April 23, 2009 § 4 Comments
Every once in awhile I do something in the kitchen that even I think is cool, and today was one of those days. It wasn’t difficult. Not even that surprising. Still, I’ve never known anyone else to make a hot breakfast cereal out of quinoa. (In fact, a quick Google search turned up tons of others who have done this before me, including one recipe with a picture that makes you want to take a bite out of your computer screen, on the blog 101 Cookbooks; but I didn’t know about them, so it was still an invention for me!)
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain (actually it is the seed of a plant, but for cooking and eating purposes you can think of it as a grain). Heathfoodies, particularly those that don’t eat animals, love it for its high protein content. And it’s a good thing for the sake of the quinoa, because it’s the kind of food that has to be loved for something other than it’s deliciousness. Although it’s not bad, and it can actually be kind of good, it’s not good enough to inspire a craving. Or at least I have never craved quinoa.
Today’s breakfast, like all brilliant inventions, was the direct result of necessity in a time of desperation. To be more specific: a) I had a sweet tooth and due to boring-to-talk-about but very real health concerns, I try not to eat sugar; b) I was out of oatmeal; c) I have eaten in restaurants every night for exactly one week and I wanted to eat Good, Clean Food today; and d) I just so happened to have a bag of heirloom red, Bolivan quinoa in the cupboard left over from a recipe I tested from Akasha, the real restaurant-health food hybrid in Culver City that against all my better instincts, I happen to love.
The cereal is pretty straightforward. I might simply be able to say: Make oatmeal using quinoa in place of the oats. But since it’s my job to write recipes, here goes.
Quinoa For Breakfast
2 cups liquid (depending on who you are and what you have on hand, this could be water, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, or milk-milk)
1 cup quinoa (if you’re like me and it makes you feel better to spend more money on special versions of basic ingredients, then seek out an heirloom variety of quinoa such as the organic red Bolivian quinoa that I used.
1/4 cup dried currants (or raisins or apricots or whatever dried fruit you want to use; or not)
1 tablespoon butter
Splash of vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon
A big pinch (about 1/2 teaspoon) salt
1/4 cup chopped pecans, sliced almonds, or sunflower seeds, toasted
If you know how to make hot cereal without my help, please ignore everything I have written below and pay attention only to the amounts. Actually you can ignore those too, except the part about using two parts liquid to one part quinoa.
Pour the liquid into into a medium saucepan over high heat and bring it to a boil. Stir in the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Add the currants and quinoa, stir, and return the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Serve it however you like to eat breakfast cereal. This morning, since I was trying to stay away from my usual why-use-milk-when-you-can-use-heavy-cream-instead way of thinking, and ate mine with a dab of butter in the center and some cold rice milk poured around the edges. (If I’d had nuts, i would have thrown those on top.) It was really good, despite all that nutritional value.
March 4, 2009 § 1 Comment
I made lentil soup Monday night, which was and always is more than just dinner. Lentil soup is my edible version of taking confession. Cleaning my slate as it were.
After a night like Sunday night, lentil soup was really the only thing to do. The fact that I ate three meals was the least of my problems. (Okay, they weren’t all meals exactly: I had some Kobe beef sliders and three types of French fries at XIV, the Michael Mina resto on Sunset Boulevard that is currently on life support, some thinly sliced ham worth its weight in foie gras cotton candy at The Bazaar, and then I had a meal: about 10,000 small plates of perfection at AOC). But the part that truly gave me a hangover had nothing to do with what I ingested. It was more about the air of drama that swirled about the evening. At the first restaurant, my head was officially ripped off by another writer after I asked her a question I’d evidently asked her before. Our experience at The Bazaar was a bizarre trip to Miami that included a guy with a big tan and bigger biceps in ripped jeans (and was his hair blow-dried?), a celebrity chef with a model half his age (and bare legs twice as long), $600 check that included $200 in Red Bulls-and-vodka, and a passel of girls in too small of clothes, including one that was wearing, I swear I couldn’t make this shit up, a top hat. When we left Miami to get some grub in an atmosphere that was more our speed, at AOC, I actually got flipped off. By someone I knew. And he wasn’t even kidding. Not surprisingly, the following day was a day of email exchanges, apologies, and various friendings and yes, even unfriendings on Facebook. It was exhausting. And time for lentil soup.
I make my lentil soup roughly the same way every time, give or take a few slices of bacon, or a leek or two. I put tons of onions in mine, which makes it slightly sweet, and I like anything sweet. Lentils have a lot of good qualities–they’re healthy and cheap–but one of the things I like best about them is that they don’t need to be soaked, which means I cook my soup and eat it too, all in the same day, and then wake up the next morning a better person in the eyes of God.
To make lentils soup, start with a large soup pot over high heat and pour in some olive oil (about 1/4 cup, but don’t measure: just use whatever it takes to cover the bottom of the pot). Add 2 or 3 onions (I use yellow onions; sweet Spanish ones if I have them) to the pot as you chop them. Throw in an ancho chile and a few sprigs of thyme if you happen to have some growing outside or a neighbor, like mine, who does. Sprinkle the whole deal with kosher salt, and start chopping carrots and celery (1 or 2 stalks). I like a lot of carrots in my lentil soup. It makes me feel like I’m eating vegetables (because I am), but use what you want: two, five, it’ll still be lentil soup. Saute all the vegetables, stirring whenever you think about it, for 5 or 10 minutes, until they’re nice and soft. Add the garlic and cook for about one minute, until your kitchen smells like garlic but not so long that the garlic browns. Add 3 quarts of chicken or vegetable broth, a fresh bay leaf if you have one, and a pound of green lentils. Bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the soup until the lentils are the texture of something you want to eat. This will take about an hour, but it will be even better after more time, and better still the next day. Once the soup is done, take out the chile and the bay leaf and throw in a handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley. I used to think parsley was just about adding green specks to your food, but all you have to do is chop up some of the stuff fresh and you figure out that it’s about its fresh, grassy flavor. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon (or stir in a tablespoon or two of red wine or sherry vinegar), and season the soup with more salt if it needs it. (It probably does.). Serve the soup with a sprinkling of parsley, a sprinkling of Maldon salt, and a drizzle of finishing-quality extra virgin olive oil. Eat. And may peace be with you.
March 2, 2009 § 4 Comments
I’m a copycat cook. The difference between me and people who really got it goin’ on is that I might be able to execute one of their dishes pretty darned well, but I could never think of them. I doubt I have ever made anything that I didn’t eat or see or read about somewhere before. It’s just not who I am. So when I found myself with a pile of really pretty, delicate scallions on my hands (or my cutting board, rather), my imagination was limited to the following cliches: using them to top a baked potato, grilling them along with a steak, the way they do in Mexico, or use them instead of onions in a tuna salad. Thankfully, I had the good sense to email a photo of my very pretty onions to my friend Jonathan and ask him what to do next.
Jonathan is one of the most creative cooks I know. He always thinks of things to do with foods that nobody else does (they copy him) and that never seem silly (because he is not). For my onions, he said this: “Now if it were me I’d make soup with the large ones and grilled onion tacos with the smaller ones.” Tacos. Who would have thought?
Because a taco is only as good as the tortilla it’s made with, I buy hand-patted, just0made corn tortillas from my local taqueria, Loteria. Charring various ingredients such as tomatillos and chilies and then pureeing them in a blender is the way many Mexican sauces are born. It sounds kind of intimidating and Aztec but once you’ve tried it, you’ll see that the results—the deep, charred flavor you get from it—is worth the small effort, and in fact, it’s the Umami of all Mexican cuisine, the secret, hidden flavor you’ve been waiting for all your life without even knowing it. Like love.
Smothered Green Onion Tacos
16 small green onions (whole)
2 yukon gold potatoes (peeled and sliced)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tomatillos (those are green tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic
2 mexican limes (aka: Key limes)
1 jalapeno chile
1 serrano chile
2 small vine ripened toamtoes
1 small bunch of cilantro (washed and put into two one-cup measures)
16 small corn tortillas
1, Wash the onions. Prepare a charcoal grill. When the coals are medium hot [don't you love how he just assumes we use coals, not gas?), toss the onions and potatoes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and grill until they are golden brown on all sides. Place the onions in a covered bowl and let rest for 1 hour. When tender, cut off and discard the root end, and dice the onions.
2. Wash the tomatillos and cut them in half. Put a griddle on the grill [this is Jonathan's imitation of a Mexican comal, so if you have one of those, use it] and let it get very hot (about 10 minutes). Put a teaspoon of oil on the griddle and place the tomatillos outside down. Add the garlic, jalapeño, serrano, and the tomatoes and cook them until they are dark brown. Turn them over and cook them on the other sides until dark brown. Place the vegetables in a bowl, cover with a plate, and steam for one hour. Remove the chillies and discard the stems and the seeds.
3. Place the contents of bowl number two (the tomatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and chillies) in a blender with one cup of cilantro, 1/2 cup of the diced onions, and the juice of one lime. Pulse to make a salsa. Season with salt.
4. Warm the tortillas. Toss the remaining onions and potatoes with the salsa. Spoon the mixture into the tortillas (in other words: make a taco), and garnish with lime and cilantro, and eat. Buen provecho.
February 17, 2009 § 1 Comment
Giving a recipe for butternut squash soup feels something like giving a recipe for sliced tomatoes. I’ve provided the amounts I used to make this soup, below, which may well be the best of a long, long history of butternut squash soups, but you should know that I based the amounts largely on what I had: If I’d had three yellow onions, I might have used all three. Had I only two large carrots—or none—that’s what the recipe would say. If I didn’t have the good fortune of sweet potatoes rolling around in my refrigerator drawer, I would have made the soup without the potatoes (though the do give it a wonderful velvety texture, and a deep flavor you only get from things pulled from the ground. Had I not also the good fortune of two different neighbors, one whose front yard is landscaped with creeping thyme, the other with a rosemary bush large as a hedge, I may have skipped one or both of those, too. You get the idea. Don’t you?
1 butternut squash (or hubbard, acorn, cheese pumpkin)
1 (or 2 or 3) sweet potatoes (I used garnet, but use whatever you have or want)
Olive oil (nothing fancy)
2 big yellow onions (white would be fine and red would probably work too), chopped
1 bunch of carrots, tops removed, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary and/or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 arbol chile
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth
1 lemon, halved
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Cut the squash in half. This is no small task as you know if you have ever tried to slice through a butternut squash. the best way I know to do it is to take a big knife you don’t care that much about, plunge it kung-fu style into the squash, then, using the knife handle, pick the squash up (it’s now like a giant lollipop) and bang it on the counter so the knife goes further in. Keep doing this until you’ve created enough of a crevice so you can pry the thing open, and do. Scoop the insides out like seeds from a cantaloupe and discard.
Put the squash face-down on a baking sheet and put it and the sweet potatoes (did you know that sweet potatoes aren’t really a potato?) in the oven. Remove the sweet potatoes when they’re soft to the squeeze; remove the squash when it’s soft. Today my sweet potatoes were such different sizes that I took each one out separately, as they were done. I wondered: Is it possible to overcook a sweet potato? I will get an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a big soup pot. Add the onion, rosemary, thyme, and chile and saute over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the carrots and saute another 10 minutes until they are soft. The time doesn’t matter, I just put it there because somewhere, somebody would think: soft? 10 minutes? An hour? What exactly does it mean that an onion is soft? The goal here is: soft, sweet vegetables without any color. If the pan is too dry and you are burning the vegetables, add a splash of water or stock. The idea is to buy time. Cooking time that is.
When the squash and potatoes are done, add them to the pot—not the skin. Throw that in the trash or eat it with butter and salt. Or hand it to your dog. Add the stock and cook everything together for 10 minutes just to feel like you’re doing something, and like something is happening with the soup. Remove the herbs and chile. Repeat: REMOVE THE HERBS AND CHILE. Puree the soup with a stick (immersion) blender if you have one. If you don’t, puree it in batches in a blender or food processor and resolve to buy a stick blender before you make a pureed soup again.
Add a squeeze of lemon juice and salt to taste. If this soup is not the most delicious fall soup you have ever tasted, rich in rust-colored flavor, it probably needs more salt. I’m going to guess you know how to serve and eat soup so I am not going to explain. In the late, late fall, I served it with a plate of sliced tomatoes, the last heirlooms of the year from Chino Farms and as good as if it were August. Unless you live south of the equator or have a thing for tomatoes that taste like geraniums, I don’t recommend you eat this soup with tomatoes until next fall, during that short window when tomatoes are in season and it’s cool enough that you’re craving silky soup like this one. If you want to make the soup look like the sort of thing you’d find in a restaurant with stuff on top, there’s a recipe in Twist of the Wrist for b’nut squash soup topped with sauteed spinach and farro–and knowing Nancy, there must be bacon in there, too.
Good night. And good eats.
January 1, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I spent a mellow, happy New Year’s Eve at my friend Steven’s house with Steven and two other friends including our friend Oliver. Oliver had just sold his house in Maine so we thought he might be sentimental for some lobster. Or anyway, that was our excuse for buying the lobster. When we got it home, we couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Steven is fanatical about eating healthy and I’m fanatical about finding healthy ways to eat that don’t involve compromises. I do not, for instance, believe that chicken stock is a viable substitute for cream in mashed potatoes, or that nonfat yogurt has any business where sour cream would usually be found. Every suggestion I made for dressing the lobster—warm butter, homemade mayo, creme fraiche—he nixed until we finally agreed on this: a refreshing, wintery lobster salad with thinly sliced fennel, fresh dill, olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt.
1 pound cooked lobster
1/2 fennel bulb, halved, cored, and thinly sliced into half-moons
A handful of dill leaves
1/4 cup good olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Combine the lobster, fennel, and dill in a bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice over the salad, drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and toss. Taste before serving. It probably needs more salt.
We served it just like this and ate it with our fingers and everyone was happy. You could also put it on a bed of tender greens like mache or pea shoots. When was the last time you used “mache” in a sentence?
Serves four or six as a starter.
January 20, 2008 § 5 Comments
“You’re going to write a recipe for oatmeal!?” my sister shrieked from the bathtub in San Diego where she was when I called. This might seem like a reasonable question except that not an hour before she had sent me and email asking me how to make oatmeal. Like all simple foods, the difference between one that conjures up images of orphans lucky to get anything to eat at all, and one that you would actually choose to eat even if it wasn’t good for you, is all in the details. Very few people, and even fewer restaurants make great oatmeal. I do.
I am not the least bit hesitant to tell you that I make, hands-down, the best oatmeal I have tasted. Ever. Anywhere. It’s only fair, since this was my sole inheritance from my mother’s side of the family. My Grandmother Birdie was an early feminist: she worked, she smoked, she gambled, she cussed, she wore pants, and some say she adopted all six of her children because she refused to have sex with her husband. She also didn’t cook, except for one thing—you guessed it—which she called Oatmeal Cocktail, I assume because she wanted to dress it up a bit. A one-hit wonder, but at least it was a hit. And it was. Christy and I used to beg her to make it and I spent years trying to make my morning porridge live up to the memory of it before i realized her secret: so much butter and brown sugar it was basically an oatmeal cookie in a bowl.
To make oatmeal… start with steal cut oats. You can make rolled oats taste good in a pinch. (Isn’t it weird that they roll oats? I mean, why? I am going to find out). I like Bob’s Red Mill and Anson Mills oats because they taste good and they’re American and what’s more: they don’t come in that silly can like the Irish ones do, which is just a waste. I’m not going to give amounts because really, who needs a recipe for oatmeal?
Bring the appropriate amount of water to a boil in a saucepan. (Read the package to get a sense of how much liquid this is depending on how many servings you’re making.) Add a pinch of salt, a few shakes of cinnamon, and pour in some vanilla. Stir in the oats, lower the heat, and simmer the oats, stirring from time to time, until the oats are the texture of something you want to eat. If you like raisins put them in midway through the oat cooking process. Raisins on the side are a disappointment because they are shriveled and sugary and they never become part of the oatmeal. You need to put them in early so they plump up like they do in rice pudding. If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. (As I write that, i think: Do I really need to tell people that? But my niece Johnna was over the other morning. She thinks I make the best oatmeal ever, and I keep telling her, without any success, that she can make the same oatmeal at home. So I put her in charge of cooking the oatmeal while I took care of my coffee addiction and ten minutes later she asked: “Is it done?” I said, I don’t know, put it in your mouth and see if it is something you want to eat. And then she said: “It’s hard. But there’s no more liquid.” So i said…) If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. Cook the oats until they’re done.
Oatmeal is all about finishing. Taste the oatmeal to make sure it has enough salt and if it doesn’t, add more. Put the oatmeal into the bowls you’re going to eat it out of. Put a slice of butter on top of each serving. Sprinkle with a pinch of big, rock salt (like gray salt, Maldon will do but best to have nice crystals to bite into). And then finish it how you like. I think it’s best with a very little bit of honey or dark brown sugar—maybe some toasted sliced almonds or sunflower seeds—and a little half-and-half poured around the edge of the bowl. At some point the melted butter will meet the cream and then you know what it was to be a child in Birdie’s Oatmeal Cocktail world.