Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spicy Hummus: We Heart Chickpeas

In the past week, I've somehow wound up discussing the unending virtues of the chickpea in three different conversations. Everyone is eager to defend their own native land's work with the chickpea, or garbanzo bean. And while Italian soups are nice, and curried chickpeas are marvelous, Middle Easterners win hands down when it comes to the chickpea. One word: hummus. Creamy and satisfying, hummus is the perfect base for an infinite variety of flavor variations. It's also cheap and easy to make at home. If you have a food processor, don't settle for the watery (and pricey) offerings of the Tribe of Two Sheiks. It takes three minutes to make better stuff your own.

Chickpea chauvinism aside, hummus has a co-MVP: tahini. Tahini is just a paste of ground toasted sesame seeds, so if you feel enterprising you can make your own in the food processor before adding the chickpeas. My experience is that buying premade tahini is much cheaper than buying the sesame seeds whole, fiddling with toasting, and then trying to successful grind the tiny things.

Our household's number one chickpea booster is the Human Vacuum. He's also the official hummus maker. H.V. is the one who first insisted we purchase our first industrial-sized can of chickpeas at Costco. He is a wise man.

Spicy Hummus
(The Human Vacuum's patented recipe)

Dump into a colander and rinse well with cold water:
2 cups canned chickpeas
(Canned chickpeas can be pretty salty. When you first start rinsing the water will foam. Keep going until the foam subsides.)

Pour the chickpeas into the food processor and add:
2/3 cup tahini paste
1/4 cup lime juice (lemon is traditional, but lime is zingier)
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 Tablespoons Potbelly Hot Peppers or other spicy pickled pepper (optional, but awesome)
Pinch salt

Whir the whole mess in the food processor until very smooth. Some people like a little chunky texture, but they are fools. Go for the consistency of Greek yogurt. Stick some pita, or your fingers, into the processor occasionally (stop the blades first) to allow your girlfriend to taste test. If the hummus sticks together in a ball, or otherwise and seems too thick, thin it with a few Tablespoons of water or olive oil. H.V. prefers to use water and drizzle the olive oil over the top at the end.

Serve drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with:
Fresh cilantro, or
paprika (smoked for preference)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ghee Whiz!: The "Secret Name of Butter"

Ghee is pretty amazing stuff. Let's start with the plug it gets in the Rig Veda:

This is the secret name of Butter:
"Tongue of the gods," "navel of immortality."
We will proclaim the name of Butter;
We will sustain it in this sacrifice by bowing low.
These waves of Butter flow like gazelles before the hunter...
Streams of Butter caress the burning wood.
Agni, the fire, loves them and is satisfied.

This hymn is sung while pouring ghee into a fire, an act which literally reproduces the story of Prajápati, Hindu Lord of Creatures, rubbing his hands together and pouring out ghee onto the flames to create progeny--thus the "navel of immortality" bit, I suppose.

Ghee, for the uninitiated, is mega-clarified cow's milk butter used primarily in Indian cooking. It's basically butter that acts permanantly melted and doesn't spoil because the milk solids have been removed. It also has the power to render any food cooked by anybody (even unclean folks like myself) pakka, "complete" or "superior," and thus acceptable for consumption by Brahmins. Virtually all major Hindu rites involve ghee. That's right people, it's a butter-based religion. What's not to love?

Ghee was the answer to my prayers this week. Dinner was about to hit the table when I realized I'd forgotten to do anything with a huge vat of boiled new potatoes. I had the usual French-syle rosemary, garlic, cream default in mind. But when I stuck my head in the spice cabinet looking for a quick fix, there was the jar of ghee and a packet of kalonji (black onion seeds). Indian spices+tiny French potatoes=Problem solved.

Perhaps Prajápati was smiling upon me.

Citations update: There are some great Indian food blogs out there, including Hooked on Heat and One Hot Stove, both of which inspire this aspiring Indian home cook. Hooked on Heat is hosting a food blog event called From My Rasoi with a "fusion" theme this month, for which I'll be entering this ghee experiment. Ghee trivia stolen from this butterblog.

Curried, Smashed New Potatoes with Ghee

Fill a dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot with water and set on a hot burner. Don't watch the pot--it'll never boil. Instead, scrub and halve:
2 pounds new potatoes

When water boils, add potatoes and boil for 20 minutes, or until very tender. You can do this ahead and leave them in the hot water until you're ready to use them. Just don't forget about them.

Just before you eat, drain the potatoes in a colander. Return the pan to the burner, crank up the heat to medium-high/high and add:
4 Tablespoons ghee
If you don't have ghee, you can use a combination of butter and vegetable oil, but the result won't be as flavorful.

When the ghee starts to bubble, add:
2 generous Tablespoons Penzeys Maharajah curry powder, or other curry
1 Tablespoon kalonji
(aka onion seeds, nigella, black cumin, etc)
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Fry spices for 2 minutes, until fragrant, then add the potatoes and stir to coat. Lightly smash the potatoes with the side of the spoon. Don't get too enthusiatic, or you'll end up with a gluey mess. I like my potatoes with browned crunchy bits, so I left them in the hot pan for awhile longer, but they're basically ready to eat whenever you are.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Shrimp Toast: A Quasi-Recipe

This is barely a recipe. Hell, this barely qualifies as cookery. But it was damn tasty and the snapshot is rather colorful, so I thought I'd share anyway. Ten minutes max, start to finish.

Bottled Shrimp Toast

Thaw in lukewarm water:
1 pound pre-cooked, peeled shrimp

Meanwhile, turn on your broiler. On the stovetop, heat in a large skillet:
2 Tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced (I won't lie, I love the garlic that comes pre-minced in a jar, and it works just fine for dishes like this "recipe")
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced (optional, but also available pre-minced form)

When butter starts to foam and garlic and ginger sizzle, drizzle the mixture over 2 large slabs of bread and pop them in the oven to toast. I nearly set mine on fire, so be vigilant.

In the same skillet (no need to rinse), dump:
1/3 cup peanut sauce
2 Tablespoons chutney or minced fresh herbs (I used mint and cilantro chutney)
1 teaspoon fish sauce (nam pla)

Remove tails from thawed shrimp, which are always irritatingly left attached (why is that, I ask you? It's not like I'm going to make shrimp stock with those things). Roughly chop the shrimp and toss them in the pan with the sauces. Heat through, then dump the spicy, peanutty mixture on garlicky, gingery, buttery bread, and snarf it down.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gingerbread Pancakes, Haroset and Yogurt: Brunch!

My sister came to town this weekend, and brunch was in order. I pondered venturing into quiche territory, but when it comes to brunch bang for your buck, pancakes can't be beat. You don't have to get up early to prepare them and the ingredients are always around. Even if you're sleeping and ruin the first batch, there's more batter where that came from. Still, it's not every day that I get to cook for ToastSister (and ToastMom) so I wanted something a bit special. Gingerbread pancakes were the solution. Homey, but with a whiff of cooking superiority. ToastSister says that reading the blog fills her with guilt, all the more so because the recipes aren't that hard--they're just more creative than she's capable of day to day. Here's one more for the list, sister.

I served these fluffy, gingery pancakes with Deconstructed Haroset, yogurt, a million kinds of jam, and bacon. This assemblage of food perfectly meets national standards for brunch balance: Something warm, something sweet, butter, something fruity, and some form of nitrite-laden meat.

Gingerbread Pancakes
The recipe is mostly stolen from Nic at Bakingsheet. I've tweaked (and doubled it) but the heart of these cakes is hers.

Combine in a large bowl:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
pinch nutmeg
a few grounds black pepper

In a seperate bowl, whisk together:
2 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
2 Tablespoons melted butter
5 Tablespoons dark molasses

Pour the wet stuff into the dry stuff and stir gingerly (haha) until just barely combined. Very lightly grease a large skillet or griddle, and warm over medium high heat. Pour 1/4 cup of batter at a time to form small pancakes. (The idea is to make pancakes small enough that your guests won't feel guilty eating more than three.) Flip when tiny bubbles break through the exposed surface of the batter and edges start to solidify, approx. 2-3 minutes. Lightly brown other side. If you're making several batches, stash 'em in a 200-degree oven while you make the rest.

Serves 4 extremely generously when slathered with marmalade or maple syrup.

UPDATE: I served leftovers at room temperature with warm baked pears and ice cream for dessert. A dinner guest noted: "They're like gingerbread blinis!"

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Roasted Fennel Chicken Salad

Don't you hate it when you have diligently filled your fridge with fresh food, which you're all set to turn into some kind of culinary masterpiece, and then suddenly you're struck down by a serious attack of after-work lethargy? The tiny cries of fresh fennel and plump pink chicken breasts were almost drowned out by the Sci-Fi channel's various cheesy Monday night marathon offerings this week. In a carefully negotiated compromise between my stomach and my numb brain, I managed to get together this low-impact chicken salad to go with my low-budget TV. Perfect.

Roasted Fennel Chicken Salad

Preheat your broiler.

Rinse and dry:
2 large skinless chicken breasts
(if you're lucky enough to have cooked leftover chicken already on hand, even better)

Peel, core, and cut into haphazard chunks or slices:
1 bulb fennel

Arrange chicken and fennel in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan and sprinkle with:
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Roast under the broiler, turning occasionally until fennel is soft and starting to brown, and chicken is cooked through (approx. 15 minutes). While chicken and fennel are roasting, go back to lolling on the couch and watching junky TV.

Combine in a large bowl:
1 tart apple, diced
2 Tablespoons Potbelly Hot Peppers or other spicy pepper/condiment, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1-2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Whatever else you have in the fridge door that looks good
When chicken and fennel are cooked, cut into bite-sized pieces and toss, still warm, with the contents of the bowl.

Sprinkle with:
1 Tablespoon fresh basil, mint or cilantro

Serve in the mixing bowl with two forks. Eat while marveling at cheap special effects and implausible plot twists involving alternate universes.

Serves two lazy geeks.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Braised Short Ribs with Guacamole: A Cautionary Tale

Ah, peer pressure. As I was cruising the meat aisle at the supermarket today, I heard a little voice in my ear: "C'mon... everybody's doing it. Don't you want to be cool? Try some, you'll like it." And, despite years for D.A.R.E training, I barely hesitated before I reached into the refrigerated case and picked up a pack of short ribs.

I did, however, draw the line at polenta. Nor did I serve my short ribs with a "comforting root puree." (What is it about turnips and parnips that culinary souls find so comforting?) I served mine with guacamole, dammit.

And I gotta say, my seat on the bandwagon is pretty comfortable. I'm a late joiner, I know. Every restaurant in D.C. has had the short ribs in regular rotation for months and the entire blogosphere has already whipped up their batches. But the Human Vacuum was a big fan, and I do rather like having a big pot o' food food for dinner. Plus, my latin variation gave me a chance to use up some of cilantro threatening to push out the other herbs in my window garden and a chance to experiment with the star anise I've been hoarding in my spice cabinet.

Wine-Braised Short Ribs with Guacamole

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, heat until smoking:
2 Tablespoons olive oil
(If you happen to have some pancetta or fatty bacon around, throw it a couple tablespoons, diced, when you add the cold olive oil and let the fat render for extra flavor)
2 pounds short ribs
Brown very well on all sides. Don't crowd the pan. You'll probably have to do this in batches. Remove the ribs and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-high, and pour off the all the fat but two tablespoons. Then add:
1 large onion, diced
2-3 large carrots, diced (I used about a cup of sliced baby carrots, since I never seem to have real carrots around)
3 stalks celery, diced
Cook until they vegetable soften and start to brown (7-8 minutes), then add:
4 cloves garlic, well crushed with the flat of a large knife
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
Cook for an addition 1-2 minutes, until tomato starts to caramelize.

Return the short ribs and any juices to the pan and add:
2-3 cups hefty red wine (I used claret)
2 cups beef or chicken broth
2 whole dried bay leaves
3 dried guajillo chiles (or other sweet, mild chile), rehydrated and finely minced
1 whole star anise (optional but awesome)

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer very low for at least two hours, or as long as 6 hours.

When you're ready to eat, remove the ribs and set them aside. Bring the remaining liquid to a rapid simmer and reduce until it's as thick as you want. I made mine very thick, like chunky salsa.

To serve, I put a tortilla spread with guacamole on each plate, arranged the ribs on top, squeezed lime over them, poured the reducing braising liquid over, and sprinkled fresh cilantro on top.

Serves two with gonzo leftovers.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Impromptu Mustard Fruit

After bragging about my participation in the digital cooking revolution, I'm a bit ashamed to post this recipe--it's directly from a book, and I followed the instructions to the letter. "Impromptu Mustard Fruit" is an eye-catching mini-recipe in Marcella Says..., a chatty cookbook from Marcella Hazan, dictatorial Italian home cook and regional cuisine expert. It strives to duplicate a native Italian fruit preserve, mostarda, prized for its mustardy kick. The whole thing takes about 30 seconds to assemble, and you've never tasted anything like it.

Impromptu Mustard Fruit with Mascarpone

In a small bowl, combine any amount in the following proportions:
1 Tablespoon heavy, rich jam (Marcella specifically recommends the Dalmatian Fig Spread from Whole Foods pictured above, but quince or really good apricot jam would work)
1 teaspoon strong mustard (like Colman's)

Stir well. Marcella prefers a butter knife for this task, and who am I to question her?

Add mascarpone (about half the amount of jam) and stir lightly to swirl together. Marcella says this versatile condiment works for an accompaniment to a charcuterie platter, as a side for cold chicken, spread on toast, or added to a sandwich.

I dolloped some on top of a mustard-glazed broiled ribeye. It melted a bit, but added an interesting creamy, sweet, spicy flavor to the already kicky steak.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Confessions of a Google Chef: Recipe Collection Meme

I can't stop googling recipes. Sure, I like a nice cookbook on dead tree now and then, but it's Google that I turn to when I need ideas quick for dinner. When the Web Sorceress hit me with the Recipe Collection meme a couple weeks back, I started paying attention to where my recipes come from. Here are the results:

1. Where do you obtain the recipes you prepare?
Nearly all online--mostly googling, sometimes other blogs--though I also read the NYT and WaPo Wednesday food sections (usually online), and am recovering from a desperate love affair with Nigella. I read cookbooks while eating breakfast for ideas, but very rarely consult them while actually cooking a new dish. I tote my laptop into the kitchen to keep the recipe(s) handy, cheerfully placing it in nightly mortal danger from spatters and splashes.

2. How often do you cook a new recipe?
Twice or three times a week on average, though many of those "new" recipes are variations on an existing theme--new stuffing for the same roast chicken, new glaze on the same broiled ribeye, new dressing and different veggie in a familiar chickpea salad.

3. How do you store your favorite recipes?
Ctrl+D, baby. Bookmark 'em. The "Favorites" list on my home computer is embarrassing--more or less all random recipes, often in ingredient clusters (i.e. when desperately trying to find something to do with red currants, I bookmarked seven recipes and left them there. Maybe I'll get around to them eventually.)

4. How large is your to-try pile? Is it organized? How?
The bookmarks list is long. And, as I noted above, embarrassingly long. Dozens of recipes, simply in the order that I encountered them. Sometimes I store recipes by emailing them to myself. Since I use Gmail, I just do a search for the ingredient keyword on my inbox when I'm ready to make them. Ah, the glory of total, perfect searchability.

5. What is the oldest recipe in your to-try pile?
(see Question 8)

6. Are you really ever going to make all those recipes in your to-try pile?
No. I'm an unrepentant inspiration shopper, so I almost never make grocery lists with specific new recipes in mind. The way I see it, if I've had a recipe in the hopper for along time but never bothered to make it, other people probably won't be psyched for it either.

7. Do you follow a recipe exactly, modify as you go, or 'What Recipe?' I invent new recipes every time I cook.
Sometimes I bookmark a recipe because it has a great ideas for a unique combination of ingredients. I often bookmark if I find a good description of a tricky technique (poaching eggs) or a helpful hint (what to do if food is too spicy/salty/sticky). The technique recipes I follow carefully, but I'm an inveterate tweaker otherwise.

8. What is one new recipe that you're scared to try?
Char Siu Bao--dim sum roast pork buns. I've never made anything with yeast. I am afraid. Someday I hope that my deep, abiding love for these buns will conquer my fear of the words "Leave the dough to rest in a warm place for six hours."

Now for the real challenge:
1. Tag at least one new food blogger for this meme. (New as in only blogging a few months)
The beautiful Traveler's Lunchbox is young but elegant.
2. Tag at least one food blogger you visit regularly but never interacted with.

I'm secretly envious of people who act as though tempering chocolate an ordinary sort of thing to be able to do--like tying one's shoelaces. And I love the funky retro colors on his blog. Thus David Lebovitz.
3. Tag at least one food blogger you constantly visit and leave comments.
I'm not much of a commenter. But the chatty Haverchuk fits this description best.
4. Tag anyone else you want.
For her blog-naming prowess, Toast.