Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Vegetarian Paella

Alex's mother recently gave me goulash paste and fresh, fragrant sweet paprika from Hungary. These are wonderful in this dish, but you can make it with regular tomato paste and any old sweet paprika and it will still be very good. This is a modification of the paella recipe that Mark Bittman published last year in the NYT. I have reduced the quantity—just look to his recipe if you want to make more. This recipe does require that you have a pan with a metal handle, because you have to put it in the oven and a wooden or plastic handle will not handle the heat well (sorry, I couldn't resist). If you're making the amount I suggest below, a big frying pan works well; if you're making more, then you'll need a deeper pan. It makes a beautiful, hearty and homey vegetarian main dish. You could vary the filling—the plain tomato version is quite good, and I've tried it with chickpeas, zucchini, even asparagus—but this is a great, traditionally Hungarian combination.

Serves 2 generously

1 c. arborio rice
2 c. water (or 1 c. water and 1 c. stock)
1 tomato, cut into wedges
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, diced
1 vegetarian sausage (try Boca's Italian ones), chopped
1 tsp. sweet paprika (the fresher the better)
1/4 tsp. hot pepper (I like aleppo pepper), optional
pinch saffron (again, the fresher the better)
1 tbsp. tomato paste or goulash paste
salt and fresh black pepper
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. olive oil
fresh parsley, optional (but pretty)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees, and heat the water and/or stock. In a bowl, drizzle the tomato wedges with the olive oil, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Toss to coat. In an all-metal pan, sauté onion, green pepper and sausage with the vegetable oil over medium-high heat, until they are softened and lightly browned (about 7-10 minutes). Add garlic, spices and paste, and sauté one more minute. Add rice and cook 1-2 minutes more, while mixing and stirring. Add liquid, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a little pepper; stir to combine and bring to a boil. When it is just starting to boil, turn off the heat and arrange the tomato wedges on top in an attractive circle. Drizzle the tomato juices at the bottom of the bowl over the top. Grind a little extra pepper over the top of the tomatoes, and carefully place the pan in the oven. After 20 minutes, check it: if the rice is not yet done, cook it a few more minutes (if the rice is not yet done, but is dry, add a little more liquid). Remember to use a thick oven mitt: the pan will be very hot! When it's done—that is, when the rice and vegetables are fully cooked and enough liquid has cooked off to make it a nice texture—return it to the oven, turn off the heat, and let it sit there for 10-15 minutes. Cool for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley if you're using it, and serve right away.

It takes about 20 minutes of active cooking and 30-40 minutes of roasting and cooling.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My parents' rice

My mother and my father both have very particular ways in which they make fluffy rice. The results, while both fluffy, are quite different from one another. My mother says that her method is Persian in origin, and my father says that his is Vietnamese. I will have to take their word for it...they, not I, lived in those places. My mother's method yields soft, separated grains, the kind of rice you find in India and (not surprisingly) goes extremely well with Indian food. My father's method yields grains that aren't exactly separated, but aren't sticky or heavy either. His rice is very dry and light--you've probably never had rice with this texture. (I haven't aside from his.) Both of these recipes work best with long grain white rice. If you have a different sort of rice, I would suggest my mother's method, although the result won't be the same.

I've written detailed instructions here, but once you get the hang of it both recipes are quick and easy--you can make them in about 30 minutes, while you cook whatever it is you're going to have with the rice. Basically, they involve boiling, draining and steaming.

My mother's rice

Heat plenty of water in a pot. Make sure you have enough water to let the rice swim freely around. While it is heating, rinse the rice: in a bowl, add cold water, let sit, stir, drain, and repeat. When the water is boiling, add the rice, bring back to a boil, and then turn the heat down so that the rice is just simmering. Let it simmer, stirring occasionally, until the grains are *almost* done (they should have just a little bite left to them). Turn off the heat and drain the rice in a colander. Add a little butter to the bottom of the pot, put the rice back in the pot, mix in a little bit of salt (and a pinch of saffron, if you want), cover the pot completely with a clean kitchen cloth, and return it to the stove. Turn the heat on very, very, very low and let it steam for about five minutes without lifting the cloth. At that point, fluff it with a fork and see what it's like. If it's not quite dry enough, steam it for a few more minutes. If you want a golden crust on the bottom—a Persian, not an Indian feature—heat it on medium-low heat for a few minutes more, and make sure you have put a nice little bit of butter in the bottom.

My father's rice

This requires precision, just like baking: the directions are not hard, but they must be followed exactly. Heat plenty of water and rinse the rice, as before. Make sure you rinse the rice very thoroughly (maybe 3 or 4 times). Add the rice to the boiling water and boil for exactly 2 minutes. Drain and return the rice to the pot. Add new cold water until the grains of rice form "islands": some grains of rice should stick out above the surface of the water, forming little islands, but no grains should be fully out of the water. Imagine arctic waters with lots of little chunks of ice floating on it, and you'll get the picture. (Whew, now you're done with the crucial step!) Turn the heat up until the rice comes to a boil again, about 1-2 minutes. Then turn the heat down to very low, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid (you don't want any air escaping), and leave it alone for about twenty to thirty minutes. It's done when the rice is dry, soft and fluffy.

Easy raita

I like Indian curries best when accompanied by fluffy rice and raita. Here is a recipe for the latter, to go with the recipe for a basic curry that I posted a while back. I don't know whether this is how Indian cooks would make it, but it's an incredibly simple way to make a delicious raita that will do the trick every time. This makes enough for two people.

1 small container plain yogurt, or around 1 cup
1/2 medium cucumber
1 tbs. water
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground cumin
fresh cilantro, chopped

Optional additions: ground coriander, black mustard seeds, chopped fresh mint

Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, and scoop the seeds out with a small spoon. Dice the cucumber: cut the two pieces into long strips, line the strips up, and cut them crosswise to make small even pieces. In a bowl, combine the yogurt, salt and cumin. Add enough water to achieve a desirable consistency (it shouldn't be too gloppy or too runny - with non-fat yogurt, that usually means about 1 tbs.). Add the diced cucumber, mix well, and sprinkle with cilantro.

That's it! Now that was five minutes well spent.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Leftover risotto, anyone?

There's one thing I'm not willing to compromise on: leftover risotto. Don't get me wrong: I don't like throwing away food. But really, what could be worse than a bowl of reheated risotto?

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating. I can think of a few things worse than that. But really, when you think of what that gooey thing in a tupperware in your fridge used to be, it feels like blasphemy to reheat it and eat it as if it were actually any good. I'd rather eat a sandwich, or just bread with butter, or even cereal with cold milk. (Somehow, I can't think of few things more depressing than having cereal with milk for dinner. But that's just me.)

So, what do you do with leftover risotto? For a while, I would just make sure there wasn't such a thing. This means I was constantly terrified of making too much risotto, unless I knew someone would volunteer to eat and eat until the end. (I won't name names.)

Until we finally thought of The Obvious.

Risotto balls

What you need:
-Leftover risotto. (Basil risotto is our favorite for this.)
-Bread crumbs.
-Goat cheese. (Please, no matter what you do: don't leave it out.)
-Grapeseed oil. (Or any other oil you have that withstands high temperatures and doesn't have a strong flavor.)

What you will do:

-Make little balls of risotto with your hands.
-Stick a piece of goat cheese in the middle, and reshape.
-Cover the risotto balls with bread crumbs using your favorite method.
-Fry in very hot oil until golden.
-Eat immediately, preferably with finely chopped tomatoes that you've left to marinate with some garlic, balsamic, olive oil and a little bit of orange peel. And of course, some sea salt and black pepper. But I didn't need to tell you that.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


I make this when I come home absolutely, completely starving and I absolutely cannot bear the thought of waiting more than 15 minutes for dinner. It's instant gratification.

emergency pea soup.
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
2 medium potatoes (e.g. russett), peeled and diced (the smaller you dice them the faster you get to eat)
1 pack of frozen peas
5 cups vegetable stock
pat of butter or 2 Tbsp olive oil
salt, pepper

Heat the butter or oil in a big pot on medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute for a minute or two until it turns translucent and starts to smell good. Throw in garlic, celery and stir around for a minute or so.

Add potatoes and pour over the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and let simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes, which is just about enough for a quick shower.

Back in the kitchen turn the heat up and throw in the bag of peas. Bring back to boil and simmer for another 4 minutes or until the peas are cooked through.

Get out your immersion blender and blend happily away until the soup is smooth. Taste: Some pepper. More salt? Maybe a squeeze of lemon?

Eat, preferably with a blob of yoghurt.

Serves 2 extremely hungry people or 1 with generous left-overs.

Note: The soup is easily fancy-fied by topping it with some chopped parsley and maybe some dry-roasted pine nuts or sunflower seeds. Or, if you have an open bottle of white wine sitting in your fridge, you can replace half a cup of the vegetable stock with it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Some cooks approach even simple bread
with fear and trembling, despair and dread.
Indeed, such fear's surprisingly widespread --

yet utterly unjustified;
for of all baking, bread provides
the most reward for least demand -- so I'd

argue, anyway. This recipe
is near-effortless, dear addressee:
it comes with the guarantee

of years of Friday morning kneads,
and nine times out of ten succeeds
no matter how the baker proceeds.

I learnt it ultimately from George Greenstein,
but my mother made it part of my routine.

Challah (for novices and experts, but addressed to the novices).

1 cup warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups flour, plus a little more for dusting the kneading surface and your hands
2 teaspoons salt
1 egg and 1 teaspoon water, for egg wash
cornmeal for dusting the baking sheet
(optional) sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or anything else you like for topping the bread

Unusual materials:
8-inch springform pan (only if you plan to make a Rabbi's challah)
pastry brush (for applying the egg wash)

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir to dissolve. (The water should be about 110 degreed Fahrenheit -- warm enough to help your rise, but not hot enough to kill the yeast.) Add egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, flour, and salt; stir until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Lightly flour a large, clean, smooth working surface (if you don't have marble or a silicone mat, use a large cutting board, very smooth table mat, or unusually clean kitchen counter) and turn the dough out onto it. If the dough is too soft and sticky to work with, add more flour 1/4 cup at a time, but this should be a last resort -- 4 cups is plenty, and more will start to make the bread too tough. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well-developed -- perhaps ten minutes if it's your first time kneading and you haven't got the hang of it, but usually no more than three or four. You can tell you're done if the dough springs back when you poke it and the indent disappears.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, turn to coat, and cover until the dough is tripled in volume, about 2 1/2 hours. (But you don't have to take my word for it. Time of rising will vary -- by a LOT -- from kitchen to kitchen and from occasion to occasion, so don't rely on the clock. And of course it'll be much shorter if you're using Rapid-Rise yeast, which there's no special reason not to do as it doesn't make any discernible difference in the final product that I can tell.) This is a fully aged, or ready, dough.

Punch down the dough, cut it in half, cover it (tight covering is great but it'll do fine even loosely covered), and let it rise for 15 more minutes. Punch it down again. Now it's time for braiding!

Some people (e.g., my mom) can do these elaborate beautiful braids with six-parts that look really impressive. If you can do that, great. But I can't, and if this is your first time making challah you probably won't want to try. You might as well just go with one of the classic shapes for challah: a traditional three-strand braid, a circle (for Rosh HaShanah especially), or a Rabbi's challah.

To shape a three-strand braided challah:
Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl and roll it into a long rope. Tear the rope in three as evenly as possible, then join the three little ropes at one end. Move one of the extreme ropes into the center; then the other; then the other, etc., until there's just enough left of each rope to join them together at the other end. Then do that. Place the braided challah on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet.

Another option is to place the braided challah into a cornmeal-dusted loaf tin -- it should fit in one of various standard sizes -- and place the tin on the baking sheet. The ultimate size and shape of your challah is much more under your control if you take this path, but your challah will look squarish, and it may be difficult to remove it from the pan.

To shape a circle challah:
Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl and roll it into a long rope. Wind the rope around from the center outwards in a spiral. Place the challah on a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet.

To shape a Rabbi's challah:
Dust a springform pan eight inches in diameter with cornmeal. Take one of the two lumps of dough out of the bowl. Tear off a hunk about a third of the size of the whole and place it in the middle of the springform pan. Tear off smaller hunks and surround the central hunk of dough with them. Place the pan on a baking sheet.

Of course, there are two lumps, and the recipe makes two challahs, but both should fit on one baking sheet. I tend to braid one and make another as a Rabbi's challah. If you don't want two challahs, you can refrigerate or freeze the dough, but not for very long, so it makes more sense to make both and just freeze a part of the finished product.

Whew. Now beat the last egg with the teaspoon of water to make the egg wash. Brush the breads with the egg wash, taking care to cover them completely and not to let excess egg wash drip into their crevices.

Place the challahs in a warm, draft-free area (a pre-warmed oven or turned-off top oven with a bottom oven on is ideal, and the dough will rise much faster in such circumstances), cover them with a clean dishtowel or anything that will cover them completely without getting stuck, and allow them to rise until doubled in size -- maybe 45 minutes to an hour. At some point during this second rising, pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. When they're through rising, brush the challahs with egg wash a second time, then apply sesame or poppy seeds if using.

Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for about 35 minutes. The bread is done when it has a rich mahogany color (it won't have this if you didn't use egg wash) and sounds hollow when you tap it lightly. If there's a white line visible between the cracks, put the bread back in for a few more minutes. Let the bread cool on a wire rack before cutting.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

Molten Milk Chocolate and Sticky Apricot Tart

I have a bit of an aversion to pastry. I don't much like regular shortcrust, so I rarely bother to make it at home. But I got some adorable tartelette tins for Christmas, so I decided to have another try.

I'm glad I did. Such a lip-smacking combination. Crisp, biscuity, chocolatey pastry; sticky, brandied apricots; and molten milk chocolate. I took the pastry recipe from the well-known food blog, chocolateandzucchini.com, and was very happy with the results. The rest is my own invention.

for the pastry:
1 1/4 cup plain flour
3 tbsp cocoa powder
6 tbsp butter
3/8th cup sugar
splash milk

for the apricots:
6 oz dried apricots (not too dry, mind. Some squishiness is good here.)
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 orange, zested and squeezed
3 fluid oz brandy

for the molten chocolate:
6oz high quality milk chocolate (I used valrhona)
2 tbsp vegetable shortening

Other equipment: 6 tartelette tins with removable bottoms

Preheat oven to 430F.

For the pastry:
In a food processor, combine the flour, cocoa powder and sugar.
Add the butter, cut up in small pieces.
Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand.
Add a small splash of milk and mix again; it should still look quite sandy.
Divide the dough among the tartelette tins, and press firmly into the base and sides. It may help to dust your hands with cocoa powder in order to handle the dough without it sticking.
Prick the base of the tart shells with a fork (this prevents them from puffing up too much in the oven).
Place the tins on a cookie sheet (for ease of handling), and put them into the oven. They should take about 15 minutes to cook, but keep an eye on them.


For the apricots:
First, make some flavoured sugar. Split the vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds.
Combine the vanilla seeds, orange zest and sugar. Mix well.
(You'll only need half of it, but making a smaller batch doesn't work well given the ingredients. And it lasts forever in the pantry.)
Now, place the apricots, half the sugar, the orange juice and the brandy in a medium saucepan over highish heat.
Boil for about 10 minutes (keeping a close eye on it, and adding more liquid if necessary), until the cooking liquid is sticky and reduced.
It's probably a good idea to taste one of the apricots to make sure the flavours are to your liking (the sweetness of dried apricots varies considerably). You can adjust it by adding more sugar or more orange juice (for greater acidity), if necessary.

For the molten chocolate:
microwave the chocolate and shortening together until melted. Mix well.

To assemble:
Remove the tart shells from the tins, by placing the tartelette tin over a can, and slipping the ring down it. The bottom of the tartelette tin should be fairly easy to remove after this.
Take a slightly cooled tart shell. Fill with several brandied apricots, and then drizzle the molten chocolate over the top and around the sides, until the tart shell is full. Let it firm up slightly, and then serve it with a flourish.

- One of my tart shells leaked, and the molten chocolate ran out the bottom. I salvaged it by filling it with chocolate-covered cocoa nibs, which I had on hand. I liked this variation, although it didn't look quite as nice.
- To reheat the tarts (if you want to make them ahead of time), pop them in the microwave for about 30 seconds. This will leave the center firm, but the edges molten. Yummy!
- Try other (fresh or dry) fruits in place of the apricots. Pears (fresh or dried), prunes and cherries (fresh, dried or bottled) all have a wonderful affinity with chocolate, and would respond well to the same treatment given to the apricots here.

Poor Student's Caviar

I never knew why aubergine dip was called 'poor man's caviar' until recently. Apparently, it's not because aubergines are supposed to taste like caviar (they don't), but rather because their seeds bear a faint resemblance to fish roe. I owe that tidbit (together with the knowledge that one can indeed prepare a meal in 30 minutes when one relies almost exclusively upon pre-packaged ingredients) to Rachael Ray. Ahem.

Here is my version of said dish. I don't much care for fish roe, but I do love this.

4 baby aubergines
1 head garlic
sea salt
1 handful fresh mint, chopped
1/2 lemon, squeezed

Preheat the oven to 400F.
Cut the aubergines in half, lengthwise.
Place the aubergines and the head of garlic (don't separate the cloves) in a baking tray.
Drizzle the aubergines and garlic with olive oil and sea salt, to taste.
Bake for 40 minutes or so, until the aubergines and garlic are squishy.
Scrape out the aubergine's flesh into a bowl.
Squeeze out each garlic clove's innards into the same bowl.
Add the mint and the lemon juice.
Mash up with a fork, and gobble greedily.

Think of the preceding as a blueprint. I love this simple version, but you can also:
- blend it in a food processor, for a smoother texture. (Although I prefer it chunky.)
- add some roasted tomatoes or red peppers.. yummy.
- try a different herb, like basil or oregano or flat-leaf parsley.
- try adding spices; like cumin, coriander, allspice, cardamon, red pepper flakes...
- add some balsamic vinegar to the aubergines before baking, to give it a more caramelized flavour.
- add some Greek yoghurt for a creamier texture.
- add a drizzle of tahini to turn it into a quick version of baby ghanoush.
- omit the garlic; incur my wrath.

I like this on its own (just eaten with a spoon), but it would also be delicious with (say) pita bread or olive oil crackers. Perhaps even over pasta. Enjoy!