Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ode to Spring

Ahh spring!

Tired of cold weather. Time for wonderful 60 to 70 degree days, the best days of fishing, and a car full of neon-colored pollen. It's also a time for fresh spring produce, and I've been wanting to cook with some. With my recent hobby splurge on pasta, ravioli sounds like a cool idea, but I don't just want to drown fresh raviolis in some marinara. I want ravioli soup.

Frankly I'm not sure if such a thing even exists. I've had fresh tortellini soups before so why not, eh? At any rate, I figured I'd try something out and see if it was any good.

Okay, here's an obligatory mise en place for the raviolis:

  • 1 1/2 cup semolina flour or bread flour
  • 2 eggs
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1/4 pound spinach, washed, blanched, and finely chopped
  • 1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tbsp fresh tarragon, washed, blanched, and finely chopped
  • 2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
I've already gone over making pasta dough in the fresh pasta blog. Same recipe, no biggie. What we'll concern ourselves with is forming the raviolis. First, the filling. Combine the spinach, tarragon, and pepper in a bowl, and start to crumble your feta into that with a fork or your hands or whatever. You want to make a sort of lumpy paste filling that will stay together.

Mash mash mash.

With your filling ready, go ahead and roll your pasta dough, starting with the wide rollers, and going to the next to thinnest setting. When it's there, you have a lot of options. By a lot, I mean sky is the limit. You can take a pizza cutter and make nice straight cuts to make square raviolis. You can even take those squares and make things like tortellini! You can also take a little drink glasses and make half moons or even round ones. I went with the latter just because it was the first one that crossed my mind.

Making full circles like this, you get two circles to make one ravioli. One on bottom, one on top, filling in the middle. First, lets get the filling on. You want as much in there as you can, but still be able to pinch the edges together.

Once you cover each one up, gently work it to get the air out and make it pretty even. This takes practice and you'll get the hang of it. Now you want to seal it. Use the tines of a fork to press down and get a good seal and a nice pretty little border.

Eventually you get a big spread of ravioli. This is a good 4-6 person spread. You may get more or less, just keep cranking em out. You'll eventually get a wad of dough you can't make raviolis out of. Use your best judgment on how to deal with this.


Okay, now for the second part of ravioli soup - the soup!

Partial mise en place time!

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 3 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup of dry white wine
  • Juice of a lemon plus teaspoon of zest, reserved
  • 3 quarts vegetable stock
  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 pound fresh (big buds with a twinge of purple) asparagus
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • Kosher Salt + Pepper to taste
Take a good look at that asparagus. Little things like that are why I wanted to make this dish. Look at the tips of the stalks, and the buds are tinged in purple and pretty fat. If you see asparagus that looks like that, you should drop everything and buy it, because it's going to be absolutely amazing no matter how you want to make it. If I wasn't making this, I'd smother that asparagus in some olive oil, grill it, and then serve it on a plate with cracked pepper and fleur de sel, and maybe a piece of bread to mop up my drool. The only thing you've got to do is to trim the bottom third of the stalk to get the less tasty woody parts away, and you pretty much can make great asparagus without fail.

Now, confession time. Instead of veggie stock in this, I used water. As I said, this was an entirely conceptual thing, so naturally there were some hitches. From using dried mushrooms before, I knew that they form a flavored stock when they reconstitute, so I wanted to use that. The problem was that the mushroom flavor wasn't quite enough. You want the effect of mirepoix vegetables doing some of the heavy lifting too. Live and learn. Anyways, lets make soup.

Heat your oil in the skillet on medium. Add chopped shallots and salt. Close that up and drop the heat down to low to sweat the shallots for 20 minutes. Uncover that, add your garlic, and chop your asparagus up into little one inch lengths, keeping the tips intact. Toss that in and bring the heat up to medium to get a minute or two of good dry heat before the stock or water.

Add your stock, bay leaf, lemon juice, pepper, wine, and bring it up to a boil. Once it hits boil, add your dried porcini mushrooms. Let those go for about five minutes. What you're doing is letting the mushrooms get nice and chewy again, and flavoring that cooking liquid. You're also ready to add your ravioli! Do it!

With these being a little less delicate than spaghetti, I'd say let them boil for about two or two and a half minutes. The added time also helps to get the filling cooked up, but it still doesn't take long.

You're done! Well, almost anyway. Sprinkle some of that reserved lemon zest on top. Ladle it into a bowl and eat. I like to eat a little stock and veg, pierce a ravioli and let some of the filling linger in the soup, and eat some more, eventually dismantling the ravioli as I go. If that's tedious to you or you want a different experience, try another style of ravioli or your favorite stuffed pasta. You're not exactly limited by anything but your imagination.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nachos, hold the cheese

Not much goin on, just snackin' lately.

Wanted to make nachos, but didn't feel in a cheese mood. No problemo.

I also didn't have a bag of tortilla chips. That's a good thing. One, it's relatively expensive, and two, you can make tastier chips with almost no effort. All you need are those huge stacks of soft corn tortillas you can find in either a hispanic market, or in the hispanic section in almost any grocery store anywhere. Find the bag of tortillas with the most Spanish and the least English on it, because they're usually cheaper. Why's that? Because of marketing forces! Smart people know that people who don't know better will buy food as long as it has a pretty wrapper, a nice rustic picture, and easy English words they understand. See, they think they're getting something special that way, when in actuality, they're paying a premium for that pretty picture of a senorita with an overflowing basket and "Juanita's quality stone-ground corn tortillas" in big easy English words.

Seriously, go play this game. Find food items that show up both in the hispanic section of your store and elsewhere. I found a jar of artichoke hearts for $4.00 in the general produce area. A jar of the same volume but in a much more drab label in Spanish? Two bucks. Whenever possible, I always buy the hispanic groceries, and you should too.

At any rate, I have my nice bag of soft corn tortillas. If you've seen my previous blog posting on street cart tacos, you know the kind. Get a stack of them on a cutting board and make a nice clean cut, and a cross cut across to form a stack of four quarters. Now if you'll also remember when we made Indian papadi chaat, we want to heat up oil in either a deep fryer or skillet or what have you. Once that's at a very high temperature (like about a notch or two below fully high), we add the tortilla chips. These are going to cook VERY fast, so the moment you drop each chip into the oil, flip them over in the order you dropped em, and by the time you finish that, the first ones will be ready to come out. You want them in the oil about 30 seconds to a minute total. If your oil is very hot, thats all you need to make wonderful crispy chips that aren't soggy. Put them on a rack or on some paper towels and sprinkle ground kosher salt on top.

From there, I open up a tin of black peas and a tin of diced tomatoes. If you want to dice your own, go for it. Drain those and set each aside. Next, you want to make guacamole. Please don't buy somebody else's guacamole it's expensive and it probably sucks. You can make way better stuff. Take an avocado, peel that, and drop it into a food processor, followed by four cloves of garlic, two tomatillos, a diced serrano chili or a teaspoon of dried chili flakes, a teaspoon of salt, and juice from a lime. Pulse that just to the point where they're combined, but nothing more. Scoop that out and reserve.

Arrange your chips on a plate, top with your beans and tomatoes, dollop guacamole on top. I also like salsa roja dabbed around the chips, or any salsa with a bit of heat but still good flavor. To top that off, add a few leaves of fresh cilantro, because it makes Mexican food taste soooo good.

If you just cannot part with cheese, get some crumbled queso fresco (again, shop the hispanic section please!). It's gentle and subtle. Do not get that neon yellow "nacho cheese". It's way too heavy with fresh fried chips, and you're already getting a bit of fat from the avocado.

I can't imagine good mexican food without super cold Cerveza and a lime, so that's my worldview. If you don't swing beer or whatever, stop before you leave the hispanic foods section and grab a can of coconut water. It's tasty!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fresh pasta

This past Chritmas, I got a pasta maker from my folks, but haven't found an excuse to use it yet. I would either procrastinate, or I would convince myself one way or another that I needed to get dried pasta for a dish, or that the task itself was too daunting. Either way, I hadn't made the stuff until today.

Turns out, it's a lot easier and more convenient than I imagined.

Here's what you'll use:

  • 1 1/2 cup either bread flour or semolina (I used the latter, but as long as you're high gluten, you'll be okay)
  • 2 large eggs, whisked
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp water
  • pinch of salt

Start by combining salt and flour, and make a well in the middle of that. Combine your eggs, olive oil, and water, and slowly add a little of the liquid to your dough at a time. Work it thoroughly, and add more again until you've absorbed it all. Once everything is combined, knead like mad for a good ten minutes. Really put your back into it, this stuff will be pretty stiff.

There you go. Oil that dough ball, and cover it up for 30 minutes to let the gluten in the dough rest and give you a little elasticity. From here, you could either roll it out with a rolling pin and cut pasta by hand either with a knife or pizza cutter or what have you. I don't have patience for that, so of course I'll use my pasta maker!

What I'm doing here is to set my basic rollers for the thickest setting. This will pull the pasta out into a roughly flat shape. Don't fret if you get holes, they'll shrink when you thin the pasta sheet out. Dust your work surface with flour, as well as each sheet when it goes through. After the widest setting, you want to adjust the rollers to probably the next-to-last setting. I'm not going to speak for your machine, so you should be familiar with it. All I know is that on most machines, the next-to-last setting is best for making spaghetti. Feed your sheet of dough through that to make a really thin sheet of dough. Flour it and keep it from sticking.

From here, move on to your cutting heads. Again, your machine may be different, but you will usually have a few cutting dies to use, and this is the most common one. Ease the thin sheets through, and have something to collect the pasta. Ideally you want to keep the pasta from touching, to prevent clumping. If you have something like a cooling rack, you can also drape the pasta from that if you want to dry it for later. I personally made mine direct from fresh.

From here, get your stock pot of water boiling with about a teaspoon or two of salt added. It'll take some time to boil this, so you can also get your accompaniments ready. If your sauce takes time, plan ahead, or you can add oil to a pan, and a few things like garlic, pine nuts, and so forth, and make a tasty mix to toss your pasta with. Whatever you choose, when your water boils, you want to add your pasta. Now with fresh, you're going to be able to cook with much greater quickness than without. Your pasta will be al dente and ready to eat between one to two minutes of hitting the water. You'll know for sure when the stuff floats. Drain in a collander, dish it up, and enjoy:

Mine was tossed in olive oil, toasted garlic and pine nuts, crushed peppercorns, and some fresh black truffle. I finished it with a grating from some Manchego cheese.

There were a few clumps in the pasta, but nothing substantial. The texture is much smoother than dried pasta, and its got a very pleasant chewiness to it that's hard to emulate. Considering how little time it takes to boil when compared to the store brands (a difference of ten minutes), it's not all that much more time to prepare. I'll most certainly be making more pasta now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Bunny Chow", carrots not included

If none of you have ever eaten any South African food, you need to rectify this immediately. Despite being a pretty domesticated Alabama boy, I've had it enough times to be utterly smitten by the cuisine. I posted a recipe for bobotie a long time ago, and I frequently nosh on funeral rice when I need a tasty side. Needless to say, when you mix African natives, European colonials, and Chinese and East Indian indentured laborers in one place, you're naturally going to find some really amazing food in the culture.

Bunny chow is a name derived from several sources. Chow comes from the slang borrowed from the Chinese to describe some general foods. Bunny is a word originating from an Indian tradesman caste that immigrated to the area called Baniyas. From there it gets hazy. Depending on where you hear it, it's either the Indian street food merchants way of serving the racially segregated customers during Apartheid, or it was a day laborer takeout invention for sugarcane workers during the Great Depression, or it was a way to economically feed poor young kids. I've heard about a dozen, who knows, who cares I guess. Either way, it's stupidly good food like just about anything in South Africa. Here's how you do it:

The Bread

No surprises here, it's formulaic white bread. I've taken some of the water out of this and replaced it with buttermilk. You can use water if you want to keep this vegan. This is enough for two loaves of bunny chow. Scale down if you prefer. I like baking two loaves because its not significantly more time than one, and you can keep the other in your bread box, keep the rest of the curry in the fridge, and make another bunny chow a few days later, or for friends!

Use this:

  • 6 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 cups lukewarm buttermilk

Combine salt & flour, make a well. Combine yeast and water. Let that rest for five minutes, and stir into a uniform swill. Pour into the well, and draw flour from the sides, stirring briskly to make a paste. Cover and let rest 20 minutes to sponge.

Sponged! Add about half of your buttermilk, stir in the flour as much as you can. If the dough is dry, add more buttermilk, but be careful not to get too moist. You want it lightly tacky on your fingers.

Turn out onto work surface, knead like crazy for ten minutes, then chafe it up, grease a bowl, plop it in and cover for about 90 minutes or until doubled.

Punch down, chafe, split into two pieces with a sharp knife, and chafe into balls again. From here, you want to form into loaves and fit into greased loaf pans, but for some reason I forgot to take a picture. Use your imagination! Cover your loaf pans with a damp cloth for 45 minutes to proof.

You then want to preheat the oven to 425, and just before putting the loaves in the oven, give them a vertical slit across the top with a very sharp paring knife or scalpel. Pop those in, and spritz the side walls of the oven with a spray bottle, or whatever your choice of steam may be. I give it a spritz every five or ten minutes, but don't really keep track. Let them bake for 40-45 minutes and turn out onto a wire rack. Again no picture, I guess because I make a dozen loaves of bread a week and I just forgot about it.

Now, for the curry

Here's a crappy mise en place for sure. Some of this stuff I didn't even use, and other stuff I used but forgot to mise en place. Oh well!

No matter, here's what I used for my curry. If you have another curry you like, use it instead. It really doesn't matter. You could even take restaurant takeout curry and just pour that slop in if you're super lazy!

If you are a stickler for making it like I did, here's what I used:

  • 3 tbsp ghee (canola or olive oil if you want vegan)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds, slightly crushed
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 3 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • About 20 curry leaves (omit if you can't find them)
  • 2 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger (or paste if you're lazy like me)
  • 2 tbsp dried chili flakes (or potentially much, much more!)
  • One or two big tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 small potato, diced
  • 2 cans black beans, drained
  • 1 young-ish plantain, diced
  • About six or seven ounces of coconut milk
  • Big handful of cilantro, chopped

Start with your ghee in the pan, get it good and hot, just shy of smoking. Throw your turmeric, mustard seed, coriander, and fenugreek, and immediately turn the heat down. The spices will pop, so get ready to quickly cover for a moment. Immediately add your onion and garlic, and a teaspoon of your salt. Cook covered on low heat for about 10-15 minutes to sweat the onion.

From here, add your tomato, potato, curry leaf, ginger, and chili flakes. Ramp the heat up to boil for a minute or two, then back to a good hard simmer to break that tomato down and soften your potato somewhat. I'd say about ten minutes.

Beans beans the magical fruit. Add both cans and your garam masala. Another five minutes of covered simmer.

In goes your plantain and coconut milk. Simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes.

Should be nice and fragrant by now. Add your cilantro, then salt gently to taste. By now your curry should be quite creamy, but still with a bit of chunkiness. Take that off the heat.

If you are just an impatient baby or can't justify eating a whole bunny chow in one sitting, tide yourself over and ladle some of it over basmati rice with kala jeera, if you've got it. It's curry, silly!

This works especially good if you're just making the bunny chow a day in advance and didn't bother to make any dinner that evening. At least it worked out that way for me, since I made the ingredients the day prior.

Okay, now the fun begins!

Remember that bread? Go and get it! Measure about an inch down from the top, or about where it sort of puffs up if you made a conventional loaf like me. Carefully saw horizontally with your bread knife so that you remove the "lid" of the bread. Make your cut as even as you can.

Using a knife, carefully score the crumb of the bottom part of the bread, so that you make a rectangular outline. Then, rip out as much of the crumb as you can in big pieces. You want to create a nice little hollow. A good side note if you're a fiend for South African food like I am, these bits of the crumb can be air-staled for a day or two and used as the thickening binder if you want to make bobotie (minced meat curried casserole with fruit and egg custard on top) Since I'm vegetarian for a while, I'll use it for something equally tasty later on I'm sure!

A fitting hidey hole for curry. Also if you need to hide your wallet, keys, or uh, something. Preferably not at the same time.

If your curry is in the fridge, warm it back up however you please (I just microwaved it big whoop) and ladle it lovingly into the cavity. Let it sponge a little, and pack as much curry in there as you can fit. It'll go, don't worry.

Cover with the "lid". See, just an innocent loaf of white bread...shhhhh...

Wrap that in tin foil, and preheat oven to 350. Let it sit in there for about 15 minutes.

When it gets out, it'll be gently warm and steamy. Unwrap the foil, pop the lid, and invite your neighbors.

Under any circumstances do not use any utensils to eat this. Your utensils are the bread. You tear some of the lid, or some of the bread wall, and use that to shovel curry into your mouth. If you eat this with a fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks, or whatever just make sure you have no South Africans near you because they are going to think you're a complete fruitloop.

You should also drink a lot of beer when sharing this. If you're cool enough to have Castle or Windhoek, then that would be ideal. If not, whatever beer you please. I've always enjoyed an IPA with curry in general.

Feeds approximately six or eight people per bunny chow.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Delivery" pizza

I was out on a shopping trip at Sam's the other day and managed to talk to the people in the cafe they have inside the store. I noticed they were selling pizza by the box at the place, fresh baked, and I had a funny idea. I asked if I could buy some of their bulk pizza boxes off of them, and they agreed. Ten dollars later, and I had a huge load of fifty large pizza boxes, which I promptly threw in my trunk and sped away back home, laughing maniacally. It doesn't make much sense when you think about it. It's just a cardboard box. It doesn't make pizza any better than you already make it yourself. The tipping point for me is that I can not only send whole pizzas wherever they need to go, but I also have the silly delusion of grandeur that I can deliver myself!

As much fun as it is to serve pizza straight off the peel or on a cooling rack or any little platter on the table, it really made me giggle to be able to open a box, pull out a slice, and pretend. On top of that, think of the last true delivery pizza you had, and it's never going to compare to a pizza that's made exactly how you like it. I wanted pizza margherita with buffalo mozzarella, big fresh leaves of basil, a slightly spicy, slightly sweet marinara, and a perfectly golden crust. I don't know of a single pizza joint in town that'll deliver that pizza to me.

Well, now I do.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Newcastle rolls

Beer is liquid bread. It's made from grain, yeast, water, sound familiar? So we should be able to make bread with beer! Let's do it!

Standard blah blah setup for double batch of bread loaves. 6 1/2 cups bread flour, 2 tsp yeast, 2 tsp salt, blah blah we've done this to death. Normally would use about 3 cups of water give or take. I use one cup to bloom the yeast on this, and the other 2 cups is going to be Newcastle Brown Ale, one of my favorite beers! Anyway, pour the yeast into the well of flour and salt, let sponge, then add (lukewarm) beer:

Oh no, party foul! Nobody spills beer in my h- well, okay maybe this once!

Mix it up, keeping it as wet as you can and still keep it together. It was tough for me and I had to flour my work surface for once, but I got it to behave for the most part. Knead for ten, cover and rest for 90 minutes, punch, and then cut into eight roughly-equal balls of dough. Pinch the key to seal them, arrange them on a pan so that they're easily resting against each other, and let proof for 45 minutes. From there, rub some flour on the top, slit with a knife, and let them bake in an oven at 425 for 25 minutes, misting like an obsessed person.

Cool em on a wire rack, and put the next batch in. Makes for eight big (as in huge) rolls.

Here's where the insanely moist dough pays off. Short bake time + steam makes the crumb as moist as you can get without still having dough. Give it a whiff, and it smells of wonderful brown ale!

Now stay tuned next week and we'll take this bread and turn it into beer, hahaha I'm just playin'.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Borscht: Dasvidanya, hunger.

Borscht has always fascinated me, and I've always wanted to eat it. Never have, mind you, but it seems like such a phenomenon. It's a soup that's eaten all across Eastern Europe, as well as Russia and the former Soviet states. The variations on making it are almost as numerous as the people who eat the stuff, and the only thing I've been able to nail down is that (1) it has beets in it, and (2) it probably has cabbage.

I found a wonderful posting on a message board I frequent for the stuff, and it finally got me off my tuchus so I could make my own. Good time to do that sort of thing with my vegetarian eats mode on. There are lots of recipes for borscht online with meat in them, but also just as many are vegetarian. In that way, it's sort of like chili I suppose.

Here's what I started with, all arranged in the new enameled dutch oven my mom gave me, yay!

This isn't everything, as I was kind of going on a rough idea and added stuff as the mood carried me. In the end, this is what I used:

  • Three quarts vegetable stock, or more if you need it
  • Two yellow onions, chopped
  • Two carrots, chopped
  • Three beets, peeled and chopped
  • Three Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • Head of cabbage, chopped
  • A big handful of parsley, chopped
  • Four cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
  • Dill (fresh if you've got it, I used dried) to taste
  • Three tablespoons olive oil
  • One tablespoon brown sugar
  • Two teaspoons salt
  • Lemon or Lime juice, or whatever acidic ingredient you prefer to taste (I use citric acid)
  • Cracked black pepper to taste
  • Dollop of sour cream (optional)
Heat the stock in your pot to a heavy simmer, and add your veggies. Beets go first, cook for about ten minutes or more, then add everything except the cabbage, cook for another 35 or so, stirring as you go. Add the cabbage & everything else sans pepper and sour cream, and cook for another 10-15. Basically you want to make sure the veggies have a little body to them, but aren't raw. Taste & adjust for seasoning, serve in a soup bowl, and if you like it, add a big spoonful of sour cream, and add pepper and dill to that.

This is a sweet & sour soup, and the cabbage, mushrooms, and garlic keep it just savory enough to keep your feet on the ground. Make sure your veggies aren't overdone and mushy. You want just a little resistance to the tooth. This makes a ridiculous amount of food by the way. Make sure you have a lot of people eating, or a big leftover capacity. It'll freeze well if you need to do that.