28 February 2010

Beet and Carrot Gratin

I've been planning for the last month or so to host a vegetable-centric dinner party, but it seems I keep getting way-laid. There was a work-trip and then dealing with my mother's estate affairs, and there is nothing like a mountain of paperwork and taxes to make you order a pizza.

But I like the idea of a vegetable-centric party, especially for February when all those resolutions seem to melt away into a box of Valentine chocolates. A vegetable-centric party, not to be confused a vegetarian party, but merely something where all the dishes have vegetables as their primary ingredient. This is as opposed to many vegetarian dishes which are loads of pasta, bread, and cream.

For such a party I might serve delicate vegetable-filled wontons, a Lebanese stew of eggplant, tomato, and chickpeas, a salad of bitter escarole, or a garlicy potato mash. Or I might serve this beet-carrot gratin, which I made on a whim one afternoon. Most gratins are very thin slice of vegetables layered with butter and cream, but this one is a more rustic rough mash of things.

Just like the bright magenta color, this dish is warm and softly comforting. It's good for these last days of winter, when it's still cold and dreary and you're just itching to switch your blacks and browns for a warmer magenta hue.
Beet and Carrot Gratin

1 lb carrots, peeled
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large or 3 medium beets
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon butter

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Place olive oil and carrots in a casserole-type dish and roll the carrots around to coat. Place a lid on the dish or cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally for even cooking.
2. Meanwhile, wrap the beets in foil and place in the oven to roast for 1 hour, or until tender. When done, turn the oven down to 350 F.
3. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel them and roughly dice them. Place the beets in a food processor and pulse to a rough puree. Add the carrots and the 2 tbl butter and pulse until roughly chopped and combined (don't over do it, you don't want a puree). Stir in the cumin, salt, and cheese, and place in a baking dish.
4. Scatter the breadcrumbs over top and dot with slivers of the remaining tablespoon of butter. Place in the oven for 15 minutes, or until warmed through and the breadcrumbs are browned.

14 February 2010

Linzer Tart

I am not one of those people who always keeps bread in the house. I also don't freak out and a run to the store when the weather forecast says snow. I actually like walking the 4 blocks to my little local grocery in the snow.

But last week with three feet of snow on the ground, not only did I not have bread, I didn't even have any flour. I trudged to the store only to find no bread, and no flour (for the record the store had just about everything else you could want). So, I trudged several more blocks in white-out conditions only to find the same situation at the next store. At this point icicles were forming on my eyelashes, so I resigned myself to going back to my sadly starch-less home. The thought of being stuck at home for days without even a baking project to entertain me was making me pretty desperate, as I contemplated grounding my remaining almonds into flour, or making a flourless cake.

And that was when I realized that I should make a linzer tart.

Back at home, warm and with my boots dripping by the front door, I found a lonely half cup of pastry flour lingering in the back of my pantry. I painstakingly picked all the hazelnuts out of a bag of mixed nuts (hey, there wasn't much else to do), and ground them with some almonds into a rough flour. Adding butter, flour, and spices, and voila, a dough was made. A few slicks of homemade jam, and a stint in the oven, and two sweet little tarts were there to see my sugar-tooth through the storm.

Just in time for Valentine's (or Chinese New Year, or the Olympics, or whatever you want to celebrate this week).

Linzer Torte
This classic Austrian pastry hails from the town of Linz. You may also find it is very reminiscent of the Pepperidge Farm linzer cookies your mom put in your lunch box as a kid.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup ground almonds (about 2/3 cup before grinding)
1/2 cup ground hazelnuts (about 2/3 cup before grinding)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
a sprinkling of lemon zest
8 tablespoons softened butter
1 egg, separated
3/4 cup raspberry jam

1. Combine the dry ingredients for the dough, plus the lemon zest, stirring to combine. Using a pastry blender, food processor or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Add the egg white and mix until the dough comes together (if the dough is dry add a splash of water). Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350F. Let the dough come back to room temperature, then roll the dough out and fit into an 8" tart pan. Cut remaining dough into shapes as desired. Spread jam inside of tart, decorate with cut-out shapes. Beat the remaining egg yolk with a bit of water and brush over the pastry.
3. Bake 35 minutes or until deeply golden and firm. Cool completely before serving. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

10 February 2010

Snow (your adjective here) 2010 + my New Favorite Salad

Well, I won't bore you with adding another adjective to this fierce snowstorm that's building up for the 5th day in a row. Snowpocalypse, snOMG, snowmaggedon, whatever you call it, the apocalyptic nature of walking in near white-out conditions is truly magnifying. I went for a walk this morning and encountered only one other person in half an hour, in the middle of our usually bustling capitol. At one point I heard the ringing of a dog's collar, but I could never make out exactly where the noise was coming from, although I couldn't see the end of the street either. It was magical.

It was also a very good opportunity to stay home, build a fire, catch up on paperwork and movies, drink hot chocolate, and make my new favorite salad. Yes, I am mildly obsessed with this salad, which came from an old recipe in Food and Wine, and claims to be Middle eastern, although it's an amalgamation of sorts. I don't really care though, it's addictive, in the "this serves four but I just ate the whole thing myself" kinda way. At least it's full of healthy stuff, because I've been making it constantly for about 3 weeks now.

The original recipe calls for bulgur, but I have two big boxes of quinoa in my pantry, and I actually like it better with quinoa, though either would be fine. There's a bit of prep work here, seeding the pomegranate, chopping tomatoes and cilantro, but nothing major. I also do the cheater's way of just grabbing the bunch of cilantro and mint, and then snipping the top of the bunch with scissors directly into the bowl.

It has soft chickpeas, pops of pomegranate, crunchy nuts, bright mint, and soft roasted tomatoes. I don't know if that makes it good blizzard food, but it does make it my new favorite.

Bulgur, Pomegranate, Walnut Salad (or the Best Salad EVER)
Although I think the dressing here is delicious, I actually prefer making this salad without the dressing sometimes. Reason being, I think the dressing has the effect of weighing down the salad, so that leftovers have that unfortunate wilted effect. I'd recommend making the dressing but not tossing it with the salad until just before serving, or serving it alongside for people to drizzle over. You can substitute flat-leaf parsley if you hate cilantro.

1 cup quinoa or 1 cup medium bulgur, prepare according to package directions
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup cherry tomatoes, about 1/2 pint, halved
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (about 1/4 of a large pomegranate)
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

dressing (optional):
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
a squeeze of lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

1. Prepare bulgur or quinoa according to package directions. Meanwhile, turn on your broiler. Place halved cherry tomatoes on a baking sheet. Place tomatoes under the broiler for 8-10 minutes, until softened. Transfer tomatoes to a bowl but leave the broiler on.
2. Scatter walnuts on the same baking sheet and slip under the broiler just for a minute or two, until toasted but not burned (watch them carefully!).
3. Combine cooked quinoa/bulgur, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, walnuts, cilantro, mint and salt in a large bowl. Toss to combine. Add the dressing if desired, or reserve it to pass alongside the salad. Sprinkle pomegranates over top. Enjoy!

07 February 2010

Failed Recipes and What to Do with Leftover Lamb

While we are all snowed in here in the nation's capitol, I thought I'd share some recent recipes that have not gone so well. I cook a lot but I also spend a lot of time reading about cooking. Reading a lot of recipes gives you a sense of what works and what doesn't, what proportions are right for cake, techniques for cooking meat and vegetables. Often I follow that knowledge and instinct, but it seems recently I've taken the recipe's word for granted, and wound up sorely disappointed.

First up, a lovely rack of lamb on a bed of fennel and figs. I love Donna Hay's magazine, and was browsing through her site when I found this recipe. I substituted grapes for out-of-season figs, but that wasn't where I went wrong. First the 3 tablespoons of sugar, which I cut down to two, but which still left the vegetables far too sweet.

But the major problem was this recipe doesn't have you sear the rack of lamb before roasting. This doesn't give you the nice crust on the lamb, and it also causes very gamey lamb juices to run into that overly-sweet fennel. Let's just say it was bad.

(For the record, shredded lamb, sauteed in a bit of butter can be made into lamb tacos or sprinkled over fetteh, It can also be shredded and sauteed with sweet potatoes and cumin for a tasty hash.)

For our next failure, we have another case of sugar gone wrong. I love, LOVE, the pumpkin dish (kaddo bourani) at The Helmand in Baltimore. I had already assumed they used some special kind of squash to get that firm yet tender texture, which is the antithesis of the watery-mushy mass that pumpkin can be.

But then I found some recipes online, which called for slow baking of the pumpkin in massive amounts of sugar. I thought maybe it could work, kinda like this preparation of pumpkin. Sadly, this recipe was exactly what I feared, far too sweet. However, we're still looking for tips on making this Afghani pumpkin, so please send any our way!

Looks like the government will be closed for the 2nd day in a row, so hopefully I find some successful recipes to share with you next!

03 February 2010

Kale with Blood Oranges

I'm sitting here watching the snow fall on the kale growing in my backyard. It's pretty deep purple kale, almost black in the night, and it could probably be eaten but I like to let it grow into the spring, when it shoots up 3 feet tall with yellow blossoms.

The kale I'm eating came from the farmer's market, where an entire armful cost on $2. And you know what you should be doing right now? Yes, you, trolling cooking blogs when you should be working, and you, couch sitter, cubicle worker, uninspired cook. You should be cooking kale too. Right now, go on. I'll be here when you get back. Grab a blood orange at the store while you're out. They're in season.

Back yet? Ok, what you're going to do is very simple. It's a saute of kale, cooked just until the kale are vibrant green, when they have a little chew left and nice crunchy brown parts that remind you of a kale potato chip. Sprinkle the kale with salt, toss into a serving dish and top with the sections of a blood orange. That's it!

It's delicious, in season, and a lot better than that cubicle you're stuck in surfing the internet.

Kale with Blood Oranges
The easiest way to remove the ribs of the kale is to fold the leaf in half and then slice off the rib with your knife.

1 bunch green kale, tough ribs removed and torn into small florets
good olive oil
1 blood orange, supremed

1. Heat a generous splash of olive oil in a saute pan over medium high-heat. Add the kale, tossing it constantly as it turns green and softens. I do this with my hands but tongs work nicely too. Sprinkle the kale with a generous amount of salt. Continue tossing the kale until vibrant green and with several brown crunchy spots. Taste the kale for doneness, it will still be chewy.
2. Transfer kale to a plate or serving dish. Top with blood orange sections and eat immediately.