December 29, 2009

Lazy Days and Legumes: Black Bean Soup and Yellow Dal

You always mean well with New Year's resolutions, right? After weeks of comfort food, Crock-Pot concoctions, candy, cookies, and cake, it always feels good to go back to those salad days and other vegetarian fare. Even if you don't stick to such a plan all year long, it helps to have a few healthy vegetable + fiber recipes in the archives.

Like so many others, this week, my husband and I vowed to start eating healthier, and for us, that means more legumes. He suggested I compile a sort of "five days of legumes" this week. We started with his black bean soup on Sunday, with green tomato salsa and chihuahua cheese quesadillas. I canned the salsa this summer, when it was clear it was not a good growing season for tomatoes in Chicago and about three varieties of heirloom tomatoes never went beyond being green. I was skeptical about the salsa when I canned it, but it's turned out to be a lifesaver this winter. He says his black bean soup changes every time he makes it, but I can safely say it's 1 15-oz can of black beans, one jalapeno (cored and finely diced), two to three cloves of garlic (minced), and a couple of roma tomatoes (coarsely chopped and juice included). He leaves the salt and peppering up to me, and I always throw in about a teaspoon of cumin and about a half teaspoon of chipotle or chili powder. Basically, he sautes the jalapeno and garlic together in a couple tablespoons of olive oil for about 5 minutes or until fragrant, and then throws in everything else. Heats it through to simmering (about 20 min), finishes it with the juice of one whole lemon and a smattering of chopped cilantro, and ladles it out in big bowls with the quesadillas on the side. Garnish with sour cream or extra chihuahua cheese. It's the Cinco de Enero (January) treat!

That same evening, he successfully followed my Yellow Dal recipe to a T, so he'd have lunches for the week. We eat this with purchased naan bread or just by itself. It totally warms the heart and makes you think of your favorite Indian restaurant on the first spoonful.

Yellow Dal

1 16-oz package yellow lentils (often called yellow split peas)

3 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil
chopped fresh cilantro

Rinse lentils and drain them. Place lentils in heavy saucepan and add water. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer uncovered, about 45 min, or until most of the water is cooked away and lentils are soft. Stir in salt, sugar, tumeric, coriander, garam masala, cumin, and chili powder. Combine well and heat through, another 5-10 min. Finish with ghee, mixing to coat. Serve with naan, chapathi, or rice. Serves 6-8.

Later this week, you can try your hand at Mark Bittman's Falafel recipe, which I improved on with one extra step. But for now, I don't want to overwhelm you with more than two recipes at once (plus it gives me more to talk about--and a Third Day of Legumes), so grab a spoon and dig in!

December 23, 2009

Butternut Squash Soup

We suffered another guilt trip issued by vegetable share last week. We've had three gorgeous, overweight butternut squash sitting around our kitchen for weeks now, just begging to be turned into some sort of tasty winter dish. This recipe for Butternut Squash Soup from Mark Bitman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a true celebration of winter soup slurping.

2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 3-4 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks
1 medium onion
2 tbsp chopped sage
5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup heavy cream (or 1/2 cup half-n-half and 1/2 cup milk for lighter version)

Heat oil in a large deep skillet or soup pot over medium-high heat. Add squash and onion and saute for five minutes. Add sage and cook and stir until aromatic (another 5-10 minutes). Add broth and reduce heat to low to allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree softened squash mixture in blender in batches or with an immersion blender directly in the pot. Return to medium heat and warm through. Add 1 cup cream or half-n-half/mil mixtures and serve immediately with buttered croutons or chopped herbs. Serves 4-6.

December 8, 2009

Cooking School: Pie Crust Primer

This weekend, I stumbled across some old questions friends had posed when I had another incarnation of this blog several years ago. One of my best friends in Atlanta posed this question: "Why is pie crust so hard to make? Grocery store crusts taste better than my slop!"

All I could think was, "Oh no. Don't go the supermarket route!" Those are filled with preservatives, made with all shortening and no real butter, and full of salt to give them shelf life. You can master pie crust this holiday season, and here are a few tips for obtaining a good, workable, flaky pie dough. (I'll tackle nut and cracker/cookie crusts that require parbaking another time.)

This recipe from Epicurious is pretty foolproof. I replace half the butter with shortening to give it superior flakiness. Some people replace it with lard, but I just can't use that part of an animal (maybe it's the Hindu in me again???), so I'm fine with shortening. I do think it adds texture and allows the flaky layers to form better than an all-butter crust does.

Don't make the crust unless you're really going to use it within the allotted time. Chilling for an hour is perfect. If you think you can't get to it the day you make it but still want to cross the task of handmade crust off your list, then form the disc, wrap it twice in plastic wrap, put it in a freezer-safe Ziploc (label and date it!), and freeze it until you use it. Transfer it to the fridge first before using it because you want it to return to that "chilled-for-an-hour" temp (usually overnight works fine). If the pan-ready pie crust is your thing, then buy these glass pie plates that you can even get at CVS and Walgreens, roll out your dough after the hour chilling time, place it in these plates, lay waxed paper or parchment between each plate, stack and wrap them, and then freeze them in a Ziploc bag. You'll even have reusable glass pie plates, and they're sturdier for transport to a party than foil ones.

You can also go whole-grain on this pie crust recipe. I replace about half the flour with whole wheat pastry flour when going for a somewhat healthier or rustic slant. I do think it's crucial to use pastry flour and not just simply whole-wheat flour, otherwise you won't have the pliability you'll need for pie and tart dough. Here is a great guide on all the flours so that you can better understand gluten content and how it works in certain doughs.

I am also a fan of the silicone rolling pin for working with pie dough. Because of the high butter content, you'll want to make sure the dough doesn't stick to your pin. Flour your surface well, then flour your disc of dough. Roll with even pressure and turn the flattening disc often. Reflour your surface as necessary. I often pick up the widening circle of dough on opposite ends and circulate it, in a rather "Mr. Miyagi/wax on, wax off" way, so that I know it never sticks to my rolling surface. Wooden straight and French-style rolling pins are also great, and I got used to using one in pastry school. Just remember not to wet-wash it. It's wood and will rot and splinter if in regular contact with water. For cleanup, just allow buttery bits to dry and then scrape off with a dry, rough-surface towel or bowl scraper. This is one reason I really like the silicone pins. They offer the same even weight as a French wooden pin, but with an easy-to-clean surface. Just keep it away from knives, box graters, and other pointed surfaces when you store it, so as not to tear up the soft silicone surface.

Lattice-top fruit pies are just about the prettiest things on the planet! But lattice work takes some practice, in my opinion, so an easy way out is to use small shaped cutters. The end result is a pretty darn beautiful pie that still has the venting needed for the water in fruit pies to escape during the baking process. Scraps of leftover dough can be rekneaded and frozen until later use. For lattice-top pies, I will often insert a baking sheet with a lip (jelly-roll pan) on the rack below the pie in order to catch fruit drippings that bubble out over the lattice.

All the best with your pie-baking this holiday season, and just remember, nothing beats homemade pie crust. Really, after you become a whiz at this, the supermarket version will truly pale in comparison!

December 5, 2009

Smoky Pork and Pappardelle

Having been raised Hindu, I generally have a karma problem after eating a burger or steak. I don't do it often (maybe two or three times a year, plus the occasional lasagna with meat sauce at a friend's house), and I rarely prepare it at home. For some reason, the feeling generally carried over to pork with me, even though there's nothing in the Upanishads or Baghvad Gita about pigs (as far as I know anyway). But then the bacon/pulled pork phenomenon took over American cuisine, and I can't stop looking for interesting ways to braise, roast, grill--you name it--a pork tenderloin or shoulder. My good friend Chris gave me this recipe for Smoky Pork and Pappardelle months ago, and it took me until this week to try it. Yowza! Talk about a keeper AND A HALF! This is going down in our all-time faves Messy Box o' Many Recipes (because I can't be bothered to get a binder and three-hole-punch all the print-outs and magazine tear-outs), and we'll be breaking it out multiple times this season.

A few disclaimers... I was lazy and couldn't be bothered to get in my car for groceries, so I subbed a few things, courtesy of my pantry and the Mexican grocery on the corner: conchiglie (conch-shape pasta from World Market that I already had, instead of pappardelle, a long, flat sheet pasta that's not as wide as lasagna but not as narrow as linguine); ricotta for the mascarpone; and bone-in pork tenderloin chunks that required deboning later, during the shredding process. I deboned the pork and shredded it, added another cup of chicken broth, and cooked the conchiglie in the stew on the stove, just before adding the ricotta and serving. Perfect one-pot action!

It was a simply spectacular meal, and we will be making this over and over at our house. Serve it with a good Pinot Noir, a spinach salad, and some kind of fruit pie or cobbler for dessert. Winter's here!

December 2, 2009

I Met Thomas Keller!

I'm a cookbook nerd, and I'm proud of it. They are my bedside reading, I check them out from the library, I buy them used anywhere I can, and my shelves runneth over. Someday, I'd like to open a cookbook library inside Pomegranate--another way to get people to come, eat, relax, read, and enjoy hanging out in my home-away-from home.

Last night, I met the incredibly amazing and talented Thomas Keller of French Laundry, Per Se, and Ad Hoc fame. The man is a culinary genius and a gastronomic god. In my humble opinion, he is the greatest American food artist. Grant Achatz of Alinea and the whole molecular gastronomy movement trained under Thomas Keller, and people are lined up around the block to work at French Laundry for free. Keller's books are literally coffee table books--the kind where you photocopy the recipe you want to use and put the real book back on your shelf so that it never sees a splatter of anything from your kitchen! Meeting him yesterday was in one of my top experiences of all time (he's very debonair, a sharp dresser, and amazingly fit and lithe--how these guys who cook with butter 24/7 look like this is beyond me!). But going to French Laundry is one of my Top Ten Things in Life to Do Before I Die. My husband and I are hoping to go this summer, when I run a half marathon in Napa and to celebrate our birthdays. I figure the only way to justify a $500 meal and $90 bottle of wine is after running 13.2 miles through the wine country!

Anyway, if you get a chance to look at/pick up a copy of Ad Hoc at Home, it'll be worth it, because I do think it's his best yet. It's the more personal side of Keller, as he wrote it when his father passed away and included a lot of the recipes he and his friends and family have enjoyed over the years. It's also like one big textbook for the kitchen, with lots of tidbits of info about how to salt things; when to use oil and how much; and the differences between roasting, pan-roasting, and braising. There are fun chalkboard sections showing step-by-step processes such as deboning whole chickens. I, for one, am frightened by that task and regular cheat by buying mixed pieces already cut, trimmed, and packaged  to go at the supermarket.

Needless to say, I fell asleep reading it last night. And now that the title page is graced with his glorious John Hancock (even his signature is beautiful--like he deserves his own font or something), I may need to get a second copy that's OK to actually cook from!