Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bump and Grind

Last  I made chili, I threw in a dried habanero. Not wanting to give me, my sweetie or Austin the housemate a burn that would last for a week, I (wisely?) decided to turn it to powder first. Unfortunately, my mini-Cuisinart is in storage, along with half of our belongings, so I had to make do with a glass with a curved bottom and the handle of a butter knife. 

I mentioned this to a friend, and she promptly loaned me her mortar & pestle, which is a beautiful thing. Ken won't let me commandeer his coffee grinder (also in storage) for spices, even though most of the coffee we drink comes from Starbucks.

Next week's blog entry will be tandoori chicken. It was going to be this week's, but I thought I'd do an entire entry about part of the process, which was making my own garam masala, the spice mix that saved the vegetable curry of a couple weeks ago. This was a lot of fun, and I'm really looking forward to trying various combinations.

My search was limited to what I could buy at a Stop & Shop or Trader Joe's in NW CT and what I had in the house. Were I in the southern part of the state, I could have gone to Penzey's Spices, but then I would have missed out.

I ended up with a very nice-tasting blend made from the following:

2 T coriander seeds
2 t mustard seeds
2 t freshly ground black pepper because my pepper was in a grinder that I couldn't easily take apart
1 T ground cardamom (because the pods I bought got lost between the store and the house)
heaping teaspoon of  whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon broken into bits

First, toss your whole spices in a skillet. Toast them over medium to medium-high heat (you don't want them cooking too fast on the outside). Shake the pan a lot. Pretend you're a professional chef. A simple ellipitical back-and-forth method will have your spices dancing the can-can all over your skillet.

Your kitchen is now going to smell fabulous. Inhale, enjoy, but keep an ear as well as an eye on your spices. Not only do you want them several shades darker, but the mustard seeds are going to start popping. When this popping has peaked, remove the spices from the heat.

I learned the hard way that you can only do the grinding of spices a little bit at a time. I mean less than a teaspoon. Any more and your whole seeds can go flying out of the mortar at the speed of light, bury themselves in your kitchen tile never to be seen again. It was my boyfriend who found the perfect amount to be under a teaspoon, and he did most of the grinding. I blended in the spices I had purchased ground, forgetting the cumin, and ending up with a dark brown, rich-smelling blend of spices that will be good in Indian dishes for the next couple of months. I strongly encourage you to try this for yourself at least once. If you don't like the hassle factor, then by all means, buy a blend. I know Penzey's carries one, and I'm pretty sure I've seen it at Whole Paycheck as well.

I wish I hadn't waited to learn how to do this. When I'd seen recipes for garam masala before, it always seemed so intimidating, but it was a terrific experience, and while I didn't get to use a knife, there was fire and there was fun.

Next week! Tandoori chicken.

Questions, comments, recipes? Let's hear from you!  Have a great week everyone!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stir Crazy--stovetop mac & cheese part one

I confess, I still occasionally eat macaroni and cheese from a box mix. I’ve graduated to Annie’s Organic, and I also enjoy Trader Joe’s. I have friends that rave about their homemade baked mac & cheese, so I went hunting for recipes.

There’s a buttload, make that a metric buttload, which is 3% higher than an Imperial, of mac & cheese recipes out there. Most of them called for baking, and about ninety percent of them called for breadcrumbs, often panko,  for a crunchy topping.

I can see, academically, where the breadcrumbs would make a nice addition of texture, but for me personally, that’s not what I want. I want firm pasta, creamy  sharp cheese, maybe a little spice.  Comfort food at its most basic, but sophisticated enough to be enjoyed by an adult

So, off I went on my own to design a recipe, but this is purely stovetop. There’s plenty of room for topping and baking if you wish, but I don’t feel this is necessary; neither did my sweetie. Austin the minimalist roommate, had no objection, and really enjoyed the meal.

3 T butter (unsalted)
3 T flour (I like Wondra for quick mixing, but any flour will do)
1 Cup yogurt (I may change this in future recipes, it didn’t add much sharpness, and the texture was a little gummy in the leftovers)
2 Cups Whole Milk
3 Cups of cheese. I wanted a strong cheddar taste, yet I wanted creaminess and cheddar does not melt well, it tends to get oily and grainy. A lot of the recipes called for bacon, and I figured I was dealing with enough fat with the butter and cheese, so I thought I’d use smoked gouda. I ended up with about a 3-1 mix of English Coastal Cheddar (gotta love Trader Joe’s, though I’m not averse to Cracker Barrel’s NY Sharp White) and smoked gouda. Next time, I think a little more gouda.
½ t paprika (because it was common in most of the recipes and I like the flavor)
½ white pepper a little less harsh than black; personally I think white pepper is underused. It also does not have mold, which some people are sensitive to

1 pound pasta of your choice. Some folks will always go with elbows, this time I went with fusilli. Its twisty texture holds sauces well.

Grate your cheese. I really like using this gadget instead of your basic standing grater. It’s a little more fun, it’s generally easy to work with and you are much less likely to get blood, fingernails or skin in your cheese (it’s happened). 
Melt butter over low heat in a 2-quart saucepan. Slowly stir in flour to make a roux. Toast the roux on slightly higher heat for about three minutes, then slowly add your milk and yogurt.

It occurred to me that this might be a recipe that could be fun to make with your kids, If applicable. The recipe is pretty easy, and if your offspring likes to get involved with the kitchen, there’s the grating of the cheese, and in the actual stovetop, a lot of stirring, because you do not want a lumpy cheese sauce.

Add cheese, a little bit at a time and keep stirring until sauce is smooth. 
Stir in paprika and pepper. Many recipes called for dry mustard, but I skipped that. Were I to add mustard, I’d get something good, stone-ground and grainy and stir it in at the last minute.

Boil water for your pasta. While you’re waiting for the water to boil, goose the heat under the cheese sauce up to about 75% or medium high. Keep the heat there until the sauce starts to bubble and turn the heat back to low.

Once your pasta water is ready, set the timer to about a minute before the package says it will be aldente.  (when you cover it with hot cheese sauce, it will cook the rest of the way).

Cook pasta, drain, return to pot, pour over cheese sauce. Mix thoroughly. Spoon into bowls, top with any leftover shredded cheese.

Some of my favorite mix-ins for mac & cheese:
Chile powder
Black pepper

What are some of yours? Maybe I'll try that in part two, which will be in a couple of weeks.

Next week, a fun entry where my sweetie and I make garam masala, including toasting the spices!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cooking on the cheap--a vegetarian curry with a little kick

Occasionally, health concerns drive my menu choices, but have no fear.  I'm not going to lecture anyone about the food pyramid or their food intake. It's not my place to judge here. My place is to talk about deliciousness and the fun in perfecting a recipe. If it happens to be good for you, all the better.

Anyway, with all the literature out there about healthy food choices, I feel pretty comfortable saying that adding more beans like lentils to one's diet is, barring allergies or sensitivities, generally a good thing. Lentils are high in protein and fiber, low in sugar and fat, and cooked well, they are delicious. They're also filling and cheap, which in this economy can only be a good thing.

I had some lentils in the cupboard, I'd bought them for a middle-eastern lemony lentil and rice dish that I didn't consider a complete success. One of my favorite Indian dishes at restaurants is dal, a black lentil dish. I didn't find that, but I did find Madras Lentil Curry. We know from earlier posts that recipes that actually call for curry powder are not terribly authentic. Keep reading to see what I did with it. It's a subtle, but powerful change.

2 tablespoons olive oil My current brand is Trader Joe's Sicilian
4 garlic cloves, minced I used six. I love garlic and I want to be able to taste it.
2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger  I am getting really good at cutting up ginger. I tend to slice the peel off in pretty big chunks until I have a parallelogram to work with.
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces I like that this recipe used red and not green. Green peppers can sometimes take over a dish if they're not used correctly
1 small cauliflower (2 pounds) cut into florets Two pounds? I thought this might be the overwhelming taste, but it turned out to be a lovely mix.
3/4 pound all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks Notice all the different textures we have here, with the pepper, potatoes and cauliflower as well as the lentils below; I knew it would be an interesting dish.
2 tablespoons curry powder, preferably Madras I did have Madras on hand, and it is a little hotter than standard curry powder.
1 teaspoon ground cumin this is another spice no cupboard should be without. How else are you going to make chili?
1 teaspoon ground coriander Not cheap, but multi-useful
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped, with their juice 
3/4 teaspoon salt 
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
1 cup frozen peas, thawed 
1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt, for serving (optional) we ended up not using this; no one thought it was necessary. 
1 cup lentils, picked over and rinsed 

As you can see from the ingredient list, the lentils really aren't the star of the show, despite being in the headline. This is really an ensemble cast of a dish, and everything worked pretty well together.

1. In 5-quart Dutch oven or large saucepan with lid, heat oil over low heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, 1 minute or until garlic is tender. Stir in bell pepper and cook, stirring frequently 5 minutes or until tender.
2. Stir in cauliflower, potatoes, lentils, curry powder, cumin, coriander, and cook 2 minutes or until well coated.
3. Add tomatoes, salt, black pepper, and 1 3/4 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook 30 minutes, or until lentils are cooked through and vegetables are tender. (I gave it an extra few minutes to make sure the lentils were cooked, it turned out to be unnecessary)
4. Stir in peas and cook 1 minute, or until heated through. Divide curry evenly among plates and top each serving with yogurt if desired.

I've got to hand it to the folks at Redbook, the instructions were easy to follow, and the timing was right. But right before serving, I tasted it and was a little disappointed. No zip, no zing, no warming burn from the curry. I stirred in 2 T garam masala and let it cook five minutes more. This is what it needed.

  I served this with rice and tandoori chicken, all of which were gobbled up by my sweetie and our landlord/housemate. The following day for lunch, we had the leftovers without rice, and no one felt the need for supporting carbohydrates. I considered it a success.

Garam masala isn't usually found in your local grocery store. I have seen it at Whole Foods, and I'm lucky enough to live within an hour's drive of a Penzey's Spices. Penzey's does do mail order. Or for some fun, you can also make it yourself, which is what I did--I needed it for the above-mentioned tandoori chicken. I'll be talking about that in a future blog entry.

Next week: the Superbowl Mac & Cheese dinner

Questions? Comments? Critiques? Have a recipe you want deconstructed? Let's hear it!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stupid Blender Tricks

I got a basic Osterizer blender in college and it lasted me a few years, but a couple years after graduation, I threw a chunk of ice into it at the wrong angle and broke the glass. My then-roommate (hi Janet!) had one, so I didn't worry too much about it.

I moved out and lived without a blender for twenty years. Shopping for one proved a treat. I found what I thought was the perfect blender online--a Hamilton Beach that also had a food-processing attachment and ran about $40. Would I like a KitchenAid? Who wouldn't, but who can afford it? Actually, what I'd really like is a Vita-Mix, which, according to Lynne Rosetto-Casper of The Splendid Table can liquefy concrete, but anyway. Amazon's site said what I found would be shipped from Macy*s, I thought I'd eliminate the middleman and go to the maul mall.

Not a Hamilton-Beach to be found in the Danbury Fair mall. After checking a few stores, I came home with the floor-model of a Cuisinart that was on sale, and because it had no box, I got an extra 10% off.

I hadn't made anything requiring a blender in a long time, and last week's Chicken Vindaloo, and this week's recipe needed one, so I rationalized it was worth a purchase.

This week's recipe is Firecracker Spinach Salad with Orange Sesame Dressing, from the fine folk at Epicurious.  I doubled the recipe because this was for a dinner party where I'd be serving eleven people. I generally stuck to this one, with one exception below:

Orange Sesame Dressing
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil  I got this on our trip to the Asian market, though I'm told Whole Foods should generally carry it.
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce I wish I could recommend a brand here, but ours was picked up at a Japanese Market in White Plains and the writing on it is in Japanese. If you have an Asian market near you, make use of it. You'll get less sodium and more flavor.
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce (optional) We have several kinds in the house, but I used bog-standard Tabasco. This is actually what sold me on the recipe, because between this ingredient and the ginger below, we were not going to get some sticky-sweet tasting salad.
  • 1 shallot, chopped Funny story here. I asked Austin the minimalist housemate to pick me up two shallots. He brought home huge ones, so I only used one. Figure about 2 tablespoons to get the right bite.
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger  conveniently, I also needed some for the vindaloo.

  • 6 cups washed baby spinach in most grocery stores, you should be able to find a bag or tub of triple-washed spinach. If you're going to wash spinach yourself, get a salad spinner and be prepared to do a lot of drying
  • 1/4 cup daikon sprouts logic would dictate I could find these at the Asian market. No such luck, just soy or mung bean sprouts. When I finished my shopping at Trader Joe's, I had a choice of alfalfa or pea shoots. I grabbed the pea shoots. This changed the flavor profile of the recipe a lot, because pea shoots are sweet (and yummy) and radish sprouts are not, but I gambled on the ginger and the hot sauce working well to contrast.
  • 1/4 cup julienned carrot
  • 1/4 cup julienned jicama Availability of this root vegetable varies from market to market. When I lived in Nashville, I could find it in Kroger, here in CT, I found it at the Asian market.
  • 2 tablespoons mixture of black sesame seeds and white sesame seeds, for garnish this does make a pretty dish when everything is assembled.
1) For the dressing, cook the orange juice in a saucepan until reduced by half. Combine with the honey, sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, water and hot sauce in a blender. Add the shallot and ginger and process until smooth. Store in the refrigerator.

Kate's two very important notes to the above:
1)give yourself plenty of time to reduce the orange juice
2)should you happen to double the recipe, do not blend in blender all at once. If you do, the result will be the lid flying off despite your efforts to hold it down and dressing going everywhere in the kitchen, including the new sweater you bought to wear to the dinner party

2. For the salad, mix the spinach, daikon sprouts, carrot and jicama in large bowl. Add the dressing and toss to coat well. Garnish with the sesame seeds.
My gamble paid off and even though we only had seven of us instead of eleven, there were few leftovers. I think this was helped by spinach being just a little bitter, the jicama and the carrots and the pea shoots all being sweet, but the dressing having that "firecracker" hot and spiciness from the ginger and tabasco. I plan on making this again, and I think I'll stick to the one change I made.
And only blend one recipe's worth at a time.
What are some of your Stupid Blender Tricks? Have a recipe you want deconstructed? Let me know.