Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Butternut and Lentils braised with Beef: Using meat for flavor

Throughout history, meat, even for hunter-gather societies, was occasional. Animal protein was a lucky highlight rather than a staple. Even today, the great majority of the world's population eats meat, if at all, as something to flavor rather than center the meal.

We Americans typically consider meat -- or fish -- the focus of dining, except perhaps for soup or seasoning with broth. Potatoes, rice, or vegetables serve primarily as side dishes. Our culinary heritage is rich in meat, especially in the German-American cooking of the Midwestern "Heartland" -- a medically ironic term.

Elsewhere in the hemisphere meat, especially beef, looms even larger. The Argentineans and Brazilians are notorious meat eaters. "Argentinean" attached to "Restaurant" means steak house. When as a student I lived with families in Colombia and Costa Rica, fried steak was part of almost every breakfast.

By contrast, in some of Europe and most of Asia, meat is the minority food, the expensive touch to the meal, the food for celebrations.

Some smug Western writers have suggested that curry seasoning was a way to disguise the taste of spoiling meat. In fact, curries are a way of stretching freshly butchered meat bought the same day at market. Lots of savory sauce enhances the meat and flavors the rice or bread that is the true base of the meal. A scrawny chicken or small chunk of meat can thus feed a large family.

Having spent a number of years in Asia, I also tend to view meat as a way of flavoring, rather than being, the meal. (That said, I won't turn down a juicy steak or a pile of barbecue, if offered.)

Here's a dish I developed to explore seasoning with meat. This Eastern Mediterranean style of lentil and vegetable stew uses the approach that is more typical in Asian cooking. It has plenty of protein, as well as flavor -- just not a lot of meat. See if you think the experiment worked.

Based on the contents and seasonings, I would serve a spicy red wine like a Grenache/Garnacha or Côtes du Rhône with this.

The recipe will serve six. Many different accompaniments could go with this, like noodles, brown or regular rice, other grains, or good crusty bread.

Butternut and Lentils braised with Beef

3/4 cup tan (ordinary) lentils
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 medium-large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 inch fresh ginger, finely minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium tomato, chopped, or 2 tablespoons tomato paste (freeze the rest)
1 1/2 cups water
1 small (1 1/4 pounds) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut in 1-inch chunks
2 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 cup low-fat yogurt

Place lentils in large bowl and cover with boiling water 3 inches above the lentils.

In heavy pot, fry ground beef and onions together, stirring occasionally, until both are looking well cooked.

Reduce heat. Add garlic, ginger, spices and herbs. Fry, stirring frequently, one minute. Add tomato or paste, and simmer another minute.

Drain lentils, and add them to pot. Add water. Simmer, covered, stirring from time to time, until lentils are becoming tender. Add a little water if mixture is sticking.

Add butternut and 1 teaspoon of salt. Simmer, covered, and stirring occasionally until butternut becomes tender. Add a little water, as needed, to keep mixture from sticking. As butternut becomes tender, add remaining salt.

When lentils and butternut are tender, beat yogurt in a small bowl with a fork and stir it into pot. Bring back to a light bubble. Simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Taste and add salt if needed.

Serve with noodles, rice or other grain, or crusty bread.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thai-Chinese Stir-fried Shrimp with Asparagus in Oyster Sauce

For reasons I don't understand, I have put few stir-fried dishes on my blog. A reader asked for more recipes after I posted one on stir-fried broccoli (5/26/09). In three years of this blog, I only have one other stir-fry recipe (on 10/27/08).

Yet at home, basically Chinese stir-fries have been pretty much my most frequent dishes for family and friends. Ever since our years in Malaysia and sharing kitchen duties with a skillful Chinese cook, quickly made stir-fried treats have been family favorites.

The dishes are sometimes the main course with unsalted Thai jasmine rice (blog post of 1/26/08). Sometimes they are side dishes for Thai curries. Healthy, economical and quick to make, stir-fries typically use meat or seafood in small quantities as flavoring rather than principal ingredient. There are, of course, both purely vegetarian stir-fries and those heavy in meat or seafood. But even for the meat or seafood dishes, vegetables are present in quantity for contrast and texture.

Here is a colorful stir-fried vegetable dish garnished with shrimp that in Thailand would accompany a richly flavored curry or other meat or fish dish. It could also, along with rice, stand as the principal dish for a lunch.

Of obvious Chinese ancestry, this recipe nonetheless has uniquely Thai touches, including the use of fish sauce (nam pla) rather than soy sauce. Another Thai feature is that the sauce around the vegetables is neither oily nor thickened, as Chinese stir-fried dishes can be.

The recipe serves six as a side dish, or 4 as a main luncheon or supper dish. Either way, it would always be served with white unsalted rice.

Thai-Chinese Shrimp with Asparagus

1/2 pound shrimp, as fresh as possible (or frozen, raw)
1 small bunch of thin asparagus
1 medium crown of broccoli
2 large scallions (green onions), including the greens
1 large clove of garlic
1/2 inch fresh ginger
2 tablespoons canola oil (not olive)
1-1/2 tablespoons Chinese oyster sauce (available at Asian groceries)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (available at Asian groceries), or soy sauce

If using frozen shrimp, defrost them quickly in a bowl of cool water, changing the water once or twice. If fresh shrimp, rinse well.

Drain shrimp. Peel them, leaving tail shells on. De-vein by cutting shallowly down the middle of the back of the shrimp and lifting out vein with the tip of a knife. Butterfly shrimp, if desired, by slicing down part way into the middle of the back (near the head end) along the vein line. Rinse, then pat shrimp dry with paper towels. Refrigerate until needed.

Prepare vegetables, placing them in separate piles until needed: Cut off tough lower third of asparagus stems. Cut asparagus into 2-inch lengths, slicing stem on an angle. Cut off all but about 1-1/2 inches of broccoli stem. Cut broccoli lengthwise into small, similarly sized flowerets, each with a strip of stem. Cut scallions diagonally into 1-inch lengths. Mince garlic. Slice ginger paper-thin. Stack up slices and shred them into narrow threads.

In wok or large frying pan, precook asparagus in one cup of boiling, lightly salted water, stirring and tossing until bright green and crisp-tender, about 1/2 minute. Lift out of water and store on a plate. Reheat water and precook broccoli similarly. Reserve blanching water in a cup. Rinse wok or pan.

Reheat wok or pan to medium high. Add oil, garlic and ginger. Stir and fry briefly until fragrant but not browned, 10 to 15 seconds. Add shrimp and stir and fry until the color has mostly turned pink. Add precooked vegetables plus scallion. Stir once. Add oyster sauce and fish or soy sauce. Add one tablespoon of vegetable water. Stir and fry briefly.

Taste sauce. It should be slightly salty (the vegetables will soak up salt). If necessary, add a little salt. Serve immediately on a platter or plate, heaped up in the middle.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thai Triple-Fish Nam Ya Curry with Rice Noodles

During our summer trip, I was reintroduced to a Thai dish I did not remember well. It was so outstanding, I'm not sure how its memory faded. I would have had it at Thai homes years ago. Perhaps the swirl of flavors back then and the stunningly new tastes obscured this one. Well no longer.

In Northern Virginia, my sister-in-law, Nai, who is from Chiang Mai, Thailand, made it as part of a dinner she and I co-prepared. (I fixed Indian food, and the dishes fit well together.)

The base for Nai's dish was "kanom jeen," literally Chinese snack or cake. It is a swirled pad of rice noodles on which, in this case, Nam Ya, a curry-like sauce with fish, was ladled. Nam ya literally means medicine water. Blanched beansprouts and narrowly cut green beans, along with Asian basil are the accompaniments.

Kanom jeen with whatever topping is an appetizer course or a light meal, rather than part of the main course of a traditional dinner.

The fish is traditionally chopped, making Nam Ya a somewhat lumpy pinkish-brown sauce to spoon over the rice noodles. I use tuna, as I learned from Nai, plus tilapia. The third fish is the anchovy in nam pla, Thai fish sauce.

No specific drink goes with this, because it is a starter course rather than a main dish. But in Thailand with the entire meal the drink would be beer, especially Singha, which is imported here. Wines are hard to pair with this one. The best bets would fruity and gently acidic whites like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, or a wonderful wine from Argentina I'm just becoming familiar with, Torrantes.

Thai Triple-Fish Nam Ya with Kanom Jeen

Make curry ahead and rewarm to serve.

3 tablespoons Nam Ya curry paste (available only in 14-ounce containers -- freeze the remainder, placing the container in a zip-lock bag)
2 (5-ounce) cans light tuna in water, drained
1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk plus 2 tablespoons water
2 stalks lemon grass
12 ounces fresh or frozen tilapia
2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
8 leaves Asian or regular basil

In sauce pan, heat curry paste and tuna together, stirring frequently, until starting to bubble. Add coconut milk. Rinse out can with 2 tablespoons water, and add it to the mixture.

Cut lemon grass into 4-inch pieces, and bruise with side of cleaver or bottom of pot. Add to the mixture. Simmer 10 minutes.

Quickly thaw tilapia, if frozen, in lukewarm water. Or if fresh, rinse it off. Cut into 1/2-inch squares, and add to curry. Stir and simmer several minutes until tilapia looks cooked. The mixture should be thick but creamy and pourable. If it looks too thick, add a little water.

Stir in fish sauce and sugar, and remove from heat. Stir in basil leaves. Remove lemon grass stalks, shaking off clinging curry.

Taste, and add more fish sauce if not salted enough.

Kanom Jeen

12 to 14 ounces straight rice vermicelli ("Guilin" style, Golden Eagle brand works well)

Bring large quantity of water to boil. Add noodles, and stir with long fork until noodles soften, so they do not stick. Boil, stirring frequently, until tender to the bite, 6-8 minutes, depending on the brand.

Drain in colander. Rinse with cold water, mixing noodles to cool thoroughly. Drain well.

Pick up small handful of noodles and swirl them gently on a large platter to make small, flat circular packet of noodles. Repeat, making packets of the same size, until noodles are used up.

Cover platter with plastic wrap and let sit at least 15 minutes at room temperature to set the noodles. The noodles can held like this up to two hours. If holding for longer, refrigerate noodles but bring back to room temperature to serve.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Prussian Meatballs: Echoes from a vanished kingdom

The historic and cultured East Prussian port city of Königsberg ("king’s mountain"), established as a German outpost by the crusading 13th century Teutonic Knights, became wealthy during the Hanseatic League and was later home of the Prussian kings. Königsberg is no more.

Extensively bombed by the Allies toward the end of World War II, the city was captured by the Soviet Army, its German population expelled, and recreated as the Russian city of Kaliningrad. However Prussian meatballs, "Königsberger Klopse" (literally meat dumplings in Low German), live on in the traditional cuisine of Germany.

I first tasted and became enchanted with these huge, elegant meatballs, enriched with spices and minced anchovies, as a teenager. My mother and I were invited to dinner at the home of her boss, a professor from Austria. His wife Edi, a substantial, cheery German woman, had been a soldier during the war, serving as a truck driver and mechanic. Her meatballs, learned during childhood, showed an exotic trace. Cuisines in port cities often do. Curry overtones brightened the otherwise very German caper sauce.

It took some trial and error to reproduce Edi's Prussian meatballs. The recipe serves six plentifully, as is the German custom. Accompany the meatballs with boiled potatoes or noodles.

Consistent with the origins of this dish, beer would be the drink. However, a chilled Riesling, preferably dry or nearly dry, would also pair with the subtly complex flavors.

Prussian Meatballs -- Königsberger Klopse

4 tablespoons finely minced onion
1 tablespoon canola oil
6 tablespoons quick-cooking oatmeal
1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets, including their oil
6 tablespoons unseasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
2 pounds ground beef chuck or 1 pound each ground chuck and pork

Broth and sauce:
3 cups water
4 slices of onion
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon curry powder (or 1/4 teaspoon each coriander, cumin, and turmeric, large pinch each ground fennel and cayenne)
1 tablespoon flour mixed with 1-1/2 teaspoons canola oil
2 tablespoons capers, drained (rinsed, if packed in salt)
Minced parsley for garnish

Gently fry onion in oil until softened. Transfer to bowl.

With chef's knife on cutting board, coarsely chop oatmeal. Add to bowl. Pour oil from anchovies into bowl. Mince anchovies, and add to bowl. Add crumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, nutmeg, pepper, and eggs. Beat everything together lightly. Mix meat in well with your hands.

With moistened hands shape six large evenly-sized meatballs. Set them on waxed paper. Chill them if there is time.

In a wide pot, simmer water, onion slices, bay leaf, and salt. Gently place meatballs in the water. Cover pan and steam meat balls 10 minutes over low heat. Carefully turn meatballs with thin spatula. Steam them 10 more minutes. Turn once more, and steam 5 minutes.

With slotted spoon, transfer meatballs to serving platter. Cover loosely with waxed paper, and keep warm.

Remove bay leaf and onion from the broth. Skim off grease. Add curry powder or spices. Boil broth down to about 1-1/2 cups. Reduce heat. Whisk in flour-oil mixture. Simmer 2 minutes, whisking often.

Remove from heat. Stir in capers. Taste sauce, and add salt if needed.

Spoon sauce over meat balls (do not pour from pan, or it be messy). Dust with a little minced parsley.

Serve with boiled, buttered potatoes or egg noodles.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Mum's Luscious Chocolate Frosting: Amazingly easy

My mother, though quite a good cook, lived the philosophy that if it needed more than one bowl or one pot it was too fussy.

A practical woman, she started her career as a social worker, then raised four kids, then worked as an administrative assistant at a university. After retirement she worked as town librarian to the age of 82. Fussy in the kitchen was not her style.

Yet several stunningly good dishes came from her repertoire, a few of them still made by her grandchildren. One of those dishes, that tastes of my childhood, is chocolate frosting that is rich yet practically fat-free. It is presented below.

Recently Christina produced a double chocolate cake for a friend's farewell luncheon. Both the cake and the silken frosting were simple to make from scratch and were from Mum's recipes. The easy but elegant chocolate cake was posted on my blog on 7/13/08, and is quickly retrievable from the blog archives.

The boiled chocolate frosting, velvety and gleaming, tastes remarkably intense. Yet it actually uses less sugar than a typical frosting and contains no butter. We made this one often when we lived overseas in the tropics, where confectioner's sugar was hard to find and butter expensive.

Mum claimed this was originally a cake filling rather than a frosting. But it was her standard chocolate frosting, and the favorite of her kids.

A recipe covers an 8- to 9-inch layer cake.

Mum's Rich Boiled Chocolate Frosting

2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup milk (she sometimes used canned evaporated milk)
2 squares unsweetened baking chocolate
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

In heavy sauce pan, combine cornstarch and sugar with a whisk. Mix in milk, chocolate squares and salt.

Heat rapidly, stirring almost constantly with whisk. When chocolate has melted, simmer 10 minutes, stirring very frequently.

Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Stir often as frosting cools to just warm. Spread it still warm on cooled cake.