Greens, Pumpkin and Rice Torta

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If I had to pick all time favorite vegetarian meals they would have to be Mediterranean. They probably focus on lots of greens and wrapped in thin flatbread or dough (proper Falafel is probably on the top of that list). This Italian gem of a recipe from Paula Wolfert is one of those recipes and I’m happy to write about it at this time since it seems very autumnal.

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Ligurian cuisine is famous for the emphasis on herbs and greens. That’s where the beloved basil-pine nut pesto comes from, herb studded olive oil soaked Focaccia and all manner of simple pasta and seafood dishes. So, it is not surprising that Wolfert’s Ligurian recipe relies on large amount of greens sauteed in generous doses of olive oil and filled in a pastry enriched with more olive oil.

I prepared the dough first by mixing flour, water, olive oil and salt. The dough is very nice and pliable. It smells great due to the fruity extra virgin olive oil in it. That gets divided into two equal portions and can sit in the fridge wrapped in plastic for up to a couple days. It could seep some oil in that time but that is ok.

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Spinach and swiss chard made up the greens portion of the filling. The most important step is to make sure these are very very well washed. There is nothing more irksome than grit in an otherwise delightful dish (same goes for removing the poop “vein” from shrimp…I hate it when lazy cooks leave it in and we get nasty grit!) Anyways, back to the filling. I shredded a few handfuls of a small pumpkin using the coarse side of the grater and tossed these in some salt for a bit. The same salting treatment was used for the coarsely chopped greens. The salt draws out some of the water and helps reduce the astringency of the raw greens.

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After rinsing and draining the greens I sauteed them with onions and olive oil until wilted but still retained their firmness. I tossed in the shredded pumpkin and cooked that for a few minutes too. Once the mixture is cooled, I added a bit of short-grain rice that was soaked in water for 30 minutes, Parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella and a couple of eggs. I rolled the dough into large 14-inch rounds and topped one with the filling before covering it with the second round. I debated building the whole thing on a pizza peel and sliding it on my baking steel directly. I decided against that and went with building and baking the torta on a round metal baking pan. Next time I might give baking it directly on the baking steel a shot and see what happens (hopefully no burnt dough or a huge mess). My favorite way to enjoy this pie is at room temperature, sliced into wedges and eaten by hand. It is delicious, satisfying and keeps well. It makes lovely meals for days if you do not polish it off the first night.

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Alinea: Pork Belly, Pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, Grits

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How does barbecue done in a three star restaurant look like? Like this dish that I made using the last third of pork belly I had. It’s a one bite of porky smoky spicy and pickle-y goodness! In more detailed terms we have a cube of cured and spiced pork belly, topped with pickled vegetables and encased in a crunchy glaze of barbecue flavor.

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The trickiest component of this entire dish is that crunchy glaze that coats each bite. It requires some practice and a light touch to get it thick enough to coat the meat and vegetables with a translucent film. Make it too thick and you’ll be fighting to bite through it and picking candy out of your teeth. If it is too thin it will slough off the pickled vegetables and not cover the whole bite. The glaze starts off with isomalt, a product that is not as sweet as sugar but behaves very much like sugar so it is very good for savory applications. I mixed the isomalt with fondant and brought up to about 325 F (NOT the 160 F the book specifies which I am sure they intended it to be 160 C).

Tuile

I poured it on a Silpat and allowed the mixture to harden. The isomalt-fondant mixture hardened into very clean and clear glass. I broke it into shards and pulverized it in a food processor with a smoked paprika and cayenne. This mixture is what gives the pork bites the “barbecue” smoke and spice flavor. but we are not there quiet yet…

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The Isomalt mixture is made into thin wafers or tuiles. To do that I sifted the powdered mixture into a Silpat using stencils to get even 2 inch squares that are about 1/8 inch thick.We need to work fast here because the powedered mixture sucks up the humidity very fast from the room and gets difficult to work with.  After a few minutes in a hot oven the powdered spiced sugar squares melted but kept their shape. When fully cooled they were nice thin crunchy squares. I stored them in a box with a pack of silica to wick away humidity and keep them crispy. These can easily last a week or more like that if needed.

Carrot Pickle

Like any good barbecue plate this one needs a tart crunchy element, like pickles and fresh veggies. The pickles here are tiny spheres of carrots made with a parisienne scoop, the tiniest melon baller you can imagine. Just like any other vinegar pickle the vegetables are soaked in a hot mixture of vinegar, water and sugar and allowed to cool and chill for a couple of days. The other vegetable topping are also tiny cucumber balls and small cubes of red bell pepper.

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Corn and barbecue is a delicious combo, maybe on the cob, creamed or corn bread. Here we have creamy rich grits that combines almost all three. Maybe a few charred corn kernels would have been nice too. Chef Achatz actually uses yellow polenta but I had some good South Carolina stone-ground grits. So I cooked those in water and stirred in butter and mascarpone.

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For the pork, I made a mixture of sugar, salt and a healthy dose of smoked paprika and chipotle powder. The paprika along with chipotle gives the meat a good smoky-spicy flavor. After several hours in the fridge I washed the meat off and then cooked it sous vide for 4 hours at 85C. To finish I cut the meat into even  2 inch squares and seared them gently . I topped them with 4 tiny balls of the vegetables and 2 squares of the bell pepper. Balancing a square of the tuile on top of the vegetables is a tricky thing but I managed to get most on there and under the broiler. The broiler quickly melts the squares of barbecue sugar and coats the meat and vegetable cubes.

Pork Belly

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To serve I put in a dollop on the grits and topped it with a cube of the glazed pork. A few leaves of fresh oregano and it is done. The flavor is rich, spicy and sweet with lots of crunch. the grits work great to tone down the sharp flavors and for that great creamy element. It is labor-intensive but it’s one hell of an impressive looking and tasting bite. It went perfectly with a home-brewed red rye ale. Cheers!

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Mung Beans with Burghul (Burghul M’ash)

Burghul-Mung Bean2Until my mom visited recently and made this dish I had only used mung beans in a couple of simple soups and southeast Asian desserts. I never really thought of the mung beans with their Arabic name, M’ash. The traditional Lebanese way to use it is to cook it with lots of browned onions and cut it with coarse cracked wheat, aka burghul. It’s a delicious, simple and nutritious vegetarian dish.

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The method for this dish is very typical of many such Lebanese recipes. The grains or pulses are simmered (based on their various cooking times) until 2/3 of the way cooked. Then a mixture of flavorings are added while everything melds and finishes cooking.

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To serve it you have many options such as a tangy crunchy green salad, a mixture of sliced vegetables (cucumbers, radishes, sour pickles,…) or maybe some yogurt. I had a mixture of cauliflower on hand from a local farm. I roasted the purple and orange cauliflower at a pretty high heat and tossed them along with some of their blanched greens with a dressing made from oil, vinegar and a touch of honey along with toasted pine nuts. I also served it with a dollop of salted yogurt garnished with hot ground chile pepper.

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Mung Beans with Burghul

  • 1 Cup (200 gr) Mung Beans
  • 1/4 Cup or more olive oil
  • 1 Large (about 350 gr) Onion, chopped
  • ¾ Cup (110 gr) Coarse burghul

Boil the mung beans in enough water to cover by about 2 inches or more. Quickly skim the skins and scum that float to the surface as they boil.

Meanwhile, saute the onion in a good dose of olive oil until dark golden, about 20-30 minutes. Add to mung beans as they cook. Let the mixture simmer for another 15 minutes or until the mung beans are tender.

Add burghul when the beans are still very wet but not covered with a lot of water. Let simmer for 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper and turn off the heat. Cover and let sit for another 15 minutes.

Chicken, Preserved Lemon and Freekeh

Dish 3 of the “January Trilogy” of light dinners features chicken and some delicious grains

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Jamie Oliver likes to call this “Lebanese Chicken” for some reason. I love his recipe for this dish but it certainly it does not come off as Lebanese to me, more North African maybe. Either way it is delicious. The chicken is tossed with flour heavily spiced with cumin along with a touch of cinnamon and allspice. It is then seared in olive oil and braised in a mixture of preserved lemon, garlic, onions and white wine.

That alone makes for a nice east-west kind of braise but take it one step further and it is more special. In addition to the aromatics, the chicken is cooked on top of Freekeh in the potThis is an ancient grain used in traditional middle-eastern and some European cuisines. It is really just wheat that has been harvested while green and set on fire to remove the skin or chafe. As a result it has a sweet smoky flavor to go along with a nice toothsome texture. In the Lebanese mountains (ah! that’s where Oliver’s Lebanese name for the recipe must come from) Freekeh was considered a staple of the pantry before the introduction of rice. Thanks to the newish interest in all kinds of ancient, artisan and heirloom grains Freekeh is enjoying more popularity among chefs and home cooks. That is a good thing because it is awesome.

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The plate needed some more green in it. So I prepared a quick honey-lemon dressing that I tossed some salad greens in. To gild the lily a bit more I also drizzled a sauce of yogurt, cilantro and lime on the chicken. This went very well with the assertive and rich flavors of this dish. It was still winter-fall food but had a nice sharp and refreshing flavor while at the same time remained light.

Corn-Ricotta Soup, Shrimp and Brown Butter Mushrooms

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Corn and seafood is a classic and fantastic combination. We see a lot of shrimp and corn, corn bisque with crab, lobster tortellini with corn and off course corn chowder with cod or other seafood. This dish adapted from Sean Brock’s book Heritage is an instant classic in my home. It’s simple to make, is deliciously familiar and new at the same time.

To make the soup I sautéed chopped onions in butter with a bit of fresh thyme and then added freshly shucked corn kernels to the pot. In the meantime I prepared vegetable corn stock which is just vegetable stock with the shucked corn cobs simmered in it for 20 minutes or so. I added the stock to the corn mixtures and allowed it to simmer very briefly just until the corn is tender.

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Shrimp cooks fast and Brock’s method takes advantage of that to ensure it is perfectly tender and moist. Tough and chewy shrimp is a sad thing. I prepared the cooking liquid with vegetable stock, white wine lemons and some herbs and peppercorns. When this comes to a simmer I dropped in the shrimp and turned the heat off. After 20 minutes or so the shrimp was just cooked through. I took them out, allowed them to cool and sliced them into small pieces. Just before serving I tossed the shrimp with creme fraiche, lemon juice, fresh basil and seasoned them. This makes a lovely light and delicious shrimp salad. The leftover shrimp salad worked great in sandwiches for a couple of days afterwards.

Mushrooms

The mushrooms are cooked in sizzling brown butter with thyme sprigs. Nothing more than that. In hindsight I should not have used brown mushrooms. Brock’s original recipe asks for chanterelles. They are light in color but I can never find them. The brown mushrooms got a bit too dark and look like snails! They still tasted awesome but aesthetically they bugged me in an otherwise beautiful dish.

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When ready to serve, I pureed the corn soup and strained it through a sieve. I then put it back in the blender with a few ounces of homemade ricotta cheese and made a luxurious smooth mixture. I laid our the shrimp mixture and a few pieces of mushrooms in the bowls and gently poured the corn soup “table-side”. Earthy mushrooms, savory and fresh cool seafood and the warm sweet corn soup made for a great dish.

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Chicken, White Wine and Porcini Fricassee, Simple Risotto with Verjus

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I cooked this when mom mom was visiting recently. I’m glad she loves Italian food as much as I do and especially risotto, pesto sauces and any form of pasta. Really, who doesn’t? I have a nice pasta dish coming up soon but for now it’s a soul satisfying dish from one of my go-to Italian food resources, the late Marcella Hazan. I flipped through to her chicken section in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and settled on this homey fricassee.  Since mom loves risotto I chose to make a simple one to accompany our chicken dinner.

Chicken Porcini Fricasse Risotto

The chicken dish is based on dried porcini mushrooms and white wine. I soaked the dried mushrooms in very hot water while I got the chicken pieces browned in a hot pan. That pan gets deglazed with white wine and then I add the mushrooms along with their strained soaking liquid and some chopped canned San Marzano tomatoes. The chicken pieces cooked in this mixture while I worked on finishing the risotto.

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The risotto is a traditional and very straight-forward preparation. I cooked onions, carrots and celery in a mixture of butter and oil before adding the rice and cooking it for a few minutes. I add wine to that and then gradually add good flavorful chicken stock. I wanted to give the risotto a bit of tartness. So, all the way at the end after adding butter and Parmesan cheese I flavored the risotto with a few splashes of verjus.

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Rich, flavorful chicken and a perfect risotto made for a delicious meal. More importantly earned mom’s seal of approval.

Sockeye Salmon and Mixed Grains Rice with Citrus Miso

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Japanese cuisine is still a bit of a mystery to me. In my imagining of what Japanese food I always think of few ingredients, simple presentation, clean flavors and of course seafood. This is, I am sure, an oversimplification of a diverse cuisine. Recently I found myself at home with a free night. The kids and wife were away with the in-laws and I was free to try something that might or might not be up their alley. It also needed to be quick because I had a lot of chores to get through. That’s how I ended up playing around with some Japanese inspired flavors using pristine salmon, miso and sushi rice.

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Elizabeth Andoh’s book Washoku is one of a few Japanese cookbooks I own but is one I reach for often for inspiration or a quick recipe. I love her approach and the recipe usually deliver wonderful dishes. I knew that I will be making rice for my meal of course and her recipe for “Rice with Mixed Grains” is a terrific method for preparing it. I washed the sushi rice until the water ran clear and then mixed it with a few tablespoons of the grains (I used buckwheat, sesame and some flax seeds). Andoh’s method for cooking the rice is very detailed and relies a lot on the sounds of the covered pot more than anything. That strikes me as very romantic and…Japanese. The end result is a perfectly cooked bowl of rice. I kept some of it warm and slightly cooled some of it for my sushi plate. The slightly cooled rice was mixed with a little Mirin and rice wine vinegar.

I love the flavor of miso and have used it in marinades and sauces. The sharp savory salty flavor works so well with all foods, from meats to vegetables. I borrowed another recipe from Andoh’s book for a citrus miso. This is just white miso flavored with citrus zest and juice (lime and lemon) and cooked with sake to a delicious thick sauce.

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Slicing the fish for sushi is where practice -or lack of it- really shows. Sushi masters practice years to be considered proper sushi chefs worthy of slicing fish properly. If you have not seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, stop reading right now and go check it out and you’ll see what I mean by perfection in making sushi. My fish slices were fine but lacked that proper angle and finesse that good sushi has. The flavor of those bites was fantastic though.  I formed the rice into small mounds and dotted it with a bit of the miso sauce. The salmon went on top and got a garnish of grated daikon radish, finely sliced pickled ginger, sesame seeds and  a pinch of hot pepper powder. I plated the sushi on top of thin cucumber slices to add another texture. This dish was excellent with the perfect textures and lovely fresh balanced flavors ranging from nutty to salty and savory with a hint of sweetness.

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Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of the Nobu restaurant empire is probably one of the best known modern Japanese chefs. He does “fusion” well where the flavors of Japan mix with those of South America in a combination of classical and modern preparations. He was the first person I’ve seen pouring boiling hot oil over pieces of fish in order to barely cook them. He calls the oil “New Oil” in his book Nobu Now. It’s something he said he came up with to appeal to those squeamish about eating raw sashimi. So, I gave that a shot. I placed the sliced salmon on a plate and topped it with grated ginger and shopped scallions. Then I heated a few tablespoons of oil till smoking and drizzled that all over the fish.

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I plated the fish on top of the rice in a bowl and served it with a few small spoons of the citrus miso sauce. The barely cooked fish had a nice texture and was gently warmed. It worked  perfectly with the nutty rice and sharp sauce. It’s definitely a technique and dish that is easy to prepare and I will be exploring some more in different variations.

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