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

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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.

The weather outside is frightful: Split Pea Soup

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It’s blizzarding and frigid outside here in Hoboken!  Our mayor robo-called today to tell us that “street sweeping rules were not in effect during the winter storm but meters and parking rules were and that cars parked in snow evacuation routes would be towed and sidewalks are to be shoveled within 6 hours of the end of the storm but not to shovel the snow back into the street.” So, while blizzards always make me think of Pa eating all the Christmas candy in the snow cave when he got lost in a blizzard in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek out on the wild western prairie, Winter Storm Hercules is being managed with small-town New Jersey efficiency here. And I’m making soup. 

I cooked this soup after Christmas as my in-laws during a visit when our nephew was about 2. He’s the one that said “Good job” to his grandmother when she made a pan of biscuits that particularly pleased him. He was such a fan of this soup that my mother-in-law decided to make more split pea soup for him a few weeks later. She called me laughing hysterically and asked for my recipe. She had put a bowl of soup on the high chair tray in front of our nephew and after one bite, he looked up at with the absolute crushed disappointment that only a toddler can muster and said “BLECH!” and refused to eat any more. She said “I’m not used to getting ‘blech’ comments on the food I cook!” So for what it’s worth, this soup is toddler-approved.

Split Pea Soup

serves about 8

1- 1 pound bag of split peas

2 meaty smoked ham hocks or 1 meaty ham bone

About 6 cups water

Oil (to sauté’ the vegetables)

1 large white onion, chopped

1 large russet potato, peeled and diced to about ¼ inch dice

2 medium turnips, peeled and diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, minced fine

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, simmer the ham in about 4 cups of water over very low heat until the meat is very soft and beginning to fall of the bones. Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat and bones from the water. Allow the meat to cool and then remove from the bones, shred into small chunks, and set aside.

 Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables.

 In another pot or sauté pan, heat enough oil to just lightly coat the bottom and sauté the vegetables in it just until they begin to steam and soften.

 Add the split peas and vegetables to the ham stock.  Bring to a low simmer and cover with a lid, allowing it to cook slowly until the peas are soft and the vegetables are beginning to melt into the soup, probably about 30 minutes, depending on the freshness of the peas. Add more water as needed to keep it from getting too dry or sticking to the bottom of the pot, but not so much that it is watery. Add the shredded ham back into the soup and allow it to heat through.

 Since the ham broth will vary in saltiness, don’t salt until the end of cooking; you may need less than you think and it is easier to add salt than take away. Add black pepper to taste.

A couple of notes:

 1. I am inexact about the amount of water because the amount needed varies so much. Start with the amount on the package of peas, or with the amount I suggest, but use your judgment about adding more; you don’t want it to be too dry and thick.

 2. Cooking the pork slowly in the water first serves a couple of purposes. First, it infuses the water with flavor so that it really mixes into the beans and vegetables as the beans absorb water. Second, if you are using ham hock, shank, or any part of the leg with the bones and all, the connective tissue from the cartilage  melts into the water, giving it a rich texture that makes the stock very tasty and silky, the same as using wings or feet for rich chicken stock.

Hurricane Potluck Mac and Cheese

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This time a year ago, I was standing in the fading light in my kitchen cooking mac and cheese with all of the cheese, milk, and butter I had salvaged from the  fridge and trying to figure out what I could still use in my rapidly thawing freezer. Sandy had hit Hoboken three days ago and we were one of the fortunate few to have no flooding, gas to cook, and some food in the house. Hoboken had become a dark little island, the only sound or light at night  from the police or national guard patrols or the occasional disjointed voices from passersby. During daylight we would walk around town trying to find out how our friends had fared, if there was any prediction about when power would be restored, when the water would be drained out.

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I never posted anything about the storm. During the exciting parts, I was husbanding my rapidly draining phone battery to try to get the occasional update from twitter or to get a text out to our families when I could find some wi-fi. As days began to pass with no clear picture of how or when life would begin to return to normal, I wrote a rambling narrative of our experiences, of the National Guard trucks driving through the flooding to rescue residents, of the restaurants opening to cook in the dark, of the few homes with power running extension cords out onto the street and making handwritten signs saying “Free WiFi/password: sandy/ Charge  Your Phone Here”.  Even after the power came back on a week later, I didn’t post. It was too big and horrible to sum up, it would have felt disrespectful to the magnitude of the situation. And “normal” was so relative. Our main supermarket had flooded so badly that it stayed closed for 15 weeks, the PATH train from Hoboken to Manhattan was closed into February.

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In the middle of that week though, there I was, cooking mac and cheese. We ran into a friend who told us that another friend had power and was an open door for anyone who needed a shower, to charge batteries, to eat a hot meal. We went home and emptied the freezer and fridge of anything 20 or so people could eat and took it over to her house for a potluck.  And in this, I think, I found the bright spot in the hurricane. Hoboken, and my community within Hoboken, pulled together in a really powerful way during the storm. The overwhelming spirit of my neighbors during the crisis was of calm and generosity.  And it was then, during one of its least lovely moments that I resolved that if home is where the heart is, Hoboken was home.

This mac and cheese is of course tastiest when shared with a group of friends in the aftermath of a hurricane, but is not bad on any less dramatic occasion.

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Mac and Cheese

serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk (preferably whole milk)

pinch cayenne pepper

pinch nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4-6 ounces young gouda, grated

1 ounce pecorino Romano, grated (optional)

8 ounces dry elbow noodles

bread crumbs, toasted in butter (optional)

Cook the elbow noodles in a pot of generously salted water according to the instructions, but drain well just before they are al dente since they will cook a little more in the cheese sauce.

Make a roux with the butter and flour, cooking the flour just until it is a pale blonde color. Whisk in the milk, stirring to incorporate the roux. Cook over medium/low heat, stirring almost constantly until the milk begins to thicken. Whisk in the spices and mustard. Once the sauce comes to a simmer and has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Stir the drained noodles into the cheese sauce; it will seem very soupy at this point but the noodles will soak up the sauce and thicken. Taste for salt.

If you like a baked casserole style mac and cheese, pour it into a buttered baking dish, top with bread crumbs and a little pecorino cheese and bake at 250 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and the pasta is bubbly.

Since everyone in my house doesn’t like the bread crumb topping, I usually toast the bread crumbs and just spoon them over each serving for a little crunch.

Note about the cheese: I like the taste of sharp cheddar in my cheese sauce, and the sharper the cheese, the more the flavor comes through in the sauce. The texture of cheddar, however, is not ideal for melting, so I add another melting cheese, one with a creamy buttery texture to make the sauce rich and silky. Young gouda is nice as are most alpine style cheeses, Gruyere, Havarti, or even Monterrey Jack. You’re looking for something both flavorful and one that will give you those nice gooey strings of melted cheese when you make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

The weather has been a beast here this week. It has been as hot and humid as Satan’s armpit, the kind of weather where your window AC seems to churn the heavy air rather than  actually cool it. We’ve eaten a few of those cold olives and sliced tomatoes and bread and cheese suppers which I think are really lovely in the summer when tomatoes are sweet and juicy and raw or barely cooked vegetables are crisp and tender. Tacos of course required a little cooking, but not a lot. Salsa, slaw, and ice cream for dessert were fresh and light.

While the weather was still hot this weekend, I had worked a long day and  felt like something savory and substantial. I had picked up a handful of slim violet Asian eggplants at the farmers market earlier in the week without a plan for how to use them and decided to quickly wok cook them with a spicy garlicky sauce.  Eggplant can feel really savory and satisfying, soaking up whatever sauce they are cooked in.They are really one of my favorite things to eat. Combined with spicy sauce made with some Asain pantry staples, fresh soft tofu and fragrant Jasmine rice, the meal  was cooked and I was away from the stove in about 20 minutes.

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Spicy Garlic Eggplant and Tofu

1 tablespoon fish sauce*

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 cup water

1 tablespoon corn starch

¼ cup water

oil

6 cloves garlic

4 scallions

4 Hungarian wax or Banana wax peppers

3 Asian eggplants

14 ounce package soft tofu

toasted sesame oil

Hot cooked rice

Mix the fish sauce, soy sauce, gochujang, sugar, and water and whisk together until everything is smooth.  Mix the cornstarch and water in another small bowl.

Thinly slice the garlic cloves. Chop the scallions into ½ inch pieces. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise, deseed, and slice them into thin slivers.

Remove the stem end from the eggplant, slice them in half lengthwise, and them chop the halves into 1 inch pieces. Remove the tofu from the package, drain, and cut into 1 inch cubes.

In a large wok or skillet, heat a couple of teaspoons of oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic, scallions and peppers into the oil and stir constantly, cooking until they begin to soften. Add the eggplant and continue to stir. Cook the eggplant until the skin turns from purple to brown and the eggplant begins to soften, about 5-10 minutes. Take care not to burn the vegetables; if they begin to brown, lower the heat and add a small pinch of salt. The salt will help the eggplant release some of their water and help keep it from sticking. Gently stir the tofu cubes into the eggplant. Pour the sauce mixture in and stir. Cover and bring the sauce up to a simmer. Simmer for 2-3 minutes, just to infuse the eggplant and tofu with its flavor. Pour the cornstarch slurry over the sauce and stir. Bring it back to a simmer so that the cornstarch thickens the sauce. Drizzle with toasted sesame oil and stir. Serve over hot cooked long grain rice.

*For a completely vegetarian recipe, substitute another tablespoon of soy sauce for the fish sauce

*For and even spicier Sichuan-inspired version, substitute 1 tablespoon of Sichuan chili bean paste for 1 tablespoon of the gochujang and add a pinch of Sichuan peppercorns.

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.

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.

Dark Chocolate Pots

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that you were invited to dinner at a friend’s house and you say “what can I bring?” and it ends up that you’re bringing dessert. And then let’s just say, for example, that you had bought a bag of lemons and were planning to make a lemon tart, but then the crumb crust that you put in the oven while your dear spouse is taking a nap on a Saturday afternoon starts leaking butter into the bottom of the oven and billowing smoke sending you running into the hallway with a towel to frantically wave under the fire alarm in the direction of the kitchen window that you flung open so that it doesn’t go off and wake everyone up. And then just say you are totally out of ingredients to make the crust again and your totally fed up with crusts anyway and are completely over pastry in general and don’t feel like going to the grocery store but are still on the hook for dessert in a couple of hours. What is one to do? Hypothetically, you know. Ahem.

Chocolate Cream Pots

serves 4

– 1 cup heavy cream

– 6 ounces dark chocolate (I used 72%)

– 2 egg yolks

– 2 tablespoons raw sugar

– 1 tablespoon strong coffee or espresso

– 1 tablespoon rum

– 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

– tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

– sweetened whipped cream*

Chop the chocolate into little bits. Heat the cream in a heavy bottomed pan until it comes to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the chocolate; let the chocolate sit in the cream for a minute or two and then whisk together until dark and smooth. Beat the two egg yolks together with the sugar and then pour a little of the hot cream into the eggs to heat them up. Put the pan back over low heat and whisk the egg mixture back in. Heat until the faintest wisps of steam begin to rise, stirring the whole time; it should only take a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the coffee, rum, butter, and cayenne, whisking to melt the butter and blend everything into a silky smooth custard.

Pour the hot custard into small bowls, espresso cups, or ramekins (I used little jam jars) and allow it to cool. Because this is such a rich dessert, it only takes a small amount to satisfy; and because of this richness, it’s best not served cold, but at a softer, silkier room temperature.

Top with a generous drift of sweetened whipped cream. *I whipped the cream with sugar and a splash of rum and vanilla extract. The contrast of airy vanilla scented cream and meltingly truffle-like chocolate is heavenly.

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.

Starve a fever, feed a cold, and Hot and Sour Soup allergies?

I don’t know if it’s because of the unusually mild winter we’ve had this year, but we have been just sucker-punched by allergies this year. It’s just been non-stop sneezing, sniffling, congestion, and dark circles under puffy eyes for the last several weeks. My most irritating symptom has been that my right eyelids have been constantly twitching unless I take allergy meds, and Scott’s has been a nagging sore throat.

Chicken soup is a lot of people’s idea of the perfect anodyne for illness, but when we’re under the weather we both crave fortifyingly spicy Asian soups like Thai tom yum with lemongrass, Vietnamese pho with sriracha and chiles, or Chinese hot and sour soup with vinegar and white pepper. Hot and sour is especially good in the winter; maybe because it’s a bit thicker than the clear broths of tom yum and pho, it seems to stick to your ribs on a cold night. I have always had hot and sour as a first course soup in restaurants, but this home-made version is a meal in and of itself. I recommend eating it in your comfiest and least flattering pajamas.

This recipe might be a little intimidating at first because of the exotic ingredients, but it is really just pantry cooking. I get the dried mushrooms and lily buds at an Asian market and keep them all together in a container (they keep indefinitely) like an emergency hot and sour soup kit for next time I’m in need. Since you only need a few each time, a package of dried mushrooms will be enough to make a year’s worth of soup. Vinegar, soy sauce, and canned bamboo shoots are all things you’ll have in your pantry if you ever cook Chinese food.  And I buy a few thin-sliced lean pork chops, use one for the soup, and freeze the rest individually for next time. I always have eggs and chicken broth around so tofu is usually the only thing I need to buy fresh.

The dried shiitake mushrooms can often be found in regular supermarkets, so if you have trouble finding the wood ears and lily buds, just add a few more shiitake to the soup and skip the harder to find ingredients until you happen run across them. I love all of the elements of this soup, but the earthy meaty richness of the shiitake is an essential element to me.

Hot and Sour Soup

– 3 ounces lean pork, diced small, or ground pork

– Vegetable oil to fry pork, about 1 teaspoon

– 5 dried shiitake mushrooms

– 2 tablespoons dried wood ear mushrooms (also called black Chinese fungus)

– 8-10 dried lily buds (also called golden needles)

– Boiling water to rehydrate mushrooms and lily buds (about 2 cups)

–  1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots, drained and cut into strips

– 3 tablespoons rice vinegar

– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

– 2 tablespoons soy sauce

– 4 ounces firm tofu, sliced into strips

– 2 tablespoons cornstarch

– 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

– 1 egg, beaten

– 1 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper (more or less, to taste)

– sliced scallions

Pour boiling water over the dried shiitake, wood ear mushrooms, and lily buds and allow them to rehydrate for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the water. Some shiitake mushrooms are a little gritty, so if you notice that sediment has settled to the bottom, strain it through a fine sieve or coffee filter.

Trim the tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms and then slice them into thin slivers. Cut the lily buds in half and pull them apart into long shreds. Set the mushrooms, lily buds, strips of bamboo shoots and tofu aside.

Measure and mix the vinegars and soy sauce into a small bowl or ramekin. Beat the egg in a small bowl too. Stir the cornstarch into the cooled reserved soaking water.

A note about the cornstarch: the thickness of the soup is a matter of personal preference. The thickness of the soup can adjusted but it’s a good idea to start small and work thicker a teaspoon at a time after the soup has simmered and thickened. I’ve given amounts for a lightly thickened soup. If you want to add more, mix a teaspoon of water at a time with a splash of cold water and stir it into the soup until it’s thick enough. If you have arrowroot, it is actually a better thickener for this application since it stands up to acid and heat better than cornstarch, but it’s less common, so I’ve called for cornstarch instead.


Once you have your mis-en-place in place (ha) fry the pork in about a teaspoon of oil in a wok or pot over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Lower the heat and add in the mushrooms, lily buds, tofu, bamboo shoots, and vinegar mixture. Stir in the chicken broth and bring everything to a simmer. Stir in the water and cornstarch mixture; as the soup returns to a simmer, the cornstarch will thicken it. Now is the time to decide if you want to thicken the soup a little more. If so, add the cornstarch slurry a teaspoon at a time, simmering between additions until it’s thick enough. Once you’re happy with the consistency, mix in the pungent white pepper.

With the soup at a low simmer, pour the egg in a thin stream into the soup while stirring everything in a circle. The egg will cook instantly, making white ribbons throughout the liquid (this is the same way you make an egg drop soup). Turn the heat off right away.

Ladle into big bowls and sprinkle thin slivers of scallions over the top.