Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tortilla Soup: Great Sick Food or Greatest Sick Food?

In 2000, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska set out to design a study to examine if and how chicken soup might actually help people suffering from the common cold. In the study he started with his wife's recipe, handed down from her Lithuanian grandmother. Results from Rennard's study suggested that chicken soup may actually help fight colds by inhibiting the movement of a particular type of white blood cell that defends against infection. Rennard's team (and other scientists who have replicated the study since then) found similar results with other chicken soup recipes as well, though they couldn't identify which ingredients were key to the soup's immuno-supportive qualities. You can see Dr. Rennard's article, Grandma's recipe and some adorable pictures of him and his wife cooking soup together at the University of Nebraska Med. Center website.

When I ended up with a cold a couple weeks ago, I had very little energy, a fridge full of forlorn, half-eaten rotisserie chickens, and a craving for spicy food. There are always a few roast chickens languishing in the fridge; most weeks, Tom takes full advantage of the Friday two for $10 deal on them at the local supermarket, eats the breast (at least most of it) and then leaves them in the fridge. I'm not too big into plain roast chicken, but I hate letting something like that go to waste (my generalized guilt about wasting food is multiplied when an animal died to become that food), so I am constantly trying to find ways to sneak this leftover chicken into things. In this case, spicy chicken soup provided the answer to all of these queries.

I used tortilla soup, a chile-spiked, chicken-based soup with origins across Mexico, as a jumping off point. I spent a while curled under a blanket with a box of tissues and the laptop reading many recipes for inspiration. This recipe might take a little while, but it's one where there's not a whole lot of active time, which means there's time to stop and take a nap between steps. You may not have all of the ingredients that I did (nor the plague of half-eaten chickens) so for many of the ingredients here, I provide a few alternatives.

In the end, what I came up with was good enough to eat for several more days without getting bored and to make again even when I wasn't sick.

Chile Chicken Soup

gluten-free, dairy-free, optionally grain-free


  • 2 half-eaten rotisserie chickens (You can use 1-2 lbs of fresh/frozen chicken and simmer in chicken stock instead of water)
  • water to cover (2-3 qts)
  • 2 tsp. light-flavored oil
  • 2 small-medium onions
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 6 Dried Anaheim chiles, toasted* (or about ¼c. paprika, see note about chiles)
  • 2 chipotle chile (or 1-2 tsp. chipotle powder, scaled to taste, or ½-1 tsp. cayenne)
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2-3 bell peppers, fire-roasted (I used a combo of red bell and cubanelle)
  • 1/2 can crushed tomatoes
  • salt to taste
  • handful cilantro
  • 2 T masa harina made into a slurry with about 1/4 cup water, stirred in close to the end (optional, adds body)
*About Chiles I used California Anaheim and chipotle peppers. California Anaheims are milder than the already fairly mild New Mexico Anaheims. I buy them in a big bag as "California Chiles" at my local international market. They add a lot of rich chile flavor with virtually no heat. That's (part of) what the chipotles are there for. Chipotles are smoke-dried jalapeño peppers and add both heat and a rich, smoky flavor. I'd actually prefer to use a blend of these with dried pasilla chiles (also called chile negro), which are somewhat spicy and have a slightly darker flavor, but I didn't have any on hand. Anchos (dried poblanos) would also be good here. Additionally, you can replace these with about ¼ cup sweet paprika and about ½ tsp. of cayenne.

    Topping suggestions:

  • tortilla chips (if you want to be fancy, fry your own tortilla strips)
  • avocado
  • lime
  • more cilantro
  • sour cream
  • shredded jack, cheddar or queso blanco cheese
  • chili sauce

Before we get started, let me introduce you to my spice grinder. This is one of my best friends in the kitchen. It's not that I'm a fresh-ground spice purist (I'm not), it just allows for so many more options: getting to make chili powder out of whichever dried peppers I like, pulverizing the dried shiitake mushrooms I like sneaking in all over the place, not having to buy both whole and ground versions of spices I use in both forms. Yes, it does say über super coffee grinder on the side. You can buy devices labeled "spice grinders" but many comparisons I've seen say you're better off with a small, blade-driver electric coffee grinder unless you are regularly grinding very large quantities. Additionally, little coffee grinders are cheap. You can reliably buy them new for under $20, commonly find them at thrift stores or tag sales for <$5, and sometimes find them for free at the dump swap shop, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing, or from someone who is moving, giving up coffee, or getting rid of it for some other reason. I used to have two, one for coffee and one for spices, but the one which had served as spice grinder for nearly a decade gave up the ghost this winter, so the coffee grinder got promoted.

On to soup, though. If you're using leftover roasted chicken(s), break apart chicken carcasses just enough so they fit in stockpot well. Leave any remaining meat intact. Add water to cover, simmer for 1 hour, let sit for 1 hour, then pick the meat off of the bones (it will fall off). If you are using fresh meat, pour about 2 qts of stock over 1-2 lbs chicken and simmer for about an hour and sit for about an hour. Either way, strain the chicken over a bowl shred the meat with your fingers or with two forks if it's too hot to handle. Add the chicken to the reserved stock or the other way around, whichever fits better, to use the stockpot to get the next part ready.

Next, roast the sweet peppers. If you have a gas range, you can put the peppers right on the burner grate over a medium flame and turn every minute or so until the outside is blistered, peeling a little, and has some lovely blackening on the skin all around. Then, place them in a covered dish so they can finish steaming from within. If you have an electric range, you can check out some of the suggestions offered here. You can also elect to simply chop up your peppers and cook them with the onions and garlic, but roasting them brings out their sweetness and adds the depth that only light charring can bring.

Dice the onions, slice the garlic, cook in light-flavored oil in stock pot over med-low heat, stirring frequently until well-browned and tasty smelling. Add non-chile spices to onion/garlic and stir until fragrant. Take a handful of cilantro, cut (but keep!) the stems. Finely chop the stems and roughly chop the leaves, then add to the onions, garlic and spices, then return chicken + broth to pot.

If using whole chiles, toast them over the stove as well. Either grab them with tongs one at a time and wave them over the flame until they get fragrant and a little puffed or toss them in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat until a similar effect is achieved. Tear them up, remove the stems and grind. I can only fit one or two in my grinder at a time, so it takes a few batches. I just dump them right into the pot as they come out.

Take stems & seeds out of the sweet peppers, if you didn't add them with the onions and garlic. Either chop them finely or run them through food processor. Add chopped peppers and crushed tomato to soup. A nice, but not essential touch here is to take a few tablespoons of masa harina (the specially-treated corn flour used for making tortillas), mix with some water and add the the soup. It gives the soup a hearty, satiny body, but it's not worth buying masa harina just for this. The soup will be plenty tasty without.

Adjust the seasoning. I usually serve with some assortment of tortilla chips, fresh cilantro, avocado cubes (don't skip these!) and lime wedges. Other people reportedly like adding sour cream or shredded mild cheese. Regardless, let diners add their own flair. As much as the tortilla bits give the soup its name, it's pretty good without them, too, if you don't have them or aren't eating corn for whatever reason. I also like to put out some chili sauce, so that diners can adjust the spiciness to their liking.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Jamaica Jerk Cooler: Hibiscus, Watermelon & Heat!

In Spanish, the hibiscus flower is commonly known as flor de Jamaica or rosa de Jamaica (sometimes just jamaica) but a somewhat less common name for it is rosa de Abisinia. It's interesting that two names for the same plant would reference two different places, especially places that are connected in other ways. Abisinia, rendered in English as Abyssinia, is an older name for the territory that is now Ethiopia. There are several cultural connections between this part of Africa and Jamaica, but none so significant as Rastafarianism, the Jamaican-based, Ethiopian-focused religion. While most people's first associations with Rastafarianism involve dreadlocks and weed, the underlying theology of the faith is rooted in a belief in a deep connection between Jamaica and Ethiopia. Drawing heavily from the biblical stories of the Jewish exodus from slavery, Rastafarians seek to eschew the trappings of "Babylon" (interpreted as the forces of modern imperialism) and see Ethiopia as the homeland to which they will return, and Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974, as a messianic figure. I don't know how old the Spanish names for hibiscus are, but they almost certainly predate the beginnings of Rastafarianism in the 1930s, which makes the connection all the more interesting.

Interesting connections aside, hibiscus tea makes a fabulous summer drink, crisply tart and refreshing with a striking ruby hue. Known in Spanish as agua de jamaica, it is one of several classic aguas frescas with roots in Mexico. Lightly sweet coolers that go a ways toward quenching both thirst and heat, other common aguas frescas include sweet, tangy tamarindo (tamarind), creamy horchata (a sweet rice milk with cinnamon), and smooth sandía (watermelon).

So with all this talk of Jamaica, Ethiopia and Mexico, on to July 4th. This July 4th was a blast. We took a little road trip to Cambridge for my friend Meaghan's South Pacific tiki-themed party, complete with pig on a spit (here's Neko in position under the serving table, watching the ground hopefully). Although, interestingly, it was hotter in Cambridge than in Honolulu that day, by about 10°. Meaghan, whom I play music with, is one of two the proprietresses of Booze Époque, a Cambridge-based mobile cocktail magic outfit (always a good friend to have). Meaghan and her BÉ collaborator, Harmony, created a number of delicious concoctions for the party (with and without booze), they also held a tiki drink contest. Contestants concocted their own summery drink with the requirement that it include at least one local ingredient. Among a number of interesting and tasty entries, I am honored to say my Jamaica Jerk Cooler ended up taking the grand prize Cthulhu-on-vacation tiki sculpture.

As I've said before, my family's recipe secret is that we don't keep secrets about recipes, so here's how you make it. The drink takes advantage of good lessons learned from aguas frescas, combining hibiscus and watermelon juice with a syrup made with honey and steeped with spices you might find in a jerk marinade - allspice, cinnamon and chipotle pepper (in most jerk spice mixes, this would be Scotch Bonnet peppers, but I wanted the smokiness of the chipotle here). It is also good with a little gin in it, but it's delicious without as well.

Jamaica Jerk Cooler

    Makes about 3 quarts
  • 1 ½ c. dried hibiscus flowers
  • 2 qts water
  • 1 qt watermelon juice (I'll go into more detail below about how much watermelon you need for this much juice)
  • 2 c. honey jerk syrup, below
  • lime wedges
  • gin (1 oz. per serving or about 1½ c. for whole recipe)

  • Honey Jerk Syrup
  • 3-4 whole chipotle peppers, not in sauce
  • 2 Tblsp. whole allspice
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 c. water
  • 1 c. honey
Start with the syrup: bring the water and spices up to a boil in a small saucepan, turn heat down to a simmer for about 5 minutes, then turn off heat and allow to steep for at least an hour. Strain out spices, then return liquid to saucepan. Add honey and warm until the honey combines totally with the spicy liquid. Set aside/chill. I had a little trouble finding whole chipotles (smoke-dried jalapeños) outside of adobo. Apparently, my local coop only has chipotle powder now.

Next, make the hibiscus tea. Put 1 quart of water and the dried hibiscus into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat and let steep for about an hour. Strain and add the remaining quart of water.

As far as the watermelon juice, I started with a melon weighing about 10 lbs and ended up with about 10 cups of juice: what you see at right, plus another quart. I'm enjoying having the extra watermelon juice around (see below), but you probably only need about 6 cups of cut up watermelon to get a quart of juice. To juice the watermelon, cut it off the rind and put it in a blender or food processor. Blend for a few minutes, until there are no visible chunks. Pour through a fine mesh sieve and press through with a spatula or spoon. True to its name, watermelon is primarily water, and what you see in the mason jar at right is all the pulp left from the entire 10 pound watermelon. There's about a cup of it, relative to the 10 cups of juice, and it's great to eat chilled, with a spoon when it's really hot out.

If you plan to make this punch alcoholic, add about 1½ cups of gin to the total (or to taste). You can also mix it by the serving, adding about 1 oz. of gin to 8 oz. of punch. With or without alcohol, serve each cup with one or more lime wedges.

On using up the Watermelon

Making watermelon juice is a great way of reclaiming the fridge space taken by a languishing piece of melon. I've been having fun playing with watermelon juice this summer. It's a great base for all kinds of drinks. One of my favorite cool down drinks right now is a cup of watermelon juice, half a lime and a can (12 oz.) of seltzer. It pairs really well with citrus, mint, and many other fruits.

Additionally, for extra points in not wasting ingredients, here's my recipe for watermelon rind pickles.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Curried Tempeh with Mustard Greens and Cellophane Noodles

I'll be perfectly honest: I didn't like tempeh as a kid.

In fact, early experiences with tempeh meant that I didn't give it much of a chance again until about a year ago, but, boy howdy, am I making up for lost time.

Tempeh is a protein-rich food made from split soybeans and, sometimes, a variety of grains which have been parcooked and innoculated with Rhizopus oligosporus, a type of fungus, and incubated for 24-48 hours. The culture partially ferments the legumes/grains, making them easier to digest, and binds them together into a firm cake with a mild flavor somewhere between nuts and mushrooms. It can be sliced or crumbled and holds up to grilling or stir-frying. Most tempeh is gluten-free, but, if you're concerned about that kind of thing, it's important to read the labels on multigrain tempehs, which vary in contents, but sometimes include gluten-bearing barley or rye.

In its native Indonesia, it's very often served fried or grilled, often with some kind of lightly sweet & spicy accompaniment. Peanuts turn up with it a lot too. For me, I've found that I still don't fancy the taste of plain tempeh - despite liking nuts, mushrooms and tempeh - but that sauteéing it until it's a little crispy with some salt or soy sauce makes a world of difference.

Recently, I've been cooking it up in a spicy-sweet stir-fry with mustard greens, largely inspired by this South Indian take on tempeh from Delectible Victuals, with the addition of a generous helping of fresh cilantro, including the stems. It's good over rice, but it's great tossed with thin cellophane noodles, made from mung beans and also gluten free (available at Asian markets - rice vermicelli is a good, slightly more common replacement and any other thin, clear noodle would work). If you want to serve with rice or bread, you can simply omit the steps in the recipe below involving the noodles. It's also at least as good cold the next day.

Curried Tempeh with Mustard Greens and Cellophane Noodles

vegan, gluten-free (depending on tempeh, soy-sauce)
Ready in about 30 minutes, serves 2-3
  • 1 small-medium onion, small dice
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ red bell pepper, medium dice
  • 1-2 tsp. light-flavored oil
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • handful cilantro
  • soy sauce
  • 1 Tblsp. sugar
  • 1 8-oz. package tempeh, crumbled
  • thick chili sauce, like sambal oelek or sriracha, to taste (start with 1-2 tsp.)
  • 1 good sized bunch mustard greens or other medium-weight green like swiss chard, sliced into 1" ribbons
  • about 4 oz. dried cellophane noodles - in the packages I get, this is two bundles
  • crushed peanuts (optional)
Start by putting the noodles in a bowl of warm water to soak, which is all the precooking they need. They will need to soak at least 15 minutes. Prep the veggies and crumble tempeh coarsely. Cut off the bottom half of the cilantro stalks. Set aside the leafy end for later and mince the stem end very small.

Heat a large wok or skillet over a high heat. Add a teaspoon or two of oil and swirl to coat. Add tempeh and a teaspoon or two of soy sauce. Cook until tempeh becomes browned and a little crispy. Set aside and try not to pick at it too much. Wilt the greens slightly in a separate pan with a tight fitting lid by putting on medium-low heat with a tiny bit of water in the bottom. The greens will reduce in volume by at least half.

Add a little more oil to the wok or skillet and add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and minced cilantro stem. Saute until the peppers and onions get a little color, then add the turmeric and sugar. Add the tempeh and chili sauce. Drain the noodles, then add the wilted greens and noodles to the wok or skillet. Toss to combine. Remove from heat and toss with roughly chopped cilantro leaves. Adjust soy sauce, chili and sweet levels as desired. Serve with optional crushed peanuts on top.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pi Day: The Snozzberries Taste Like Snozzberries!

by the amazing Ryan North

I don't love π Day just because I teach math. I mean, that helps, offering an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the playfulness that math can offer, but there's also some degree to which celebrating a transcendental number such as π is an interesting examination of our quest for knowledge. Humans have been aware of π, the constant ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, for about 4000 years, since the time of the Ancient Babylonians (who approximated π at 3.125). Since then, a remarkable amount of time and energy has gone into extending and refining how accurately we can describe π, even though the most common approximations — 3.14 and 22/7 — haven't changed in nearly 2500 years, since at least the time of Archimedes, in the 3rd century BCE and even though we've understood that it's irrational and won't end since 1761. There's a somewhat apocryphal claim that it would only take 40 digits of π to measure the circumference of the known universe with a minute margin of error. Regardless of the veracity of that, it does highlight the degree to which the vast majority of the calculated digits of π, patternless, endless and infinitesimally small, are unnecessary for any practical purpose. And yet, we keep calculating further. There is a certain poetry in seeking knowledge purely for its own sake; this is another piece of what we're really celebrating by celebrating π Day.

Also, it's a good excuse for pie: pie and scores of terrible, terrible puns.

I make two pies each π day, because two pie are enough to go around (I warned you about the terrible puns). I like to try a new pie every year for π Day, usually a somewhat fanciful one that I invent, if only so that it's unique among pies. Last year, I decided it was time to take on Snozzberry Pie. Unfortunately, snozzberries aren't in season this time of year (or any other), so what to do in their absence? Examining the answer to that question has much in common with humanity's quest for pi: fundamentally unanswerable, but bears eternal examination, revealing more and subtler nuance over time. Alternately, you can just go with whatever fruit looks good and on sale. The below pie got rave reviews from tastebuds young and old last year. The taste blends into something not entirely placeable, yet pleasantly fruity with a surprise twist, and the filling has just enough starch to hold a soft gel.

Excuse the terrible photo quality.

Snozzberry Pi(e)

  • 2 pie crusts (for top & bottom, your own recipe or the one below)
  • for filling:
  • 1 c. formerly frozen raspberries (they'll be pretty mushy)
  • 1 c. fresh blueberries
  • 4 kiwis, quartered, peeled and sliced
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • ½ c sugar
  • ¼ c. flour
  • ¼ c. cornstarch
  • pinch cayenne (good snozzberries have a little piquancy to them)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all filling ingredients in a small bowl. Roll out one pie crust and lay in pie pan. Pour filling in, cover with other crust and crimp edges. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until crust is browned and filling is bubbly.

Pie crust

makes 1 pie crust (you'll need 2 for the recipe above)
  • 1 stick cold butter
  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • no more than ¼ c. cold water

You can use whatever crust recipe you like for this pie, but this is the recipe that stays in my head, so it's the one I use.

The food processor helped me conquer my timidity of pie crust as it helps avoid getting the butter too warm, working the flour too much and developing the gluten, or taking forever. Cut each stick of butter into 10-20 pieces of roughly equal size. Put that and the flour in the food processor and pulse until the butter is a somewhat gravelly texture. Pour water in a thin stream while on until the dough starts to come together. Dump out onto waxed paper. Gather and squeeze into a ball, then flatten into a rough disk and wrap in its own piece of waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

When making more than one crust, you should wrap and chill each individually. I like to do each in a separate batch to keep the amount consistent. If using a food processor, it's not necessary to wash the bowl between each crust. If you're doing multiple crusts old school with a pastry cutter, you may want to cut all the butter into all the flour at once, but I'd still recommend mixing each crust with water individually. After cutting the butter into the flour and salt, take 1½ c. of that mixture and trickle in the water while bringing the dough together with a spoon or your hands. Wrap and and chill individually as for food processor directions.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aloo Mattar Deconstructed (Or, one more thing to do with mashed potatoes)

I'm always interested to hear from people if they have, historically, been food separators or food mushers. Food separators are those who observe strict boundary lines between food on their plate; they may go so far as to reject those impure motes of food which may have absorbed traces of the others. Food mushers, on the other hand, tend to take a more integrative, Gestalt approach, seeing divisions between the food on your plate as totally constructed and unnecessary, swirling it all into a cohesive whole.

Kids tend to be much more hardline about their separation/mushing practice, though it is certainly not limited to young folks. Interestingly, despite any value judgment I may have implied in my descriptions, I know great cooks who grew up in each camp. It truly is interesting to see how it's an indicator of one's approach: Separators tend to take a more measured, scientific approach. They're more likely to do careful research before cooking, even if they're creating a new recipe. You want one in your kitchen the day you get that perfect first bunch of asparagus in the spring. Mushers tend to play a little more fast and loose in their recipe creation, coming up with uncanny combinations on the fly and making the most of what's at hand and reimagining ingredients. You want one in your kitchen when you have a fridge full of leftovers that need to get used up.

That said, this one goes out particularly to those other folks who ever got excited about swirling together mashed potatoes, peas and ketchup. Doubly for anyone who would add hot sauce.

Aloo Mattar is a hearty North Indian dish featuring potatoes (aloo) and peas (mattar) in a spicy, tomato-based sauce. I first made this on a cold, damp day I really wanted mashed potatoes, much more than I wanted rice or flatbread, so I pulled the recipe apart so as to put the curried peas over the potatoes. Since then, I've used the curry over mashed potatoes idea in a few other ways, but this is still my favorite. It also leaves broader possibilities for using the leftover mashed potatoes.
The dish comes together quickly (I've done it in less than 30 minutes), is vegetarian, and could easily be vegan: make whatever mashed potato recipe you like, and omit or replace the (sour) cream. You can even make your own: one of my vegan friends swears by this recipe for cashew sour cream.

Aloo Mattar, Deconstructed

vegetarian, gluten/grain-free, easily veganified
serves 4, start to finish in 30 minutes.

    Super-Basic Mashed Potatoes

  • 5 med.-large potatoes
  • 1-2 tsp. salt
  • 2 T. butter
  • 1/4 c. milk

    Masala Mattar

  • 6-7 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1" piece ginger, peeled and finely minced
  • 2 c. tomato puree (about ⅔ of a 28 oz. can)
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 med. onion, med. dice
  • ½ T. butter
  • ½ T. oil
  • 1 2" cinnamon stick (if you don't have it, add another tsp. of ground cinnamon later)
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 2-3 green cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp. methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional)
  • 2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 lb. (3½-4 c.) frozen peas
  • ¼-½ c. light cream or sour cream
  • fresh cilantro

  • Start with the mashed potatoes. You can use whatever mashed potato recipe you like, but this is a good basic one. It's just a base, anyway. Wash potatoes and slice into chunks about ½ to 1 inch large (you can peel them, if you prefer). Place in a large saucepan, cover with water and add about a tsp. of salt. Cover with a well-fit lid and bring to boil over high heat. Let boil until potatoes are fork-tender, then add butter, milk and salt to taste as you mash. I don't like mine perfectly smooth, and find that having some intact pieces of potato helps back this as an interpretation of aloo mattar, but it's up to you.

    I made the whole peas thing in my cast iron dutch oven, but this would also work in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan.

    First, prep the garlic and ginger. You have two options here: you can chop them roughly, then throw them in the food processor with the tomato and red pepper or you can mince them both finely and add them at the same time as the tomato.
    Put your large, heavy-bottomed pan over a med-high heat and start toasting the whole spices: the cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom. let them get fragrant but don't let them burn. Add the butter/oil, cumin and methi (if using) and stir/toast until the cumin seeds get sizzly and fragrant. Add the onion and let it cook for 2-4 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the turmeric, ground cinnamon, peas and tomato/garlic/ginger/chili mixture. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes, then add cream or sour cream and cilantro. Adjust salt/spicy to taste and serve over mashed potatoes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Breakfast Worthy of Birthday

A Breakfast Worthy of Birthday

My ideal birthday is very low key; nobody wants an energetic extravaganza between Christmas and New Year's. The weather gave me a great gift in the first real snow of the season. My gift to myself was this big, elaborately sloppy plate of huevos rancheros that forces you to abandon silverware and eat it with your hands.

If you want to play along at home, here's a breakdown:
  • Pan toasted flour tortilla (little olive oil in the pan on top of whatever flavor was left from the onions)
  • Sweet onion, sauteed with magical spice blend
  • Black beans with chipotle powder and garlic
  • 2 eggs cooked sunny side up with cheddar cheese on top (cooked with cover on), sprinkled with salt, pepper, and hot, smoked paprika
  • medium salsa
  • sour cream
  • mixed greens
  • half a perfectly ripe avocado, sprinkled with salt
Bonus birthday gift from my cast iron skillet: being able to cook onions, tortilla and eggs in it successively without having to clean it before (or after!) any step.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Snappier Ginger Snaps

All my favorite winter weather dishes come from hot climates: Spicy coconut curry, robust moles. I understand the theory of spicy foods for hot climates: that it causes you to sweat which, in turn, helps you cool down. It just happens to make just as much sense in a situation where it can't heat you quite to the point of sweating. Maybe, to the point of taking off a sweater.

Why should savory foods have all the fun, though? Even sweet foods that should be spicy aren't. Consider gingerbread: if you eat fresh ginger, candied ginger, or the right kinds of ginger beer, it will, at the very least, tingle your tongue a bit. However, your average gingerbread cookie doesn't have anywhere near the bite of fresh ginger. When it comes down to it, you're simply not going to get that flavor from ground, dried ginger. So, I decided to call in reinforcements and add chili powder. I brought the first batch into work, and I had some folks declaring them the best gingerbread cookies they'd ever had and some running for the water fountain (I dialed down the chili powder the next time I made it).

This recipe is a variation on the the crinkle cookie - a sticky dough rolled in sugar, the sugary crust crackling as the cookie rises and spread. There are many schools of thought on thought on this type of cookie. Some recipes are built around whipped egg whites and a suspicious number start with boxed cake mix (?). Even more basic enough is the question of butter or vegetable oil. Many of the butter-based recipes (including an intriguing brown butter crinkle cookie) use it melted, so it comes down to a matter of flavor vs. convenience. You can make either of these recipes with butter instead, but increase to ¾ c. (1½ sticks).

Crinkle cookies are a great go-to when you have a burning need to make cookies - as happens - but are out of butter or don't have time to let butter soften (or if you're serving someone who can't have dairy).

Actually Spicy Ginger Crinkle Cookies

adapted from Megan Applegate's Nana's Recipe (which wasn't quite so spicy)
  • ⅔ cup vegetable oil
  • ¼ c. molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup sugar (+ 2-4 tablespoons for rolling)
  • 2 teaspoon gr. cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoon gr ginger
  • ½ tsp gr. clove
  • ¼-½ tsp. gr. chili (I used chipotle)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350°
Whip oil, molasses, sugar, egg to creamy. It will still have a loose texture, but will emulsify some. Add spices and beat on low to incorporate. Add baking soda, salt, flour and mix on low to blend.

If you're patient, you can stick the dough in the fridge for an hour and it will stick to your fingers a little less. If you don't mind a little cookie dough on your hands, barrel right along. Roll into walnut-sized balls (~1" diameter), roll in granulated sugar, place on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake at 350° for 10-13 minutes.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everyone Wants a Piece of Falafel

Falafel is kind of a beloved sore spot in the pervasive Palestinian/Israeli culture war. 2005's Oscar-winning short film, the comedic musical West Bank Story imagines the feuding parties of its source material as competing falafel joints: the Jewish-run Kosher King and the Arab-run Hummus Hut. When Larissa Sansour and Oreet Ashery, British-based artists of, respectively, Palestinian and Israeli origin, put together a project to examine the Israeli adoption of Palestinian culture and where the line between adoption and appropriation lies, they conducted it through interviews in London falafel restaurants and named it Falafel Road.

In fact, taking it back a step, you could probably teach an engaging and fairly comprehensive course in the history of the Middle East based entirely on the chick pea. Although some archaeologists speculate that the legume in question was first tamed by people living in northern India, the oldest archaeological evidence of cultivated chick peas comes from Tell El-Kerkh, in Syria, which date to the late 10th millenium BCE. The oldest evidence of the chick pea in Israeli/Palestinian territory dates to only about 1500 years after that (still over 10,000 years ago), at a site near Jericho in the West Bank.

However one might wish to, you can't infer falafel from the presence of chick peas, and foods like that don't preserve as well over time as dry beans (partially because that would require leftovers). So we'll skip ahead just a little to another important event in the history of falafel: the foundation of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century. A large influx of people and a shortage of meat pushed cheap protein like beans to the forefront for everyone in the region. Joan Nathan, author of Foods of Israel Today credits the contemporary, chick pea-based form of falafel to Yemeni Jews. Nathan claims that local falafel recipes in the pre-Israeli period tended towards a blend of chick pea and fava bean (also called broad
bean), as do many Lebanese falafel recipes. The local push away from fava beans, she argues, came as a result of Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish immigrants, many of whom suffered from favism, a serious, genetically-based enzyme deficiency that makes fava bean consumption (among other things) cause severe anemia. Local Palestinians claim that the only change to falafel is the Israeli flag on a toothpick stuck in it. Aziz Shihab, the Palestinian-American author of the cookbook A Taste of Palestine, wrote to a falafel-slinging Israeli restaurant in the States, "This is my mother's food, this is my grandfather's food. What do you mean you're serving it as your food?" Interestingly, yet a third claim on the provenance of falafel maintains that it was developed by Coptic Christians in Egypt for Lent, during which many Christians traditionally abstain from eating meat. Egyptian falafel, which they usually call tamiyya, is typically made entirely from fava beans rather than chick peas. Susan Molthen, executive chef of Bay Area Egyptian restaurant Al-Masri says, "Every region, city or country in the Middle East has it, but it's all derivative; they put their own spices and flavors into it."

I'm not going to try to make any conclusive claims about who originally invented the falafel; food is an artistic pursuit that demands an essential tension between the established and the subtly innovative and at the same time is a projection of culture deeply tied up in people's sense of identity. The truth is that it belongs to all of these people, but that their attachment to it doesn't make it belong to the others any less. It's yours if you make it, too, but significantly more so if you start with a bag of chick peas than if you start with a box of falafel mix. Because all of the many claimants can agree about that being an abomination.

The process isn't hard, given a little forethought and a food processor; it requires overnight soaking of dry chick peas (or at least several hours), but the process from there amounts to throwing everything in the food processor and buzzing it into a grainy paste, rolling it into balls and, finally, frying them. Deep-frying is traditional, but you can squash them into patties and pan-fry, too. Beyond that, all it requires are a few accoutrements: flatbread, fresh vegetables and tahini sauce. I also included some pickled radish after reading a number of recipes that suggested pickled vegetables, most commonly mango or turnip. Additionally, you can freeze the mixture uncooked, after rolling it into portioned balls: lay raw falafel on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or plastic wrap, cover lightly and freeze until the falafel is frozen enough to hold its shape. Transfer to a freezer bag, then pull out a couple at a time as you want them.


vegan, optionally gluten/grain-free
makes 15-20 falafel
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked
  • ½ large onion or 1 small onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh parsley (a small handful)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 4-6 Tblsp bulgur* (optional)
  • oil for frying (I fry in ½-1" peanut or canola oil in a cast iron skillet on med. high heat)
  • *Gluten/grain-free advisory: Bulgur is a wheat product. It adds a really nice texture and is nominally there to aid in binding the falafel, but many traditional recipes are totally grain free, so feel free to omit this if you don't eat it or simply don't have it.

To soak the chick peas, you can either set them up the night before or start an hour or two before you want to serve. Put the chick peas in a large bowl or pot and cover with 2-3 inches of water. You can let them sit overnight or bring them to a boil for 2-3 minutes, turn them off and wait an hour or two. I've gotten better results with the overnight soak, but the expedited soak works fine if you decide you need to eat falafel today and give a far better result than canned, cooked chick peas.

Drain and rinse chick peas, prep ingredients as indicated and grind in food processor to a grainy paste. Roll into balls about 1½ in. in diameter (may require squeezing to hold together). Heat oil in pan over med-high heat until a little water sizzles and pops aggressively and put as many balls of falafel as you can at one time into the pan. I typically use my smaller, 8" cast iron skillet to do this. It fits 8 or 9 at a time, as they can be pretty close together, and uses up a lot less oil than do the larger pans I usually think of first. Fry until deep brown on one side, then turn. Drain on newspaper or paper towel. You can also put in just enough oil to coat the bottom, flatten the balls a little and fry them that way. It's not quite the same, but somewhat more practical if you're only frying up enough for one or two people.

The Sides

yogurt-tahini sauce:

  • 1 c plain greek yogurt (used 2% milkfat)
  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 5-6 mint leaves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 c. water

Tahini Sauce:

  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • Zest & Juice of 1 lemon (or 3-4 Tblsp. bottled lemon juice)
  • 1/4. c. water
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt
  • optional:
  • ½ tsp. hot smoked paprika
Both of these also make great vegetable dips. In fact, it's worth cutting up some extra veggies and putting them out with the sauce for diners to munch on while they're waiting for their falafel.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Bread Repels Hurricanes

In the days leading up to the northern landfall of Hurricane Sandy, we were put on high alert. Around here, it didn't end up exceeding a rainy day in March back home on the hill in Vermont (which still entails 40+ mph wind gusts), but given the several unprecedented qualities of the storm, particularly its size, it seemed unignorable. I suspect many locals were dragged into the memories of the storm exactly a year previous that dumped a foot of wet snow and left folks (including us) out of power for days or weeks. We prepared for this storm to make up for how we didn't prepare for that one. Perhaps, looking at those less than a hundred miles south of us who were out of power for over a week and those within 200 miles that are still suffering the effects, it was wiser to over-prepare. The governor pre-emptively declared a state of emergency and asked all schools to stay closed on Monday. So we did.

What else do you do with a day off and the thought that you could be out of power (and thus unable to cook) for a few days, but make sturdy bread? This bread starts with a multigrain porridge, adds a variety of seeds from sunflower to cumin and just enough flour to give the dough enough body to make a loaf. The loaf is dense; it lacks the well-developed gluten structure to create the large, irregular air pockets typical of artisan bread. However, this denseness also means that the bread takes a longer time to go stale, and not just because it's harder to tell. Moreover, the density of grains and seeds in a slice mean that it's also more nutritionally dense and satisfying. If you're going to be eating the same loaf of bread for a week because your stove doesn't work, this is a pretty good one to be stuck with.

We didn't end up losing power for more than two minutes during the day, but, then again, I was happy to have this bread for the week with electricity. The bread is good with just peanut butter, jam or cheese, but it's at its best toasted.

This is less of a recipe and more of a general schema; I don't know that I've ever made this exactly the same way twice. I used to make it more frequently when I used to eat multigrain porridge more regularly. Ironically, that very folksy food became less practical for daily consumption and slipped off the menu after I ditched the microwave (or, more specifically, stopped living with the roommate that had one). The combinations of grains and flours depends on what I have and what I feel like at the time. Common features are brown rice, steel-cut oats, buckwheat, barley and wheat berries. I also have a multigrain hot cereal blend with flaxseed from the bulk section at the co-op that I top things off with.

Breads containing intact or cracked whole grains typically start with a soaker. A soaker is slightly different from a hot cereal: instead of cooking the grains with water, you pour boiling water over them and let them sit for several hours or overnight. This softens the grains so that you don't end up cracking your teeth on them, but leaves their shape largely intact. It also helps activate some of the enzymes that break down the complex sugars in the grain to simpler ones, making for a more flavorful bread. Cooking the grains all the way lets you cram even more of them in, as the water in the cereal makes for most of the water of this very wet dough. By weight, this dough has more water than flour. A typical sandwich bread dough has about 60% as much water as flour by weight. A baguette has 70-75% as much water as flour. This has about 110% as much water as flour (though I'm not the first do acknowledge that breads containing whole or cracked grains make for uncannily wet baker's percentages). A well-hydrated dough also makes for a boldly crusty bread.

Like many good bread recipes, this one takes a lot of time start to finish, but very little active time. It makes it an excellent project for a rainy day, or, as it were, for a rainy and windy one.

Bonus: Get Pumped up to Bake!

The bread that French baker Vincent Talleu is making in his video is completely different from this one, but he exhibits such joy in baking that it makes a good watch to get you all pumped up to make bread of any kind.

Porridge Bread

vegan, makes two moderately-sized loaves or one very large loaf


  • 4 c. cooked grain (1 c. dry grain : 3 c. water)
  • 1 Tblsp. whole cumin
  • 1 Tblsp. whole caraway
  • 1 c. nuts & seeds
  • 1 Tblsp. kosher salt
  • Sponge:

  • 1 c. water
  • 1 Tblsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 c. flour
  • The Rest:

  • approx. 6 c. mixed flours
Begin by cooking the grain. Take a cup measure and fill it with whatever whole/cracked grains you have available. In this batch, I have teff, short-grain brown rice, farro, barley and a multigrain hot cereal including flax seed. Put it in a large saucepan (at least 2 qt) and add 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then turn to low and cook for another 20 minutes or so. If you're doing this the night before, you can bring to a boil and then simply turn off the heat and ignore it until the next day. If you're doing this same day, after cooking let the grain cool enough to touch (2-4 hours, though you could speed this up by putting it in the fridge and stirring occasionally). It can be warmer than room temperature, but shouldn't feel hot, as this could kill the yeast.

When you're ready to actually make the dough, start a sponge. The sponge is the wake up call for the sleeping yeast. Put a cup of lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl (this will accommodate your whole dough later) and add in the yeast and one cup of all-purpose or bread flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until it has a smooth, consistent texture. Set aside until it starts getting bubbly, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, get out your cup measure again and fill it up with a blend of nuts and seeds. I really like sunflower and sesame seeds, but have been known to include walnut pieces or slivered almonds. You can put in less of this or none at all without it changing the recipe significantly if you have dietary restrictions or have no nuts or seeds hanging around, but it really adds a lot to the bread. Add the seeds, salt, cumin and caraway seeds to the cereal in the pot and stir together. Again, if you don't have or don't like cumin or caraway, they're not essential, but I really like them. The salt, on the other hand, is important to controlling the rise of the bread and less negotiable. I typically include the same volume of salt as yeast, but if you're worried about salt you could get away with 2 teaspoons instead of a whole tablespoon.

Add the seed/cereal mix to the sponge and stir until well-blended. Begin adding flour, a cupful at a time. This is another place where you have some flexibility. You'll add about 6 cups of flour in this stage, but what kinds are up to you. It should be at least half varieties of wheat flour (i.e., white, whole-wheat, semolina, atta/chapati flour), but for the rest of it, go crazy with whatever buckwheat, rye, spelt, etc. flour that you have. Start by adding a cup of flour and stirring in one direction with a wooden spoon until well-blended. Stirring in the same direction helps the gluten develop. Continue mixing in the bowl with a spoon until the dough starts forming a ball and wanting to stick to itself more than the bowl. Flour a clean surface and turn the dough out onto it. Flour your hands and start kneading, adding more flour as the dough incorporates the flour and sticks to the kneading surface again. When the dough starts developing a smooth, coherent surface and stops wanting to stick to everything so much (not fewer than 5 cups of flour but not more than 7), load it back into the mixing bowl to rise. You can clean and oil the bowl, but it doesn't make a huge difference. Cover with a towel and leave in a spot slightly warmer than room temperature to rise. The heavy dough will take 70-90 minutes to double in bulk.

Once the dough has risen, flour your work surface again and scrape the dough out onto it. Knead the dough a few turns to push out the air. If making two loaves, divide dough in half with a bench scraper or large knife. For each loaf, fold the dough over several times and then form into a boule (French for "ball"). This video demonstrates how to form your dough into a boule far more efficiently and effectively than I could explain it in words. Note that the baker in the video finished by placing the boule into a basket to proof. Basket proofing is essential for helping a wet dough like this one keep its shape during the final rise; otherwise you risk having a thin, flat loaf. Luckily, one does not need purpose-designed baskets for proofing (mine, pictured farther above, weren't). Any small basket that you don't mind getting a little floury can be lined with a clean sack-cloth towel (woven, not terrycloth!), floured thoroughly and used for proofing. Others have had success lining a colander or even a bowl with a floured cloth and using it for a proofing basket. Baskets and colanders have the advantage of letting the dough breathe a little more, but a bowl will do in a pinch. For more info, this discussion thread contains several people's descriptions of their improvised proofing baskets. The dough's second rise will take somewhat less time (45-60 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 450°F. When oven is ready, turn loaves out onto a parchment or cornmeal/semolina-lined sheet pan or onto peel to load onto pizza stone. Slash the top of the loaves with a razor or sharp knife. For two loaves, bake for 45-60 minutes; for one large loaf, bake for 55-70 minutes. Bread is done when the crust has browned and loaf sounds hollow when you knock on the bottom.


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