Monthly Archives: October 2007

Pizza: The Perfect Thin Crust and Veggie Pepperoni

Update: The pizza crust below is perfectly serviceable, however, I have discovered a pizza crust that’s even better.  Check it out here.

Although pizza-making is technically easy and not as time-consuming as you might think, it creates an unholy mess. The dough sticks to your hands; everything you touch acquires a sticky veneer that hardens into a dried glue. Every kitchen surface ends up covered in flour. And your clothes? Wear an apron, or even better, the clothes you wore when last painting your bedroom.

But the reward of kneading, waiting, rolling, and the inevitable clean-up is a light, crispy dough that’s the perfect vehicle for tomato sauce, arugula, buffalo mozzarella, or anything else you dream up. So invite your friends over, don’t tell them that they’re expected to clean the kitchen, and divide the labor. Pizza is meant to be shared.

There are many different schools of thought on pizza crust. I am of the thin, crisp school, a disciple of Todd English and his Figs pizza. The secret to a light, crispy crust is wet, sticky dough. Yes, it’s a pain, but resist the temptation to add more and more flour to the dough, making it easier to work with. A drier dough will yield a thicker, breadier pizza crust. Keep a butter knife nearby to scrape the webs of dough from your fingers. Swear if you need to.

I named this pizza after a friend from graduate school, who invited me over and served me this pizza on a cool fall evening. We had both just started our Master’s programs, and bonded over food,wine and bluegrass music. The combination of flavors is genius. Susanna and I were both vegetarians at the time (actually, I was quasi-vegetarian), and the combination was at once startlingly delicious and oddly familiar. Then I realized that the combination of sweet caramelized onions, salty olives, and sour sun-dried tomatoes evokes the salty tang of pepperoni. I’ve lost touch with my friend Susanna, but whenever I eat this pizza, I think of her and wonder what she’s cooking now.

Todd English’s Pizza Crust

This crust recipe makes 4 generous individual sized pizzas. While I don’t have a pizza stone, keeping a stone in the oven and preheating your oven an hour before hand will make the crust even crispier.

2 tsp yeast
1 2/3 c. warm water
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp olive oil
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve sugar in warm water. Sprinkle yeast over the water, and let sit ten minutes. (Don’t stress about the yeast being alive–if the yeast is within date and the water is bath temperature, you won’t go wrong.)

Add olive oil to water, beat in whole wheat flour. Add 2 1/4 cup of the all-purpose flour. Sprinkle salt over. Keep beating until mixture is uniform and dough gets stickier and stickier.

Here’s where things get even more sticky: Sprinkle 1/4 c. flour over the dough. Begin to knead, folding the dough over itself, push, then turn a quarter and repeat. (If you use a large enough mixing bowl, you won’t need to put the dough on the counter.) Soon, the flour will be absorbed, and the dough will become sticky again. Add another 1/4 c. flour and repeat. Repeat with the remaining 1/4 c. flour. Dough is ready when it springs back when poked with a (flour-covered) finger. If your dough isn’t ready, but you have used up all the flour, you may sprinkle tiny bits of flour onto the surface of the dough so you can keep kneading.

Divide dough into four equal parts. Place on a flour-covered cooking sheet, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.

Take a round of dough. Sprinkle flour on the top of the dough. Flour a rolling pin, and roll dough as thin as possible–this is key.

Pizza Susanna

I usually make 2 different types of toppings per crust recipe. This recipe makes enough topping for two pizzas.

2 large yellow onions
1/4 c. white wine (opt.)
2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 c. black, brine-cured olives, pitted and chopped (Kalamatas wouldn’t go amiss here)
1/2 c. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (if not oil-packed, soak in warm water)
1/2 c. chevre
parsley

Preheat oven as high as it will go (usually 500 or 550 degrees Fahrenheit). If you are using a pizza stone, it should preheat for an hour. Thickly slice onions. Heat olive oil, add onions, then reduce heat to very low. Let onions cook over low heat until completely reduced and soft, almost like a jam, at least 20 minutes, possibly longer. If onions are sticking to the bottom of the pan, deglaze with white wine and continue cooking.

Place the rounds of dough either on a well-floured cookie sheet or a pizza peel (if using a pizza stone). With the back of a spoon, spread onions on the pizza dough. Top with olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Crumble chevre over the pizzas.

Either slide pizza directly onto pizza stone and bake for 7-8 minutes, or place cookie sheet in oven and bake for 15 minutes.

Sources: Susanna Drake, Todd English’s The Figs Table

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Beginner’s Mind: Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Eggplant

Ingredients for Thai Green Curry Paste

While they say that the best way to learn to cook is at your mother’s elbow, I have learned as much from reading cookbooks cover to cover. I learned to cook Mexican food under the tutelage of Rick Bayless, who guided me through the intricacies of roasting, soaking, and blending dozens of varieties of chilies. For Moroccan food, my teacher was Paula Wolfert, whose 1973 Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco introduced me to the rich flavors of the land of olives and preserved lemons.

My introduction to Thai food, however, has been completely different, because now I am a food blogger, and have discovered the marvelous community of inventive, knowledgeable cooks who are so willing to share their recipes with the world. My culinary education in Thai food has been overseen by Pim, Barbara, and Karen. When it came time to expand my Thai repertoire beyond bottled curry pastes and beef salads, I turned to their blogs before any cookbooks.

Thai green curry, unlike it’s red counterpart, can never be a convenience food, because the fresh, fruity, herbacious flavor of the chile paste itself does not hold up in the freezer. And the only way to get that smooth, unctuous texture in the finished curry is by meticulously pounding the ingredients for the paste in a mortar and pestle: lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots, coriander root, chilies. While not convenient by any stretch of the imagination, it is deeply satisfying to watch the plant fibers smash under the weight of the pestle, release their fragrant oils, then come together again into a smooth,wet paste. And lest you missed your weekly trip to the gym, a solid hour of pounding has to be the equivalent of a good workout, right?

Chicken, pork, or fish usually form the backbone of this curry, to which is added the silky-crunchy texture of Thai eggplants. You can use these apple eggplants, but I used these, because that’s what was at the farmer’s market last Saturday.

In a pinch, you could use the long, slender Japanese eggplants, cut into bite-sized pieces, but you may miss the seedy crunch of the small eggplants in the finished curry. The curry is finished by a long simmer in rich coconut milk, the aromatics tamed by three sucessive reductions, the flavors rounded out by fish sauce and palm sugar.

This recipe comes, for the most part, from Chez Pim. I have only made a few changes to her recipe. While most Thai cooks simmer the raw meat in the curry, I prefer to quickly saute the chicken in hot oil, locking in the juiciness of the meat and deepening the flavor of the finished curry by scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. I also use boneless, skinless chicken thighs because they taste better.

Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Eggplant

Curry Paste:
10 Thai Bird’s Eye Chilies
12 Serrano Chilies (or 4 jalapenos)
3 stalks lemon grass, bottom part only
2 large shallots
2 heads garlic, peeled (that’s right, heads)
1 in piece of galangal
1 tsp shrimp paste
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cilantro root (You can also use the cilantro stems)

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into bite sized pieces
1 14 oz can coconut milk
1/2 lb small Thai eggplant
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp palm sugar (I use brown sugar.)
A few branches of Thai basil

Drizzle chicken with a few teaspoons of fish sauce.

Make the curry paste: Finely slice all ingredients, then pound in a stone mortar and pestle. I only have a small m&p, so I had to do this in batches. I was at it for an hour. You can also whiz in the food processor to speed things up, but you must finish in the mortar and pestle, or the paste will be dry and fibrous.

Finish the curry: Heat 1 tbsp. peanut oil in a wok or medium saute pan until very hot. Add chicken in small amount, making sure not to crowd the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove chicken from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of oil to pan. When hot, add the curry paste. Stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan, and fry until paste starts smelling fragrant. Add just the cream from that can of coconut milk, stir into paste, and cook again until oil begins to separate. Now add the remainder of the coconut milk, palm sugar, fish sauce, and any juice that the chicken has exuded, stir into paste, and let simmer 5 minutes.

Add chicken and eggplant, simmer 5-10 minutes, or until eggplant has cooked. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with Thai basil leaves, atop a steaming mound of jasmine rice.

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Filed under gluten-free, Southeast Asian

The Comfort of Carrots and Ginger

Carrot-Ginger Soup

How I had longed for fall! During the global-warming induced spell of unseasonable heat and humidity a couple of weeks ago, all I could think about were the lovely stews and slow roasted vegetables I was going to make as soon as it got cold. I passed by the butternut squash, apples and collard greens at the farmers’ market, knowing that it made so sense to buy them as long as tomato season insisted on hanging around well into October. I longed for the crisp cool weather that would inspire me to spend time in the kitchen again.

But crisp, fall weather seems to have passed us by, and instead rain falls day after day in a never-ending drizzle. This week? Exactly through hours of sunshine. I was in a meeting and missed them. This month? We’ve had three days of sunshine since the beginning of October. The less sun I get, the more I feel like staying in bed all day, eating chocolate and rebelling against nature’s sick, sad sense of humor.

Still, one has to eat, and in order to eat, one has to cook. I crawled out of bed to chop vegetables for this soup, then crawled right back in while it simmered. I let it cool while still in bed, got up to puree it, and I had a little dish of sunshine: pure, carrot-y goodness, flavored with the warmth of ginger to dispell the cold that has settled into my bones.

The secret to the soup lies in the ginger: rather than sauteing the ginger with the other aromatics, grate it, then squeeze the precious ginger juice directly into the finished soup just before it’s served. This gives the ginger a brightness that is lost if you simmer it with the other ingredients.

No, the soup doesn’t make up for the weather. It doesn’t even come close. But things would be worse without it.
Carrot-Ginger Soup

You could add a dollop of creme fraiche, but I just use whole milk yogurt because that’s what I happen to have in my fridge most of the time.

As always, these quantities are just a guideline. One caveat: Be sure that you maintain a high carrot to celery proportion. Too much celery and the soup will lose that warm orange color, and look like something the cat puked up instead.

2 lb. carrots, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 med yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tart apple, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart chicken broth
1 in. piece of ginger
1/2 c. plain yogurt
2 tbsp. parsley
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in large, wide bottomed dutch oven. Add onions, and saute until wilted. Add carrots and celery and saute, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are bright in color and fragrant. Add garlic and apple and saute 2-3 minutes more.

Add chicken broth. Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer, partially covered, until carrots are very, very soft. You should be able to mash one against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon.

Let cool completely, then puree in batches in a blender. Return to pot, heat slowly. Grate ginger, then squeeze to extract juice, adding to soup. Stir yogurt in a small bowl, then add to soup. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.

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Hybrid Cuisine: Mjaddarah travels

Mjaddarah with South Indian Spices

I have always been suspicious–some would say insufferable–about fusion-cooking, and after some of the things I’ve seen, I think I have good reason to be. At a fancy restaurant this weekend, I encountered a “Vanilla butter poached lobster with sweet onion risotto and a red curry reduction.” Seriously? Curry and vanilla? How could that possibly, possibly taste good? People in the know say that these kinds of lunatic flavor combos are indicative of the youth of Minneapolis’ culinary scene, but still.

A recent food blog kerfuffle over Pad Thai got me thinking more about authenticity, innovation and fusion. As much as I rail against such atrocities as vanilla flavored curry reductions, I’m not as much of a purist as I pretend; I do mix cultures and flavors in my kitchen and on my plate. I just hope that I can respect and understand my ingredients a little better than Chef Vanilla-Curry, who I doubt knows a curry (whatever that is) from a curry leaf.

I don’t know what Lebanese or Jordanian cooks would say about this spin on Mjaddarah, the Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions. I’ve adapted it by adding the holy trinity of mustard seed, curry leaves and dried red chile. I’ve also increased the proportion of rice to lentils, making this version a close cousin of the South Indian family of flavored rice dishes.

But I hope I’ve kept the essence of Mjaddarah: Thick wedges of onions, slowly simmered in a pool of fragrant, green olive oil. The onions caramelize over the course of half an hour, acquiring the sweet, deep, dark, rich flavor that only comes from slow, gentle heat. The result is a mild, subtly perfumed side dish that still manages to be richly luxurious (it’s all the olive oil). It’s heterodox origins make it compatible with almost everything: Grilled butternut squash, sauteed bitter greens, pan-roasted fish, tandoori chicken, or, as I did this week, with Paula Wolfert’s kefta. But for the love of God, don’t toss in any vanilla beans.

Heterodox Mjaddarah

Use good rice. Don’t skimp on the olive oil. Or if you do, don’t tell anyone you got the recipe from here.

1 c. basmati rice
1/3 c. green lentils (I use French Le Puy)
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 stick cinnamon, crumbled a bit
1 small handful curry leaves
1 dried red chile
2 med. yellow onions, sliced thickly

1. Soak basmati rice in water to cover. Set aside.
2. Boil green lentils in 2 1/4 cups water for 10-20 minutes. (Use the longer time if using French Le Puy lentils.)
3. While lentils are boiling, start the caramelized onions: Heat olive oil in wide, shallow pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Mustard seed should spit and crackle. Lower flame to medium and add cinnamon, curry leaves, and red chile. When aromatic, add onions. Lower flame to medium low and let onions simmer 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them, stir occasionally, and remove from heat if they get too dark.
4. Here’s where things get tricky. If you feel confident in your rice cooking abilities, drain rice and add to lentils. Add more water if you think it’s needed. If you aren’t used to eyeballing the rice/water proportion, drain lentils into a colander, reserving lentil cooking water. Measure cooking water and add or drain water as needed to make 2 cups of water total. Return lentils, rice, and water to pot.
5. Bring to boil, add 1 tsp of salt to rice. Cover, lower heat, and leave to cook for 20 minutes.
6. Remove rice from heat and let stand five minutes. Pour caramelized onions over rice, mix gently as not to break the rice grains, and taste for salt.

Sources: Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Vimala Maguire

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Filed under gluten-free, Middle Eastern/North African

A Chorus of Pickles

Kassie, her husband, another friend and I all survived the great pickle tasting, so it’s time for some recipes. Although there are three pickles in the above picture I only have two recipes for you: the achaarro and the tomato pickle. Of the four pickle taste testers, only one liked the cornichons. The rest of us found them overly sharp and vinegary. The cornichon-loving friend is going to find himself getting a bottle on his birthday, and another for Christmas, and yet another for New Year’s…

The clear winner was the tomato pickle, ranked first by every tester. I understand now why my parents wax nostalgic every time I asked about them. It has all the tang and concentrated tomato-y goodness of ketchup, but fresher and spicier. The versatility of this pickle already has already cracked my anti-fusion puritanism, as I use it in everything from mixing a homemade barbeque sauce for smoking to slathering it on a grilled pork sausage to garnishing a simple bowl of curd rice.

The achaaro came a distant second to the tomato pickle, but was also delicious. The vegetables had retained their color and crunch after their long soak in vinegar, and the spicy mustard, sweet vegetable and sharp vinegar are well-balanced. I have been munching on these with almost every meal as well.

I now understand the appeal of having pickles around the house. Aside from the practical concerns preserving the harvest through the winter, pickles make every meal special . They cut through the heavyness of meat and make every mouthful come alive. At times of the year when fresh vegetables weren’t available, they taste alive and fresh. Pickling has been around a lot longer than canning (which Kassie tells me wasn’t invented until the early 18th century); when I pickle, I think of my great-grandmothers pickling chilies, limes, and mangoes in Sri Lanka. And here I am, many years later, thousands of miles away, keeping tradition.

And besides, it’s just so pretty.

South Indian Tomato Pickle

They don’t make this in Sri Lanka. My parents found the recipe in Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Guide to Asian Cooking, my mother’s only cookbook for many years.

10 lbs roma tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 golf-ball sized sphere of tamarind, soaked in hot water
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 c. cayenne pepper
1/4 c. peanut oil

1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 large handful curry leaves
10-20 green chilies
1 small head garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
3 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
1/2 c. peanut oil
Salt to taste

1. Wring out tamarind and discard fibrous material. Heat oil in large stockpot, add tomatoes, tamarind water, cayenne pepper and turmeric. Simmer until tomatoes are dark and thick, stirring occasionally. This will take a long time. Ours were on the stove for almost four hours.

2. When tomatoes are ready, heat 1/2 c. oil in a large frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, and fresh chilies. Saute until garlic is golden. Careful not to burn it!

3. Add garlic-ginger mixture to tomatoes, simmer ten minutes. Pour into sterilized bottles and seal. Kassie and I agreed that the antibacterial properties of the spices and the acid of the tamarind and tomatoes would keep us safe from botulism and other scary germs, so we didn’t bother to process. You’re welcome to, if that’s a concern for you.

Sources: My mom, Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Guide to Asian Cooking, Kitchenmate, Saffron Hut.

Achaaro*

This is a mixed vegetable pickle. It’s impossible to give exact ingredients and quantities. Use a mixture of carrots, cauliflower, green beans, shallots, garlic, fresh chilies, and banana peppers.

Enormous quantity of cider vinegar sufficient to cover the vegetables once they’re in their bottles.
1/2 c. mustard seed, soaked overnight in white vinegar to cover
2 inch piece of ginger

1. Open all your windows and get a couple of exhaust fans going.

2. Grind mustard seed, vinegar, and ginger in blender.

3. Bring vinegar to boil and blanch vegetables in it. Arrange vegetables in sterilized jars. Place 1 tbsp of mustard mixture in each jar. Pour vinegar over the vegetables. Seal and process if you wish (we didn’t).

*Achaaro comes from the Hindi word Achaar. It’s called achaar all over the Indian Sub-Continent and all over Southeast Asia, except in Sri Lanka, where it’s called achaaro. Don’t know why.

Sources: My mom, Suharshini Seneviratne’s Exotic Tastes of Sri Lanka

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Filed under gluten-free, South Asian