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Archive for March, 2010

Boy, is romesco sauce good.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

Romesco sauce is further evidence that one should have almonds in the freezer at all times, ready to jump into the food processor at a moment’s notice.  It is also further evidence that garlic is good, that red peppers should always be roasted, that a little sherry vinegar can bring any dish to life.

You will find yourself putting this romesco sauce on crostini, on chickpeas, in soups, on a pan-seared flatiron steak, on roasted asparagus.  You might even start tossing it with pasta, eating it with crackers, tortilla chips, celery sticks… Eventually, you’ll just be eating it straight out of the bowl with a spoon.  And perhaps cleaning the bowl with your fingers.  Consider yourself warned.

  • 2 red bell peppers, seeded, roasted and peeled (you can substitute jarred roasted peppers, or even omit the peppers entirely and increase the amount of tomato)
  • 2 cloves of garlic if you’re serving this to polite company, 4 cloves if you’re serving it to me
  • 1/2 c blanched slivered almonds (hazelnuts are also traditional and delicious)
  • 1/2 c homemade bread crumbs
  • 1/2 c tomato, chopped
  • 1 T sherry vinegar
  • 1 t pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)
  • olive oil, as needed (about 1/2 c)

Add everything but the olive oil to a food processor; add a few generous pinches of salt and grinds of black pepper.  Pulse a few times until the almonds are coarsely ground.  Put the food processor on low and drizzle in the olive oil until you make a creamy sauce that still has some texture from the almonds and the bread.  Serve.

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Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice.”  As a refutation of this statement, I offer up this breakfast gratin.

I try to be virtuous; I really do.  I’m trying to eat more whole grains, more beans, more fruit.  (My current project is to make a batch of whole grains and a batch of dried beans each weekend to use throughout the coming week; we’ll see how this goes.)  So, this weekend, I made my big pot of wheatberries.  I wanted to do something with it besides making wheatberry salad or wheatberry soup.  In particular, I wanted something I could eat for breakfast, which is a very carbohydrate-friendly meal, after all.  If I can replace my daily Cheerios habit with dishes based on oatmeal, cornmeal, wheatberries, quinoa, etc., I’ll be consuming less processed food, saving money, removing myself from the agricultural-industrial complex, and generally be living a more Walden-esque existence myself.  Or something like that.

Before they have their morning (five cups of) coffee, Militant Carnivores need to be handled gently, however.  Breakfast is not the time to be assaulted with discussions of commercial food production or spiritual awakening via whole grains.  Breakfast, frankly, is the time for maple syrup.  Or brown sugar.  Or strawberries and cream.  Or milk and honey.  (Nobody ever described the promised land as one of quinoa and spelt.)

So here we are with this breakfast gratin:  Some whole grains and fresh fruit, tempered with a little butter, milk and brown sugar.  It takes a little more time than fixing a bowl of Cheerios, true, but not much more time than making bacon and eggs.  And as you settle down to a bowl of warm, wheaty goodness, you’ll apprehend that brief, beautiful moment when virtue and vice dwell together in harmony at last, and “all nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself.”

Or something like that.

  • 1 T butter
  • 1 medium eating apple, such as Braeburn or Fuji, peeled
  • 1 c cooked wheatberries
  • 1/2 milk (skim if you’re feeling virtuous; whole if you need a little more vice in your life; heavy cream if you’ve descended irredeemably into moral turpitude)
  • 1/4 c blanched slivered almonds
  • 1/4 c brown sugar

Preheat the broiler.  Melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat.  With the coarse holes of a box grater, grate the apple into the butter; discard the apple core.  Saute the apple until it starts to brown, 4-5 minutes.  Add the wheatberries to the skillet and toss with the apple; saute for another 1-2 minutes.

Add the milk to the skillet; continue cooking for 1-2 minutes on the stove until the milk reduces and thickens.  Add a pinch of salt and a little black pepper, if you’re so inclined, to the skillet.

Mix the almonds and brown sugar together (I ground them together in the food processor, and I liked that quite a bit) and sprinkle over the top of the wheatberries.  Place the skillet under the broiler and broil until the topping is brown and starting to blacken in spots, about 1-2 minutes.

Serve immediately, with a little extra milk or a dollop of yogurt, if desired.  Contemplate how much better this is than cold cereal.

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Bread Crumbs

Free food.

That’s how I feel about bread crumbs.  Invariably, part of a baguette goes uneaten, and by the next day, it’s stale.  It could go into the trash, or it could go into a bowl and wait for more of its baguette brethren to accumulate, until the day comes when the bowl is full and it’s time to make bread crumbs.  (Be warned, though:  A bowl full of bread scraps sitting on your kitchen counter will attract curious stares from houseguests.  Prepare a few pithy replies to potentially awkward questions in advance.)

Homemade bread crumbs are far, far superior to the store-bought kind.  Besides being tasty enough to eat straight, they are perfect for:

  • breading croquettes, chicken and anything else you want to fry
  • mixing with cheese for topping gratins
  • stuffing vegetables
  • sauteing with olive oil and garlic and sprinkling on top of pasta (aka the poor man’s parmigiano)
  • covering bottom crusts of fruit pies to absorb excess juice

Once you’ve collected enough odds and ends of bread, the process is straightforward.  Crush the pieces of bread with your hands into crouton-sized pieces onto a baking sheet.

Place the bread in the oven and set for 300 degrees.  Once the oven hits 300 degrees, bake for 10 more minutes.  Turn the oven off and allow the bread to cool in the oven, about 20 minutes.  (You want the bread to develop a little golden color, but you don’t want it to burn.  Mostly, you just want it to dry out.)

Transfer some or all of the bread scraps to the food processor (you may have to work in batches).  If there are any pieces bigger than a golf ball, crush them as you put them into the food processor.  Pulse the food processor a few times until the scraps are ground into crumbs.

Set a colander over a bowl.  Pour the contents of the food processor into the colander, then shake the colander so that the crumbs fall into the bowl below.

Take any pieces of bread that stay in the colander and return them to the food processor.  Pulse again until ground into crumbs, then add to the rest of the bread crumbs.  (You could, I suppose, continue to sift the bread crumbs and pulse the remaining large pieces ad infinitum in a culinary version of Zeno’s paradox, if you were the sort of person with too much time on your hands.)

Place in an airtight container and keep indefinitely in the freezer.  Free food!

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Polenta is one of those things that make me feel like I’m missing something.  I’ll whip up some polenta in 30 minutes or less and really enjoy what I end up with, but to hear people talk about making polenta, you’d think that it was an alchemical problem on the magnitude of turning lead into gold.  (Molly Wizenberg eloquently discusses polenta’s intimidating reputation in her March 6th posting.)

At the risk of offending those of Italian origin (and those from the American South as well), because polenta, grits, whatever—we’re talking about cornmeal mush, something that involves precisely two ingredients:  cornmeal and water.  I’ll let other people argue about white cornmeal vs. yellow, stone-ground vs. not.  I’m just going to make some cornmeal mush.

I suppose the big challenge is keeping the cornmeal from sticking to the pot and scorching.  For me, using a double boiler takes care of this problem; if you don’t have a double boiler, you could cook the polenta in a metal bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water.  Otherwise, you can just use a nice, heavy saucepan (enameled cast iron would be ideal) and keep the heat as low as it can go.  (If the cornmeal sticks to the pot, just eat the polenta that doesn’t stick.  And then soak the pan in hot soapy water.)

Besides cornmeal and water, the only other essential ingredient is salt.  This basic vegan polenta is good enough to eat as is, but it is certainly a blank canvas just asking to be built upon (if I may mix my metaphors).  Black pepper and herbs (fresh or dried) make a lot of sense, as does good olive oil.  For those who eat dairy, butter and cheese are great; you could even make the polenta with milk instead of water, stir in some crème fraîche or mascarpone, top with sour cream…

This recipe also illustrates nicely the way in which I can satiate my militant carnivory while making something for my Lovely Vegetarian Wife.  A few slices of pan-fried Italian sausage really work with the polenta and the bitter greens; I can add them at my pleasure to this otherwise vegetarian dish.

Really Fancy Polenta:

  • 3/4 c medium-ground cornmeal (all I know is you don’t want the real fine stuff that you’d use for, say, breading catfish)
  • 1 t dried thyme
  • 1 T honey or maple syrup (I like how the sweetness sets off the bitterness of the broccoli rabe)
  • 1 T butter
  • 1/2 c grated cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano or other cheese

Broccoli Rabe (actually, when I made this the other day, I had “kale rabe” from the farmer’s market—basically, baby kale.  Cool, huh?):

  • olive oil, as needed for sauteing
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe, kale rabe or kale, washed, trimmed and chopped into bite-size pieces
  • pinch of cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes
  • 1 drizzle of balsamic or sherry vinegar

Put 4 c of water in the top part of a double boiler.  Bring to a boil.  Over another burner, put an inch of water in the bottom part of the double boiler.  Bring to a boil.

When the 4 c of water come to a boil, put the top part of the double boiler over the bottom part and place over low heat.  (You want to keep the water in the bottom part of the double boiler at a low simmer.)  Add a generous pinch of salt to the 4 c of water (hereafter known as “the cooking water”).  Drizzle the cornmeal into the cooking water with one hand while whisking with the other.  (It’s not as hard as it sounds.)  When all of the cornmeal is incorporated, whisk thoroughly so that the polenta doesn’t clump together.  Cover.  You may now walk away from the polenta.  It will be OK.  Go check Facebook for half an hour.

Once you’ve checked all your friends’ status updates, you’ll find that the polenta looks like this:

Congratulations.  The “hard” part is over.  Stir in any of the remaining polenta ingredients, if you wish:  They are all optional.   Add salt and pepper to taste.  Cover the polenta and remove the double boiler from the heat.

Meanwhile, prepare the broccoli rabe (if you’re making sausage, you can do that now, too):  Heat the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the broccoli rabe.

Add a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper; saute over medium-high heat until the rabe has wilted and started to brown in spots.  Add the cayenne and vinegar; stir to incorporate.  Remove from the heat.

Put some polenta in a bowl.  Top with the broccoli rabe (and sausage slices, if so desired).  Serve immediately, preferably with a glass of red wine.

For my Lovely Vegetarian Wife:

For me:

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OK, you’ve had your RavioliFest.  You didn’t use all of the butternut squash filling that you made for the ravioli.  What do you make for dinner the next night?

Butternut squash lasagna, of course.  Lasagna is a great way to use up leftover pasta filling, roasted vegetables, cheese…  If all you’ve ever had is lasagna with tomato sauce, ground meat and mozzarella, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how versatile lasagna can be.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with lasagna with tomato sauce, ground meat and mozzarella.  That may, in fact, be one of my Top Ten Things I’d Most Like To See If I Were Stranded On A Desert Island, somewhere between a two-way radio and a big box of matches.)

The key to lasagna is sauce béchamel (or, to use its Italian name, besciamella).  Any lasagna can be constructed out of four constituent parts:

1)  lasagna noodles

2)  bechamel sauce

3)  sauce/filling/leftover vegetables/ragout

4)  topping

The beautiful thing is that items #2, 3 and 4 can be made in advance, which means that lasagna can be assembled in the time it takes to boil pasta plus about 20-30 minutes of unsupervised baking.  In other words, a little advance planning makes homemade lasagna a weeknight possibility.

Assuming that you haven’t recently made ravioli with a bunch of your friends and therefore have leftover butternut squash filling, we’ll start from scratch:

Butternut Squash Filling:

  • 1 butternut squash, halved, seeds removed and discarded
  • 1/2 c pecans, almonds or hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1 c Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
  • generous grating of nutmeg
  • dash of cayenne pepper

Bechamel Sauce:

  • 2 T butter, olive oil or a combination
  • 2 T flour
  • 2 c milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • generous grating of nutmeg

Topping:

  • 1/2 c pecans, almonds or hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 c Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
  • olive oil, as needed
  • 1 box (1 lb.) lasagna noodles (I’ve never used those “no-boil” lasagna noodles.  I’m sure that, mutatis mutandis, they would work fine in this recipe, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.)
  • butter, as needed for buttering the baking dish

Step #1:  Roast the butternut squash.

Step #2:  Make the bechamel.

Step #3:  Make the topping.

Step #4:  Boil the lasagna noodles.

Step #5:  Make the butternut squash filling.

Step #6:  Assemble and bake the lasagna.

#1:  Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Put the butternut squash halves face up on a baking sheet and place on the middle rack of the oven.  Roast until tender and golden brown, about 1 hour.

#2:  In a medium saucepan, prepare the bechamel:  Melt the butter (or heat the olive oil) over medium heat.  Stir in the flour to form a roux.  The key to a roux is to cook it enough to get rid of the raw, floury taste, but not so long that it begins to turn brown (unless you’re going to make Cajun food).  So, heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.  When it looks like the flour and fat have formed a uniform, shiny paste, whisk in the milk.  Add the bay leaf, garlic, a pinch of salt and a generous grind of pepper.  Heat over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, for about 20 minutes.  This bechamel should be on the thin side, about the consistency of heavy cream.

#3:  Make the topping:  Stir the nuts and grated cheese together in a bowl; add some black pepper.  Set aside.

#4:  When the squash has been in the oven for about 30 minutes, put a large pot of water on the stove and set the heat to high.  If your stove is like mine, it will take about 20-30 minutes to bring the water to a boil.  When you have a rolling boil, generously salt the water and add the lasagna noodles.  Stir the water so that the noodles don’t stick together; cook for about 2 minutes shy of the package directions.  They should still be the slightest bit raw and crunchy in the center when you take them out.  (They will finish cooking in the oven.)  Drain, toss with olive oil (so they don’t stick together) and reserve.

#5:  When the squash is fully cooked, scoop out the flesh into a large mixing bowl; discard the skin.  Stir in the remaining filling ingredients.

#6:  Time to assemble the lasagna!  Keep the oven at 400 degrees (or preheat the oven to 400 if you haven’t just roasted the squash).  Butter the bottom and sides of a rectangular baking dish.  Coat the bottom of the dish with a layer of bechamel.  Set as many lasagna noodles as necessary to form a single layer over the bechamel.  Scoop on a few generous spoonfuls of squash filling.

Spread the filling as thin as you can, then drizzle on some more bechamel.  Add another layer of noodles, then some more filling.  Repeat, alternating layers of bechamel, noodles and filling, until the baking dish is filled to the top.  Pour any remaining bechamel over the top and down the sides of the lasagna.  Sprinkle the topping over the lasagna and drizzle some olive oil on top.

Bake the lasagna for 20-30 minutes, until it looks like this:

Remove from the oven, let sit for 5 minutes, then slice into squares and serve.

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Boy, if you want to make people happy, serve them gougères.  If they like cheese, they will love these delicious, can’t-eat-just-one cheese puffs.  The first time I had them, my Friendly Neighbor made them for a dinner party.  Someday I will admit how many gougères I ate that night, but not today.

Gougères are nothing more than baked pieces of pâte à choux, an easy-to-make dough that is also used for profiteroles, with grated cheese added.  Gruyère is a traditional choice for the cheese, but I think almost any grating cheese will work well.  Frankly, it’s a great way to use up any odds and ends of cheese that you have lying around.

One caveat:  Making the pâte à choux is something of a workout.  Once you cook the flour-milk mixture, transfer the dough to a food processor to mix in the eggs.  (If you’re looking for some strenuous activity, however, by all means, stir the eggs in by hand.)

  • 1 c milk
  • 8 T (1 stick) butter
  • 1 c flour
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 c (oh, heck, 2 c) grated cheese (Gruyere, Emmenthaler, cheddar or a combination)
  • 2 t minced rosemary or thyme (optional)

Put the milk and butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

When the milk begins to simmer, take it off the heat.  Do not let it boil over!

Mix together the flour and baking powder, then stir into the milk mixture.  Place the saucepan over low heat and continue stirring until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Remove the pan from the heat.  You can either leave the dough in the pot and stir the eggs in by hand, or transfer the dough to the food processor.  Either way, you should add the eggs one at a time.

Incorporate each egg thoroughly before adding the next one.  When all of the eggs are added, you should have nice, shiny pâte à choux.

Stir in the cheese and herbs, if using them.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Butter a baking sheet. Using two spoons, drop pieces of dough onto the baking sheet.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until the gougères are golden brown.  Serve.

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Once the peppers are roasted and peeled, it takes all of thirty seconds to create this delicious and versatile condiment.  The basic ingredients are:

  • 4 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, roasted and peeled
  • 1 t (or more, to taste) vinegar, preferably sherry
  • olive oil, as needed (about 2 T)

The procedure couldn’t be simpler:  Put everything in a blender.  Blend, scraping down the sides as needed.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve.

From here, you can vary the purée as you see fit:  If you’d like it to be tarter, add some more vinegar.  Spicier?  Add cayenne (or you could roast and peel some hot chiles and add them with the bell peppers).  Depending on the type of dish in which you want to use the red pepper purée, you could add pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika), rosemary, cumin, coriander…  Red pepper mayonnaise?  Add an egg and some more oil.  How about red pepper aioli?  Just throw some garlic into the red pepper mayonnaise.

As for serving ideas, here are five:

  • Pour some purée over simply steamed or roasted green vegetables:  Broccoli and asparagus are natural choices.  The purée provides great color contrast as well as a flavor boost.
  • Use on a sandwich in addition to or in place of mayonnaise or mustard.
  • Stir into vinaigrette and serve over salad greens.
  • Blend with equal parts feta and serve as an appetizer with pita.
  • Stir into quinoa or other cooked grains.

(One other perk:  You can use yellow or orange peppers, or a combination, instead of the red.  This gives you yet another range of colors in your culinary palette.  The purée in the picture below is made out of a mix of all three colors.)

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