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.

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Chili con Carne

I did something heinous to my back about a week and a half ago, one of those things where you lean forward and when you straighten back up, you want to die, so I spent about a week lying very still and thinking gloomy thoughts about my mortality and the effects of aging on the skeletal system. In the process of all of this mulling, I came to a realization that while I am not a “world-beater” personality, I really hate being unproductive, so while I’m doing much better but not quite 100%, I’m happy to be back on my feet to potter around the house and making occasional short trips down to the river. Today I took advantage of my forced indolence to make one of my favorite winter meals for this weekend – chili con carne.

It’s probably a good idea for me to define my terms here before I get into the particulars of how I make this. Chili is one of those things that inflame the passions of purists and sticklers who claim that adding anything besides meat and chiles is heretical. I read a comment online recently where someone said of a vegetarian chili recipe that “you can call it a spicy bean soup, but don’t call it true chili”. But as I am no such food fundamentalist,  I unashamedly adulterate “true” chili con carne by adding beans and tomatoes because I like it that way. I like a rich, spicy, thick, beefy chili, with creamy beans and a little tomato to brighten and sweeten the sauce.

But really, chili con carne is all about the chiles. When we lived in California and I was growing and drying a variety of chiles in our garden, I began to appreciate their nuanced flavors and the ability to combine them into a “custom” chile powder. I love their earthy, spicy, berry fragrance when I open the container where all my chiles are stored.  The Mexican supermarkets in Concord had bins filled with ancho, New Mexico, cayenne, California, and guajillo chiles. It is these chiles that are the basis for a lot of Mexican salsas and sauces, like red enchilada sauce, and they are the flavor basis for chili con carne.

This link has a good guide for chile varieties, including substitutions and heat levels

For my chili powder, I use a mixture of ancho (which is dried poblano), serrano, California or New Mexico chiles, and a chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño) that I grind myself. The serranos add some heat, but the other two are just earthy, rich and should have a nice dried berry smell. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and a deep smoky flavor. If you don’t want to grind your own powder, I still encourage you to try to blend a couple of different good, freshly ground chiles rather than using the standard chili powder. If you think about chiles as berries, think about the difference between dried cherries and dried blueberries. They each bring something unique to the flavor of the dish, which you can control to your taste when you make your own blend. Penzeys is a good online source and they carry ground ancho and chipotle.

Another of my chili quirks is that I buy a whole chuck roast and mince it myself with my biggest, sharpest knife. It is usually hard to find “chili grind” beef and I prefer the texture of tender little chunks of beef. The regular hamburger grind seems to either disappear into the sauce or else stay a little rubbery. I just like the control that chopping it myself gives me since it also allows me to trim out gristly bits and big chunks of fat. This step is totally optional – you’ll still have a great bowl of chili without hand-chopping the meat, but try it at least once and see what you think.

The ingredients, in order of use-

-1.5 lbs ground or minced beef chuck

– oil to cook the onions

– 2 chopped medium onions

– 5 or 6 cloves minced garlic

– pinch of salt

– 6 Tablespoons chile powder

(about 6 ancho, 3 California, 3 serrano, and 1 chipotle)

– 2 teaspoons ground cumin

– 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or a pinch of Italian oregano

– 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

If you use whole dried chiles to make your own chile powder as do I, turn on the oven to about 350°. Put all of your chiles into a cast iron skillet or sheet pan and toast for about 5 minutes until they become very fragrant, then take them out and give them a couple of minutes to cool off enough to handle. Tear the stem ends off the chiles, shake out all of the seeds, and tear them into pieces. Grind the chiles into a powder in a small coffee grinder.

Brown the meat in batches over high heat and then remove from the pot and set aside. Add a little oil to the pot and sauté the onions. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt and use the water that they release to scrape up the sticky brown bits that the meat has left in the bottom of the pot. Once the onion has begun to soften, stir in the minced garlic and cook over medium to low heat. When the onions and garlic have softened, stir the chili powder and other spices and stir until the onions are coated with chile powder. There should be enough oil for it to get moist and toast/fry the chili powder and spices.

Add the meat and any accumulated juices back into the pot. Then add:

-3 or 4 cups cooked pink beans or small red beans. If you cook dried beans for the chili, use the cooking liquid in the chili. If you prefer to use canned beans, drain them and use a little extra water instead.

-1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with the juice

-2 bay leaves

– Add water, chicken or beef broth, just to make it loose, not soupy, about 3 cups

Cover with the pot lid, leaving just a crack, and let it burble quietly over low heat for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.  Longer is fine, but keep the heat low and enough liquid in the pot so it doesn’t stick and  scorch on the bottom. The acid in the tomatoes will keep the beans from softening much more than they are, so a long simmer shouldn’t hurt them.

Taste for salt, maybe add a dash cayenne if you want it spicier. It’s better to make it a day ahead of time, say on a Saturday before a big football game or something like that.

I usually serve it with a sprinkle raw chopped onions on top and of course, it’s great with cornbread!

Red Beans and Rice- Southern Food Challenge 4

Beans and rice, as I’ve mentioned before, have always been staples of my cooking rotation. Beans and rice of all kinds are my comfort foods. So when I started thinking about doing red beans and rice for this challenge, I had to think “now how do I write down a recipe for something I don’t even have to  think about cooking?” I remembered an episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown made red beans and rice with a twist I had never tried: it was seasoned with pickled pork instead of smoky andouille. I started looking around for recipes and began running across a lot of claims that pickled pork was actually a more traditional seasoning meat than smoked pork for red beans. I like pickles and I love pork, so I decided to shake my bean routine up a little and make my red beans and rice pickled instead of smoked.

 

 

Red Beans and Rice

serves about 8

 

1 pound of red beans, rinsed, soaked, and drained

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

8-10 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced

oil to saute’ the vegetables

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon of thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

hot sauce like Tabasco

12 ounces pickled pork*

2 quarts water

Salt and black pepper to taste

 

hot cooked rice (I used Rosematta, a chewy, smoky Indian red rice I got at Kalustyan’s in NYC)

 

 

Get all of your aromatics cut up and ready to go. Assemble the spices you will need and have your beans pre-soaked and drained.

In a large dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper and stir, cooking until they begin to soften, maybe 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic, thyme, and cayenne to the aromatic vegetables and stir until they begin to get fragrant.

Pour the beans into the pot and add the water, hot sauce, pickled pork, and bay leaves. Don’t add the salt until the beans are almost done; salt can keep beans from softening when they cook.

Simmer for at least an hour or until the beans have softened to your liking; salt to taste. I always think that the flavor of beans improves with a little time, so I recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the fridge overnight.

Serve in bowls with a scoop of hot rice and a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

 

 

Making red beans with pickled pork was more work up front than just buying good andouille, and I love the flavor of andouille so I can’t say I won’t ever go back to my old habits, but the pickled pork added a really interesting complexity and tang. It reminded me a little of Brunswick stew or bigos (a Polish stew made with game and sauerkraut). It is certainly worth a try.

 

 

*Pickled Pork

I did a combo recipe of Alton Brown’s Pickled Pork and a New Orleans Cuisine blog‘s version:

1 quart white vinegar

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup brown mustard seeds

3 bay leaves

4 dried serrano chiles

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander

1 tablespoon celery seed

10 cloves of garlic, peeled, whole

about a teaspoon hot sauce

2 tablespoons Kosher salt

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes

a cup of ice

Pour the vinegar and all of the rest of the ingredients except for the pork and ice into a pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes and then remove from the heat and cool; after it has cooled to room temperature, add the ice cubes.

Put the pork into a heavy 1 gallon ziplock back and put the whole bag in a bowl (this will keep any leakage contained!). Pour the cooled vinegar mixture and all of the spices over the pork, squeeze out as much air as you can and seal the bag. Put it in the refrigerator for three days. It will be ready to use after three days. I used about 1/3 of the pork in the red beans; the rest I removed from the brine, divided into containers and froze. It’s not pretty, but it sure is tasty!

 

Cold comfort- Black Beans and Rice

It’s the end of January and I haven’t slept in my own bed in over six weeks. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve slept in the same bed for more than three nights in a row in the past six weeks. It’s been a cold winter so far, even here in the South, and I feel myself reaching back in my memory for the comforting foods that I’ve had all my life, that have sustained and warmed and satisfied.

 

 

Black beans are one of my very favorite things to eat. With rice, they have been a comfort meal for me through thick and thin. I remember my mom making black bean and smoked turkey chili on a wood stove when Hurricane Opal buried us under oak limbs and power lines. I’ve been making my own versions of black beans and rice, adapted to the season, throughout my adult life. With a golden lace of olive oil on the surface, a chile-infused pot of black beans warms and fills the belly without weighing the body down with regret. It is a virtuous indulgence, to me anyway. An inky, brothy bowlful makes me feel at home wherever I am.

 

Black Beans and Rice

Soak 1 pound of black beans overnight covered  with lots of  water.

Or, you can do a quick soak by covering the beans with plenty of water in a pot, bringing it all to a boil for about 2 minutes and then allowing it to sit off the heat, covered, for about an hour.

 

 

2 -3 roasted and peeled poblanos

2 serranos, minced

1 chipotle, either dried or canned in adobo (if you want a smoky flavor)

Or, a red bell pepper, roasted and peeled (I have used the jarred kind)

1 large onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled between your fingers

Pinch of thyme

1 bay leaf

Oil

Chicken broth, low salt or salt free, or water

Salt

Kombu (optional) or nopalitos (also optional, and I would get them already de-spiked and sliced)

 

Drain the soaked beans. Re-cover with water or chicken broth (or a combination) by about 2 inches. It is important not to salt the beans at this point, because salt can make it difficult to get the beans to soften. Add the whole piece of kombu to the liquid, if you are using that. Cover and bring the pot to a low simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Test a bean for tenderness. They should still have a bit of “bite” to them when the aromatics are added. One way to test is to smush a bean between your fingers; it should still give a little resistance at this point, but not feel like a pebble. Keep the liquid covering the beans and continue to check every 10 minutes or so. When the beans are soft, fish out the kombu, cut it up into small pieces and return the bits to the pot.

 

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute’ the onions until most of the liquid has cooked out and they are tender but not brown, salting them with a couple of generous pinches of salt. Add the garlic and the spices, stirring it all together to toast the spices. Add the chopped peppers and nopalitos if that’s how you decide to roll, and cook just until the serranos and cactus begin to soften.

 

Scrape  the hot vegetables into the pot with the beans and add more liquid if needed to keep everything covered. Simmer very low- what you want to do at this point is to infuse the beans as they finish softening; a higher temperature will just bash them to mush. After the flavors have all mingled for 10 minutes or so, taste a spoonful and see if you want a little more salt. Continue to simmer until the beans have reached your preferred tenderness. Serve with a scoop of rice.

 

 

I like the flavor of  the chilis I listed but have used just red bell peppers and jalapeños before. Peeling the larger peppers like poblano and bells is important because otherwise there are bits of the cellophane-like outer skin floating annoyingly around amongst  the beans. Nothing tasty about getting that stuck in the back of your throat. And if you don’t have any Mexican oregano, which seems a little sagey-er, use a little pinch of Italian oregano instead.

 

 

Kristen’s boys called this recipe “Special Sauce.”

It’s kind of like a raita, adding a cool crisp contrasting flavor to a sometimes spicy meal:

 

About 1 cup sour cream

1 minced cucumber (scrape out the seeds first if they are big)

3 minced whole scallions

Salt

 

Stir together and allow the flavors to mingle for 20 minutes or so. Add a spoonful to the beans and rice. It is so, so good.

 

 

 

 

How to not cook a turtle

 

I had a bowl of gorgeous turtle soup at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen a long long time ago back when I still lived in the South. It was dark and rich and intriguing, spicy and earthy and had a nice whiff of sherry in it. I loved it. The thing is, I don’t run across a lot of turtles and if I did, I can’t say I could fathom cooking one of them, having only just conquered the crab. But that flavor has always stayed in my memory, waiting to be recreated.  The trigger on that idea got pulled recently. Here in NJ where I live, there are grocery aisles dedicated to Caribbean ingredients like adobo seasoning, lard colored with annatto, beans and rice, yucca chips. There are at least five Caribbean restaurants here in my mile-square town. Seeing pumpkin soup and black beans on menus and then eating some good jerk during TMRVacationEver got me thinking- rich, earthy, sweet, spicy. Spices like cumin, allspice, thyme and Habanero  are straight out of a jerk marinade recipe and pumpkin and black beans balance that earthy/sweet flavor combo. I’m not going to say that this soup tastes like that turtle soup I had, but it makes me feel like that soup did. And I didn’t have to cook a turtle.

 

Black Bean and Pumpkin Soup


1 ½ cups dried black beans, soaked and drained

1 onion large diced

3 cloves garlic minced

1 small knob ginger smashed (end of thumb size)

I medium heat green chili diced (can of chilis would work)

1 small Habanero deseeded and cut in half

oil (or butter) to sauté the onion

1 allspice berry, crushed (or  tiny pinch of ground allspice)

small pinch of dried thyme

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 packet Goya ham base or whatever smoked ham stock you like

4-6 cups water

¼ calabaza pumpkin, seeds removed and roasted until soft

¾ cup diced tomato

1/2- 2/3  cups diced or shredded smoked ham

1/3-1/2 cup dry sherry

garnish with avocado, feta or cotija cheese, or sour cream, or toasted pumpkin seeds

 

Saute’ the onion, chilis, ginger and garlic in oil until soft. Add the cumin, thyme and allspice and warm in the oil for a minute. Add the drained beans and the ham stock if desired. Otherwise , cover generously with water and simmer until the beans are soft and creamy. Don’t fear the Habanero. If you are tasting the soup as you go, you can easily fish the pepper out when you are happy with the heat level. I just think that the fruity heat of the Habanero adds a specific flavor that cayenne or jalapeno doesn’t have.

 

I roasted the pumpkin on a dish in the oven, lightly covered, at 350 for a few hours. Since everything is going to be blended, you can’t really overcook it.  I used calabaza because it was easy to find here, but I’d also make it with butternut squash or kabocha pumpkin; they both have dense, sweet flesh that intensifies as it is cooked down. Scrape the pumpkin flesh off of the skin and add to the black bean along with the tomatoes. Simmer together, adding additional water if needed. Adjust the seasoning for salt.

Pour in the sherry and bring back to a good simmer, to let some of the alcohol cook off. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. Stir in the smoky shreds of ham (or put it in the bottom of each bowl before pouring in the soup). Scoop some avocado, cheese or sour cream on top.

 

If you are disinclined to do the whole “from dried beans and whole pumpkin” route,  try it with canned beans and pumpkin. Use about 1 can of pumpkin puree and 2 cans of drained black beans.  After the onions and spices are cooked, add the beans, pumpkin and stock, tomatoes, and cook it all together . Letting it sit overnight before blending will probably help the flavors integrate more thoroughly.

 

Happy Cinco de Mayo, y’all!- Huevos Rancheros

When it comes to celebrating Cinco de Mayo, there are a few directions you can take. First, you could ignore it, because it’s just a Wednesday and you don’t even know what it’s about. Second, you could consume far too many margaritas at your local cantina, after which you still have to get up and go to work on Thursday. Third, and I’ll allow that this is an unconventional idea, you could really mess up a French recipe in honor of the French’s defeat by the Mexican army in 1862. Or fourth, and this is the method I recommend, you can make some great Americanized Mexican food, because doesn’t that really capture the spirit of the holiday?

Huevos Rancheros

Serves 2

4 corn tortillas, as fresh as you can find them. I get some that still have steam in the bag from a tortilla factory near me.

4 eggs

1 cup chunky fresh salsa- I like Salsa Especial from Trader Joe’s if you don’t make homemade

2/3 cup cooked pinto or pink beans or refried beans –   Rancho Gordo beans are my favorite

Monterey Jack cheese

Oil of butter to cook the eggs

Cilantro, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped

Scallion, sliced

Avocado, about 1/2 sliced for 2 people

Nopal, briefly cooked in boiling water, drained and salted

Warm your oven at it’s lowest setting to keep the plates and tortillas warm while everything else is prepared.

Wrap the tortillas in foil or put them in a cast iron skillet and cover with foil in the oven to warm.

Warm the beans.

Have the cilantro, scallions, avocado, nopal, and cheese ready.

Heat a drop of oil or butter in a small nonstick skillet, and crack 2 of the eggs into it. After the whites have begun to turn opaque, pour a little of  the salsa and a teaspoon or so of water into the pan and cover. Cook until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still a little runny. If you have two skillets and the skills of a short order cook, try cooking all the eggs at the same time; otherwise repeat with the other eggs.

To assemble, place two tortillas on a dinner plate. Spread half of the beans onto the tortillas and top with the eggs. Pour half of the salsa over the eggs, grate a little cheese over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, scallions, avocado, and nopal.