Check out Mark Bittman’s article today from the New York Times about the true value of local, producers-only farmers markets.

 

 

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My Arch-Nemesis … Brown Rice

long grain brown riceBrown 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.

cooked long grain brown riceI’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.

 

My Favorite Cheese

Mozzarella is officially my favorite cheese. That’s because it’s what goes on top of my favorite food: Pizza.

Mozarella

Spaghetti Squash, Fire-Roasted Tomato Sauce and Freshly Shredded Mozzarella

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.

Types of MozzarellLow-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.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Compound Salads

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.

Compound SaladsOne 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.

Meat Free Monday – Edamame and Orzo Salad

 

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.

Vegetarian Salad with Edamame and OrzoSince 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 vegetariKathy Frestonans 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 Zucchini

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.

Meat Free Mondays – Koshari

Okay, so I’ve been reading this book, “Dark Star Safari,” by Paul Theroux.

Koshari, national dish of EgyptHe’s one of my favorite travel writers because he goes to these out of the way places and has these wild experiences — such as kayaking from island to island in Polynesia (“The Happy Isles of Oceania”) or taking a train ride across China and Mongolia (“Riding the Iron Rooster”).

Theroux is such a skilled writer that he doesn’t need to rely on photos to bring the places alive. They aren’t traditional travelogues that describe only what tourists go to see, but instead focus on the everyday lives of the people who live in these exotic locales.

Dark Star Safari by Paul TherouxThis book, which he wrote in 2002, chronicles his adventures traveling overland down the African continent, from Cairo to Cape Town. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s terrific.

One of the things that struck me was Theroux’s description of Egyptian street life in Cairo and other cities. On every corner, he writes, a street food called Koshari (or koshary, kosheri, kushari or كشرى ) can be found.

Koshari is a mixture of lentils and rice that are cooked together, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. Although it’s usually vegetarian, sometimes meat is added in the form of sharwarma, or fried liver.

Originally a Moorish dish, koshari evolved as an “end of the month” dish that was consumed by workers in labor camps. People would gather together all the odds and ends they had left over and create a shared dish that could be prepared and enjoyed communally.

It’s now the national dish of Egypt and is available on practically every street corner, marketplace and stall in cities and towns throughout the country, according to Theroux.

That reminded me of Red Beans and Rice, which started out as a New Orleans Monday morning stew made with whatever was leftover from the weekend’s more formal dinners.

Anyway, I knew instantly I had to make it, especially since my cupboard has been overflowing with half-packages of rice and lentils, tins of tomato sauce and other odds and ends.

In fact, I already had everything on this recipe’s long list of ingredients with the exception of cardamom. So I simply substituted curry powder for the Bahārāt, which is Arabic for “spice mix”.

I subsequently discovered that my local supermarket carries a Garam Masala seasoning powder (hooray for multi-culturalism!), which has practically the same ingredients as Bahārāt. I will be using that next time.

Koshari cooking

Koshari is one of those “use every pot and pan you have” dishes

As it turns out Koshari is quite simple to make, but is one of those “use every pot and pan you have” dishes that is something of a chore to clean up after.

Having never made it before, I toned down the spices, especially the red pepper flake, because I wasn’t sure how strongly flavored it would be. It’s taste was delicious, but next time, I plan on bringing the bold, forward flavors this dish on full force.

Koshari

2 TBS olive oil

1 cup Medium Grain Rice

1 cup Brown Lentils

2 cups Macaroni, dry

2 cups Vegetable Stock

1 Garlic Clove, quartered

1 tsp Cumin

1 Bay Leaf

½ tsp Salt

2 TBS Olive Oil

2 large Onions, thinly sliced

Sea Salt to taste

For the Spicy Tomato Sauce

2 TBS Olive Oil

1 small Onion, diced finely

2 Garlic Cloves, finely minced

15 oz can Tomato Sauce

2 tsp Bahārāt spice mix (or Garam Masala or curry powder)

¼ tsp Red Chile Flakes

1 TBS Red Wine Vinegar

Sea Salt & Fresh Cracked Black Pepper to taste

For the Crispy Onion Garnish

2 Onions, finely sliced

Oil for deep-frying

15 oz can Garbanzo Beans

  1. Heat 2 TBS of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the rice and fry it for 2 minutes, then add the vegetable stock. Bring it to a boil, decrease the heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until the rice is cooked.
  2. Rinse the lentils under cold water and add them to another medium saucepan with 2 cups of water. Add the garlic, cumin and bay leaf and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Once cooked, add the salt and stir to combine. Strain any excess liquid if necessary.
  3. Cook the macaroni according to package instructions until al dente. (Note: Prepare the rice, macaroni and lentils while the sauce is simmering and leave them covered in the pots to keep warm.)
  4. To make sauce, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until golden brown. Add the tomato sauce, Bahārāt, salt and pepper to taste, chile flakes and red wine vinegar. Bring it to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. To make the crispy onions, heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and fry until dark brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil and place them on paper towels to drain and cool.
  6. Add the rice, lentils and macaroni to a large bowl and toss to combine. Sprinkle a little Bahārāt over each portion and serve topped with some of the spicy tomato sauce. Top with garbanzo beans, the crispy onions and another sprinkle of Bahārāt. Serve warm.

Here’s the recipe for Bahārāt if you want to try making it yourself. You also can find premade Bahārāt at stores that feature Arabic foods.

Makes about 3/4 cup

2 TBS Black Peppercorns

2 TBS Coriander Seeds

2 TBS Cumin seeds

1 TBS Allspice berries

1 tsp Cardamom seeds

1/2 tsp Whole Cloves

4 (3-inch) Cassia or Cinnamon Sticks

2 TBS ground Sweet Paprika

1/2 tsp Nutmeg, freshly grated

Grind the whole spices using a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or coffee grinder. You may need to do it in several batches. Add the paprika and nutmeg and combine.

Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Meat Free Mondays – Vegan BBQ Sandwich

When I cook vegan, it  can sometimes be a drag. I tend to use the same ingredients over and over again — lentils, chickpeas, black beans, quinoa, rice and so on.

Soy CurlsThat’s why it was such a thrill to discover soy curls. These are tiny dehydrated twists made of soybean and nothing else. They will stay fresh practically forever, especially in the freezer, and require only a quick steeping in hot water in order to be rehydrated.

They can be substituted in any recipe that requires shredded meat, such as this vegan BBQ sandwich recipe.

The taste of soy curls is neutral like chicken breast, so they enthusiastically take on the flavor of  whatever other ingredients you prepare them with. Their texture is sort of like pulled pork, but without the globs of fat or stringiness (or the saturated fat).

Butler soy curlsThe only downside is that soy curls are not yet widely available. I had to mail away for them from a vegan grocery store on the West Coast after I found this recipe and wanted to give it a try. But they are quite inexpensive — I paid $4.15 for a 10 oz package, but that results in about 1.5 pounds of actual edible product once you add water — especially when compared to meat.

Plus, they are made from the whole soybean, are all natural, contain no preservatives or additives and are high in fiber.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

To make things even better, this recipe is made with a Sriracha Barbeque Sauce.

sriracha sauceSriracha — also known as “Rooster Sauce” due to the big rooster on the package — is a Thai spicy-sweet hot sauce and currently is my favorite obsession food.

I’ve been putting it on everything, but I especially love it over a couple of scrambled eggs inside a warm tortilla with a little queso fresco. (I literally had that for breakfast every day last week!)

Vegan BBQ Sandwich

1/2 package Butler Soy Curls, rehydrated according to the package instructions

1 Red Onion, slivered

1 Green Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced

8 oz Portobello Mushrooms, diced

For the Sriracha BBQ Sauce

1/2 cup Organic Ketchup

2 TBS Molasses

2 TBS Bragg’s Liquid Aminos

1 TBS Cider Vinegar

1 tsp Agave Nectar

1 Garlic Clove, minced

1 tsp Liquid Smoke

2 tsp Sriracha Sauce

Fresh Ground Black Pepper to taste

1. In a non-stick skillet, water sauté the onion, pepper and mushrooms until onions are softened, about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the soy curls and sauce and cook until most of the sauce is absorbed by the soy curls and they begin to brown a little, stirring occasionally, about five minutes.

3. Serve on pretzel bun with pickles on the side.

soy aminos natural soy sauce substituteSoy aminos is a liquid protein that is used as an all-purpose seasoning and tastes like soy sauce. It is made from soybeans and includes a bunch of essential and non-essential amino acids, and is much better for you than sodium-rich soy sauce.

Agave nectar is a natural sweetener extracted from the core of the blue agave plant, the same cactus that is used to make tequila. It’s tastes like honey and is 25% sweeter than sugar. I’ve been using it a lot anywhere I would use sugar or honey, such as in breads, sauces and salad dressings.