Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Georgian Green Beans (No, the other Georgia)

In my experience, Georgians are quite serious about cooking veggies sufficiently. My experience with actual Georgians, of course, is limited to my relatives from the American South. From that side of the family, I inherited a proud tradition of well-cooked plant material, often with a pork product of some kind thrown into the mix. But these beans are a gift from the other Georgians. Usually, I just do veggies in the usual manner of yuppies-to-be: Steamed until barely cooked, or roasted with olive oil. So these beans seem frighteningly well done at first glance. But they are magnificent. Warm, spicy, creamy, flavorful, the beans themselves are oddly juicy. An altogether different beast from the smattering of long crunchy pods that occasionally turn up on restaurant platings.

(A green bean confession: When I was a child, one of my favorite snacks was can of Del Monte cut green beans. My mom would refrigerate them for me and crack open a can when I pleaded with her. And then I would gobble them up, fishing for each one in the can of briny juice. There is something about the texture of these beans that recalls that wonderful childhood memory. I know this doesn't seem like much of an inducement--indeed, you might be wondering if you can trust my taste at all at this point--but I still urge you to give this recipe a try.)

I've served them with a version of these tiny meatballs and pita bread, but they're brilliant as a side for baked chicken, too.

Green Beans in Herbed Yogurt
(slightly altered from Nigella's Feast)

Start a large pan of water boiling while you top and tail, then cut into thirds:
2 pounds fresh skinny green beans

Parboil the beans for about 5 minutes. They should still be bright green and crisp when you drain them and run cold water on them.

Peel and halve:
2 large sweet onions

Dump them in a food processor (or mince finely), with:
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch ground cloves
good grinding of black pepper

4 Tablespoons butter (Nigella calls for a full stick. I find them satisfying with this much, but don't let me stop you from going whole hog.)

Cook the spices and onions until soft. Add the parboiled beans and cover. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, beat together in a large Pyrex measuring cup:
1 cup Greek yogurt (or other full fat yogurt)
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt (don't skip the salt)
1 clove garlic, microplaned or finely minced

When the beans are soft, add to the pan:
2 Tablespoons each of chopped cilantro, parsley, and dill
(NOTE: I have yet to make this with all of the proper fresh herbs on hand. I've compromised by adding dried versions of any of the fresh herbs I don't have to the yogurt mixture. The dish is still a hit.)

Turn off the heat immediately, put the beans on a plate and pour the yogurt over them, then sprinkle with:
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Or serve the yogurt on the side with mint (fresh or dried) blended in for your guests to pour themselves.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Cantaloupe, Tomato and Mint Salad

The title of the post is also the recipe. To wit: Tomato, cut into wedges. Cantaloupe, cut into chunks. Fresh mint, roughly torn. Mix. Let sit. Eat.

The plate is beautiful, and each bite is the quintessence of juiciness. And, as a bonus, one bowlful serves as the salad and dessert courses.

I can't take a lick of credit for this recipe. It was assembled and served to me by a friend--we'll call him Potter--who I've been using as a guinea pig for years now. On semi-random, but fairly regular Sunday nights, Potter comes over to have dinner with us. He brings wine, or toasts and tapenade, or some other tasty nibble. This Sunday, for reasons related to The West Wing's untimely end, Potter had us over for dinner instead. We ate in his balcony while a drum circle thrummed from the oddly formal terraced public park across the street. Twilight settled on us slowly as we consumed a bottle of wine imported from Sicily in a suitcase, salmon on a bed of soba noodles, this marvelous salad, and then strawberries with Nutella. A perfect evening.

The cantaloupe tomato salad is 99 percent inspiration and 1 percent perspiration. Potter's done the hard part for us, so make up a batch as soon as a decent tomato is available.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Channa Masala: Dinner Malaise

Wednesday night we had dinner malaise. You know what I mean: you've been eating out a lot, so you want something homemade, but there's no fresh food in house and a grilled cheese isn't quite going to cut it. Everything required for this spicy Indian staple is always in supply in the ToastKitchen. No fresh veggies or meats are involved in channa masala, and it's quick to whip up when you're otherwise uninspired and just want to chow on something tasty and enlivening. And nothing makes the Human Vacuum happier than having a tupperware full of this stuff sitting around. We've been known to double the recipe.

The base of browned onions, toasted spices, and caramelized tomato paste is also our generic Indian food base. If you want to make a curry, and don't have anything else particular in mind, this will get you off to a solid start. From here, start tossing in meat, perhaps veggies, additional spices, whatever. Taste, make adjustments and you're good to go.

Channa Masala

In a large skillet, heat:
3 Tablespoons peanut oil (or other oil)

1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced

When onion begins to soften, add:
1 inch fresh ginger, finely minced or microplaned
2-3 Thai peppers, minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced or microplaned

Cook until onions start to brown and garlic is fragrant, then turn heat to high and add:
1 Tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional, but recommended)
Ground black pepper and salt to taste

Fry spices for 2 minutes until toasted, then add:
3 generous Tablespoons tomato paste (about 1 very small can)

When tomato begins to caramelize (about 3 minutes), add:
2 cups prepared chickpeas (I used canned)
1/2 cup water

Stir well, then simmer gently until chickpeas are very tender and water has mostly evaporated, leaving a thick, sticky coating on the chickpeas. Cooking time will depend a great deal on how tough your original chickpeas were. If you started with dried chickpeas, count on a minimum of 40 minutes, probably more. My canned Goyas were done in about about 20 minutes.

Serve over basmati rice or with Indian flatbread. I like to eat mine with a dollop of cooling yogurt on the side.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Yogurt Cake

(with apologies to Tom Wolfe. Seriously, Tom, I'm really sorry.)

As is often the case Chez ToastPoint, this culinary sucess was inspired by rotting food. A tub of maple yogurt was about to expire, and it would have been a crime to throw this stuff away. A bowl of tangerines beckoned (psychedelically?), threatening to go soft and attract fruit flies.

I've stolen the recipe for Clotilde's yogurt cake. The only difference in my version was the use of maple yogurt, and the addition of two tangerines-worth of zest instead of vanilla. My take on the cake also sports a fruit topping--very American--a cool, sweet sauce of maple syrup and tangerine pulp. It required minimal effort and really amped up the corresponding flavors in this simple snazzy dessert.

Maple Tangerine Yogurt Cake
(a variation on Chocolate & Zucchini's yogurt cake)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl (or mixer), mix gently to combine:
2 eggs
1 cup maple yogurt (I used Seven Stars Farm Original Maple, but plain full-fat yogurt and generous pour of maple syrup would be a functional replacement)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used ghee, but it made no difference and is way more expensive)
1 Tablespoon rum
Zest of 2 tangerines

Then add, and stir gently:
2 cups flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder

Pour the batter into a greased and/or parchment-lined round cake pan. Bake until the top is lightly browned and knife inserted in the center comes out clean. I like to let it get pretty dark, which adds a nice crunch to the outer crust. Using an 8-inch pan takes about 45 minutes, a larger pan will cook more quickly.

While the cake is baking, make the topping. The cake is not tremendously sweet, so don't be alarmed by the sugar content of the assemblage below. Put into a small bowl:
4 tangerines, peeled, de-pithed, and roughly chopped (don't let the juices escape)
2-3 Tablespoon dark maple syrup
1 Tablespoon honey

Refrigerate until very cold. Spoon the thickened mixture over individual slices of cake, and be sure to soak the cake with the juices collecting in the bottom of the bowl. A little vanilla ice cream probably wouldn't go astray here, either.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Mussels with Fennel and Creme Fraiche Linguini

Mussels. Two dollars a pound for good taste and good entertainment. I first learned to eat mussels under the tutelage of my elegant French roommate. In Bretagne, she showed me the trick of finding one perfect shell to use as a tool to pick the meat out of the others, like tiny pincers. And back home in the good old U S of A, she dragged me to Belgian pubs to introduce me to the various delicious broths that mussels can be sauced with. Mussels and their sauces are relatively easy, but I find the assembly process a lesson in the importance of proper order of operations. I've written the recipe below in real time, so that you can get a sense of how to make all the pieces come together at once. Very hot mussels are much better than lukewarm. I recommend preparing a vinegary salad before you get started, and having a chunk of bread on hand for sopping.

Mussels with Fennel and Creme Fraiche Linguini

Cut from their mesh bag:
2 pounds of mussels

Pick them over for broken shells or wide open mussels. Place them in a colander and run very cold water over them while you chop veggies, etc. In most recipes, this is the place where you would be instructed to scrub the shells and cut away the "beards," but I find that the mussels in grocery stores these days have been processed in this way already.

Pare, core and slice very finely, reserving the parings and green tops:
2 bulbs fresh fennel

Roughly chop:
2-3 large sweet onions

In a large skillet, warm over medium heat:
2 Tablespoons butter

When the butter bubbles, add the fennel and onion. Cook gently until onion and fennel are very soft and beginning to caramelize.

Meanwhile, in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, add:
2/3 bottle white wine (a glug of pernod probably wouldn't hurt here, if you have some)
Fennel parings and tops
Bring to a simmer and let bubble while you complete other steps.

Fill a large pot with salted water for pasta. When the water has boiled, add:
1 pound linguini or other long strand pasta

Once the pasta is underway, bring the wine to a boil and add the mussels. Cover tightly. Don't peek, but occasionally give the pot a shake. After 3 minutes, check to see it the mussels have opened. If so, fish them out with a slotted spoon, discard the remaining fennel bits, and keep them warm under an inverted bowl. Leave the wine to reduce on a high boil.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it (be sure to rinse the colander first) and dump it into the pan with the onions and fennel. Add the reduced wine and turn up the heat. Watch as the pasta drinks up the salty, fennel-flavored wine. Then reduce the heat, stir in:
2-3 Tablespoons creme fraiche
Lots of ground black pepper

Serve immediately, with mussels placed on top and lemon juice generously sprinkled over the whole plate.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Saag Paneer Envy

Just when you think you've reach impressive levels of D.I.Y., someone outdoes you. I picked up some samosas at our local Indian joint the other night, and then zipped home to make my very own saag paneer. But when I began to read the various recipes online (they differ tremendously), I learned that more enterprising cooks can take it the next level and make their own paneer (by boiling the hell out of some whole milk) or their own ghee (by doing more or less the same with butter). I bought my package of trademark soft Indian cheese at Whole Foods, along with a jar of ghee. Maybe next time I'll go milk a cow, make my own dairy products, and whip up a batch of samosas to boot. Yeah, right.

Note: This is not a light dish. There's butter, there's cream, there's cheese, and there's yogurt. It's basically cow worship, slightly adulterated with spinach.

Saag Paneer

Boil a large pot of water. When it comes to a rolling boil, add:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh spinach

After 3 minutes, the spinach will be bright green. Drain it, and squeeze out a much water as possible before setting aside.

In a very large skillet over medium-high heat, melt:
6 Tablespoons ghee (or cooking oil)

Cube and add to the pan, quickly browning on all sides:
1 package of paneer (use as much or as little as appeals to you in balance with your now shrunken pile of spinach--the paneer isn't my favorite part, so I skimp on it)

Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels.

Reduce the heat to medium low and add:
1 large onion, roughly chopped

Cook the onion until soft, then turn the heat to high and add:
4 cloves garlic, well-crushed with the side of large knife
1 inch fresh ginger, finely minced or microplaned
2 small Thai peppers, minced
2 Tablespoons garam masala
1 Tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt (I doubled that, but I like salty Indian food)

Stir continuously, and when spices become aromatic (2-3 minutes), lower the heat, dump the spinach into the pan, and stir in:
3 heaping Tablespoons yogurt (full fat is best)
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream

Fold in the paneer, grind on a large amount of black pepper, and serve with your own blistered, aching hands.