Friday, February 22, 2008

Collards(!) : Tastiest and most nutritous vegetable

Knowing that I have some blog readers in Boston, I wonder how many have tuned this article out already. Collards are certainly Southern, and maybe in the North limited to "soul food", but they are truly a fabulous vegetable, and are probably my favorite green. At least if cooked properly. And that doesn't mean stewed to a greasy gray-green pulp with smoked hog jowl. Despite their association with the US South, collards (earlier called 'colewort', meaning cabbage plant in Old English) go back to antiquity in the Mediterranean. Julius Caesar was said to eat them frequently.

This hearty leaf, whose leading variety to my delight is named 'Georgia', can really be stunning, almost a meal in itself. And I mean without ham hock or smoked turkey leg to season it. Even better, it is one of the most nutritious of vegetables, loaded with calcium, manganese, vitamins A and K, plus fiber. In Southern tradition, eating collards on New Year's Day brings money in the new year. (The accompanying blackeye peas bring luck.) A few years back when Anna was in the Peace Corps in a Bariba village in northern Benin, West Africa, 'Georgia' collards, for which I sent her seeds, were the favorite of the vegetables she introduced.

We fix collards two ways at Donderos' Kitchen in Athens, and both sell well. One is American style, but vegetarian, served with meatloaf or mac and cheese, and accompanied by home-baked beans. The other is in the Ethiopian manner, also vegetarian, known as 'gomen'. Those go with spicy lentils and the spongy flat bread known as injera.

Below is my recipe for collards in the Southern style, modified somewhat over the years of making them. The recipe serves six as a vegetable for a tasty dinner. Drinks to go with this would depend on what the meat or cheese dish is they accompany. Traditionally, hot sauce or hot chili-infused vinegar is the condiment for sprinkling on collards.

Collards Tim

1 large bunch (2 to 3 plants worth) collards, the younger the better
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Water as needed
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon (or more) crushed dry red pepper
1/4 teapoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Cut the collard leaves with their stems off the central stalk, and discard the stalk. Rinse the leaves well. Cut them crosswise 1/2-inch wide, a few leaves at a time, through the stems and the leaves. With the knife, cut a few times through the leaves, so the pieces are not too long. Set collards aside.

Fry the minced onion briefly in a the oil in a large pot, stirring and frying until just beginning to turn golden. Add the cut collards, 1/2 cup of water, the garlic, and the red and black pepper. Stir, cover and simmer the collards to basically steam, stirring from time to time until nearly tender (20 to 30 minutes, depending on the collards). Check the bottom of the pan occasionally, and add a little water to keep it from drying. As the stems are becoming tender add the salt, and from time to time taste a leaf and add salt as needed. When the stems are tender, stir in the vinegar. Cook for two minutes, stirring frequently to combine the flavors.

The collards can be served now, or can be refrigerated and reheated in the microwave, for even better flavor. Accompany with hot sauce such as Tobasco or Crystal, or with vinegar that has been seasoned with lots of hot chilies, a piece of garlic, and a little salt.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spicy Coconut Chicken: Thai-inspired barbecue

This recipe was requested by Sharon, a collegue of my wife, after she tasted it at a staff lunch at St. Bart's church. It's a hybrid dish, frankly, a variant of authentic northeastern Thai barbecued chicken, 'gai yang'. (I'll have a recipe for the real gai yang in the blog fairly soon.) This is a good way to prepare those chicken breasts with skin and bones that often are on sale at the supermarket. Not only does the freshly cooked chicken make a great meal when accompanied by rice and a dipping sauce, but left-overs make wonderful cold snacks or even picnic fare. The only downside is that the chicken needs to be marinated overnight.

The sauce, for which there is a recipe included after the chicken, is one of the many easily made Chinese-origin sweet-sour dips used in Thailand.

The recipe makes sufficient chicken for six fairly hearty eaters. Accompany with white unsalted rice (see the blog posting of 1/26/08) and the sauce below. A salad with a sesame seed or fruit-flavored dressing goes well with this. While beer might be more appropriate, if you want a wine for the chicken, go for a fruity not totally dry one such as a chilled Riesling, Chenin Blanc, or Pinot Grigio, or an un-chilled medium-bodied Merlot.

Spicy Coconut Chicken Tim

6 medium-large chicken breast halves with skin and bones
1 cup (about 1/2 of a 14-ounce can) unsweetened coconut milk, can shaken well before opening
3 large cloves garlic, put through a press or finely minced or pounded in a mortar
1-1/4 inches fresh ginger, thinly sliced then finely minced or pounded in a mortar
4 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (or extra soy sauce)
1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons sugar
5 teaspoons ground coriander
1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne

The day before the chicken is to be cooked set it up to marinate. Slash crosswise twice through the flesh and skin of the chicken pieces down to the bone. Mix all the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the chicken and toss to coat well, spooning some deep into the slashes in the chicken. Toss periodically, then place the chicken and marinade in the refrigerator either in the bowl covered with plastic wrap or in a large zip-locked plastic bag. Mix (or squeeze the bag gently) to re-coat the chicken occasionally. Refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

For roasting, heat the oven to 475 degrees (and temporarily disconnect the smoke alarm). Place a baked goods cooling rack on a large cookie sheet and place the chicken pieces, skin side up, on the rack. Roast on an upper shelf for 25 minutes. Move the chicken breasts around a little and roast another 15 minutes, or until the skin and edges are becoming browned and crispy.

Serve either as whole breast pieces or cut into chunks, through the bone, with a meat cleaver or heavy knife. Accompany by small bowls of the dipping sauce below.

Dipping Sauce for Roasted Chicken Tim

In a stainless steel or enamel pan (not aluminum or iron) place:
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, bruised but intact
2 thin (1/8-inch) slices fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or 2 small Thai red chilies, slit lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon bottled chili-garlic sauce

Mix well and bring to a boil. Let simmer, stirring, 1/2 minute. Remove from the heat. Taste and add salt or sugar, if needed, to taste. Let cool, and discard the garlic and ginger.

Serve in small bowls near the diners. Pieces of chicken can be dipped into the sauce, or some sauce can be spooned over the chicken.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spinach-Artichoke Dip: Inexpensive and easily homemade

You can buy an eight ounce container of this dip for many dollars at Whole Foods or fancy delis. Or, like me, you can make almost three times as much of it yourself for about four dollars, with a prep time of under ten minutes, and most of that thawing the frozen spinach. It definately benefits from a food processor, but with a lot of scraping and pushing down you can also make it with a blender.

I've made this sort of thing for years, before I saw similar dips showing up commercially. You can make an entirely spinach version by doubling the spinach and eliminating the artichoke hearts. That's the type of green dip that shows up served in a hollowed out pumpernickle boule. A heavier version of either dip can be made by replacing half the sour cream with cream cheese or Mascarpone. The minced pimento gives nice color highlights, but has little impact on the flavor. The red is certainly welcome if the dip is for a Christmas buffet or appetizer. However you make it, it's best to prepare the dip the day you are going to serve it. While it will keep for several days in the fridge, the beautiful green color loses some intensity.

I served this dip with French baguette for guests yesterday as an hors d'oeuvre before dinner to accompany the cold New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But that's one of my favorite wines anyway, especially with appetizers (or fish), since it is crisp, freshly acidic, and loaded with delightful citrus and other fruit fragrances. It goes extremely well with tangy and varied appetizers, salads, and antipasti.

Spinach-Artichoke Dip Tim

1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts (not marinated)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 fairly small clove garlic
1 medium-small green onion (scallion)
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Small pinch black pepper
Small pinch cayenne
1 cup sour cream (low fat can be used)
If desired, 2 tablespoons pimento, minced, for color

Thaw the spinach in its package in the microwave (put the package on a plate in the microwave, because it will drip). Squeeze out most of the juice. Place the spinach in the container of a food processor with a steel blade. Drain and rinse the artichokes and add them to the spinach. Add the lemon juice, garlic, green onion cut in pieces (roots and 1/4 inch of the tops discarded), horseradish, mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Pulse until well chopped, scraping down the inside of the container. Add the sour cream and chop the mixture well by pulsing. Taste and add salt it desired. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the minced pimento if used. Let sit, cold, at least half an hour before serving so the flavors can mix.

Serve with thinly sliced baguette or pumpernickle bread or low salt crackers or pita or bagel crisps (low salt so you don't overpower the dip).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Scrapple: Philadephia in Atlanta

I put this recipe out with trepidation. Few people will know or care about that Philadelphia area specialty, scrapple. Fewer yet will be interested in making it themselves. It's work and it requires many herbs and spices. In scrapple's heartland, eastern Pennsylvania, you don't make it. Rather you buy it from Amish or Mennonite farmers at regional markets or, next best, in the meat case at the supermarket, near the bacon and sausage. But my kids adore this breakfast treat so much that at least some will make it themselves. This recipe is for them. And for others who are adventurous. But the scrapple is worth it.

So, what is scrapple? The original was the breakfast food made by thrifty German-descended farmers from what was left after hog slaughtering once the hams and bacon were starting to cure, the lard rendered, and the rest of the retrievable meat ground into sausage. The meaty bones along with extra skin, snouts (no kidding, check the label of a commercial scrapple), and part of the liver were boiled up into broth, the bones and cartiledge removed, the soft parts chopped, and the whole thing seasoned with herbs and spices and thickened with cornmeal. After cooling, the scrapple was cut into blocks for storage or sale. The blocks were then sliced and fried and served for breakfast with eggs and potatoes.

I first encountered scrapple and fell for it in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where my mother-in-law served it. Later, being far from where fresh scrapple could be bought (although I've more recently found Dietz and Watson scrapple near the bacon and sausages at the Dekalb Farmers Market), I figured out through trial and error how to make it. Mine has gotten simpler over the years and is now made with ground fresh pork (no more accumulating pork bones in the freezer and stewing them for hours) and uses oatmeal as part of the thickening. It is so popular in my family that no birthday or Christmas or Easter breakfast is complete without it (and one daughter even craved it during pregnancy). Of course, we serve it with grits and eggs, or sometimes with waffles and maple syrup.

Because even this simplified version takes some work, I make a large batch, wrap the blocks in plastic wrap, and freeze them in large zip-lock plastic bags. When it's for breakfast, it's best to defrost a block or two overnight in the fridge for easy slicing and frying. It can also be defrosted just before needed in the microwave, but it does not cut as smoothly. Scrapple should be sliced 1/2-inch thick and fried over medium heat on a large griddle or non-stick frying pan moistened with a little oil. Leave a little space between the pieces, or they will stick together. Fry till golden on both sides. Keep warm until served. Arrange on a platter, and garnish with sprigs of parsley, if desired.

The recipe makes enough to fill two 9 by 13-inch "cake" pans. Cut into 15 blocks per pan, wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen, this makes enough for a lot of wonderful breakfasts.

Scrapple Tim

4 pounds raw ground pork
4-1/2 quarts (18 cups) water
3-inch sprig fresh rosemary, leaves striped off the stem
6 medium-large bay leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/3 of a large stick of celery, whole
3 tablespoons salt
4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons dry savory
2 teaspoons marjoram
1-3/4 teaspoons black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons sage, rubbed to break it up
1-1/4 teaspoons thyme
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
6-3/4 cups fine-ground yellow corn meal (not corn meal mix)
2-3/4 cups quick-cooking oatmeal

Mix the ground pork with the water in a large pan with a heavy bottom (or the mixture will burn later in the cooking). Break up any lumps. Bring to a boil, add the onion, celery, rosemary and bay leaves. Simmer, covered, 1/2 hour, stirring from time to time. Remove the celery and bay leaves. Add the salt, sugar, herbs and spices. Let simmer several minutes.

Stirring with a whisk, add the corn meal in a steady stream to avoid lumps. Mix well with a large wooden spoon to distribute the corn meal evenly. Cook a few minutes, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan. Then add the oatmeal in a thin stream, while stiring. Allow to simmer, with frequent stirring, for 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture is gluey and the corn meal is not crunchy when you bite into a little of the mixture. The cooking time will vary depending on how finely the corn was ground. If more salt is needed, stir it in well to distribute it evenly.

Lightly oil the bottoms and sides of two 9 X 13-inch cake pans. Ladle the hot mixture evenly into the pans and smooth out the surface. Cover with plastic wrap, and let the cakes cool. Refrigerate them for 1 to 2 days. Then cut into blocks (3 X 5 makes good-sized pieces), wrap the individual blocks, and place them on cookie sheets to freeze in the freezer (so they keep their shape). When frozen, pack them in groups into zip-lock plastic freezer bags. Thaw the number of blocks needed in the fridge the night before you plan scrapple for breakfast. (See frying instructions above.)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Soy Sauce Chicken: to accompany Golden Coconut Rice

In a recent posting (1/30/2008) I described the golden coconut rice I learned in Malaysia. It needs something to go with it. A good one is soy sauce-marinated chicken medallions, which in Malay-Indonesian would be called 'kicap ayam' (KEE chop EYE yahm) and in Thai, 'gai see yu' (guy see YOU). Both in their respective languages simply mean 'soy sauce chicken'.

The simplest version is just chunks of boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated for several hours in soy sauce plus a little dark soy sauce, and fried in a bit of oil in a non-stick pan. But a fancier version is the Malay-Indonesian style I learned years ago.

This dish has obvious Chinese influences. 'Kicap', meaning a seasoning sauce, particularly soy sauce, gave us our word 'ketchup', pronounced almost the same despite the spelling. Until the second half of the 20th century, 'ketchup' could be any of a number of types of thick sauce, including one made of mushrooms. Gradually the word narrowed to mean the tomato sauce that goes on hamburgers and the like. Chicken, incidentally, is native to the Malay Archipelago, domesticated from the beautiful local jungle fowl ('ayam hutan'), then spread world-wide.

The dish is simple to make, but very tasty. It's a bit spicy. The cayenne can be reduced, but Malay and Indonesian food is often 'hot'. The recipe serves four to six when accompanied by rice. Try the golden coconut rice (1/30/08 posting) for a delightful meal. As would be typical with Southeast Asian food, beer, malty rather than hoppy, like Thai Singha, Chinese Tsingdao, or Dutch Heinikens, would do well, as would one of my favorites, Bass Ale.

Malaysian Soy Sauce Chicken Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh
3 tablespoons soy sauce (not “lite”)
1-1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne or crushed hot red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil for the chicken
2 shallots or a small onion (or already fried onion, available at Asian groceries)
Oil for frying
2 tablespoons oil-roasted peanuts for garnish (the red-skinned 'Spanish' style are closest to the Malaysian style)
Chopped or sprigs of cilantro (coriander leaf) for garnish
Cucumber for accompaniment, ideally small pickling type

Remove fatty and tough parts from the chicken. Cut the flesh into 1/2-inch thick slices no more than 2-inches long and mix with the soy sauce, cornstarch, coriander, turmeric, and salt. Then mix in 2 tablespoons of oil. Let the chicken marinate 20 -30 minutes.

If using fresh shallot or onion, slice it thinly lengthwise, dust it lightly with flour and fry it in oil in a non-stick frying pan, turning it frequently until golden. Remove it to a paper towel to drain and cool. Break it up into pieces.

Remove most of the oil from the pan and reheat the pan. Quickly fry half the marinated chicken, stirring and turning it frequently, until the raw color is gone and the chicken begins to brown in spots. Thigh takes a little longer cooking than breast. Remove it to a clean bowl. Add a little more oil to the pan and similarly fry the rest of the chicken. Add it to the previously cooked chicken.

Serve the chicken on a bed of rice (ideally rice cooked in coconut milk). Sprinkle with the fried shallots or onions, peanuts, and cilantro. Peel the cucumber only if the skin is tough or waxed. Cut it into 1/4-inch thick slices, or preferably into wedges using a rolling cut. Rinse the cucumber pieces with water, drain quickly and surround the rice with the pieces.

Accompany with an Asian chili-garlic sauce.