Ahi Nori Wraps

Food blog May 2015-0757Months and months ago, I showed you photos of a tiny shack in Kauai and promised you my own rendition of their signature ahi nori wraps: thick, squared-off cylinders of seared ahi and spears of cucumber, surrounded by brown rice, doused with a mysterious wasabi sauce and wrapped up in a spinach flour tortilla lined with a sheet of nori. A delightful cross between a burrito and sushi, they were one of our favorite meals while on the island. But then, you know, life, with all those pesky obligations, insisted on happening, and now we are a full school year later and I’m finally getting around to it. It’s a cringe-worthy cliche to declare that these are worth the wait, but since we are now on our second version of them in two weeks, I’m going to take the chance.

Food blog May 2015-0742Since it has been so long, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what make these funny little sushi / burrito mash-ups so good. Well-spiced, lightly seared tuna, still rare or even raw in the middle, is of course the main reason. But only slightly secondary are the issues of texture and temperature. As you’ll know if you like sushi, there’s something amazing about a perfect piece of ahi – it’s meltingly soft but, when seared around the edges, it becomes softness with a bouncy chew. It is hot on the outsides, but still cool in the interior. Flanked by cucumbers, you get a fresh, bright, cold crispness, and the chewy strangeness of the nori seaweed layer is somehow perfect.

Food blog May 2015-0743Food blog May 2015-0744Food blog May 2015-0749These also offer perfectly contrasting tastes. Of course there’s the glorious fresh fish flavor, but there’s also nostril-piercing heat from the wasabi, and saltiness from the seaweed, and the welcome nutty blandness of the rice. Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I thought the addition of rich, creamy avocado blitzed into a velvet puree with a touch of mayonnaise would be the right vehicle for the wasabi, and insisted on crusting the tuna itself with sesame seeds, lime zest, and some red pepper flakes as well as the customary salt and pepper sprinkle before searing it off.

Food blog May 2015-0751Food blog May 2015-0752We ate these in big gulps, then went back for more. One wrap is plenty for a dinner, especially if you wisely offer yourself a side of mango-spiked salad or lightly sautéed vegetables, but we are not always wise, and opted instead to make a third wrap and split it. Still, even the resulting food coma couldn’t deter our enthusiasm about the meal.

Food blog May 2015-0753If you aren’t comfortable with raw fish, you can of course cook yours all the way through, though if you’re going to do that I wouldn’t bother with the pricey ahi. Cut a nice filet of salmon into long strips and crust and sauté or broil until just cooked through. Or, if you want to go an even easier route, sprinkle some lime juice over a few layers of smoked salmon and wrap that up inside instead. Food blog May 2015-0756

Ahi Nori Wraps
Makes 4
For rice and sauce:
1 avocado, pitted and peeled
juice from ½ a lime
¼ cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons wasabi paste or sauce
(alternatively, you could use about ¼ cup of wasabi mayonnaise)
2 cups cooked brown rice, warm or at room temperature
For the tuna:
½ tablespoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
½ pound ahi or other sushi grade tuna, cut into long rectangles that are about 1×1 inch at the ends
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
To assemble:
1 seedless cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into long, thin planks (thinner is better – too thick and they won’t roll up well. Go for translucent, but be careful!)
4 spinach tortillas
4 sheets nori

 

  • In a small bowl or blender, combine the avocado, the lime juice, the mayonnaise, and the wasabi paste. If you have wasabi mayonnaise you like the flavor and heat level of, you could use that instead. I wanted my mixture a little spicier than my wasabi mayo, so I opted to make my own mix. Whiz together with a standard or immersion blender until a completely smooth, pale green puree forms; it will be too thick to pour.
  • Combine the puree with the cooked brown rice and taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed, then set aside.
  • For the tuna, combine the salt, black and red pepper, lime zest, and sesame seeds on a small plate. Carefully dredge each log of tuna in the mixture by rolling it through the seasoning. When all are well coated, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the crusted tuna carefully, watching out for oil spatters, and sear about 1 minute on each side (for raw in the center), or until done to your liking. I overcooked mine, as you can see from my photos; I would have preferred red, not pink, in the center.
  • When tuna is done to your liking, remove from pan immediately and set aside.
  • To assemble, lay out your tortillas and place a sheet of nori in the center of each one. Lay 4-5 planks of cucumber atop the nori, all facing in the same direction. Add about ½ cup of the rice and sauce mixture per wrap, and spread this out to the edges of the cucumber planks. Lay one log of ahi in the center of each one in the same direction as the cucumber planks, then wrap up like a burrito, carefully folding in the edges.
  • To serve, cut on a bias and, if you’re feeling fancy, stand one half up like I’ve done above to show off the interior.
  • Eat immediately, and lick your fingers with no shame.

Rice Rolls

Food blog April 2015-0598As I revealed last week, my trio of vegetable pickles are just one part of a larger project: a meatball banh mi. These rice rolls are part two. Banh mi, in Vietnamese, really refers not to the wonderful sandwich layered with pate or pork or tofu and stacked with vegetables, pickles, and spice, but to bread itself. Colonization brought the French baguette to Vietnam, and the blending of flavors is a much nicer postcolonial remnant than such occupations frequently bring.

Food blog April 2015-0567Food blog April 2015-0570Though the culinary melding is quite harmonious, banh mi bread brings with it a great deal of internet controversy. Though most shops that sell the popular sandwich buy their baguettes from Vietnamese bakeries rather than making them in-house, crazy people people like me who want to re-craft the “genuine article” share their complaints, secrets, and professed revelations all over forums and comment threads, arguing over proportions and procedure and shape, and at some point, the argument usually involves discussion of flour type, gluten development, and protein content.

Food blog April 2015-0572Food blog April 2015-0574Food blog April 2015-0580The main debate when it comes to banh mi bread is the texture and composition. Though I’ve had these sandwiches on bread ranging from baguette or french roll to essentially a toasted hot dog bun, the ideal is a crisp, thin crust with a soft interior. The phrase “shatteringly crisp” is used with reverence. The internal structure should be light and soft and more delicate than the spongy chew of ciabatta. Rice flour is supposed to be the answer. Because it does not contain gluten, it will not result in the formation of the chewy texture a well-kneaded baguette can produce. However, food writer Andrea Nguyen, who knows a thing or two about Vietnamese food, asserts (assertively, even!) that rice flour is not a necessity, and in fact may even hinder the lightness and delicacy of the bread interior. However, without access to her cookbook or the combination of vital wheat gluten and vitamin C tablets she makes use of, I stuck with my usual method: a combination of promising-looking recipes plus my own instinct. Despite the to-rice-or-not-to-rice controversy, I decided to use a small percentage of rice flour. After all, I had some. Why not give it a shot.

Food blog April 2015-0581I also decided, veering far from tradition, to add some rye flour to the mix. According to Simply a Food Blog, a little bit of rye flour adds a compelling flavor and some additional sugars to the dough for the yeasts to gobble up. I like the gentle toastiness of rye flour, so I incorporated some of that as well.

Food blog April 2015-0586Food blog April 2015-0588In addition to the Simply a Food Blog suggestion, I also used Rice and Wheat and A Bread A Day in my recipe creation, and ended up with an ingredient list and procedure that created something much closer to a sausage roll or a bun than a crisp crusted baguette.

Food blog April 2015-0589Yes, I’ll admit, these are not the banh mi wrappers of your dreams (well, at least not if you are bivouacked in the “shatteringly crisp” camp). Though these rolls have a thin crust, it is just enough for the teeth to play with, not a staggering crunch you can hear across the table. At first I was perturbed by this, but it only took splitting one open, still warm and fluffy from the oven, and slicking the interior with butter to show me that while this might not be a traditional Vietnamese baguette, it is a delicious piece of bread. Though I filled ours with the meatballs I’ll show you next week, it would be more than welcome at any summer grilling event, whether your intended fillings are kielbasa or veggie dogs.

Food blog April 2015-0590As I thought more about this issue of inexactness, I decided I didn’t care. After all, this is my sandwich. A thin crust that shatters upon impact is fine, but my version keeps the roof of your mouth unscraped and your placemat a lot less crumb-scattered. As Joe Pastry pointed out just recently, tender bread is a boon for a sandwich. Mine offers a pleasant depth of flavor from the addition of the rye flour, and its soft, fluffy interior is exactly the kind of squashy that I favor in a sandwich. Besides (I compellingly convinced myself), the crisp crunch of the vegetables stacked up between the halves of the roll provide sufficient textural contrast. Why not, then, surround them with something a bit on the softer side?

Food blog April 2015-0594These rolls are best just cooled from the oven. They are okay on the second day, but I highly recommend toasting them for consumption on any day following the one they were made.
Food blog April 2015-0596

Banh Mi Rice Rolls
Makes 8
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups (16 ounces) lukewarm water
1 cup rice flour (about 5 ounces)
½ cup rye flour (about 2.5 ounces)
2 teaspoons salt
3-4 cups all-purpose flour (we don’t want the extra chewiness of bread flour)
2 tablespoons soft butter
  • Combine the yeast and sugar with the water and stir, then let sit for 5-10 minutes until it is bubbly and smells like warm bread.
  • In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the rice flour, rye flour, butter, and water and yeast mixture with the paddle attachment. It will be very, very wet – basically a liquid. Let it sit for 10-20 minutes – rice flour needs extra time to absorb water. It will seem a bit floppier when you return.
  • After 10-20 minutes resting time, add 2½ cups of the all-purpose flour and all of the salt, then mix with the dough hook attachment on medium speed to form a soft but not overly sticky dough. After about 5 minutes, the dough will start to gather into a ball and stretch to slap the sides of the bowl as it whizzes around. If the dough is not coming together after about 5 minutes, add an additional ¼ cup of flour as needed. I ended up with a little more than 3 cups of all-purpose flour in the mix. Knead on medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, a total of 7-10 minutes.
  • Oil the bowl and turn the dough ball over to lubricate on all sides, then cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled; 45-60 minutes. In my warm home office, it only took 45 minutes.
  • Turn the risen dough out onto a board dusted with rice flour and cut into 8 equal pieces. Roll each into a ball, flatten into a disc with the heel of your hand, then let rest 5-10 minutes.
  • Roll each flattened piece of dough into an oval about 8 inches long by 6 inches wide. Working from the long side, roll up each oval into a cylinder of about 8 inches long (the dough will want to stretch – try to keep it at the 8 inch mark). Pinch the exposed edge into the side of the cylinder to create a seam.
  • Place each dough cylinder seam-side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. (If you don’t mind the buns touching, all 8 will fit on the same sheet. If you want them to remain separate, don’t put more than 4 on the same baking sheet). Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let rise 30-45 minutes until puffy. To determine whether they’ve risen enough, poke gently; the depression made by your finger should recover about halfway – if the depression disappears completely, it has not risen long enough.
  • While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking stone inside for even heating. Prepare a spray bottle full of water to spritz the loaves.
  • When risen, slash the loaves at a 45 degree angle (or angle of your choosing; mine are clearly not 45) with a razor blade or serrated knife, then spray lightly with water and quickly place into the preheated oven. Bake for 2 minutes, then spray loaves again lightly with water. Bake 3 minutes more, then spray lightly again.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 400F and bake an additional 10-15 minutes, or until loaves register 200-210F inside.
  • Let cool at least 10 minutes before splitting, spreading, or just going in for a big bite.

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

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

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

Food Blog October 2014-0648

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Blog October 2014-0676

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

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

Cilantro Lime Rice

Once you live in an area long enough, you start to notice food trends, especially if you like to eat out (which I do).  In Los Angeles, when you’re not focusing on the grass-fed beef and the house-made buffalo mozzarella and the artisan cocktails, you start to notice side dishes.  It wouldn’t be Los Angeles, I suspect, without the ubiquitous kale salad.  These folks love their kale.  And when it’s not kale, it’s quinoa, toasted or steamed or boiled, getting cozy with vegetables or dried fruit or the lightest of vinaigrettes.  Sometimes, in a really ambitious nod to “California Cuisine,” kale and quinoa get combined in the healthiest, hipster-est, most trendy-bohemian side dish the world has ever seen.*

Food Blog September 2013-2636But the other side dish I’ve been noticing a lot lately, spurred along, no doubt, by the dozens of Chipotles lining every other street corner, is cilantro lime rice.  Whether it’s speckled with zest or dotted with the occasional herb fleck, or the bright green of a rice dish Sam I Am would be proud to serve alongside some huevos rancheros verdes, it shows up on so many menus that at some point I was bound to become either totally sick of it, or completely obsessed.

Food Blog September 2013-2631Clearly, my palate chose the latter.  I adore it.  At one of our current favorite Culver City haunts, my dinner choice is based on which dish comes with a side of cilantro lime rice.  I fall on the love side of the Great Cilantro Divide – I admit that there is a soapy quality to it, both in taste and in aroma, but it appeals to rather than repulses me – and lime is quite possibly my favorite citrus option.  These flavors paired with a fluffy, starchy, perfectly cooked scoop of rice are a side dish I would eat next to almost anything.

Food Blog September 2013-2633But the problem, as with most things I end up obsessed with, is that not all cilantro rice is particularly good.  The herbs are dull and flavorless, or the lime isn’t assertive enough, or the rice is mush, or I don’t want to pay for the accompanying $20-30 entree as often as I want the zesty side.  And so, as usual, I have to saunter into the kitchen to make my own.

Food Blog September 2013-2626I toyed around with some flavor combinations, playing with spices and vegetables and heat, and ended up with something so bright and tart and satisfying that we almost didn’t want the blistered corn quesadillas I’d made to go along with our rice.  This was fresh, and vibrant, and almost overloaded with lime and cilantro flavor – maybe my favorite rice side dish since my mom’s pilaf (which I’m convinced will never be topped).

Food Blog September 2013-2630Make this for your family.  Pair it with grilled fish or carne asada or stewed black beans or chile relleno.  And if you like it, let me know!  Maybe it can serve as my penance for the overly complicated, labor intensive loaf I pushed upon you last week.

* I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  I don’t have anything against kale or quinoa, and I agree that they are quite tasty together.  But then, I am a bit of a healthy bohemian type, though certainly not very trendy.  Which is why it’s taken me till now to fall for this dish…

Food Blog September 2013-2638

Cilantro Lime Rice
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed in a spice grinder or with the side of a knife blade
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ – ½ cup diced onion (I used a red onion, but yellow or white would be fine too)
1 ½ cups long grain white rice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 cups low sodium chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
2 bunches cilantro
1 – 2 limes (using 2 whole limes results in a very strong lime flavor.  This was what I wanted.  If you want less or you aren’t sure, start with the juice from 1 lime and work up from there)
  • Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat.  When it is shimmering, add the cumin and coriander and turn the heat down to medium low.  Let the spices warm and release their aroma – this should take about 3-5 minutes (it will look like a lot of oil for just this little palm-full of spices.  Don’t worry.  We are using this for the vegetables and toasting the rice as well).
  • While the spices are heating up, prep your onions and garlic.  When the cumin and coriander smell toasty and begin to pop occasionally in the pot, add the onions and garlic and sweat them over medium low heat for 5-8 minutes. You want the onions to get translucent and the garlic to become aromatic, but not browned or crisp.
  • Add the rice and turn the heat up to medium high.  Let it sizzle, stirring frequently, until some grains of rice are opaque and bright white but some are still translucent and pale.  It will smell a bit reminiscent of popcorn or puffed rice, and that is a good thing.
  • When the rice is toasted, add the salt, pepper, and broth or water.  Stir well and cover to bring to a boil.  Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium or medium low and simmer for 15-18 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender but not mushy.
  • While the rice simmers, prepare the cilantro.  Tear or chop the leaves and tender upper stems from the tough ends and place in a blender or food processor (alternatively, if you don’t want the extra dishes or don’t mind big pieces of cilantro, you can just chop it up with a knife).  Add the lime juice and pulse in 3 second bursts until the herbs are very finely chopped and almost become a paste.
  • When the rice is done, uncover it, fluff it with a fork, and add the cilantro and lime juice mixture.  Combine thoroughly to ensure even greenness, then serve immediately.  Too much time between adding the cilantro and serving the rice will result in a less vibrant green color.

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.

Food Blog May 2013-1456

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.

Starstruck

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that I live in Los Angeles now. Funny little happenstances keep reminding me, and I’m stunned into bemused awareness. This didn’t happen when I lived in Orange County as a teenager. We were far enough from the big city with its food, music and fame scene, and I was distant enough in age to care, or even be aware of, what living near LA could mean.

Now that I’m a bit closer physically and chronologically, what it mostly means to me is food. Yesterday as I sat cloistered in my home office, commenting on what seemed like an endless stream of papers, my phone gave that delightfully insistent buzz that means someone from the outside world has contacted me. It was our friend J., asking if we wanted to go and grab burgers with him and one of his local friends. Dinner out? On a Friday? Meaning I wouldn’t have to tackle the embarrassing state of my kitchen just yet? Not to mention another culinary and – what would be the right word, perhaps libationary? – joyride around our new city? Yes, please.

J. showed up at our house around six and whisked us off to Plan Check Kitchen and Bar, a new-ish little burger and brew style gastropub in the Little Osaka area of West LA, where we would have dinner with him and his friend T. They have a short menu, mostly meat, but with interesting Asian flavor accents – wasabi, yuzu, and dashi creeping up in unexpected places.

I ordered the Bleuprint Burger, a patty of wagyu beef piled with smoked bleu cheese, brown sugar baked bacon they call, perfectly, “pig candy,” fried onions, roasted garlic steak sauce, and peppercress. My dining mates all got the standard: the Plan Check Burger, featuring a curious substance Plan Check calls “ketchup leather,” and a dashi-infused “Americanized” cheese, which I think meant cheddar mixed with garlic and some fish stock to smooth it out and add extra umami flavor. On the side, the table shared sweet potato fries cooked in beef tallow, served with a sweet peach ketchup, and veggie chips – perfectly crispy wafer thin slices of yam and yucca and who knows what else, paired with a slightly spicy, velvet smooth avocado cream.

Dinner was fantastic. I haven’t had a really good, moist burger cooked at an actual medium (the temperature I requested) in a long time. I drank a tangerine wheat beer with it (the name of the brewery escapes me, but somewhere in California), and it was a nice accompaniment.

While I was away from the table for a moment, somehow the conversation changed from food to, well, food. But virtual food. In fact, televised food. T., through a previous job, knows one of the guys from the company and food truck project Seoul Sausage, currently being featured on The Great Food Truck Race.

“I think they are opening a storefront,” he said, while my eyes bugged out of my head. “It’s just on Mississippi. We should go see if they’re open.”

Bye-bye, burger.  It’s sausage time.

We ambled the blocks along Sawtelle separating us from Mississippi. T. pointed out which restaurants along the way were worth checking out which, as it turns out, is most of them. I tried to make mental notes but I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of delicious knowledge I was receiving. N. and I will just have to go back. Many times.

We turned the corner onto Mississippi and there, at the end of a short collection of shops, was Seoul Sausage Co. And it was open. Without knowing it, we had stumbled across a secret mini launch they had announced only on their website and on Twitter, and there were all three of the boys behind the counter, and suddenly I was being introduced and ordering one of the flaming fried balls they developed on the show.

I know I should be talking about the food here, but I was so starstruck I couldn’t stop grinning my way around the little space. The guys were, as I had imagined but never even hoped to find out, super friendly and happy to see us – and everyone else who stopped in – and being very properly and apologetically closed-mouthed about the results of the show (the finale is tomorrow – Sunday, at 9pm). N. chatted them up about beer, encouraging them to carry Ninkasi if it ever appeared on their radars. I couldn’t help but mumble something about how I hoped they would/had/did/whatever-it-is-taped-tv-is-so-confusing win before I gave into the beautiful, sizzling-hot fried riceball they handed me.

It was delightful. Delicate rice in the middle mixed with cheese, spices, and who knows what else. Crisp breaded crust around the outside, and a slightly spicy sauce squeezed over the top. It reminded me of the kind of sauce you get on certain spicy sushi rolls, and it paired so nicely with the rice. This is an excellent late night snack, and N. and I assured them we would be back again after their official opening next week. I was halfway through my little after-dinner snack before I remember that, despite my unwise choice to venture out on a Los Angeles food adventure without my camera, I do have a smart phone fully capable of capturing an image.

Flaming fried balls conquered, and me still in some disbelief that we had just been to Seoul Sausage and met the guys in charge (I wanted to know everything but asked nothing: what was Tyler Florence like? Were you getting all those truck stop phone calls at once, or did he call each truck one at a time? What did you think of Nonna’s Kitchenette? Did you win? Did you win? Did you win?) we stepped back out into the night (which we were surprised to learn was still so young – only 8pm yet) and resurfaced at the Formosa Café in West Hollywood to share a round of drinks. I asked for a lemon drop, but the bartender mixed me a vodka daisy instead because he likes the flavor better, and so did I. Vodka daisy with a sugared rim is apparently my new cocktail of choice.

As we belted ourselves into J.’s car again, he asked if we minded swinging by Canter’s delicatessen on Fairfax. He wanted a pastrami sandwich for the road back to Orange County, and of course we obliged. Once inside, I was attracted not to the sandwiches, but to the bakery counter, where my taste buds immediately performed their own version of the honey bee’s waggle dance to communicate a single word: éclair. N. wandered up behind me and asked if I was going to get anything, and as I gazed at the shelves packed with donuts, cookies, babka, danishes, chocolate studded croissants, cheesecakes, a big layer cake with the word “rum” frosted in chocolate across the top, all I could think about was an éclair.

And there they were. On the bottom shelf. Thick, ganache-glossed masterpieces. My eyes were bugging out again, I could feel it. With my new little treasure safely enclosed in a pink bakery box and tucked under my arm, all was right with the world. When I dug in, gentle fork pressure forcing the thick, sweet pastry cream out across my plate, the world was more than right. The dough was tender-crisp, and if I’m honest it may have been moving a bit toward staleness after a day on the shelf, but the flavor of the custard and the ganache more than made up for it. It was a stellar dessert for a starstruck evening.