Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

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Back in May, I talked about our decision to adjust our diets and try being mostly vegetarian for a while. It had been a rough winter, especially in the kitchen, and we were really craving fresh, crisp, flavorful fruits and vegetables. I wouldn’t say we’ve become vegetarian, because if the craving for something hearty and meaty hits, we go for it, but we’re definitely vegetable enthusiasts. I’ve really been creatively invigorated by the challenge of re-thinking what a dinner plate looks like without meat as a regular anchor. I’ve grabbed as many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits and I can find at the farmers markets and figured out what to do with them. Some experiments have worked out better than others, but even with failures, I’ve learned something new every time.

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I’ve been using a wide variety of whole grains. I have always loved brown rice with beans and whole grain grits with sautéed mushrooms and barley in vegetable soups, and it was love at first bite when we were introduced to faro in Italy. Whole grains are just so satisfying and hearty. You aren’t left feeling hollow an hour after you eat like you might after eating a salad. I’ve posted several of our favorite (and somewhat unusual) whole grain dishes hoping to encourage you to give some of these great grains a try. This wild rice with brussel sprouts is another, perfect for Fall and it would rock as a side for Thanksgiving dinner. Bear in mind that once you are comfortable with preparing the grains, they are very adaptable and great to experiment with. I love the smoky richness that the hint of bacon adds, but if you are vegetarian, leave it out and add a little smoked paprika to the pecans and sage.

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Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

serves 4 as main course, 6-8 as a side

 1 pound brussels sprouts

¾ cup wild rice

4 cups salted water plus more to cook

1 piece natural smoked bacon

1 shallot or 1 small red onion

3 teaspoons dry crumbled sage leaves (about 8-10 leaves)

¼ cup pecan pieces (or ¼ cup cooked chestnuts if you prefer)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

 the wild rice method:

Option 1: soak the rice in about 4 cups of water overnight before cooking.

 Option 2: In a large pot, bring the rice and about 4 cups water to a boil, turn the heat off and let the rice soak for about an hour.

 After an hour add a couple more cups of water to the soaking water and rice. A generous amount of water, similar to what you would use to cook pasta, will help the grains cook evenly and more quickly and evenly. Add about a teaspoon of salt bring to a rapid simmer and cook for 30-45 minutes until the kernels have begun to blossom and pop open and the rice is chewy but not hard or crunchy. Drain in a sieve and set aside.

 The sprouts:

Wash the sprouts, and with a sharp knife trim the tough ends off the stems. Cut each sprout in half and then each half into 4-5 slices. You can shred them in the shedder of a food processor or use a mandolin if you have the equipment but I like to use a knife. Slice the shallot or onion into thin half moons. Mince the strip of bacon into very small pieces.

Heat a large skillet, sauté pan or wok over medium high heat. Add the bacon pieces and a splash of olive oil. When the bacon has begun to crisp, add the onion or shallot slices and stir. When they have wilted, add the nuts and crumbled sage and stir to toast both. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Boost the heat to high and stir in the shredded sprouts a handful at a time. Stir occasionally, but give the sprouts time to have contact with the hot pan so that they will caramelize. The sprouts will turn bright green, soften and start to get a little brown on some of the edges.

 Test the tenderness of the sprouts after about 5 minutes. When they have a little browning and are still a little chewy, turn down the heat to low and stir in the drained cooked wild rice. Add a generous pinch of salt.

 While the sprouts cook, mix the mustard, apple cider vinegar and a generous amount of black pepper (½ teaspoon or more depending on how much spice you like). Once the rice and sprouts are combined, pour the mustard mixture into the sprouts and toss everything together. Let the vinaigrette warm through. Remove from the heat.

 Taste for salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Chipotle Salsa Roja

For a classically trained chef (in the French tradition, which is what most of us think of when we hear that term) there is a foundational canon of techniques, sauces, stocks, and cooking “systems” like mis en place that form the elements from which many meals are built. For a home cook like me, a streamlined version of this approach is how I cook without recipes. If I can make a good stock, my risotto, soups, and braises will be delicious and richly flavorful. If I can make an emulsion, I can make mayonnaise,  béarnaise and hollandaise sauces.  Making a roux is the first step to bechamel (and then mac and cheese) or to gumbo.

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The globalization of food cultures, particularly in the great American melting pot, means that now home cooks can borrow  foundational elements, not just from classic European chefs, but from the kitchens of great cooks all over the world. I grew up in Atlanta when I was in a small minority that ate soy sauce, tofu, tangy plain yogurt, and stir fries, and yet maybe 10 years ago, I saw a three-year old in a supermarket in Atlanta pitching a fit for his mom to open his tray of sushi. There are 10 different kinds of hummus and salsa in any given grocery store. We are familiar with pesto, curry,  tom yum soup and enchiladas, tzatziki and tagliatelle and paella, at least by name.

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The problem that I find with this accumulation of cultural wealth is that the definitions of these foods are often narrowed to a single version, often created for mass appeal rather than for its integrity to the original recipe. I don’t think there is always a black and white “right or wrong” way to cook something, but we’ll all eat better when we know the difference between a Cool Ranch Doritos Taco Bell taco and a barbacoa taco on a fresh sort corn tortilla. Culinary appropriation doesn’t necessarily bother me – I think it’s one place where borrowing and adapting between cultures makes sense and is more beneficial than not- but I regret when the definitions of a food become so assimilated into the tastes of aggregate culture that they become pale ghosts of the original.

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Salsa is one of these ubiquitous foods that I think has suffered from translation. Until relatively recently, the best salsa I could find in big supermarkets was pressured sealed (so very very cooked) tomato sauce with a tiny hint of onion, maybe a little pepper, cumin, or cilantro. Even fresh salsa is usually really pico de gallo or salsa fresca, a chopped tomato relish with onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. Obviously, I love tomato salsa, make it all the time, but as I once said to someone who posited that you should be able to find good Mexican food wherever good tomatoes are grown, equating good Mexican food to the availability of good tomatoes is like equating good Chinese food to the availability of baby corn. Mexican cuisines are much more tied to chiles than to tomatoes. Go to any taqueria and check out the condiments. There with the pickled vegetables, radishes, and pico de gallo, you’ll find a variety of chile based salsa, each reflecting the flavor profile of the different types of chiles used (as well as their heat levels).

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Drying chiles is a common and practical method of food preservation. When our garden in California was producing 20 pounds of serranos and poblanos week, our house was strung with garlands of ripening and drying chiles, trays of chiles in a very low oven to get the last moisture out of them so I could put them in jars. And every time I open a jar of these chiles, I get a wave of  deep, spicy, dusty berry fragrance.

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This is one of my favorite chile salsa, one of the “mother sauces” I have in my repertoire.  It’s a versatile condiment and sauce I use for chips, as enchilada sauce, to cook with eggs, or to mix into a bowl of beans.

The basic technique is the key, and easily adapted to your favorite chiles. This chart is great for dried chile basics and can help if you want to change it up for different uses. I like the smokiness of chipotles on just about everything, so this is my favorite basic recipe.

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Salsa Roja

Dried Chile Salsa

5 Ancho chiles (dried poblanos)

4 chiles California or Seco del Norte or Guajillo chiles

3 Serrano chiles

2-3 chipotles (canned in adobo or dried)

Boiling water

4-5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1-2 tablespoons oil

Sea or kosher salt

Break up the chiles into large pieces, removing the stems. You can remove the seeds or leave them for a little extra heat. Put them into a heatproof bowl, like a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup and cover with enough boiling water to make about 2 cups total. Use a plate, sieve or strainer to hold the chiles under water to soak for at least 20 minutes, until they have softened and rehydrated.

Pour the water and chiles into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic and Mexican oregano. Process until the mixture is smooth, breaking down the pieces of chile. Pour the mixture into a sieve over a large bowl and use a rubber spatula to scrape and press the mixture through the sieve; this will remove the seeds and the thin tough skin from the chiles. Once all of the liquid and pulp has passed through the mesh you will be left with a dry paste of seeds and skin, which can be thrown away.

Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle, carefully pour the chile puree into the oil and stir to blend. Bring the chiles to a low boil, stir to mix with the oil and reduce slightly the water in the salsa (you should be able to run your finger through it on the back of a spoon and it leave a line without running immediately). Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Salt to taste.

Pour the salsa into a jar and allow it to cool and the flavors to meld- overnight is best. Keep in a jar in the refrigerator indefinitely.

I throw this together at the last-minute when I’m headed out the door for a long day at work and I want something fast and hearty for breakfast:

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olive oil

2 eggs

salt

2 tablespoons salsa roja

2-3 corn tortillas

crumbly cheese like cotija or feta.

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a small non stick skillet for a minute. Crack two eggs into the oil, sprinkle with salt and dollop the salsa over the eggs. cover the eggs with the tortillas where they will warm and wilt with the heat of the eggs while acting as a lid so the eggs will cook more quickly. I leave them for 2-3 minutes to get a set egg white and a runny yolk. Place a plate over the skillet and flip the skillet over on top of the plate. crumble the cheese on top and dig in. If you aren’t in too much of a hurry, diced avocado is also a great addition.

Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.

Okra Part 1: Whole Roasted Okra

After writing the last post about okra, I planned to quickly post the follow-up recipe posts, but when I went in search of okra for some last-minute testing and photos, I couldn’t find any! The bin at the local supermarket here was full of the sorriest most pathetic pile of okra I have ever seen (due less to being picked over by discerning shoppers than to the general attitude of apathy and torpor under which that particular produce department seems to generally operate) and the farmers market was a wash over the weekend. I guess the stand that carries the beautiful okra I posted last week is only there on weekdays. Oh the trials of trying to cook Southern food in NYC! As a New Orleans transplant I was chatting with said, “You can get anything in the WORLD here, just not anything in the COUNTRY.”

pathetic- just pathetic

This has to be the simplest way to cook okra. Whole, with a lightly crisped spicy exterior, roasted okra is easy to throw together as part of a meal or as I like it as a tasty salty snack. It’s a perfect little finger food to have with beer, salty and spicy without the oily heaviness of a bowl of chips.

I have tried a few different methods of making roasted okra:  slicing it into quarters and tossing it with slivered chiles and onions, tossing whole pods with spices, corn flour and corn starch, tossing whole pods with oil, corn starch and spices, low heat, high heat, you name it. Trial and error brought me to conclude that the simplest, most predictably successful method was to toss whole trimmed pods with oil, then lightly coat them with a cornstarch and spice mixture and then roast them at high heat on a large baking sheet.

Before I detail the recipe I use here, I’ll explain a couple of the problems I’ve had with other methods.  First, quartering the okra and roasting them with chiles and onions is tasty, but it’s not as crisp as the whole roasted pods and at high heat (to try to crisp them up) the chiles and onions tend to burn before the okra is done. Second, adding corn flour (which I use when I fry okra) adds a little extra crispness to the exterior, but the spice coating tends to be clumpy and not adhere as well. Third, my trigger-happy smoke detector taught me to always coat the okra with oil BEFORE putting it on the baking sheet! I tried drizzling the okra with oil while it was on the pan once and the oil that was on the pan started burning and smoking, the smoke detector was shrieking and I was standing in the hall frantically waving a plastic cutting board at the ceiling to get it to shut up! Finally, low heat doesn’t brown the exterior quickly enough, so by the time the exterior has crisped up, the entire pod has collapsed into mush.

One of my favorite spice blends for roasting okra is a vaguely Indian mixture with cumin, ginger, and chile, but I say try whatever seasoning suits your fancy, as long as the spices are finely powdered so that they will stick to the okra – in other words, no big flakes of oregano leaves or rosemary. They will just fall off and burn. I have also used coconut oil instead of regular vegetable oil which compliments the curry-esque spice mix.

Whole Roasted Okra

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425

1 pound of okra pods

1-2 tablespoons of oil (coconut if you have it)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cumin

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne (more or less to your personal heat tolerance)

½ teaspoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt (reduce by half for table salt)

Trim the stems of the okra down to within ¼ to 1/8 inch of the top of the pod. Wash and drain thoroughly in a colander, shaking off as much moisture as you can.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the spices and cornstarch so that the coating on the okra will be even.

In a large bowl, toss the okra with the oil, coating each pod evenly. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the okra and the toss again, lightly coating each pod.

Scatter the okra onto a large baking sheet, giving the okra as much elbow room as you can. The browning happens where the okra is touching the pan and NOT touching its neighbor which would cause it to steam and not roast.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the okra is browned to your liking – I think my oven may be a bit fiercer than some others). Give the pan an occasional shake to turn the okra, giving each side time on the pan’s hot surface.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before checking for salt and devouring.

The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Hummus is Yummus

Last night was my turn to host my book club. The host usually has snacks and wine and since most of us are either arriving from work or from handing children off to a spouse who has just walked in the door, most of try to go hearty with snacks since it is essentially supper. Typically, I had so many things keeping me busy that I didn’t get any prep done ahead of time and walked in the door with a bag full of groceries and wine at about 5:30 to see a herd of dust bunnies galloping down the hall, piles of mail and clutter everywhere, a full dishwasher, and a lot of cooking ahead of me.

Fortunately, the ladies of book club do not care a whit about my careless housekeeping, particularly if they are well fed, so I turned some MGMT on really loud, put my apron on, and cranked out my hummus recipe because it is so fast and easy and everyone loves it. With hummus in the bag, I got to work on a trio of crostini toppings – diced tomato and basil with olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with rosemary and a little cream, and this Parmesan spread from 101 Cookbooks that I mixed with chopped artichoke hearts. Kate arrived first and  helped me slice and toast my baguettes from the Antique Bakery (which still bakes all of its bread in an old coal oven) and open wine bottles. I have to admit I had worked up a little sweat getting everything done at the last minute, but our book club is always fun and worth the effort.

Having recipes like hummus that are easy to throw together are great if you like to have people over but don’t have a lot of time to prepare. I served mine with a platter of crudite – red pepper slices, cucumber spears, slender blanched green beans, and celery to balance the richer crostini toppings, but I often bake whole wheat pita wedges to make quick pita chips.

Hummus

– 1 – 19 ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained

– 2 cloves of garlic, chopped or microplaned

– 3 Tablespoons tahini

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 1 teaspoon ground cumin

– 1/2 teaspoon ground smoky chipotle

– about 2 tablespoons olive oil

– salt to taste

Note: because of the variety of textures in canned beans, I sometimes need more or less olive oil to get the texture I want. If, after blending, the texture seems stiff or dry, add a little more olive oil, or if it seems loose and soft, add a little less. Same thing with the salt- taste it before adding any because some canned beans are already salty.

In the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini prep), combine the beans, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and spices. Pulse the mixture until you like the texture- I prefer it pretty smooth but with a bit of chunky texture. Once you get the texture you want, taste it for salt and add the salt and olive oil. The olive oil and tahini make it creamy. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Hot and Sour Soup- a Visual Guide

After the last post I wrote about hot and sour soup, I realized that it might be helpful to do a little visual aid. I introduced three relatively unusual ingredients that are usually found in Asian markets, often in packaging that doesn’t have the English names prominently displayed. One of my friends said she hadn’t ever heard of the mushrooms or lily buds before and had no idea what they looked like. I know I have spent plenty of time staring blankly at a shelf full of unidentifiable brown oddly shaped vegetation next to more brown oddly shaped vegetation looking for that one thing I need for a recipe.

So, when stocking your pantry for hot and sour soup, here is the line up:

These dried mushrooms are the earthy flavor base for the soup. They are intensely, flavorful and add richness and depth to whatever you put them in. Rehydrate them in hot water for about twenty minutes to soften the caps. Snip the tough stems off before adding the mushrooms to soup. I always keep a bag of both  dried shiitake and porcini mushrooms; I use them in risotto, meatballs, winter stews and pasta sauces. They are indispensable in my pantry.

Lily buds, or golden needles as they are sometimes called, are the buds of Tiger lilies. They add a floral, musky flavor to the soup. They will need to be soaked in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes. After they have been soaked, check the stem end to see if it is still hard; if so, trim the very tip end off and throw it away.

Finally, there is the attractively named wood ear mushroom, sometimes called Chinese black fungus or cloud ear fungus. It grows in little frills on the trunks of trees. It is used less for its flavor than the crunch it adds to the mostly soft textures in the soup. I usually buy it dried already cut into strips, although I’ve also seen it sold whole.

As with all dried foods and spices, I keep them in an airtight container in a dark cabinet. Stored like this, they will keep for a long time.

Winter Citrus & Endive Salad

Walking here in the city is, to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson as completely as possible, about the destination, not about the journey. It’s a great place to be a pedestrian, but it helps to be goal oriented about it. And I have to admit I’ve adapted, hook, line and sinker. I cover a lot of sidewalk day-to-day, iPod playing something in my ears that makes me fast and focused, mental route mapped out, watching where I step, navigating other pedestrians and their children, dogs, strollers, granny carts. I’ve caught myself playing sidewalk chicken and doing the classic eye roll/deep disgusted sigh/throw hands up in exasperation combo thing pretty often. I’ll even admit  (and I share this from a deeply conflicted mixture of burning-faced shame and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration) that recently, while walking to an appointment in the wintry rain, I tried to start across the street before the car coming the opposite direction had passed in order to time it as closely as I could.  When the driver stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window and started yelling at me for “being in the middle of the street like an idiot” it took me about half a second to start waving my arms and yelling back. In my defense, everyone I told about it thought I was totally justified, because everyone knows the drivers here are all crazy.  I  haven’t lost my common courtesy completely – sometimes I deliberately smile at people as I pass. It seems to freak a lot of them out, so win/win for me.

So I’m striding down Washington Street a couple of days ago when I came to a short, hard stop on the pavement,  arrested by the scent of hyacinths and freesia. Buckets full of those most fragrant of late winter blossoms were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of a mini-grocery (I think people call them “bodegas”). Completely distracted from my no doubt urgent errand, I stopped and just took a deep breath and literally inhaled the beauty of the moment.

It reminded me to look up occasionally during these things that seem like something to “get through” – a commute, a north-eastern winter, a tiresome daily task – and actually notice what’s going on around me.

That the sunniest of fruits, citrus, is at its brightest and most abundant and varied in the winter is reason enough to take a little pleasure in the journey. Whether you are in California where the tree are incandescent with Meyer lemons, or you just live close enough to warmer climes to get the influx of Ruby reds, Cara Cara navels, clementines, and Sevilles that glow from the bins lining frigid northern sidewalks, they are like yellow signal lights flashing “slow down, pay attention.”

I’ve made this crunchy, bittersweet winter salad with them several times this year. Like that burst of lime squirted onto hot posole, the fragrance seems to instantly brighten the mood and the cool mixture of coral and jade is a feast for the eyes.

(I’ll just add that there are lots of lovely parks and river-front promenades where a contemplative stroll is not generally frowned upon, as long as you stay out of the jogger’s way.)

Citrus Endive Salad

serves 4

– 1 ruby red grapefruit

– 1 navel orange

– 1 Cara Cara orange (red navel orange)

– 1 largish head of Belgian endive

– 1/4 medium sweet red onion

– 2 ounces feta,  crumbled into rough chunks

Peel and section the grapefruit and oranges.  Remember, in this case, the perfect is the enemy of the good, so don’t stress about getting it right the first time.

With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.

Slice down the curved sides of the fruit, removing the skin, pith and outer membrane.

Once the skin is gone, you can go back and clean up any pith or membrane that got missed the first time.

Cut each section out from between the white membrane. get as close as you can, but don’t go crazy; you’ll use the leftover juice for the dressing.

Once all the fruit segments are cut out, squeeze the leftover pulp into a cup to get as much juice out as you can. Save 2 tablespoons for the dressing and drink the rest.

Core and separate the leaves on the head of endive. Thinly slice, almost shave the red onion into slivers. Arrange the citrus sections, endive and onion on a platter and tumble the crumbled feta over the top. Drizzle with the citrus vinaigrette and a little of the fig balsamic and serve.

These aren’t the  3/1 proportions of a classic vinaigrette, but a lighter sweeter version.

Citrus Vinaigrette

– 2 tablespoons reserved citrus juice

– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

– 1/2 teaspoon spicy mustard (may I suggest Figgy Mustard?)

-1 teaspoon finely minced shallot

– fresh black pepper to taste

– salt to taste

-3 tablespoons olive oil

– drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar (optional)

In a screw top jar, combine the juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, salt and pepper. Shake to combine. Add the oil, and give everything a good hard shake until it’s emulsified into a creamy golden color.

Keen as Mustard

After that last post for chili, some of y’all are probably rolling your eyes, nudging one another, and asking yourselves  “does she do EVERYTHING the most difficult way possible? I mean seriously, roast and grind the chiles that you freaking GREW YOURSELF and THEN chop the meat by hand? What is she, like a kitchen masochist?” The simple answer to that question would probably be “yes, sort of.” Just kidding.

I do enjoy the process (she says, not defensively at all). And I don’t really cook many elaborate things. I just like simple things to be really tasty and I like to understand what makes it so. And I’ve found over the years that some of the things that seem intimidating, like mayonnaise for example, aren’t that hard. Homemade mayonnaise takes 10 minutes to make and I’ve not yet had a batch break. So if you have the time and inclination to occasionally put in a bit of extra time, I think it’s worth the reward.

So, for things that seem like “why in the world would you make —– when you can buy it?”, I give you the biggest bang for your $2 and 5 minutes of kitchen time:

Homemade Coarse-grain Mustard

My basic recipe comes completely unedited or adapted from one of my favorite and most aspirational blogs,  Hunter Angler Gardener Cook by Hank Shaw. For simplicity, I’ll include the recipe as I made it here, but do spend some quality time wandering around his archives and you won’t be disappointed. His explanations of the chemical reaction that make “the magic” happen are especially helpful.

The nice thing about making your own mustard, other than it being dead simple and effortless, is its endless adaptability. I can’t wait to make some with apricot preserves, Belgian beer, black mustard seeds, smooth mustard powder, or balsamic vinegar. This one has a lot of heat, probably because I used really cold water, but a honey mustard with a bitter-sweet buckwheat honey sounds intriguing too.

Here are the basics:

makes about 1 cup

about 5 minutes active, 12 hours passive prep time

– 6 tablespoons mustard seeds

– 1/2 cup mustard powder

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 3 tablespoons vinegar (2 cider, 1 sherry)

– 1/2 cup very cold water

In a small coffee/spice grinder (or with a mortar and pestle) blitz the whole mustard seeds until they are about 3/4 cracked, but not powdered. Mix the mustard seeds, mustard powder and salt. Pour the vinegar and cold water over it and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a jar and refrigerate for 12 hours before consuming.

After I stood, gazing in disbelief at the jar as I put it in the fridge this morning at how ridiculously EASY it was to make, I let it sit and stew all day. Pulling it out for a taste tonight was the real litmus. And it is really good! Sinus-clearingly hot, fresh and spicy, it tastes like a chewy pretzel’s soul mate. I’m not making pretzels by the way. I buy those. What do you think I am, a glutton for punishment?

P.S.-

Since I had an extra 5 minutes after writing this post, I made another half batch of mustard:

Figgy Mustard

-3 tablespoons mustard seeds

-1/4 cup mustard powder

-1 teaspoon salt

-1 heaped tablespoon fig preserves

-2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

  -2 teaspoons fig balsamic vinegar

-1/4 cup room temperature water, to minimize the heat.

After sitting overnight, it is a lovely spicy/sweet mustard that will be perfect on some broiled smoked sausages.