June 25, 2012

Neighborhood Foraging

There are these trees that line the street around my apartment; in people's yards, in sidewalk planters and even across the way in the rec center's space.  The leaves on these trees are a gorgeous deep shade of burgundy until early winter when they all drop to the ground, leaving behind these dainty skeleton branches to stand bare for a few months.  But come February and March, the branches explode in soft pink blossoms, fluffy clouds of flowers, until finally the foliage comes backs to start the cycle all over again.  They really are beautiful trees.  And up until last week, I had no idea that they were cherry plum trees.

I had never even heard of a cherry plum until earlier this month when a co-worker showed me a bag full of them, having just spent the afternoon picking them off the two tress in his yard.  Then on a little neighborhood walk last weekend, as D and I passed the trees right out in front of our building, I noticed what looked like a bunch of smashed cherries on the ground.  And it was the same scene under the next two tress.  Either someone has been routinely dropping bags of cherries onto the sidewalk, or else these were cherry plum trees.

The fruits are just how you would imagine a cherry plum to be.  They're about the same size as a cherry, but more round like a plum and have a sweet flesh with tart skin and a pit in the center.  You can find me out front now, scouting for the fruit and pulling them from the reachable branches.  I like to call it urban foraging.  And just up the hill from us is a little park just covered in blackberry bushes.  You can bet I'll be foraging there as soon as the little green berries turn a deep purple and finally turn sweet.

Until then, the markets are abundant with summer berries (spotted this Saturday: olallieberries), just begging me to take them home.  I love a good berry-based dessert when the weather is warming up, and I really love a berry cobbler.  The way the berries soften and release their juice, the crisp top and edges right after you take it out of the oven, the ice cream just beginning to melt into the whole mess because it's best served still warm that very same day.  This recipe isn't a cobbler in a traditional sense, it's not a biscuity topping dolloped over a mess of fruit and sugar, but more of a cake/cobbler hybrid.  The fruit gets scattered across the batter and topped with sugar to create a delicate thin crust when it's done baking.  And did I mention the cardamom in the batter?  It adds this exotic, perfume-like quality that I find totally irresistible, and just a hint unexpected.

Blackberry and Cardamom Cobbler
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

This is probably not what you'd typically classify as a cobbler, but it's delicious all the same. A little bit cake, a little bit cobbler and a perfect vehicle for those summertime berries that are becoming so abundant. I especially like the way the cardamom played with the mostly sweet, barely tart berries, adding an exotic and perfume-like quality, but if cardamom isn't your thing, you can certainly leave it out. You can also double this recipe and bake it in a pie dish if you're feeding more than just a few people.

4-6 servings

3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
scant 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 heaping tablespoon
1/2 cup milk
6 oz. fresh blackberries
vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350F.  Butter a small baking dish.

Melt butter in a small dish in the microwave, set aside to cool a bit.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cardamom and scant 1/2 cup sugar.  Slowly pour in milk and whisk until just combined.  Add melted butter and whisk again just until butter disappears into batter.  Pour into prepared baking dish and evenly distribute the blackberries over the entire surface.  Sprinkle the remaining heaping tablespoon sugar over the top.

Bake for 50 minutes or until the top is golden and the edges crisp.  Serve warm or room temperature with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

June 18, 2012

By Way of the Tropics

Ever since I started working at the restaurant, an increasing number of the meals I make at home have been vegan.  Not intentionally, I never really sat down and made that conscious decision, but it's the truth.  First there was the sautee of corn, greens, red onion and zucchini doused in lime juice and Louisiana hot sauce that was so good/easy that I made it at least four times in about twice as many days.  Then there was a lentil and vegetable curry that only reminded me how lacking my curry skills are, but was tasty none the less.  And now?  Now there is this Caribbean delight of coconut scented rice, black beans and fried plantains, accented with a bit mango salsa.

I could eat this. Every. Single. Day.  The slightly crisp skin the ripe plantains get from a light pan fry, their sweet creamy interiors balanced so perfectly with a sprinkle of salt.  The coconut scented rice and spicy mango salsa sending your thoughts immediately to tropical beaches and vacations and fancy drinks that come garnished with umbrellas.  And if you ask me, you can never go wrong with a fresh pot of black beans along with some avocado.  What's even better?  You can probably whip this whole thing up for under $5.

Not only am I all about tasty food, I'm also all about being thrifty.

As perfect as I found this to be - I mean it.  Totally swoon-worthy.  New summertime staple. - there is so much you can play around with here.  You can use any type of long-grain rice, even consider tossing in a handful of shaved coconut while the rice cooks.  Use peaches or nectarines or pineapple in place of the mango.  If you're feeling brave, use a bit of habanero instead of the serrano chili.  Just be sure to cook up your own pot of beans, canned just doesn't begin to compare, and use the ripest plantains you can find.

Coconut Rice, Black Beans and Plantains
Adapted from Herbivoracious

Take the extra time and cook up a pot of black beans instead of buying the canned ones. And don't forget the epazote, they make the beans just that much more magical. Every element of this dish is fantastic on its own, but together they're out of this world. You can substitute any long grain rice here; plain, jasmine, basmati and light coconut milk works too. The Manila mango is great for its creamy firm texture without any of those nasty fibers, but if mango fibers aren't an issue for you, go ahead and use whatever variety smells fragrant and sweet. Also, be sure to select plantains that have a significant amount of black spots, these ones are sweeter and better for a quick pan fry.

4 servings

1 cup dried black beans
1 large sprig epazote
1/2 small onion, finely diced

Mango Salsa:
1 Manila mango, cut into small cubes
1/2 - 1 serrano chili, minced (depending on how much heat you'd like)
1/3 cup red onion, finely diced
a handful cilantro, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 lime, juiced

Coconut Rice:
1 cup basmati rice
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup water

2 plantains (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1/4" thick coins
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
avocado, sliced, for topping

For the beans:  Cover beans by about 3 inches with cool water and let soak overnight.  The next day, drain liquid and place beans in a medium pot.  Add the sprig of epazote and diced onion and cover with about 2 1/2 cups water.  Bring to a boil over medium heat then reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered for 1 hour, adding water as necessary to keep the beans submerged.  After an hour, beans should be soft and creamy, but still hold their shape and there should still be some pot liquer.  Remove epazote and season with about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

For the rice:  In a fine mesh strainer, rinse the basmati rice 2 or 3 times in cool water, then drain well.  Put in a pot and cover with 1 cup of coconut milk and 1 cup of water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to the lowest setting, cover and cook for 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and let stand, still covered, for another 10 minutes.

For the salsa: add all the chopped ingredients to a bowl, season with salt and lime juice.  Puree half of the salsa in a blender or food processor until you reach a thick but slightly chunky texture.  Mix back into the remaining salsa and set aside.

Just before serving, peel and slice plantains.  In a large skillet (I used nonstick) over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.  Lay plantain slices in a single layer and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes, then flip and cook the other side for 3 minutes more, sprinkle with kosher salt.  Serve with the coconut rice, black beans, a big spoonful of the mango salsa and sliced avocado.

June 12, 2012

Wrap It Up

It's not all salads and health food around here.  Sometimes it's the weekend, and the weather is perfect and this picture you saw of soft pretzel wrapped hot dogs just won't get out of your head.  They're the summertime version of pigs-in-a-blanket., practically begging you to make them and re-live some childhood memories.  Everything I needed, I already had.  No excuses.

This is the second time I've worked with pretzel dough, and I must say that it's a breeze to handle.  It dosen't stick to every surface, you can shape it with ease and would you look at that beautiful shiny, golden crust?  Sure, the dough itself is on the stiff side and not the easiest to knead by hand (no Kitchen-Aid here), but that's hardly worth complaining about.  It's only 5 minutes of manhandling, pushing, folding and rotating, which you can just pass off as a mini arm workout, how convenient!

What follows seems like a tedious series of steps for something you're only going to wrap around a hot dog - shape dough into ropes, wrap, boil, brush with egg wash and top with coarse salt - but in total only takes about 15 minutes to execute and so worth it.  I mean, I'm not really even into hot dogs, but I loved these pretzel dogs.  Soft, chewy pretzel outside, steamed from the inside by that salty, savory dog and then slathered in a spicy mustard.  Yes, I could have eaten two.  The brown mustard mixed with a bit of Sriracha was an extra nice touch.  I see these becoming my summer BBQ staple.

Joy's post suggests making these and serving them with cold beer and enjoying them with friends and I heartily agree.  It was a lovely, warm, Sunday evening indeed.

Mini Pretzel Dogs
Adapted from Joy the Baker

Had I not used Nathan's dinner franks (which are larger than your average dog) for this recipe, I could have fully wrapped these in soft pretzel goodness, mummy-style. But Nathan's is what I had in the freezer, so it's what I used. Be classy, get a good brand of hot dogs or veggie dogs, you can't really bury these in toppings.

makes 8 mini dogs

3/4 cups warm water (between 110F and 115F)
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
11 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 1/4 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted and cooled
2 quarts of water
1/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg, beaten, with a splash of water
sea salt, for topping

4 Nathan's Dinner Franks, cut in half
mustard for dipping

In a bowl, combine warm water and sugar. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water and set aside for 5 minutes. The mixture will begin to foam and froth. If it doesn’t, throw the mixture away and start again with new yeast.

Once the yeast and water is frothy, add the flour, salt, and melted butter. Using a wooden spoon, stir until well combined and the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. It should be soft, pliable, and just a bit sticky.

Coat a bowl with a bit of vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl, sprinkle with flour, cover with plastic wrap, and store in a warm place to rise. Allow dough to rise, until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.

Place a baking rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 425F.  Lightly brush a baking sheet with oil and set aside.

Combine water and baking soda in a large pan (5 quart is fine) and bring to a boil.

While the water comes to a boil, turn the dough out onto a clean, dry surface. Divide dough into 8 pieces. Working with one piece at a time and leaving the remaining covered in the bowl, start with the fingers of both hands in the center of the dough, and roll, moving your hands outward as you roll. Roll the dough along the surface until you have about a 12 to 15-inch piece of rope. Wrap pretzel around a hot dog, making sure to pinch and seal the ends.  Set on a plate and cover with a damp paper towel.

When water has come to a boil, gently lower a few pretzel dogs into the boiling water. Boil for 30 seconds. Remove carefully, using a flat, slotted spatula. Place on prepared baking sheet. Brush boiled pretzels with beaten egg, and top with coarse sea salt (or sesame or poppy seeds).

Bake until deeply golden brown, about 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for a few minutes before serving warm.  They'll be best the day they are made.

June 5, 2012

Lebanese Dreams

I'll be honest.  I really just made these falafels as an excuse to showcase and devour more of a big batch of pickled turnips I made.  Bright magenta and oh-so-snappy, I love Lebanese pickled turnips.

Dont even turn your nose up at the idea of pickled turnips, they are crazy good and resemble their cooked and/or raw counterparts in almost no way.  I know, because after this past winter, me and turnips are no longer on speaking terms.  It started out nice, I would roast them with our dinner and D and I would happily munch away, proclaiming not to understand people's strong distaste for the vegetable.  But week after week, a giant bag of them tucked into every single veggie box, I've come to understand.  Turnips, I am so over you.

Still, I am not one to just waste food and there was one last bag of snowy white orbs lingering in my crisper drawer.  And then I saw the big bunch of beets next to them.  Inspiration struck; I would make pickles.  Their zippy crunch is the perfect counterpart to a falafel sandwich slathered in a garlicy yogurt-tahini sauce and tucked into plenty of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber.

Did you know that falafels are made from chickpeas that have only been soaked and not cooked? Me neither. I was even a bit skeptical of the whole idea, but decided to push forward after recipe upon recipe yielded the same instructions - to soak the beans for 24 hours and not cook them before frying. After their day long soak, the beans are just soft enough to process into a crumbly puree along with an onion, a big handful of fresh parsley leaves and some other spices, without becoming a soggy mush. A little hot oil in a heavy skillet and a few minutes to cook on each side and you've got some mighty fine falafels.

Since the only cooking time the beans ever see in a quick fry in oil, you can expect a whole different flavor and texture experience.  The insides are moist but crumble just enough and you get a more pronounced starchy bean flavor rather than fully cooked chickpea's typical sweet and creamy taste.  There's a great supporting cast of spices and a bit of heat from cayenne pepper that recall memories of the falafels served at a Lebanese deli just down the street from where I grew up.  Mark Bittman, who this recipe is from, cautions that you'll need a food processor or a heavy duty blender to get the job done, but my wimpy blender prevailed once again and turned out excellent falafel mix in two batches.

I'm only sorry I didn't double the recipe so I could freeze them and have more on hand for when my next pickled turnip craving hits.

Falafel Sandwiches
Adapted from Mark Bittman

As comfortable as I am in the kitchen, I'm still not comfortable with the idea of deep frying, so I more or less pan fried these falafels after shaping them into little patties.  They still got a nice crispy crust on them and held their shape well, so I'd call it successful tweak to the original recipe.  I didn't change much else, but might suggest one more clove of garlic and a bit more salt.

6 to 8 servings

1 3/4 cup dried chickpeas
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 small onion, quartered
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 scant teaspoon cayenne
1 cup chopped parsley or cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, for frying

whole wheat pita or flatbread
pickled turnips
tahini sauce (equal parts plain yogurt and tahini, seasoned with pressed/grated/minced garlic, salt, and lemon juice, thin with water to reach desired consistency.)

Put beans in a large bowl and cover with water by 3 or 4 inches; they will triple in volume. Soak for 24 hours, adding water if needed to keep beans submerged.

Drain beans well (reserving a bit of the soaking water) and transfer to a food processor. Add remaining ingredients except oil; pulse until finely minced, just shy of puréed, scraping sides of bowl down; add soaking water if necessary to allow machine to do its work, but no more than 1 or 2 tablespoons. Keep pulsing until mixture comes together. Taste, adding salt, pepper, cayenne or lemon juice to taste.

Put oil in a heavy skillet, like cast iron, to a depth of about 1/4 inch.  The narrower the saucepan the less oil you need, but the more oil you use the more patties you can cook at a time. Turn heat to medium-high and heat oil to about 350 degrees (a pinch of batter will sizzle immediately). Scoop a heaping tablespoon of batter into your hands and shape into a small patty about 2-3 inches in diameter. Fry in batches, without crowding, until nicely browned, about 4 minutes per side.

Assemble each sandwich with two patties and your choice of toppings.