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.

 

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Charred Corn

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.

Charred Corn in the Summertime

Release the sweetness of corn’s natural sugars by giving it a nice char on the grill

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.

Charred Corn

Whiskey made in Peoria from Illinois Corn

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.

Charred Corn

Summer in Chicago

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.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Vegetarian Breakfasts

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.

Sliced bananas, peanut butter on matzoh

Going vegetarian and vegan has presented challenges when it comes to breakfast.

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.

Egg Whites, kale, Sriracha and queso fresco

Vegetarian Breakfast Tacos

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.

This Year’s Garden – Part 1

Since we moved into our house in 2004, we have been planting a bigger and bigger garden every year. This year, however, we have more than doubled the size of our backyard garden. Plus, we are committed to keeping it 100% organic.

The larger garden wasn’t my idea. One day, I came home and Sandi had cut down all the bushes and small trees that had been growing along the back fence of our yard, about a 20-foot line of shrubs. She simply decided that she didn’t like it anymore.

Backyard Garden

Before Sandi’s Purge

Expanded Garden

After we converted this space into an expansion of the garden

We also noticed that an area along our driveway, which had been covered with stones, was the area that was getting the most sunlight of any area in our yard. So we removed about eight feet of the stone, filled it with topsoil and planted it as a squash garden.

Pumpkin Patch

We removed about eight feet of stone and put pumpkin and acorn squash plants

The problem with having a garden that is more than twice the size is that it requires more than twice the attention. Fortunately, over the past several years we have learned a lot from the many gardening mistakes we have made. This year, for example, we planted tomato plants far apart from each other so that we won’t have the tomato jungle that characterized our late summer garden in previous years.

Tomato Plants

This year we spread the tomato plants far apart

We originally erected a three-foot wire fence to keep the dogs out of the garden, but our new puppy, Max, who joined our family last December, surprised us by being the pit bull high jump world champion and kept getting himself trapped inside the garden. So we had to tear that fence down and built a four-foot fence.

Max the Pit Bull

The World Champion Pit Bull High Jumper

It’s only mid-July and already we are beginning to get some zucchini, yellow squash, patty pan squash, jalapenos, green peppers and cucumbers. There are tomatoes on all four types of plants — beefsteak, teardrop, plum and heirlooms — as well as tiny pumpkins and strawberries coming in. The only thing we are still waiting to see are the green beans.

Lots of squash

Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Patty Pan Squash and Cucumber plants are going crazy!!!

We also are having trouble with one certain spot of land. We tried spinach on it, but they all shriveled and died. So then we planted snap peas, but they don’t seem to be doing well, either. I don’t know if it’s because we planted them too late — they are an early or late crop, I learned after they were in the ground — or if there’s something wrong with the soil in that spot. We’ll see how they do.

Snap peas and trellice

These snap peas are the second thing we planted in this corner. The spinach all died.

A recent bout of high humidity combined with heavy rains caused an explosive growth spurt, as evidenced by the size of some of our zucchinis, which literally grew overnight.

Today's vegetables

Here’s what I pulled out this morning

I anticipate a heavy yield this year. We had more tomatoes, peppers and jalapenos last year than we knew what to do with. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like this year, especially since we’re already getting a lot of vegetables. I may have to open my own farm stand!

Green beans

Green beans are growing quickly, but no flowers yet

Have you planted a garden this year? How is it doing? What have you planted? What sort of problems are you having? I just love gardening, don’t you?

Garden love

Don’t you just love gardening?

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.