Monday, November 9, 2009

Simplest chickpea stew

In case you haven't noticed, we're all about simple, frugal, and delicious cooking here. This might be the epitome of all these things: almost comically simple, it's delightful to eat, and your wallet will hardly even notice.

In short, you saute some onion, carrot, and garlic in a little olive oil and butter, add a little wine, then chickpeas with stock and tomato paste. You let it hang out a little all together for a while, then season with some paprika or other red pepper, finish with a little lemon and parmesan, and that's it. Serve with some grain - couscous, orzo, and quinoa are some of my favorites - and something green, and you've got dinner.

This is obviously just a template. In its simplicity, this dish also contains another virtue: it invites additions and modifications. Here are just a few ideas:

Little bits of meat, whether leftover chicken or some chopped up bacon or pancetta, would be right at home here.

Mushrooms would also be a decidedly delicious addition.

Add a Parmesan rind with your stock to make a richer and more luscious dish.

Onions, carrot, and garlic usually form the base of this dish for me, but there are plenty of other options. Shallots, celery, bell peppers, and leeks come to mind... Or even some chopped olives...

For the pepper, paprika is the default, but you can switch it up: try Turkish Aleppo pepper, or smoked paprika, or try stirring in some Harissa (a Morrocan chili paste).

Options abound...

A quick note about two of the main elements of this dish: the chickpeas and the stock.

I highly recommend using dried chickpeas that you cook yourself. Like with most canned beans, canned chickpeas are too mushy for my taste. You can get more toothsome chickpeas by cooking them at home and pulling them off when there's just the right texture. You can also make them extra delicious by cooking them with a piece of kombu.

As for the stock, sorry vegetarians - chicken is really where it's at. Of course a good vegetable stock will work wonderfully too; the best, as with the chickpeas, is to make it yourself, whether it be meat of plant based.

One last thing: I say to finish this dish with some lemon juice; if you don't have any on hand, use a splash of red wine or sherry vinegar instead, but don't omit this acidic touch, or the dish will likely seem a little flat...

Simplest Chickpea Stew

Chop up an onion and a couple carrots, and heat a little olive oil and butter in a deep skillet. Cook onion and carrot over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Add a few minced cloves of garlic (I use about 7 or 8), cook for a couple more minutes.

Turn up the heat to fairly high, and when heated up add a generous splash of wine (any color will work well, but I prefer white here).

After a minute or so, add a couple cups of stock and couple tablespoons of tomato paste.

Stir to dissolve, then add 3 cups cooked chickpeas.

Cook for 15-20 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened to your liking.

Add paprika or other red pepper to taste (sorry, can't be much more precise here since peppers vary so wildly in heat and intensity. For mild paprika, you'll probably want about 2-3 tsp.). Add fresh herbs (thyme and oregano are great) if using.
A splash of soy sauce can be really nice here too, especially if you're not using a meat stock.

Let it all get acquainted for a couple minutes, then turn off the heat and stir in 1 tbsp. or so of lemon juice.

Top with a little parmesan when serving.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Best cabbage ever

Cabbage is not the sexiest of ingredients, I'll admit it. But I love cabbage. I love its texture when it's been cooked just the right amount of time (i.e. not boiled to death), just lightly toothsome, and the slightly sweet flavor it develops. I'll vouch for cabbage.

But there's no convincing to be done with this dish. This is seriously the best cabbage I've ever had. Hands down. It comes from Bryant Terry, whose vegan soul style, as I've said before, I really like.

Around here barbecue joints often serve cabbage cooked in pork fat. This is Terry's re-interpretation of the dish. To "make up" for not using pork fat, he uses mustard seeds, pepper flakes, and a little sugar. I put the verb in the previous sentence in scare quotes because really we're not making up for anything here; this cabbage is better than any I've had, animal products or no. And for this one, I actually followed the recipe and don't intend to change it. So simple, yet the result is much more than the sum of its parts. Try it.

"Fried" Cabbage
Adapted from Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen

Quarter, core, and slice into thin ribbons a smallish head of cabbage (about 2 pounds).

In a large saute pan, over medium heat combine 2 tbsp. olive oil, 2 tsp. mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, 1 tsp. sugar, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Cook, stirring, until seeds begin to pop after a couple minutes.

Add the cabbage and cooks for 4-5 minutes until it begins to wilt.
Add water, stir, cover, and cook another 4-5 minutes, until water is mostly evaporated.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Croute en potiron (pumpkin with cheesy soup / bread pudding)

This is a really awesome special occasion dish for vegetarians. It is indulgent, delicious and fussy, everything I like. I made it for "New Dishwasher day" when Alex and I got our new dishwasher installed a week after the old one crapped out on us. It is a bit of a lengthy process but no step is complicated in the slightest and the results are both attractive and tasty.

Croute en potiron

Ingredients for 2 servings:
One small pie pumpkin per person
About 1/4 lb. grated Emmenthal or other Swiss style cheese (I mixed it with parmesan since ours was boring)
About 3 cups stock (I used chicken this time but veggie stock is delightful)
1/2 stale baguette cut into thin rounds and toasted.
Fresh parsley, oregano, thyme, sage, or other fresh herbs
Wine or brandy

Preheat the oven to 375.

Scoop out your pumpkins (set aside seeds to roast if you like). After they are all nicely hollowed out, rub the inside with salt and garlic. Set aside.

Warm up your stock and add brandy or wine to taste, let it simmer together for a bit to burn off some of the alcohol.

Put a thin layer of cheese inside the bottom of the pumpkin, sprinkle fresh herbs and then layer toast. Continue layering alternating cheese herbs and toast until the pumpkin is full.

Put the full pumpkin on a baking sheet then pour your doctored stock into the pumpkin over the layers of cheese and bread. Top with a final layer of cheese and herbs.

Bake the pumpkins in the middle of the oven until the cheese is golden brown and pumpkins yields to the tip of a knife (err on the side of caution, you do NOT want to overcook the pumpkin or the whole thing will collapse.)

Serve the soup in the pumpkin and as you eat it scoop out the pumpkin flesh with the cheesy melty bready soup. Decadence.

End of summer roasted tomatoes

This is the perfect thing to do with end of summer tomatoes and it only takes a few minutes. After you broil them you can freeze them or use them right away and it is dead simple. We usually buy the "ugly" (1.50/lb.) tomatoes at the farmers' market. Any kind will do. Preheat the broiler on your oven. Core and slice in half up to 3 lbs. tomatoes, leave the skin on (unless you don't like it, then take it off.) Arrange the tomatoes skins side up in a casserole pan or deep baking dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Put tomatoes in oven on the center rack and broil until golden brown on top (about 15-20 minutes, but check on them.) At this point you have delicious broiled tomatoes that make a 15 minute sauce taste like you simmered it for hours. We make these on Sunday and use them on weekdays. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You learn something new every day...

Who knew that it makes a difference whether you cook your beans with the lid on or off?

Not I... at least not until today.

This is why I'm hot

This is why I'm hot, I don't got to rap
I can make a mil saying nothing on a track....

That's kind of how I feel about weeknight dinners sometimes. Ok maybe minus some of the boisterousness, plus we always need to do some work... But the point is that it's possible to put out banging meals on a weeknight with very little effort, which is almost the same thing as making a million dollars for not saying anything....

Anyways what I want to talk about here is always having semi-prepared foods around. No I don't mean packaged stuff you buy from Trader Joe's, but items that you partially put together on weekends or whenever you have time or feel inspired, then keep around in the fridge. This allows you to cook meals in 20 minutes that taste like they take hours. This is the key to making killer weeknight dinners.

Here are some things you'll often find in our fridge and freezer:

Marinated veggies: Blanch or roast veggies like carrots or peppers. Cook them until barely soft, then put in a jar with salt and cover with olive oil. If you're feeling fancy add a little vinegar or a clove of garlic. These are great additions to sauces.

Pesto cubes: at the end of the summer when we rip up our basil plants we make a huge batch of pesto, then freeze it in ice cube trays. A cube of this stuff can do magic to many dishes, or just be used with pasta.

Stock cubes: homemade stock, frozen in ice cube trays, are crucial. Thinning a sauce? Deglazing a pan? This is good stuff to use.

Marinated tofu: you'll find it a lot easier to make tofu tasty if it's already marinated in your fridge.

Cooked beans: I guess you could just stock canned beans, if you don't mind your beans mushy and metallic tasting. But the dried ones are so much better (and not as much of a hassle as many think; more on that in a later post). I like to cook them until they're just barely tender to allow for better control over their texture when I'm using with them later. This is a great habit to get into on sunday afternoons: prepare a pot of beans to use throughout the week.

Cooked grains: whenever you cook some grains, why not cook twice as much as you need? Keep the rest in your fridge, and it's ready to go for next time.

Chopped up leftover meats: let's say you do some grilling on the weekend, and there's a couple of chicken drumsticks leftover. Take the meat of the bone, chop it up into little bits, and keep it around. Now it's ready to go into stews, soups, sauces, frittatas, whatever...

There's plenty more options of course. Anything you use that's not on the list? Hit up the comments!

Now to come full circle, I'll leave you with this pretty hot remix of the song quoted at the top:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Food thought....

The folks over at Ideas in Food come up with some pretty crazy stuff. They probe, deconstruct, and examine food in ways I would never think of. Case in point: this recent post about pasta. They figured out that you can leave pasta to soak for a while in cold liquid, and then cook it like fresh pasta by just dropping it in a hot water for a minute.

This brings up a couple of questions:

Most immediately, how can we use this technique to create new and delicious things? Soaking in chicken stock or tomato broth immediately come to mind....

But thinking bigger for a moment, what else do we prepare unthinkingly that could be done in new ways? What else could we do differently to open up new doors?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Quick tip: egg in your pasta

Here's a quick tip to add a little something to quick simple pasta sauces: crack and egg over your hot pasta before you add your sauce. 

The idea is to add a little creaminess, a little luxuriance, to your dish, but without rendering it heavy. This can bring a simple pasta with, say, olive oil, garlic, herbs, and cherry tomatoes to the next level.

Here's how you do it: when your pasta is ready, strain it and quickly return it to the pot (or to a separate bowl). Crack an egg over the pasta, and mix it in vigorously. The result should be a kind of airy creamy sauce (it should not be little bits of scrambled eggs). This essentially is the technique you use to make carbonara: add a bunch of cheese and bacon and you've got that dish. But add instead some veggies sauteed in olive oil, and finish with just a touch of parmesan, and you've got a brilliant summer dish: light and delicious, with just the slightest hint of decadence. Try it with ripe bell peppers, or with shredded zucchini brightened with lemon.  

One more advantage of this technique: it does great things to whole wheat pasta, which I don't normally love.

Here's my current favorite way of using this idea. It hardly seems like it necessitates a recipe, but here it is. Use about 1 egg for every 1/2 pound of pasta.

Heat water for pasta. Add pasta when water is boiling.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a skillet and chop a bunch of garlic. Cook (along with some dried hot pepper, if desired) until garlic just turns golden. 

Add in a splash of white wine, a couple tablespoons of the pasta water, some salt, and let cook for a few minutes. Add fresh herbs just a couple minutes before the pasta is done.

When pasta is ready, quickly drain, return to pot, crack an egg over the pasta, and mix vigorously for about 30 seconds. You should have a light, airy creamy sauce.

Add some halved cherry tomatoes and the garlic/oil/herb mix and toss all together. 

Finish with a little parmesan and some fresh ground pepper, and serve immediately. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

White wine sangria: my new favorite summer drink

Sangria often sucks. In fact, I don't think I've ever encountered a red wine sangria I've really liked. Red wine seems to me to lack the brightness, the vitality, to make a good summer drink. Add that to the fact that most seem to think you should use the crappiest wine you can find to make the drink, and you've got a recipe for disgusting.

White wine, sangria, on the other hand, can be truly excellent. With higher acidity levels, less tannins, and generally less volatile components, white wine lends itself much better to this type of drink. I remember a version from a cuban restaurant in Portland (Pambiche) called the Palm Beach Cooler. I can't recall what exactly was in it, but it definitely involved lime and fresh sugarcane. That was good stuff: delicious, refreshing, vivacious, it was everything a summer drink should be. 

So this summer I've set about refining and perfecting a white wine sangria of my own, working off a recipe Lindsey originally used. This drink is brightened with lime juice, sweetened with ginger ale, and fortified with rum, creating a kind of Cuban/Caribbean flavor profile (I told you that palm beach cooler has been on my mind...). Then you add in whatever fruit is fresh and on hand (often peaches for me) and serve it over ice. I've dubbed the drink El Veraniego, which translates roughly to something like "the summery one".

A note on the wine: as you might have gathered from what I said earlier, I don't believe in using crap wine to make sangria. Boring wine, sure. Bad wine, no. The things you add in might mask some off flavors, but using bad wine will still make an inferior drink. Conversely, any subtleties of a good white will be lost, so don't bother using anything too nice. Dry and unremarkable is ideal. 

El Veraniego 

1 750ml bottle of decent dry white wine
10 oz. (1 1/4 cup) ginger ale
4 tbsp. (1/4 cup) rum
2 tbsp. (or more, depending on your wine) fresh lime juice
Fresh fruit, cut up
A few crushed mint leaves (optional)

Combine all ingredients. Let sit all together in the fridge for an hour or two.
Serve over ice.

Watch out!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summer cookin' : quick fresh tomato sauce

Sorry for the interruption in the posts for a while there folks, but traveling got in the way... I'm back now (though Lindsey is off in Switzerland), so you can expect semi-regular posts.

Now that it's July, I am happily drowning in the summer goodness of tomatoes. They're coming in all colors: red, obviously, but also gold, purple, and even black. We are getting a serious bumper crop in the garden this year, and I'm loving it.

It is hot here in Carolina in the summer. So when you haul in plump, fresh tomatoes from the yard, you have the twin objectives of 1. preserving the deliciousness of the fruit, and 2. not killing yourself by standing over a hot stove for any length of time. Luckily, these two goals come together beautifully in the quick tomato sauce. How delicious the quick tomato sauce can be - when made right (which is not very difficult) and with peak fruit - cannot be overstated.
Really it should be called a tomato-olive oil sauce, since the oil is almost as important here as the tomatoes. It is the key to the luscious mouthfeel of the sauce, to the almost silky texture you get as the tomatoes break down.

As for the tomatoes, you can use almost any kind, but I think what works best here are meatier ones. We've been growing German Johnsons this year, and I find these work exceptionally well.

So there are really just 
three key things to remember here:

1. Don't overcook (not hard when it's really hot)
2. Use only really fresh, really ripe tomatoes. Your sauce will only be as good as your tomatoes are.
3. Don't be shy with the olive oil.

Now you can strip this recipe down even further if you want - really, the bare bones are simply oil, salt, and tomatoes - but this is how I like to do it, with copious amount of garlic.

Pasta with Quick Fresh Tomato Sauce

Heat water for pasta in a pot.

Chop up a head of garlic (seriously) and heat about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet on medium-heat. Add garlic, and cook until it just starts to turn golden.

Add a splash of white white wine, let it cook off for a minute, then add 1.5-2 lbs. roughly chopped tomatoes. Salt, and crank the heat up to medium so it gets bubbling vigorously.

Meanwhile, add a pound of pasta to your boiling water (I recommend penne). Your tomatoes should cook for about as long as your pasta: 10 mins.

Drain the pasta just a little before it is done. Return to pot, add with tomato sauce, and put on low heat, stirring to mix everything together. Cook for 3 minutes.

Finish with a little parmesan, and consume with a bottle of chilled white wine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

BBQ beans and rice

If you haven't checked out Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen yet, I highly recommend you do so soon. Terry is a really interesting and thoughtful cook who goes back to an older notion of southern cooking, more focused on vegetables and fresh ingredients, but with plenty of modern and playful twists. Go read his "Reclaiming True Grits" essay to get an idea of his philosophy.

I love the idea of Vegan Soul Kitchen for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that you can in fact make banging soul food that is also healthy and fresh. But I also like it because, though I am by no stretch of the imagination vegan, learning how to prepare delicious vegan meals makes you a better cook. When you can't rely on bacon or cream to cover up for an otherwise bland dish, you learn how to better construct a dish to make it flavorful. And moving on from there, you get a better sense of how you should use animal products on a day to day basis: judiciously, not just because.

I only got this book recently, and until yesterday had only made his coleslaw, which uses silken tofu instead of mayo to create a slaw that is more delicate and subtle - but also far more delicious - than most slaws I've had. None of that gopy heavy stuff... Yesterday I came home and decided to try something else out of the book, but of course I had no interest in going shopping, so a few substitutions were made.

Given the ingredients I had at home, I decided to make a dish called Boppin' John, essentially bbq beans served over rice. It was supposed to be made with black-eyed peas, but I'd recently used up what we had at home, so I used white beans instead. It was also supposed to have tempeh in it, another thing I was out of, and the only other soy product I had was tofu. While I don't think the bean switch was detrimental to the dish, I will go ahead and say it would be better to use tempeh, or to fry the crumbled tofu first to make crispy little tofu pieces, as the crumbled tofu I simply added in was texturally lacking. I also halved the amount of agave nectar (Terry's preferred sweetener), and I am glad I made that choice. Feel free to add more sweetener if that's how you like it.

BBQ beans and rice (Boppin' John)
Adapted from Bryant Terry's Vegan Soul Kitchen

- Cook 1 1/2 cup beans in ampl
e salted water until just tender. Drain and reserve 1 cup of the liquid.

-Meanwhile, cook up a medium onion in some olive oil over medium heat for about 5 minutes, then add 3-4 (or more) minced cloves of garlic. Cook another couple minutes.

-Preheat oven to 350 F.

-In a blender, combine 2 tbsp. vinegar (sherry or red wine or cider), 1/2 cup tamari, 1 cup of canned tomatoes, 1 chipotle pepper, 1/4 cup agave nectar, 1 tbsp cumin, some thyme, the reserved bean liquid, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Blend until smooth.

-In an ovenproof dish, combine the beans, 1/2 pound crumbled tempeh (or fried crumbled tofu), the onions and garlic, and the sauce from the blender.

-Bake for about 1 1/2 hours.

-Serve over rice (or, in my case, rice tinted yellow with turmeric because it looks cool). This would also be delicious served over polenta or grits.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Until the heat wave hit us full blast here in NC (it's 90 degrees as I write this), it was morel season, that brief, delicious periods in which the mysterious fungi appear.

Thanks to Lindsey and her intrepid crew of mushroom hunters, we had three glorious meals in the course of a week. They went out to their secret location three times, each time bringing back a bigger haul.

All the meals were riffs on the same theme, because there is no need to tinker too much with something so delicious. A light hand, a little butter, a little cream, and a few ingredients that highlight the morel flavor, served over a little pasta: that is the winning formula. And always with a light, earthy, red wine, of course.

The first meal involved penne and a little spring onions, all prepared quite simply. We cracked open a bottle of Bugey that we had hauled all the way back from France last Christmas.

The second meal got a little fancier. Lindsey cooked up some skillet roasted chicken thighs and served the whole thing over orzo.

The third and final haul was by far the biggest, and this one was prepared with another seasonal delicacy: asparagus. The morels and the asparagus complemented each other beautifully, and with so many morels this time the taste was far more pronounced.

I'm looking forward to next spring already...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vegetarian Wine Dinner

After the success of our last wine dinner, where we focused on sherries, Lindsey and I figured it was high time for a new edition. Spring has come here to North Carolina, and the farmers markets are coming back to life, so we wanted to capture the fresh, bright flavors of the season.

We had gotten, since the last dinner, a number of requests from our dietarily restricted friends. Because it seemed like a fun and interesting challenge, we decided to make this dinner meat-free.

Now a note on the philosophy behind this: vegetarian cooking can be wonderful, creative, and satisfying, but there’s two things it should not be. It should never try to pretend to be meat, or in some sense try to make up for the lack of meat. It should stand on its own, proudly, not trying to live up to some meaty standard. On the other hand, it should not feel austere or have any air of health-nut self-righteous masochism. So no mock chicken, and no sacrificing deliciousness.

In developing the menu, it became clear that the wines were all going to be white. The flavors were bright, the fresh herbs plentiful, the spices liberally dispensed, and the generally more refreshing and acidic flavor profiles of white wines just worked better.

So that was the game plan: all vegetarian and all white.

We started off with some little bites and some Vi D’Agulla 07, the lightly sparkling wine from Avinyó.

We had some roasted almonds with pimentón, and carrots marinated in olive oil, sherry and garlic. There were little crostinis: one with a generously-herbed feta and another, reminiscent of a sping picnic in the French countryside, with butter, radishes, coarse salt, and a little leaf of fresh oregano. Lastly, there was the new house favorite: kale chips. These are pieces of kale tossed with olive oil, cider vinegar, and salt, and baked until perfectly crispy. The effect is odd, tantalizing, and addictive: a shattering crisp rapidly gives way to a melting texture, while the flavor is salty, a little sour, and wonderfully vegetal.

After the Vi D’Agulla was dispatched, we sat down to the first dish, a chickpea-sweet potato fritter on a bed of fresh pea shoots with a homemade cumin-pimentón aioli.

The fritters themselves were earthy and enriched by the rich aioli, the whole thing complemented by the clean, crisp, pea shoot.

The wine here was the Gurrutxaga Txakolina 07. We’re a wee bit obsessed with txakolina here, and while it may be a slight exaggeration to say that it plays well with pretty much anything that isn’t too sweet, it showed beautifully here, clear citrus notes singing.

After that came a soup of roasted garlic and lemon with truffle oil croutons (photo missing, sorry). Lots and lots of garlic, mostly roasted with a little fresh, a dash of cream, and a hefty dose of fresh lemon juice for the high note. We had this with the A Coroa Godello 2007. I’m not sure if it was some combination of the crisp wine with the lemon in the soup or something else, but to me the whole thing was actually reminscent of seafood, like there was something almost ocean-y about it despite it lacking anything from the sea…

Next up, portabello caps stuffed with risotto and topped with homemade fresh cheese.

This was the most complex dish of the meal. The mushroom caps were marinated then grilled. The risotto was made with lots of spring garlic and spring onion, and a good amount of saffron. After the mushroom caps were stuffed with the risotto, we added toasted pine nuts on top, and then finally the cheese. The whole thing finally went into the broiler for a few minutes.

We brought out the Ostatu Blanco Rioja 07 here, since it was calling for a a slightly rounder wine then what we’d been drinking until now.

Finally, dessert. Thanks to our deliciously mild weather here in North Carolina, we could enjoy the first strawberries of the season.

What we did was slice the strawberries and arrange then in a circle. We sprinkled them with crushed pistachios, and drizzled them with a balsamic syrup reduction. And in the middle, a little mound of chocolate goat cheese from Celebrity Dairy. I know, chocolate goat cheese sounds wierd. And it is, but in a delicious way. It’s very sweet, so you only want a little, and the goatiness is muted by the chocolate but still present, just enough to give it something special and keep things interesting.

The dish was crying out for something with nutty caramel notes to accompany it, and the obvious choice was Pedro Ximenez sherry. This one was from El Maestro Sierra, and it did not disappoint.

That was the last of the dishes, but it was not the last of the wine drinking. As often happens, the porrón came out after the meal, and yours truly was all too happy to demonstrate its proper use.

(Thanks to Meg Kassabaum for the pictures)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Polenta, and a successful dinner

The last two dishes I've cooked have been - how to put this? - if not exactly failures, then at least pretty blah. One involved a not-so-great combination of flavors, the other involved burnt garlic, among other issues (Burnt garlic?! Who does that? How amateurish...). I needed to redeem myself a little and give my culinary ego a little boost, and so I set out to cook dinner last night determined to make something more than just palatable. Jeff and Lindsey agreed that my creation was indeed quite tasty, the only criticism being that it was little unfocused. If nothing else it was aesthetically pleasing:

I started off by slowly cooking onions, carrots, and white sweet potato in abundant olive oil in a cast iron skillet, eventually adding some frozen bell peppers, a couple chipotle peppers, and garlic, which I did not burn.

At the very end I added some incredibly tasty baby spinach from the farmer's market, cooking it just long enough for it to wilt, and a splash of sherry vinegar (see ingredients I put in pretty much everything). I served this over polenta, and topped it off with a fried egg and a little bit of grated pecorino. Ok so you can see why this might have seemed a little unfocused: there was a lot going on for one dish. But at least all the flavors were delightful and on good behavior, not clashing with each other despite a couple strong personalities. It all went down quite well with a bottle of vinho verde.

Let's talk about the polenta for a second. I adore polenta, but when something involves almost constant stirring for 20 minutes, it will inevitably fall into the category of "something I make only occasionaly." I wish it weren't so, but it's the truth. Then I discovered that there is actually a way to cook polenta without stirring! It takes about twice as long, but who cares when you can kick back and sip your whiskey while it does its thing? It goes like this:

No-stir Oven Polenta

Preheat your oven to 360 degrees.

Depending on how thick you want your polenta, use anywhere between 4 and 7 cups of liquid for every cup of polenta.

Mix polenta and liquid together in an oven-proof pot.

Bake for 40 minutes with the lid off.

That's all it is. Personally my favorite way to do it is to use 4-5 cups of stock, then when I pull it out of the oven stir in 1/2 cup of whole milk and either a little butter or parmesan. But there are so many ways to tweak it, it's fun to play around and this recipe is very forgiving.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chili basics

We have had a cold spell in Chapel Hill so in the past couple of weeks we have been making big pots of Chili. I call this post Chili guidelines because our method for making chili is pretty general and takes advantage of whatever we have lying around the kitchen. For example the first time I made this recipe I used smoked pork chops as the meat and the second time I used left over bbq chicken. This recipe can easily be made vegetarian (maybe using the crumbled tofu from this recipe) but we like using just a little bit of meat as a seasoning. In my opinion that is one of the coolest things about southern cooking, the way they use meat sparingly for flavor rather than as the center of a meal, this is a great way to make use of left overs and make great tasting economical food. This Chili recipe makes about 8-10 servings so you can freeze some and reheat it for a quick meal.

You will need:
3 cups dried beans (white, pinto or a mix)
1 bottle cheap beer
1/2 can tomatoes
1 onion roughly chopped
garlic (to taste)
Canned chipotle peppers (we used 3 peppers)
1 cup meat can be cooked or smoked (if using bacon, cook first and use the grease to brown the onions)
4 cups stock or reserved bean cooking liquid
Optional: Grain such as quinoa, barley or rice, you can cook this in the chili to make it more of a stew or just serve the chili over a grain, or just crumble corn chips into it at the end.

First off soften the beans. When cooking beans make sure to rinse them and pick them over, taking out any bad beans, small stones or other weirdness. It is a good idea to soak your beans earlier in the day so you dont have to worry about it when you are cooking. Cover beans with water, throw in a bay leaf, maybe a clove of garlic and some salt if yo are planning to use the cooking liquid as your stock and put them on low heat. When they are softened but chewy take them off and rinse them, saving the liquid if you want.

To assemble the chili begin by softening the onion with garlic and chipotle until onion is translucent over medum heat. At that point add meat and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour in bottle of beer, scraping the bottom of the pot to deglaze any browned bits. Add tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add beans and ladle in stock, should be a little more liquidy than you want your final product to be. Add grain if you are going to use it. turn heat to low and simmer for at least 30 minutes, preferably more, until you like how it tastes. ladle into bowls and serve. Cheese and avocados make great garnishes. OR To take it to the next level, ladle into ramekins, top with cheddar cheese and throw under the broiler until cheese is bubbly and slightly brown and THEN serve, like this.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This is very simple and hardly even a recipe but it is a good idea. I was playing around last night looking for a good dipping sauce and I combined one part Sriracha hot sauce (Cock sauce) and one part ketchup. Genius. The spicy sweet sauce was awesome for dipping fritters and also with sausages. Basically just a great replacement for ketchup and also a pretty sweet dipping sauce.

Note: We use organic ketchup which it turns out actually makes a nutritional difference, silly as it sounds. Organic ketchup is made with tomatoes skin on and contains much more lycopene than conventional ketchup. It also does not have high fructrose corn syrup in it like the conventional stuff.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Continuing with the tofu theme...

Looking back over the recipes on this blog I just realized that I never posted my tofu "meat" sauce recipe. I make this hearty pasta sauce about once a week in the winter and it is a great way to add some protein to a simple pasta and red sauce. The basic sauce principles can be used to make any kind of home-made pasta sauce (so much better and cheaper than the jarred stuff). In addition, the technique for cooking the tofu, crumbling, marinating, frying then re-adding the marinade, is another great way to approach the tofu "problem" Alex mentioned in his post and you can use this technique to cook tofu for all sorts of dishes not just this sauce.

1 onion
5 cloves garlic
1 can tomatoes (I like whole ones but diced work too)
1 bay leaf
1 pepper, 1/2 bag TJs frozen mixed bell peppers (Optional)
Artichoke Hearts (optional)
olive oil
Red cooking wine/ balsamic vinegar

For the tofu
1 block extra firm tofu
olive oil
soy sauce
worcheshire sauce (NOTE TO VEGETARIANS: If you live in Chapel Hill/ Carrboro Weaver Street sells vegetarian Worcheshire sauce, otherwise you can leave this out or you might try using balsmaic vineger. The point is to add some "meatiness" to the tofu and I Balsamic has the depth of flavor to suite the purpose.)

To prepare the tofu (you want to do this first). drain the tofu and crumble it into a non-reactive bowl with enough room for marinade, there is no need to press it at this point. In a cup or other bowl (I like to use a measuring cup) mix up a marinate with the olive oil soy sauce woostershire sauces cayenne and whatever else you want (sriracha etc.) Make your marinade to taste but it should taste a little stronger than you would want in the end. There are no quantities on this because I have no idea how much of anything I put in, just kind of splash it, there should be a total of 1/2 cup of liquid). Pour the marinade onto the crumbled tofu, mixing it up to get full coverage if you need to, and set aside to get your sauce going.

Chop up your onion and sautee it in a skillet (not cast iron) with about 2 tablespoons olive oil until it is translucent over medium heat. Add garlic and cook both together for a couple of minutes. Add any vegetables (peppers, artichoke hearts) and a splash of cooking wine/ vinegar, stir. Turn the heat down to lowish and add 1 can of tomatoes, bay leaf and salt, stir and then leave it alone.

Now go finish your tofu.
heat up a cast iron flat bottomed pan, a skillet or dutch oven will work. Pour your bowl of tofu onto a clean dishtowel or cheesecloth and twist the marinate out of it into the bowl (save the marinade) you want to get the tofu as dry as possible or it will not brown. Put the drained tofu into the hot cast iron and make sure in is as spread out over the surface as possible. The oil on the tofu should prevent it from sticking but a light coating on the pan certainly won't hurt. Fry tofu without stirring for 5 minutes or until borwn, then stir it up and brown more, when it is brown to your liking scoop out with a slotted spatula either onto a paper towel or directly into your tomato sauce simmering away on another burner. Add the marinade to the sauce as well and stir. Let it all get acquainted for a few minutes while you make pasta.

Cook your pasta, mix it up with the sauce and some parmasan and serve. OR Mix it up with the sauce and parmasan and put it in a casserole dish, cover it with bread crumbs and more parmasan and bake for 15 minutes then serve.
Pictures to follow

Friday, February 6, 2009

Broasted Tofu (with mustard honey sauce)

Lindsey coined the term for this technique because as far as we know there isn't really a word for what I'm talking about here - a combination of braising and roasting. There's probably a good reason for this: I can't imagine it would work well for anything but tofu (though Lindsey suggested it might be good for certain vegetables; hit the comments if you've got any other ideas).

Basically I'm talking about baking tofu cutlets baked at high heat in a marinade/sauce. Here's why we do it:

Tofu gets a bad rap for a couple reasons: one is texture and one is flavor, or rather the lack thereof. I personally have no texture issues with tofu; I think even the silken version can be wonderful if used right. But for most people (myself included most of the time), firmer is better. Using extra firm tofu and draining it before cooking helps enormously. Baking tofu also does wonders.

As for flavor, the real way to go with tofu is marinating it. Tofu is a blank slate, and you want to fill it completely, not just draw on the borders. The problem, of course, is time. I love to keep marinated tofu around, but I don't always get it together to prepare it advance. Sometimes I need to just work with tofu straight out of its watery home.

Enter broasted tofu. The idea is that tofu kind of marinates while it cooks and develops a nice crispy top. Take a block of extra firm tofu and drain it for a few minutes (put it on a cutting board slanted towards your sink, and put something heavy on it, like 3 or 4 plates). Make whatever marinade or sauce suits your fancy (recipe for a mustard honey version below). Cut your tofu into 1/3 inch thick cutlets and arrange them in a baking pan. Now pour enough marinade into the pan that your cutlets are about 3/4 submerged. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs on top of the cutlets for a little extra crispiness. Put the whole thing in a 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Your marinade/sauce should have reduced and thickened, your tofu should be flavorful with a firm chewiness and a lightly crispy top. Spoon a little extra sauce over the cutlets on the plate.

I love tofu, even if it's not always the easiest thing to work with. Broasted tofu, I hope, helps solve some of the more common issues with its preparation.

The recipe makes an excellent dinner served with quinoa (or another whole grain) and simple winter vegetables.

Broasted Tofu with Mustard Honey Sauce

-Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

-Drain 1 block of extra firm tofu for 10-20 minutes.

-Make the marinade by combining:
1/4 cup soy sauce

5 tbsp mustard
2 tbsp honey

2 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup dry sherry (or white wine, or light beer, or sake)
Generous pinch of cayenne

Dash of worcestshire sauce (optional)

-Whisk it all together until well combined

-Cut tofu into 1/3 inch cutlets and arrange in a baking pan. If you're using a fairly standard size rectangular baking pan (mine is about 12''x8'') the cutlets should just fit in one layer.

-Pour marinade all over until it almost (but not quite) covers the cutlets.

-Sprinkle breadcrumbs over the top and pop it in the oven.

-Bake until top of cutlets is golden brown and sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.

-To serve, arrange cutlets on plate and spoon a little extra sauce on them.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Casserole Redux

(The title of this post is a reference to the casserole post I did last winter when no one was reading this blog, there is an awesome recipe for southern tofu casserole in that post, you can view it here.)

See that delicious looking thing behind our title? That is a casserole. That particular casserole was made from Israeli couscous, red wine, garlic, squash, artichoke hearts (bought frozen from TJs) onions and home made fresh mozzarella. That was an elaborate casserole but really anything can be transformed into a casserole and many things should be. Pasta dishes benefit significantly from being baked together. Last week I made a simple red sauce and penne that turned into a wonderful baked pasta dish. I undercooked the penne and tossed it and the sauce and parmesan together in a pyrex casserole dish, then I coated the top with breadcrumbs and a little more parmesan and baked the whole thing together for 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven until the top was slightly browned. Baking the sauce and pasta together really kicks up the depth of the flavors and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is a huge improvement over plain pasta with sauce and requires almost no effort and a little time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A little food thought....

My friend Beth tipped me off to this crazy idea of smoked french fries from the folks at Ideas in Food. Not sure if I'll ever get around to making that, given my more minimalist, laissez-faire approach to cooking, but my, what an idea. These people are really thinking about how food works.

I started poking around the website this recipe was on, and while much of what's on there is a too science-y for my taste, I love the creative, outside-the-box thinking about food they do. This post in particular caught my attention. It really makes you think about flavors: what element does a given ingredient bring? Is there a better or a different way to it? I know that the more I cook, the more I'm interested in understanding how flavors work. What brings the sweetness, the acidity, the spiciness? And then there's texture: why do you, say, brown and then bake a piece of chicken, instead of doing it the other way around?

Giving a little thought to the why of food, I believe, can only help the curious cook working towards improvement in the kitchen.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Secret Ingredients

Ok so they're not exactly secret, but I wanted to share some of the more unusual ingredients that I put in pretty much everything. The reason they might be called secret is that I often don't use them in amounts where you can discern their individual flavors, but they all add a depth and complexity to dishes that would be missing without them. Which is not to say I don't use these ingredients as pronounced flavors at times - I most certainly do - but more often I will use just a little but in places where they may not be expected. So, here are a few of these crucial ingredients:

  • Chipotle
No one saw that one coming right? Especially not after my last post... A little chipotle adds mainly two things: spiciness and smokiness. This can be great as a primary flavor (in, say, scrambled eggs, or a chili), but its utility extends beyond that. I add small quantities to pretty much everything: lentil soups, tomato sauces, frittatas, whatever. Lately I've just been incorporating it into my sofrito bases: most dishes I make at this time of year will start with onion and carrot being slowly cooked in some oil; try adding a little chipotle to the mix. The stuff I keep around is the type that is canned with adobo sauce. This summer I plan on smoking my own jalapenos and seeing how that goes.

  • Vinegar: sherry and cider
Acidity is a component of food that I believe people don't give enough thought to. Acidity is what gives food that brightness, that bite, that liveliness. And unless you're cooking with citrus or wine, there's probably not enough of it in your food. That's why I add a little vinegar to most things. My two favorites are sherry and cider, mostly for their versatility. I have no problem with balsamic, but because its flavor can easily overwhelm I tend to reserve it for very specific uses.

  • Soy sauce
Another element of food that isn't emphasized enough is umami. If you're cooking with a lot of meat or, say, seaweed, you don't really have to think about this too much. But if like me you cook mostly vegetarian, then the quest for umaminess is all important. Umami is that meaty, deep savory flavor that makes a dish so satisfying. Soy sauce will help you bring the umami. Of course you don't want everything to taste like soy sauce, but in small doses you won't overwhelm and the soy sauce will simply act as an umami giver. (Umami side note: fino sherry has also been scientifically proven to enhance the umami flavors of food, which is why it's so good with pretty much everything. Drink more fino!)

In pretty much any dish, be it a pasta sauce or a vegetable sauce, a little dash of any (or all!) of the above can add serious dimension to a dish.

There are a number of other ingredients that could be part of this list, like smoked paprika (you do know about pimenton, right?), but the ones above are the ones I'm currently infatuated with.

What are your secret ingredients you add to everything?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chipotle and Red Wine

You know how there are some flavor combinations that are just transcendent, where certain flavors just feel like they were made for each other? Many are well-known, like fish and lemon, or wild mushrooms and cream, or bacon and anything. Sometimes, though, you hit on some less obvious ones.

The other day I was thinking about this sauce my mom likes to make with port and ancho chiles. It's a delightful and surprising combination of flavors, sweet, bitter, and spicy. It's the kind of sauce that you remember, vividly, for a long time. I was thinking about this sauce and contemplating making something like it, but port and ancho chiles are two things I don't usually have around. The closest things I had were two items that are staples in our kitchen: chipotle peppers and red wine. So I decided to give it a whirl, and, my, what a revelation...

My mom serves her sauce over creamy polenta, so I followed her lead on that one. I don't actually know how she makes the sauce though, so I made it up (full recipe below). I put some red wine and some stock in a sauce pot with a little garlic and tomato paste and let it bubble until it reduced and the flavors concentrated. Meanwhile I slowly cooked an onion and a carrot in a little butter until they caramelized. I then added some chipotle, then the wine mixture, then some white beans for bulk, and let it all hang out for a while. The results were glorious: the earthiness and spice from the chipotle, the tannins and fruit from the wine, a slight sweetness from the caramelized onion.

Fast forward a few days: I had intended to make a boeuf bourgignon for Sunday dinner but, inspired, I tried a different route. I swapped pork shoulder for the beef, and slow cooked it in - you guessed it - red wine and chipotle for 5 hours. It was like boeuf bourgignon took a Mexican vacation; I dubbed it carnitas bourgignon. Now that I think of it, a little cilantro would be a great addition...

White Beans in Chipotle and Red Wine Sauce

-In a small saucepot, heat 1 1/2 cup stock and 1 1/2 cup red wine with 2 cloves garlic and 2 tbsp. tomato paste.
-Let simmer for 20 minutes or so.

-Meanwhile, caramelize 1 minced onion and 1 minced carrot over low heat in a little butter.
-After about 20 minutes, add 1 chopped chipotle pepper (I use the ones canned in adobo).
-After 5 minutes, add the wine and stock mixture and 2 cups cooked white beans.
-Simmer it all together for 15-20 mins, until slightly thick and all the flavors are well-acquainted.

-Serve over creamy polenta.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Hello reader(s),
Sorry it has been a while since my last post. I am making some changes to the blog. Alexander has been granted full admin status and will be adding more content and influencing the direction of the blog. Hopefully with 2 of us we can publish more often and keep this thing a little more current. It has been a cold winter here in North Carolina and our attempts at winter gardening failed. Recently we have been focusing on food chemistry experiments, making our own lemoncello, gin, mustard and cheese. We will try to get recipes and pictures up soon as well as more actual food recipes.

Guinness Mustard

Ok, so we got this recipe out of the January Saveur (cheating, I know) but it is easy and excellent and we want to share it.
12 ounces of Guiness Stout (we used a draft can)
1 1/2 cup brown mustard seeds
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. kosher salt (we used sea salt)
1 tsp. Freshly ground Black Pepper
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice

Combine ingredients in nonreactive mixing bowl (we used pyrex) cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 1-2 days so that mustard seeds soften and the flavors meld. Transfer mixture into a food processor (We don't have one of those so we used a blender). And blend, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Do this for about 3 minutes until the seeds are coarsely ground and the mixture thickens. Transfer into a jar and refrigerate over night and use immediately or refrigerate for up to 6 months.

Note: You probably won't want to eat this the next day as it is VERY intense when it is fresh. I recommend waiting a couple of days before you eat it. It is awesome then though.