My Whole Grain Classics

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My friend Annie and I had lunch this week to catch up and hash out life’s big issues over salad. It has been a long winter for all of us, but she had just changed jobs, travels all over the world, is dealing with a family health crisis and is feeling the effects of stress. She told me she had been consulting with a nutritionist to try to give herself a physical boost, to try to make some healthy adjustments to her diet so that she’s better equipped to face everything she has to deal with. She joked that she was eating nothing but quinoa and kale and was feeling good but a little culinarily one-note.

 I love kale and I can take or leave quinoa, but boredom with your diet is a good way to end up at the bottom of a bag of Cheetos so I always keep a (some might say excessive) variety of whole grains in my kitchen. They each have such different flavors and textures and characteristics that it keeps me interested. The problem is, as Annie said, if you’ve never tried a grain, you don’t know if you like it until you’ve bought that 20 ounce bag that you try once, and then it sits moldering in the back of the cabinet until it gets rancid and you end up throwing it out.

 I decided to put together a little sampler of some of the grains I have at home for her, enough for a serving or so for her to try out before she buys whole bags of them and thought I’d share it with all of you too. I’ve done several recipe posts for whole grain salads but haven’t really put together my “Classics” list for a post. So here are a few of my favorite grains.

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Farro: “Caesar marched his army to the sea on farro” our innkeeper in Italy told us. Emmer farro is an ancient Roman grain variety that is nutty, earthy, chewy, with a similar texture to but not as sweet as barley. It cooks in a lot of water and keeps separate grains so it’s great to toss with other things for a hearty whole meal salad. I especially love farro with sautéed mushrooms. Cook it at a 4:1 ratio of salted water to grain for 20-25 minutes, or until it is as tender as you like it,  in a covered pot. Drain any leftover water. It can also cook much more quickly if it is soaked in hot water for at least a couple of hours before cooking. Low in gluten, high in complex carbs, with protein, fiber, lignans, and antioxidants, it can form the basis for a hearty, healthy vegetarian meal.

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Millet: Millet is a quick-cooking, fluffy grain with a toasty, corny flavor. It is probably one of the most widely cultivated ancient staple grains in the world, a drought resistant crop, but most of us tend to think of it as birdseed. I like it in just about any dish where cous cous would be appropriate. It is gluten free and alkaline which can help balance the body’s tendency toward acidity. I toast it in a pan with a little olive oil, coconut oil, or other fat, add 2:1 ratio of boiling water to grain. Cover the pot and cook for about 15- 20 minutes over low heat until it is fluffy and dry. This is the same technique I would use for a long grain rice. Use a fork to fluff the grains apart.

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Frikkeh: Also spelled “freekeh” “frikeh” and “farik”, frikkeh is a green wheat grain that is toasted and (usually) cracked like bulgher wheat. It has a subtle hint of toasty smokiness and one of the most intriguing delicious grain flavors I’ve run across. It is used a lot in Levantine and North African cuisines, seasoned with cinnamon and coriander in pilafs with toasted pine nuts, as a stuffing, and with lamb. I even love it plain, just salted and buttered, instead of rice. It is especially high in fiber and has a lot of selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Cook it with a little more than 2:1 water to grain ratio for 15-20 minutes for the cracked grain version.

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Wild Rice: I included wild rice because it is actually a grass seed from the Zizania palustris species rather than true rice. In some part of North America, Native American people harvest it by hand from canoes and the specific method of harvest is proscribed by tribal law. Wild rice has a tough outer sheath covering the inner grain that “pops” as it cooks. Second only to oats in protein, it contains b vitamins, lots of dietary fiber and is gluten-free. It has an earthy, spicy, irony flavor, which subtly hints that it was grown in water; it reminds me slightly of kombu or kelp. I pre-soak wild rice for a couple of hours before cooking it in at least 6:1 ratio of salted boiling water for 30 minutes until the kernels have popped and blossomed. Drain and toss with an intense dressing - I’ve gotten raves over the wild rice and Brussels spouts with mustard dressing I posted in December. It is also good with something tangy and sweet like cranberry (another native North American food).

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Pearled Barley: I feel like I almost take pearled barley for granted it has been a part of my diet for so long. For me, pearled barley goes in vegetable (or vegetable beef) soup. The pop of the grain adds textural contrast, the sweetness balances flavors, and the soluble fiber (same as in oats) thickens and enriches the soup’s broth. Although it is pearled which means that some of the hull has been buffed off, (meaning it isn’t technically a whole grain) it is much quicker cooking and still has lots of healthy fiber. This sweetness and fiber also makes it great (and filling) for breakfast with fruit and a little brown sugar. I usually just throw it into soup without measuring the ratio, but about 4:1 and a 15 minute simmer works for breakfast barley.

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Hominy Grits: You know I can’t make a list of grains without talking about grits! As a southerner, grits are essential for my mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Nothing soothes the ruffles feathers of my soul like a warm bowl of buttered grits; it was the first meal I cooked when I moved here to New Jersey. Hominy grits are made from dent corn, which has been treated with an alkali (with masa harina it is called “nixmatalization”), a process that makes more of the corn’s nutrition accessible during digestion. In contrast, corn polenta is usually made with flint corn which is not treated with alkali. I like white, organic, stone ground grits, and keep them in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity since I usually have to mail order them in larger amounts than I can use up quickly. 4:1 salted water to grits cooked with butter is the classic bowl of grits. Top it with a poached egg and some sautéed greens and you have a comfort in a bowl.

Honorable mention: Although I don’t use them in the same way I use the other grains, both chia and flax seeds are a regular part of our diet. Both are high in omega 3 vitamins and cholesterol controlling fiber. I treat them more as additions too, rather than main elements of, meals, added to smoothies, yogurts, and granola.

The fiber in all of these grains is important for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar levels (instead of the peaks and valleys caused by simple carbs) and healthy intestinal bacteria which is critical for digestion and a healthy immune system.

Additional resources:

Wild rice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_rice

Farro: http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/03/20/jane-says-farro

I buy my grain from these sources:

Bob’s Red Mill

Arrowhead Mills

Kalustyan’s

Adluh Mills

Anson Mills

Ragù Guancia

Apparently, Winter is never going to end, my lips are never going to stop chapping and peeling, my flourescent-white legs are never going to see warm sunlight,  and I am never going to have to think about wearing any garment that is more revealing than a down puffer coat that gives me the svelte figure of the Michelin Man. So I’m thinking why not just go all out Winter comfort food like slowly braised meat sauces enveloping homemade egg pasta and showered with a blizzard of parmesan cheese.

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My hands down favorite slow braised meat sauce is this pork cheek ragù. Made out of the flavorful little medallions of cheek in the middle of what southerners would call hog jowls (and when cured, what Italians call guanciale), pork cheeks are tough little morsel of flavor that slowly braise down into the richest, most lip smacking, pasta coating, clingy, delicious sauce. As when you make a good stock with the collagen filled parts of a chicken so that the stock is rich and silky without being fatty, pork cheeks break down with slow cooking to dissolve the tough protein and collagen into a sticky mahogany sauce.

Pork cheeks can be a little hard to track down in a regular supermarket meat case but they are definitely worth asking around for or ordering from a farmer or butcher. I can always find them at Eataly in Manhattan, and since they aren’t a super mainstream cut, they are pretty inexpensive. The sauce freezes really well so it’s not a bad idea to make a double batch when you have a chilly afternoon to spend indoors.

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Ragù Guancia

Olive oil

1 pound pork cheeks

I medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon harissa paste

½ cup red wine

1 -28 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes

1 large bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Unwrap the pork cheeks and completely dry them with a paper towel. I usually get pretty well-trimmed cheeks, but if you see lots of pieces of fat, trim the big chunks.

In a sauté pan or shallow soup pot, heat a splash of olive oil to a shimmer over medium heat. Carefully place the pork cheeks in a single layer in the oil. Salt and pepper, then flip them with tongs and salt and pepper again once the first side is golden brown. Once both sides of the pork are brown, take them out of the pan and set them aside.

Drain all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and lower the heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot to the oil and sauté over low-medium heat to soften them and remove any brown bits of fond from the bottom of the pan. Once the vegetables have softened, scrape them to the sides to make a space in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and harissa to the pan and let it sizzle for a minute or two, stirring gently to cook the pastes together. Stir the paste and vegetables together and add the wine. Bring it to a boil and stir to release any browned bits from the pan’s bottom. Cook until the smell of the wine mellows. Add the pork cheeks, can of tomatoes, bay leaf, and rosemary. Bring to a slow simmer.

Cover and lower the heat to very low, just enough to maintain a low simmer. Cook for at least and hour until you can easily break the pork cheeks up with a spoon. Once the meat is tender, remove the sauce from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and rosemary stem. With a pair of forks or a flat edged wooden spoon, crush the pork and tomatoes into coarse chunks. The sauce should be very thick and sticky.

Toss with pappardelle pasta or pour over parmesan-infused grits. With a vegetable peeler or coarse cheese grater, shave slivers of parmesan over the top.

ASK Christine: Alliums

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I had two questions this week about alliums:

Adam said “I am not entirely sure what the difference between green onions, spring onions, and chives are. Oh, and then there’s leeks….” and then Becky asked “what type/color of onion is best for fajitas?”

Alliums are the plant family that includes onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots, and scallions. There are two broad categories by which I divide types of alliums: plants cultivated for their roots and plants cultivated for their tops.

Bulb onions are part of the foundation of most cooking. They are part of the French mirepoix, the Creole and Cajun holy trinity, Spanish sofrito; from West Africa to India to Germany you find onions as one of the basic flavor of nearly every culture’s cuisine.

The common, everyday onion is cultivated for its round bulb root, as are shallots, cipollini onions, sweet Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, and red, yellow, and white onions. The bulbed spring onions sold in bunches with green tops intact are bulb onions that have been thinned out or harvested young. Bulb onions tend to have tough green tops which are typically not eaten. Bulb onions are harvested and dried before being used since moisture can cause them to rot; sweet onions like Vidalias have a higher moisture content than their more pungent cousins which makes them more perishable. That difference is also something to take into consideration when you choose which onion you will use; if you don’t want extra water releasing from the onion into your food, you need to either choose a dry variety like the white or yellow onions you find in the grocery store or cook the moisture out first. Dry bulb onions can be kept in a cool dark spot; sweet onions, garlic, and spring onions will keep better in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.

Alliums grown for their tops and flowers are used more as herbs, fresh and raw, used as a more delicate flavor enhancement at the end of preparation than cooked into a dish. Chives and scallions are cultivated primarily for their green tops; their milder flavor and tender greens make them more palatable raw. Chives, scallions, and garlic chives, are delicate and much more perishable than bulb onions, so keep them wrapped in a paper towel in a bag in the crisper drawer and use them within five days or so before they wilt.

Leeks are a bit of a middle ground allium. They have a delicate savory flavor but are usually used cooked, their tougher upper leaves trimmed. They have the slender shape of a scallion with no bulbous root at the end but are not harvested young like scallions.

The pungent heat from any allium can be tempered in one of two ways: with a soak in something acidic like vinegar – shallots in vinaigrette for example – or by the application of heat – garlic roasted to sugary sweetness.

 I hope this was a good overview from which to start getting to know such a ubiquitous plant family a little better.

Introducing “ASK Christine”

” I bought all these little eggplant on sale- what should I do with them?”

“What knife should I buy for my first kitchen?”

“What is this weird looking vegetable at the grocery store *texts photo*”

” I can’t find ancho chile powder; what can I use instead?”

These are just a few of the texts I get from my siblings. I get questions about the photos I post on Facebook, I get texts and emails from the grocery store or in a panic mid-cook “is it supposed to look like this?” People ask me what to do with the okra I’m picking up at the farmer’s market, how I’m going to cook the bag of nettles I’m gingerly picking up with tongs, what I’m going to do with the chicken feet or skate or pork cheeks I’m buying.

I started thinking that it might be fun to have some kind of “Ask Christine” feature here at Cognitive Leeks- it’s the reason I started this project in many ways. I love the interaction of a question instead of just sharing what I’m cooking .

It seems like a lot of my friends agree. When I asked on Facebook, I got an enthusiastic response- and my first question from Heidi:

“I can’t seem to get fish to ever taste right when I make it at home. Do you have some tips to foolproof a fish dish?”

First, choosing the fish: generally, I think that round bodied fish species like salmon, cod, snapper, grouper, and arctic char are easier to handle than flat species like flounder and sole. The flatter and thinner the fish fillet, the less time it takes to cook (which makes them much easier to overcook), and the more fragile it is to move and flip while cooking. A 4-6 ounce filet of a fairly thick fish is a great place to start. It’s easy to handle, and doesn’t have a lot of bones. If you are shopping in a store that has a seafood department, ask for something with a little more oil- something flaky or meaty. And be picky- if it smells “fishy,” it’s not fresh. The piece of fish should be smooth- if it looks like the fish is starting to flake apart, it’s getting dry and starting to break down- that’s not fresh fish.

Second, the hardware. I usually only use non stick cookware for eggs and fish, so I recommend a non stick skillet large enough for all the fish filets you plan to cook to fit without touching.

Unwrap the fish you have bought and dry it off with a paper towel. This will help the surface brown a little. Season the fish with a little salt. Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet and turn the heat on to about medium. After a minute or two, place the filets in the skillet “presentation side” down first- meaning the side you want to be showing on the plate goes into the oil first. The more things heat and cook, the stickier they tend to become, so cooking the presentation side first means you have a better chance of the fish staying in one piece and looking nice when it’s done.

If the fish is close to an inch thick, turn it with a wide spatula after about 3-4 minutes- thinner pieces should be checked after about 2-3 minutes. Move it gently and don’t be afraid to use your fingers to guide the flip- the top probably won’t even  be warm at this point. The bottom surface should have a hint of golden brown and the bottom half should just be beginning to become opaque.

Lower the heat to low and put a cover on the skillet. A little condensation will form and finish cooking the fish gently with a little help from steam. Check it after about 3 minutes; you should get a hint that the flakes of fish are starting to loosen. It should be springy (not mushy, not hard) to the touch and the fish will be opaque – no raw line. A sign that you’ve gone too far is that the filet will be completely firm and then some of the protein will begin to seep out between the flakes and will become white “bubbles” on the fish’s surface. Slightly underdone is better than overdone when you turn off the heat. Leaving the fish inside the skillet with the lid on for another 5 minutes while you warm the plates will give it time to cook through with a gentle moist residual heat that will keep the fish from drying out.

If you want to make a simple sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice into the pan after you remove the fish, whisked with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt is always nice.

Fish usually takes less time to cook through than you might think. It is also usually leaner than any meat you are used to cooking so there isn’t much fat to keep the flesh from drying out. Just like you don’t want to over cook a beef tenderloin filet,  and chicken breast gets tough and dry when overcooked, you don’t want to overcook fish. And simple is usually better when it comes to the delicate flavor of fish- a little salt and a hit of lemon is often all it needs.

I also wrote a post about poaching fish, another gentle cooking method that minimizes the risk of overcooking your fish.

I hope that was helpful. If you have more questions, Heidi, you know where to find me.

If anyone else has a burning question I might be able to help with, email me at cognitiveleeks@gmail.com or send me a message on the Cognitive Leeks Facebook page and I’ll see what I can do to help.

Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

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Many cultures have some version of a meatball in their cuisine: sweet and sour Swedish meatballs, lion head Chinese pork meatballs with cabbage, fish balls in Viet phò, albondigas in Mexico and Levantine kibbeh. Although it seems the odds were against it, I do not come from a culture of meatballs. Southerners will eat the living daylights out of a sausage ball or a meatloaf, but I can’t really say those qualify as meatballs and in a household that skewed toward vegetarian, we didn’t eat them at home anyway. They were not part of my kitchen vernacular.

When I learned to cook as an adult, I would occasionally dabble in meatball cookery, the odd broiled lamb and cherry meatball with saffron rice, spaghetti with meatballs every once in a while, but it just seemed like too much trouble to roll them all up, fry or bake them, and then mix them with the sauce. But then I cubed up some leftover meatloaf once and used it to make spaghetti sauce and I “got” it. I got the appeal of the Italian style meatball with sauce, seasoned, tender chunks of meat- not like a stew, not like ground meat. The meat was at once distinct from and at one with the sauce. I was in. I wanted more. So I set about making the best meatballs I could. And what it boiled down to was getting a technique I liked and layering a lot of complex flavor into the meatballs.

Braising them made a huge difference for me. No more extra cooking step, no more lopsided meatballs, with hard edges. Braising, they cooked beautifully and tenderly, exchanging their flavor with the sauces, rich but not greasy and much, much easier.

The real key for me though was in layering so much really good seasoning into the meat mixture that it was like a really glorious rich music chord- high notes of sweet tomato and fennel, sharp notes of capsicum and, deep down the mushroom and pecorino flavors, all seasonings that I pull from my pantry or refrigerator over and over to build these exciting and complex chords of flavor in the cooking.

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Harissa is a North African chile sauce. As far as I can tell, there is no a definitive formula for harissa; I’ve had harissa so hot I can only tolerate a few drops on my falafel sandwich and harissa that is thicker, made with some vegetables as the base instead of just peppers and spices. Each serves a purpose, but the second is a pantry staple that I always keep on hand to add a spicy earthy savoriness. It doesn’t  add much heat, maybe just a subconscious tingle to your taste buds, but it isn’t as sweet as tomato paste so I often use a combination or harissa and tomato paste to create a broader flavor profile. I keep a tube of DEA harissa in the refrigerator all the time.

 Another of my flavor must-haves is dried porcini mushrooms. A few dried porcini added to risotto or meat sauce or a vegetarian sautéed mushroom sauce just brings so much depth of earthy savory flavor. I soak them in hot water to rehydrate; after the mushrooms are removed, the water has a lot of flavor and usually gets added to the dish too.

 And finally, whether you are jarring your own homemade marinara sauce from farmers market tomatoes or you’ve found a  brand that  you love, a few jars of simple but flavorful tomato sauce are great to have on hand. I like a sauce with as few ingredients as possible, maybe a basic marinara or one with a little hit of capsicum heat. check the label though, a lot of commercial sauces have a lot of sugar, soybean oil, and other ingredients that don’t need to be there.

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Tomato Sauce Braised Meatballs

serves 6-8

1 pound Italian sausage (I use the spicy version)

1 pound ground beef chuck

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg

2 tablespoons dried porcini (rehydrated in boiling water and chopped fine)

1 tablespoon harissa

3 cloves garlic (minced or grated on a microplane)

1/4 cup minced onion

1 ounce finely grated pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/3 cup milk

1 jar marinara sauce

1 14 ounce can tomato sauce (unseasoned)

Mix the meats, bread crumbs, mushrooms, and seasonings gently in a large bowl. mix the milk, egg and any leftover porcini soaking liquid, and incorporate into the meat mixture.  Let the breadcrumbs soak up the milk and seasoning for about 10 minutes. Roll meatballs the size of  the circle made by the tip of your index finger against the top knuckle of your thumb. In a large sauté pan or stock pot, place the meatballs close to each other but not touching in a single layer in the bottom. Pour marinara and tomato sauce over them just to cover and bring to a simmer. As the first layer begins to get firm, add another layer and more sauce. Continue this process until all of the meatball mixture is used. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Higher heat can break up the meatballs and cause them to release more fat making a greasier sauce and a tougher drier meatball.

If there is a lot of fat rising to the top, skim it off. I have found that a coarser more handmade style of  sausage seems to be less fatty and I get less fat in my sauce, but a little of the seasoned sausage fat mixing into the sauce isn’t a bad thing in my opinion; you just don’t want it to be greasy. These meatballs are even better if made a day ahead, refrigerated in the sauce and then re-heated right before serving. Toss some of the sauce with pasta, pile a few meatballs on top, grate on some more pecorino and enjoy!

These meatballs also freeze in the sauce really well.

I have a meat grinder and grind the beef for the meatballs at home. If you want to do this too, choose a cut of beef that doesn’t have large pieces of fat or cartilage, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and grind it on the small or medium grinder die.

Win some, lose some: The Homemade Sriracha Experiment

Day 4 of the sriracha fermentation process and I have one disaster and one success.

The disaster: I was gone all day yesterday and didn’t check the sauces last night and unfortunately, bad bacteria took the opportunity to take over the red sauce. There was a thick layer of fuzzy mold in the top and a smell of fruity acetone in the jar. I scraped the mold off just to see what the condition of the sauce was underneath and it was still brilliant red but smelling of pepper garlic alcohol. I think that a combination of very ripe and juicy peppers and a warmer than desirable fermentation temperature got the best of me. I’m going to try it again soon though because up until last night, the mash smelled amazing. Chalk this one up to environmental factors. I’d consider using a narrower mouthed jar next time too to see if that helps, but the lack of temperature control in my apartment is probably a much more critical factor. Once the radiators go off and I can get some more red chiles I’m going to make another batch because it. smelled. awesome.

The green sauce, on the other hand stayed much more stable. A little bubbling but nothing like the jar of red sauce and there wasn’t any mold on the surface. The color softened a little from the original bright green but stayed pretty bright. I added the vinegar and simmered the sauce for 5-8 minutes before blending the mash into a smooth puree and sieving it. The green sriracha is tangy and garlicky and hot hot hot with a little ginger kick that I’m really happy about. I think it will be great in soup and beans and maybe even with some skirt steak with chopped cilantro and onions as a little fusion take on chimmichurri sauce.

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Gingery Green Sriracha 

makes about 1 1/2 cups

3/4 pound green jalapeños

2-3 cloves garlic

1 knob of ginger (about 1 ounce)

1 teaspoon natural sea salt

2 tablespoons raw sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

Snip off just the long end of the jalapeño stems and coarsely chop the whole chile into 5 or 6 pieces; coarsely chop the garlic cloves and ginger. Along with the salt and sugar, put the chiles, garlic, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor. Make sure you cover the spout so you don’t burn your eyes. Pulse the jalapeño mixture until it is a rough purée without any uneven chunks.

Pour the jalapeño purée into a clean glass jar and loosely cover with a lid. Don’t tighten the lid so that the gasses that form during fermentation can escape. Place the jar in a cool (if you have it) dark place and allow it to begin to bubble and expand.  It should smell like garlic and chiles but pay attention to any sharp alcohol smells or excessive mold sprouting on the top. Allow it to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally.

Pour the fermented mash into a small sauce pan, mix with the white vinegar and bring to a boil. lower the heat and cook for 5 to 8 minutes at a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow to cool off. Pour it into the bowl of your food processor or blender and process until very smooth, 2-3 minutes. Sieve the smooth puree through a fine mesh strainer to remove bits of skin and seeds. Scrape the mash through the strainer until there is just a little dry pulp left in the sieve.

Use a funnel to pour the strained sauce into a bottle or jar; I used a squeeze bottle I got from a restaurant supply store, but a glass jar or recycled sriracha bottle would be great too. Refrigerate.

Hot Apartment Hacks- how to keep your hot sauce cool

We live in an old row house apartment building with radiators that are controlled by a thermostat in the hallway upstairs. The heating system seems to have a mind of its own and while we can go turn the heat down if we need to, it comes on sometimes during the day if a lot of people are opening the street door or it gets really cold outside. It can be excessively toasty in our place; overheating can cause problems when we brew beer, it can cause bread dough to rise too quickly, and it can cause over-fermentation of hot sauce or yogurt or kefir. Since I can’t control the temperature in the apartment very well, I figured out a way to control the temperature of the beer fermenter hot sauce jars with a very crude evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler.

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The concept is that evaporating water is a couple of degrees cooler than the room temperature air; this is the same principle behind why our bodies sweat to cool themselves. We found that by placing our fermenter bucket in a larger basin with a couple of inches of water in it, then smoothing a damp towel up the side of the bucket to act as a wick for the water so that it was evaporating over part of the surface area of the bucket, it kept the beer at a more even temperature and kept the yeast from heating itself up as much as it eats up the sugar.

When I checked on the sriracha yesterday, it was already bubbly and expanding in the jars. I hadn’t expected it to be working for a couple more days but since it has been so warm in here, I wasn’t surprised. I don’t want it to ferment so quickly that the complex flavors that develop during a slow and moderated fermentation to get lost and the whole mash to go sour so I put the jars in larger plastic boxes and poured a little water in the bottom, then wrapped one side of the jars in a wet paper towel. Most of the water had evaporated out of the plastic containers today, so I topped them up. That’s a good sign that they’re working.

I’ll continue to stir the mash and keep an eye and nose on the jars for the next couple of days but it smelled good and there wasn’t anything too funky going on yet. I’ll keep checking on it over the next few days and add water as needed.

Shhhhh….Super Secret Valentine’s Gift Experiment

As much as an experiment that I’m posting about on a public blog and which is fermenting odiferously away in our pantry/wine cellar/storage closet, whiffing more and more garlic and chile fumes into the apartment by the hour can BE super secret, I am making a pair of sriracha sauces for my Valentine.

We are the sort of family that has a significant percentage of refrigerator door shelf space allocated to bottles and bottles of hot sauce because each one has a specific and non transferable purpose and we really really need all of them. From classic Tabasco and Caribbean scotch bonnet sauce for black beans to earthy harissa that I use in a lot of my braised sauces and smoky hot chipotle in adobo, amarillo paste from Peru to the green-capped Rooster brand sriracha sauce, we keep adding to our collection.

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Garlicky sriracha is a favorite. It goes so well on so many things and I’ve been wanting to try to make some at home for a while. So I used the impetus of upcoming Valentine’s Day to go ahead and make it. It seems like gifts that can be consumed are a sure hit, particularly since we don’t really like accumulating a lot of stuff.

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I used two recipe sources: this write-up on Serious Eats  and another on Viet World Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen. Both compared fresh sauce vs. fermented and had used several different types of chiles. While I’m not trying to duplicate the Huy Fong “Rooster” sauce, I wanted to be along the same lines so I decided to use the red jalapeños and fermentation method they use for the first red sauce. I had bought green jalapeños intending to try to ripen them before I ran across the red ones at Manhattan Fruit Exchange so I used those for a green sriracha with a little ginger addition.

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Yesterday I did the first step, processing the chiles and garlic and then putting them in loosely covered jars in the closet to get the sauce to ferment.

When I checked them this afternoon, some of yesterday’s vivid color had begun to soften and I could smell a mellower garlic and chile fragrance. The puree had separated from the liquid a little and started to bubble and expand. I had expected it to take a couple of days to start fermenting but with it being so cold here, the radiators have been on a lot which makes the apartment a little warmer than normal. Warmth quickens dough fermentation so I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re so active. I stirred and re-covered them and put them back in the closet but I may put them beside a window tonight to cool them down a little. I don’t want to get them too cold and put the bacteria to sleep so I’ll have to keep an eye on it- maybe do a condensation cooler like we do to regulate the temperature of our beer while it ferments.

Here’s a picture of the fermenting sauce:

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So, y’all just keep this surprise between us until Friday and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes and write up the process I used, including the recipes and variations.

Have a “super bowl” of Vegetable Bean Chili

As far as I’m concerned, football season was over on January 6 when my Auburn Tigers played (and sadly lost) for the national championship, but we here in northern New Jersey are hosting another big football game this weekend. Like I said in this gumbo post a couple of years ago, I usually pick a team based on the city with the most interesting food, but this year, I can’t dispute that chili is one of the most iconic Super Bowl party foods. I love rich spicy chili con carne, but this year I’m making my just-as-rich but less heavy vegetable bean chili.

To me, a key in making any dish interesting is thinking a lot about texture. Either a single consistent texture (smooth and creamy for example) or a thoughtful combination of  contrasting textures make a dish as much as flavor makes a dish. This challenge has been even more apparent to me when cooking vegetarian dishes without the ability to fall back on the chewy resistance of meat. Finding the right mix of contrasting textures without straying too far from the classic flavors of a bean chili was my challenge- and I really love what I finally came up with; the sweet pop of a corn kernel between your teeth, the silky collapse of eggplant over the tongue, the creamy interior of beans yielding into smooth spicy chili gravy- these take what can be a mushy stew  from utilitarian to sensorily engaging and delicious.

I’ve been working on this chili for a long time and in fact, wasn’t able to decide which chili method I preferred. I’ve done the dry toasting and then grinding to chili powder method and the soak, blend and sieve chili method (the same that I do for chili salsa) and while both were a great way to get that rich chili baseline I want in chili, the trade-off of smooth, skinless chili texture that comes with the extra step of sieving wasn’t absolutely compelling. And I know a lot of people will want the ability to make this with a (very fresh and flavorful I hope) ground chili powder, so I wrote this recipe up with those instructions. I encourage you to try the soaking method- it’s such a great way to make smooth enchilada sauce, chili salsas, and chili based soups and is really worth learning the technique.

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 Vegetable Bean Chili

makes 3-4 quarts

1/2 pound dried red kidney beans

½ pound dried pink or pinto beans

water to cook beans (about 6 cups)

5 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed

4 dried Serrano chiles, stemmed (or fewer, depending on your heat tolerance)

 or about ¼ -1/3 cup total of ground chile powders

 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 Tablespoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 1 chipotle in adobo

 olive oil

1 large onion, diced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno, deseeded and minced (optional)

1 cup corn kernels (optional)

2 Asian eggplants, cubed

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 28 ounce can  diced tomatoes

 Sea salt to taste

Rinse the dried beans. Cover them with at least 4 cups of water in a saucepan. Cook them, either by first doing a quick soak, an overnight soak,( or if the dried beans are pretty fresh, without pre-soaking) for about an hour until tender. Keep them well covered with water; this liquid will be the broth for the chili.

 In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast all of the dried chiles in a single layer, pressing them against the hot surface with a spoon or spatula until they become soft and fragrant. After allowing them to cool, blend them all in a spice grinder or coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.

 Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Sweat the diced onion with a pinch of salt until they begin to soften; add the eggplant, garlic and peppers and another pinch of salt. Once the vegetables are soft, sprinkle the oregano, cumin and pepper into the pot and stir into the vegetables. Once they have become fragrant, push everything to the edges of the pan and add a couple more tablespoons of oil. Pour the chile powder into the oil and stir, “frying” the powder in the oil until it becomes fragrant. Stir everything so the spices are incorporated into the vegetables, scraping any that stick off the bottom of the pot. Mix in the tomatoes (including the liquid from the can) and corn kernels and then pour in the beans and their cooking liquid; stir and bring to a simmer.

 Taste for salt; I added a tablespoon (at least- more like a small palmful) of sea salt since the beans were unsalted.  Simmer everything together low for 30 minutes before serving, or better yet, let it sit overnight, reheat and serve the next day.