October 28, 2011
When I was planning meals for this week, I knew it was going to be cold for a couple of days in Boulder (and it turned out to be quite cold, with about eight or nine inches of snow), so I really wanted to make some soup. I’ve been so taken by the heirloom black beans I bought from the Boulder Whole Foods, that that was the first ingredient I decided to use. For some reason, I then got stuck on getting more blue corn posole, so that ingredient joined the soup plan. I went to the bulk section to replenish my supply of both, and took better notes as to the origins of everything I purchased. The black beans turned out to be from Grant Family Farms, which I was familiar with as being one of the most lauded CSAs in the area, as well as a supplier to some wonderful local restaurants. I couldn’t tell from the information on the front of the bin, however, what particular cultivar they were. So I did some research online, and failing to find anything on the Grant Family Farms site, I pinged Boulder food blogger Boulder Locavore, who was kind enough to do a bit of reconnaissance for me, having received some of these beans in a CSA package earlier in the year. They are Black Turtle beans, replanted from seeds saved each year. These beans are discernibly smaller than more commonly available black beans, and I find that they have such a rich taste that I don’t even look twice at the other black beans anymore. I go straight for these little guys.
I guess I was just in the mood for some hearty soup, because I started pondering throwing in one of the lovely, uncommon grains they have in the bulk department. As I was walking along the grain dispensers, my eye was caught by something labelled black barley. Awesome! My husband and I LOVE barley – what a great hearty, flavorful grain. And black barley? You bet! I decided it must be tried. Some research on black barley once I got home turned up that it originated in Ethiopia, but has a somewhat low yield, so is not a popular crop in the US. But there’s a farm in Montana which grows it, and I’m so glad they do! I really felt I could tell a difference in the taste of this barley – it was a stronger, nuttier taste than pearled barley – more flavorful.
A night or two before I planned to make the soup, I was thinking about putting it together, and I realized what I had done. Everything that I had purchased was going to turn the broth purplish/black. My husband suggested Halloween soup when I was lamenting these choices. So that was kind of my plan, but it actually turned out to be a dark, dark brown, like a Cuban black bean soup. It really didn’t seem to be the height of beauty for photographing, but once he suggested the very obvious (not to me, apparently) garnish, the photography aspect was saved. I had some left over cilantro, and some red bell pepper – perfect!
But back to the preparation. I knew that posole took a long time to cook, so I started that first. We had half a bottle of green chile left over from enchiladas, so I added that, the onions, the garlic, and some spices, and then simmered it for an hour. Then I added the beans and barley, and tasted it…and it seemed a little flat. So I added more spices, and some salt, and it still just didn’t have much pop. So I did a search on spices used in Mexican cooking, since that was the line I was going along, and the result was pretty much what I had already used – Mexican oregano, cumin, and chiles. But cloves, cinnamon, and chocolate were also mentioned. Hmmm…I thought. Cloves. Could that possibly work? Rather than just dump it in and hope, I took a bit of the broth and tasted it with cloves, and it was very interesting, and not too bad. So I figured 1/8 of a teaspoon would certainly be easily absorbed by the amount of broth I was using, and end up barely noticeable. Well, that’s not exactly how it turned out. It was really clovey (not a real word, so I opted for the ‘with an e’ spelling). And then began a long process of tweaking and adjusting (and maybe just a tinge of taste panicking), that had to do with too much clove, then too much salt, trying to tame it with vinegar, white wine, and lime juice, as well as adding more and more water. But, I am thrilled to say that the culinary damage control was a great success, and I LOVED how this tasted! The recipe below leaves out quite a bit of salt, uses half the amount of cloves, and as a result, leaves out all of the vinegar I had to use to neutralize the salt. Be sure to taste the spices as you add them – you may find you want to use less than this, or even more.
Black Bean, Black Barley and Blue Corn Posole Soup
1 c dried black beans
1 c dried blue corn posole (or white)
1 c black barley
1 large onion, chopped
1 head garlic, peeled and minced
1 c green chile (I used medium)
4 c chicken or vegetable stock
6-8 c water
1 tsp lime juice
2+1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp adobo chile powder (I used a blend called Lodo Red Adobo)
1+1/4 tsp hot smoked Spanish paprika, divided
1+1/4 tsp cumin, divided
1 pinch (1/16 tsp) ground cloves
salt to taste
Soak black beans and blue corn posole (separately) overnight, and rinse well. Some people recommend bringing the posole to a boil and then draining it and rinsing it again, but I couldn’t find any decisive answer as to whether you need to, and we never have before – so do it it you want, or skip it. Combine the posole with 2 cups water, 1 cup broth, onion, garlic, green chili, 1 tsp Mexican oregano, 1 tsp adobo, 1/4 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp hot smoked Spanish paprika, and 8 grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer (but make sure it’s bubbling so things cook) for 1 hour. Add 2 cups broth, 4 cups water, black beans, black barley, 1+1/2 tsp Mexican oregano, 1 tsp cumin, 3/4 tsp hot smoked Spanish paprika, and the lime juice. Add the cloves only if you like cloves – skip otherwise. Bring back to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 hours. Stir every 15 minutes or so, and add an up to an additional 2 cups of water over time if the soup gets thicker than you want. Garnish with cilantro and pepper.
October 24, 2011
Over the past week, I used up a bunch of left over Pappardelle’s Pasta (mainly so I could get some new varieties at the Farmers’ Market!). While making sauces for each of them, I tried a few things that I learned in the cooking class I recently took at Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. I didn’t really keep track of the amounts I used in terms of herbs or liquids, or how long I cooked the sauces, but just tasted and adjusted ingredients as I went along, and added liquid or reduced the sauces down as needed. With pasta dishes like these, I don’t think precision is particularly critical – either with ratios of ingredients, or for that matter, cooking time. If my sauce was done before my pasta, I just turned the heat down, and added some pasta water if needed to make the sauce more liquidy when it was time to serve. (Saving pasta water is one trick I learned in class – the water is warm and starchy, so it works perfectly to tweak the viscosity of a sauce at the last minute).
The first pasta I cooked was Gluten Free Chipotle Lime. I just love how black beans go with this pasta, so I intended to use beans again, but to kick things up a notch, I decided to use some of the dried heirloom black beans I had from Whole Foods. Right before I started the beans, I got the idea to put a couple of very large minced garlic cloves and a small bit of salt in the water I used to cook them. And I’ve decided that from now on, I will be cooking all my black beans with garlic. They were outstanding! These particular heirloom black beans were great the last time I made them (I swear they smelled like a turkey cooking in the oven while they were simmering), but the garlic raised them to an entirely new level. I also decided to try removing the skin and seeds from the tomatoes, despite the fact that I usually make fairly rustic tomato sauce and leave them in, just to use the technique from my class. If you slash the bottom of the tomatoes with a knife and put them in boiling water for 15 seconds, you can literally pull the tomato skins off in a couple of pieces. It’s pretty amazing how well that works. I sauteed onion, pepper and and garlic in olive oil, this time putting the onion and pepper in first, and then adding the garlic, as per what we were told in class. I don’t really seem to have a problem with the garlic burning when I put it in before the onion and pepper, but when I do put it in first, the smell always seems less garlicky after the first 30 seconds, so I’ll probably keep experimenting with the practice of adding it after the onions. Once all of that was sauteed, I added the tomatoes and cooked them down a bit, and then threw in the black beans and a lot of chopped cilantro at the end. My husband and I thought this was the best sauce I’ve made for the Chipotle Lime pasta to date. So this dish had some great improvements with suggestions from class.
My next pasta ‘redo’ was the Autumn Harvest Orzo, which has pumpkin, chestnut, and sage orzos. I decided to embrace the spice mixture and Thanksgiving theme of the orzo this time, so I planned to use oven baked chicken (yeah, it’s not turkey, but it’s poultry), as well as sage and thyme. I took a pound and a half package of organic boneless, skinless chicken thighs from Costo, brushed the pieces with olive oil, and using another hint from class, salted and peppered them liberally before cooking. I put them in a large baking pan lined with aluminum foil and baked them at 400 degrees until they got to 165 degrees inside (I’m thinking it was about 45-50 minutes). [Note that I’m at about 5400 feet of altitude, so the temperature is about 25 degrees warmer, and the time longer than it would be at sea level.] Because I was hyper-careful to make sure that the internal temperature was hot enough, I overshot a bit and possibly (who am I kidding? definitely) cooked it a bit too long, ending up with what I affectionately referred to as desiccated chicken. But you know what? It really tasted great anyway! And since I planned to use it in two dishes with sauce, it actually worked out perfectly. It’s a bad picture, but you can see the substantial difference in mass before and after baking. There’s no coating or anything on the chicken, the dark, brownish color is just from baking.
For the sauce, first I sauteed onion and garlic in olive oil. Then I brought a pot of chicken stock to a boil, and added the orzo, onion, garlic, half of the baked chicken, and some sage, thyme, and pepper, and then cooked it until the liquid was mostly absorbed, and the orzo was done. The result was awesome tasting. It was really like a mini-Thanksgiving feast. The chicken tasted tender, and had a lot of great roasted flavor, and the sage and thyme heightened the flavors of the orzo. We considered this one a great success, and I’ll definitely be repeating it.
The third pasta I made was the Italian Pesto Pasta Blend, which is a mix of basil, cracked pepper, garlic parsley and sun-dried tomato flavored pastas. I planned to use the other half of the baked chicken, as well as shiitake mushrooms and sundried tomatoes for this one. I decided to try using white wine in the sauce, which is something I haven’t really done in the past unless using a recipe that calls for it. First I cooked the mushrooms over medium high heat in some avocado oil, then set them aside until I was ready to use them. Then I sauteed half an onion and several large garlic cloves, then added chicken stock, a bit of white wine, sliced sundried tomatoes, and the chicken. For herbs, I ended up using a teaspoon or so of an herb blend called ‘Italian seasoning’ which I bought at some point for some forgotten recipe. But it’s actually a nice blend of marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil, so it went with the pasta pretty well. I thickened the sauce towards the end with some cornstarch, so it would coat the pasta more and not just run to the bottom of the bowl. I found the end result fairly tasty, but my husband wasn’t quite as taken with the flavor. I ended up adding maybe a touch too much wine as I was adjusting (it overflowed the spoon I was measuring it into over the skillet – doh!), so it was perhaps a bit too acidic. I thought it was quite an attractive dish, though.
The end result of all of these dishes, the Italian Pesto Pasta Blend included, was that the sauces complimented the pastas better than on previous occasions, so I was very pleased with the outcomes, and happy with the tips I picked up in my class.
October 21, 2011
I recently took a two-day sauce making class at Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder (the school formerly known as the Culinary School of the Rockies — any time I can use a pseudo-Princish name I jump at the opportunity). The format of all the classes I’ve taken there over the past several years is a bit of lecture/theory with demonstrations, and then the bulk of the time is cooking in their home cook kitchen. I actually like the lecture part of these classes, and am somewhat timid about cooking in a strange kitchen where I can’t find anything and am not familiar with the equipment. So personally, I always want a little more of the talking and demo part, and a little less cooking. But the big payoff in these classes is that at the end, everyone sits down and samples the dishes that were made. Every time I’ve taken a class there – from Dim Sum to Knife Skills to Sophisticated Sauces, the food at the end has been wonderful.
It’s always fun to meet your fellow students at these classes, and hear their reasons for attending. I’ve met many fellow foodies, some with quite a bit of cooking experience, some who are connected to the food industry in some way, and some who aren’t all that confident in the kitchen. I’ve attended classes with high school students, working people, retired people, long-time Boulder County residents, and even people who were just visiting Boulder and decided to attend a class while in town.
When I enrolled in the class, my intention was to try to gain some skill and knowledge about making sauces, as that’s one of the areas in which I feel less than savvy. I didn’t recognize all of the sauces when I was reading the class summary, so it didn’t quite click that pretty much everything we’d be making would involve either heavy cream, butter, or a combination of the two. In other words, they were French sauces. (Note that what I stated isn’t entirely true, many of the recipes used large amounts of oil instead of cream or butter.) Given how low fat I cook, I was somewhat horrified at the thought of using a whole cup or two of heavy cream or two whole sticks of butter for a single recipe, but these are classic sauces, and it was good to see what goes into them and the techniques used to make them. That said, it would be a pretty rare occasion in which I would make any of these as is. But I kind of like the challenge of cooking lower fat/lower calorie things that are inspired by something much higher in fat and calories. So there’s a huge amount of opportunity here. Challenging opportunity, since there are good reasons, involving chemical reactions and resultant textures, that full-fat cream and butter are used in these sauces. But I am talking versions inspired by these sauces, not attempts at making them using lower-fat ingredients. (Although knowing me, I’ll probably try that a couple of times before I believe the long-proven statements that you can’t do it).
We divided into two groups of five or six both days, and made about 19 sauces altogether. It’s a long list, but I feel compelled to name them all anyhow. We made Balsamic and Asian Vinaigrettes, Curry Mayonnaise, Garlic Aïoli, Tomato Vodka Cream Sauce, Tomato Concassé, Hollandaise, Bernaise, Béchamel, Mornay, Beurre Blanc, Beurre Rouge, Gorgonzola Cream Sauce, Thai Peanut Sauce, Chicken and Beef Pan Sauces, Chocolate and Caramel Sauces, Crème Anglaise, and Raspberry Coulis. We ate the savory sauces with various pastas, chicken, beef, and salmon. The sweet sauces were served with shortcake, and a wonderful double chocolate chip cake (not made in the class). I personally made what were probably the three simplest things on the list: Balsamic Vinaigrette, Gorgonzola Cream Sauce (3 ingredients), and Raspberry Coulis (3 ingredients). But that was completely okay with me. I don’t really like having people watch me cooking things I’m not familiar with making. I prefer to make my cooking mistakes with myself as the only witness. This also gives one the opportunity to disappear any evidence in the rare case that salvation operations prove to be completely in vain. But I must say, I made a mean balsamic – I’ve been making dressing at home for a while, using a fork to provide constant whipping while I pour in the oil, but using a whisk it pretty much emulsified perfectly. (Emulsification is basically combining two ingredients that don’t combine easily. The process is facilitated by the use of an emulsifier, such as the Dijon mustard in a balsamic vinaigrette). The Gorgonzola cream sauce did actually provide a bit of challenge because it required some patience and constant temperature adjusting to reduce 2 and 1/2 cups of heavy cream down to 1 and 1/2 cups. And while making the raspberry coulis I got to use a Vita-Mix for the first time. (Judging from the pictures I found on the web, I think it was probably the CIA Professional Series model). After 10 seconds using this blender I was blown away (figuratively of course, it wasn’t THAT powerful), and decided that our ‘Bartender Grade’ Waring is pretty wimpy.
I got a lot of great cooking tips out of the class. I learned lots of things that are obvious to people who have had training, but maybe not to the home cook (at least one that hasn’t had time to read The Joy of Cooking cover to cover), as well as some great hints from the people in the class. We talked about everything from salting and peppering your proteins before cooking them to favorite products and specialty food stores, what people grow in their herb gardens and how they dry their herbs, and the contrasts of ingredients in food from different countries. Now I just need some time and energy to try some of these things!
October 17, 2011
One of my favorite soups when I was a kid was my mom’s rainy day chicken soup. Made with chicken, rice, carrots, and other vegetables, there was just something about it that was extremely satisfying (as well as comforting). Using that as inspiration, I thought it would be fun to make a chicken and rice soup using the ruby red jasmine rice I discovered at Whole Foods a few months ago. I also planned to use some dragon carrots and red and orange bell pepper from the Farmers’ Market to add even more color.
For a couple of meals last week, I ended up doing some of my chopping and cooking the night before, because I knew that I would have a busy week at work, and wasn’t sure if I’d be getting home later than normal (or be more tired than normal). I made this soup in its entirety the night before we ate it. I was surprised when I took it out of the fridge the next day that it had kind of turned from soup into a saucy rice dish. It seems that even though the rice was sufficiently tender when I stopped cooking it, it still absorbed more liquid overnight. Since I really like soups that are (over-)crowded with vegetables and grains of some sort, I didn’t bother to thin it at all, but you could certainly add more broth during cooking if you wanted it more soup-like.
I didn’t feel like doing anything too laborious with the chicken, so I actually ended up boiling it. I had done a bit of research, which claimed that you could boil chicken breasts, and the meat would remain moist. I planned to use very lean, boneless, skinless chicken thighs instead, but figured I could use the same process. My husband was quite dubious of this method, conjuring up lurid images of grey, rock hard, boiled roast. But we were both pretty impressed with the results. It was very quick to cook, and it really did end up tender and moist. The package I used was about a pound and a half, so I broke it down into about 5 even(ish) sized pieces before boiling so they would cook faster. Once it was done, I just shredded the meat a bit with a fork.
When I started making the soup, I really didn’t have too much of a plan for what herbs or spices I planned to use. I thought I would use Mexican oregano again, but wasn’t sure what else I’d use. After the rice was mostly done and I was ready to add the sweated vegetables and cooked chicken, I threw in the Mexican oregano, and then just started tasting. I’m still nowhere near as savvy with spices and herbs as I’d like to be, so I often just open the cupboard with our spices, and take bottles out and smell them, while thinking about the flavor I just tasted. I added just a touch of dill weed and smoked paprika using this on-the-fly method, but it still didn’t have enough flavor afterwards, so I pulled out Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference, a fairly new acquisition of mine. I really like this book, because you can look up an herb or spice, and it tells you all about it, how to use it and store it, but it also indicates what other herbs of spices it goes well with. So When I looked up oregano/Mexican oregano, it said that it combined well with paprika (how lucky, since I just added some), as well as cumin. Well, I love cumin, so I figured I’d try some of that. The addition of a bit of cumin really helped add more dimension to the flavor of the soup, so I was quite pleased with the result.
Chicken and Heirloom Red Rice Soup
1+1/2 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 cup uncooked heirloom red rice
6 cups chicken broth
3 large carrots, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp dried cumin
1/2 tsp dill weed
Cut the chicken into several even-sized pieces. Place the chicken in a large pot of boiling water, bring back to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer for 8-10 minutes. Check with a meat thermometer to ensure doneness – 165 degrees for the internal temperature is the standard for safety. Let the chicken cool, and then shred it into bite-sized pieces with a fork. Store in the fridge until you’re ready to add it to the soup.
Combine the rice with the broth, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and set a timer for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the garlic, onion, pepper and carrots with 2 tsp olive oil, and sweat the vegetables (cook them, covered) over medium heat until tender, stirring frequently. It should take about 10 minutes, but be sure to check earlier. Set aside until the rice is mostly tender, then add the additional broth, chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices, and simmer 20-30 minutes until the flavors are well combined.
October 14, 2011
Banana bread, like zucchini bread, is an old standard answer to the perennial question ‘what the heck am I going to do with all this [specify type of surplus produce or overripe fruit]?’. I actually prefer my bananas with just the tiniest hint of green still on the peel, so I’m definitely not going to be eating bananas once the dark spots take up more surface area than the yellow. And there’s actually one other item that I occasionally need to get rid of via an alternative route: dark chocolate. Since chocolate can have so many different flavor characteristics, sometimes I find a new brand or variety that is just too strong or bitter for my palate, but I don’t want to waste it. So chocolate banana bread is the perfect solution to this dual conundrum.
Baking is already challenging at higher altitudes, but I also like to make my breads low fat, which imparts a second element of difficulty. And I make them somewhat high in fiber, adding up to a triumvirate of baking challenges. To be honest, I’ve had times where my quick bread just doesn’t cook in the middle, and I either have to keep baking it until it’s pretty dark brown on the top, or just accept the fact that I’m going to have some very (very) moist-centered bread. But there are a few high altitude modifications that I’ve made over the past year which make quite a difference, and my successes definitely outnumber my failures these days. The main tweaks I’ve made are reducing the amount of baking powder and sugar, adding a little extra liquid, and increasing the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
I’ve also experimented a bit with different flours. I apparently still like to bake on the edge, so instead of using any white flour, I’ve been using King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour, Whole Wheat Pastry flour (available from several companies) or some combination of the two. Because banana bread is somewhat dense anyhow, I really don’t feel that the more robust wheat flour has an adverse affect on the texture. (I do know what really dense, heavy whole grain bread tastes and feels like – I’ve bought some in the past, and rather like it, but my husband doesn’t really care for it, and he loves my banana bread).
Depending on whether my desire to eat more natural foods or my desire to hold calories down is stronger that day, I either use all fair trade organic sugar, or a mix of sugar and either erythritol or baking Splenda. I prefer the erythritol to the Splenda, as it’s a sugar alcohol which is, according to some research, a more preferable alternative. I go back and forth on the artificial sweeteners, but I have such a hard time getting past the fact that sugar has 720 calories per cup. So I use stevia in my daily double dose of coffee (with a bonus cup on weekends), I occasionally have a diet soda, and I sometimes bake with some fakes. I continually strive to be more of a purist with food, but I haven’t found it practical to be rigidly all-or-nothing. So there’s my sugar confession.
As for fat, I don’t use any oil or butter in this bread, just applesauce, yogurt, and milk. (And it’s still a very moist bread). The fat all comes from the chocolate and the flour, so it’s significantly reduced over the fat in a quick bread made with oil.
Chocolate Banana Bread
(recipe for 5400 ft altitude – lower altitude substitutions below)
1 cup sugar
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 large ripe bananas
1/2 cup applesauce
5 Tbsp skim milk
2 Tbsp non-fat yogurt
3 oz dark chocolate
2 tsp less 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
Divide the chocolate in half. The first half you will cut into thin filaments (for lack of a better term), which will melt into the bread a bit. Use a paring knife to cut thin strips off of the chocolate starting at one end. Once done, cut those in half crosswise. Using a larger knife, cut the second half of the chocolate into small chunks that will be more like chips in the bread.
Mash the bananas with a fork, then add the applesauce, milk, yogurt, chocolate, and vanilla, and stir well. In a separate bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients together, and mix well. Then add 1/4 of the dry ingredients at a time to the wet ingredients, stirring just enough to mix the dry ingredients in completely. Pour into a bread pan sprayed with cooking spray (or greased), and bake at 375 degrees for 45-50 minutes. Check by inserting a toothpick or knife – it’s done when it comes out clean(ish). Remove from the pan, and place on a cooking rack.
For lower altitudes: use a full 2 tsp baking powder, 2+1/4 cups sugar, 4 Tbsp milk, and bake at 350 degrees
Lower sugar substitution: 1/2 cup sugar + 1/2 cup erythritol OR 1/2 cup baking Splenda (add 1/4 cup nonfat-dry milk if using the Splenda)