Oh friends, it happened. I made it. Yesterday I made the last two Bittmans on my list and completed, albeit a year later than I’d originally intended, my project. I have reflections to share, certainly, and I have changes and excitement and promises for the new year, but first, I think, let’s work with the program. Two Bittmans. Two reports:
“14. Steam or poach 2 cups of pumpkin cubes until tender. Meanwhile, sauté 1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps in vegetable oil with a few drops of sesame oil. Boil 4 cups water and whisk some of it with ⅓ to ½ cup of miso. Stir miso mixture, pumpkin and mushrooms into water and heat everything through, then serve, drizzled with more sesame oil.”
Because we were planning to reach midnight by
eating as many snacks as possible eating our way to midnight snacking, I wanted a light dinner to precede the countdown. This seemed to fit the bill. And it had to, after all, since it was the only soup left and the calendar was screaming December 31st.
2 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash (I had some in the fridge, and suspected pumpkin would be hard to find)
1 1 oz. package dried shiitake mushrooms
1 TB vegetable oil
¼ tsp (or to taste) toasted sesame oil, plus some for drizzling
3 packets instant tofu miso soup mix (all I could find at my grocery store)
To reconstitute my shiitake mushrooms, I soaked them in a mixture of white wine and almost boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until they were plump and soft.
While the mushrooms soaked, I cubed up my butternut squash and submerged the pieces in a pan of salted water. I brought this to a bare simmer and cooked it just until the squash pieces were tender – 10-15 minutes – then drained the pieces in a colander. Don’t overcook them, because they will start to fall apart. Set the squash pieces aside.
When the mushrooms were tender, I scooped them out of their bath and decided the remnants shouldn’t go to waste. I poured the soaking broth into a little pot to bring to a boil, so I could use this already flavored liquid as the base for my soup. While it heated, I stemmed and sliced the mushrooms.
Since the shiitakes were now basically cooked, I probably could have skipped Bittman’s sautéing step. But honestly, I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to ingest sesame oil, so I dutifully dribbled vegetable oil with a few (or a few more than a few) drops of sesame oil in the (drained and dried) pan I’d used to simmer my squash and sautéed the mushroom slices over medium heat until they dried out a bit and started to take on some color.
While this colorization happened, slowly and so aromatically, I made the broth. I poured all three miso soup seasoning packets – tofu and seaweed and all – into a small dish, then mixed in about ½ cup of my heated mushroom soaking liquid and whisked gently to dissolve the powdery soup mix. This created a slightly thickened slurry, which I poured with the rest of the liquid and the butternut squash cubes into the mushroom pan.
After a few moments of reheating, we dipped up bowlfuls and ate.
N. wasn’t sure (he sometimes takes issue with the texture of reconstituted mushrooms), but I inhaled it with devotion. I love the flavor of miso soup, and the mild sweetness of butternut squash against the salty umami and fleshy squish of the mushrooms was lovely.
It was light but still satisfying, and the tofu and vegetables from the soup mix were so welcome that I’d advise you, if you are using straight miso rather than a pre-mixed, additive laden packet, to consider adding some tofu or seaweed or green onion just to contribute a little substance and contrast to the soup.
Dinner done, we moved on to the second stage of the evening.
“89. Vegetable crackers: Slice beets, sweet potatoes, plantains or parsnips or all of the above into 1/8-inch disks (a mandoline is helpful) and toss lightly in olive oil. Spread the slices on baking sheets, sprinkle with salt, pepper and, if you like, other seasonings and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. When browned, flip the chips over and bake for another 10 minutes or so.”
This sounded tasty, and I’d always intended to make it for a party. With a dear friend coming over to ring in the new year with us, and since hunks of cheese alone might be deemed a slightly imbalanced offering (though so, so delicious…), this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Beets were out of the question (N.’s nemeses since childhood), and I couldn’t find plantains in my grocery store’s produce section, so we were left with the nutty herbiness of parsnips and the always dependable earthy sweetness of sweet potato.
3 medium parsnips, peeled
½ large sweet potato, peeled
generous dose of olive oil (maybe ¼ cup?), plus more to grease the cookie sheets
1 tsp each (or to taste) salt, pepper, and garam masala
To prepare for roasting, preheat the oven to 400F and line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and spread to cover the surface of the foil evenly.
While the oven preheats, tackle the vegetables. I don’t have a mandoline, but I do have a ruler, and I must confess I did bring it to the kitchen to give myself a better idea of what 1/8 inch looks like. My slices were not quite even, but they did verge on passable. I tossed them – big coins of harvest orange and speckled white – in a glass bowl with the olive oil and the spices until they were evenly coated.
Spread the vegetable coins across the cookie sheets in a single layer, not overlapping, not in piles. If they cook in a stack, they will soften but not brown or crisp. Stow them in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until they are just beginning to brown.
This next step is a true exercise in patience. Unless you are far more talented with a spatula than I, you will have to flip each piece over individually. You have to, because otherwise one side will burn and the other side will flutter limply into cooked-but-not-crisp status. Trust me on this one. When you have laboriously flipped each coin, shove the tray back into the oven for another 10-12 minutes.
At this point, you’ll have to use your judgment. My offerings were, after this additional time, cooked through but not remotely cracker-like in texture. Another five minutes in the oven might have done the trick. Putting them back in, failing to set a timer, and heading to the couch to eat dinner (I was trying to multitask) is not advisable. I didn’t remember them until I smelled the slightly spicy aroma of parsnips, and by then it was too late – many of the little coins had gone from crackers to briquets.
I decided to pick out the worst offenders – Lucy reports that she didn’t mind a bit of charred flavor – and eat the salvageable ones anyway.
To make them a bit more exciting (and disguise any lingering burned taste) I made a little dipping sauce. You’ll need:
juice from 1 lime
2 TB honey
1 tsp garam masala
½ – 1 cup Greek yogurt
Whisk the first three ingredients together with a fork until they are smooth. In increments, add Greek yogurt until your sauce reaches the desired thickness. Mine was about the consistency of ranch dressing, but much more interesting in flavor.
These crackers (with and without the sauce) were – if you were able to overlook the overcooking – a nice alternative to crudites or store-bought crackers. They weren’t quite as crispy (except the ones that were too crispy), but they had a lovely deep flavor and none of the powdery, processed taste some crackers can have. They are also a gluten-free offering and, minus the yogurt and honey sauce, vegan as well.
I served them alongside a cheese platter,
and my appetizer version of Bittman’s “Marshmallow Topping for Adults” dish: thick discs of sweet potato roasted until tender, topped with a dollop of cream cheese and sprinkled with a pecan brown sugar blend before being broiled until the sugar bubbles and the cheese slackens toward melting.
And champagne, of course.
Happy New Year. I hope you celebrate your achievements, meet your goals, and find happiness in your own self. I’ll be checking in again later this week with some reflections and announcements. Welcome to 2013.
I’ve just begun rereading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s genius collaboration Good Omens for perhaps the sixth or seventh time. One of the characters introduced early in the novel is a Satanic nun named Sister Mary Loquacious from the Chattering Order of St. Beryl. In looking back through some recent posts, I’ve noticed myself falling a bit on the loquacious side, with posts extending perhaps a bit longer than you’d like for a casual evening read. So today, with three Bittmans to report on, I’m going to try to keep this brief.
54. Cook onion, curry powder and chopped ginger in oil until onion is soft; meanwhile, steam cauliflower florets until nearly tender. Add cauliflower to onion mixture, along with raisins; cover and cook until the cauliflower softens.
Two of my most hated food items as a child were cauliflower and curry. Cauliflower was drab and slightly bitter – worthless unless smothered in sharp cheese sauce, and even then a bit suspect. Curry powder was musty and unpleasant, and the two of them together sound like one of my youthful nightmares. I kept this selection on the list because N. loves the flavor of curry. But I knew that I would have to doctor up Bittman’s procedure to give this dish even a fighting chance.
1 tsp curry powder, divided
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
generous glugs of olive oil (quantity will depend upon the size of your cauliflower)
¼ of a red onion
¼ cup golden raisins
2 TB fresh ginger, grated (this is easiest to do while it is mostly frozen; you keep your ginger in the freezer, don’t you?)
Brush a layer of olive oil on each of two cookie sheets and preheat the oven to 400F.
Core the cauliflower and slice it across into flat steaks of about ½ inch thick. Some will collapse into florets. That’s okay, but ideally you want nice long, horizontal pieces of cauliflower. They look like flattened sprigs of Queen Anne’s Lace. Toss the cauliflower with ½ tsp of the curry, salt, pepper, and more olive oil, then place on the tray in a single layer. Don’t crowd them too much – the more space they have, the better they will brown. Roast for 40 minutes, pausing at the 20 minute mark to flip each piece.
While the cauliflower roasts and caramelizes and browns, sauté the red onion in a little more olive oil. When it begins to brown, toss in the raisins, the ginger, and the other ½ tsp of curry powder. Cook together for another 2-3 minutes until the raisins plump and the curry aroma mellows a bit.
When the cauliflower is just tender and darkly golden, take it out of the oven and toss it with the onion and raisin mixture.
We had ours alongside some roasted chicken breasts I’d marinated in yogurt and garam masala. It was delightful – if you favor a strong curry flavor, add more to both the cauliflower and the onions. I was happy to have just a mild hint of earthy spiciness, and the unexpected sweetness of the raisins cut even this dankness in a very pleasant way.
16. Sauté equal amounts chopped, peeled apples and onions in butter until soft. Add stock or water to cover, then simmer for 10 minutes. Cool and puree. Serve sprinkled with Stilton or other blue cheese.
We weren’t sure about this one. Nevertheless, we bravely decided to make just a small portion and see what happened. These quantities will serve two.
1 medium apple, peeled and cored
1 medium onion
salt and pepper to taste
2 TB butter
1 ½ cups chicken stock
Meanwhile, dice the apple and onion into small chunks. You want equal sized piles – we probably ended up with just over a cup of each. Add them to the pot and cook over medium, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes. You want softening and tenderizing, not aggressive browning.
When the apples are tender and the onions soft and translucent, add the broth and seasoning (though we didn’t make any additions, some thyme or sage might be very nice here – try 1 tsp of finely minced fresh herbs) and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and cool slightly, then puree and serve with 1-2 TB blue or gorgonzola cheese sprinkled on top. We had a nice blue stilton.
It wasn’t that we didn’t like this, it was that it seemed odd as a soup. It was slightly reminiscent of a butternut squash soup, but the apples were slightly sweeter than a squash, and the combination of their sweetness with the sharpness of the onion made this seem like an applesauce with too many ingredients. Left chunkier, this might be nice draped over a roasted pork tenderloin – a meat that goes nicely with both sweet and sharper, savory flavors. It might also be a good base for a butternut squash soup – the one additional player in this game could be the additional complexity it might have needed.
6. Cranberry-Corn Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with about a cup of corn kernels, some chopped scallions, ¼ cup brown sugar (or to taste) and a splash of water, just until thick.
Our third Bittman this week was part of a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner. When you grow up with a set collection of dishes that come to equate to this holiday, it can be hard to make a change. When N. started having Thanksgiving dinner with my family, he missed his mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. So I try, in the weeks that surround the holiday, to make up for these omissions. I make several smaller dinners featuring the dishes that don’t quite fit onto our holiday menu. This seemed like the perfect side – not traditional enough for our Thanksgiving table, but satisfying in the mean time.
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
3 green onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup water
I tossed the cranberries, corn, water, and brown sugar together in a saucepan and set them over medium heat. I added the green onions at this point too, but were I making this again I would add them later – the 15-20 minute simmering time resulted in a slightly adulterated color, and the fresh greenness would be so much nicer. I advise adding them during the last five minutes of cooking time.
I let this simmer for about 20 minutes, until most of the cranberries had popped and the whole pot was a sticky, almost syrupy texture. I let them cool off the heat with the pot uncovered for a few minutes, both because I like the flavor of cranberry sauce better the cooler it is, and because I wanted to let it gel up a bit further.
These weren’t as sweet as your typical cranberry sauce. At least, they were not as sugary sweet. The corn added a beautiful vegetal sweetness that seemed at once the perfect fit and a strange accompaniment. We talked through this dish as we ate it, appreciating the maple overtones of the brown sugar and the tender crunch of the sweet corn, but thrown off slightly by the same qualities. What we finally decided, as we sampled second helpings, was that they were a delicious side dish, but they didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. Since the rest of the meal (garlic mashed potatoes and the old standard green bean casserole, slathered with cream of mushroom soup and the salty, salty crunch of french fried onions) was so traditional, having this difference, even in its subtlety, felt wrong. If you’re a stickler for tradition, this cranberry dish would have a better chance as a chutney for grilled pork or maybe even lamb.
Next week is the big feast. Oddly (odd because the entire Bittman list was conceived for this single day), I had some trouble figuring out where to fit his ideas in. I’ve come up with a pair of selections to try out, and I will report back. In the mean time, what dishes will grace your menu on Thursday?
Summer into fall into summer. Salads and grilled vegetables into casseroles dabbled with cream into fresh raw dips. Luxurious stretches into curled legs under blankets into stressed grading sessions into sampling new half-fizzed white wine.
Sometimes this is called Indian Summer. I like to think of it as Swing Season.
Two Bittmans for you this week.
77. Trim and dice fresh tomatillos; peel and julienne jicama (or daikon or kohlrabi). For dressing, combine lemon and lime juices, olive oil and chopped cilantro. Pour over salad, top with toasted sesame seeds.
This sounded like a good late summer/early fall salad. I found tomatillos at the grocery store, but no jicama, no daikon, and no kohlrabi. And then we went to our Farmers’ Market, and I found all three! Huge daikons, alien baseball sized kohlrabis and, hidden between stacks of beets and the tiniest fingerling potatoes I’ve ever seen, a pile of grubby little tubers with vine-y stems still attached. Eureka, jicama! Back at home, I assembled the troops:
1 TB toasted sesame seeds
2 small jicama
6 medium tomatillos
(really, the number of jicama and tomatillos isn’t super important as long as the quantities are roughly equal once you’ve cut them up. Start with maybe 1 cup of each, see what you think, and then add more if that’s what makes you happy)
2 TB chopped cilantro
I’ve tasted jicama, but it has been a long time. And I’ve certainly had tomatillos, but mostly only after they were roasted and processed into salsa. I wasn’t sure how they would be raw. This – a lovely fresh slaw/salsa/salad hybrid – sounded so bright and tart and lovely that I wasn’t too nervous.
Before anything else, I toasted the sesame seeds and set them aside. They give off such a lovely roasty scent when they are just browned and starting to release some oils.
I peeled, then sliced the jicama into rounds. Then I stacked up the rounds and made thin slices across until my two little aliens were a pile of matchsticks across my board. Into the bowl with you.
Next I quartered and diced the tomatillo. Because they are still underripe when green (apparently they can turn purple and get very sweet when they ripen, but I’ve never seen them in that state), their skins were quite resilient – it took some pressure to get my knife through them. Carefully chunked into miniscule cubes, they joined the white confetti in my bowl.
A quick squeeze of lemon and lime, a whisking pour of olive oil, and a handful of chopped cilantro feathers later, and the dressing was done. And then a sprinkle of salt, and it was perfect. It was a little more than needed to moisten the salad, but it’s hard to know how much juice citrus will have secreted away inside it, so it’s always going to be a guessing game.
I mounded the white and green on my plate, then added a generous scoop of Mexican rice and a quartered cheddar cheese quesadilla. Simple simple. At this point, you should ideally sprinkle the sesame seeds you so carefully toasted atop the salad, but I forgot until after I’d already subjected it to a photo shoot.
I was surprised and pleased by the flavor of this dish. I can’t imagine eating it as a Thanksgiving side dish, but it was a bright burst of summer on a day that began in drizzly autumnal terms. Jicama is crisp and juicy with the barest hint of starchiness, and its flavor reminds me most closely of an Asian pear. The tomatillos were very tart, but the pairing tamed them. Imagine a granny smith apple crossed with an underripe tomato and you’re approaching the brightness we experienced.
This was good as a salad, though its tartness necessitates a small portion. It was also good heaped atop our quesadillas, like a raw salsa. It contrasted nicely against the melted cheddar and the just crisped corn tortillas. But where it would really shine, N. and I agreed, would be as a kind of mirepoix for guacamole. Dicing the jicama instead of leaving it in strips and folding the whole salad gently into chunks of ripe, buttery avocado would make for the perfect chip dip. Tart, creamy, crunchy, with the right kind of salty sourness from the dressing, and all you’d need was a frosted Corona and a pool to dip your toes into. Summer.
But things never end there. At least we hope not! Days of sweating and hiding inside and waiting till after sunset to go out always, inevitably (even if it’s taking FOREVER, Los Angeles…) relax and cool and crystallize into Autumn.
35. Pumpkin-Noodle Kugel: Cook a half-pound of egg noodles in salted water until not quite done; drain and put them into a buttered baking dish. Whisk together 4 cups milk, 4 eggs, 1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (canned is fine), ¼ cup melted butter and a pinch each of cinnamon and salt. Pour over the noodles and sprinkle with bread crumbs (or, for added kitsch, corn flake crumbs). Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.
I had no idea how to serve this dish. I’ve heard of kugels, but I’ve never even eaten one, let alone made one. I wasn’t sure, as usual, what to serve it with, so I asked a few friends and did some research on the good ol’ internet. At the point that I read Smitten Kitchen’s version (okay, so this one is written by her mom, but seriously, that woman has cooked everything, and all of it sounds and looks outrageously delicious), this sounded more like a dessert than a dinner side dish. It would be, I decided, dessert and weekend breakfast. Sweet, autumnal, nicely spiced, and custardy. “It’s going to be like a rice pudding but with noodles. And pumpkin,” I told N. He still wasn’t sure.
4 cups milk
1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s)
¼ cup melted butter (I put this in, but I’m not sure it was really necessary)
¾ cups sugar
¾ cups golden raisins
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
2 cups corn flakes, well crunched (who am I to pass up added kitsch?!)
It wasn’t until I had collected ingredients that I realized Bittman’s recipe doesn’t call for sugar. But I was already on the dessert/breakfast kick, and I couldn’t quite envision this as a savory dish, so I dumped in my sugar estimation anyway, along with the golden raisins that aren’t part of the original.
I cooked my noodles for 5 minutes and then let them cool for 10. They probably needed to be cooked for only 4 minutes, because they keep on cooking not only while they are in the oven, but on the counter as they cool as well.
With the custard whisked together and the noodles evenly spread in a buttered 9×13” glass baking dish, I preheated my oven to 375F and assessed the corn flakes situation. Whenever an ingredient needs to be crushed, crunched, or pulverized on Chopped, I yell at the chefs for using their hands, knives, or a rolling pin instead of just bringing over the food processor. But they don’t have to wash all the dishes they make, and I do, so my pretty little scarlet processor stayed on its shelf. I crushed up the cereal with my hands, feeling a kind of satisfaction as the flakes became bits and then powder. I topped the noodly custard with a generous layer of crumbs and carefully slid it into the oven.
An hour later, the custard had set and the smell flashed me forward to Thanksgiving. I’m convinced we as a society don’t really know what pumpkin tastes like, because what we experience is texture and spices. If this kugel didn’t have a sprinkle of cinnamon in it, I’m not sure I would know it had pumpkin either.
Dinner came and went, the kugel cooled a bit, and I dug out a too-big portion for myself, and neglected to feel any kind of remorse about it. It was too good for that. The noodles had melded together as the pumpkin infused liquid cooked, making a solid, scoopable, sliceable custard. The corn flakes on top were perfect: aggressively crunchy against the soft interior. I wouldn’t omit the golden raisins either; they were a really nice textural contrast to both the softness of the noodles and the crunchy crumbs, and their complex sweetness added some depth to my dessert casserole. It was warm, and sweet, and perfectly comforting as I tucked my feet under me on the couch and waiting for the approach of Project Runway (don’t judge, every girl needs a little reality TV now and then).
The leftovers are delicious too, though the dish does lose something in relinquishing its crunch to the microwave. In another universe where I’m a Southern cook, I could see doing crazy things like frying squares of this in butter and then drizzling hot maple syrup over the top. But I’ll refrain. Because from my window, I can see my basil wilting beneath the curiously, cruelly hot-for-mid-October sun: back to summer, so it seems! And here I was considering making soup…
Swing season indeed.
It’s a classic children’s game. Climb a ladder: advance! Land on a snake: tumble backwards. And so it goes with most ventures. Last week newness delighted me. This week I’m plodding a bit, experiencing not setbacks, exactly, but settling for lackluster(ness?)(ocity?). I’m discovering things I don’t love about my syllabus. I’m wading through class prep. Students are still (still! The third week is about to start! Papers will be due soon!) adding my classes, which means I am overenrolled and there are new faces every day. And though I’m mostly inspired in my kitchen, not every dish is a triumph. Some slip a little. Some slither into lackluster. But it’s our job, as cooks, as experimenters, as eaters, as humans – and pardon me while I get a bit metaphorical – it’s our job to take this as a challenge. Make it work, as Tim Gunn continually reminds us. So we squirm ourselves around and push back toward the ladders. And sometimes, even after a devastating slide, we climb a few steps.
70. Blanch, shock in cold water, then julienne green beans, daikon and carrots, chill. Whisk soy sauce with honey and lemon to taste; pour over vegetables.”
The most important thing to note about this particular Bittman combo is to leave yourself enough time, particularly if your knife skills are not perfect. It is not possible to concoct this dish in anything but a zone of utter frustration and simmering disappointment if you only have twenty minutes until dinnertime. Here’s what I did:
3 carrots, peeled and cut into thick sticks
1 6-inch chunk daikon, peeled and cut into thick sticks
½ lb. green beans, rinsed and stemmed
3 TB soy sauce
2 TB lemon juice
1-2 TB honey
I dropped the carrot and daikon sticks into a big pot of boiling, salted water and let them cook for 2-3 minutes, until they had give between my teeth but still put up a bit of resistance. I plunged them into ice water and put the tailed green beans into the boil. This was the point at which I ran into trouble. Performing a nice julienne on a pile of veg takes some time and some patience, and on this particular day I lacked both.
Nevertheless, cut each thick stick of carrot and daikon into thin slices (Food Network calls them panels), then turn those slices to cut long, thin vertical strips. You want uniformity but also thinness, since these are only partially cooked, and you want even quantities of carrot slivers and daikon slivers.
At this point the green beans were overboiled and the sausages – the other component of our meal – were almost done on the grill, so I shifted into I-don’t-care-how-it-comes-out-just-get-it-done overdrive. It happens. You should julienne the green beans. I just sliced them into strange vertical halves. You should chill the whole salad until nice and crisp – probably at least half an hour – after lovingly tossing the thin sticks of orange, white and green together. I shoved the bowl in the freezer for five minutes while I made the dressing.
I whisked the soy, honey, and lemon together and was satisfied with the flavor. Were I making this again, I would definitely increase the quantity of lemon juice and maybe even add some zest, but I say it’s up to you. Play with the combination until you like the ratios.
Dressed, the vegetables had a pleasant texture and tasted well seasoned, but the salad as a dish was missing something. N. and I agreed that the dressing was a little one-note, and that note was soy sauce. Flavorwise, things were also a bit on the dull side. Red pepper flakes or raw garlic, we decided, or more or different acid, would have helped things along. Maybe some chives or lemongrass or ginger or cilantro, and certainly pairing this Asian-flavored dressing with something other than Italian sausages, would have been the right move.
And so, in my attempts to slither back into success, I considered the leftovers. They weren’t stars, but they could perhaps be supporting players. In fact, though they were not the traditional combination, they seemed not so different from the vegetables that go into a bahn mi sandwich. Setting off to work a morning or two later, therefore, I slathered a crisp roll with mayonnaise, piled up a good portion of drained veggie slivers and, lacking lunchmeat, topped the whole thing with slices of pepperjack cheese. I know. Cheese is not part of bahn mi either. But jalapeño slices usually are, and the vegetables were crying for spice anyway. It wasn’t the best sandwich I’ve ever had. But it wasn’t a disaster either. It was a few steps forward. Keep moving forward. On to the next ladder!
Yes, I know I’ve already moved. Yes, I know I’m now in a pattern of filling the fridge, not emptying it. But moving, like writing, is a process, and I have to catch you up. And that means talking about what I’ve done before I get into what I’m doing…
This recipe fruited during a hummus drought. I had evicted all garbanzos from my pantry – not from lack of desire, but from too much desire: hummus-hummus-all-the-time. And at first, facing the multiple cans of cannellini beans in the cupboard, I thought I might just whip up some hummus-with-white-beans. But beans, like chilis, seem to call for applications appropriate to their specific qualities. No one makes poblano salsa, for example. Jalapenos are needed. Tabasco sauce, to no surprise, can only truly be made with tabascos. So white beans, as adequately as they might suit, are just not destined for hummus. And really, when you’ve been scarfing down a batch a week, it might be time to try something different anyway.
So I faced off against the white beans and thought about accompaniments. Like most dips – hummus, pesto, artichoke (maybe?) – it would need a few players with whom to harmonize and energize. Acid. Herbs. Salt, of course. Maybe some spice. Maybe, given the circumstances, whatever I had lying around…
Out of rosemary, which seemed like a natural pairing (check the web: white beans and rosemary are easy, well established lovers), I did have some toasted, salted, rosemary-infused marcona almonds begging to be consumed. Almonds in bean dip? Why not? Pesto couldn’t operate without pine nuts, and walnuts whir excellently together with roasted red pepper. Lemon seemed too stringent, but an aging orange called me from the fruit basket. Like adding colors to an outfit, each ingredient meant slowly ruling out and pulling in other things. Orange and garlic don’t fit together well, at least not across my palate. So some other sharpness was needed, and I opted for cayenne pepper. Almonds and beans could be a bland marriage. Couples therapy recommends adding some spice.
What came out of the food processor on a tentative spatula dip was a smooth creamy whisper of something amazing. I’m not exaggerating. It was warm, it was earthy, it was perfumed and heated and comforting. As soon as we finished slathering this odd little puree all over crackers, and tortillas, and those amazing raisin rosemary crisps from Trader Joe’s (more on that in a bit…), we wanted more. So I made it again. And this time I wrote some things down and made some adjustments. And some more adjustments.
You may have noticed, if you read this page with any frequency, that with the necessary and understandable exception of buttercream, I am not big on repeating recipes. Most of what I post I have never made before and never made again. It’s a shot in the dark. It’s all experimentation. Love it or leave it. Or play with it yourself until it’s right for you. But guys, I’ve worked on this one. I’ve a real recipe to share that you can actually follow. I’ve forced myself to note and follow my own suggested quantities to make sure yours will emerge the same way (well, sometimes my hand slipped a bit, but I’ll have you know I scolded myself resolutely for that and I won’t do it again. This time).
So here it is, my perhaps overly-annotated almond and white bean dip. Some of the ingredient quantities are listed in ranges. I suggest you begin with the smaller quantity and increase as your taste buds request.
½ cup almonds, skinned and toasted. Marcona almonds are best but most expensive, so choose as your budget permits (this doesn’t mean you have to pay top price for pre-skinned almonds, though. To easily slip their coverings away, put your almonds in a bowl, pour boiling or near boiling water over them, and let them stew for 3-5 minutes. Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle, you should be able to pinch them into nudity in moments. Skinless, they are mild and meaty/fruity and ivory-pale, and you can then quickly toast them in a pan until they begin to brown and exude fragrant oil)
1 15oz. can of white beans (cannellini are creamiest, but great northern and unspecific “white beans”) will do just fine
3 TB fresh rosemary leaves (you can, if you wish, just strip them from their stems and toss them into the food processor. This may result in larger green snippets and a dip chunkier in texture than you want, so depending upon how obsessed with smoothness you are, you can mince the rosemary finely before adding it in)
2 tsp orange zest from one large orange
¼ – ½ cup juice from the same large orange (you could use orange juice from a container, but I think it just doesn’t taste as fresh or bright)
½ – 1 tsp salt, according to your taste *
Pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste *
In a food processor, pulse almonds until only small chunks remain (texture should be like very coarse sand, but not yet broken down into butter).
Add all remaining ingredients except olive oil and pulse three or four times, until all ingredients are mixed but large clumps resist blending.
Drizzle in olive oil slowly through your food processor’s top spout. The mixture should whir together into a creamy and relatively homogenous spread. Continue to process until it reaches the texture you desire. Chunky and smooth are both fine by me. Taste, season if desired, and taste again. Chill for an hour or two to allow flavors to entwine, and bring to room temperature before serving.
* A note on seasoning: during the hour or two of chilling time, flavors will intensify. Salt, spice, and sharpness will become more pronounced after allowing the dip to sit. Therefore, it might be wise to minutely underseason the first time you make this. If it tastes a touch bland, it might not in a few hours. If it’s already pretty spicy, be aware it will get spicier as it sits. This is not a bad thing, but something of which to be aware.
Now you have your dip. Or spread. Or puree. Depends on how long you processed. But dips – and spreads – all on their own are incomplete. They need a vehicle. And in this case, with this dip, it needs just the right vehicle. It’s not garlic driven, it’s not overwhelmingly pungent. It hovers on the edge of savory. It could even, if you were feeling a deep need for warmth and comfort, take a drizzle of honey and still be delicious. It errs toward the sweeter side. A tortilla chip just won’t do. A pita chip leaves something to be desired.
A rosemary raisin crisp from Trader Joe’s makes it sing. And I was content with that. But then I looked at the ingredient list for these crisps and saw flax, millet, sunflower seeds… all, oddly, items in my pantry that needed using up.
So another project before perfection, which I will tell you about next week: the cracker soap-box derby. Recreating the perfect vehicle for my perfect spread.