My Whole Grain Classics

IMG_4271

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.

IMG_4266

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.

IMG_4261

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.

IMG_4264

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.

IMG_4268

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).

IMG_4270

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.

IMG_4260

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

Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

IMG_3391

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.

IMG_3401

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.

IMG_3390

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.

Spicely Organics & Pumpkin Hummus

My recipe for pumpkin hummus went up on My New Usual a couple of weeks ago, a tasty and seasonal alternative to traditional chickpea hummus. My friend Becky was hanging out in my kitchen while I was finalizing the recipe and I used her as a guinea pig to see if I could re-write my recipe to   make the ingredients a little easier for everyone to find. I started making pumpkin hummus when we lived in California and I was buying most of my spices from a San Francisco based organic spice company called Spicely Organics. Long story short, Becky and I agreed that while the simplified recipe was good, the addition of the shawarma seasoning blend made the recipe so much better.

logo homepage-images

 I hadn’t been able to find Spicely on the east coast since we moved, and when I had looked for them online, couldn’t find a user-friendly shopping portal. I ran across their booth at the Fancy Food Show in NYC this summer and was excited to hear that they were expanding to sell more nationally and had developed their online presence a lot. After posting the recipe, my friend Kate said she had even found the shawarma spice mix at Whole Foods in Montclair NJ, so it’s become much more widely available recently.

The first thing that I loved about this spice company besides the quality and flavor of their herbs and spices is the packaging. I use a huge variety of herbs and spices in my cooking and I don’t want a load of new glass jars every time I resupply my stock. Spicely’s herbs and spices are mostly packaged in small 1 inch square cardboard boxes with a cellophane bag inside. I also like that they are sold in smaller amounts than the standard jar size. The most important factor in spices maintaining their flavor is freshness and it’s a lot easier to use up the small packages before the fragrance starts to dissipate and the flavor becomes stale, especially if it’s a spice I don’t use constantly. For those go-to spices that I use most often, they also carry cardboard or glass jars in larger sizes and a bulk jar called the “sous chef”. Another benefit to the variety of sizes is that stocking up on a few spices isn’t going to be expensive, especially if you often end up throw away the dregs of an old jar that you never get around to using.

They also have a  tremendous variety of  spices in their line. I’ve bought sumac and mace and nigella seeds, black and green cardamom, whole anise, ground turmeric and juniper berries as well as more everyday spices like Italian and Mexican oregano, cumin, thyme, and smoked paprika. The seasoning blends skew toward more exotic, less standard “steakhouse seasoning”, like the shawarma blend, which I use for chicken and vegetables, not just hummus. There was a curry blend that I didn’t love and I prefer a Cajun blend from Louisiana, but I love the unique Ras El Hanout, the harissa blend, and the za’atar seasoning. They list the ingredients of the blends on the package so you can get a sense of the flavor before buying; I got a lot of inspiration from their blends, new ideas for how to combine flavors. I noticed on their website that they now have tea and spice infused chocolate in their product line, none of which I have tried.

The icing on the cake is that all of their products are organic, non GMO, and fair trade certified. My opinion is that if an organic product doesn’t taste good or isn’t well made, I’m not eating it. I also realize that there are a lot of great foods that are grown or made very naturally that aren’t organic or certified. But if food that I use can taste great and is also organic, I’m happy about it.  The Fair trade certification means that the company sources its spices from producers who do not use forced or child labor, have unsafe working conditions or substandard wages. I don’t want my food to come at the expense of anyone’s health or well-being and I want their work to provide them with a livelihood, so fair trade certification is something that I look for when possible, particularly in categories that have a history of abuse. Going to a little more trouble (or expense) for more carefully sourced food isn’t everyone’s prerogative, but it is important to me. I explained my position in this comment about why Rancho Gordo beans, whose farmers are able to make a living growing the beans, are (to me) worth the higher price:

I grew up eating lots of beans, so I too was a little skeptical when I saw the prices of RG beans. Then I tried them. Their flavor and texture is far, far better than the .69 per pound bags of black beans I’ve always eaten. And while I realize that there is still a big price difference, $5 divided by 6-8 servings is not particularly expensive. 
The real test for me however was when my mom ate RG beans for the first time. She is the one who taught me to use beans as an inexpensive meal. She hasn’t had the extra money to spend on frivolous “gourmet” products, and yet she is sold on RG beans. 
Normally, beans are farmed as a commodity product that has to be produced in bulk for the farmer to make any profit. Steve’s approach is completely different. Smaller yields of more costly beans mean a better profit margin for these farmers. While everyone may not be in a position to buy their food at a higher price in support of smaller farmers, I think it is certainly worthwhile for those who can. It begins to change the food supply system, making it possible for small farmers to support themselves growing better quality produce, enabling more food to be grown locally, and creating a more diverse agricultural polyculture.
If you are a new cook who wants to stock your spice basics or an adventurous experimental one looking for spice inspiration, I think you’ll find something to love about Spicely Organics. I wrote this without any “swag” or payment of any kind to motivate my opinion; I am just really happy that they are now more widely available and wanted to spread the word about something I like and use.
Once you track down that shawarma blend, try this pumpkin hummus recipe:
IMG_4054

Pumpkin Hummus

makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cups pureed roasted pumpkin

3 tablespoons tahini

3 cloves roasted garlic

1 clove raw garlic, crushed or grated on a microplane

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Spicely organic shawarma seasoning (or ¼ teaspoon each of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, and thyme)

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil plus more to serve.

Sumac (optional)

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the pumpkin, tahini, garlic, and spices. Process until smooth. Mix about half of the lemon juice and olive oil in , check for taste and consistency (you don’t want the hummus to be too liquid) and then add the rest to taste.

Inspiration: What’s in your shopping basket?

IMG_3801

I was unloading my shopping bags onto the counter and loved the pile with all the shades of greens, reds, and orange. I had just grabbed a lot of produce that looked good at Essex Street Market in the LES putting together a loose meal plan in my mind as I went along. I got okra, Persian cucumbers, poblanos, cilantro, radishes, limes, nopal cactus paddles, red chiles, and sour oranges. It looked like a summer still life, and it makes being (mostly) vegetarian exciting when one has beautiful fruits and vegetables to cook with.

So far, we’ve had cilantro, citrus, and chiles in ceviche, crisp radish and cucumber snacks, and I’m working on nopal and poblano tacos. I’ll probably roast the okra with chipotle and do some vegetable chiles rellenos.

It got my thinking: how do most people shop and where do you get your inspiration? Do you plan ahead and then shop or look for what’s good and plan your meals from there? Do you research before you buy a new strange vegetable or do you buy and then look for what to do with it?

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.