Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Book Review: Gumbo Life by Ken Wells

Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux BayouGumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou by Ken Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I need to preface my review by saying that I’m a vegetarian. This book is more aimed at carnivores, and I’m sure Wells would find my vegetarian gumbo sacrilegious, though he proves to be an adventurous eater. And no, I wouldn’t put quinoa in soup and call it gumbo as Disney apparently did (though quinoa soup is delicious in its own right). So maybe Wells will forgive me.

Anyone who is a fan of Louisiana culture or of great food writing will find a lot to love in this book, whether or not you eat chicken, seafood, or sausage, however. It’s probably impossible to impart the secrets of a good roux if you’re not standing over the pot as Wells describes his mother teaching him (after a failed attempt at providing instructions over the phone). But Wells comes as close as anyone can in numerous descriptions of the gumbo cooking process, as his mother and others he knew growing up did it, as the chefs in a gumbo contest do it, as a number of restaurants do it, and even as a it is done in mammoth kettles for mass production. He even confronts the question of whether gumbo originally was made with a roux or whether that was a later addition, and whether its origins are primarily Cajun, Creole, African, or Native American.

Writing in a lively and entertaining style, Wells always blends the personal story with the history, the science, and the culture of gumbo. Wells chronicles his own fascination with this Cajun/Creole staple, and he documents its history and lore as he explores the culinary diaspora that has made it available around the world, showing his journalism credentials in the depth of research he has done and the number of chefs and others he has interviewed and the number and types of gumbo he has sampled. The recipes collected at the back do not only give a sense of the range of gumbo styles Wells has covered in the preceding pages, they also provide inspiration for continued experimentation with this quintessentially American dish.

View all my reviews

Fig Pesto Pizza

IMG_0624We have another bumper crop of figs this year, and since we don’t make fig jam or fig preserves, we are always on the lookout for good ways to use them. Sure we freeze quite a few to enjoy later in the year (just wash, let dry, and freeze whole), but we love eating them fresh, both raw and cooked as part of the meal. Figs are very nutritious and combine well in a stir-fry or our favorite, fig and gorgonzola pasta.

This week, Parade had a recipe for fig and prosciutto pizza, but I had already been thinking about using figs on a pizza. Since we’re vegetarians, I ignored the prosciutto recipe and came up with one of my own.

I start with a basic pizza dough recipe, which is essentially half a cup of water, yeast, flour, oil, sugar and salt (for two people). I disolve my yeast in the water, add a little sugar or molasses, then stir in enough white flour to make a muddy paste (the sponge of bread). After stirring this awhile to build up some gluten, I then add about a Tbs of olive oil and a dash of salt, then add whole wheat flour to make a soft bread dough. Coat the bowl with a little more oil, cover and let rise for at least half an hour before pressing out on your  pizza stone or pan. Or you can buy premade pizza dough, but homemade is so much better.

For the sauce, I sliced half an onion in rounds or half-rounds, then sautéed with a little garlic in olive oil until translucent and a little carmelized. Then I added mushrooms and a little asian eggplant, though you could leave them out if you prefer, along with a few chopped up figs and the juice of a tomato.

Tip: The tomato juice is a litte trick I use. When I want to use fresh tomato and don’t want it to be too runny, like when I add chopped tomato on top of pizza or on tacos, I quarter it, then squeeze the seeds and juice into whatever I’m cooking, so I don’t lose the flavor. The juice cooks down, and I”m left with the solid parts of the tomato, which I can then chop up, reserving to add raw at the end so they won’t cook too much and get mushy.

The pesto forms the base layer of this pizza. It’s just pine nuts, garlic, and herbs (for this, I used basil, oregeno, and rosemary because that’s what I had and I wanted a spicier pesto than basil alone would be—arugula would also work well). I chopped this into a paste in our mini food processor with enough olive oil to make it a paste. I did not add any parmesan, which I normally do with a pesto, but the cheese will be on top.

Spread the pesto evenly across the pizza, then add the onions, etc., on top of that. Then add quartered figs, chopped tomato, and kalamata olives. I used about 2 oz. of gorgonzola cheeze (leftover from our last fig pasta), a little mozzarella, and some parmesan. Bake for about 20 minutes at 425 degrees (or until done), and enjoy!

Simple White Sauce for Pizza

White sauce pizzaTonight, I wanted a change of pace for our weekly homemade pizza. I usually make the standard red sauce, though occasionally, I’ll make a white sauce with flour, but tonight, I wanted something easier and with less carbs.  Enter sun-dried tomatoes and buttermilk.

Followers of this blog probably know I love cooking with buttermilk. It’s one of my magic ingredients. This time, I sautéed onions, garlic and a little thinly sliced eggplant (about 1/4 cup of 1/8 inch slices cut into chunks), then added some capers, caper liquid and a little brine of green olives. To that I added quartered artichoke hearts, cut into smaller pieces, and sautéed a bit longer. Then I added some sun dried tomatoes with some of their oil and a few tablespoons of buttermilk.

The buttermilk will separate and become more liquid as soon as it gets hot, but that’s all right. The eggplant and sun dried tomatoes absorb most of the liquid, and I added a little more buttermilk before I was ready to spread the sauce on the pizza crust.

Then came my toppings of zuccini, mushroom, black and green olives, and spinach. Of course, any topings would do. Cover this with a liberal amount of mozerella cheese and bake until the cheese starts to brown.

Tonight’s pizza came out quite good, and this sauce seems a little lighter than some. I’ve made a white-sauce pizza with a flour and milk or buttermilk sauce, which is creamier, but a little heavier. And I’ve made a sauce with crushed tomato and a little buttermilk mixed in. With the sun dried tomatoes, this is somewhere between a white sauce and a red sauce, allowing the olives, capers, and other toppings to really stand out

Ginger Chick’n & Fig Stir-Fry

It’s been quite awhile since I posted any recipes to this blog. That’s in part because I’ve tried to make it more about writing, and maybe because I haven’t tried out many new meals — until tonight! And I apologize for not taking a picture, but I wasn’t 100% sure it would turn out good enough to blog about, but it did. And it looked as good as it tasted.

Here’s what led to the recipe: This summer we’re having a bumper crop of figs. We’ve already had our favorite Fresh Fig and Gorgonzola Pasta three times, and we’ve frozen figs to make it again later. So this morning, after picking another batch of fresh figs from the trees in our yard and putting some of them in the freezer, I wondered what to do with the rest. There were more than I wanted to just eat raw (though I did have some), and more will be ripening soon, so I figured I should cook with them and decided to give a stir-fry a try. It was delicious! (Try it if you have figs and don’t believe me — I dare you.)

You already know the main ingredients from the title, and really, I expect you couldn’t go too wrong no matter what else you throw in, but let me explain what I did.

Since we’re vegetarians, the protein base of this meal is called Quorn. They make two varieties: a ground beef substitute and a chicken substitute. To be honest, it’s been so long since I’ve eaten actual chicken, I don’t know whether it’s much like the real thing or not, but that doesn’t really matter. Quorn has a firmer texture than tofu, which makes it a good candidate for this dish. Tempeh or seitan might work well, too, and tofu would be all right but a little soft in texture, even if you get extra-firm. Ginger adds a little bite, and the figs add sweetness. The combination was great, especially with the other vegetables I threw in.

I always start a stir-fry with some onion and garlic in oil. In this case, I added a generous amount of diced ginger, at least a tablespoon, probably more for 1-2 servings. Then I added one small Thai eggplant (the long skinny kind), one small yellow squash, a small sweet pepper, and a couple of mushrooms. I let those fry in a wok for several minutes while my pasta water boiled.

Tonight, I used linguine because that’s what I had on hand, but it would be good with a sturdy rice noodle or bean thread or even asian egg noodle— anything as think as linguine or thicker ought to do well. Boil or soak until soft (follow the cooking directions).

To the stir-fry, I added curry powder, cayenne, and cumin as it was cooking, then added the Quorn Chick’n pieces. Since they’re pre-cooked, all they really need is some time to heat up (you store them in the freezer) and absorb the cooking juices. I also added soy sauce and a little bit of sugar to the mix.

Near the end of the stir-frying, I added one small tomato, chopped, and several quartered fresh figs (about as much volume as the tomato). Then I tossed in a few fresh basil leaves that I had cut into large pieces and a little Sriracha for good measure. Once the noodles were ready, I drained them and then tossed in the wok with the stir-fry to absorb the liquid.

The first bite was to die for — a little sweet, savory, and picante. The heat wasn’t too much (for me), so the basil stood out, especially when I got a bite with a good piece. The tomato and fig didn’t cook too much, so they didn’t lose their shape, and the Quorn gave it just the right texture.

As always with my recipes, it’s more about the principle than the exact ingredients. If you have other veggies on hand or if you prefer to cook with tempeh (its nutty flavor ought to pair well in this dish), then go for it! If you have more fresh figs than you know what to do with, then give this concept a try. It’s hard to go wrong with figs as long as you don’t overcook them. Next time I might try throwing in a little lemon or lime or even orange juice, just to give it a little citrus tang. Or a little cooking sherry to bring out the sweet side even more.

 

 

Ginger Cranberry Stir-Fry with Peanut Sauce

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I decided to come up with another red dinner. We had a few fresh cranberries kicking around the other day, and I decided they were too few to cook up the normal way and too many to put in a muffin or salad, so I would try adding them to a stir-fry. The ‘recipe’ could be made with just about any combination of vegetables you have on hand, but this is what I did.

Stir-fry onion, garlic, and plenty of fresh ginger. Some people grate theirs, but I usually just coarsely dice it. I would say I added at least a tablespoon. Add to that diced parsnip and carrots, then mushrooms, and finally bok choy. I usually slice the white end of the bok choy into thin half-moons and then chop up the green leafy end pretty fine. Spice with curry and about a tablespoon of pure maple syrup (you could use brown sugar or regular sugar, but we had the dregs of a maple syrup bottle on hand that I wanted to use up).

Then, I added a cup or two of Quorn ‘chicken tenders’ for protein. You could use tofu or any other oriental vegetarian protein (or I suppose if you eat meat, chicken would do well).

Quorn is a product we discovered a few years back in Europe, but can now get in our local Kroger. It is made from a fungus, like  a mushroom, and is high in protein. It cooks a little like chicken when sold in nuggets, or like ground beef when sold in little pieces. Its flavor and texture is better than the old style TVP, so we use it as a tofu substitute — a) for a change of pace, and b) because it isn’t made from soy.

Near the end of the stir-frying, I added soy sauce and the cranberries, about a cup of fresh berries. I let them cook a bit until they started to pop open. Then I added a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter to the liquid in the wok to make a peanut sauce. To kick up the spice, I added some Sambal Olek (garlic and red chili paste), though Sriracha would do well, too.

Serve over rice (though it would be fine with oriental noodles as well). The cranberry and maple syrup gave this a sweet/sour taste, kicked up a notch with the ginger and chili, and the peanut sauce made it creamy and rich. I might not serve this every night, but now and then, esp. when you have a few stray cranberries kicking around (or want a red meal for a special occasion), it makes a great change of pace.

Okra Scramble

It’s about time I posted a new recipe. Here’s one I came up with tonight because we had a surplus of eggs and okra from our local farmer’s market this week.

OkraIMG_0156
1/2 onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
2 Tsp oil
1 yellow squash
1 poblano pepper
chana masala or other Indian curry
coriander chutney
6 eggs
1/3-1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large tomato or several small ones

Cut up okra into 1 inch or longer slices. I left the smallest ones whole (after cutting off the tops. Chop onion and garlic. Sauté onion and garlic in skillet with 2 Tbs of oil. Add okra once the oil is hot and continue to sauté for several minutes.

Cut yellow squash into thin pieces by slicing lengthwise and then turning 1/4 turn and slicing lengthwize again into thin strips. Cut these into 1 inch pieces, about the same size as the okra. Dice the poblano into medium pieces. Mix pepper and squash into the okra and continue to sauté. Add chana masala (or an Indian curry with cumin, garam masala, etc.) and coriander chutney or (other green Indian chili mix with coriander/cilantro, mint, green chili). Keep sautéing and stirring occasionally.

Mix 6 eggs and 1/3-1/2 C buttermilk in a bowl until well combined. Pour into the okra mixture and let scramble, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes once the eggs are nearly set. Sauté until most of the liquid has boiled away.

Serve over white or brown rice.

If you like Indian spices, this combination is very good. If not, you could easily substitute any savory spices that go well with eggs.

A Philosophy of Bread

I have baked bread every week for nearly 30 years. About the only times when I haven’t baked my weekly loaves of bread are when I have been on vacation or living in a country with great bakeries and no ovens in their rental apartments (I’m looking at you, Belgium!), so making bread has become part of the rhythm of my life. If you’ve read my other food posts, then you won’t be surprised that I don’t use a recipe. All you need to bake bread are yeast, water, flour, and a little oil and salt. If you know how much water to start with, you’ll always have about the right amount of bread. You can even do without the yeast, which I’ve tried now and then with a sourdough. Or you can get fancy, adding ingredients like milk or eggs.

The first method I used to bake bread was taught to me by my Danish friend, George, who had researched it and found what he thought of as the best. It involved making up the sponge and the dough late at night, and baking the bread in the morning. That was a great method that I used for many years. My thoughts on bread were also influenced by Ed Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book, where I learned a few of the other recipes I’ve tried, including a way to make your own sourdough starter.

Eventually, as I grew older and started a family, I changed my method. The overnight one involved getting up early in the morning an hour before you wanted to bake it in order to punch down the bread and let it start rising again. We decided fresh bread for breakfast wasn’t essential, but more uninterrupted sleep was, so I developed a method to make bread in the morning and have it ready for Sunday lunch. It takes about 4-5 hours from the time  you add yeast to the water to the time it comes out of the oven.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that bread is very flexible and very forgiving. Though I follow the same method every week, it rarely comes out identical. A lot depends on the kinds of flour you use, though I keep that fairly consistent. Sometimes I’ll ad buckwheat or rye, and we like to include some oatmeal when we have it on hand. Otherwise, I usually use about half white and half whole wheat. How the bread rises depends on the environment and how attentive I’m being. In the winter, I might warm the oven before putting in the dough. See my post on Twice Baked Bread for a time when this went really wrong, but the bread still survived! I’ve had plenty of mishaps and baked a few barely edible bricks, but by and large, the bread turns out wonderful every week, especially when it’s fresh from the oven.

What this has taught me in terms of a philosophy is to be flexible myself. Though I aim for perfection, I try not to define it too much in advance, and I try to be open to valuable surprises. If things don’t go the way I expect them to, I try to roll with the punches and find a new way. So if I’m baking bread and I’ve forgotten to punch it down when I should, I either extend the time I need before the bread comes out of the oven, or I skip the second rise and put it into loaves right away. Generally, that works relatively well, given that I often leave it in the sponge stage long enough to develop some really good gluten (no I haven’t jumped on the anti-gluten bandwagon—I’ve never had a problem with it, at least not with homemade bread). Other times, if I’m in a bit of a hurry, I might skip the sponge stage and make sure i give it two really good rises before making it into loaves. It might take a little longer rising in the loaf pans if I do.

I like the rhythm of making bread, mixing it up, kneading the dough, watching it rise, nursing it along or letting it do its own thing as needed or as my schedule will allow. And of course, I love the taste of fresh bread!  I rarely buy bread in the store and am disappointed when I do. I don’t mind bread-machine bread, but making it on my own is easy and such a part of normal life by now, that I hardly see the point in a machine. I could use our KitchenAid to do the mixing and initial kneeding, but so far I prefer to do it by hand. It’s what keeps you grounded to the food you eat, and that is what can turn any kind of cooking into a philosophy best written in the daily or weekly habits and the food you make.