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.

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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.

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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.

Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?