Stir fried green beans with coconut (green bean poriyal)

Things are getting busy around here. I’m coursing toward midterms, which means piles upon piles of grading, as the students need to know where they stand at the halfway mark. Spring break approaches, and papers must be returned, research topics and methods must be interrogated, and evaluation work must be completed. There’s little time for a mellow afternoon at home, punctuated by soft cheese oozed onto crackers at an impromptu happy hour, rather than the locomotive “just-one-more, just-one-more” echoing in my head as I face thirty-five opinions about whether Beowulf’s choice to take on a dragon single-handed was admirable or foolhardy.*

Food Blog January 2014-3049So I’m thinking back to my winter break, when I cracked the spines of two new cookbooks (does that make you cringe? It makes N. just ache inside, but dammit, I want them to lie flat!) to devour their offerings. One, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, has convinced me our refrigerator should never be devoid of homemade hummus again. The other, Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness’s Indian Home Cooking, is a beautiful and fairly accessible interpretation of some classic and some entirely original Indian and Indian-inspired dishes that leave me alternately drooling and scribbling feverish grocery lists to take to my nearest Indian market.

Food Blog January 2014-3037In the vegetable section, Saran and Lyness take on green beans in several ways, almost always doctoring them with chilies and deeply toasted spices. In one, the addition of coconut stopped me in my proverbial tracks. In fact, I’ve now made this recipe three times, as though it’s not possible to turn the page anymore because this one was just too good.

Food Blog January 2014-3039Despite this overwhelmingly positive review, I had my qualms when I first approached the recipe. This dish is called a poriyal in the Tamil language, and as I understand it, this means a stir fry or sauté of vegetables. This one happens to have coconut, split peas, urad dal (black gram beans) and numerous warm, earthy spices along with some dried chilies competing together in a beguilingly spicy umami flavor bath. But the original directions in the recipe call for sautéing the beans for five minutes, then simmering them for ten, and then evaporating the water and stir-frying again for another five – twenty minutes of cook time for green beans! I was horrified by the potential for overcooked, mushy limpness.

Food Blog January 2014-3043But I tried, I really did, to follow the directions, at least as much as I could stand it. I shortened up the cooking time for the green beans a tiny bit, but otherwise left the procedure essentially the same. To my surprise, I ended up with meltingly tender, sublimely flavored beans, with none of the unappealing mushiness I’d feared. They give up any sort of dental resistance, yes, but this is ultimately not a bad thing. The toasty split peas and chewy, deeply bronzed coconut provide sufficient texture, and the beans just give a kind of unctuous, vegetal goodness.

Food Blog January 2014-3045Still, though, there’s something about green beans sautéed until just crisp-tender, and so I revisited the recipe, this time adding the beans later, simmering them a shorter time, and ending up with a just-toasted, still fresh pile of vegetables I couldn’t help but demolish. Though the ingredient list is the same, I’m giving you both sets of procedures, so you can choose how you like your beans. However you want them, though, meltingly tender or still a bit crisp, this combination is worth stopping over.

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* Not really. My students have written on a number of intriguing topics, this only one among them. But sometimes, when I look at my “to be graded” tray, it feels that way.

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Stir Fried Green Beans with Coconut
(Slightly adapted from Indian Home Cooking)
3 tablespoons neutral flavored oil, like canola or vegetable
2 tablespoons split peas (the recipe calls for yellow, but I used green because that was what I had. Both will work fine – you are toasting them thoroughly to provide crunch)
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds (here, though, don’t use yellow instead. The taste is quite different)
1 teaspoon hulled black gram beans (also called urad dal; optional – they are there for the crunch factor, like the split peas)
3 small whole dried red chilies
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut, divided
¾ pound green beans, ends trimmed, cut on a bias into 1-2 inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste (I found I liked a bit less)
1 cup water, for meltingly tender beans, or ½ cup water, for crisp-tender beans

 

For meltingly tender green beans:

  • Add the oil, split peas, and mustard seeds in a large skillet or wok with a lid over medium-high heat. The mustard seeds will pop and splatter, so clap a lid on quickly. Cook, stirring, until the peas turn golden-brown and the mustard seeds begin to crackle, 1-2 minutes.
  • Add the black gram beans, if using, the chilies, and the cumin and cook uncovered, stirring, for one more minute, until the chilies are well oiled and the cumin seeds smell fragrant.
  • Add ¼ cup of the coconut and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add the beans and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes.
  • Add the remaining ¼ cup coconut and the water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the beans are tender, about 10 minutes (I tried, I really did, but the best I could manage was five minutes before I got worried about limpness, and the beans were still plenty tender).
  • Uncover and cook, stirring often, until all of the water has evaporated, about five more minutes. Taste for salt and serve piping hot.

 

For crisp-tender green beans:

  • Add the oil, split peas, and mustard seeds in a large skillet or wok with a lid over medium-high heat. The mustard seeds will pop and splatter, so clap a lid on quickly. Cook, stirring, until the peas turn golden-brown and the mustard seeds begin to crackle, 1-2 minutes.
  • Add the black gram beans, if using, the chilies, and the cumin and cook uncovered, stirring, for one more minute, until the chilies are well oiled and the cumin seeds smell fragrant.
  • Add ¼ cup of the coconut and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add ½ cup water, salt, beans, and remaining ¼ cup coconut. Immediately clap on the lid and leave it for at least two minutes, or until the splattering stops.
  • Uncover and cook, stirring often, until the water has evaporated and the beans are barely tender and have had a chance to toast a bit – this should take five more minutes at most. Taste for salt and serve piping hot.

Kidney bean, brown rice, and shiitake “vurgers”

I talk a lot on this blog about myself.  Today, I want to talk a little bit about my husband.  Before I met him, N. did a study abroad program in London.  He was there for six months, and by “there” I mean taking classes in London, but also zipping around England and then parts of Europe with a speed that his British hosts looked upon with alarm (“what do you mean you’re going to York just for the weekend? That’s a 3-4 hour trip!  It’s a whole holiday!”  To which N., who grew up in a road-tripping family, would shrug and go anyway.  Example: his family, when they lived in a suburb of Sacramento, California, thought nothing of jumping in the car to drive to Reno for the day.  Once when his parents visited us in Oregon, we drove to Tillamook from Eugene via the coast to get ice cream and cow cookies at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, and then headed home in time for dinner).

Skyscraper gazing

N. is a little camera-shy.

Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, N.’s study abroad program took place shortly after some of the worst scares of mad cow disease in England.  He was there in late 2002, and eating beef was a no-no.  This meant, when I met him, that N. had some food issues.  He wasn’t a picky eater – that’s not quite the right word.  He was, let’s say, a particular eater.  Beef, especially beef that wasn’t well-done, was out.  The frightening potential consequences had been too drilled into his head.  Lamb was too gamey.  Pork was not his favorite.  When I was trying to impress him with my rudimentary cooking skills when we first met (rudimentary is kind – the first time I tried to make him French toast for breakfast, the bread collapsed into over-soaked crumbles in my custard mixture.  But we fried it up and ate it anyway – sweet scrambled eggs with bread bits – and he was either kind enough or smitten enough to pretend he liked it), we ate a lot of chicken breast.

N.’s willingness and preference when it comes to food has expanded and matured significantly since we’ve been together.  Still, though, he is wary.  When we lived in Oregon, we were lucky enough to find ourselves in Eugene, which is a bit of a hippie mecca.  This meant we had a wide variety of vegetarian choices.  Neither of us is vegetarian, but N. developed the habit of ordering veggie burgers when we went out to eat, since it was a safe bet.  You didn’t have to worry about doneness, and many of the restaurants we frequented made their own patties instead of relying on something frozen from a box.

Even though we’ve been living in Los Angeles for almost a year now (can that be true?!), and we’ve done our share of restaurant investigating, we don’t have the favorites yet that we had in Eugene.  Though we’ve found some delicious options, N. doesn’t have a go-to veggie burger yet.  This week, therefore, I decided to make him one.

It always interests me, when a veggie burger is advertised as a homemade patty, to find out what its base is.  A lot of meatless patties – especially the premade kind you find in the freezer section – are wheat based, which seems like a strange thing to put on a sandwich: a patty of pressed wheat between two pieces of bread made from wheat.  Gluten-fest!  But sometimes they are made from tempeh, and sometimes from beans, and we had a really tasty one once that I’m sure had shiitake mushrooms mixed into it, which contributed a fantastic texture I haven’t found again.   Food Blog May 2013-1444

Food Blog May 2013-1446Taking this textural component as my must-have, I considered my pantry and spice cabinet, and cobbled together what turned out to be a delicious, filling patty made of brown rice, kidney beans, and reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms.  I used a mixture of red wine and hot water to reconstitute my mushrooms, which contributed to their deep, earthy flavor.  You could use chicken or vegetable broth if you prefer, or just hot water.

Food Blog May 2013-1447To bump up the flavor and add a little moisture, I added onions and garlic I’d sweated down with some warm, southwestern spices, and pulsed the whole thing in a food processor with a generous pinch of salt until it was willing to be molded, but not completely homogenized.  The beans should be smashed but not totally pureed, and you should be able to discern the occasional grain of rice in your shaped patty.  This adds texture and interest when you are chewing, and makes the finished product less like you’re chowing down on a fried patty of bean dip.  Not that fried bean dip patties necessarily sound like a bad thing…

Food Blog May 2013-1448N.’s one complaint about veggie burgers is that they are often smothered in cheese.  It’s as though restaurants are trying to hide the flavor-that-isn’t-meat.  That might be exactly what some people want, but for us, these non-cow flavors are just as interesting and tasty.  To make this a burger (or vurger, as one of our Eugene favorites called it) worthy of N.’s preferences, I decided to skip the cheese on the actual patty, and incorporate it into the bun instead.  Thus we settled our patties on homemade jalapeño cheese “kaiser” rolls, which I’m going to have to boast about… maybe next week…

For now, though, the patty itself: these are a bit dense and fairly filling, but the mushrooms really do add a delightful chewiness that I wouldn’t want to skip.  Adding in some tempeh crumbles to replace or enhance these components would likely be delicious, though I haven’t tried this yet myself.  The final addition of the barest squeeze of lime juice makes a surprising difference: it takes them from slightly heavy to a flavor I can only describe as somehow more awake.

Food Blog May 2013-1452A few days ago Deb at Smitten Kitchen asked what her readers’ go-to dinners were.  I thought about this for a while and decided ours were pizza, roasted vegetable tacos, and a lovely little one-bowl meal I learned from a friend called “Scatter Sushi.”  I can tell you, though, based on the reaction these “vurgers” got at our house, they just joined that list.

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Note: these patties are vegan (until you put them on a cheese roll), which means they lack the dependable binding power an egg typically brings to such a party.  Therefore, I recommend shaping them and then letting them sit for half an hour or more before cooking, which will let the rice and beans soak up some of the moisture from the vegetables, and thereby hold together better.  If they threaten to crumble on you or you’re frustrated or frightened by their potential fragility and not determined to keep them vegan, go ahead and add an egg to the mix.

Brown rice, kidney bean, and shiitake “vurgers”
Makes 4 patties
1 cup cooked, cooled brown rice
1 15 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 oz. dried shiitake mushrooms (about 12)
3 cups wine, water, or broth for reconstituting mushrooms
¼ cup diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 TB olive oil, divided
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp oregano
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt (if you are using dried beans rather than canned, you might want to increase this quantity)
1 tsp lime juice or red wine vinegar
  • First, reconstitute the mushrooms.  Heat water or broth to near boiling, then pour into a heatproof bowl with dried mushroom caps and wine (if using).  I typically like to use 1 cup of wine and 2 cups of hot water – it’s enough heat to revive the mushrooms, and enough flavor to intensify them.  Cover, making sure the mushrooms are fully immersed, and let sit for about 20 minutes.  I like to place a small plate atop my soaking bowl to keep the mushrooms underwater.
Food Blog May 2013-1445

Mushroom soaking contraption

  • When the mushrooms are soft and pliable, drain them and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Heat 1 TB of the olive oil in a skillet and gently sweat the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent and the garlic is aromatic and sweet.  This should take 5-8 minutes over medium-low heat.
  • As the onions soften, add the cumin, paprika, oregano, and pepper, turn the heat down to low, and stir to combine.  Let the spices cook with the vegetables for another 2 minutes, to let their flavors meld and warm.  Turn off the heat and set aside.
  • Once your mushrooms are cool enough to handle, squeeze them gently to release some of the water they have collected in their bath.  You don’t want them to be drippy, but you don’t want to squeeze them completely dry either.  Some of the liquid they’ve soaked up, especially if you’ve used wine or broth, will add lovely flavor to your veggie patties.  It will also help hold the patties together.  Remove the stems (they are tough and unpleasant to eat) and then chop the shiitake caps roughly.
  • Place rice, beans, chopped mushrooms, onion, garlic and spice mixture, and ½ tsp salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse 4-5 times at 3 second intervals, just until the beans are broken up and the rice is in smaller pieces.  You want some of the mixture to be smooth, but some to retain texture and shape.  Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if needed.  Squeeze in the lime juice and pulse one more time just to integrate it.
  • Remove your mixture from the processor, being careful of the blade, and dump it into a large bowl.  Press it together with your hands a bit to ensure workability.  If it is really crumbly or you are nervous about the patties holding together, you might add a lightly beaten egg or some olive oil here.  However, don’t be too worried – they are going to firm up a little when you let them sit after shaping.
  • Divide the mixture in four even quantities.  One at a time, press and shape each quarter into a round, flat patty no more than 1 inch thick.  Everything is cooked already, so you don’t have to worry about rawness, but you do want everything to heat evenly.  Any thicker than this and your burgers might still be a bit cool in the middle.  Mine were just under 1 inch thick, and had a diameter of about 3 inches.
  • Once all 4 patties are formed, set them aside on a plate or a board for at least half an hour.  If you are going to wait much longer than that or if you are making them ahead, stick them in the refrigerator, but be sure to let them come back up to room temperature before cooking, so they heat evenly.
  • When you are ready to cook, heat the remaining 2 TB olive oil in a skillet (I just used the same one I’d cooked my onions and garlic in) over medium to medium-high heat until it glistens and ripples.  Add the burgers carefully to the skillet and let them sizzle for 4-5 minutes on each side, until they develop a deep, bronzed crust.
  • Serve with your favorite condiments on the bun of your choice.  We kept it simple: mayonnaise, red leaf lettuce from the garden, on the jalapeño cheese rolls I’ll share with you here next week.

Note: if the burgers look like they are falling apart, or if they threaten to break when you try to flip them, turn the heat up a little.  This, bizarrely, helps keep them together because it sets the outside faster, so the surface of the patty is firmer.

Go-to Dough III – Orange and Rosemary loaf

First, thank you.  Thank you to you lovely people and the lovely way you responded to last week’s post about my sweet rolls and my Nana.  Old friends, new friends, family, it warmed me to see your comments.  I so appreciate you making yourselves known and sharing your own experiences and memories – I’m motivated to delve into more old family recipes and more new experiments.  That probably sounds a little cheesy, but I mean it.

 

Food Blog March 2013-0755
So I suppose you could call this a thank you loaf.  It was delicious, it was easy (well, as easy as baking bread can be, I suppose), and I made it for you.
I wanted, as I’ve noted, a basic recipe, though I can’t resist adding a tweak or two to keep things interesting.  My first boule was overbrowned; my second utilized an overnight leavening procedure I didn’t think added all that much to the final product.  So the third had to be just right – the charm, you might say – and I really do think it was.  Goldilocks bread.

 

Food Blog March 2013-0761
I went back to Ruhlman’s directions for cooking the loaf in a pot.  This strategy for maintaining the shape and for holding in moisture by using a lid makes so much sense, and I wanted to give it another shot.
This time I decided to add some fat to the bread in the form of olive oil.  This made the crumb a bit moister and I think it kept the bread tasting fresh longer.  To make the yeast extra happy, I proofed it (them?  Is yeast grammatically plural?) with a few tablespoons of honey.  This didn’t contribute noticeable sweetness to the final product, but it did make for an extra foamy yeast party.  You could probably increase the honey if you wanted a sweeter end product.  Since I was still on a high from the orange marmalade triumph, I decided this bread would benefit from some orange zest and, just for fun, some fresh rosemary too.  I ended up with a really beautiful loaf: puffed, thin but crisp crust, moist dense crumb.  The orange and rosemary creep up on you – perfumed subtlety lingering in the background until you’re almost finished chewing.  Then they suddenly become present.  It’s not a punch, it’s a slow sloping into flavor.
This was perfect for sopping up sauce from baked beans (it would make stellar toast for beans on toast), complementing the sweetness and the fatty bacon flavor with its subtle herbaceousness.  I could see adding some dried cranberries to the dough for a wintry take on a breakfast slice.  It dances well with a slick of salted butter, plain and simple, but its shining moment this week was as an open faced sandwich spread thickly with cream cheese and fig preserves.  The orange and rosemary played beautiful back-up to the cream cheese and the fig, and I bolted it before I even considered taking a photo to share the triumph.  If you make this bread – and you should, oh you should – don’t miss this combination.

 

Food Blog March 2013-0738
Orange and Rosemary loaf
12 oz. warm water
2 TB honey
2 tsp yeast
2 TB olive oil
20 oz. bread flour (or 4 cups, give or take)
2 tsp salt (I’m currently obsessed with a gray French sea salt, which I found at Cost Plus World Market)
2 TB fresh rosemary leaves, minced
zest from 2 oranges

 

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Combine the warm water, honey, and yeast in a small bowl or a measuring cup, and stir lightly.  Set aside for 5 minutes or so to let the yeast revive from its hibernation.

 

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In a medium bowl (I use my stand mixer), combine the flour, salt, orange zest, and rosemary.
When the yeast is bubbly and smells of bread and beer and awesome, add the olive oil to the wet mixture and stir lightly.
Pour the wet yeast mixture carefully into the dry ingredients, then stir to combine until you have a wet, shaggy mixture (if you are using a stand mixer, try the paddle attachment.  I know it’s one extra thing to wash, but it brings the mixture together much more quickly than a dough hook).
Once the dough is shaggy but workable, knead for 8-10 minutes or until a small knob can be stretched gently between your fingers to a point of translucency.  This is called the windowpane test.  If you’re getting help from a stand mixer, use your dough hook and knead on medium speed, checking after 6-7 minutes.
Your dough should be warm, elastic, and smooth.  Turn it into an oiled bowl and flip it around until all sides are lightly oiled.  Let it rise in a warm, draft-free environment until doubled, 60-75 minutes (My preferred method is to turn my oven on for five minutes, turn it off, wait for five minutes, and then put the dough inside.  This creates an environment warm enough to help it rise, but not warm enough to start it cooking already).
After the dough has doubled in bulk, push it down gently with your fist to release the gasses trapped inside, then let it rest for 10 minutes to get its breath back.
On a floured board, shape your bread.  Since we are going for a round loaf, spin the dough in a circle, pushing it away from you with one hand, and using the other hand to tuck it under so you form a smooth, round ball.  (There are a lot of videos and complex step-by-step series for this procedure, involving pinching seams, smoothing and pulling, spreading and folding and turning the dough, and a host of others to prevent the loaf from spreading rather than maintaining its round shape.  Letting it rise and then baking it in a round pot takes care of many of these concerns.  I haven’t been particularly firm about pinching seams, and my loaves have turned out nicely rounded.)

 

Food Blog March 2013-0746
Transfer the loaf to a dutch oven or similar lidded pot and let it rise for another 90 minutes.  I lined my baking vessel with parchment paper this time so I wouldn’t have to use olive oil, which I suspect made my previous attempt too brown on the bottom.  This seemed to work fairly well.
When your dough has risen again, it will be puffed and pushing against the sides of the pot.  It’s now time to score it with a sharp knife, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt, then bake it with the lid on in a preheated 450F oven for 30 minutes.  Keeping the lid on traps some of the moisture inside, so you don’t have to bother with flicking or spraying the inside of the oven, or even with adding a pan of water.
After half an hour, remove the lid and continue baking for 15-30 additional minutes, or until the bread is done (it should register 180-200F on an instant-read thermometer and sound hollow when you tap the bottom).  Mine only took an additional 15 minutes before it tested done.

 

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Let the bread cool for 10-15 minutes, if you can stand it, before slicing.  This gives the center time to cool a bit and helps it stay together better.

 

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Or, you know, just tear off chunks and eat them blisteringly hot.  I won’t tell anyone.

 

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Counting Down

It’s interesting that as I left my 20s behind chronologically, I entered my 20s in this Bittman project.  As of this moment, on this particular Sunday afternoon, I have 25 Bittman concoctions left to make, most of them soups and desserts.  At a rate of two per week, I will finish by the end of this year.  This means we’re getting toward some major milestones, some very big deals, some lasts on the list.

The first of this pair is one such last.

“34. Combine cooked bulgur with chopped or grated apple, minced orange rind, grated ginger and chopped parsley. Back in an oiled dish, use as stuffing or serve as a salad.”

This was the final remaining entry on the “Stuffings and Grains” list. We left it till last for no particular reason, but during a week in which a collection of Valencia oranges sat languishing in our fruit bowl, it seemed like the right thing to do.

I’ve been fairly good lately about writing down ingredient quantities as I add them, but for this entry I never even lifted a pen.  It happens.  I can own up to it.  A week of non-stop grading, perhaps, made me leery of that inky instrument.  Or maybe it was our relative rush: leave it to me to design a complex, glaze-bearing dinner on a night we needed to eat early.  Some things must get sacrificed, and it turns out it’s not the glaze, it’s the notations.

Here are my approximations:

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 cups water, stock, or a combination of the two

1 large fuji apple, diced into small squares

2-3 TB finely minced orange rind

1 TB grated ginger (this is really easy to do when the ginger is frozen)

¼ cup chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

Cooking bulgur is very similar to cooking rice.  I poured the wheat and the water into a pot and let it come to a boil before simmering for 15 minutes or so while I prepped my other ingredients.

After dicing the apple, grating the ginger, and chopping the parsley, I turned to the oranges.  Since Bittman specified “rind” and not “zest,” I used a y-shaped potato peeler to remove long, brilliant segments of rind.  I slid a sharp knife carefully between the rind and any white pith that got caught in the peeling, and then sliced into very thin strips, rotated them 90 degrees, and sliced again so I was left with tiny squares.

Before these happy bright piles all nestling on my cutting board got too comfortable, I tipped them into the pot of bulgur and carefully folded them in for even distribution with some salt and pepper to taste.  The experience of the still-chilly ginger hitting the hot bulgur was sinus-clearingly intense, but lovely.  An aroma-only aperitif.

With everyone incorporated, I dumped the pot’s contents into a greased baking dish and stowed it in a 350F oven for half an hour.

Orange and ginger suggested an Asian flavor profile, even though apples and parsley didn’t.  I decided to work with the dominant elements, though, and so I paired the bulgur with salmon and spinach.  The salmon would be rubbed with sesame seeds, powdered ginger, and orange rind bits before receiving a heavy sear and then an orange-juice glaze.  The spinach would be sauteed with garlic chips and sesame oil.

As with all things, this didn’t happen exactly as imagined.  It takes a long time, as it turns out, to simmer the juice of six oranges down into a thick glaze without burning their sugars.  Similarly, it takes time and babysitting to ensure garlic chips that are crisp, not charred.  And when you are trying to do all this on the same night as a homecoming football game you’ve promised to attend, certain shortcuts must be taken.

The salmon, while it seared beautifully, received not so much a glaze as a flood of boiled, ginger infused orange juice.  Still, when this liquid hit the hot salmon pan, it did bubble down into something thick and rich (if a little darker than intended).

The spinach, rather than the crunchy, spicy accoutrements I intended, had to settle for a last-minute sprinkle of sesame seeds to keep it company.

Still, the meal was overwhelmingly successful.  The salmon was outrageously delicious, and I’m going to have to make it again, writing down the procedure this time so I can share it with you.  The orange sauce perfumed the fish and kept it moist and buttery and tender.  Even though it was a bit darker than I’d planned for, the sauce took on caramel notes that seemed utterly intentional.

The bulgur was lovely.  It was toasty and fluffy and well seasoned.  The apple had cooked lightly as the dish baked, leaving it just softened but not without resistance.  The orange rind was delightfully not overpowering, but gave a warm spiciness to the grain.  It was good with the salmon, but would also be delicious with pork chops (playing on the traditional applesauce pairing) or, if you replaced the parsley with mint, a lovely side for leg of lamb.

In summary, a triumphant triumph: not only is the Stuffings category successfully completed, but it was completed with a success.

 

With the weather cooling (finally!) and the Soups category still looming largely untasted before me, I decided to try one to close out the week.

“21. Brown a little crumbled or sliced sausage in olive oil; a sprinkle of fennel seeds is good, too. Add chopped escarole, cooked white beans with their juice, and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the greens are tender and the beans are warmed through. Garnish with olive oil or Parmesan.”

I must admit I made some changes to these directions based on availability and personal taste.  I don’t like fennel.  It’s one of a very few spice flavors I just can’t take.  Over-fennel-ed sausage – like the kind that appears on many chain pizza restaurant pies – just doesn’t appeal to me, and the idea of fennel seeds crunching between my teeth and filling a mouthful of soup with their anise awfulness made their addition out of the question.

As for the escarole, I could find none.  I searched through mountains of salad greens at several local markets and this particular strain was resolutely absent.  But I did find a really beautiful bunch of kale and decided it would be a satisfactory substitute.

So here’s what I ended up with:

8 oz. bulk sausage

1 big bunch kale (chopped, this was probably 6-8 cups)

3 cloves garlic (some spice to replace the abhorred fennel seemed appropriate)

1 15 oz. can white beans with their liquid

2 cups chicken broth

salt and pepper to taste

Eschewing olive oil, I squeezed the sausage into a pan and let it brown over medium heat, separating and crumbling it as it cooked with a flat-sided wooden spoon.

I rinsed, stemmed, and chopped the kale into manageable pieces, and when the sausage was cooked through, I tossed in the mountain of greens.  No, that’s not true.  I inserted handfuls carefully so they wouldn’t spill all over the stove, and ran out of room with only half my kale added.  N. came into the kitchen when he heard me laughing hysterically, and stared in amazement at the mound of kale pieces sitting inches above the top of my pot.  I had to press it down with my hand, compacting the frilled, tough leaves down toward the bottom of the pot.  It always looks like too much.  It’s always not.  In the time it took me to mince the garlic, the kale had already begun to wilt and settle more comfortably into the confines of the pot.

When I could barely smell the garlic and the kale was level with the sides of the pot (as opposed to threatening to spill over them) I added the white beans, their juice, and barely two cups of low sodium chicken broth.  One of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that when it comes to soups and salads, I like them to be full of, well, stuff.  Lettuce with the odd crouton is no good.  I want dried cranberries, and walnuts, and avocado, and gorgonzola.  Thin, brothy soups don’t please me either.  Give me big chunks of vegetables, or slurpable noodles, or rich shreds of meat.  In the days when I’d indulge in the occasional Cup’o’noodle, I always drank the broth out first so I could concentrate on the important part: the just dripping mounds of noodles left behind.

So this soup, for true enjoyment, needed only enough broth to make its categorization accurate.  A scant two cups and we were assured plenty of “stuff” in every spoonful.

While the soup simmered, I stretched, sliced, and sprinkle mozzarella onto some pre-made pizza dough.  Twisted and snuggled on a baking sheet, these when into the oven to become bread sticks.  Fifteen minutes later when they were sizzling and firm, the soup was done.

This is not a soup you want to let simmer for hours.  The beans, especially if you are using canned like I did, will eventually become mealy and then disintegrate.  The kale begins to lose its emerald brilliance after a while, and though it will still taste good, it won’t be as pleasing to consume.  Simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes max.

Then you get to shave on some parmesan and eat it.

Neither of us was sure we would like this soup.  But we shouldn’t have been so foolish.  N. has placed the products of this project on a pass/fail system.  This is what happens, I suspect, when you have two teachers in the family.  He announces his verdicts after dinner, and he treats them as though Mr. Bittman has just submitted an exam or a paper assignment.  “Bittman passes on this one,” he told me last night as we cleaned up.  It wasn’t just his happiness at pairing his dinner with the first Jubelale of the season.  He really did like the soup.  And I think he was right.  This was a fast, easy, delicious little warmer.  Cooking the kale in the sausage grease gave it some additional flavor and took away that raw bitterness dark leafy greens can sometimes have.  The beans got creamy and delicate, and the starch from their liquid thickened up the minimal broth I used.  Even without the broth, these ingredients seem like a stellar combination that should be taken advantage of at many opportunities.  Sautéed together, perhaps with the addition of chopped onion and maybe butternut squash or sweet potato, they could be a nice little hash.  Wrapped in pastry with some thickened gravy, they could be a pot pie.  Folded with some grated mozzarella and enclosed in pizza dough, they become a perfect calzone.  And as the weather continues to cool (I hope, I hope, I hope), gravies and pot pies and warm cheesy casseroles are exactly what I want to pair my remaining Bittman dishes with.

It seems a bit stress-inducing to start with a countdown.  It’s a looming certainty of what must be achieved.  “That’s a lot,” N. said when I told him how many were left.  But after tonight’s dinner, it will be 24.  And by the end of next week, it will be 23.  And by having you out there reading, it means I must achieve, yes, but it also means I’m promising something to you.  Food.  Words.  Proof of my experiments.  And stress-inducing or not, that’s a kind of accountability I like having.

25 to go…

Milestones. And Cake. And Salad.

This September has been a big one for me.  New home (okay, so we technically moved in July), new job (okay, so school started in August), and new decade!  I’ve finally hit my 30s, and I like what I see so far (though admittedly I’ve only been stationed in this new world for two weeks).

Given my fanciful proclivities for putting food in my mouth, then, N. knows that my birthday must involve a restaurant in some form.  Since we are only just beginning to explore our new culinary surroundings, this was a perfect opportunity to embark on our adventures.  I started with Culver City which, delightfully, has a whole webpage devoted to its downtown restaurants, including (in most cases) links to each restaurant’s website.  This was almost too much.  I spent the better part of an evening cruising through online menus, imagining what kind of mood I might be in on the big day and what I might want to order and what, if the restaurant I ultimately chose should happen to be out of my top choice, I would order instead.

Based on menus and Yelp reviews, I decided on Fords Filling Station (FFS), whose upscale comfort food and wide range of offerings sounded promising.  I tend to like mid-range restaurants: not too fancy, where a prix fixe menu or outstandingly high prices make me feel like a grubby graduate student out of place (I know, I’m not anymore.  But it’s a hard habit to break in this new world of adulthood and employment), but not too casual either, where the food is sub-par or inconsistent and the wait staff makes no pretense of caring about our presence.  A gastropub – a self-proclaimed innovative collection of food, decor, and atmosphere – seemed like the right fit.

FFS is a fun spot.  It’s centrally located downtown, and the dining room is a big open space with a bar to one side, traditional tables, and long narrow two-tops where the couple sits on a bench next to one another looking out at the other diners, rather than across from each other.  N. and I were seated at one of these bench seats, and it was fun to sit side by side for a change in a restaurant setting.  Brick walls, big barrels, and warm colors make it inviting and, I thought, pretty unpretentious.

Our server, who was the perfect balance of informative and attentive, sold me on one of the night’s cocktail specials: citrus vodka, house made lemonade, and a little float of chambord.  It was nice – punchy and bright and sweet-tart, but oddly similar to a Rennie’s Lemonade from our erstwhile happy hour hangout in Eugene, and therefore it felt drastically overpriced at $12. 

We opted to share entrees so we could order a few things, and got a Cuban flatbread with smoked pork pieces, cilantro, mozzarella, and some kicky little red chilis; grilled asparagus blanketed in shaved parmesan,; and a flattened half chicken with amazing garlic mashed potatoes and succotash.

N. was most attracted to the chicken (as is often the case when we dine out), and here he was clearly right to be.  Flattened, the bones were gone, the meat was compressed, flavorful, and intensely juicy, and the skin was crunchy and buttery and tender and perfectly unctuous.  Because he is fonder of white meat, it was also a perfect dish for us to share, because N. left me the thigh, with its dark, meatiness pleasantly encased in a crisp layer of fatty crunch.  Beside the chicken, the mashed potatoes swam in a sauce of garlic confit, which was rich and intense: the best gravy I’ve had in a long time.

The flatbread, which would have been just delightful on its own, paled a bit in comparison to this chicken.  The crust was cracker-like in texture, and the pork pieces paired nicely with the pepper and cilantro, but together the dish was a little bit dry.  It needed – perhaps – some herb oil drizzled over the top, or maybe 45 seconds less in the oven.  Tasty, but not the star of the show by any means.

The asparagus was excellent: nicely flavorful and light, well cooked and, aside from the piece I dropped on myself (grace embodied, truly), a nice vegetal accompaniment to our meal.

Since I didn’t get any dessert that night (I was full but not overstuffed, and didn’t want to tempt myself by even glancing at a dessert menu), I was still longing for birthday cake a few days later.  Fortunately for me A., who blogs from the other side of the world at Over and Under, had told me about Porto’s – a Cuban bakery in Burbank that turns out to be right on my route to and from work.  I had to drive up to the school for a Friday meeting, and as I headed toward the freeway to come home, I decided to stop in and treat myself.

Inspired by the flatbread we’d shared at FFS, and because I thought it would be a good benchmark for a Cuban bakery, I got the Cubano.  Then, because it was still my birthweek (I’m big on extending the celebration as long as seems rationally possible), I picked out two tiny cakes to share with N.: flourless chocolate, and tres leches.

The sandwich was good.  Ham and pork packed tightly onto a fresh bakery roll with cheese, sharp mustard, and a pickle.  A simple sandwich, but a delicious one.

My dessert selections, though, were fantastic.  The tres leches was rich and light at once, not overly sweet but dripping with cream, like a well soaked angelfood cake topped with toasted marshmallow cream.  The flourless chocolate selection was less cake than a giant chocolate truffle: impossibly rich solidified ganache inside a thin shell of cake-like crumb.  N. was only able to eat two or three bites before declaring it too rich for his tummy.  I had no such trouble, but did talk myself into enjoying only half at that sitting, and saving the other half for another night when chocolate felt mandatory.

Indulgent?  Certainly.  But (at least in the case of the desserts) at $2-3 each, a reasonable indulgence.  Still, when one is a responsible adult (as I suppose some might now imagine me), one must temper such indulgences.  In this case, that means salad.

80. Trim and coarsely chop chard (rainbow makes for a gorgeous salad) and combine with white beans and chopped scallions. Dressing is minced ginger, a suspicion of garlic, olive oil and cider vinegar. 

I collected:

½ huge bunch red chard, thick stems removed

1 15 oz. can white kidney beans

5 green onions, finely sliced

1/2 inch knob of ginger

2 garlic cloves

1/4 tsp coarse salt

1/4 cup each cider vinegar and olive oil

1 TB honey

I tossed together the chard, beans, and green onions and set them aside in a big salad bowl.  To make sure the ginger and garlic were fine enough, I minced them by hand, then sprinkled them with coarse salt and dragged the flat of my knife across them until they turned into a thick, aromatic paste.  I scraped the paste into a glass measuring cup and whisked it up with cider vinegar and olive oil.  A taste of this was a cheek puckering revelation, so I added a healthy squeeze of honey to make it less astringent.

Aside from spinach, raw bitter greens are not always N.’s cup of tea.  Because I feared this might be the case with this combination, I decided to treat this more like a slaw than a salad.  I combined the main ingredients early and doused them in dressing a good fifteen minutes before dinnertime.  This would, I hoped, give the acidic dressing time to wilt the chard a bit, much like the vinegar in coleslaw dressing does for the cabbage.

It worked well.  By the time we ate (grilled chicken breasts sauced with equal parts whole grain mustard and apricot jam), the chard had lost just a bit of its aggressive bite but its freshness was not compromised.  The beans, sometimes bland customers, had soaked up a bit of flavor from the tangy bright dressing, and so while they were a steady, creamy counterpoint to the earthy-fresh chard, they weren’t at all boring.  We were both surprised by how well we liked this simple little salad.

Success, then, and balance: excitement and indulgence followed and tempered by stability.  If this is what the 30s are like, I’m ready.  Bring it on.  I’ll just be 30 forever.

Snakes and Ladders

It’s a classic children’s game.  Climb a ladder: advance!  Land on a snake: tumble backwards.  And so it goes with most ventures.  Last week newness delighted me.  This week I’m plodding a bit, experiencing not setbacks, exactly, but settling for lackluster(ness?)(ocity?).  I’m discovering things I don’t love about my syllabus.  I’m wading through class prep.  Students are still (still!  The third week is about to start!  Papers will be due soon!) adding my classes, which means I am overenrolled and there are new faces every day.  And though I’m mostly inspired in my kitchen, not every dish is a triumph.  Some slip a little.  Some slither into lackluster.  But it’s our job, as cooks, as experimenters, as eaters, as humans – and pardon me while I get a bit metaphorical – it’s our job to take this as a challenge.  Make it work, as Tim Gunn continually reminds us.  So we squirm ourselves around and push back toward the ladders.  And sometimes, even after a devastating slide, we climb a few steps.

70. Blanch, shock in cold water, then julienne green beans, daikon and carrots, chill. Whisk soy sauce with honey and lemon to taste; pour over vegetables.”

The most important thing to note about this particular Bittman combo is to leave yourself enough time, particularly if your knife skills are not perfect.  It is not possible to concoct this dish in anything but a zone of utter frustration and simmering disappointment if you only have twenty minutes until dinnertime.  Here’s what I did:

3 carrots, peeled and cut into thick sticks

1 6-inch chunk daikon, peeled and cut into thick sticks

½ lb. green beans, rinsed and stemmed

3 TB soy sauce

2 TB lemon juice

1-2 TB honey

I dropped the carrot and daikon sticks into a big pot of boiling, salted water and let them cook for 2-3 minutes, until they had give between my teeth but still put up a bit of resistance.  I plunged them into ice water and put the tailed green beans into the boil.  This was the point at which I ran into trouble.  Performing a nice julienne on a pile of veg takes some time and some patience, and on this particular day I lacked both.

Nevertheless, cut each thick stick of carrot and daikon into thin slices (Food Network calls them panels), then turn those slices to cut long, thin vertical strips.  You want uniformity but also thinness, since these are only partially cooked, and you want even quantities of carrot slivers and daikon slivers.

At this point the green beans were overboiled and the sausages – the other component of our meal – were almost done on the grill, so I shifted into I-don’t-care-how-it-comes-out-just-get-it-done overdrive.  It happens.  You should julienne the green beans.  I just sliced them into strange vertical halves.  You should chill the whole salad until nice and crisp – probably at least half an hour – after lovingly tossing the thin sticks of orange, white and green together.  I shoved the bowl in the freezer for five minutes while I made the dressing.

I whisked the soy, honey, and lemon together and was satisfied with the flavor.  Were I making this again, I would definitely increase the quantity of lemon juice and maybe even add some zest, but I say it’s up to you.  Play with the combination until you like the ratios.

Dressed, the vegetables had a pleasant texture and tasted well seasoned, but the salad as a dish was missing something.  N. and I agreed that the dressing was a little one-note, and that note was soy sauce.  Flavorwise, things were also a bit on the dull side.  Red pepper flakes or raw garlic, we decided, or more or different acid, would have helped things along.  Maybe some chives or lemongrass or ginger or cilantro, and certainly pairing this Asian-flavored dressing with something other than Italian sausages, would have been the right move.

And so, in my attempts to slither back into success, I considered the leftovers.  They weren’t stars, but they could perhaps be supporting players.  In fact, though they were not the traditional combination, they seemed not so different from the vegetables that go into a bahn mi sandwich.  Setting off to work a morning or two later, therefore, I slathered a crisp roll with mayonnaise, piled up a good portion of drained veggie slivers and, lacking lunchmeat, topped the whole thing with slices of pepperjack cheese.  I know.  Cheese is not part of bahn mi either.  But jalapeño slices usually are, and the vegetables were crying for spice anyway.  It wasn’t the best sandwich I’ve ever had.  But it wasn’t a disaster either.  It was a few steps forward.  Keep moving forward.  On to the next ladder!