29. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Bit About Recipes: Stuffed Mediterranean-Style Eggplant · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Stuffed Mediterranean-Style Eggplant - photo by Rob NovakThe food co-op seems to like eggplant this time of year. It keeps showing up, much like zucchini at the height of summer. This is a bit of a challenge, because to be honest it’s not a vegetable that I use a lot. Especially the big Italian aubergines. At least the little Asian ones can go into stir-fries pretty easily. The big guys… let’s just say that babaganoush, as tasty as it is, is getting old and I’m not a fan of frying it and covering it in cheese and tomato sauce.

Choices? Moussaka? Tasty, but a fair amount of work. So, I dug up a recipe a while back for stuffed eggplant and gave it a whirl. I pretty much followed it to the letter, unfortunately disengaging my thinking in the process. So, I just trusted it to be seasoned to my tastes, and to have an acceptable level of flavor.

You know what? Recipes, even mine that I post here, suck. Well, they suck if you follow them slavishly. And I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t follow them, at least not literally. The most important thing that you can do when cooking is taste the food as you prepare it. Even if it’s something as simple as an adjustment in the amount of salt, it can make a world of difference. My ingredients are not going to be gram-for-gram identical to yours. You might prefer more or less of something. And you’ll never know unless you taste the food you’re making before it hits the table. More »

18. October 2013 · Comments Off on On Sneaky Broccoli · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Broccoli by Flickr user whologwhy, Creative Commons licenseBroccoli is not, regrettably, some people’s favorite vegetable. All the brassicas seem to divide eaters into the love ’em or hate ’em camp. Which is sad, because all of the veggies in this family are loaded with nutrition – Vitamin C, Vitamin A, antioxidants, and soluble fiber. So long as you don’t boil the snot out of ’em and dump the cooking liquid with all of its leached nutrients, cruciform vegetables are plenty good for you.

Broccoli and cauliflower especially seem to suffer from not only the curse of crucifoms in general, but also a textural shortcoming due to the fact that the edible parts are in essence immature flower heads. They have a tendency to go mealy and/or get waterlogged in cooking. Likewise, undercooked they’re fibrous and chewy, which some find unpleasant. Roasting can help with some of these shortcomings, since high-temp cooking will help develop more complex flavors and dry out some of the moisture. But you’re still left with a pretty plain-jane vegetable unless you take further steps.

A great cold-weather dish using brassicas and root vegetables is the gratin. Simply explained, it’s a baked dish characterized by a cheese and breadcrumb topping, where the main ingredient is frequently combined with a Bechamel-based sauce. Even avowed broccoli haters like a good gratin. Here’s a basic recipe that can be modified in a number of ways for variety.

Vegetable Gratin

Ingredients:
2 lbs fresh broccoli or cauliflower heads, cut into small florets, or 2 lbs of Brussels sprouts, halved
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 c grated Gruyere or sharp Cheddar cheese
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
1/2 c panko-style breadcrumbs

Prep time: 15 minutes, Cook time: 30 minutes

Heat oven to 450F. Butter (or spray with non-stick spray) an 8x8x2 baking dish. Put 2 cups of water and a collapsible steamer basket into a large saucepan over high heat and bring to boil.

Chop vegetables as needed.

Place a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add 3 tbsp butter to melt. After butter is melted and foamy, whisk in flour until smooth and cook for 1-2 minutes, whisking continually, until the mixture becomes aromatic. Do not let the flour brown. Gradually whisk in the milk, then stir in the salt and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Whisk thoroughly, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened – about 8-10 minutes.

While sauce is thickening, put vegetables into steamer and steam until just starting to turn tender – about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately fill into baking dish. Do not overcook, or the vegetables will be mealy after baking.

When sauce is thickened, sprinkle vegetables with half the shredded cheese, then pour over the sauce.

Place a medium skillet over medium heat and add the remaining butter (or olive oil). When hot, mix in the bread crumbs and toss until just lightly browned. Remove from heat.

Top dish with remaining cheese, then breadcrumbs. Place in oven on center rack and bake for 20 minutes until browned and bubbling.

Serves 4

Variations: Thinly slice 2 lbs of waxy potatoes, layer them in the baking dish with shredded cheese in between and extend the baking time to 25-30 minutes, and you’ve got potatoes au gratin. Substitute crumbled bleu cheese for the shredded. Mix the Gruyere cheese with the bechamel instead of sprinkling it on top to make Sauce Mornay. Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a half teaspoon of sherry vinegar to make Sauce Moutarde, which goes great with broccoli.

17. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Not-so-brief Exploration of Gumbo · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Fresh Okra by Flickr user Jenny Hones, Creative Commons licenseSo, a while back I got a burr under my saddle to make up some gumbo. What ensued was an unsuccessful quest for file powder and a lot of messing with the Googles to find a recipe that I liked. What I ended up with was a combination of a couple different versions, so thanks to Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, and some random dude with a blog whose URL I can’t even remember.

Instead of the elusive file powder, I used okra to thicken this version. I like okra as a vegetable in general, and think that it has a place in any southern stew. Purists will argue that the gumbo without file is not the true gumbo. And some might object, reasonably so, that okra’s thickening powers tend to leave the resultant liquids a bit… ropey instead of merely thickened. Valid points, all, but I think this is a pretty serviceable preparation anyway.

You will notice that this recipe requires some commitment as far as time. There are a lot of steps. I have tried to make it as simple as possible, but gumbo is not a dish to be hurried. If you want to use peel-and-eat style shrimp and store-bought seafood stock instead of removing and cooking shrimp heads, I totally understand. But I encourage you to take the extra time. Likewise, I suggest that you used the oven method for making your brown roux instead of on the stovetop. Yes, it takes longer, but a) you don’t have to babysit it constantly, b) there’s a much lower chance of burning it since it’s a slow, controlled temperature, and c) you can go do other stuff while it’s cooking.

Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo

Ingredients:
4 oz (by weight) all-purpose flour
4 oz (by weight) vegetable or canola oil
3 lb. 26/30 count shrimp, heads on
1 lb Andouille sausage
2 quarts water
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins preferred)
1 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 bay leaves, whole
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp kosher salt
2 cups fresh okra, cut into 1/4″ pieces
2 tbsp cayenne pepper sauce (optional)

Prep Time: 30 minutes. Cook time: 2 1/2 hours.

Heat oven to 350F.

In a large, heavy pot or cast-iron dutch oven (5-6 qt), whisk together flour and oil. Place in oven, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, whisking 3-4 times during cooking. Roux should be medium-brown when done.

Meanwhile, peel, de-head, and de-vein (if desired) shrimp, saving the heads and shells. Set aside shrimp meats in the refrigerator until needed. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a stockpot, then add shells/heads. Return to a boil, then reduce heat to a steady simmer. Cook for one hour, stirring occasionally. Strain liquid into a heat-safe container and discard shells and heads. Mix in Worcestershire sauce.

Remove roux from oven, and place over medium-high heat. Add onion, pepper, celery, and garlic and cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until onions are translucent and begin to soften. Roux will become a dark brown.

Add bay leaf, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, oregano, onion powder, black pepper, cayenne, and salt. Cook for about a minute, stirring constantly, until aromatic. Add tomatoes and stir.

Whisk shrimp stock into pot a cup or two at a time to prevent lumps, until all stock is incorporated. Add okra, stir, increase heat to high until liquid begins to bubble, then lower heat to maintain a constant simmer. Cover, and cook for another 30 minutes.

While gumbo is cooking, slice sausage into 1/4″ pieces and brown off in a large, hot skillet. Drain and set aside. Add to pot in remaining 5 minutes of cook time. Stir in hot sauce. If you’re not going to use hot sauce, I recommend adding a tablespoon of cider or white wine vinegar for acidity instead.

When half-hour simmer time is complete, add shrimp to the pot, stir, turn off the burner and let stand for 10 minutes. Let the shrimp cook solely from the heat of the liquid.

Serve over plenty of rice with hot sauce on the side. Serves 6.

14. October 2013 · Comments Off on A Few Words About the End of Summmer · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Various types of potatoes for sale, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.So, it’s officially autumn. Once again, the calendar cycles ’round to the waning part of the year. Everything leapt into life at spring time, got busy with getting busy in the summer, and now starts to settle in, slows its pace, and prepares to hunker down for its winter slumber. I like fall because it’s the metaphorical sleepy-eyed yawn before burrowing under the covers.

With the change in seasons comes a change in food. Soft, vulnerable, fleshy fruits give way to the durable. At least if you’re eating properly for our clime. I honestly prefer canned and preserved summer produce to the stuff that’s shipped in from elsewhere, chosen more for its ability to withstand a container voyage than anything approaching flavor.

I even find winter vegetables and the shift to roots, brassicas, hard squashes and cold-frame greens comforting. They’re the beginnings of roasted, braised, stewed and deeply flavored comfort foods that make the grey days of November and the long winter night bearable.

Roasting hard winter veggies is easy. Peel and cut any combination of turnips, parsnips, carrots, waxy potatoes, yams, pumpkin, or butternut/acorn squash into 1″ cubes. Chop up enough to fill a standard 9×13″ baking dish. Throw everything in a bowl and toss with olive oil, a few healthy pinches of kosher salt, and either fresh ground black pepper or – my favorite – freshly grated nutmeg. Roast in a 450°F oven until veggies are tender and slightly caramelized, about 35-45 minutes. Yes, they will stick to the dish. When you take them out of the oven, cover the baking dish with a bit of foil and let stand for about 10 minutes. The steam will both re-moisten any dried out bits and help release everything from the bottom. You will wonder why you ever boiled root vegetables. More »

04. September 2013 · Comments Off on On Mashing Things to Make Them Tasty · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , , ,

Roasting EggplantSo, we got a couple of big eggplants in our co-op basket this past week. Now, I’m not a big eggplant person. Every once in a while, I’ll chop up the skinny Asian varieties and use them in a stir-fry, but that’s about it. As a vegetable, it’s pretty much there to soak up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Eggplant, on its own, is not a taste treat.

Which is why you see most non-stir-fry recipes drenching the things in tomato sauce, cheese, or both. Eggplant parmesan, mousaka, eggplant-noodle lasagna, stuffed eggplant, ratatouille, and so on.

What has eggplant got going for it? A bitter astringency when raw… that’s gotta go. Complex sugars that don’t really taste sweet to the human palate – something needs to happen there, as well. A surprising amount of oil/fat is bound up in there. Well, fat’s flavor so maybe we can work with that a bit. Even cooked, it can be a little stringy, so we’ve got to alter the texture as well.

So – how do we make stringy/tough veggies tender, give up their flavor, and get sweeter without adding sugar? To answer that, we’ll look at stuff like cauliflower, potatoes, and yams. Simple – roast ’em and mash the hell out of ’em! And what do you do with roasted, mashed eggplant? Babaganoush!

Great for dipping pita chips and fresh baked naan, or as a chunky sauce alongside grilled meats, babaganoush isn’t really that hard to make and only requires one specialty ingredient. So, hie yourself to the nearest Asian grocery (or even perhaps the international foods aisle of your megamart) and grab a jar of tahini. This paste of ground, roasted sesame seeds gives a nutty, toasty hit to both this recipe and hummus. You can also thin it with some citrus juice, add a pinch of ground cayenne pepper, and use it as a sandwich/salad dressing.

You’ll be whompin’ the bejeesus out of two separate things here, so lay hands on a food processor and a mortar & pestle. A sturdy coffee cup and a bar “muddler” works, if you don’t have a mortar & pestle. If you have neither, use a garlic press and just mix the pressed cloves and salt together – not optimal, but it works.

Ingredients:
1 large eggplant
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp fresh-squeezed lemon juice (minus pulp & seeds, please)
1/4 c finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Set oven to 450F. Line a baking sheet with foil.

Wash eggplant. Remove the green “cap” from the eggplant with a paring knife. Poke it about a dozen times all over with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Place eggplant on baking sheet and place in oven uncovered. Roast until tender all the way through, about 15-20 minutes if you started from room temperature, or about 30 minutes if you pulled your eggplant from the fridge. When tender, remove from oven and let cool until comfortable to handle.

Mince garlic cloves and combine with the 1/2 tsp kosher salt in a mortar & pestle. Grind/mash into a smooth paste.

Slice eggplant in half lengthwise, and with a spoon scoop out the interior into the bowl of your food processor. Get as much of the flesh off the skin as possible. Pulse until smooth in texture, about 6-8 pulses.

In a bowl, combine eggplant puree, garlic paste, lemon juice, and tahini. Mix in parsley, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill for use as a dip. Serve at room temperature as an accompaniment to roast chicken or lamb.

21. August 2013 · Comments Off on On Roasting the Perfect Chicken · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , ,

Roast Chicken with Tossed Green SaladOver the years, I’ve made many an attempt to roast a chicken dependably and consistently. I’ve tried low-heat, starting with a super-hot oven to crisp the skin and then reducing the temperature to finish cooking.

Basting.

Not Basting.

Stuffing the cavity with aromatics, inserting compound butter under the breast skin.

Brining, oiling, etc., etc.

And over and over again, I’d end up with breast meat that was done and dark meat that wasn’t quite to proper temperature. So, I’d extend cooking times until all the juices ran clear, and end up with a mostly over-done bird. Then out came the foil, covering the breast and leaving the dark meat exposed to full heat. Eventually, the whole thing became such a pain that I gave up. Chicken became something only made in parts – legs and thighs under the broiler where with judicious turning everything ended up uniformly cooked and crisp.

This past week, the food co-op we joined tossed a whole free-range hen into the bag. It was either part that sucker out, or puzzle out how to cook the thing with a minimum of fuss.

Enter the sage advice of Thomas Keller – keep it simple. Don’t screw around with it. Prep simply, put it in the oven, and leave it the hell alone. No basting. No turning. No tenting. Just one moderately high temperature and go do something else for a little less than an hour. Don’t add anything to the chicken that adds moisture to the cooking – “steaming” the bird is a cardinal sin.

So, following this rather basic guideline, here’s a damn-near foolproof roast chicken.

More »