuffed endeavor: ground lamb studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, preserved lemon, plenty of dill, and some feta. Maybe a few garbanzo beans. Certainly an avalanche of bread crumbs to keep N. happy. I’ll hollow the central line of seeds out from one of the larger specimens and fill with my mixture, then roast until the crumbs are golden and the squash itself has softened.

Future ideas include breaded and fried slices, either crunched as an extravagant appetizer or stacked a la eggplant parmesan, replacements for lasagna noodles in a lighter, summery version of the baked pasta, and the ever popular “zoodles” with the spiralizer tool I keep forgetting I own. A friend is tracking down her mother’s old recipe for zucchini pickles, and I’m considering adding shreds to bread pudding, since the shelves of my freezer not weighed down with loaves of zucchini bread are filling up with sourdough crusts from our everyday loaves.

In the midst of all this, I have a tricky Chopped Challenge entree “basket” to deal with, which I hope I’ll have developments to report on soon…

What do you like to do with zucchini? What else should I try with my massive harvest? Leave me a comment, if you’re so inclined, and help me devour these monsters.

Zucchini Spice Bread

Well, I did it. In my exuberance about having a vegetable garden at last (one year into our tenancy in our very own house, N. built us a few raised beds and I treated myself to a few varieties of heirloom seeds), I brought home a little zucchini plant from the garden store.

The first time I planted zucchini, it did what zucchini does: it grew so many squash for us that, halfway into summer, and after grilling, stuffing, roasting, and frying, I filled every baking dish in my kitchen with batter and looked for new friends so I had new possibilities for offloading all the loaves and cakes and muffins my happy plant had obligingly helped me produce.

The second time I planted zucchini, which was only a year or so later, about seventy percent of our potential squashes got about three inches long, then turned yellow at the blossom end, softened, and shriveled. Unwilling to dive into experimental hand pollination, I sighed and concentrated on tomatoes instead.

So I was delighted when, in a different garden and a different state, this spring’s zucchini plant proved the adage about third times and charms, as it perked its little leaves up and started to produce its familiar little orange blossoms. And then it got bigger, and I celebrated our first little courgettes. And then it made more. And its leaves reached the size of small umbrellas. Its flowers would have fit a full four-ounce mini-log of goat cheese and had room to spare. Suddenly, underneath those spiky umbrella-sized leaves and fragile, pollen-dusted blossoms, I was facing down an army of tiny squashes and remembering why so many avid home gardeners leave laundry baskets of zucchini on their neighbors’ porches in the summer.

It was time to bake zucchini bread. Fortunately, I have a pretty foolproof recipe, a zucchini spice loaf from the thick and dependable Bon Appetit Cookbook, and that is fine. But I wanted to play. My recipe calls for vegetable oil, cinnamon, and chopped toasted nuts. Oil is a good choice for quickbreads, especially if the loaf also contains nuts, because it’s 100% fat and thus keeps the bread moist. But the best banana bread I’ve ever had, bought from a roadside stand in Maui, was advertised as containing all butter. I wondered if, with a little tinkering, I could bring that buttery perfection to my zucchini loaf.

Converting from oil to butter requires a little calculation – butter is not 100% fat; it’s a mix of fat and water, so you need more butter than oil if you’re substituting. Since the oil is liquid when it’s incorporated into the batter, the butter would need to be as well, and if we were already melting it, well, we might as well go the extra step and brown it. This would also evaporate that pesky water in there, leaving us with 100% fat again.

That sorted, and wanting to keep things toasty and rich, I replaced half the granulated sugar called for in the original recipe with brown sugar, added some tart dried cherries for extra interest, and replaced the cinnamon with cardamom for a bright kick that played well with the fruit. And how was it? Well, so far we’ve sliced our way through three loaves of the stuff and I wouldn’t say no to another piece.

Should you decide to make your own (or if you’ve been the victim – I mean recipient – of some of your neighbors’ zucchini harvest), know this: this is quite a thick batter, almost like soft cookie dough rather than cake. There’s not a lot of liquid in the mix – just eggs and the melted butter – and I think that’s why the recipe doesn’t require any draining of zucchini shreds before you fold them in. They add just enough juice of their own to keep the loaf dense but tender after an agonizing hour and a half in the oven. That means, all told, this is at least a two hour endeavor, which might entice you to skip the initial steps of toasting the nuts and browning the butter. Don’t be tempted. Both really to enhance the flavor in a way it would be a shame to miss.

As is frequently the case for quickbreads, this is delightful on its own, sliced right from the loaf. It stays reasonably fresh wrapped in aluminum foil on the counter for 3-4 days. If, however, it starts to feel a little stale, or if you’ve overbaked it a touch, I’ll just remind you that a smear of cream cheese rectifies many sins…

 

Zucchini Spice Bread
Adapted from The Bon Appetit Cookbook
Makes 1 large loaf
2–2½ hours
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 lightly packed cup brown sugar
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries or chopped dried apricots

 

  • Spray or butter a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and preheat your oven to 350F. This is a good opportunity to toast the nuts – they are usually ready by the time the oven reaches its target temperature. Once they are lightly browned and smell fragrant, set them aside to cool.
  • For the batter, first brown the butter. To do this, place the sticks of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and let them melt and bubble. First, there will be a lot of foam on top. Then it will clear to liquid gold, then you’ll start to see a lot of clear bubbles stacked atop one another. Keep waiting and stirring occasionally. Eventually you’ll start to see some darker yellow residue, then pale brown, then almost bronze bits mixed in with the clear melted butter when you stir. As soon as these bits look bronze, turn off the heat and remove the pan to allow it to cool. If you get antsy, you can put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and baking powder. In a larger bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), use an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to beat the eggs until very well combined and foamy on top. Gradually add the granulated sugar and the brown sugar, then mix until pale and thick, about 4 minutes. It will look almost like you are on your way to meringue. Add the vanilla and the cooled brown butter, beating well to combine.
  • Now incorporate the dry ingredients in three additions, beating just until combined. The batter will be very thick. Stir in the grated zucchini, then fold in the nuts and dried fruit, if using.
  • Pour and scrape the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake in the preheated 350F oven until the top is dry and crusty, and the center is cooked through and a toothpick or cake tester inserted emerges with only a moist crumb attached. This will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Let cool in the pan at least 10 minutes to avoid breakage, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool completely before slicing.