Hummus bil Tahini – Creamy Chickpea, Lemon and Sesame Paste Dip

Hummus6 Having grown up eating chickpeas (hummus in Arabic) mashed with garlic, lemon juice and the all-important sesame paste (Tahini or Tahina) on a regular basis it was really interesting seeing how this dip took off in the last 10 years or so. It’s everywhere now, on every other restaurant/pub/diner/health food restaurant’s menu. This is both a blessing and a curse. When done well it is so damn delicious and satisfying. More often than not it is garbage. Sold in tubs at the store or from that crappy brand ubiquitous in every grocery store (I’m talking about Sabra) it’s a sad imitation of what it should really taste like.

At best you find it to be edible and at worst it is a crusted over, chalky paste of little flavor besides the citric acid that manufacturers dose it with instead of real lemon juice.
What’s worse (ok, maybe not worse, but still irks me) is how the name became synonymous with almost ANY dip that is not guacamole or sour cream-onion! We have everything from beets to black beans to lentils to peas and even chocolate going into the food processor and emerging as “hummus”. Seriously? What if we go ahead and blend some cauliflower with cilantro and call it “cauliflower guacamole”? Again, the word Hummus does not mean “shitty dip”. It literally means chickpeas. So if your dip -as delicious or crappy it might be- does not have chickpeas it is not hummus.

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Now really, what is more annoying is that people go and buy the mediocre to horrible product instead of making it themselves at home. It is probably one of the most simple, easiest fool-proof things you can prepare at home and can be done in 10 minutes if you use canned chickpeas. It is also light years better than anything you can buy. I love my recipe below so start with that. However, some people might like more or less lemon juice. More garlic? Add it and see. My brother includes no garlic (crazy I say). Hate cumin? Get rid of it. The constants have to be the chickpeas, lemon juice and good tahini.

 Tahini used to be a bit trickier to find and you had to go to a middle eastern grocery store for it. Now though, I see it everywhere, from my local grocery chain here in Texas to Whole Foods. I like a Lebanese brand called “Al-Wadi” that I buy locally in Houston. See what brands you can find locally or just get it online. Make sure it only contains sesame in it and it is not made from toasted sesame. The toasted sesame ones will give it a much stronger and overpowering taste. Either way stir the paste in the jar really good before using it because it does settle and separate.

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Other than chips, pita chips, celery sticks…what can you serve this lovely creamy dip with? A traditional way is alongside grilled kebabs, especially Kafta kebabs. I’ll be posting a recipe for that soon as well. Feel free to add toppings to it and make a meal out of it. A traditional topping is minced lamb, onions and pine nuts browned in plenty of butter and drizzled on top while still sizzling.

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Hummus bil Tahini

  • 1 can chickpeas, 29 – 30 oz.
  • 150 gr Tahini
  • 1 large garlic clove, about 6 gr, minced.
  • 1 tsp Cumin
  • ¼ Cup water
  • ½ Cup lemon juice, or more
  • Salt to taste
    Blend in in a food processor till very very smooth and creamy. Just when you think it is smooth enough, scrape the sides and process it some more. Total time of processing should be around 8 minutes. Taste and season with salt and more lemon juice if needed. Serve it drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with hot or sweet paprika.
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Lowcountry Hoppin’ John and Cotechino

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Cotechino with lentils is the classic, but in the American south eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is the tradition. So, here the Hoppin’ John stands in for the lentils and a mighty fine stand-in it is too.

Making Hoppin’ John is not difficult but it does pay to have a solid recipe to follow and a good set of ingredients, namely the peas and rice. Ever since seeing chef Sean Brock on the excellent PBS show “The Mind of A Chef” and then reading through his book, Heritage, I have been ordering various grains and legumes from Anson Mills. The Sea Island Red Peas from them are as delicious as they are beautiful and they are great in Brock’s recipe for Lowcountry  Hoppin’ John.

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I soaked the peas overnight in water before cooking them in homemade ham stock along with chopped carrots, onions, celery, a jalapeno, thyme and bay leaves. They simmer until tender and really hold on to their shape. A cup or so is removed and blended with butter to make a red pea gravy. This gravy stays separate and gets seasoned with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. At service time the Hoppin’ John is dolled out into bowls with rice and the gravy gets added to each bowl as needed. It’s a very comforting and delicious bowl of food and just feels very nutritious. Yeah, I know, “feels nutritious” is a pretty silly term…but well, not sure how else to describe it. It just does….and I can describe it any damn way I want on my little blog anyways.

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Now, onto the rice. It’s Carolina Gold rice also from Anson Mills. It has a lovely nutty flavor and good texture. I followed Brock’s instructions to cook it as well. First I boiled it in plenty of water like pasta until barely cooked. I drained it, spread it in a small baking sheet and put it in the oven at 300 F. I dried it for about 10 minutes, dotted it with butter and gave it a stir. After another 5 minutes or so the excess moisture was gone and the rice was perfectly cooked. The grains were cooked through with a slight toothsome texture and separate.

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I made the sausages the day before. I rarely make them the exact same way every year. This time I based them on a recipe from the Napa butcher shop called The Fatted Calf and their book, In the Charcuterie. I’ve been cooking them sous vide for a while as well. I did a side by side this year though just to see if anything is gained by cooking the sausage in a pot of water in the oven at a low temp. Well, sous vide wins. The one that went in the oven lost a whole lot more volume and was not as evenly cooked as the sous vide ones. It was not bad by any means but I will be sticking with using my precision cooker for upcoming Cotechino cooks. 

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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.

Mung Beans

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.

Burghul-Mung Bean

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.

Cotechino, Lentils, Polenta and Salsa Verde

Cotechino-Lentils-Verde

Every year for New Year’s Day I usually have a Cotechino served with lentils on the table for dinner. I posted about this Italian sausage before here. It incorporates a good proportion of pig skin into the meat mixture and ends up with the most amazing unctuous rich texture. It’s all offset by balanced spicing and sharp flavors that accompany it.

Cotechino is great with lentils, potatoes or polenta. I was going back and forth between serving it with the lentils or the polenta. Eventually I decided why not do both while at the same time dress the dish up a bit and sharpen the plating and the flavor. I also tried some new methods to take my pictures this time around going mostly manual as opposed to allowing the camera to pick the settings. There is a lot of room for improvement but I like the end result and am hoping to keep playing with that.

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On prior occasions when I made lentils to accompany the sausage, I primarily relied on a recipe that added tomatoes, stock, rosemary…That was a bit much. The sausage alone has a ton of flavor and does not need a heavy-handed side dish to clash with it. So, this time around I made a basic lentil stew. I used, as always, Puy lentils and just cooked them in sautéed onions, celery and garlic before stewing them gently in water with some fresh thyme thrown in. A final dash of salt and vinegar as well as a helping of salsa verde (more about this in a minute) rounded the lentils out very nicely.

I prepared the polenta in the oven (about 4:1 water to polenta ratio, cooked uncovered at 350 F for about an hour). I allow it to set spread about 1/2 inch thick and then cut it into circles. These get a quick dusting of flour and then pan-fried in olive oil to crisp them up.

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I wanted another layer of flavor to the dish and a salsa verde is it. This is one of my go-to sauces for everything from salmon to steak. It’s not the Mexican one that incorporates tomatillos in it. This Italian salsa verde is a herb sauce composed mostly of parsley. It’s basically chimichurri’s  much better sister (sorry Argentinean sauce lovers!) I try to incorporate some portion of basil in there as well and even a few mint leaves if I have them. These get chopped up (as fine or coarse as you like – I like it on the fine side) with capers, a garlic clove or two, sour pickles and a couple of anchovies. To bring it all together a very healthy dose of olive oil is stirred in along with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Once you make it a couple of times you’ll get the hang of how you like it and can adjust the quantities of the ingredients accordingly. I first heard of it many years ago in Jamie Oliver’s first book and I still like to prepare it like he does, just start chopping the parsley and add more ingredients to the cutting board…chop chop…add a few more ingredients…chop chop…as you go. It’s a marvelous sauce with great flavors and textures.

I tried a new time and temperature to cook the Cotechino sous vide this time as well. Per a suggestion from Jason Molinari  I reduced the temp to 68.3 C and cooked it for longer, 24 hours. I like the result a lot but I think there is still room for improvement. Dropping the temperature to around 65 or 62 C and cooking it for anywhere between 24 and 36 hours might be even better next time around to preserve more moisture and flavor. I sliced the sausage and topped a few of the slices with grated Parmesan cheese before searing all the slices on both sides. The final dish was exceptionally good. Not too heavy, cloying or greasy at all. The flavors worked great and the green sauce looked awesome and was a spot-on complement to everything.

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Cod, Lentils and Chips

This is loosely based on an Alinea dish that has something like 30 different components. The Alinea recipe combines flaky white sea bass with lentils, a variety of mushrooms, purees, and a red wine glaze. Compared to my not very successful butternut squash dish that had the benefit of a lot of planning, this dish came together naturally, quickly and was a lovely dinner. I basically had the white cod and some time on my hands. I remembered the Alinea dish and borrowed the idea of combining the fish with lentils and enoki from it. I also remembered a dish from Modernist Cuisine, based on an Eric Ripert recipe, that combines Escolar with beurre rouge (red wine butter sauce) and little rounds of fresh potato chips. Fancy fish and chips!

To prepare the french Puy lentils I cooked them till soft and then stirred in finely diced and sautéed vegetables and aromatics. I seasoned them with fresh thyme and some of my homemade red wine vinegar. They had a perfect bright flavor and a wonderful “pop”. The potato chips were so good the kids and I almost ate them all before I got a chance to even start plating. I first thinly sliced a russet potato on a mandolin and then used a small cookie cutter to stamp out perfect little rounds. I am supposed to only use these rounds in the dish and dispose of the other pieces where the rounds where cut from, but after frying them all up they just had a very neat look. So I decided to plate them along with the perfect little rounds. The potatoes really elevated the dish. They gave it a refined look and added a ton of texture and flavor.

Now, on to the “broken” red butter sauce. It’s not supposed to be broken of course, but I used it anyways. It was too late to make anymore and really it tasted and looked fine. Many a modern recipe, like those in the NOMA book, specifically go for this non-emulsified sauce look.  I have tried to make this particular recipe for beurre rouge that uses xanthan gum from Modernist Cuisine three times now.  The recipe has you make a reduction of red wine and aromatics, just like a traditional method. Then you whisk in xanthan and then the butter. The gum is supposed to make the sauce more stable and prevent it from breaking. Well, it breaks every damn time. I am not sure what the problem is, but I know that next time I will be making it the old-fashioned way. It might be more temperamental, but it has never broken on me.

I cooked the fish sous vide after bagging the fillets with a few knobs of butter. For Diana, as usual, I quickly seared the fish right before serving. She loves a bit of color on her fish fillets. For me, I did not sear it. I much prefer the pure white and perfectly cooked fish. For the Enoki mushrooms, I made a butter bath (that just sounds nice) in a small sauce pan and gently poached them in there. I seasoned them with salt right before plating. Last component was the asparagus. I quickly blanched the spears in boiling water and then dropped them in ice water. I only wanted to use the tips, so I cut them off and warmed them in the same beurre monte that I used to poach the mushrooms.

Split Pea Soup with Ham, Fresh Peas and Mint

I cured my own ham to serve for Thanksgiving this year. This was one huge piece of pork from Yonder Way Farm. It was cured for a couple of weeks before being smoked, braised, glazed and baked. The ham made for a fantastic meal or more like ten meals including breakfasts and work lunch sandwiches. After a couple of weeks of that I still had a large ham bone with a good bit of meat stuck on it. What else to do with it other than a rich split pea soup.

I remembered that Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home has a recipe for split pea soup so I went to review it and found that, of course, it was not your straightforward typical split pea soup. The typical version usually entails boiling a bunch of dried split peas with a ham hock or ham bone and aromatics. The soup is usually very rustic with chunks of pork from the ham and whole split peas. It’s a tasty warming winter dish. Thomas Keller takes those elements and makes a wonderful version that is at once refined, rich and satisfying on all levels. I stuck fairly close to the recipe, but instead of the ham hock I used the ham bone I had. I used the pressure cooker to make a very tasty ham bone broth with onions, leeks and carrots. Then I simmered  split peas in the strained broth until they were soft and almost falling apart. Now, instead of leaving the peas whole Keller has you pureeing the whole thing to make a perfectly smooth soup that has a creamy mouthfeel but has no cream.

To finish, I blanched a bunch of frozen green peas in boiling water until barely done and still retained their freshness. Half of these went into the pureed soup. In each bowl I put some of the remaining green peas and some shredded reserved meat from the ham (I reserved the meat before I used the bone for stock). Then I poured in the soup and garnished it with mint leaves and a few dollops of creme fraiche. It was amazing, comfort food at its best and a great example of a split pea soup. Keller often talks about “finesse” and refinement, the details that make a good dish great. In this case it’s not just pureeing the soup, but the addition of those fresh green peas and mint leaves. They add so much pop and freshness to a bowl of soup that could be otherwise a bit monotonous. Of course that meant I probably ate way more of it that I should’ve.

Cassoulet and Green Salad, Country Bread and Red Wine, Walnut Tart – A Dinner from Southwest France

A long titled post suitable to a properly labor-intensive and delicious cold-weather meal. Both the Toulouse-style Cassoulet and the Walnut Tart are based on Paula Wolfert’s recipes in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France“. The bread is the Pain de Campagne (country bread) recipe from Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread baker’s Apprentice“.

Making a proper Cassoulet is a good bit of work and to get the most out of this dish you really should not cut corners. Boiling some beans and adding in a couple of sausages might be good, but is really not the same animal. It’s almost “wrong” to make a Cassoulet that does not take a couple of days worth of work (mostly unattended simmering or resting). It’s part of the enjoyment that goes into it when you crack that crispy breadcrumb crust that you know how much work really went into making this sublime dish.

It helps a lot having a freezer and larder that is fully stocked. I already had home-cured pork belly (pancetta), home-cooked duck confit, good rich stock (venison in this case), trimmed and cleaned pig skins, home-made Toulouse-style sausage and a few pounds of wild boar. This means I could dive right into cooking the Cassoulet and putting these items together without having to worry about making confit or shopping for pig skins and duck fat.

So, what is involved in making a Cassoulet?

– Simmer pork shoulder (I used wild boar), pig skin, along with aromatics and vegetables (leeks, carrots, thyme, bay, a little tomato paste…)  until mostly tender.

– Add in a pound or 2 (Wolfert uses two for a HUGE Cassoulet, I used one to make half a recipe) of soaked white beans and cook until tender.

– Seperate the beans and stock from the meats. Store in the fridge overnight or for a few days.

– Enrich the stock by pureeing some of it with garlic and pork fat. Add that to the beans, rest of the stock and the pork chunks. Simmer for a little bit.

– Remember those Toulouse sausages I mentioned earlier? Cook those separately. I cooked them sous vide till done. Cut them into pieces.

– For the duck confit, just remove the skins, take the meat off the bones and leave it in big chunks.

– “Build” the Cassoulet by first laying the flat pieces of cooked pork skin (the one we simmered with the beans) in the bottom of a large pot. I used one of my Colombian Chamba clay pots.

– Top that with half of the bean mixture, then the duck confit. Top with the remaining bean mixture. Use a perforated spoon here so that you can control how much of the bean stock is needed. I ended up using all of it for the liquid to come up barely to the level of the beans.

– Bake the Cassoulet for an hour or two. A skin will form on the surface. Stir that “skin” into the Cassoulet. Bury the cooked sausage chunks in the beans leaving them slightly exposed. Top with a tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs and a drizzle of duck fat. Bake until crispy, bubbly and delicious.

– Let it rest for 5-10 minutes at least and dig in.

It really sounds like much more work than it is. Most of the cooking can be spread out over a couple of days and you will be rewarded with one of the most delicious of French comfort foods ever. It’s one of those dishes that if done right are satisfying and rich but not cloying. It should not be mushy or fatty. To get that result, one needs to pay attention to the small details.

Detail1: DO NOT let the beans boil like crazy. As soon as the stock comes up to a boil lower the heat to a very gentle simmer. This way you can control the cooking process better and can cook the beans perfectly. Rapid boil will almost insure burst beans. This will make for unpleasantly mushy beans, a thick cloudy stock and will emulsify the fat in it making it more difficult to de-grease.

Detail2: A key reason why a good Cassoulet should be stretched over a couple of days is de-greasing  the stock. Storing the beans in the cooking liquid in the fridge will form a thick layer of fat on the surface from all those meats. It’s easy to remove that before continuing with the cooking and baking.

What to serve it with? Other than red wine? You really don’t need much else, but a piece of good bread and a tart salad are excellent accompaniments. I shaped the bread specifically for the Cassoulet dinner into an epis (wheat tip) so we could just break off pieces instead of slicing…and it looks pretty neat. The salad was a simple mixed baby greens mix with a vinaigrette of raspberry vinegar and walnut oil.

It only seemed appropriate that to cap it all off, I would make a dessert from the same region. So from the same book, I made Wolfert’s walnut tart or as she calls it Walnut Tart from Masseube. This is not a typical tart, more of a cross between a cookie and a tart. The filling is a mixture of walnuts and a dark butter caramel. This gets poured into a tart shell lined with a sweet short pastry crust. Another layer of pastry goes on top and then it is baked. When the tart cools the filling sets pretty firm, like a pecan pie filling minus most of the “goo”. We really loved this with a cup of coffee and a touch of whipped cream.