Saturday, January 31, 2009

Community Supported Agriculture

I just recently was turned on to the whole CSA movement, which looks like a really awesome thing. Basically, you pay in advance for a certain period of time in which you'll get weekly deliveries of seasonal veggies, and in some instances, even things like honey, dairy products, and meat, all from local farmers. It's a great way to save money on buying produce at a supermarket, and in many instances, a good way to get some organic veggies on the cheap.

Through the power of the internet, I found Snow's Bend Farm, which in addition to providing CSA veggies throughout the Tuscaloosa & Greater Birmingham, also ships fresh produce to a lot of my favorite eateries on Birmingham's south side, including Bottega's and Chez Fonfon.

So far, there aren't any spots open for signing up on their CSA, but I've talked to the people there and expressed interest in getting on board if space appears. I'm not sure what the cost breakdown is, but most people tend to shave a good bit off their grocery bills, in addition to getting to cook with vegetables that they may not have considered to be in their comfort zone. For instance, I pass Swiss Chard at the grocer every week without thinking about getting it, but if I had a bunch of it delivered one week, I'd be put into a position to figure out just what you could make with it.

Besides, look at this sample box and tell me you don't have the urge to just eat a bunch of delicious veggies. These are AWESOME:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Super Bowl junk food: Papadi Chaat?

I'm not really an NFL fan (college football is infinitely more fun) but I do appreciate the occasional delight of excess at a tailgate party or a Superbowl party. Since everybody in the free world watches the game it seems, a lot of people are wanting something to eat for some Superbowl party or another. The trouble is, most food at these things are about the same, really. Somebody will have chicken wings. Somebody has pigs in a blanket. Somebody has chips or nachos or something. There's probably ten pizzas at least, and some dead animal is on a grill that people are crazy enough to attend in the dead of winter. It's kind of been done before over and over, hasn't it? So, making something that stands out, but is still shamefully junky in a way is a good way to change some things, and still feel like you're at a party.

A friend of mine has recently gone full-tilt into an Indian food kick, and that's a perfect option for interesting junk food. Of course, the obvious answers are yummy fried things like puri, bhajji, and pakora that most people know. Hey, it's fried dough or a fried veggie and you put chutney on it, so it's fattening, and you're going to enjoy eating it at a social event where other activities include drinking beer and burping, right?

I thought about another option for him, and it was good enough to share. Papadi chaat:

My wife asks me to make this on a pretty regular basis, and I crank it out because it's tasty as hell and it takes almost zero effort of any kind, which is good for a cook who likes to impress people with the least amount of work. It's basically the Indian version of nachos supreme or something, but it kicks way more ass than any boring nachos you'll eat at a party.

Now, I've watched a lot of Indian cooking podcasts and such, and they show how to actually make the papadi from scratch, which isn't hard at all, but is another thing that takes time. The only time I'd ever suggest making the dough and rolling it all out yourself is if you plan on adding crushed ajwain seeds. These are tasty as hell, but it's also good without them.

The way I cook papadi chaat is the way I learned from the folks who run the Indian grocer I shop at every week. I'll often come in with the notion that I'm just gonna buy some goat or some chutney and I end up staying an hour just talking about food. Anyway, the way they make it, and the way I learned is to just use soft wheat flour tortillas to make the papadi. What you do is to spread a tortilla on your cutting board and bang on it repeatedly with the tines of a fork to make holes. This keeps the stuff from puffing up when frying, and lets you have a flat surface to pile toppings onto. After making holes, take a sharp knife and cut little two-inch squares in the stuff. You'll have little triangles at the edges and that's okay, use those too.

Once you have as many squares as you want (for a party, go ahead and crank out an entire dozen I guess), start frying them in some oil, a handful at a time. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and gently apply a little salt as they rest on paper towels, and keep going to make the whole batch.

From that point, take about three cans of channa (chicpeas), and spoon over about two or three tablespoons of cilantro (coriander) chutney. Partially mix and mash the chicpeas and chutney together so it's semi-loose, semi lumpy mash. You want mostly-whole chicpeas in there.

When you're arranging papadi on a plate, spoon enough chicpea mix on each to cover most of it. On top of that, spoon a little yogurt over each piece, and on top of that, spoon a little tamarind & date chutney. You can go one more level and add mint chutney also, but I haven't done this yet. On top of that, sprinkle each papadi with a pinch of red chili flakes.

Now, you can also make these with aloo (potato) medallions, and many recipes do. I haven't yet, because I never have potato on hand when I get the urge, and it takes a little longer anyway. If you do, cut some potato into little thin discs, about half an inch thick at most. You can either bake these or you can toss them into the fry oil after the papadi. Either way, just cook the things fully, and before you arrange the chicpeas and all that jazz on top, slide a slice onto each papadi, then top it. It's not necessary at all, but then again, Super Bowl parties aren't about moderation are they?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why I like to make and eat salad

As I made a salad for dinner tonight, it gave me a little time to think about why I like to do it, so I figure I'll explain myself.

  • I get to cut vegetables with sharp knives. I enjoy every opportunity I get to use my knives, and veggies are by far the most fun stuff to cut.
  • I hate lettuce, and I get to make salads with far tastier greens. Lettuce is the Great Satan.
  • Arugula arugula arugula arugula arugula.
  • Heirloom tomatoes are awesome.
  • It's another excuse to use garum, as if I needed one.
  • I can just toss a mound of random crap on a plate and it's pretty even when slapdash.
  • I'm very lazy. When I'm done, I have a bowl and a fork to clean. That's it.
  • One more time, arugula.

Xocoatl and the Heart of Darkness

Just in time for Valentine's Day, lovebirds!

"You had my heart at 'FEED THE ANGRY SUN GOD', you handsome devil you <3<3<3"

A while back, I found some really awesome vegan candy bars that were all sorts of off-the-cuff flavors. One that stuck with me was "Xocoatl" which was named after the original Aztec word that became "chocolate". It was very very bitter dark chocolate, cacao nibs, and dried chili flakes. Sounds bizarre until you eat some. After that, you'll wonder why more people don't eat it that way.

I've had designs on making this forever, but I'm always hard on luck trying to find candy molds, because some organizational moron decided that, no, you can't buy candy molds at grocery stores or even stores that sell kitchen stuff. No, you have to go to the HOBBY STORE. It's the sort of organizational irony that makes me want to TEAR OUT DELICIOUS HEARTS.

Wait, I mean make candy. Yeah. Candy.

I finally ponied up some candy molds and random crap, took half a box of unsweetened chocolate, combined with a whole box of bittersweet, and melted that in the microwave. I then stirred in a heaping tablespoon each of dried chili flakes and cacao nibs. With the grace of a caveman, I sort of slathered them into molds (I didn't use a nozzle thing because I thought the little solid bits would clog it)
and made a hilarious mess of things. I let the molds cool a little, let them cool a little more in the fridge, and then, the freezer:

Yay it mostly didn't make a mess! Now to add a little veneer to things:

Red for love? Red for hot chili peppers? Red for EVISCERATED HUMAN SACRIFICE? If you guessed all three, step up to the altar!

The bars are wrapped all slapdash because the foil didn't really fit, but it's not too terrible for my first foray. And yes, my Xocoatl is just as en fuego as the other stuff.

Ho Pasta

Nothing much today, but I did make a variation of pasta puttanesca

I'll admit it, the only reason I made this is because it's named after prostitutes. Yes I'm that juvenile. Don't ask me about the farfalle, I guess she only works formal parties. It was pretty good, but the next time I make it I'm adding four chili peppers instead of two to the pot. Guess that's the culinary equivalent of trading out pumps for stilletto heels?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Steak & arugula with wild mushrooms.

If you haven't noticed for the past few entries, I've been mucking about in a lot of italian food, and I found a little recipe in a book my mom gave me that was essentially "Take some steak, salt & pepper it with some olive oil. Cook. Slice. Serve with arugula."

Seriously that's about how in depth it was, and it made me laugh. Then again, isn't that sort of the point if you're going to have a steak? If you have anything with it, keep it simple stupid! You paid, what, around ten bucks for that piece of meat, maybe more? This is always why things like A-1 sauce drive me bonkers. Do you know what's in A-1? What about Worcestershire sauce? Can you rattle off those ingredients? I can't without crib notes.

Look, that's not to say things like that don't have their use. Would I bat an eye at that on a hamburger, or something like that? No way, that's a good idea. But the reason steak costs as much as it does is that it isn't ground chuck. Steak has a story to tell and it's all about texture, fat marbling, color and so much more. So, whatever you put with it should help to tell that story, and never ever get in the way.

Back to that recipe. It got me really inspired to make something simple that could compliment steak. Arugula, if you've never had it, is an awesome wild green that's just slightly bitter & slightly buttery. It's like baby spinach, but even more awesome. I thought I could get away with one more degree of flavor and still keep this a steak dinner at the heart of the matter, so I reconstituted about ten or so dried porcini mushrooms in some boiling water & let those reduce to make a nice mushroom sauce thing. Good mushrooms have that really awesome earthy & musty baseline that pairs really well with beef.

So, with those matters settled, I slicked down some big ribeyes with olive oil, and added sea salt and crushed peppercorns. Now, with it being generally cold and dark a lot this time of year (yes, even in the South), I make my steaks in the cast iron skillet, on as high a heat as I can get away with, to get a slight sear on the bottom. From there, I just chuck the skillet into my oven, which I set the rack up high and preheat the broiler during prep work. If you go to a restaurant for steak, you're likely getting something that's been broiled rather than grilled. The only difference is that grilling lets fat drip into open flame. The "grilled taste" meat gets is that fat burning, and the smoke carries the flavor back to the meat. With mushrooms a part of my game plan, I won't lose sleep over avoiding the grill. Now, being that close to the broiler top is going to cook your steak pretty quickly, so you really should keep a sharp eye on it. I'll also mention that my wife and I eat steak at about that divide between medium rare and rare, usually, so this is advice with that in mind. If you like it more done, still do the broiler thing, but set the rack down lower and give it more time.

Now, take the skillet out (please remember to use an oven mitt) of the oven and transfer the steaks to a cutting board. Go have a glass of merlot and just walk away for a bit. Don't give into the temptation to tuck in. I don't remember who told me, but one of the best things I ever learned about cooking steak or any other meat is to give it that time to rest. What you do if you cut meat straight out of the heat is basically let the juices, which are expanding outward, just spill all over the plate. This causes a mess, and it causes the rest of the meat to be comaratively dry. Instead, by letting it rest a good five to ten minutes, that moisture cools a little and retreats back to evenly distribute inside the meat. When you cut, it leaks less, and your meat stays consistently moist.

Once you've let it rest, get a sharp knife (this is where it pays to have a good knife) and get some good, thin, bite-size strips cut. If you can, get it somewhere between deli meat and how you'd normally cut steak. Once that's done, wash and towel dry a good full handful of arugula, and spread it onto a warmed plate. Add your steak, then add your mushrooms. On top of that, go and pour a little bit of the mushroom sauce over it all. Accompany that with merlot (my personal preference) or really any full bodied red wine.

Apologies to all for the absence, Christmas was murder this year.

For those who ask, no, Santa did not leave me a reservation to Dorsia. Instead, a note was under the tree for this:

Our very own wine rack / stemware holder / booze hut. Real wood and a wonderful design. I was given so many wonderful cooking-related gifts by just about everybody in the family. I'm not going to list them all here because there are a zillion of them, but keep watching this space and I guarantee you'll see me use every last bit of them.

I did have a really wonderful time with both sides of the family. Our first Christmas as a newlywed couple was so wonderful. Everyone was nice, and I think we all had a wonderful time. Oh yeah and there was some food made. I gave away some flavored olive oil bottles and a few baguettes of rosemary bread as gifts, and at least one lovely loaf of challah to my sister and her awesome husband. It was the first Christmas where we didn't really do our old family traditions, but yet it feels really great to begin to forge our own little things that we do.

So, how about a new year's resolution? I resolve to get off my butt and update this thing a lot more than it's been updated lately. I haven't forgotten about it, and I've got loads of pictures from various successes and failures I've dabbled in during the interim, so expect a few shortly.