Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Golden Coconut Rice: from a Malay wedding

Having lived nearly 8 years in Malaysia, I was lucky enough to eat, and learn to cook from people who did them well, many delightful dishes from that multi-ethnic country. One of the lesser known cuisines, at least to the outside world, is Malay cooking. It can be quite wonderful. Having a lot of overlaps -- and some origins -- with Indonesian cooking, especially Sumatran cooking, Malay cuisine also has Indian, Chinese, Arab, and perhaps some Thai influences. One of the best known Malay dishes, 'satay', the grilled kebabs on skewers (in turn originally from Indonesia with hints of Arab ancestry), with their sweet-tangy peanut sauce, has been happily borrowed into Thai cooking and made widely popular as 'sateh' or 'saté' at Thai restaurants.

One of the dishes I recall fondly is rice cooked with coconut milk ('nasi lemak'; 'nasi' meaning rice and 'lemak' meaning rich) and its fancier version, golden coconut rice ('nasi lemak kuning'; 'kuning' meaning yellow). Golden rice invoked royalty (Malay sultans still officially wear yellow silk vestments), and was served at special occasions, like weddings. I was fortunate enough to go to a number of these. Golden coconut rice also shows up in the cooking of southern Thailand, where many of the people are of Malay ancestry, are Muslim, and share a number of cultural features with their Malaysian neighbors to the south.

This richly flavored dish is more typical of Malay and Indonesian rice cooking than of Thai, where preparing rice with any seasoning, even salt, is exceptional. Coconut rice is a dish in its own right and would typically be served with dry accompaniments, such as caramelized rings of onion, roasted peanuts, crisp-fried tiny fish, and cucumber wedges, rather than with a wet curry or sauce. With this rice I particularly enjoy chicken marinated and fried with soy sauce, called 'kicap ayam' in Malay and 'gai see yu' in Thai. (That easy chicken recipe will show up in a subsequent blog posting.) We serve these dishes with each other at 'Donderos' Kitchen' in Athens.

The recipe serves six generously, at least six Westerners. In terms of beverage, good Malays, being Muslim, would not drink alcohol, with or without food. For me, a beverage accompaniment would be based on what is served with the rice. Beer would be the most common drink in Malaysia among those not restricted on alcohol.

Golden Coconut Rice

1-3/4 cups Thai jasmine or other long-grained rice
3 tablespoons finely minced onion
3/4 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk, shaken well before opening can
1-2/3 cups water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons oil-roasted peanuts for garnish
1 to 2 small cucumbers, pickling type preferred, for accompaniment

In a heavy cooking pot (or in a rice cooker), rinse and drain the rice twice with cold water. Add the minced onion, coconut milk, water, salt, and turmeric. Stir. Bring to a boil. After 30 seconds, but without stirring, cover the pot, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer 20 minutes without opening the lid. Turn off the heat, keep the pot covered, and let the rice sit for another 10 minutes. If using a rice cooker, use the same ingredients and proportions, cover and allow the rice mixture to cook without opening the lid. When the light goes off, let the cooker sit at least 10 minutes before opening the lid.

Fluff the rice with a fork. Serve it on a platter, rather than in a bowl, sprinkled with the peanuts and surrounded by sliced (1/4-inch thick) cucumber, unpeeled unless the skin is tough or waxed.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cooking Great Rice: Easy

Yesterday I posted a recipe for a Thai yellow curry. It NEEDS well-cooked rice to accompany it. In Thai, as in Malay-Indonesian, Chinese, and (I'm told) other Southeast Asian languages, you don't "eat". You "eat rice". Even if you're having noodles or bread! Rice is so fundamental to most Asian cuisines that it is considered the base, or more simply, rice is 'food'. In Thai, curries, fish, stir-fry dishes, and the other things we in the West think of as principal dishes are collectively called "with rice". And rice in East and Southeast Asia is cooked without salt.

With rice so key to Asian dining, cooking it well is critical. It can be easy, as I'll illustrate with both Thai jasmine rice and Indian-Pakistani basmati rice. A rice cooker makes the process simple -- as long as you handle the rice correctly and get the quantity of water right. But rice is almost as easy to cook well on top of the stove. How to cook rice is usually the first thing I teach in my Evening-at-Emory international cooking classes.

The two methods here are for Thai 'jasmine' rice and for basmati rice. The first recipe is the actual way it is done for Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese cooking. By contrast, the basmati method is simplified, since the original methods in Indian, Pakistani and, especially, in Persian cooking can be elaborate, with soaking, par-cooking, draining, and final steaming.

One of the keys is buying good rice, and the more aged the better. 'New Crop' is advertized as if it were a positive. That's like Tom Sawyer convincing his friends fence painting is fun. In Malaysia, where we lived for a long time, this year's rice was considered distinctly to be avoided. Recently harvested rice is moister, is harder to cook well, and is a little rubbery and tough. Another key is rinsing and draining the rice before cooking it. This washes off the starch and dust left from the milling, along with any little beasts that got into the rice. The rinsing distinctly improves the rice texture. American rice, which is a less insteresting substitute for Thai or Indian rice, is 'enriched' by powdering it with lab-created vitamins and minerals. Rinsing will wash them off. But unless you are dependent on rice for your micronutrients, I'd advise choosing good eating over marginal nutrition, but that's me. The third key is tightly covering the rice while it is cooking, NOT STIRRING, and NOT UNCOVERING the rice throughout its cooking and 10-minute post-cooking rest period.

‘Steamed’ White Rice (Thai and Chinese style)

This recipe will serve six Westerners, or four Thai.

2 cups long grain rice (preferably Thai ‘Jasmine’; not Uncle Ben’s or Basmati)
2-1/2 cups water
NO salt

Place rice in heavy pot and rinse twice with water, draining the water from the pot while holding the rice in with your hand cupped along the edge of the pot. Add 2-1/2 cups water (not hot) and bring to a boil, uncovered. When a full boil is reached, let rice boil 30 seconds, then cover tightly with lid or a plate, reduce heat to the lowest possible and let simmer 20 minutes without lifting the lid to peek. Without uncovering the pot, turn off heat and let sit for at least 5 minutes (10 minutes is better). Then uncover and fluff the rice gently with a fork and cover until needed.

Alternatively an electric rice cooker can be used with the same proportions of rinsed rice and water. Allow rice to sit at least 5-10 minutes after the light turns off before fluffing with the fork. Cover the rice again. The rice cooker will keep it hot until needed.

Note: Previously cooked and refrigerated rice can be very successfully reheated in the microwave in a microwave-safe container covered with a lid or waxed paper, sprinkling the rice with a bit of water before heating and fluffing gently with a fork several times during heating until thoroughly and evenly hot.

Basmati Rice

This is a simplified version of South Asian rice cooking. It produces a light, fluffy, and individual rice. The key determinant is good quality basmati rice, which is grown in several areas of northern India and nearby areas of Pakistan. Generally the rice is cooked without salt, but there are a number of dishes where salt, and even spices, are cooked with the rice. If salt is desired, use 1/2 teaspoon for each cup of rice.

Use the same method as for Thai-style jasmine rice cooking, except use 3 cups water for the 2 cups of rice, after rinsing. The proportion, thus is 1-1/2 parts water for each part of rice. If desired, add 1 teaspoon salt to the 2 cups of rice along with the cooking water.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thai Yellow Curry with Chicken and Butternut: 'Curry' curry

Here is one of the more popular Thai curries. It sells well, made with chicken, fried tofu, or fish, at our deli, Donderos' Kitchen, in Athens, Georgia. Despite being a staple in Thai dinners, this one is actually the closest to an Indian curry, from which it originated. In fact the curry's name in Thai, kaeng karee (or garee) [gang gah' ree], is derived from the south Indian word 'kari' for curry. Thus 'curry' curry.

Four-ounce cans of "garee" curry paste are available at Asian groceries under the 'Maesri' label. Be sure not to get the sour 'yellow' curry paste, which is for a different dish. While at a place to get Asian groceries, get your canned unsweetened coconut milk ('Chaokoh' brand is reliable, and my Thai sister-in-law uses 'Arroy' brand), plus the fish sauce ('Squid' brand is fine, as is 'Tiparos'). Fish sauce keeps at room temperature after opening. Butternut is the best substitute for the Thai pumpkin, although kabocha squash is also close.

Thai curries scream for good white rice (please save the brown rice for something else). And it should be 'jasmine' rice, or at least a long-grained rice, and cooked without salt. My next blog posting, dated 1/26/08, gives the method for proper rice cooking, which is actually easy.

This recipe, with rice, serves six or more Western style (more than that Thai style, with less curry and more rice), but leftovers are really good. Beer is the best accompaniment, or very dilute unsweetened iced Chinese type tea, or water. Wine doesn't really go well, in my opinion, and I like wine with food.

Thai Yellow Curry with Chicken and Pumpkin Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast
1 small butternut (or kabocha) squash, about 1/2 to 3/4 pound
1 (4-ounce) can Thai yellow curry paste (“garee,” not the “yellow sour curry”)
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1 (14 to 15-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 can of water
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce, plus to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 sprig (5-6 leaves) basil, Asian type preferred, plus additional for garnish
2 red chili peppers for garnish

Trim away any tough parts and excess fat from chicken. Cut meat across into 1/4-inch or thinner slices. Cut longer pieces in half. Peel the squash. Split it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Slice crosswise 1/4-inch thick and cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces.

In a heavy pan over medium-low heat, gently fry the oil and the curry paste, stirring frequently, about 1-1/2 minutes. Add several tablespoons of coconut milk, and stir to combine well. When bubbling, add another four or five tablespoons of coconut milk, and stir until bubbling again. Add more coconut milk, part at a time, gradually increasing the amount added, and raising the heat, until all is used. Finally, add the water, half a can at a time, heating to a simmer after each addition.

When simmering, add the squash. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until just tender to the bite (about 5 minutes). Add 3 tablespoons fish sauce, the sugar, plus the chicken. Bring back to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes if using breast, 4 minutes for thigh (the chicken cooks very quickly). Taste the sauce, and if not salted enough add more fish sauce or salt. Add a little water if the sauce is very thick. (It should have the consistency of heavy cream.) Remove from the heat and let it sit 5 minutes, covered. Taste the sauce again, and add enough salt to make it very slightly salty (the meat and vegetable soak more up). If the sauce is not mildly sweet, add a little more sugar (Thai curries are usually somewhat sweet). Add 5 to 6 basil leaves, and stir them in.

The curry can be cooled and stored (the flavor improves by aging a little, at least half an hour). Reheat quickly (can microwave in covered dish), so as not to over-cook. Taste the sauce and add fish sauce or salt if not salted enough.

Serve with unsalted steamed rice, Thai jasmine type preferred. (Recipe for cooking Thai rice is posted on my blog just after this recipe.) Place curry in a serving bowl and garnish with more basil leaves and red chili, thinly sliced on an angle.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bourbon-Mustard Glazed Pork (or Chicken) Burgers: I'm on a roll

I'm back on a roll. After the successful 'chopped steaks' at my brother Tom's lunch last weekend (see blog posting of 1/20/08), I've gotten back to my love of ground meat. Maybe it's being a peasant at heart, but I have always loved burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, sausage, and, on the higher end, terrine and pâté. Somehow getting the flavors and juiciness into the meat has always delighted as well as challenged me. The proof, I guess, is that I have included a number of recipes based on ground meat in this blog over the last year and a half (Swedish meatballs, 10/30/07; green-peppercorn meatballs, 10/13/07; chicken pot pie, 9/13/07; Mediterranean meatballs, 8/27/07; Russian meat pie, 1/17/07; turkey-apple chowder, 12/04/06; blond chili, 10/28/06; Bolognese sauce, 9/15/06). And there are more to come.

This one is for savory, but simple, burgers of ground pork or chicken. They are finished in a bourbon reduction 'glaze' with Dijon mustard. Both flavors enhance these meats, the pork especially. The glaze would probably go with beef too, but I haven't tried it.

The recipe, uncharacteristically, is for only 3 servings (though it's easily doubled) because ground pork and chicken typically come packaged in one pound lots at the supermarket. Being savory burgers, they go well with beer. But a dry red wine of almost any type would do, though I'd choose a Garnacha from Spain or a Grenache from France if I had a choice. Dill pickles are a nice accompaniment.

Bourbon-Mustard Glazed Pork or Chicken Burgers Tim

3 good burger rolls, such as Kaisers, warmed

1 pound ground pork or chicken
Salt and pepper for sprinkling
A little canola or olive oil for frying

2 tablespoons finely minced or grated onions
2 teaspoons canola or olive oil
1/4 cup Bourbon whiskey
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, plain or whole grain
2 tablespoons half-and-half or cream

Prepare the glaze first: In a small pan gently fry the onions in the oil until translucent and beginning to turn golden (2-3 minutes). Add the Bourbon, sugar, salt, and pepper, and simmer until reduced by half. Stir in the mustard and cream and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

Heat a non-stick pan to medium hot. Shape the meat into three cakes, making them flat rather than rounded. Lightly salt and pepper the burgers on one side and fry them, seasoned side down, in a bit of oil. After one minute salt and pepper the tops and turn them over. Fry one more minute. Turn and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and gently complete the frying, turning one or more times, until a knife point twisted in a burger reveals no raw color.

Add the pre-cooked glaze to the pan, and turn the burgers over in the glaze several times over low heat. Transfer the burgers over onto the bottom halves of the rolls. Spoon any remaining sauce over the burgers and cover with the tops.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mushroom-Caper Smothered Chopped Steaks: for Tom

This past weekend as bitter cold struck from New England to Georgia I returned to my home town in the Connecticut River Valley to spend time with my brother who is in rapidly failing health and in hospice care. Although he himself is no longer eating, Tom had invited a neighbor and good friend from our younger days plus our third brother for lunch, which he asked me to fix. The improvised meal was quite successful, and we were all jolly despite the circumstances. Tom said the food smelled great, and he thoroughly enjoyed the happy sounds of his guests eating. The recipe is dedicated to Tom, for whom I'll probably never be able to cook again.

I had to shop quickly in the "Country Market" in the village center, a store which has changed little since I was a teenager. The meat there is freshly cut and artisanally presented, so much more beautiful and old-world than at the the big supermarkets in Atlanta. The other ingredients had to be simple, and the cooking fast. I picked up some mushrooms, a jar of capers, half-and-half cream, and some English muffins. There was little in Tom's kitchen to work with.

This recipe will serve six (I did a half a recipe). We did not have wine with our lunch, but a malty beer, like Bass, or a dry medium-bodied wine such as a Spanish or Italian red or a Pinot Noir would do well.

Mushroom and Caper-Smothered Chopped Steaks Tim

6 burgers at least 1/4-pound each, made from ground sirloin or chuck
1 pound mushrooms
3 English muffins, split
Butter or olive oil for toasting the muffins
Salt and pepper for the burgers
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons red wine
1-1/2 cups half and half
4 tablespoons capers, drained

Shape the burgers 1/2-inch thick, evenly flat, and a little wider than the English muffins (the meat shrinks). Rinse the mushrooms and trim off the bottom 1/8 inch. Slice the mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Warm the oven to about 150 degrees.

Heat a large frying pan to medium high and add several tablespoons butter or olive oil. When melted, place the split muffins cut side down and toast until just golden. Turn them and briefly heat the backs. Hold the toasted muffins in the warm oven. Heat the pan to hot. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on one side of the burgers and place them in the pan, seasoned side down. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the tops. After one minute, slide a spatula under them and turn them. Fry for one more minute, then turn them and reduce the heat. Cook until desired degree of doneness, testing by twisting the tip of a sharp knife into a burger and checking the interior color. When cooked, place the burgers on the English muffin halves and keep them warm.

If there is grease in the pan, pour off all except about 1-1/2 tablespoons. If not enough add a little butter or olive oil. Fry the mushrooms, sprinkled with 3/8 teaspoon salt, stirring often with a spatula so they don't stick. As they start to shed some liquid and begin to shrink, add the pepper and the red wine, and continue to stir and fry. When the wine has reduced, add the half-and-half and cook it down to half, stirring frequently. Stir in the drained capers and remove the pan from the heat. After a minute, taste and add a little salt if needed (the capers are fairly salty).

Place the burger-topped English muffins on lunch plates. Spoon the mushroom-caper sauce over the burgers.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Gourmet Mashed Potatoes: A supreme side dish

I realized as I posted the roasted salmon with three peppers sauce this week that I had never described how superior mashed potatoes can be if they are made well. Mashed potatoes would go well with that salmon and its sauce. I was reminded again when "garlicky mashed potatoes" turned up last evening on the side dish menu at "Manuel's", a good local tavern. Mashed potatoes -- the term sounds about as inspiring as white bread. But wait.....

I grew up with mashed potatoes. My mother, a New Englander of solid Irish ancestry served them for dinner 3 to 4 times a week. And her potatoes were excellent, good enough to just eat alone. In the last decade or two, mashed potatoes have crept beyond humility and into classy restaurants with creative chefs. Whether garlicy or buttermilked, with or without skins still in them, or with other flourishes (how about wasabi?), a bed of exciting mashed potatoes enhances beautifully grilled fish or roasted meat and provides a base for savoring the sauce.

Here's the principal way I fix mashed potatoes these days. As you'll see they've come a long way from my small-town childhood kitchen table. There is some French influence in this, as well as what I learned from home. For this version I'm using russet (Idaho baking type) potatoes for fluffy elegance, but Yukon gold with the skins unpeeled make heartier and richer, if somewhat less elegant, mashed potatoes. The Yukon gold version, though without the skins, is actually closer to what you might encounter as purée de pommes de terre in France.

There are a couple of minor tricks in the technique, plus several seasonings I am partial to. The recipe will serve six as a side dish. If there are leftovers, they can be made into flattened cakes, lightly floured, and fried in a little oil or butter in a non-stick pan for delightful potato cakes.

These potatoes would compliment a number of the dishes in this blog. Good candidates include: salmon with 3 peppers sauce (1/15/08); Alsatian chicken in white wine (1/14/08); Swedish meatballs (10/30/07); roasted salmon with fruited glaze (9/7/07); Russian meat pie (1/17/07); lemon-dill roasted salmon (1/10/07); Dijon chicken breasts (11/26/06); Autumn pork stew with fruit (9/30/06).

Gourmet Mashed Potatoes Tim

2 lbs potatoes, Idaho baking type or Yukon gold
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Seasonings: 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Large pinch cayenne or 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
4 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 tablespoons horseradish
1/2 cup half & half or whole milk
About 1/2 cup water reserved from boiling the potatoes

Peel the potatoes (or skins can be left on if not too thick or spotted: if not peeling, scrub potatoes well and remove any bad spots), and cut into 2-inch chunks. Place cut potatoes in cold water so they do not brown. In a pot you can mash in, boil potatoes in just enough water to cover the potatoes, adding peeled garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Boil until quite tender and beginning to flake off on the edges (10 -12 minutes), testing with a tooth pick or 2-pronged fork.

Drain the potatoes, saving part of the water in a bowl. Return the pot to the heat briefly and shake the potatoes to dry the bottom of the pan. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne or Tabasco, butter, and horseradish and mash well to break up all lumps. Taste at this point and add salt if necessary. Add the half and half or milk and continue to mash and mix. With the masher, beat in the reserved boiling water until a soft fluffy consistency is reached. Mix well with a spoon, since the potatoes in the edges of the pot may not have been fully seasoned. Taste again and adjust any seasonings necessary.

Cover and keep very warm until served. Or the potatoes can be stored, refrigerated, then put in a covered microwaveable casserole and reheated in the microwave, stirring and fluffing several times between microwavings, prior to serving.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

3-Peppers Salmon: A sudden creation

When my friend Alex returned to Atlanta Sunday for the start of the Spring semester at Emory, his parents drove with him from Charleston. I had invited the three of them for a simple supper to relax with after their lengthy road trip and to sample the fine New Zealand white wine Alex' father had previously brought. I promised sautéed shrimp over jalapeño-wine grits. I chilled the wine, got the slowly simmered stone-ground grits going, and went to buy final ingredients. Uncharacteristically there were no raw shrimp available, so I picked up the next best thing to go with grits and white wine, salmon.

Having only the ingredients I had bought for my shrimp and grits, I suddenly had to create. What resulted was, fortunately, remarkably good. But more important, it was stimulating and fresh to the taste. The four of us ate over three pounds of salmon, along with the grits, salad, crusty Italian bread, and two remarkably good white wines, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and an Italian Pinot Grigio. With a rich meal like this, appetizers were kept simple: pistachios salted in their shells. And dessert was equally simple, fresh strawberries with a dusting of powdered sugar.

So here's the recipe. A "trick" with the salmon that I learned from one of our cooks at Donderos' Kitchen is to trim away the dark band of flesh that runs down the outside of the fillet. This is the only "fishy" part of salmon, and eliminating it leaves just the luscious pink flesh that lends itself to many sauces or treatments. We had jalapeño-cheese-white wine grits (stone ground from North Georgia), but whipped mashed potatoes with lots of butter and a little nutmeg and garlic in them would work as well. The whole platter was sprinkled with finely sliced onion greens. The recipe should serve six generously.

Roasted Salmon with Three Peppers Tim

The Fish:
3 pounds skinless salmon fillet, as fresh as possible
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and olive oil for roasting

The Sauce:
1/4 stick celery
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 medium green bell pepper
1 small jalapeño pepper
4 green onions (scallions)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, unsalted preferred
2 tablespoons vinegar, unseasoned white wine vinegar preferred
1/4 teaspoon salt plus more to taste

Cut the salmon into large serving sized pieces. With a sharp knife, thinly slice down on both sides of the dark band on the outside of the fillet, and lift out the triangular ribbon of dark meat. With paper towel, dry both sides of the fish pieces. Sprinkle both sides moderately with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place a little olive oil on a large metal cookie sheet and turn the salmon pieces on it to coat both sides lightly with oil. Let sit on the pan, trimmed side up, until 15 minutes before serving.

Prepare the sauce ingredients. Split celery lengthwise into four or five pieces, then holding the pieces together slice them very thinly to mince the celery. Grind black pepper onto the celery. Cut bell pepper into very thin strips, hold them together and slice them thinly to mince the pepper. Split jalapeño and remove the seeds (use plastic gloves to avoid the skin burn), and mince the flesh. Add it to the bell pepper. Trim the roots off the scallions, hold the scallions together and slice them very thinly, including the green parts. Set aside a few tablespoons of the greens for garnish.

Heat oven to 450 degrees and temporarily disconnect the smoke alarm. Roast the salmon on the top shelf for 9 minutes. Test for doneness, sticking a sharp knife tip into the fattest part of the fish and twisting. There should be no dark uncooked color apparent inside. If there is a little, return the fish to the oven and roast 1 to 2 more minutes. Remove from the oven.

While the salmon is roasting, make the sauce. Heat a small pan with the oil to medium heat. Gently fry the celery for several minutes, then add the butter and the bell and jalapeño peppers. Fry them, stirring, until they have darkened and become somewhat tender. Add the sliced scallions and fry gently for one-half minute. Add the vinegar and salt, stir and remove from the heat. Taste the sauce and add a little salt as needed.

When ready to serve, with two spatulas carefully transfer the salmon pieces to a large platter. If using mashed potatoes or grits, spoon piles of it between the salmon pieces. (Or for individual servings, the salmon could be placed on a bed of grits or potato.) Spoon the sauce and its vegetables over the salmon pieces. Sprinkle the whole thing with the reserved green onion slices.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Alsatian Chicken in White Wine and Cream: Coq au Riesling

In our neighboring city of Decatur, which over the past ten years has become a "hot" place to live and to dine, one of the well-established restaurants is the Café Alsace. The owners are a French couple from that province, which is the most Germanic region of France. Bordering the Rhine, Alsace, along with nearby Lorraine (think Quiche Lorraine), were under German control for nearly 50 years before the First World War. Some of the most georgeously charming, almost fairy-tale, towns I have seen anywhere in the world are in Alsace.

Many of the "bistros" in France (bistrots in French), including in Paris, were established by Alsatians. 'Coq au Riesling' (cauk oh rees' ling) is the Alsatian counterpart to the better known Coq au Vin (cauk oh vainh'), which originated in Burgundy, farther southeast in France. Both are classic bistro dishes, regional French cooking, hearty, delicious, unpretentious, and able to be made ahead and reheated for serving accompanied by crusty bread and wine. Back, briefly, to the Café Alsace. They actually serve Coq au Vin, as I recall, which would be more familiar to their clients, rather than the Alsatian version. But since I prefer the white-wine one, that's what you are getting.

The wines from Alsace are fragrant and fruity. Winemakers there use the same grapes, like Riesling, Sylvaner, and Gewurtztraminer, as across the river in Germany, but in the French manner the wines are made dry -- non-sweet. The corresponding German wines, particularly the Rhein Wines, tend to be sweeter.

My version of Coq au Riesling is somewhat modernized, using only boneless, skinless chicken breast rather than cut-up chicken pieces with their skin and bones. But the white wine, carrots, small onions, and mushrooms are still there, as is finishing the dish with cream. The recipe serves six, when accompanied with buttered egg noodles or steamed potatoes. (If Hammad is eating, do 1-1/2 times the recipe for six.)

The wine to drink with this is .... envelope, please .... a dry Alsatian Riesling, served cold. Definitely not a sweeter German Riesling. But Alsatian wines were a little pricey even before the Euro gained so much on the dollar. (And don't waste an Alsatian wine in the cooking. A decent California or Chile Chardonnay makes a great dish.) For drinking, a good full-bodied California Chardonnay will work. Or a dry rosé. This is too rich-flavored a dish for a Pinot Grigio, but a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will work. Red wines would not, in my opinion be a good fit. Baguette, or a whole-wheat artisan bread, warmed and crusty, is the right accompaniment, and maybe a simple green salad with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. (The French would serve the salad, freshly dressed, after rather than with, and never before, the meal.) In France, butter would not be served with bread at dinner. Use the bread to sop up the gravy.

Alsatian Coq au Riesling Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon more for the sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups small white onions, whole
2 cups small fresh mushrooms
2 cups baby carrots, peeled, or larger carrot cut in 3/4-inch lengths
1/4 stick of celery
2 large shallots or a small yellow onion
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter or oil (or chicken fat)
1-1/2 cups dry white wine (traditionally a dry Alsatian Riesling, but a Chardonnay works well)
1/2 teaspoon oregano (not traditional, but it works well)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
A few individual leaves of rosemary
1/2 cup heavy cream (or half and half for a lighter dish)
Parsley for garnish

Trim chicken of any tough or fatty parts and cut flesh into 1-1/2-inch cubes. Mix with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the flour. Peel the small onions, leave whole. Peel carrots if not already prepared. Clean the mushrooms, trim away the tips of the stems, and cut mushrooms in half if larger than 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Finely chop the celery, shallots or yellow onion, and garlic.

Heat part of the butter or oil and fry half the chicken, stirring frequently, until just beginning to brown. Remove it to a bowl. Add the rest of the butter or oil and fry the remainder of the chicken and add it to the bowl. Add a little extra butter or oil to the pan, if necessary, and fry the chopped celery, shallots or yellow onion, and garlic until turning pale golden brown. Add the wine, herbs, and spices, plus 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and scrape the pan well to blend the drippings into the wine. Boil quickly for 2 minutes. Add the carrots and cook, covered but stirring occasionally, until beginning to become tender, adding a little water if needed to just cover the carrots. Add the mushrooms and the whole small onions plus another 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Simmer, covered, until the onions are tender, about 10 minutes, and one or two center pieces pop out. Add the previously fried chicken and any juices to the pan, plus a little water if more sauce is needed. Simmer 2-3 minutes, tasting the sauce and adding salt if needed. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream.

Dust with chopped parsley to serve. Accompany with steamed small potatoes or noodles, lightly buttered and salted.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hot Lentil Soup with Greens: great for cold weather

Despite a delightful January thaw with Atlanta temperatures in the low 70s, it will soon be cold and raw again. That's when soups at our deli, "Donderos' Kitchen", sell well. The reason I'm starting this post tonight is because despite the warm weather the friend I was supposed to have a beer with awoke this morning with fever and a flu-like illness. So much for the warm weather! Soup seems made for cold weather and for when feeling under the weather. But no excuse is needed for good, easily made soup.

This particular one is from the eastern Mediterranean. It's Lebanese, but similar concoctions are made throughout the region. It's amazingly tasty despite containing neither meat nor dairy, and it's even low in fat and calories, economical, and very nourishing. Delicious, nutritious, cheap, healthy, virtuous, and easy -- too good to be true? In this case it is true.

This fine Arab soup fits with the Advent and Lenten traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. (Advent is just past, since the Orthodox Christmas was two days ago.) During those periods meat and dairy products are not permitted. But plenty of Muslims, Jews, and less strict Christians eat this soup too, and at all times of the year. And I might add that in the university city of Athens, Georgia, many or our customers at Donderos' Kitchen happily eat this and other "vegan" soups, sometimes without realizing that there is no meat in them. Part of why this one tastes "meaty" is the cinnamon.

There is an easy "trick" to making this. The American tan-green lentils have a slight "muddy" flavor. I blanch them first -- see the recipe -- to eliminate this muddiness and brighten the flavor, while losing none of the valuable protein or fiber. The recipe serves six with leftovers. In fact it is better made ahead and rewarmed for serving. A little swirl of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of minced parsley on top of the soup when served gives a nice highlight.

Not that soup needs a wine, but if you are having this with a crusty warm bread with olive oil for supper, a medium-bodied dry red would go well, such as a Spanish Rioja, other Spanish Tempranillo or Garnacha wine, an Italian red, or a California Merlot or Syrah.

Lentil Soup with Greens Tim

1 pound dry tan or green lentils
1 large bay leaf
1 large onion
2 large carrots
1 medium stick celery
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1-1/2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
3/4 pound fresh or chopped frozen greens (kale, spinach or Swiss chard)
3 tablespoons minced parsley
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Extra olive oil and minced parsley for garnish

Pick over and rinse the lentils. In an uncovered pot bring them to a boil in water several inches above the level of the lentils. Immediately drain (this eliminates the “muddy” flavor of American lentils and does not appreciably reduce the protein value of the soup). Add water to cover the lentils by about 3 inches, and bring them back to a boil. Skim off any foam. Add the bay leaf and simmer until lentils are tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, dice the onion, carrots, and celery, and mince the garlic. Fry these gently in the olive oil until the onion becomes limp and translucent. Add the fried vegetables to the simmering lentils, along with the oregano, cinnamon, pepper, and cayenne. Stir from time to time until the lentils are tender and start to break up (10-20 minutes), skimming off any foam that collects. Add a little water if necessary to keep the mixture from becoming thick. Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt, then more as necessary.

Clean the greens, if fresh, and chop coarsely. Add the fresh or frozen (unthawed) greens to the soup once the lentils are tender. Simmer until the greens are tender and lose their bright green color. Taste the soup and add salt as needed. Toward the end of cooking add the minced parsley. The soup is best if made ahead and stored before serving. Reheat, taste and adjust salt. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice. When serving, drizzle the soup with some olive oil and sprinkle on a little minced parsley.