Monday, January 2, 2012

Things I learned while making chili tonight

Today while I was grocery shopping, I spied a bag of masa flour and, on a lark, I pitched it into my cart. I planned to make a white chili for dinner and determined to make corn tortillas to go with it. Nearly instantly, I started jonesing for a tortilla press. I had visions of perfectly round disks of masa dough baking up on my cast iron griddle pan. I went to 3 places trying to find a dang tortilla press. I couldn't believe I was so passionately on point for a dreaded uni-tasker. I transitioned to visions of Alton Brown frowning in my general direction. Still, I persisted until it was clear I wasn't going to find a tortilla press and, moreover, I started feeling kind of ridiculous. So I went home. I mixed 2 cups of masa flour with a pinch of salt and a cup and a halfish of water, mixed it up into a dough, divided it into 16 little balls, and flattened each between two cutting boards. Then I used my trusty rolling pin to flatten the discs further before tossing them onto the hot griddle. My tortillas may have had raggedy edges, but they were darned tasty. And that's all the tortilla recipe (or gadgetry) I have to give. Here's my recipe for white-bean chili. Instructions for purists will be included alongside the instructions for those who have less time.

White Bean Chili
1 Tablespoon canola oil (or less. As little as you can get away with, actually.)
1 large white or Spanish onion
4 large cloves garlic
About half a teaspoon of salt
4 cans (15 oz) of white beans (white navy or canellini), drained and rinsed.
(or 1 smallish package of dried white beans, soaked overnight, drained, then simmered until tender and drained)
2 small cans of roasted hatch or ortega chiles
(or 4-6 hatch or ortega chiles, roasted over a gas burner, sweated inside a paper bag, then skinned, seeded and chopped. Scrape the skin off; don't rinse. Rinsing will wash away flavor.)
Vegetable broth (I use boxed veggie broth. Make our own if you have time and inclination.)
Beer (lager, or another light-colored brew)
White wine vinegar
Masa flour
White or green pepper
Chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges
Jack or pepper jack cheese if you want it. Grated.
Tortilla chips, you saucy thing.

Chop the onion into fairly small pieces. Heat the oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat, then add the onion, stir, and cook until translucent. Meanwhile, mince the garlic with the salt to make a paste. Add the garlic-salt mixture to the onion in the pot. Stir and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the beans and peppers. Stir to combine. Then add veggie broth and beer until the chili is fairly liquidy. Add a splash of vinegar -- the acid will brighten up your chili. Season with cumin and pepper. Now take a heaping soup spoon of masa flour and place it in a small bowl. Add enough water to make a loose batter, and stir until smooth. Add this to your chili in the pot, and stir  thoroughly to combine. Bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for about half an hour. The masa will thicken your chili nicely. Meanwhile, make your tortillas according to the recipe on the masa flour package. If you've never made tortillas before, don't be intimidated. They are super-simple.

Turn off heat under chili pot. Stir, then ladle into bowls. Top with chopped cilantro. I was in a vegan mood so didn't top with cheese, though the thought did cross my mind. So: if you have some jack or other white cheese, grate it up and toss some on top of your chile along with the cilantro. If you're really feeling dietarily naughty, throw on a crumbled up tortilla chip or 20. Serve with lime wedges and a beer.

Here's what I learned:
- You rarely need the gadgets you think you need to cook good food.
- This chili tastes great without the cheese and chips
- But nobody will judge you if you add the cheese and chips
- Beer always makes soup better (thanks to my dear friend Jim H. for the reminder)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sourdough Win!

Hot out of the oven.
I made sourdough bread again this weekend. It was my fourth effort, and this one was a winner!

I followed the recipe from Cooks Illustrated, tweaking it only very slightly. I tried the recipe once before, and ended up with loaves that had the correct sourdough taste and texture, but a very low profile. This time, I kneaded the heck out of the dough and let it proof for an hour longer on the second rising. Minor tweaks for next time: refresh the starter for one more day (the recipe calls for 3 feedings, starting two nights before you begin making the dough), and remember to drop the oven temperature from 500 to 450 after putting the loaves in. These cooked lickety-split and I nearly burned the bottoms.

Last week's bread attempt was sourdough pumpernickel, which had the same slumping problem I described above. I'll manhandle another batch of that dough this coming weekend and see if it makes for a prettier finished product.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sourdough Bread Fail Equals Bread Pudding Win

You, sir, are not a winning sourdough.
My first attempt at sourdough bread resulted in a dense, flat loaf, rather than the chewy, nutty-sour, lofty, crusty loaf of my dreams. After two days' worth of labor, this was a frustrating outcome. The bread was not bad -- it just wasn't what I wanted. But it did make up into excellent French toast, as well as wonderful bread pudding. This is my late mother's recipe, one I grew up eating. The baking pudding fills my entire home with the scent of warm milk and vanilla.

Jevine's Bread Pudding
15 slices stale French bread, cubed
4 cups whole milk
4 Tablespoons butter
4 eggs
1/2 cup of sugar, plus 1/4 cup cinnamon sugar (separate)
1 pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Adjust the oven rack to the middle and heat oven to 325 degrees fahrenheit. Butter a deep Pyrex bowl or a bundt pan and add the bread cubes to the buttered container. Heat a large saucepan of water to boiling, then turn heat down to just below the simmer.

For the custard: Put the milk and butter into a sauce pan and scald over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to keep the pan from scorching. While the milk is heating, whisk the eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and place the bowl next to the stovetop. When the milk comes to just before a simmer, turn the heat off. Dip a ladle-full of hot milk and very slowly, in a thin stream, add it to the egg mixture, whisking briskly all the while to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Add a second ladle-full in the same manner. If you're nervous about the eggs, do this one more time. With your egg mixture thoroughly tempered, you can now pour the rest of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking gently to mix thoroughly. Turn the heat under your pot of water to high, and bring to a boil.

Fill a tea pot or separate large sauce pan with water and bring to a boil. Poured the hot custard mixture over the bread in the buttered Pyrex bowl or bundt. The bread will rise to the surface. Dunk all the cubes so that none remain dry. Sprinkle the bread and custard mixture liberally with cinnamon sugar.

Place the bread pudding container into a large roasting pan, and place the whole assembly into the oven. Pour the boiling water into the roasting pan, until it reaches halfway up the sides of the pudding container. If your roasting pan isn't deep enough to achieve this water height, don't fret. Just close the oven and set the timer. Bake the pudding at 325 degrees fahrenheit, in a bain marie, until a skewer inserted into the center came out clean (about 45 minutes). Let cool slightly, then serve.

This pudding is wonderful warm or cold. In my family, we always made sure the pudding had a high ratio of custard to bread, so if you don't have 15 slices of bread sitting around, don't worry. Use half that amount and you'll end up with a grand custard that has a nice bread pudding crust on top.

Shortcut Moussaka

Epicurious is the source for the moussaka I make most often. Shortcut Moussaka has all the goodness but takes a lot less time to prepare than non-shortcut recipes.

The only changes I make in this recipe is to add more cheese to the custard topping, and more oregano to the meat sauce. A tip for consistently good results with this recipe is to slice the eggplant as thin as possible.

I have tried this recipe with ground beef (my favorite) and ground turkey (very good). I haven't yet tried it with ground soy, but that will be my next attempt. If I'm successful, I'll  make vegetarian shortcut moussaka for my meat-shunning neighbors.

This dish is perfect for cooking on Sunday, portioning into containers, and taking for lunch during the week.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A week's worth of cooking

We had a house guest, Ron, for nearly a week. The visit prompted much cooking, much eating, and loads of walking around the city. The first bout of cooking involved making another batch of sourdough flapjacks. Mein gott, those are tasty. They were good fuel for a day's worth of walking around downtown San Francisco, Chinatown, and the Haight. Ron had frozen four Montana-sized steaks and brought them with him on the plane. We marinated them in wine and garlic for a couple of hours before heaving them onto the grill. They were an inch and a half thick and the size of most of a dinner plate. I ate about a third of mine before giving up. Ron wanted surf and turf, so I grilled some prawns:

Easy Grilled Prawns for 4
2 pounds fresh prawns
3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
Sprig of fresh mint, leaves removed from stem and minced
Juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon olive oil (plus more for grill pan)
Salt and pepper to taste

Shell and de-vein the prawns. Rinse them and place in a small bowl.
Toss prawns with minced garlic and mint and a small splash of oil. Toss and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.
When you are ready to grill the prawns, remove bowl from refrigerator and string 5-6 prawns each onto metal or wooden skewers.
Place lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper into a small bowl and whisk. Set beside stove along with a pastry brush for basting.
Place grill pan, ridges side up, onto stove and heat over medium high flame. Oil well. When the grill pan is searing hot, baste the prawn skewers with the lime juice mixture and put them onto the grill pan. You can do all of this on the barbecue grill if it's not occupied with steaks, as ours was.

Grill skewered prawns, basting a few times as you go, until they have a slight crust and grill marks, then flip and do the same on the other side. Don't cook them too long, or they'll become tough. Remove skewers to a platter, taste one prawn and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Ron also made a ripe tomato salad with feta, tarragon, and arugula. He dressed it with lemon and olive oil. It was quite a feast!

Later in the week, when my husband the hunky scientist asked for dinner that would result in lunchable leftovers, I made a couscous salad. You can hardly go wrong with a couscous salad: Cook the couscous according to package directions. Toss and set aside if you want a warm salad; otherwise refrigerate until cool and then toss again. Meanwhile, prep whatever veggies you want to include. I was making a warm salad, so I chopped 6  scallions, minced 2 garlic cloves, and washed, stemmed and tore up 2 bunches of of kale. I sauteed the onion and garlic until the onion was slightly soft, then tossed in the kale, stirred and turned until the kale was coated in oil, and let it cook down until it was tender but still a bit crispy. I removed the veggie mixture from the pan and tossed it into the bowl with the couscous. Then I added a couple handfuls of dried cherries, chopped up some almonds and pecans and added that to the bowl, crumbled some feta and tossed that in as well, and seasoned with salt and pepper. It made a good dinner. It's great for breakfast, too -- just hard boil an egg, chop it, and toss it into the couscous salad for a protein boost.

I've nearly caught you up on my cooking for the week. I'll finish by giving you the recipes for one of my favorite weekend breakfast dishes, and one of our favorite ways to use leftover chicken breasts for a lovely lunch or light dinner. Like the recipe for couscous salad above, these are "formula" recipes, so you can use your own discretion when putting them together.

Buckwheat Porridge with Fruit, Nuts, and Yogurt
Buckwheat groats
Fresh and dried fruit
Plain or flavored yogurt
Maple sugar or honey

For each serving of buckwheat porridge...
In a saucepan, heat 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup of buckwheat groats and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Stir, lower heat, and simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until buckwheat is tender and water is absorbed.

Meanwhile, chop up whatever fruit you might have on hand. This morning, I went with white peaches and apples. Place portions of chopped fruit into serving bowls. Add any dried fruit you might desire. I love using golden raisins or dried cherries or cranberries. Roughly chop whatever nuts you'd like, and sprinkle into each bowl. Now portion out the cooked buckwheat on top of the fruit and nuts in each bowl. Top with a dollop of yogurt and some maple syrup or honey, if you'd like. If you're using flavored yogurt, you'll likely not need any sweetener.

This breakfast always fuels me for a good half a day. Enjoy!

Curried Chicken Salad
2 chilled chicken breasts
Crisp veggies of choice
Dried fruit of choice
Nuts of choice
Apple cider vinegar
Sweet curry
Salt, sugar, pepper to taste

For the salad
Cut chicken breasts into medium dice and place in a large bowl.
Chop vegetables into small dice; shred cabbage if using (today I did use red cabbage, along with radishes). Add to chicken in bowl. Chop apple into small pieces and add to the small mountain of ingredients in your bowl. Throw in a couple handfuls of nuts (today I used salted pistachios). Add dried fruit (today I used golden raisins).

For the dressing
Scoop about half a cup or so of mayonnaise into a bowl. Add enough apple cider vinegar to make a dressing that has the consistency of cream. Add enough curry to make the dressing a deep golden color, plus a pinch of salt and a smaller pinch of sugar. Stir and taste. You'll want the dressing to have a strong curry taste, so add more curry if the dressing is bland. Once you have the dressing the way you want it, pour it over the salad, toss well, and serve.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sourdough victory

Two posts ago, I wrote about having made sourdough starter. Well, this morning, I made my very first sourdough product from the starter: pancakes. They were fluffy and tasty. Not as tangy as I like, but it's a very young starter and as it matures I'm confident it will lend a lively tang to pancakes, waffles, rolls, and bread loaves.

It's fun to work with sourdough. To make this morning's pancake batter, I mixed flour, buttermilk, and the starter and let it sit for 45 minutes. What resulted was basically a thin sponge. To that I added some eggs whisked with milk and oil. Then I added a mixture of sugar, baking soda, and salt, and the action began. After five minutes, the batter was actively bubbling with happy sourdough beasties! The recipe made six pancakes each for three happy breakfasters. Then I warmed a half cup of milk and added it, along with a half cup of flour, to the remaining starter. I mixed it well and set it on top of the refrigerator, then went off to run errands. When I returned several hours later, the starter was bubbling merrily away. It's back in the refrigerator waiting for next week's baking adventure.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shortcut stuffed peppers. Or, another post without a photo.

Tonight I made my kick-ass shortcut stuffed peppers, which really are more like a casserole. Which is why I didn't take a photo. A photo would just turn you off to this fine effort. This is one of my least "gourmet" recipes, but it is consistently good, and it's a workhorse dish: good for dinner, makes great leftovers, and doesn't require a lot of fussing. I will give you the recipe -- but be warned: it's a recipe that reads like my late grandmother's... "Take a handful of this, and a pinch of that..." Here goes:

Shortcut Stuffed Peppers
6 mild peppers (poblano or bell), halved lengthwise, seeded
Olive oil (about 2 Tablespoons)
1 large onion
3 large cloves garlic
1 lb ground beef (or ground chicken or turkey, or fake ground meat if you are veggie)
Long-grained white rice
1 bottle of prepared taco sauce, as spicy as you prefer (stop cringing at the word "prepared")
1 medium jar of prepared salsa, also as spicy as you prefer (there's the "p" word again)
1 large can of chopped tomatoes
1 bottle of beer
Half a bunch of cilantro, rinsed, spun, and chopped 
1 package cotija cheese (I get it in a square about the size of my palm and a couple of inches thick)

Preheat the oven to 375.

Fill a large pot with hot water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onion. Then peel and mince the garlic, or put it through a press. When the water comes to a boil, add the pepper halves and blanch for 4 minutes. Drain, shock with some cold water, drain again, and put them cut side down on a towel. Take out two large, rectangular casserole pans and oil them. Set aside.

Put the oil in a very large skillet or a dutch oven and heat over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, stirring frequently with a large spatula. Add the garlic and stir long enough to cook the garlic a little, a minute or so. Then push the onions and garlic to the periphery of the skillet, and add the ground beef. Break the meat up with the spatula. Blend in the onions and garlic; cook until the beef is no longer pink, stirring frequently. To the beef mixture, add 1.5 cups of rice. Stir to combine thoroughly and to coat the rice with the oil. Cook a few minutes longer, until the rice looks a bit chalky.

To the beef and rice mixture, add the full jar of salsa, half or 3/4 of the jar of taco sauce, and the can of tomatoes. Fill the can halfway with water, swirl to capture stray tomato bits, and add to the skillet. Fill the salsa jar halfway with water, put the top back on, shake, and add that to the skillet. Sprinkle in some cumin. Open the bottle of beer and set by the stove. 

Stir the ingredients in the skillet and bring to a simmer. Sip some beer. Stir as the mixture simmers; it will want to stick to the bottom and you will want to keep it from doing so. You can clean up your kitchen between stirs -- just come back to the pan often and use your spatula to scrape the bottom of the skillet and redistribute the contents. As the rice absorbs the liquid, the mixture will thicken. Add beer a bit at a time as the mixture gets too thick (you want it to be stirrable, but not soupy), testing a grain of rice or two from time to time between your teeth. The mixture will simmer for about 20 minutes until the rice is al dente. This is a bit like making risotto. Taste-test for salt and add a little if needed -- but not too much. Remember you have the cotija, and that's salty. Stir in the cilantro. Turn off the heat.

Place the pepper halves in the casseroles, cut side up. Six halves will fit in each casserole. Spoon the filling over the peppers, covering completely. Crumble the cotija cheese and sprinkle half of the resulting amount evenly over each casserole.

Cover the casseroles loosely with foil. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, uncover, and serve with slices of avocado and a salad.