Monday, November 17, 2008

Black Bean Vegetable Soup: Elegance for $1.50 a pot

Over the weekend with family visiting and after a huge pizza lunch, I made black bean soup for a light supper. It was a hit, even with heavy meateaters. And it has no meat. No dairy either. The soup is incredibly nutritious and has great fiber. But most important, this is simply a delicious dish. And the protein is 'complete' if you throw some cooked rice (or brown rice) in the soup bowl ahead of the soup, or have bread with it, or a chunk of cheese.

Calculating up the cost of ingredients for a whole pot of soup, I came up with about $1.50. But in fact it may be 20 or 30 cents higher, depending on where you buy the vegetables, yet certainly under $2.00. The expense is actually time, about 1 hour 20 minutes, though it's not heavy time on task. Just as long you are near the kitchen, doing other things, this is easy cooking. And if you have a food processor, the vegetable dicing task is much reduced, though hand-diced vegetables are more elegant.

The pot will provide 12 servings or so, fifteen cents a bowl. Crusty toast and a slice of sharp cheddar do very well with this. Alternatively, cook lightly salted brown rice (2 parts water to 1 part rice plus a little salt, after draining and rinsing the rice; simmer covered about 40 minutes, or cook in rice cooker until it turns off). The rice can be cooked ahead, such as while the soup is simmering, and reheated in the microwave before serving the soup. For real elegance, stir a teaspoon or so of dry sherry into each bowl of soup when serving, or drizzle with a little olive oil.

Black Bean Vegetable Soup Tim

1 pound (2-1/4 cups) dry black beans
2 large bay leaves
2 large carrots
1 medium-small onion
2 medium sticks celery
1 small or 1/2 a large red bell pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt plus to taste

Pick over then rinse beans. Place in large heavy pot with water to 3 inches above beans. Bring to boil, reduce heat, add bay leaves, and simmer, covered, until tender, about 1 hour. Add a little water as needed.

Meanwhile, peel carrots and onion, discard leaves from celery, remove seeds from bell pepper, and dice all of them (or using food processor, cut in chunks and pulse vegetables separately until coarsely chopped). In a large frying pan, fry vegetables in oil, stirring frequently, until softened.

When black beans are becoming tender, mash them well in their cooking water with potato masher, leaving small chunks.

Stir in the fried vegetables and black pepper. Simmer until bits of beans and vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes, adding salt toward the end. After 5 minutes more of simmering, taste soup, and add salt until just slightly salty (beans and vegetables will soak up more). Serve now, or cool, store, and reheat later, checking salt before serving.

If desired, stir a little dry sherry into each bowl, or drizzle with olive oil. A large spoonful of cooked brown rice placed in the bowl before ladling in the soup makes a full lunch or supper.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pork stewed with Quince: Delightful Autumn Specialty

In the old days, even during my lifetime, pork was an autumn specialty. With limited refrigeration, pigs were slaughtered when cold weather arrived. Most of the carcass was preserved for later use, made into hams, picnics, bacon, sausage, salted fatback, lard, and smoked hocks and jowls. Fresh meat was briefly plentiful, and cheap, for stewing, frying chops, and roasting. At the same time of year apples and quinces were harvested and stored for up to several months. Seasonality of both the meat and the tree fruits is virtually meaningless now with refrigeration and with trucked-in and flown-in produce from California, Chile, and Australia.

Nonetheless I'm still intrigued by old-fashion seasonal specialties. The dish below is a French as well as central European combination of fresh pork stewed with quince. Neither ingredient is common in contemporary stews in the US. That attracts me.

Quinces are relatives of apples, and relatively unfamiliar to Americans except perhaps to great-grandmothers who might recall quince jelly. Quinces have a unique, fruity, and to me very pleasant, fragrance. They are, I believe, not really eaten fresh, but in their heyday in Europe were made into preserves, cooked into stews, and made into cider along with apples and pears -- 'cider' in Europe means 'hard' cider, a sort of wine. Fortunately, our wonderful Dekalb Farmers Market carries quinces for a couple of months in the late fall. They've come in recently. I bought one.

Here's the sort of old-fashion country dish that would have been made in France and further east. I find it a surprizing and delightful concoction. Pork stews are uncommon in Western cooking (though common in Chinese-influenced cooking in Asia, but with quite different seasonings). To have a pork stew seasoned with quinces is even less common, although fruit of many kinds is traditionally cooked with pork. In French this would be a Ragoût de Porc aux Coings [ra-'goo d' porh oh kwainh]. If you can locate a quince, give this one a try. A passable substitute can be made with apple plus a quarter cup of orange juice replacing part of the water.

The recipe will serve 6 people generously. Accompany with buttered egg noodles, potato dumplings if you can, or buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes (the closest I can find to French potatoes). A chilled hard cider will go with this dish, or a dry rosé or light-bodied red wine, such as a Pinot Noir or Chianti.

Pork stewed with Quince Tim

2 pounds (trimmed) pork butt or stewing pork
Rendered pork fat or olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup water or unsalted broth
1 bay leaf
2 very large or 3 medium-large carrots
1 small potato
1 medium quince
1 tablespoon soy sauce (my touch, not original)
Salt to taste
Minced parsley for garnish

Trim off excess fat from pork, and cut meat into 1-1/2-inch chunks. Render pork fat by frying the trimmings slowly in the stewing pot, and remove the cracklings. Or if preferred, use olive oil. Use about 3 tablespoons pork fat or oil for frying half of the pork, turning the pieces frequently. When pork starts to fry, sprinkle generously all over with salt and black pepper. When pork has changed color on all sides, remove it to a bowl. Add a little grease or oil if needed, and fry remaining half of the pork, salting and peppering as before. Remove pork from pot.

Fry minced onions in the drippings (or add a little oil if needed) scraping bottom of pot frequently. When onions are limp and turning color, add pre-fried pork, and heat thoroughly. Deglaze with wine, scraping bottom of pot well. Add water and bay leaf. Simmer until pork is becoming tender, 40-50 minutes. Add a little water if needed to keep everything moist.

While pork is cooking, peel carrots and cut in 1-inch lengths. Peel potato and cut in small pieces (to cook into the gravy). Peel, quarter, and cut core out of quince. Cut quince into small pieces. When pork is tender, add carrots and potatoes plus a little water if needed. Simmer until carrots are tender, stirring occasionally, 10-15 minutes. Potatoes should have started to disintegrate.

Add quince, a little water if needed, soy sauce, and salt to taste. Simmer until quince is tender, 5-10 minutes. Taste sauce again, and add salt if needed to make it very slightly salty (the meat and vegetables will soak up more).

The stew can be served now, or cooled, refrigerated up to several days, and reheated to serve. Check for salt just before serving, and stir in a little if needed. Accompany with buttered egg noodles or buttery mashed Yukon gold potatoes, or, ideally, with potato dumplings. Dust with minced parsley.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

North Indian Chicken and Spinach Curry: Saag Murgh

Richly flavored but too hot characterizes the curries of northwestern India, notably the Punjab. These are probably the most popular curries among international enthusiasts of Indian cuisine. At our deli in Athens we make a vegetarian Punjabi dish of the fresh cheese 'paneer' in a thick, aromatic curry gravy with spinach. The recipe I'm showing below is the chicken version of this spinach-enhanced dish, saag murgh. Saag applies to a variety of greens, not just spinach; palak is a similar term used at Indian restaurants. Chicken is more readily available and less expensive than paneer. For our business in Athens, I have to buy paneer in Atlanta. But either way, this is a rich, wonderfully fragrant curry.

Chicken thigh is by far the superior cut for curries. The meat is richer in flavor and texture and does not dry out like chicken breast. In my experience and reading, no Indian cooking uses the skin on chicken. (If you buy chicken with skin, strip it off and simmer it up in water with any other trimmings or bones, skim off the grease, and you have chicken broth for freezing for other cooking.) The spinach for saag murgh is most simply frozen chopped spinach from the supermarket. If you can get fresh spinach, don't waste it on stewing. Wash it well to get all the sand out, and stir-fry it with a little butter or olive oil and salt, and enjoy it as a delicate vegetable.

This curry may seem more complicated to make than most people would wish. But to me it's worth it. I wanted to record it, since I'm pleased with the way my recipe, distilled from cooking over many years, worked out. Maybe one of my kids will make it when they want one of my curries. Or maybe someone else will try it who likes great curries you can usually only get at Indian restaurants.

The recipe serves six. It should be accompanied by unsalted basmati rice. Dust the rice, if desired, with a few whole cumin seeds toasted until fragrant in a dry frying pan. Serve yogurt, or 'raita' (my blog posting of 4/25/08), as a condiment.

While the majority of Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, abstain from alcoholic drink, good beer is made in India and can accompany curries. For me a not-too-expensive red wine, especially spicy ones like a Garnacha from Spain or a French Côtes du Rhône (same grape, but called 'Grenache' in French), goes well with hearty meat curries. But other people often go for slightly sweet fragrant white varieties, like Riesling.

Chicken Curry with Spinach, Saag Murgh Tim

1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
2 pounds chicken thigh, boneless and skinless, or 3 pounds thigh with skin and bones
2 tablespoons lime juice or 5 teaspoons vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground tumeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teapoon cayenne
2 medium-large onions
1 tablespoon butter plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
1 whole stick of cinnamon
4 whole cardamoms
4 whole cloves
1-inch length of thick ginger
2 large cloves garlic
5 teaspoons ground coriander
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup (1 small can) evaporated (not sweetened) milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish

Thaw frozen spinach, out of its box and on a plate, either on the counter for several hours or defrosted in the microwave. When thawed, drain spinach in a colander.

If using boneless, skinless chicken, cut away tough parts and excess fat. Cut each thigh into 3 to 4 strips. For thigh with skin and bone, strip away skin, tough parts, and excess fat (simmer them with water to make broth for other use, skimming off the grease). Cut thigh across the bone using a heavy knife or cleaver. If pieces are large, cut into two through the flesh. Marinate chicken with lime juice or vinegar, 1-1/2 teaspoons turmeric, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne.

Peel and chop onions. Fry in heavy pot in butter and oil, adding whole spices. Stir frequently and fry until onion is golden. Meanwhile finely mince ginger and garlic, or pound them in a mortar. When onions are cooked, reduce heat and fry in ginger and garlic for 2 minutes. Add ground spices and fry 1 minute, stirring very frequently (the mixture is dry). Stir in tomato paste and fry 1 minute, mixing well.

Add marinated chicken, raise heat and, stirring frequently, fry until the color has changed on all sides. Squeeze the thawed spinach to get out part of the juices. Add spinach to chicken and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on cut. Stir in evaporated milk plus water. Bring back just to a simmer. Taste the sauce and add salt as needed to make it very slightly salty (spinach and chicken will soak up some more). Stir in half the chopped cilantro and remove from the heat.

The curry can be served now, or chilled and reheated for serving later. Before serving, taste and add salt if needed. Sprinkle with reserved chopped cilantro.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Pork and Lentil Stew with Cream: for Clara

Poor little Clara has already lost her star position, after only two months. The youngest grandchild was displaced by her new cousin Thomas Anders two days ago on November 6th, 2008. So here's a consolation I created for her, even though she won't be able to eat it for another year.

The dish is a play on her name, hopefully a tasteful one. It's being tested by my principal guinea pigs these days, the staff of St. Bartholemews, for whose weekly meeting I've been cooking. I'm not sure where the idea came from. Somehow it seems like it ought to be French or possibly Mexican, but it isn't. The combination of ingredients doesn't reflect dishes I've actually tasted or read about. However, I have been thinking recently about lentils and other low-cost and underused favorite ingredients of mine as I'm proposing a recession-era recipe column in a newspaper. (More about that if my proposal is accepted.)

'Clara' means clear or light colored. She's a blue-eyed blond to be, so it works for her. The dish is light colored, made from pork, blond lentils, and sour cream. By the way, the intended lentils are the smaller tan ones, available in 1-pound bags at supermarkets, or better yet at Mexican groceries ('lentejas').

This first time, we're serving it with lightly salted brown rice. But I don't have a fixed opinion yet as to the ideal accompaniment. A dish like this would go with wine, not at a mid-day church staff meeting of course, but at dinner. Based on the flavors and mellowness, I'd try a medium-bodied red that isn't too acidic or hard. A Merlot from California or Chile, or a Tempranillo from Spain should do. Or maybe a Beaujolais. That's tentative, and not yet tested.

The recipe will serve six.

Pork and Lentils Stewed with Cream Clara

1/2 pound (1 cup) tan lentils, as small as available (Mexican groceries have ideal ones)
1-1/2 pounds trimmed pork butt or stewing pork
Olive oil as needed
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced
1 large bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper or large pinch of cayenne
Large pinch of thyme
1-3/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup sour cream ('natural')
Minced parsley for garnish

In a bowl, cover lentils with boiling water 3 inches above the lentils. Drain after 20 minutes.

Trim excess fat and tough parts from pork and cut in 2-inch pieces.

Render some of the pork fat in a stewing pot and remove cracklings, or use several tablespoons olive oil.

Fry pork in stewing pot in the grease or oil, turning frequently, until color is fully changed on the surfaces. Remove meat to a bowl using a slotted spoon.

Fry onion in the grease, adding a little olive oil if needed. Stir onions occasionally and fry until softened. Stir in garlic and fry 1 minute.

Add pre-fried pork and drained lentils. Add enough water to just cover lentils. Add bay leaf, black pepper. nutmeg, red pepper, and thyme. Bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes covered, stirring occasionally. Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt.

Simmer, covered, until pork and lentils are tender, stirring often and scraping bottom of the pan. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt.

Stir in sour cream, and add a little water if sauce is too thick. The consistency should be like heavy cream. Bring just to a boil and remove from the heat.

The stew can be served now, or refrigerated and reheated later (check salt). Accompany by lightly salted rice, brown rice, or steamed or boiled potatoes. Sprinkle with minced parsley.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Pâté Saxonne: Easy, hearty appetizer

I'll admit the idea for this German-inspired appetizer spread, though much modified, came from a magazine. It's not something I actually ate in Europe. But it's a hearty, tangy, satisfying appetizer spread for water crackers or thin slices of toasted bread, and it would go with schnapps. Or with a chilled crisp white wine, which I prefer.

In French the pâté is named 'saxonne' (Saxon style) because (Lower) Saxony is the German state where Braunschweig is located, the city that gave the soft liver sausage Braunschweiger its name. That sausage is the main ingredient for this pâté. Unlike the firmer baked pâtés characteristic of French cuisine, pâté saxonne is soft and designed for easy spreading. I prefer the readily available Oscar Meyer Braunschweiger from the local supermarket as the starting point for this dish.

The appetizer should be made a day in advance, or at least a few hours, and allowed to mellow in the refrigerator, ready for the appetizer tray or buffet. Ideally the bread or crackers served with it should be low in salt, so the pâté can be fully appreciated. A cold slightly acidic white wine goes well with this, a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), but a dry German Reisling would also do well.

The recipe makes nearly a pint, plenty for entertaining. Half a recipe is enough for 4 to 6 people. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for a few days.

Pâté Saxonne Tim

1/2 of a small clove of garlic
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 (8-ounce) tube of Braunschweiger type liverwurst, Oscar-Meyer preferred
4 ounces (half a small package) Neufchâtel (lower fat) or regular cream cheese
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice
1 large or 2 thinner scallions (green onions)
1 tablespoon drained capers

Mash the garlic well in the salt, using the back of a spoon. Mix in the Braunschweiger, cream cheese, spices, and lime or lemon juice, using a fork to mash the Braunschweiger and the cream cheese. Finely slice the scallion, white and green parts, crosswise (cut scallions in thirds and line them up to slice more quickly). Stir the sliced scallion and the drained capers into the mixture, breaking the capers up a little with the fork.

Pack the pâté into a serving dish, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until needed. Serve with toasted thinly sliced baguette, water crackers, or melba toast.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Greek-Style Rice Dressing for Roast Lamb or Turkey

There are very few dishes I would use Uncle Ben's rice for, but this is one of them. While the US traditionally consumes little rice, with the exception perhaps of Louisiana and areas with large Asian immigrant populations, this country has for years been one of the world's leading rice exporters. Uncle Ben's brand, a 'converted' rice (meaning parboiled and then dried again), has long been exported to the Middle East, where it became one of the standard varieties of rice in the local pilafs. That includes the lamb-filled pilaf that is used for a stuffing for whole roast lamb and for roasted chickens and turkeys. It has a unique texture and flavor, cooks into very separate grains, and absorbs butter and olive oil and spices suitably for Arab and regional cooking. Basmati rice can be substituted. For either rice, rinse it in cool water and drain well before cooking.

The dried cranberries are a recent addition to this type of recipe. Many Iranian-Americans use them in their elaborate rice dishes to substitute for Persian dried barberries now that imports from Iran are restricted. There is more butter and mosture in this recipe than would appear in an ordinary pilaf, since it is a dressing for a roast rather than a rice side dish. While this dressing is preferably made with ground lamb, lean ground beef (such as ground sirloin) also makes a good dressing, and it's easier and usually cheaper to buy.

The recipe makes a good load of dressing, suitable for a Thanksgiving or other roast turkey or lamb family dinner. The leftovers reheat well in the microwave and make a lunch or supper meal in their own right, especially if accompanied by a salad.

Rice Dressing for Roasts Tim

3 cups Uncle Ben's (or Basmati) rice
4-1/2 cups unsalted chicken broth or water
2-1/4 teaspoons salt for the rice and 1 teaspoon for the meat
2 bay leaves, broken in half
1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar
1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped medium fine
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup (loosely packed) coarsely chopped parsley

Rinse and drain the rice. In a large, heavy pan with a tight fitting lid (or in an electric rice cooker), place the rice, broth or water, 2-1/4 teaspoons salt, broken bay leaves, and lemon juice or vinegar. Bring to a boil (or if using a rice cooker, put the lid on and turn on the cooker). When it boils, cover tightly, turn the heat to the lowest, and let simmer 20 minutes without opening the lid. Turn off the heat, but do not open the lid, and let sit for 10 more minutes. (Rice cooker will turn off on its own. Let rest 10 minutes before opening.)

Meanwhile, fry the meat, onion, butter, 1 teaspoon salt, cinnamon, oregano, paprika, and black pepper together over medium heat, breaking the meat up. If it is clumped, mash it lightly with a potato masher to break it up. When the meat has fully changed color and the onion is tender, stir in the walnuts, raisins, and cranberries. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, stir in the parsley, and keep the mixture covered.

When the rice is done, lift it out of the pan into a very large bowl. Handle it gently with two large spoons or rice paddles, being careful not to break the grains. Add the meat mixture, and gently fold it into the rice. Return the rice to the pan (or rice cooker), cover and put on the lowest burner heat for 3 minutes (or turn rice cooker on, and it will take care of itself). Remove from the stove and place on a hot pad (or unplug the rice cooker), and cover the pan with several towels to insulate it and keep the rice hot. Or if the rice is cooked well in advance, it can be rewarmed in a covered casserole dish in the microwave, fluffing with a fork after every 1-1/2 minutes of microwaving, until hot.

Easy and Homemade: Apricot-Cranberry Chutney

For an article in the Athens Magazine that featured our family restaurant business, I developed a fruit chutney to accomapny the roast turkey in a meal themed 'Traditional with an International Flair.' In part, the chutney was a substitute for my usual homemade whole cranberry sauce, because at the time the dinner was photographed and the article written -- August, to be ready for the magazine's November issue -- there were no fresh cranberries to be found. There are cranberries in the chutney, but they are the dried variety that have recently become popular as 'Craisins.' These are popular with me too, and I use them in a variety of dishes.

Here's a condiment that is strongly influenced by the Anglo-Indian 'Major Grey's' mango chutney. Major Grey's chutney is a fusion food, from before when fusion was 'fusion'. It emerged in the 19th century from the Indian aam chatney, but was adapted to the tastes of the British colonials for their curry tiffins and, when bottled, for eating back home in England and Scotland. So going a step further to changing the fruit and benefitting from the now available dried fruits that are seasonless, we arrive at this chutney. The sweet/sour-ginger/garlic/spicy tanginess of the original Anglo-Indian chutney is there, but with different fruit overtones. To my taste, it's a fine condiment for roast turkey. (And for layering on top of Brie cheese baked in a crust.)

The recipe makes over a quart, but leftovers store well in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen.

Apricot-Cranberry Chutney Tim

1 pound (about 2-1/4 cups, packed) dried apricots, soft Turkish style preferred
1 medium orange, organic if possible
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger
1 small clove garlic
1-1/4 cups water
1/2 cup white or cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne or crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup dried cranberries

Coarsely chop the apricots, using a chef's knife on a cutting board. Place in a stainless steel or enamel -- not aluminum or cast iron -- sauce pan.

Scrub the orange well and rub it dry with a towel. With a vegetable peeler or sharp knife, cut three 3-inch long strips of the zest and place them in the container of a food processer or blender. Peel the orange, and cut it into chunks, removing any seeds. Add the orange to the orange zest pieces. Thinly peel the ginger, then slice it very thinly crosswise and add it to the orange. Crush and remove skin from the garlic, and add garlic to the orange. Purée the mixture until very smooth, scraping down the inside of the container from time to time. Add a little of the water, if needed, to thoroughly purée.

Add the puréed mixture to the apricots, along with the (rest of the) water, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, cayenne, and oil. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cranberries, and simmer another 8 minutes. Add a little water, if the mixture is too thick.

It's best to make this in advance and refrigerate it -- in a glass or plastic container, not metal -- so the flavors blend.