VDP: Quinoa with Roasted Winter Squash

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I am not sure why it took me so long to try cooking Quinoa. I’ve had this bag of it sitting in my pantry for a couple of months now. I guess I was worried it would be tough to cook, or maybe Diana would not like it or I would not like it… Sure, I’ve had it once before, at El Bulli in Spain of all places, but it was such a small sample and I did not remember exactly how it tasted. Today was the day though.

I roasted some winter squash and glazed them with soy, ginger and maple syrup following a Cook’s Illustrated recipe and made quinoa to go with them. I used a basic recipe in Bittman’s vegetarian book. It could not have been simpler and cooks pretty fast. I sautéed the tiny grains in some olive oil with onions and added twice the amount of quinoa in water. Let it simmer, cover and cook. Very much like making rice.

The result was excellent and appreciated by everyone. The quinoa was fluffy and tender with a bit of texture. The taste was mild and very slightly vegetal. I will by using it instead of rice in many dishes in the future.

The squashes? Of course these were great. I love them in all their varieties, here I used an acorn squash and a couple of baby pumpkins.

VDP: Arish

Monday, October 3, 2008

Looks a lot like ricotta, but it’s not. It’s Arish or Arishah. It is a Lebanese staple and is ridiculously easy to make and versatile. I made this batch because I found myself with about a half-gallon of homemade yogurt that was starting to turn too sour. In case you are wondering, I made a whole gallon about a week ago and figured we’ll eat what we can and make Arish with the rest. So, keep this in mind if for some reason you are an overzealous yogurt purchaser.

The list of ingredients to make this delectable product includes: yogurt. That’s it. Just yogurt. Plonk it in a pot and heat it slowly until it curdles and separates. It should take maybe 20 minutes, depending how fast you are heating it. Let it cool slightly then dump it in a cheese cloth lined colander. Once it drains for a few hours or overnight, you’ll end up with something the texture of soft cream cheese, but a bit grainier. It will taste a bit similar to ricotta, but not exactly, it is definitely tangier and creamier.

It is delicious to eat as any other fresh cheese. Here, for dinner, I topped burger buns with some of it with salt, pepper, olive oil and a handful of arugula.

What else can we use Arish for? On toast, with sugar or honey, in small turnovers that can be fried or baked, crumbled on salads, or in the form of Shanklish. What’s that? It’s a topic for another post.

VDP: Beans and Carrots with an Onion Salad

Monday, September 1, 2008

Well, Labor Day is here and, supposedly, so was Gustav the hurricane. We spent the weekend in San Antonio and ate a lot of heavy meaty foods like barbeque (chicken, brisket and sausage) and tacos (in all shapes and forms from lengua to chorizo and egg to awesome gelatinous spicy Chicharron). So, come Monday I was craving something lighter and with a hurricane in the gulf I figured lighting up the grill was not a good idea. Turns out Gustav did not affect Houston much, not even with a drop of rain. In any case these slow cooked beans still made a perfect dinner.

I cooked the beans slowly for a long time in my black clay pot while we spent the day in the backyard cleaning up the garden and doing other chores. When the beans were soft, I cooked onions and bell peppers in olive oil on gentle heat. I added some minced garlic and white wine (I had some in the fridge that needed using up). To bulk up the beans, I also peeled and sliced a few carrots and tossed them with the onions before dumping the whole flavorful mixture into the beans. I let it cook some more and seasoned it with salt and pepper and a good dose of chives.

The beans were excellent served with plain rice, but the star of the dinner was the onion salad I made to go with the. Yes, onion salad. It was delicious, crispy and refreshing. To make an outstanding onion salad without the pungency (and bad breath) first slice the onions as thinly as possible. Then soak the onions in a bowl of water and ice and leave it in the fridge for an hour or two. This step is essential. It will make the pungent onions crispy and amazingly mild. When ready to toss the salad, drain the onions well and mix them with a thinly sliced bell pepper lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and a handful of chopped parsley. This salad is so good I can eat it by itself wrapped in pita bread or even better with some freshly fried potatoes.

VDP: Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella. Few ingredients are better when combined. I love to make this salad with the best tomatoes I can find. I toss them with a dressing made with excellent quality olive oil (a Sicilian one in this case), very little minced garlic, salt and pepper. The key is, if you have the time, to let the tomato salad rest, for 15-30 minutes. This draws some of the juice out of the tomato and blends with the dressing.

The basil is added next and mixed in. Then I arrange the tomatoes on a platter, tear off pieces of milky fresh mozzarella and scatter them on top. A bit of salad greens go on top. Arugula is especially good. I drizzle the mixture with the rest of the dressing and serve it with grilled or toasted rustic bread.

VDP: Green Curry with Tofu with Rice Noodles

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thai curry paste preparation is typically a bit complex. The number of items that go into the past can be huge, anything from dried shrimp to Kefir lime leaves to coriander roots. This one is a fairly simple one I improvised to make a quick weekday dinner. To make it faster I also used a mini-processor instead of my usual granite mortar and pestle. The result was very good for a tasty Thai-style green curry that took less than an hour from start to finish.

The past included garlic, galangal, turmeric (fresh NOT dried…well actually frozen and it looks like a miniature knob of ginger), shallots, lemongrass from my garden, Kefir lime leaves also from my own tree and cilantro. I pulverized the ingredients as well as I could in a small processor than sautéed them in coconut cream. Good Thai coconut cream separates in the can. So, you end up with a top layer of thick coconut cream, almost like sour cream in texture, and a more liquid part that is the coconut milk. Roughly about 30% of each can is cream. After the paste is cooked for a while and a bit dried, I added palm sugar, tamarind pulp, fish sauce and the coconut milk left in the can. I le this simmer VERY gently (or it will curdle) and then added my cubed soft tofu. I finished the curry with cilantro leaves and some shredded Kefir lime leaves.

I intentionally made the curry on the soupy side. The idea is sort of like a curry noodle soup of sorts! Heresy maybe, but the taste was exceptional. That blob of brown in the opening picture, by the way, is a Thai Chilli jam . I bring that up because it looks odd but it is so delicious. This mixture of chillies, dried shrimp, galangal and shallots among many other things is one of the best recipes I culled from David Thompson’s amazing tome, Thai Food.

VDP: Basil Gnocchi with Eggplant Sauce

Thursday, August 13, 2008

Potato gnocchi can be lumpy, doughy, stodgy and heavy or they can be as they should be, soft fluffy pillows of goodness. I’ve made both types and learned from my mistakes. They key is to use cooked potatoes that are as dry as possible, to use as little flour as possible (dry potatoes help with this), and to work the dough lightly and only as long as it takes for it to come together. You do not want to develop any gluten in there, which will make it chewy and the overworked potato turn it gummy.

I made these gnocchi using no specific recipe, just touch and feel. I boiled the potatoes and milled them. Then I spread them on a plate and allowed them to dry in a low oven for 30 minutes. To make the dough, I mixed the potatoes, about 1.5 cups, with one egg, salt, enough flour to bind it (maybe a small handful) and chopped basil. I formed the dough to ropes, cut the gnocchi and rolled them on the tines of a fork to give them the proper shape. Into boiling water they went and then into an ice cold water bath to halt the cooking. I tossed them with some olive oil in a bowl and put them in the fridge until the next day.

For the sauce I made eggplant in the style of a Sicilian Caponata. The eggplant is sautéed with onions, garlic, tomatoes and some raisins. When the sauce was ready I tossed in the pre-cooked gnocchi and served with extra Parmigiano cheese and pepper flakes. The basil in the gnocchi was a very good addition and went perfectly with the eggplant sauce. The texture was perfect as well, soft and light.

VDP: Penne with Cauliflower and Pesto-Ricotta Sauce

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Having a bounty of basil in the backyard gives me more of an excuse to eat pesto. I love the stuff on almost anything. Here as a pasta sauce for cauliflower. I was hoping to make some fresh pasta for this dish, but on a Tuesday in a busy week, I had no time. First, I par-boiled the cauliflower. Then it went in a pan with olive oil, onions and garlic while I boiled the pasta, Penne in this case.

For the sauce I mixed pesto with homemade ricotta, minced garlic and parmesan cheese. When the pasta was done and the cauliflower fully cooked, sweet and starting to brown I tossed everything in a large bowl and mixed in some lemon zest for good measure. The addition of the lemon zest was a spur of the moment thing, but it really made a big difference and transformed a good dish to an excellent one. I served it with chilli flakes, more grated parmesan and olive oil toasted breadcrumbs.

If it sounds a bit odd that I add toasted breadcrumbs to the pasta, let me write a couple of lines of background. It is not something I made up or thought of myself. First time I read about it was in one of Jamie Oliver’s books. It’s correct name is Pangriata or Pangritata and it’s origin goes back to poorer Italian cooks who used it as a substitute to the more expensive grated cheese topping. It really is a wonderful way to add crunch and extra flavor to pastas and risottos especially. Anything can be mixed in it too, like maybe some herbs or chilli flakes.

VDP: Stuffed Eggplant

Friday, August 1, 2008

This is one of those dishes that sounded much better that it turned out. It was not bad, per se, just ok. I envisioned a light but very flavorful dish of stuffed eggplant. I’ve had similar versions that included ground beef or sausage and it was delicious. This was a bit too light on flavor. It felt like it was missing something. Maybe some cooked rice or other grain might’ve helped things.

To make it, I halved the eggplants and spooned the flesh out. I sautéed the chopped eggplant flesh along with onions, bell peppers and garlic. To finish the filling I crumbled in some farmer’s cheese, mixed in an egg and some chopped basil. The eggplant “shells” were broiled to par-cook and dry a bit. I scooped the filling into them and topped with some Parmigiano cheese and bread crumbs.

After baking at 400F for about 30 minutes I served them as is. The filling tasted pretty good but was not as satisfying as I had hoped. Unfortunately, the eggplant shells were not edible. They were leathery and not very pleasant. So, we only at the filling. You live you learn.