Monday, March 26, 2012

Hearty Lentil Soup With Spice And Spinach

A couple of months ago I got two bags of French lentils from my sister, who had received them from my mom six months before that, who had gotten them from a neighbor who was moving away who knows how long ago.  So that's a lot of people who have no idea what to do with lentils, including me.  I made a lentil soup years ago that I felt pretty eh about.  In an attempt to use these up, I also made lentil salad and it was fine, but definitely something that I will be craving never.  This weekend I solved my lentil problem when I stumbled onto a Cook's Illustrated recipe for lentil soup.  My CI cookbook really has not let me down yet, best cookbook I own for sure.  The original recipe is for hearty lentil soup and then there were two variations, one with fragrant spices and one with spinach.  I basically turned out a version that combined elements of all three and I couldn't be more pleased.  Now I am jealously guarding my remaining lentils, so I can turn out more of this soup!

Hearty Lentil Soup with Spices and Spinach (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)

3 slices bacon, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 medium carrots, chopped (I used 3 and food processed into same size as onions)
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 (14.5 oz can) diced tomatoes, drained
1 bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (I used a bit less than that of dried)
1 cup (7 oz) lentils
1 tsp salt (I omitted this bc I used regular chicken broth)
ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth (I used regular and omitted salt above)
1 1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice (I didn't actually measure this)
5 oz frozen spinach (eyeballed how much I wanted!)

1. Fry bacon in Dutch oven over medium high heat, stirring occasionally until fat is rendered and bacon crisp.

2. Add the onion and carrots; cook, stirring until the veggies begin to soften (2 min).

3. Add garlic, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cook about 30 sec.  Stir in tomatoes, bay leave and thyme, cook until fragrant ~30 sec.  Stir in lentils, salt (if using), pepper, cover and reduce heat to medium low.  Cook until veggies are softened and lentils have darkened, ~8-10 min.

4. Uncover, increase the heat to high, add the wine and bring to simmer.  Add chicken broth and water, bring to boil, cover partially and reduce heat to low.  Simmer until lentils are tender but still hold shape, 30-35 min.  Discard bay leaf.

5.  Puree 3 cups of soup until smooth and return to pot.  Stir in lemon juice and frozen spinach, heat soup until hot and serve.

Note: If you have cilantro, chop some up to sprinkle over the soup.  The timing above wasn't really followed by me, just use some common sense.  It's a forgiving soup I think and tastes excellent.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Simple Dinner

Salted edamame with cheese and scallion scone and tea 

As a busy working person, I often cook during the weekend and cobble together leftovers for meals throughout the week.  Cooking is a relaxing and enjoyable pastime for me so I try to make as many things from scratch as possible.  Certain weekends end up being busier than others, if I have to make things like bread and kimchi and what have you.  Since it's just me though, the food I make lasts a long time and I can often freeze portions away for future use.  I have a set of rotating staples I often cook, but it's also fun to try new recipes.  A couple of weekends ago I tried out the cheese and scallion scones from Farmgirl Fare.  This recipe was quite a cinch to throw together, but when they first came out of the oven, I was kind of disappointed because the texture was really not what I was anticipating.  However, I've found that they toast up marvelously for breakfasts.  The texture is still not scone-like, but it's a delicate bready texture with a crispy crumbly crust and generally pleasing.  I definitely recommend making these in advance and re-toasting for serving.  And they freeze very well too!

Cheese and Scallion Scones (adapted from Farmgirl Fare)

2½ to 3 cups all-purpose flour (12.5 oz to 15 oz)
1 Tablespoon + 2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
4 ounces cream cheese, softened in the microwave 15-30 seconds (you want it very soft)
4 scallions, green & white parts, chopped
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 large egg

Optional Egg glaze:
Beat 1 egg and 2 Tablespoons of milk (or half and half) well with a fork (I omitted this because I always kind of hate wasting an egg on glazes)

1. Heat the oven to 400°.

2. Combine 2½ cups of the flour, the baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
3. Add the cheeses & toss gently with a fork until combined.
4. Add the scallions & toss gently with a fork until combined.
5. Beat the milk (or half and half) with the egg and gently it fold into the dry ingredients, mixing lightly until a soft dough forms. Add up to 1/2 cup additional flour if the dough is too sticky.
6. On a floured surface, gently pat the dough into a circle approximately 1-inch thick (or into two smaller circles for 12 scones). The key to tender scones is to handle the dough as little as possible and with a light touch.

7. With a sharp knife (I use a large serrated knife dipped in flour), cut the circle(s) into 8 wedges and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I used foil bc I was out of parchment)

8. Brush the tops and sides of the scones with the egg glaze if desired, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm, or cool completely and refrigerate or freeze in a heavy zipper bag or airtight container.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

PSU Farmers Market Reopens!

This morning I woke up at 6:30am and the first thought that popped into my head was Farmer's market is open today!!!  Then I went back to sleep for another hour, because c'mon it's Saturday, there's no way I'm getting myself out of bed at 6:30.  I was out the door by 9am though, enjoying a brisk walk in brisk weather.  It was lovely to be back amongst the stalls, eyeing produce and prices, running back and forth to see which stall had better looking veggies or fruits.  Since it's not quite yet spring weather, the vegetables were mostly leeks and chards and kales and lettuces.  So I will still have to go to Whole Foods later to diversify.  P.S. I went to lab directly afterward and ate an apple so there were originally 3 apples.  P.P.S. After eating my apple I realized why I stopped buying apples while the markets were closed.  Grocery store apples just do not compare.

3 fuji apples and 3 red d'anjou pears: $6.10
Asian salad mix and a bunch of kale: $5
Venison pate: $5

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Chinese Congee Using Steelcut Oats

It turns out the pressure cooker is an excellent way to make a healthier version of Chinese congee using steelcut oats.  I had already been eating savory versions of oatmeal, but after writing my post about this, I started wondering if it would be possible to incorporate sweet potatoes into the dish.  Red sweet potatoes would be prettier; I bought these in the Chinese grocery store thinking they would be red, but they're actually yellow ones.  Tasty though!  The toppings I like to include are seaweed paste, fried ground swordfish, sardines in tomato sauce, fried gluten with peanuts.  You can basically find these in the canned food section in your Chinese grocery.  It's entirely possible all of these things would be acquired tastes for those not reared by Asian immigrant parents.

I think overall I like the pressure cooker over the slow cooker for steelcut oatmal.  It's also quite easy to make a large batch and it's so fast!

Steelcut Oatmeal
1 cup steelcut oatmeal
5 cups water
1 sweet potato, skinned and cubed (not too small)

Throw everything into the pressure cooker.  When it comes up to pressure, let it go for 5 minutes and then turn off the flame and allow the pressure to release on its own. 

The oatmeal looked super soupy at first, but after it cools down and especially after chilling, it is nice and congee-like.  For non-congee applications (ie. to eat with brown sugar without sweet potato), I would probably like a more nubbly texture so I might try playing with the times and tweak water ratios a bit.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pad Thai Is Only Easy In Theory

I have a long standing obsession with pad thai so whenever I go to a new Thai place, I always order their shrimp pad thai.  Over the years I have eaten very good pad thai (Song and Joya in New York) and very bad pad thai (too numerous to mention).  So when I found what looked to be a super authentic pad thai recipe on userealbutter, I just had to try it.  So the good thing about the recipe is the technique is solid.  My first attempt was sort of a disaster, but after I switched to a large enough pot and got the hang of timing everything, it's a breeze to make up.  The problem is it doesn't really taste like the pad thai I like!  I'm not entirely sure what's missing.  More fish sauce?  More sugar?  I found another version from Cook's Illustrated so I will be giving that a go one of these days.  The elements I will definitely be keeping from this recipe though, is to have a batch of sauce made up in advance and to cook small servings at a time.  Makes a huge difference.  What I would change is the egg.  When I tried to cook the egg in the same pan with the noodles, it never turned out well (maybe because my pan is not non-stick), so I have much better results when I cook up the egg in a separate pan, cut it into pieces and then sort of add it with everything else in the end.

You can find the recipe and tutorial here.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Chinese Eggplant with Kasha

For someone with a love affair with interesting grains, the bulk food bins at Whole Foods can provide many a happy hour.  I only knew of kasha through the descriptions of MFK Fisher (it is through her writings that I have experienced many of the finer things of life) so I was instantly tempted when I spotted the pretty toasted grains at Whole Foods.  A few internet searches later, I was ready to go.  Well, my first attempt was kind of a disaster.  The whole thing turned into some kind of awful pasty mush and since I had no idea what it was supposed to taste like I kind of made my way through the batch and then had no inclination to cook up the rest.  Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I knew kasha had to be different and good.  MFK Fisher would not lead me astray.  So tonight I gave it another go, this time being careful to try it at different stages of cooking and stopping it when it seemed right to me.  It turns out, kasha has a nice nubbly texture and wonderful nutty flavor.  To go with, I fixed up a batch of Chinese eggplant (using Japanese eggplants of course), winging it the way my mom taught me.  Together with some homebrewed beer gifted by some friends and I have dined!

Combine 2 cups of water with 1/4 tsp salt and bring to boil in medium saucepan.  Add 1 cup of toasted buckwheat groats, lower the flame to miniscule and clap a lid on.  After 10 minutes, give it a stir and taste.  If there's a lot of water left, cook a few minutes longer.  But check as you go and taste so it doesn't turn to mush on you.  I like the grains to be tender but separate and nubbly.

Chinese Eggplant
Depending on size, a few Japanese eggplants.  I used 3 big ones.  Cut into manageable long rectangles, each pieces should be 2-3 bites maybe.  If you cut too small they tend to disintegrate on you.  Coat the pieces with some oil using your hands and throw into a dutch oven.  Put the lid on top and turn on a low flame.  Every so often go and stir everything up so it doesn't burn but keep on cooking until the pieces are quite soft.  If it looks like it might be burning, turn the flame lower.  When soft, toss in a few chopped scallions, swirl in soy sauce, water, and sugar to taste.  Mix a heaping tsp of corn starch with a splash of cold water and add a bit at a time until you achieve a thickness you like.  I wish I had more precise directions but this is a pretty forgiving dish I think.  If it tastes too salty, add more sugar and vice versa.  If too dry and you feel you've already added a bunch of soy sauce, add more water.  Ditto if it got too thick.