Brown rice has always been my culinary Kryptonite. No matter how many times I’ve tried to make it, I could never seem to get it right. One particularly mushy tray of brown rice may have even cost me a catering job one time.
Unlike white rice — which is so simple to make it practically jumps into the rice steamer and cooks itself — brown rice is really difficult for me to get right. It either turns out too crunchy, too mushy, or sometimes both in the same pot.
The problem has to do with the cooking time. While white rice is fully cooked in about 15 to 20 minutes, brown rice typically takes between 45 minutes and an hour to fully absorb all of the liquid. And a lot can go wrong during that amount of time.
Yet I truly want to be able to cook brown rice perfectly time after time because it has a lot more nutritional value than white rice. That’s because it still has the bran and the germ, which are removed with white rice. These make brown rice both higher in protein and give it a chewier, nuttier flavor than more “processed” rices.
Over the years, I’ve tried every preparation method for brown rice that I could get my hands on. I’ve soaked it, rinsed it, and even fried it in oil before cooking it. But it always turned out like a failed science project. I’ve probably thrown away more ruined batches of brown rice during my cooking career than any other type of food.
But the other day, I finally learned the secret to defeating brown rice.
I was listening to Terry Gross on National Public Radio while walking our three dogs. She had two cookbook authors on her program from America’s Test Kitchen. They have a new book about gluten-free cooking out and when the subject of brown rice came up, I was all ears.
They said that the trick to cooking brown rice wasn’t just the time, but the temperature. Given its structure, brown rice needs to hold a constant high temperature in order to absorb all the liquid evenly.
So when you simmer it, the rice on the bottom of the pot is cooked faster than the rice at the top of the pot. And when you let it sit covered for a few minutes after cooking it, the rice in the center keeps absorbing liquid, often resulting in the starchy, unappetizing mess with which I am so familiar.
I’ve been battling my arch-nemesis, brown rice for years,so I practically ran home to try it out. And it worked! About an hour later, I had three very tired dogs and one delicious pot of fluffy, perfect brown rice.
Thank you people from America’s Test Kitchen. You’ve allowed me to reach a peace accord with what was once my worst enemy, brown rice.
Perfect Brown Rice
1-1/2 cups Brown Rice
2-1/3 cups Water (or Vegetable Stock)
3 tsp Vegetable Oil (or Butter)
1/2 tsp Sea Salt
1. Preheat oven to 375F. Pour dry rice into a baking dish.
2. Combine the water and oil in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir in salt then pour liquid over the rice. Cover the baking dish tightly with two sheets of aluminum foil and place on the center rack of the oven.
3. Cook for 1 hour, then remove from oven and uncover. Fluff the rice with a fork then cover the dish with a clean dish towel and let the some of the excess steam escape for 5 minutes while some of the steam is still absorbed by the rice. Serve immediately and cheer your victory in your life-long battle against brown rice.
Mozzarella is officially my favorite cheese. That’s because it’s what goes on top of my favorite food: Pizza.
Because I love pizza so much, I am very particular about the mozzarella I use. I prefer a very specific type of low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella that comes from a particular local supermarket because it has just the right hardness for grating, melts perfectly, pulls from the pie exactly the right way, and has the precise fresh taste that I enjoy most.
Over the years I’ve used all kinds of different types of mozzarella cheeses, both at home and in restaurants. For pizza, the best kind is low-moisture, part-skim that hasn’t been grated. It usually comes in a 16 oz. ball or log shape in a vacuum-sealed package.
The absolute worst kind you can use — and, ironically, the most common — is the pre-shredded mozzarella. This is the ubiquitous cheese you find hanging in plastic envelopes in any grocery store dairy case.
Unlike most other cheeses, mozzarella has a very high moisture content. So it doesn’t stay fresh for very long, especially after you grate it. Have you ever noticed that it will start to harden and curl up if you leave shredded mozzarella in the refrigerator overnight? Or that the cheese on frozen pizzas bears no resemblance to the freshly grated mozzarella used on a made-to-order pie?
Manufacturers of pre-shredded cheeses treat them with powders including corn starch, potato starch, and powdered cellulose, which is made from wood pulp that has been chemically treated to extract its fiber. These prevent the cheese from caking and also extend its shelf life. The result is a dull, dry, relatively tasteless cheese.
Believe it or not, many pizzerias, especially the big chains, use “bagged cheese” — the commercial equivalent of the grocery store variety — because of its convenience. But you can definitely taste the difference between a pizza made with freshly grated mozzarella and the-shredded kind.
Low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella is made from skim milk. If it hasn’t been grated will last at least a week in the refrigerator in its vacuum-sealed package. Once you open it, the cheese will lose its flavor quickly, so it’s a good idea to grate it and use it all right away.
I use a box grater and shred my mozzarella while the pizza dough is baking and the tomato sauce is simmering. This guarantees that all the fresh elements will be brought together at precisely the right moment for optimum flavor. (I’m a pizza freak, I know!)
Mozzarella that is made from the whole milk is softer and has a different flavor that low-moisture, part-skim variety. It’s the mozzarella you use for Insalata Caprese or to eat fresh, uncooked by itself. You can put it on pizza, but it has a wetter texture when it melts and lacks most of the appealing stringiness that makes pizza so delicious.
When you buy mozzarella made from whole milk, it usually comes in balls or ovals about the size of a tennis ball and soaking in brine. You also can get “ovallini”, which is the same cheese except formed into smaller balls about the size of large marbles.
In either case, ask that the deli attendant to add a little of the brine — after they weigh the cheese, of course — so that it will stay fresh longer in your refrigerator. Try to use it within a day or two for optimal flavor.
I’ve used buffalo mozzarella in high-end restaurant kitchens. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not made from the milk of the American buffalo — which has been pretty much killed off — but from milk taken from the domestic Italian buffalo, which is more like a water buffalo or ox. It’s flavor tends to be more defined and a little grassier, but it’s cost prohibitive for home use, at least for me.
Smoked mozzarella has a rich, smoky flavor. The smoking process evaporates more of the liquid so it has a harder texture, almost like a brie. It’s very nice as a spread or in a salad, but is not ideal for pizza.
Freshly grated mozzarella, either the low-moisture, part skim variety or the fresh kind — is ideal for topping pastas and is a key ingredient in any type of parmesan dish such as veal parmesan, chicken parmesan, eggplant parm, etc.
Really nice, durable high quality mozzarella can be found in most major supermarkets or grocery stores. Stay away from the pre-shredded variety and you should be in good shape.
Today’s high temperature is only 2 F and earlier this month we tied the all-time Chicago low record temperature of -16 F. That’s really cold for around here, although it sounds like it’s bad everywhere this winter (even Australia, where they are having a deadly heat wave!).
It hasn’t been so bad for me because I work (mostly) out of the house. So far, it’s only cost me one car battery.
But I really feel bad for our dogs, especially Max. Normally, Bud, Max and I walk at least a mile each day. We all look forward to it and It burns a surprising amount of energy in them.
When it gets colder than 20 F or so, it’s simply too cold for the dogs, especially for Max, who has a thinner coat and is shivering by the time we make it to the corner. And when they don’t get to walk and are stuck in the house all day, they get really charged up. Bud has been particularly naughty lately.
One benefit of this cold weather is that it makes hot soup such an appealing option for dinner. This winter, Sandi and I have been featuring soup/salad/homemade bread one night per week since before Thanksgiving.
I’ve really enjoyed making traditional favorites such as split pea and mushroom barley (we’ve been eating vegetarian since last April, so this is our replacement for the old standby beef barley), and experimenting with new soups, such as this wonderful Apple and Parsnip Soup that I found on the truly amazing VegHotPot blog.
What I love about this soup is it’s unusually complex flavor. It’s similar to a vichyssoise but with an apple and a couple of parsnips added. Yet because parsnips have such an interesting flavor — both sweet and slightly tangy, even smoky — that this soup really makes you sit up and take notice.
Parsnips are one of the most interesting — and often overlooked — of the winter root vegetables. They actually were used as a sweetener in Europe before sugar cane and sugar beets were introduced there. And they were the primary starchy vegetable in the US until they were overshadowed by potatoes after the Irish emigration in the 19th Century. Roasted parsnips continue to be a traditional holiday dish in many families.
This recipe is vegan, although I added a swirl of sour cream for the photo. Stay warm, everybody. Spring is coming, I promise!
Parsnip and Apple Soup
1 Large Onion
1 Large Leek
2 Garlic Cloves
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Dried Thyme
Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
2 Parsnips, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
1 Potato, peeled and cut into medium dice
1 Large Apple, any sweet kind, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice
4-1/2 cups Water
4 tsp Organic Vegetable Base
Olive Oil for sauteing
1. It’s important to prepare the all the fruit and vegetables before you start cooking because the high sugar content in the onion, parsnip, garlic and apple can cause them to cook quickly and the caramelization can cause the soup to darken.
2. Put a soup pot over a medium flame. When hot, add a drizzle of olive oil and let it heat up for minute then add the onion, leek, garlic, cumin and thyme. Saute for around 4 to 5 minutes on a low/medium heat until they soften then season with salt and pepper. Add the parsnip and potato and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t brown.
3. Add the apple, water and vegetable base, bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer and cook over a low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Puree the soup using either an immersion blender or by blending batches in a blender until the soup is smooth.
Like most soups, this one will taste even better the second day, once the flavors have had a chance to get to spend some time together in the refrigerator.
You can garnish this soup with a crusty spicy crouton, a sprinkle of sliced chives or scallion, or a swirl of sour cream or creme fraiche from a squeeze bottle.
Lately, I’ve been getting into making homemade bagels. I remember vaguely making them in culinary school, and of course I love getting fresh bagels and cream cheese at Dunkin’ Donuts or Great American Bagel, but it was only recently that I rediscovered how easy and fun they are to make at home.
Basically, my bagel dough formula is exactly the same as my pizza dough formula. The only difference is that I substitute a little of the flour with corn meal. This changes the flavor slightly — it’s just a little bit sweeter — and also affects the texture, giving it a little more chewiness.
What makes bagels different than dinner rolls, burger buns or bread, for that matter, is that their outside skin has a little “bite” to it. This is accomplished by boiling the dough after it has been formed into the traditional bagel shape and allowed to rise overnight in the refrigerator.
Making bagels the right way is a two-step process. In fact, it’s a two-day process because you make the dough the night before and proof it in the ‘fridge. I suppose I could just let it rise on the counter the way I do with pizza dough, but putting it in the refrigerator overnight helps to develop the “snap” of the outer skin.
My wife, Sandi, always says this makes it a complicated process, but it’s not really. Each step only takes a couple of minutes and the payoff — fresh, homemade bagels in any flavor you want — makes it totally worthwhile.
My favorite part of making bagels is adding whatever toppings I want at the end. I bought a big container of poppy seeds at my excellent local produce market, but I also like to use toasted sesame seeds, dehydrated onion, and garlic powder.
I made cinnamon raisin bagels by simply adding a little sugar, cinnamon and raisins to the dough. If you try this, be warned: A lot of the raisins pop out when you knead the dough and you have to keep pushing them back in.
For my next batch, I bought some dehydrated blueberries for blueberry bagels. Using dried blueberries rather than fresh or frozen blueberries helps prevent the dough from turning purple. I’ll give you an update later as to how they turn out.
1 tsp Dry Yeast (or one envelope)
1-1/4 cup Warm Water
1 TBS Raw, Organic Sugar (or honey or agave nectar)
2 cups Unbleached Organic All-Purpose Flour
1 cup Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 cup Corn Meal (plus a little more for dusting the bottom of the baking pan)
1 TBS Sea Salt
1 Egg, whisked smooth (for egg wash)
Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, or whatever topping you want
1. Whisk yeast and sugar into warm water in a mixing bowl (I use the bowl of my Kitchen Aid) and set aside for a minute or two to let the yeast activate (little bubbles indicate the yeast has awoken from its slumber!).
2. Meanwhile, combine the flours, corn meal and salt in another mixing bowl and stir together.
3. Using the bread hook attachment, turn the Kitchen Aid on low and slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet a little at a time and mix on medium-low until a dough is formed, about two or three minutes. (If you don’t have a Kitchen Aid, you can do this with a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon, the same way people have been doing it for hundreds of years!)
4. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and knead with your hands for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and springs back when you poke it. If it’s too wet (sticks to your hands while kneading it) simply add a little more A/P flour until it’s the proper consistency. Place the dough in a clean, greased mixing bowl, flip it over so ther is oil on all sides, cover with a clean dish towel and let it rest in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in size, about an hour or two.
5. Punch the dough down, let it rest for about five minutes, then cut it into eight even pieces (I cut the dough in half, then cut those peices in half, then cut them each in half again). Meanwhile, spray a sheet pay with pan spray and dust it lightly with cornmeal. Take each individual piece of dough and use your hands to roll it into a log, about eight inches long. Then twist the cylinder of dough around your hand — with the seam on the inside part of your hand — and squeeze to bind it together into a ring. You may need to pinch the seam a little so there is a smooth seal, otherwise it might open up during the proofing/boiling/baking stage. As you make each bagel, place it on the sheet pan with the best side facing up. When all the bagels are formed, cover the sheet pan lightly with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Or you can make the bagels in the morning and let them proof all day, at least eight hours.
6. When you get up the next morning, the first thing to do is to put a large pot of water on to boil and preheat your oven to 450F. Remove the bagels from the refrigerator, carefully peel off the plastic wrap and let them warm up a little while you wait for the water to boil. Once it’s at a rolling boil, use a spatula to place the bagels into the water a couple at a time — thanks to the trapped air from the proofing, they will float. Boil one minute on one side then flip them over with the spatula and boil them another minute on the other side. Carefully use your spatula to remove each bagel from the boiling water, letting the excess water drain for a few moments, and place them back on the sheet pan, rounded side up.
7. Brush each bagel with egg wash and sprinkle with whatever topping you want. Then place them right away into the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until they are browned and sound hollow when you tap them. Transfer to a cooling rack and let them cool to room temperature.
These homemade bagels are amazing when you eat them fresh. They are also really fun to give away. Enjoy!
One of the benefits of living in the Midwest is that in the summer time, corn is extremely inexpensive. When the sweet corn crop is in full swing — around July through September — it can get as low as $.10/ear or even less. That makes it one of the affordable vegetables you can buy.
The best thing about sweet corn is that it is so versatile. You can eat it off the cob or cut it off and eat it as a side dish. Or it can be incorporated into just about anything.
In fact, today corn is probably the most important crop in the US, even more so than wheat. That’s because there are a lot of uses for it besides eating it, such as the alternate fuel ethanol, feed for livestock, distillation into whiskey and other liquors, the sweetener high fructose corn syrup, industrial applications, and many others.
Where I live, in northeast Illinois, corn is the biggest and most important crop. As soon as you get out of the city and suburbs of Chicago, you find hundreds of miles of corn fields in every direction. Farmers around here alternate their fields with corn one year then with soybean the next in order to provide the most nutrients in the soil to ensure maximum yield of both crops.
Generally, Illinois corn isn’t used for eating. Most of it is sent to factory farms where it is used to feed livestock. The rest is sent either downriver to Peoria where for generations it was turned into corn mash and other liquors at the Hiram Walker distillery. Archer Daniels Midland now uses corn to make vodka, gin and other liquors at the plant.
Or the Illinois corn travels upriver to Summit, outside Chicago, where it is used to make corn starch at the big Argo plant, which is about three miles from my home. I can often smell aroma of cornstarch being made when the wind is blowing from the west.
Personally, I love the taste of charred sweet corn. As its name implies, sweet corn is full of natural sugars.So when you let it get a nice dark char, the sugars will caramelize, giving it a unique and delicious flavor.
Usually, I will cut the charred corn off the cob so that I can add it to salads, sauté it with zucchini or other vegetables, or toss it by itself with a little olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper.
All you do is remove the corn from the husk and pull off any silk, then boil it for about nine minutes. I will often do this ahead of time — such as in the morning — then store the fully-cooked cob corn in the refrigerator until I’m ready to grill it.
Spray it with a little pan spray, season it with salt and pepper, then throw it onto a pre-heated grill. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention to it. Just turn it once or twice so that it gets a relatively even char.
Remove it from the grill, let it cool completely, then use a knife to cut it off the cob. Charred corn can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for at least a month until you are ready to use it. It’s very handy to have around and will add a sweet distinctive flavor to just about anything.
Thanks to efficient transportation, fresh corn still in the husk from Florida, California and Mexico is available pretty much year round. But it is at its sweetest, freshest and cheapest during the height of summer here in Chicago.
There’s a diner near our house that my wife and I like to visit at least once or twice per month. It’s called Les Brothers and there’s nothing fancy about it. There are probably diners just like it in practically every town and state.
The service is often bad. That food it generally pretty good. And the ambience is relaxed, friendly and inviting. We like it because we feel comfortable there.
Whenever we go to Les Brothers, I always order the same thing. I’ve been having the corned beef hash and eggs over easy with Greek toast every visit for about the past 10 years and each time it’s exactly the same: Superbly delicious. I especially love the fact that they give you four eggs with it!
So when Sandi and I decided that we weren’t going to eat meat anymore, the first thing that occurred to me was that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my Les Brothers breakfast. In fact, to be totally honest, the thought of giving up my favorite breakfast at my favorite greasy spoon diner probably delayed our eventual conversion to vegetarianism for several months.
Finally, however, we cut the cord. So long, corned beef hash, my old friend. I will miss you dearly.
For me, breakfast poses probably the biggest challenge to eating vegetarian, and especially eating vegan. For as long as I can remember, the first meal of the day has been associated with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, cheese, corned beef hash or some other now-forbidden ingredient.
So I’ve been a little more permissive with myself when it comes to breakfast. While meat has been taken off the table — both figuratively and literally — I am slowly weaning myself away from eggs and cheese.
For example, whole eggs have been replaced exclusively with egg whites. And instead of gobs of unhealthy shredded cheese — or worse yet, processed cheese food — I’ve been allowing myself to enjoy queso fresco, a light and tasty Mexican cheese (translated as “fresh cheese” in Spanish) made from either raw cow milk or a mixture of cow and goat milk.
Mild-flavored and crumbly like feta, but without as much saltiness, queso fresco is the perfect accompaniment to these breakfast tacos made with egg whites, fresh chopped kale and a little Sriracha sauce.
Now that summer’s here, fresh fruit at the height of its ripeness is at its most affordable at the produce markets. Lately, we’ve been enjoying an abundance of fresh Michigan cherries and whole pineapples for as little as $1.50 apiece.
So while it has been difficult to say goodbye to my traditional, if unhealthy, favorite breakfast, it’s been a joy to discover new and delicious breakfast options that are both healthier and more flavorful. It’s about time we started creating some new traditions anyway.
When I switched to a vegan-ist diet about seven weeks ago, I did so because of the purported health benefits.
As many recent books, documentaries and other bloggers have claimed, eliminating meat, dairy and processed food from your diet can reduce your chances of contracting chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can improve your overall daily health. And it has even been known to reverse certain medical conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure and anemia.
I can personally attest that I have had more energy since going vegan-ist. I feel stronger, have suffered fewer minor injuries while running, and generally have a more optimistic outlook and less anxiety and stress. Given what I had read and seen prior to making the switch, I sort of expected — or at least hoped — that these things would happen.
What I didn’t expect, however, was for my sense of taste and smell to improve so much. Even with my usual summer allergies, I can smell things better than ever before, such as subtle aromas around our home or the different types of cooking smells I encounter while running through my neighborhood.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that food tastes better when you start eating clean, and it’s true! For one, you have to pay more attention to the selection and preparation of your food, so I think you naturally focus more on tasting it when you eat. And because you eat mostly fresh produce, grains, nuts and so on, the flavors aren’t buried under mounds of preservatives, pesticides, steroids, genetic modification, growth hormones and other fallout from modern processed food.
But because my sense of smell is more enhanced, the flavors of food are more dynamic.
Now, I know this all may be wishful thinking on my part. In fact, my mom and Sandi were joking the other day that I would be off vegan and on to some other obsession in a couple of months, like I always do.
Maybe so. But for the time being, I’m going to enjoy the explosive flavors of these amazing foods. If only for a little while.
Here’s a quick and easy Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry I have been making lately. As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, stir fry can be just about anything. But the sweet tartness of the fresh pineapple (perfectly in season right now) combined with the crunchiness of the cashews really made this one taste exceptionally delicious.
Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry
1 to 2 TBS Coconut Oil
2-1/5 cups White Rice, cooked
1/2 Red Onion, slivered
1/2 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned
2 White Mushrooms, sliced thin
1/2 Zucchini, cut into medallions
3 Garlic Cloves, crushed
3/4 cup Fresh Pineapple, large dice
1/2 cup Baked Tofu (recipe below)
1/2 cup Cashews, roughly chopped
1/4 cup Soy Aminos (or Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce)
3/4 cup Water
1 TBS Corn Starch
Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
1. Place a large non-stick sauté pan or wok over a high flame. Leave it there for about a minute or two so it gets very hot. Add coconut oil. It will start to smoke in about 10 to 15 seconds. Add the onions and peppers and toss. Cook until slightly wilted, about 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Then add tofu, zucchini and pineapple. Toss/cook for about a minute.
2. Meanwhile, in a glass measuring cup, combine the soy aminos, water and corn starch and stir together. Set aside. Add garlic to the pan. When it becomes aromatic, about 10-20 seconds, add the liquid to the pan and stir. Within about a minute, it will turn into a glaze. At the last second, add the cashews and season with the freshly ground pepper. Given the sodium in the soy aminos or soy sauce, you won’t need to add any additional salt. Toss everything together, remove from heat and cover until ready to serve.
3. To plate, spoon about 3/4 cup of white rice onto on side of a pasta bowl, then spoon the stir fry onto the other side of the bowl. If you want to be really fancy, make it into a yin-yang pattern. Or press the rice into a small bowl and invert it into the top-center of the plate and arrange the stir fry around it. Garnish with additional cashews, sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds or whatever you like.
Tofu is made from soybeans and is a handy ingredient to have lying around. It comes in a variety of forms, including silken, firm and extra firm. Silken is quite soft, doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and will fall apart when handled.
Firm tofu has a slightly tougher texture, but will still crumble quite easily. I like to use it in place of scrambled eggs sometimes.
Extra firm tofu will hold its structure, so it can be sliced and diced into any size you want.
Both firm and extra firm tofu come packed in water. You will want to gently squeeze some of the water out before you use it.
This recipe is very versatile. It can be kept in the refrigerator and used to add texture and additional protein to salads, stir fry, casseroles, chili, stews or practically any dish. I seasoned this one with Garam Masala, a mixture of Indian spices, but you could just as easily use chili powder and cumin, Italian seasoning and granulated garlic, simple salt and pepper, or nothing at all.
2 tsp Garam Masala (or whatever spices you want)
14 oz package Extra Firm Tofu
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a baking sheet with pan spray.
2. Remove tofu from package and gently squeeze out excess water. Cut into 1/2 inch slices and place on baking sheet. Spray tofu with pan spray then sprinkle with half the spice mixture. Bake for 15 minutes.
3. Remove from oven. Use a spatula to gently turn each tofu slice, sprinkle with remaining spice mixture and return to oven for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
4. When cool, cut tofu slices into cubes. These will keep in your refrigerator up to a wek. You can also freeze them for up to two months.
When I was attending culinary school full-time, I also worked full-time in a restaurant kitchen. Although it was stressful, it also was a great experience because I learned a thousand times more on the job than I did in the classroom or the school’s kitchen.
One of the most important lessons I learned was how to deal with different kinds of people. For example, the first chef I worked for was a guy named Chef Mark. To say he had a temper is like saying Donald Trump is a little immodest sometimes. Working for Chef Mark was like going to work inside an active volcano each day: You never knew when it was going to blow up. (He eventually got fired for throwing a back waiter into the salad station during a particularly hectic dinner service.)
Still, I learned a lot from Chef Mark, not just how to deal with somebody who could occasionally switch into Mr. Hyde, but also about cooking. Despite his flaws, Chef Mark knew a lot about food and how to transform it into something extraordinary.
“I’m not going to teach you how to cook according to a recipe,” he told me one day. “I’m going to teach you how to cook, period. You can throw away your recipe book.”
From Chef Mark, I learned how to balance and counteract flavors against each other for heightened effect: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, unami, etc. Textures, colors and plating also could be assembled in different combinations to create something unique.
Most importantly, I learned how to take any ingredient and build a dish around it, complementing it with both the expected and unexpected in order to surprise and delight the diner.
Take compound salads, for example. A compound salad is any type of salad that is based on some sort of central ingredient, such as a particular vegetable (such as green beans, grilled vegetables, asparagus), a grain or legume (rice, lentils or any kind of beans), fruit or even a protein (tuna, chicken, eggs).
Broccoli salad, for instance, is centered on the crisp, crunchy and relatively neutral flavor of fresh broccoli. You can complement it with a dressing that has a tangy flavor and creamy texture, as well as garnish that builds on or contrasts its primary flavor, such as the smoky flavor of bacon, the sweetness of raisins, the sting of onions.
Or consider tuna salad. The dry, slightly fishy flavor of the tuna is given a bit of crunch with celery, sweetness and a little bite with onion, and it’s all balanced with the lemony, tart flavor of mayonnaise, then underscored with just the right amount of salt.
Once you start thinking about flavor profiles, you can create a compound salad out of practically anything. Just apply the four elements of any compound salad:
1. The main ingredient
2. The dressing
3. The garnish (whatever you add to the salad to complement the primary flavor)
4. The seasoning (salt, pepper, cayenne, Adobo, Tony Chachere’s, etc.)
When the weather gets warm, I often build cool, refreshing compound salads out of anything I find lying around. Compound salads are handy to have in your refrigerator because they make a great snack, are perfect for a quick lunch, and can even round out a dinner as an appetizer or side dish.
In this instance, I just happened to have some quinoa left over from something else, so I combined it with some black beans, added a garnish of red onions, carrot, celery, red bell pepper and scallion, dressed it with an nice little Greek Oregano Vinaigrette, add a touch of sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and I had wonderful compound salad that we enjoyed for a several days.
I’m not going to post a recipe because, really, there is no recipe. Plus, I want you to try it yourself. Find some ingredient you already have lying around, think about its flavor profile, then just build something new around it. You may surprise yourself with what you come up with.
While my time with Chef Mark may have been stormy, I came away from it a much better cook and a more versatile person.
Recently, I’ve become a vegetarian. The last actual meat I ate was a little more than five weeks ago when I had a turkey burger when my mother-in-law came over for our weekly Sunday dinner.
Since then, I have been meat-free and mostly dairy free as well, although I am unable to resist mozzarella cheese on my homemade vegetarian pizza.
There are lots of reasons for going vegetarian. Mine are for health purposes. I’ve been reading for years now that removing animal products from your diet can not only help prevent illness and give you more energy, but also can actually reverse chronic and potentially fatal diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and so on.
While I don’t have any life-threatening diseases (that I know of), I can tell you that since eliminating meat from my diet, I definitely have more energy throughout my day, feel healthier overall, and even seem to have a more positive outlook most of the time. While all of these could be psychosomatic, I really don’t think they are. I’m convinced they are related to my diet.
I’ve even started running again. Recent past efforts to return to running have all been cut short by injury or frustration, but now I’m running pain-free, look forward to my runs and am averaging about 15 to 20 miles/week.
I thought I would crave meat — and I probably did the first few days or so — but now the thought of eating meat sort of fills me with dread. Especially after reading about how animals are treated by food production. It’s truly horrible.
Another thing I worried about was that there wouldn’t be enough variety in a vegetarian diet to keep me interested in it. But that certainly hasn’t been the case. My wife and I have been eating a richer mix of foods than ever before. Where in the past we could get stuck in a rut — pasta/Mexican/pizza/grilled chicken/turkey burgers/repeat — in the past five weeks since I’ve started, we haven’t had the same meal twice.
If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be expounding on the benefits of vegetarianism or veganism, I would have called you crazy. In fact, like many people I looked upon vegetarians with derision and a little suspicion. Yet here we are.
I’m working toward veganism and have cut out 95% of dairy from my diet. Milk and eggs are essentially gone and — other than pizza — cheese is pretty much out of my life as well. read a book by wellness expert Kathy Freston in which she describes herself as a “vegan-ist”, or someone who is leaning towards veganism but hasn’t quite made the leap entirely. I think that pretty well sums up my mindset right now.
Here’s a recipe for Edamame and Orzo Salad that I modified (stole) from veghotpot, one of the vegetarian bloggers I admire the most. Edamame is a type of soybean that is similar to peas. You usually can find it in the frozen food section. If you can’t, frozen peas or even lima beans will work just as well.
Edamame and Orzo Salad
For the dressing:
Juice of 1 Lime
Few drops of Toasted Sesame Oil
1 TBS Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Seranno Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice
1 inch Ginger, peeled and minced
1 Garlic Clove, crushed
For the Salad
1 cup Edamame Beans
1 large Carrot, small dice
1 Yellow Squash
1 head Boston Bibb Lettuce
1/2 cup Orzo pasta, dry
To make the dressing, squeeze the lime juice into a bowl and add the sesame oil and liquid aminos. Add the Seranno pepper, garlic and ginger and add to the liquid in the bowl. Put to one side.
Steam the edamame beans for 3-4 minutes or microwave for a minute or two. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions then run under cold water and allow to cool down with the beans.
Chop the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Cut the yellow squash and zucchini into thin strips. Toss together with the dressing and serve.
"drink from the well of your self and begin again" ~charles bukowski
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