Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leeky Lemon Risotto


Risotto is one of those dishes that I always wanted to try, but never had an excuse to make. It is just rich enough (rice, butter, cheese) and time-consuming enough (so much stirring!), that I would always reserve it for a special occasion. But alas, when any such occasion arose, I never thought of it. My tale is one of culinary opportunities squandered...

Until now. Browsing a few new cookbooks, I discovered a couple of different recipes for risotto. Not just any risotto, though: barley risotto. Instead of using arborio rice, these recipes called for barley, which satisfies my requirement of eating lots of delicious whole grains. Mmmmm, whole grains!

So, I put an end to the flip-flopping that would often occur in the rice and grain aisle of Whole Foods, and hit the bulk bins for some barley. Tonight, we were going to have risotto.

The risotto I made was inspired by a few different recipes; a couple for barley risotto, and one for regular risotto. I wanted something full of flavor and with a little vegetable to boot, and that is how Leeky Lemon Risotto was born. The risotto came out beautifully, and the barley was perfect. It has more character than arborio, but the flavor and toothsomeness of it fit well with the other flavors in the dish. Hot out of the pan, it was filling, creamy, and rich - without actually being that creamy or rich. We had it with swordfish, which was a lovely complement, but it could also be a meal in itself, especially if you add some chopped chicken or shrimp.

A few notes on making the risotto: Barley is a whole grain, and takes a bit more time than regular arborio rice to cook. Ours took about 40 minutes, and yes, almost constant stirring and checking is necessary during this time. Like arborio, though, barley becomes very starchy when cooked, which lends this dish the creaminess found in traditional risottos. Although I haven't tried making risotto with brown rice or other grains, I would guess that barley is closest to the real deal, at least in terms of texture. The great thing about any risotto is that you can add just about anything you want (or whatever you happen to have in the fridge). Herbs are especially easy to substitute. We used fresh tarragon in our risotto, but thyme, chervil, parsley, or basil would also be delicious. Here is my recipe:

Leeky Lemon Risotto

4-6 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. white wine
1 c. pearled barley
1 large leek (white part only), chopped
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. butter
1-2 tbs. lemon juice
grated zest of 1 lemon
1-2 tbs. chopped fresh herbs
2/3 c. frozen peas
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat oil and butter in a medium-large saucepan. Add shallot, garlic, and leeks, and saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat stock in a pot and keep at a gentle simmer.
Add barley to saucepan, stirring to coat with oil, and saute for another 2-3 minutes, until barley is shiny.
Add white wine, stirring until almost completely absorbed.
Now the fun part: start adding hot stock to the barley. Add by the ladle-ful, stirring to incorporate. When stock has almost been absorbed, add another ladle-ful. Repeat until barley is just about cooked. Barley should be tender, but not completely mushy. This process should take about 30-40 minutes. Patience.
When barley is just about cooked through, add frozen peas, stirring until they are heated through.
Finally, add your seasonings: lemon juice, zest, herbs, and a dash more salt and pepper. If you want a slightly richer risotto, stir in some butter, a splash of cream, or some grated parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Home-Made Ravioli


Last weekend, Mia and I house-sat for her parents, so we had a large kitchen and a lot of time on our hands. She suggested, and I readily agreed, that we make our own ravioli. I've always been curious about fresh pasta, and fresh ravioli in particular - what is pasta made from? How do you turn pasta dough into ravioli? Why is it so delicious? Whenever I claim that pasta is made from wheat, I am corrected because it's actually made from semolina. But as it turns out, semolina is actually just a type of wheat. It is the inner, starchy endosperm of durum wheat. According to the package, semolina contains an unusually large amount of gluten, which is why you can stretch it and shape it so much without its breaking up.

Satisfied with that, we moved on to the production process. Mia put the dough together (a cup of semolina, a cup of whole wheat flour, and three eggs; next time we might try a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil) and kneaded it. Next came the fun part: rolling. Pasta is usually made with a pasta machine, which does all the dirty work for you by mechanically or electrically rolling the dough into long, lovely, paper-thin sheets. Lacking such a device, Mia rolled it out by hand with a rolling pin, which, in addition to serving as her upper-body strength training for the week, produced charmingly (?) and irregularly shaped pieces of dough. The sheets were then cut into ravioli-sized squares.


We prepared three fillings - ground lamb with mint, buttercup squash with ricotta, and mushrooms and walnuts with sage, sherry, and goat cheese. We filled them - a dollop of filling in the middle, wet the edge of the pasta dough with water, and fold it over and push the ends together until they stick. Then we cooked them, 4-5 minutes in boiling water.

The result was delicious. The pasta itself was tasty, chewy, and fresh. The ground lamb wasn't much of a success, but the other two fillings were superb. Mia's favorite was the squash (she's obsessed with squash), and my favorite was the mushroom-walnut - savory, earthy, and nutty. Overall a success, if rather labor-intensive. Next time we'll tweak the dough. Or make pizza instead.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Skillonnet

[Or, A Sonnet About My Skillet]

Pre-seasoned did she come, to my delight;
Black and sturdier than I expected.
I tore her packing quick to cook that night,
Pans and Pyrex were to be neglected.

Serenely in the oven she preheated,
Whilst I cracked eggs with glee that knew no bounds.
To what a treat my guests would soon be treated,
Rumors of cornbread now making the rounds.

Needless to say it was success unmatched,
The skillet days had only just begun.
Frittatas slide out with no egg attached,
Pancakes and faina cook just until done.

Oh, ferrous vessel why aren’t you endemic?
Especially for us who are anemic?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Avgolemonissimo


I know what you're thinking - yet another soup. We basically subsist completely on soup at this point, given the fresh chill in the air and the infinite possibilities of warm, liquid deliciousness. I was planning to post about some other culinary adventures that we've taken recently, but this avgolemono soup that we made tonight was so incredibly delicious that I couldn't wait to share the recipe. Jonathan exclaimed, after polishing off a heartily-sized bowl: "I think that might have been the best soup I've ever had." The picture above was a success in terms of photography, but to be honest, this isn't the most beautiful thing you'll ever eat. Whether it is the most delicious, though, only you can decide.

The soup - avgolemono - is a classic Greek soup made with rice, eggs, and lemon; although we've added some odds and ends to make it a bit healthier and heartier. The recipe below could probably serve 4, but we had it on its own for dinner and were only left with one wee bowl's worth of leftovers. You could serve it with nice crusty bread or a green salad, but, if you don't feel like the extra work, it's fine and complete on its own. Despite wishing I had homemade stock on hand, we used Whole Foods brand and were quite pleased with the results. Without further ado:

Avgolemonissimo (Greek Egg-Lemon Soup With a Twist)

6 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. uncooked brown rice
1 split, boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 egg
3 tbs. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1 c. finely chopped chard or spinach
2 green onions, chopped
generous freshly-ground black pepper

Bring stock almost to a boil in a large pot. When it is barely boiling, add rice, garlic, carrot, white parts of green onions (save the green parts for garnishing), and whole chicken breast. Cover and simmer over low-medium heat for about 20 min., or until chicken is cooked through. Once chicken is completely cooked, remove from soup and shred with a fork to get bite-sized pieces. Return to soup and continue simmering until rice is soft, about 20 min. more. Meanwhile, beat egg with freshly-squeezed lemon juice until blended. When rice is done, ladle a bit of hot soup into egg mixture and whisk vigorously to temper the egg. Don't let the egg scramble. After whisking for a few seconds, add egg to soup, and whisk some more to avoid scrambling. Continue to cook over low heat (don't let the soup boil) for a few more minutes, just until the soup is thickened. Add chopped chard and stir to wilt. Ladle into deep bowls and garnish with green onion.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot Bread


I love drinking tea. Jonathan and I have tea at least twice a day, in the morning and at night, and usually a few times in between. For me, though, having tea is often more about the delicious goodies that go along with it. Yes, I love tea just as it is, but I'm not going to complain if it happens to come with a crunchy biscotti or a thick slice of moist tea cake.

We posted a few times about pumpkin bread, which is the ultimate in tea cake-like creations. Even so, you can't have pumpkin bread all the time (can you?), so I've been forced to branch out with my sweet quick-breads. Sure, I enjoy the standards: banana, banana-walnut, zucchini, gingerbread...but it's always fun to try something new.

Hence my Moroccan-spiced carrot bread, a recipe inspired by a classic Moroccan carrot salad. I love the combination of sweet and spicy in Moroccan food, and carrots with raisins and spices seemed like it would be as good in loaf-form as in salad-form. The first time I tried this recipe, I was so bold as to add cumin to the batter. I've omitted it from this version because I thought it was just a tad too much, but if you are feeling adventurous, you might want to give it a try (just a pinch or two, though). The bread is still decidedly sweet, but the combination of lemon, almond, carrots, and raisins provides a very interesting (and addictive) flavor.

This loaf is incredibly moist, reasonably healthy, and perfect both for dessert and for breakfast the next day. The only time-consuming part is shredding and draining the carrots. I drained them with cheesecloth, but a good hard press in the colander should be fine. Fluff the carrots with a fork after draining, to make mixing easier. A couple of quick notes: I used whole wheat pastry flour, which is finer and lighter than regular whole wheat flour. I also used baby food, which is smoother and provides more flavor options (like apricot or prune) than applesauce. Don't get too freaked out; it's just pureed fruit, I promise. Here is the complete recipe:

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot Bread

1 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. honey
2 eggs
1 4-oz. jar apple-apricot baby food
1/4 c. olive oil
2 c. shredded, drained, and fluffed carrots (about 4 carrots)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. paprika or cayenne
1 tbs. grated lemon zest
3/4 tsp. almond extract
2/3 c. raisins

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, sugar, honey, baby food, olive oil, and almond extract thoroughly (Tip: Use the same measuring cup for the oil and the honey. Measure oil first, then honey. When you pour the honey, it won't stick to the cup). Add the carrots and raisins. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until combined, being careful not to overmix. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan and bake at 375 F for 45 min.-1 hr., until tester inserted into center comes out clean. Pumpkin bread is good when slightly undercooked, but you want to cook this bad boy all the way through.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

For Novelty's Sake

Anybody who knows me well knows that I adore any and all things miniature. If it's tinier than it should be, it's right up my alley. When I go to ice cream shops, I surreptitiously save my taster-sized spoon, rejecting the gargantuan utensil plopped into my final order. There is just nothing cuter than something mini. So, imagine my delight (and child-like squeals) when I happened upon a crate of lady apples while perusing the aisles of our local Whole Foods.

I had never heard of, or seen, lady apples until that joyful moment, and unhesitatingly dumped a few handfuls into a produce bag. There was no deliberation; not so much as a glance at the price or even an inspection of the individual fruits themselves. Who knows if I even needed apples in the first place? This was a novelty purchase.

A few days later I was standing in the kitchen, minuscule fruit perched between thumb and finger, munching carefully on my precious little apple. Jonathan's roommate asked me what kind of freakish thing I was eating. "Oh, it's a lady apple." To which she posited, "Well, why are you eating it like that?" And I, defensively: "It's so small that there isn't really much flesh...you have to be careful or you'll bite through the core."

And then, her naive response: "I guess you can't really buy food just for the novelty..."

Can't buy food for the novelty? What is this, the Soviet Union? Of course you can buy food for the novelty. Indeed, novelty is one of my primary purchase motivations for half of the things I buy. Certainly I am not defending myself on the grounds of practicality or common sense; I once had lofty dreams of turning my wee lady apples into dinner party-appropriate caramel confections, but that didn't exactly happen. And yes, that marinated feta with the capers and herbs is still in the fridge, lonely and half-eaten, its novelty having worn off some.

But if you think you are both reading this food blog and living in a world in which true practicality actually matters, I think we all know that you are kidding yourself. Novelty foods, and, I suppose, other novelty items, are exciting, sometimes delicious, and at the very least, potential conversation starters. Why not indulge?

A couple of weeks ago, we bought famed Italian farro (an ancient whole grain) for the first time. At $7 per pound, it isn't exactly staple material, but, as Jonathan so aptly pointed out in his last post, how can you resist anything the Italians do? If they eat farro, I'll try it at least once. I would have bought it if it had cost $20 per pound (maybe). Perhaps I am just more culinarily curious than most, but the novelty of novelty goods hasn't quite worn off for me yet. I'll take a meal of microscopic, fleshless fruit and toothsome ancient grains over meat and potatoes any day.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Coffee Roasting I

When worked at Analysis Group, before I drank coffee, I used to listen wide-eyed to the VPs' tales of home coffee roasting. Steven Shurmann had just convinced AG to shell out for a fancy in-office espresso maker, with built-in water filters and surely more than the standard 15 bars of pump pressure, and he and Armando brought freshly roasted beans from their homes every Monday morning. Coffee roasting appealed more to my aesthetic sense of the good life than to my tastebuds.

But then, that fateful night when I first started to study hard for the microeconomics general exam (a big test grad students take at the end of their first year) a few years ago, I decided to give coffee another try. Maybe it was several years worth of beer bitterness, or maybe it was simply my more advanced age, but that night, the free coffee at the Bureau (National Bureau of Economic Research, where I have a desk) actually tasted sort of good. It wasn't long before I ordered my own coffee roaster (I went with the economical Fresh Roast) and sample pack of green beans.

In this post I will describe the basic roasting process. When I do my cupping later this week or early next week (depending on when the beans arrive), I will talk about comparing different roast styles and different coffees. The beans arrive (from the ubiquitous sweetmarias.com) processed but unroasted. They are green and have a faint earthy smell totally unlike the smell of roasted coffee. Here, for example, is a picture of my new India Anohki beans ("a rare and intense coffee, odd blueberry sweetness and hidey, rustic chocolate, low acidity, bizarre!").

The unroasted beans can survive at room temperature for years.

To roast, you throw the beans in the roaster, which is really just a glorified popcorn popper (with a special basket for the chaff - during roasting, the beans shed their outermost layer). They slowly turn a light brown, and you smell a popcorny smell. Then they start to crackle - the "first crack" is loud and assertive.


As they get darker in color after the first crack, the smoke becomes stronger and smells a little bit more like the coffee smell we're used to. A light roast is stopped before the second crack, which is characterized by more frequent but less powerful crackling noises. Here's a darker roast, which I stopped about 15 seconds into the second crack:


After the second crack, there's a lot of smoke, and you're getting into French and Spanish Roast territory. If you get to the mythic and dreaded third crack, head to Peet's after desperately waving a towel under the smoke detector to ward off the fire department's expensive and probably unnecessary visit.

My sources vary on how long you should wait to drink the coffee after it's roasted, but it's certainly no more than on the third morning after roasting. I'm beginning to believe in the roast-10-minutes-before-you-drink model, which my new coffee roasting book attributes to the Italians. I can't resist anything the Italians do.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Stew's On, Too

Just about as soon as I finished singing the praises of hearty soups, another recipe idea popped into my head - this one was a stew. If soup is the perfect thing to warm you up on a chilly fall night, then there is simply no word to describe the ecstasies of stew. Like soup, but heartier, chunkier, and unabashed in its ability to showcase the variety of tastes and textures it contains.

The stew we came up with tonight featured chicken, beans, and white yams - a variety I had never tried before, but which proved to be quite delicious. It was a Friday night of cooking and experimenting; we were working on a few new, more complicated recipes, and the stew was our quick and easy dinner. It also turned out to be the star of the evening, as it were. This recipe was inspired by a dish I had in Argentina, which consisted of brown lentils, stew meat, bacon, and batatas - a South American sweet potato varietal. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is not my typical dish. I'm not exactly a "bacon" kind of girl. So, while this dish was tasty enough to inspire this recipe, most will not be surprised to find that I use the term "inspire" quite loosely here. No bacon. Sorry.

As it turns out, this dish is really not at all like the lentil stew I ate in South America, but it is indeed delicious. I used a host of canned ingredients, but if you are feeling inspired, you can do everything fresh (though it is largely unnecessary, in my opinion). I do maintain, however, that roasting the pepper and yam before adding them to the stew is essential; it provides a smoky, deep flavor that can't be achieved by sauteing. The most time-consuming step is boiling the chicken, which we did in a separate pot of water instead of in the stew base itself. I chose this method so that I could boil the chicken breast skin-on and bone-in, and so that I could shred the chicken before adding it to the stew. I prefer the texture of the shredded chicken to big chunks of chicken, and I think it makes for moister, more tender meat. The added bonus, of course, is the big Tupperware of homemade chicken soup now sitting in the freezer; instead of a lonely chicken-only boil, we added some carrots, parsnips, celery, onion, and parsley to the water. We also added a few cupfuls of this stock to the stew, which gave it a lovely rich flavor.

If we hadn't been making a million other things this evening, we most certainly would have whipped up a batch of homemade skillet cornbread to accompany the stew. The two would make such a perfect match that we may just pull out the old skillet tomorrow to make a batch to go with the leftovers (which are abundant). Rice or corn tortillas would also be nice on the side. Here's the recipe:
Roasted Sweet Potato and Chicken Stew

1 whole bone-in, skin-on chicken breast
1 large white yam, garnet yam, or sweet potato
1 15-oz. can pinto beans (undrained)
1 15-oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes (try Muir Glen brand)
1 red pepper, roasted and peeled
1 c. fresh, frozen, or canned corn kernels
1 small can green chilies
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbs. olive oil
seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, cumin, adobo, chili powder, etc.

Chop the chicken breast in half, leaving skin on and bones in. Boil in salted, seasoned water until cooked through, about 20 min. Remove from pot (reserve cooking liquid), remove the skin, and shred off the bone with a fork. Meanwhile, roast the yam and the red pepper. Peel and dice the yam (1/2 in. dice). In a foil-lined roasting pan, toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder, and cumin. Roast in the oven for half an hour or so, until the yam is golden and tender. Roast the pepper over the flame of a gas burner, or under a broiler until skin is charred. Let cool, peel off the charred skin, and dice the now naked pepper. Now start the stew: heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan, then add onions and garlic. Saute until softened. Add tomatoes, beans, corn, and green chilies. Bring almost to a boil, and then add chicken, diced pepper, and roasted sweet potatoes. Add chicken stock as necessary so that there is enough liquid to cover. Season stew. Cover pan and let simmer until everything is hot and flavors have blended, about 10-15 min. Serve in wide bowls with cornbread, rice, or tortillas.



Thursday, November 1, 2007

Soup's On

As soon as the weather starts to turn chilly, there is nothing I love to eat more than a big bowl of hearty soup. In fact, even when the weather isn't so chilly, there is nothing I love more than a big bowl of hearty soup. I'll admit that I've been crafting pots of thick, vegetable-filled soup since late August. The fun really starts now, though, when hefty winter squashes and smoky roasted root vegetables are the stars of the season.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had experimented with pumpkin wild rice soup, and I am still working on getting a recipe that is just right. I have even been informed that I may be receiving, via mail, some fresh Minnesotan wild rice. So, I'll postpone that particular soup until further notice.

However, I thought I would share a couple of delicious vegetable soup ideas - nothing too fancy - that have crept their way into our dinner repertoire lately. For all of these soups, I tend to toss in whatever catches my eye when grocery shopping, so don't be alarmed by the lengthy ingredient lists. The great thing about soups is that you can add anything you want, and it always (well, almost always) turns out spectacularly. I haven't included step-by-step instructions, but have noted anything noteworthy. Always start by sauteing the mirepoix (here it's onion, carrot, and celery), and you'll be fine. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Late Summer Vegetable Soup (a bit out of season, but still yummy)

onions, carrots, and celery
fresh or frozen corn kernels (cooked)
peas or fresh broad beans, if available
zucchini
buttercup or butternut squash
handful of fresh parsley
seasonings - salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, paprika, etc.

Make sure to allow enough cooking time if using fresh beans. Puree corn and parsley together until creamy to provide a thickening base for the soup. Puree other vegetables to achieve desired chunkiness.

Mushroom Wild Rice Soup

onion, carrots, and celery
mix of wild mushrooms - cremini, oyster, button, shiitake
chicken broth
zucchini
peas
cooked wild rice
seasonings - salt, pepper, sage, bay leaf, garlic, etc.

Add vegetables first, then puree before adding mushrooms and rice. Saute the mushrooms separately before adding to the soup.

Tuscan-Style Vegetable Soup

onion, carrots, and celery
1 can crushed tomatoes, with juice
stock or broth
starchy vegetable, such as potato or squash
cannellini beans
peas
chard, spinach, or kale
roasted or crushed garlic, left in chunky pieces
seasonings - salt, pepper, basil, oregano, parsley, bay leaf, etc.

Start by sauteing the flavor base, then add tomatoes and stock. Cook squash or potato in soup until tender, then add peas, canned beans, and leafy green. Serve ladled over day-old crusty bread, or add orzo.

More inventive soups on the way, but this should hold you over for now.