Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Corn and Onion Crispy Rice

My Food Network obsession remains, as it was a few weeks ago when I offered you these fridge pickles sweetened with melon liqueur, Beat Bobby Flay (or, as I like to call it, Beat Up Bobby Flay). There are many reasons for this, though I think it ultimately comes down to our penchant for rooting for the underdog: Flay is accomplished and talented and usually wins (plus he presents as somewhat arrogant, which makes unseating him that much more satisfying), so we want the challenger chefs who strut into the arena to throw him off.

Anyway, when the challenger presents a dish that involves rice, BFlay’s typical move is to cook the rice just to, or even a little under, chill it, then pop it into hot cast iron for a minute or two right at the end to achieve crispy bits. Achieving a crispy bottom layer on rice, far from the universal disaster we might conceive of when addressing the burnt lacquer bottom of what was supposed to be a fluffy potful, is a sought-after result in a number of cultures. Tahdig, socarrat, xoon: when the phenomenon has its own name, you know it’s something worth emulating.

Hot off the crunchy corners of a baked pasta dish, I started eyeing the rice in my pantry for all its crispy potential. This is a loose remaking of my “‘stuck pot’ red rice” from a few years ago, but faster, with fewer ingredients, and easier to throw together: the rice gets parboiled – just ten minutes in the water so it’s still chalky in the center – while corn and onions sauté until toast-brown in a mixture of butter and olive oil. The rice, along with a few spices and some lime zest, gets stirred in with the corn and onions, we splash on a little tomato and lime juice, and then the whole mess gets pressed and cooked until a crusty bottom layer forms. Then, we scrape, flip, and cook again. By the time there’s sufficient crispiness, the rice is fully cooked and flavored with the acidic liquids we added.

This works best in cast iron, but if you don’t have a cast iron skillet, regular non-stick would probably be fine too. If you do have a cast iron skillet and never use it, for fear of improper “seasoning” or sticking or cleaning procedures, don’t look to the internet to make you feel better. There are pages and pages of complex instructions for prepping, cooking in, and maintaining your cast iron cookware, enough to whiz you right around the wheel from encouragement to intimidation. Instead, I have found what works best is my friend M’s casual, summer morning advice: “just cook eggs in it all the time with lots of butter. Or meat.” I laughed, but then I tried it, and my skillet is now no longer patchy and sticky with attempts to bake on an oil layer, but smooth and barely shiny, and when I went to flip this rice, not a single grain stuck to the pan surface, but lifted smoothly away with only a wooden spatula.

We had our crispy rice piled high next to bean and cheese tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled or roasted chicken, well-seasoned white fish, a tangled pile of charred vegetables or, as my sister declared when I described it, “I want to eat that with some salsa verde carnitas.” So do I, sister-friend. So do I.

Corn and Onion Crispy Rice
Serves 4-6 as a side
20-25 minutes
1 cup long grain white rice
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen and defrosted
1 cup frozen and defrosted pearl onions
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
juice of half a lime, or to taste
¼ cup tomato juice or v8
1 tablespoon each fresh oregano, fresh chives, and fresh cilantro, finely chopped
additional lime wedges to serve

 

  • Bring a large, lidded pot of salted water to a full boil, then add the rice. Boil 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. The rice will be underdone; this is what we want.
  • While the water is warming and the rice is cooking, heat the butter and olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet, preferably cast iron. When the fat mixture shimmers, add the fully defrosted corn and onions, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper to taste, and toast until caramelized, stirring and tossing frequently, 10-15 minutes. As the vegetables start to brown, add the whole cumin seeds and stir well to distribute.
  • When the cumin starts to smell toasty and the vegetables are nicely browned, add in the rice, the paprika, and the lime zest and stir well to distribute the spices and veg evenly. Stir in the tomato juice and the lime juice, then press the rice down into a compact layer.
  • Continue to cook over medium high heat until crusty bits begin to form on the bottom, 4-5 minutes. In sections, turn the rice and expose the top layer to the skillet surface for another 3-4 minutes until this, too, gets a little crunchy.
  • When the rice has crisped to your liking, remove from heat, scatter the finely chopped herbs over the top, and serve with additional lime wedges for squeezing.

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Miso Brown Butter Krispie Treats

This one is, I have to admit, a bit of a cheat. But when it’s the day after the horror that is the spring time change, a fifteen minute “baking” project that barely adapts perfection is about all a person can be expected to churn out.

Have you had Smitten Kitchen’s salted brown butter crispy treats? Please tell me you have. It’s one of the recipes that was so successful on her blog that she put it into her first cookbook as a tried and true favorite. One of our friends calls them “the precious” and I have to say, he’s not far off. The same old gooey, crunchy squares from childhood, but bumped up with the nutty toastiness of brown butter, and a judicious sprinkle of sea salt that makes them fly. We first discovered them through a batch S. made, and she consequently became our dealer while we were in Oregon, though now that we’re so many miles separate from her I’ve had to take up the mantle myself.

I’m not sure what gave me the idea – perhaps seeing several miso caramels on Food Network, or maybe SK’s own miso caramel corn – but the idea of adding a scoop of miso paste to these already flawless squares seemed to toe the line between genius and potentially horrifying.

So I did it.

The result is, surprisingly, somehow butterscotch-esque, despite no brown sugar or vanilla in the mix, and completely addictive. There’s no flaky sea salt anymore – the miso has plenty of salinity of its own – although I think you could get away with a tiny sprinkle if you can’t do without so I’ve made it optional, and I don’t even think you’d need to brown the butter, but I still did because since it needs to be melted anyway, it’s not really that much more effort.

So here, backed by Deb’s ingenuity and a mere four ingredients (well, five if you add salt), is my offering for you today: all the goo, all the sweetness, all the crunch, but with a new twist that will, I suspect, leave you tasting, and tasting again, and suddenly wondering where the whole pan got off to, because you couldn’t possibly have just eaten the entire thing…

Miso Brown Butter Krispie Treats
Marginally adapted from Smitten Kitchen‘s salted brown butter crispy treats
15-20 minutes
Makes 8×8- or 9×9-inch square pan of treats
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (½ cup; 4 ounces)
1-1½ tablespoons miso paste
⅛ teaspoon salt, optional
10 ounce bag of marshmallows
6 cups crisped rice cereal

 

  • Butter or spray an 8×8 or 9×9 inch pan, then set aside.
  • Add the butter to a saucepan and melt over medium heat. Once it has completely melted, turn the heat down to medium-low and keep an eye on it as it foams up, then subsides, then starts to brown into toasty little bits on the bottom of the pot. It’s easiest to use a pot that does not have a dark surface, since you can see color changes in the butter more easily. If your pot has a black surface, though, and you think you’re there, you can quickly dunk in a marshmallow and see whether the butter it captures has brown flecks in it (then, if you must, you can eat it). The moment you discern these little brown flecks, turn the heat off so the butter solids won’t burn.
  • With the heat off, add the miso paste, the salt, if using, and the marshmallows. Stir firmly with a flexible rubber spatula, being sure to distribute the miso paste evenly. The residual heat should be enough to melt the marshmallows, and you’ll end up with a sticky, pale golden pool of goo. Add the 6 cups of cereal all at once and stir in. You’ll need to be quite firm, again, to ensure even distribution.
  • Dump and scrape the cereal mixture into the prepared pan and press down firmly into an even layer, being sure to push it into the corners as well. You can use the same rubber spatula for this, or a piece of waxed paper, or the bottom of the cup measure you used for the cereal – it shouldn’t stick too much.
  • Set aside until fully cooled, then cut into squares of your desired size and consume.

Blackberry Spring Rolls

2016 Food Blog August-0725Obvious confession: I haven’t been very good at keeping up with my 2016 blog challenge this summer. I mean, I haven’t been stellar at keeping up with blogging in general, but the challenge fell by the wayside pretty significantly. Let’s climb back onto that horse.

2016 Food Blog August-06912016 Food Blog August-0698It’s fun to try to guess why various search term combinations might have led to my site in particular. Some I can’t even begin to imagine, but some – like this one – are fairly obvious. A site eponymously dedicated to the summery multi-faceted gems that are blackberries should really have more berry-centric recipes, despite the fact that the name has nothing to do with my food predilections and everything to do with my inescapable fondness for literature. (Also, if you like spring rolls and haven’t made these, get thee to the kitchen!) Two birds with one recipe, then.

2016 Food Blog August-0700In trying to imagine what a blackberry spring roll would consist of, I veered sweet almost immediately. Blackberries can be tart, but they also have a deep lushness that begs to be bolstered with sugar in some form. Since I can’t see fit to make a spring roll without mint (seriously, it is key), I had to find some kind of filler that paired well with the fresh coolness of mint and the dark tart-sweet of blackberries, and landed on coconut rice. Some shredded coconut in there as well for extra flavor and texture, and a sprinkling of finely chopped crystallized ginger, and these funny little rolls were sounding promising.

2016 Food Blog August--5Filled, pressed, rolled, and sliced, they were indeed promising – delicious, in fact – if a bit odd. When I sampled the first one, I found I wasn’t sure whether I liked it. Then I found myself eating the third, and decided I must. Blackberries and coconut are not a pairing I think of immediately, but henceforth I will, as should you. The tart berry is perfect to cut through the luxurious fattiness of the sweet coconut, like a dish of berries and whipped cream with an extra, tropical flavor. The mint and ginger, since they are good with both, complement equally, adding a breath of freshness and a warm, sweet spice to keep things interesting.

2016 Food Blog August-0703Further, it was an interesting exercise to decide what sort of snack this was. Inescapably sweet, yes, but not quite a dessert. Upon discussion my sister and I decided they would work well as a palate cleanser on an eclectic brunch table, or perhaps an offering at something delicate and fancy, like a certain sort of baby or bridal shower. I used sweetened shredded coconut, but you could certainly use unsweetened and end up with a slightly more savory product.

2016 Food Blog August-0713As with any spring roll, these are a project. You do have to compress the rice filling pretty assertively to get a nice, tight roll, and the blackberries and mint leaves need to be arranged just so to make them pleasingly visible in the finished product. Typically spring rolls are sliced in half on a bias to expose the lovely filling; doing so does bring these closer to bite-size, but it also gives the rice opportunity to spill out, and since the blackberries are only present in a few key spots, it doesn’t have the same aesthetic advantage. The presentation of these rolls is about the exterior – they have a stained glass window effect, as the veins of the mint leaves and the individual little drupelets of the berries press invitingly against the translucent wrapper.

2016 Food Blog August-0723After a few more left the platter, I thought about what else could be done with these. Rice, a blackberry or two, and a few mint leaves are a lovely combination, but perhaps almost too stark. Mango chunks, then, could be added if you want to up the fruit quotient, and in addition to, or perhaps instead of, the crystallized ginger, you could add some lime zest to the rice. Thai basil could replace or supplement the mint for another herbaceous note. I even considered wafer-thin slices of jalapeno, either raw or candied, for a different kind of heat.

2016 Food Blog August--2-32016 Food Blog August-07052016 Food Blog August-07062016 Food Blog August-07072016 Food Blog August-0708

Blackberry spring rolls
10-12 spring rolls (20-24 halves), depending on size and quantity of blackberries
45-60 minutes
1 cup cal rose or other short or medium grain rice
14 ounce can of coconut milk + 2 ounces water
1 cup shredded coconut, sweetened or unsweetened
3 tablespoons finely minced crystallized ginger
30-40 spearmint leaves
1 pint blackberries, rinsed, gently dried, and halved
Rice paper wrappers (I like the brand with the rose on the packaging)
Warm water

 

  • Combine the rice, the coconut milk, and the 2 ounces of water in a medium pot, cover, and bring to a boil. Stir quickly, replace the lid, and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook 15-20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked through. It will be very creamy, which will help it stick together in the roll.
  • Stir the shredded coconut and the minced ginger into the hot rice, then set aside to cool until just warm or at room temperature.
  • While the rice cools, pluck the mint leaves and prepare the blackberries.
  • To roll, set up an assembly line – mint, then blackberries, then rice mixture. Be sure to have a plate or other vessel on which to place your finished rolls at the end of the line-up. Add warm water to a wide, shallow dish or bowl that the rice paper will fit into. You will address this step first.
  • Submerge one rice paper wrapper in the warm water and let it sit until it becomes completely pliable. I find this tends to take somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds.
  • When the rice paper is ready, remove and place on a flat surface. If you wish, you can briefly spread it on a paper towel to soak up some of the drips, but this isn’t strictly necessary.
  • Place 3-4 mint leaves around the rice paper wrapper, bottom surface facing up. This ensures the top, more attractive side of the leaf will be visible through the wrapper on the finished roll.
  • Now, place two blackberry halves, cut side up, about a half inch apart in the center of the wrapper. Top the cut berries with 2 tablespoons of the rice mixture. With damp hands, press the rice mixture gently together in a log shape down the middle of the wrapper; the idea is to get it to stick together so you end up with a tighter roll. Top the rice mixture with two more blackberry halves, this time cut side down.
  • Now we roll! As the wrapper faces you, fold in the left and right “edges” over the ends of the rice log, so what you have looks like a long oval with two squared-off sides. Next, take the side of the wrapper closest to you and fold it completely over your fillings, then pull tight toward you. Roll up the wrapper, tucking each revolution tightly so the fillings are well contained. The tighter rolled, the better they will stay together.
  • Repeat until you run out of blackberries! You will get a nice rhythm established. I find I can complete a roll in the time it takes a new rice paper wrapper to soften. Then you are all set to start the next.
  • Just before serving, halve each roll on the bias (with a diagonal cut). If you have extra mint, you can press a leaf or a small sprig into the cut end of some of the rolls, for an attractive presentation.
  • These will keep, packaged in an air-tight container in the refrigerator, for 1-3 days. Let them come to room temperature before serving, or if you are in a rush, pop them in the microwave for 20-30 seconds, as the rice paper is tough and unpleasantly dry when cold.

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Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Breadcrumbs

2016 Food Blog March-0614My warmest memory of risotto – and the one that probably says the most about me as a person and as the graduate student that I was – is one wintery evening in Oregon, when I was making risotto while preparing for class. This seems counterintuitive, I know. It is. One cannot truly invest in either the stirring required for risotto or the note-jotting, powerpoint slideshow constructing, or annotating usually needed for quality lesson prep. One can, however, position one’s hand just so to hold up and keep open a paperback book in one hand, while leaving the other hand free for a wooden spoon.

2016 Food Blog March-05952016 Food Blog March-0597The house was cold that night, and I was frantically reading Beowulf in preparation for a lecture the next day in a class for which I was a teaching assistant. Stir, read. Stir, read. Slow, random swipes through the pan, as I drowned myself in Beowulf’s deeds. I probably didn’t get much out of that reading session, but the combination is stuck: warm, creamy rice, and poor Beo fighting against demons of darkness, and of his own overweening.

2016 Food Blog March-06002016 Food Blog March-0602I’ve complained about risotto before, and it’s true that I often find it underwhelming. But when you combine its warm, melting heartiness against the brightness of spring vegetables, and when you declare that decadence befits a spring break that finally arrived – so you give yourself a week off from blogging because SPRING BREAK, people! – and then you layer on a poached egg and a shower of crispy crumbs shot through with garlic and lemon zest, you have a risotto that I’ll put down my book for.

2016 Food Blog March-0611This one features leeks – my favorite, and sadly so underrated, member of the onion family – as well as slim fingers of asparagus, barely wilted spinach leaves, and a rubble of peas stirred in at the last minute. There’s a generous shower of parmesan cheese at the end, and the egg yolk, still oozy but just thickened, forms its own rich, golden sauce for the risotto when you slide your fork down through it. Risotto isn’t difficult, but it is a bit co-dependent: it requires your presence in the kitchen throughout the process. Still, though, if you are organized and get all of your vegetables prepared while the broth is heating, you can have the whole thing done in less than an hour. What’s that? Two entries in a row with reasonable time spans? Happy spring, my friends.

2016 Food Blog March-0615

Spring Green Risotto with Poached Egg and Lemon Garlic Crumbs
Serves 6-8
30-45 minutes
6 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large leeks, sliced into thin ribbons as described below
4 finely minced garlic cloves, divided
2 cups short or medium grain rice
½ cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, black or white
2 1-2 inch sprigs fresh thyme
1 pound slender asparagus spears, woody ends snapped off, spears cut into two inch pieces
1 cup frozen peas
4 ounces baby spinach
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
6-8 eggs (as many as people you are serving)
1 teaspoon white vinegar, for poaching
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
zest from one lemon
salt to taste

 

  • In a medium pot, heat the broth while you prep the vegetables – by the time you are ready to add it to the risotto, it should be just below a simmer.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-low heat.
  • Cut off the root end and the dark green leaves of the leek. Slice the remaining log lengthwise, leaving two long rounded planks. Run these planks under running water, flipping through the layers with your thumbs, to release dirt. Then cut each plank in half lengthwise again, and slice horizontally across into thin ribbons.
  • Add the leeks and half of the finely minced garlic (so, the equivalent of 2 cloves) to the butter and olive oil in the skillet, and turn the heat up to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very tender but have not browned much, 5-10 minutes. To keep them from caramelizing, you may need to turn the heat down a bit.
  • When the leeks are translucent and quite tender, turn the heat up to medium-high and add the rice. Stir constantly for 2-3 minutes until the rice grains have become opaque and smell toasty. Pour in the white wine and continue to stir constantly until it is almost all absorbed.
  • Once the wine is almost completely absorbed by the rice, add about a cup of the heated broth, the salt, the pepper, and the thyme sprigs, and stir to combine. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the broth has been absorbed. The more you stir at this stage, the creamier the risotto will be, as what you’re doing is releasing starch from the rice grains into the liquid, which thickens and enriches the mixture.
  • As each cup of hot broth is absorbed into the rice mixture, add another, stirring frequently while it absorbs. Each addition will take a little longer to integrate.
  • In between stirring and adding, poach the eggs and make the breadcrumbs. For the eggs, heat water in a small pot until barely simmering. Add the 1 teaspoon white vinegar, then use a spoon to stir the water in the pot in a circle to create a tiny vortex. Quickly and carefully crack the egg into the vortex (or you can crack the egg into a small dish first, and pour/dump it into the pot), and use your spoon to encourage the swirling whites to cling to the central yolk as it spins in the water. After about two minutes in the barely simmering water, use a spoon or a rubber spatula to gently detach the egg from the bottom of the pot, if it is stuck. After about three minutes, use a slotted spoon to remove the egg carefully to a bowl of warm (not hot!) water, and let it sit until you are ready to serve. Repeat for all eggs.
  • To make the breadcrumbs, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Toast over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, or until the panko is crisp and golden brown. Quickly add the remaining minced garlic and the lemon zest, and stir assertively to combine – these new wet ingredients may clump up together. Cook for about 30 seconds with the garlic and lemon zest incorporated, then remove from the heat, salt to taste, and set aside until you are ready to serve.
  • As soon as you add the final dose of broth, add the asparagus pieces and stir well. When the broth is almost completely absorbed, add the peas, the spinach leaves, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and the 1 cup of parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate, and cook just until the peas are warmed through and the spinach has wilted but is still bright green.
  • To serve, spoon a mound of risotto into the center of a shallow bowl. Carefully set the poached egg on top, then sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of the breadcrumbs and serve immediately.

Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains

2015 Blog September-0542As I’m sure will come as no surprise to you, I’ve always been very interested in food in books. But not food books, so to speak, just food that appears in stories. The kind I like is not food that is instrumental to or driving the story; not food that makes the plot twist and turn. I’m more fond of food that is incidental. Food that brings characters together and lets them pause for a moment. Food that, perhaps, the author got too carried away with describing (I’m looking at you, Brian Jacques).

2015 Blog September-0524The inspiration for this dish is something I’ve thought about and forgotten about on and off since I was in my early teens. Roald Dahl, easily my first author crush, has been on my bookshelf since I was five or six years old. But it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I discovered his two autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. In the latter, as he relates his time as an RAF pilot, he describes a dish cooked for him by a local Sergeant outside of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania:

There was a 44-gallon drum of drinking water in one of the trucks and everyone helped himself. Then the Sergeant made a fire out of sticks and began cooking supper for his men. He was making rice in an enormous pot, and while the rice was boiling he took from the truck a great stem of bananas and started snapping them off the stem one by one and peeling them and slicing them up and dropping the slices into the pot of rice . . . It was absolutely delicious. The rice was unhusked and brown and the grains did not stick together. The slices of banana were hot and sweet and in some way they oiled the rice, as butter would. It was the best rice dish I had ever tasted and I ate it all and felt good and forgot about the Germans. (Dahl 60-61)

I had never been particularly drawn to brown rice or to bananas, but the description of the way the bananas made the rice buttery and slick appealed deeply to me.

2015 Blog September-0532Here, I’ve taken the Sergeant’s basic ingredients and added a bit of my own flair. Impatient, I used white rice rather than brown, but chose basmati to echo the idea that the grains remained separate. A recent return of plantains to my grocery store determined the “banana” component, and since I can’t bring myself to cook plantains any other way besides frying them in thick slices, then smashing them down and frying again in an homage to tostones, I decided the bananas in my version would end up layered atop the rice, not cooked with it.

2015 Blog September-0522Since simple rice and bananas, though it sounded comforting and fulfilling in theory, might end up a bit boring in execution, I decided to cook the rice in coconut milk and then stir-fry it with some spices. This would take care of the “oiled” component from Dahl’s dinner that might otherwise go missing. A sprinkle of cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice would finish the dish.

2015 Blog September-0529Though my final dish was quite different from Dahl’s, my reaction was similar. I ate it all, I felt good, and I could see why Dahl told the Sergeant “You should open a restaurant and become rich” when he finished his plate (61). The plantains, though sweet by nature, teeter in the savory realm with a generous pinch of salt and a spare dusting of cayenne pepper. The rice recalls sweetness with the coconut milk and cinnamon, but a dose of coriander and a bay leaf hold it back from the edge of becoming a dessert rice dish.

2015 Blog September-0537A note about my plantains: though I’ve called this an “homage to tostones,” my results are only loosely similar. Real tostones use green plantains, cut thin slices, and after frying, smashing, and frying again, the resulting golden-brown coins are crisp and flat and something like the love child of bananas and potato chips. My fried plantains use a yellow plantain – not yet tremendously soft, but certainly not the hard, starchy green variety most commonly used for the dish. I shallow fry rather than deep-frying the slices, but the process of frying lightly to cook through, then smashing, then frying again to achieve a bronzed exterior remains the same. Be sure to salt them when they are hot to keep them savory.

2015 Blog September-0538

Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains
Serves 2
About 1½ hours (1 hour of resting time)
1 cup long-grain rice, such as jasmine or basmati
2 cups coconut milk (not coconut cream) (you could also use water, or vegetable or chicken broth)
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 dried bay leaf
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon coriander
1 large yellow plantain (it should have minimal black streaks and feel medium firm)
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
salt for sprinkling
cayenne pepper for sprinkling
2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
squeeze of lime juice

 

  • In a medium pot, stir together the rice, coconut milk, salt, and pepper. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Stir once, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until coconut milk is absorbed and rice is tender. Let sit with the lid on for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and let cool for about 1 hour. This helps the grains stay separate and not get gummy when fried.
  • While rice is cooling, prepare and cook the plantain. Peel the plantain and cut it into ½ inch slices. Heat 3 tablespoons coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the plantain slices in a single layer and fry until soft: 1-2 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel lined plate or cutting board.
  • Place another layer of paper towels on top of the lightly fried plantain slices. Using a potato masher or a wide spatula, gently flatten the plantain slices to around ¼ inch thick. Turn up the heat under the skillet to medium-high and return the flattened slices to the oil. They may stick a bit to the paper towel: be gentle but firm as you peel them away!
  • Fry the plantain slices again in the hot coconut oil until a crisp golden crust forms – about 2 minutes. Flip and fry again for another 2 minutes, or until golden on both sides. Remove to a fresh layer of paper towels and immediately sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and spoon in the remaining 3 tablespoons coconut oil. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander and let them sizzle for 30-45 seconds, just until their aromas start to mingle. Then, remove the bay leaf from the cooled rice and dump the rice in all at once.
  • Mix frantically to incorporate the spices, then let the rice sit undisturbed for 3-4 minutes to pick up a bit of a crust. Flip around with a spatula and fry another 2-3 minutes for even toasting.
  • To serve, mound about a cup of rice in the center of a shallow bowl. Layer half the slices of plantain on top, then sprinkle with chopped cilantro and squeeze on a few drops of lime juice. Repeat for the second diner, and serve immediately.