Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Art of Culinary Recycling

Huevos Rancheros

I have been busy lately. I know everyone says that, but I have been busier than I have been in years. After years in graduate school, my reprieve on a real job is finally at an end. Although full time work comes with compensatory financial and psychological benefits (it’s depressing to be unemployed, broke and overeducated), a distinct disadvantage is that I no longer can spend my days pottering around and planning my meals. No, these days, it’s all work, and I’m somehow expected to squeeze meal planning in between the hours between work and falling asleep exhausted.

This means that I don’t have the luxury of cooking every single night. When I cook, I’m looking for dishes that give you the best bang for the buck. It’s not only about freezing leftovers in individual proportions (like I’m that organized). It’s about finding dishes that, with minimal effort, can be endlessly reinvented for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Yes, I could make chili in six gallon quantities and be set for the next month, but I want to feel like I’m eating something new, different, and exciting every day.

Which is why I always look forward to these Huevos Rancheros, a dish that can be composed almost entirely from leftover odds and ends of the Mexican food I’ve consumed during the week. The dish reinvents those beans I boiled this week as a side for tacos. And don’t let those few tablespoonfuls of homemade salsa go to waste, use the leftovers to top your eggs. I used to feel guilty that I never would get around to frying those stale tortillas, but here, they appear as a base for the eggs.

The best part is that these eggs might possibly be the most satisfying brunch dish ever. What is it about this combination of textures and flavors that makes it so much more luxurious than the sum of its peasant-food parts? Perhaps it’s the combination of the unctuousness of soft fried eggs with the homeyness of beans, set off with a spicy salsa and a shower of chopped cilantro. This combination is great by itself, but with a perfectly ripe sliced avocado on the side? You would never guess that you’re eating leftovers.

Huevos Rancheros

The recipe is long, but each component can be recycled into another dish. I usually make at least a couple of beans and freeze half for a busy weeknight when I don’t even have the energy for take-out

Makes 1 portion; double, triple or quadruple as needed

1 egg
butter or oil for frying
1 tortilla
2-3 tablespoons tomato-habanero salsa (recipe follows) or other homemade salsa
1 tablespoon feta cheese or queso fresco, crumbled
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 large spoonful seasoned beans (recipe follows)

½ avocado, sliced and seasoned with lime juice, salt, and pepper

1. Over medium heat, heat butter in a non-stick frying pan, until butter foams, then quiets again. Break egg into pan, turn heat to low, then gently cook until white is barely set but yellow is still bright.

2. Heat tortilla over gas flame. When warm and pliable, top tortilla with egg, followed by salsa, cheese, and cilantro.

3. Serve with beans and avocado on the side.

Mexican Pot Beans

1 pound dried black, pinto, or kidney beans, soaked overnight
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
5 branches of cilantro
1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 jalapeno pepper, halved
salt

1. Drain beans, replace water, and bring to a boil with other ingredients.
2. Lower to simmer. Cook until tender.
3. When beans are completely tender, salt generously to taste

Tomato-Habanero Salsa

1 pound tomatoes (use canned tomatoes in winter)
1 habanero chile, halved
½ yellow onion, finely sliced
peanut oil for sautéing
salt

1. Roast tomatoes under broiler until charred and blackened. Peel. (Skip this step if using canned tomatoes.)
2. Chop tomatoes. Heat oil in saucepan, add onion and sauté until golden brown.
3. Add chopped tomatoes and chile. Simmer about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Salt to taste.

Source: Mexican Kitchen, Rick Bayless

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Globalization Girl

I could never be a locavore.

In case you didn’t know, a locavore is a person who only eats food grown within a 100 radius of her home. The benefits are numerous. Locally grown food tastes better and is probably more nutritious. It’s better for the environment as your food doesn’t travel thousands of miles to get to you, and when you eat local, you support local family farmers. I try to eat local as much as possible, I really do. But I’m also what I call a global eater; I eat foods from all over the world.

Last year, I spent a difficult summer in Geneva eating almost entirely locally grown produce by default. Walking into the Migros and confronting the same five boring Swiss vegetables every day made me lose my appetite, something that almost never happens when food shopping. Where was the bok choy? The Indian long beans? The collard greens? The broccoli rabe? Why couldn’t I find mache, when ten kilometers away, in France, it was ubiquitous? After a week of locally grown produce, I was bored out of my mind.

Now I imagine if you live in San Francisco or Seattle, you have an entirely different experience eating local. Immigrant populations from all over the world living in those places make finding a variety of locally grown vegetables a breeze. Come to think of it, Minnesota is the same way. The Hmong refugees who came here in the sixties and seventies were farmers, and they grew what they liked to eat: kang kung, Chinese broccoli, golf ball sized Thai eggplants, edamame, Thai basil, and chilies of all sizes, shapes and colors. All of that is available locally grown at the Twin Cities Farmer’s Markets. So it’s no problem eating globally, locally.

But it was a different story in my North Carolina childhood. My mom managed to pass down culinary traditions to my sister and me during a time when cilantro was considered an exotic spice and ginger was only available in its powdered form. And she didn’t do it by eating locally. We had spices imported from India via Toronto, Maldive fish from Sri Lanka, rice from Thailand and coconuts from God-knows-where that my parents would scrape at the kitchen table with a special instrument from Sri Lanka designed especially for that purpose. When I was in high school, a Vietnamese market opened, and we bought bitter gourd, long Japanese eggplants, and other mysterious vegetables my sister and I had never seen before. The only thing that we had that was local was the seafood, caught fresh from the ocean, not even ten minutes away. Thanks to all those evenings my parents spent scraping coconut, my sister and I both have an enormous sense of culinary adventure. No food is too spicy, or too unfamiliar, or too different to try once. And in a way that defies the logic of language, we also learned about our own past and culture.

So my mom didn’t raise me to eat local, and I’m glad of it. Eating locally for me would mean giving up ginger to sauté with my Thai eggplant, coconut milk to thicken that curry. And there is no way I’m going without ginger and coconut milk. Both are a part of my own ethnic and culinary heritage, and I am not going to forgo that, no matter how worthy the principle.

Globalization has brought us many things. Some of them are awful and dehumanizing, like the depersonalization of labor, and severe wage inequality. But to tell you the truth, I like the vast diversity of peoples and cultures that we have in this country, and that is a consequence of globalization too. Eating mindfully has an environmental component, but that’s not all there is to it. We eat to connect with other people, and ourselves.

Quasi Local Salade Niçoise

I include this recipe because I ate a lot of it during that Genevoise summer. Even then, I couldn’t manage to make something completely local–I used Italian tuna, Moroccan anchovies, and olives from Nice. The version I made for a potluck picnic this weekend was also quasi-local, using vegetables from Minnesota, fish from the North Africa, and olives from Greece (but you should really use Niçoise—they’re better, though annoying to pit).

2 lbs. new potatoes
2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped or 1 basket grape or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 lb. green beans
a small bunch parsley, finely chopped
a few leaves of basil, torn
one handful of Niçoise olives, pitted
1 tbsp capers, soaked and rinsed
3-4 anchovies
1 can oil packed tuna

Dressing:
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 lemon, juiced
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 hard boiled eggs

1. Boil new potatoes in heavily salted water until done (25-3- min, depending on size of the potato). A good way to gauge doneness is to stick them with a sharp knife, then pull them out of the water. The perfectly done potato will cling to the knife for one second, then drop into the water. Boil green beans 7 minutes, or until done.

2. Soak shallot slices in lemon juice. Beat in mustard, anchovies and olive oil.

3. Combine remaining ingredients in large bowl. Pour dressing over, toss to mix. taste and adjust seasonings. Decorate with slices of hard boiled egg.

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Pickles, pickles, pickles

After spending an entire weekend in the kitchen, canning and pickling with my neighbor, Kassie, I am left with a renewed appreciation for the generations of women for whom canning was a survival skill, not, say a fun experiment. Peeling vegetables all day and sweating over a pot of acrid boiling vinegar is an uncomfortably hot and sticky experience even if you sign up for it voluntarily. Imagine rising at dawn to harvest vegetables, followed by a long, hot day in the kitchen without the benefits of air-conditioning (not that I have a/c) or even electric fans.

I am waiting to post pickle recipes until I have gathered empirical evidence that 1) our pickles won’t kill anyone, 2) our pickles won’t make anyone sick, 3) our pickles actually taste good. I’ll let you know in a month.

Until then, head over to Kassie’s blog to see the fruits of our labors.

Oh, and here is the box of tomatoes that we peeled:

Box of Tomatoes

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Laab, the raw way

Laab

Like most Americans, I first tasted Laab,* the Thai beef salad laced with shallots, herbs, fish sauce and lime in Thai restaurants in this country. I have never been to Thailand, but the best laab I have ever had was at a Thai restaurant in a little town in France, where they made the laab with raw beef. The raw beef was more tender than its cooked counterpart, and had a more delicate flavor, setting off the crunch and intensity of the shallots and herbs. At first I thought I was eating a French-Thai fusion—steak tartare meets Laab–but I learned that across Thailand and Laos, laab is made with both cooked and raw beef, pork and fish. Of course, I’ve never seen it raw on a menu here in the States. God bless the French for being so much less food-phobic than Americans!

When my friend Maria called and asked if I was available to keep her company during her three hour layover in Minneapolis, I knew I wanted to make a raw laab to share with her. I think I first had laab with her at a restaurant in Boston; it’s her favorite Thai dish and she orders it every time she has Thai, and secondly, of all my friends, she is the least likely to look askance at a piece of raw meat for dinner.

Although this post recommends beef tenderloin for raw laab, I couldn’t justify the expense. Unfortunately, committing to locally sourced, humanely-raised meat means that the best cuts of meat aren’t always available to me. In this article on steak tartare, the classic French raw beef preparation, Anthony Bourdain recommends sirloin steak for tartare, a relatively economical choice for the laab. Obviously, when serving raw meat, the very best quality of meat is absolutely essential. Meat wrapped in those plastic and Styrofoam packages tends to smell off, and feel slimy, so be sure to go to a butcher.

Since there’s no cooking involved, the laab preparation was a matter of chopping: first the meat into slices, then slivers, then tiny little bits (never, ever use a food processor). Handfuls of cilantro, mint, shallots, lime leaves, and chilies followed. I almost forgot the roasted rice flour, the ingredient that binds the texture and flavors. And then it was just a matter of seasoning “to taste,” that marvelously ambiguous directive. I placed the limes and fish sauce near the bowl and popped bits into my mouth, continuously adjusting. Not sour enough, not salty enough, maybe a pinch of sugar to lift the flavors? And then came the moment when the laab tasted just like I remembered; it was time to serve.

*Although usually spelled Larb, this is the British Romanization. Try saying larb with a British accent. See?

Laab

It is extremely difficult to give quantities for laab. Start with these and adjust to your taste. Use big bunches of herbs, err on the side of too much, and it will probably end up just right. I could have done with more herbs in mine.

1 tbsp. raw rice (I used Jasmine)
1 lb. sirloin steak
3-5 shallots
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
4-6 Thai bird chilies
3 Kaffir lime leaves
¾ tbsp fish sauce
½ lime
salt to taste, if necessary
pinch of sugar, optional

Lettuce leaves for serving

1. Toast the rice in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until golden and fragrant. Grind to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

2. Finely chop sirloin, first into thin slices, the slice crosswise again, as finely as possible.

3. Mince the shallots, herbs, chilies and lime leaves.

4. Combine all and season with fish sauce and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sources: The Lao Cook, The Food Network: Canada

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Feels like Home (almost)

Mezze

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of the summer, I lost the ability to cook. Everything I made was off in some way. I overbaked my clafoutis, I burned a batch of banana bread, I undercooked caramelized onions for Mujadrah so that they remained crunchy and harsh tasting. My new stove cooked flank steak to an unappetizing grey, the accompanying tomatillo sauce was bitter, and I ate the whole disaster with stale, tasteless corn tortillas from the corner Mexican grocer. Nothing tasted right; nothing felt right.

Pack up all your worldly possessions, move them across the country, and start life anew in a new city where you know no one and can’t find the grocery store without getting lost. No wonder I felt so dispossessed, no wonder the one pleasure I could always count on wasn’t available to me.

But life continued, and things slowly improved. I ate dinner every night at a local South Indian restaurant where the food tastes as if it had come from an auntie’s kitchen. My pots, pans, and spices arrived from Boston, and in the act of putting things in their place, I made friends with my kitchen. My loneliness abated as I met people, and made a few friends. My neighbors, Kassie and CJ came by with a housewarming present, a dinner invitation, and advice on what to do in the not-entirely-unlikely event of finding a needle in my yard. They had a wealth of information on the many Minneapolis farmer’s markets, a good vegetable market, and a great meat market. With the routines of shopping, picking produce, meeting farmers and butchers, I began to put down roots, however shallow. The butchers at Clancy’s now know my name. I’m a familiar face at Farm in the Market and the Produce Exchange as well. And with knowing the people who have grown and raised my food comes a connection to this place that makes me food come alive. I’m not home yet, but I’m getting there.

Here are three ingredients that I used as the basis for mezze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of antipasti. They are certainly not indigenous Minnesotan foods, but I was very pleased to find all of them in my neighborhood.

1) Mâche. Who would have thought that you could find this French salad green at the MacheProduce Exchange? I couldn’t find it when I lived in Geneva last summer. It’s the the freshest, most spring-like taste you can imagine. I ate mâche by the shovelfuls in France, thinking I could never find it once I came home. Now I can eat it all summer long.

2) Egyptian Double Cream. Despite my interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, I had never heard of this rich, tangy cross between feta and cream cheese. I first tried it at the Holyland Deli, then found a more feta-like version at Bill’s. Both are delicious.

3) Giant Beans. I don’t know why this humble bean tastes so good; something about its meaty texture and full taste. I only know that it wasBill's Beans always worth paying $2.50 for a quarter cup of “Giant Bean Antipasto” at Whole Food Market. Whole Foods never carried the dried beans though, but I found them at Bill’s Imported Foods on Lake Street. I’ve remade this salad with harissa paste and lemon.

I’ve been eating these little snacks while on the run this week; I’ve been too busy and exhausted to cook, and they are great to have on hand for a quick tea time snack. I have these with whole wheat pita, a holdover from my health nut days, but I’ve grown to prefer the wholesome, nutty taste of the whole wheat over flatness of white.

Obviously, you don’t need to live in Minneapolis to make these dishes. You can substitute regular white beans (even from a can in a pinch—just be sure to rinse them), feta cheese and any salad green.

Mezze Table

Giant beans with harissa and lemon
Egyptian Double Cream Feta with Herbs
Mâche Salad
Olives
Whole Wheat Pita Bread

Giant beans with harissa and lemon

Be sure that the beans are completely soft before you salt them. Judi Rodgers recommends chilling one or two briefly in the freezer before checking for doneness. I try to mash one on the roof of my mouth with only my tongue.

1 c. dried giant beans

salt
2 tsp. harissa (recipe follows)
½ lemon
1 scallion, green part only, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
olive oil

1. Cover beans with water and soak overnight. The next day, bring beans and water to rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook beans for 1.5-2 hours. When beans are completely soft (you should be able to mash one on the roof of your mouth with only your tongue, when in doubt, cook longer), salt water generously and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.

2. Remove beans from heat, drain, let cool and mix with other ingredients. Drench with olive oil—this is not the time for a timid drizzle.
3. Let stand overnight in the refrigerator. It will allow the flavors of the dressing to better penetrate the thick bean. Let come to room temperature before serving.

Harissa

2 oz. dried red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground coriander
salt
Olive oil

Soak dried chiles in boiling water to cover for 1 hour. When rehydrated, process in blender with other ingredients, adding olive oil to facilitate grinding. Store in refrigerator, covered in olive oil.

Egyptian Double Cream Cheese with Herbs

½ lb. Egyptian Double Cream Cheese or Feta
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
2-3 tbsp. fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, sage, oregano, cilantro)
freshly ground black pepper

Process all in food processor. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sources: Claudia Roden, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Paula Wolfert, Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Judi Rodger, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

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