Monday, January 26, 2015

Meatless Monday: Italian Lentils and Polenta

Leftovers! Polenta reheated by panfrying
This is stick to your ribs wintertime comfort food, vegetarian style. Check the end of the recipe for the best way to reheat the polenta if you have some leftovers. Or, make this ahead so you can use the polenta reheating tip to make this dish even better.

Italian Lentils and Polenta
(serves 6)

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 roasted red peppers, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ dried red chile flakes
1 ½ cups lentils
2 ⅔ cups stock
⅓ cup white wine
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ onion, diced

6 cups stock
salt if your stock is unsalted
1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal or corn grits

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Heat up oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the peppers, garlic, fennel seeds, and chile flakes. Cook for 5 minutes. Add  lentils, stock, wine, salt, pepper, and vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and cook until lentils are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and stir in onion. Cover and set aside while you cook the polenta.

In a large pot, heat up the stock over medium-high heat. Whisk in the cornmeal slowly. Switch to a large heavy spoon, reduce the heat to medium-low and stir every few minutes. The polenta is done when it is very thick, thick enough so that stirring it is work. Taste for salt and add some if the polenta is bland. Spoon polenta into bowls and cover with lentils. Garnish each serving with 1 Tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese.

You can reheat polenta in the microwave but the best way to reheat it is by panfrying it. You need a non-stick skillet and a couple of teaspoons of oil per serving. To facilitate future panfrying, spread it out on a rimmed baking pan in a 1" layer right after you cook it then refrigerate until firm. Heat the oil in the skillet then fry the polenta until lightly browned all over. The outside will be a little crunchy-crispy and the inside will be delicious creamy. Absolutely the best way to reheat polenta.

Adapted from a recipe in The Best 125 Meatless Italian Dishes by Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay, Prima Publishing, 1995.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Unstuffed Cabbage

This recipe is my grandmother's, passed on to me via my mom. Stuffed cabbage is a complicated process: make the filling, blanch the leaves, stuff and roll up the leaves, braise for a long time. Delicious it may be, but you will spend a chunk of your day pulling it off. I haven't made this recipe in years because it's so much work. It is so good and very special...

Six months after my grandmother died, I found a stash of stuffed cabbage buried in the freezer. She had come to visit after the birth of my daughter, and left me with her wonderful stuffed cabbage. Finding that stuffed cabbage was a pretty emotional experience and I relished every bite of my grandmother's last food production in my life.

Besides simplifying the stuffing process, I have modernized the recipe by cutting back on the meat. I replaced some of the meat with cooked lentils. It's still a stick-to-your-ribs, sweet and sour dish. It may not remind you of your grandmother, it will give you some idea of my memories of my dear grandmother.

Unstuffed Cabbage
(serves 8)

non-stick cooking spray
1 large green cabbage
½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup lentils, rinsed
4 cups water

1 pound ground meat (beef, pork, turkey)
½ onion, chopped
1 cup cold cooked rice
1 egg, beaten
1 ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon black pepper

1 ½ Tablespoons oil
2 Tablespoons flour
2 cups commercial beef stock
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
2 14 oz. cans diced tomatoes, drained
¾ cup raisins
½ cup crushed gingersnaps (about 6 2" cookies)
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar.
juice of 1 lemon, about ⅓ cup
1 teaspoon kosher salt (see Note)

Place all the Lentils ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes until lentils are tender. Drain well and set in the fridge to cool slightly.

While the lentils are cooking, peel off the large outer leaves from the cabbage and set aside. Cut the remaining cabbage into quarters, core, and slice. Spray a large Dutch oven with non-stick spray. Put all the sliced cabbage in the Dutch oven and sprinkle with the salt. Lay half of the big leaves over the sliced cabbage. Set aside while you make the stuffing.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Wipe out the lentil saucepan. Heat the oil in the pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes until the roux is golden. Whisk in the beef stock and dried thyme. Bring to a boil and whisk until the stock thickens slightly. Set aside.

Combine all the Stuffing ingredients in a large bowl. Add the lentils and mix to combine. Spread the stuffing over the cabbage leaves in the Dutch oven. Lay the rest of the cabbage leaves over the stuffing.

Combine the beef stock sauce, and the remaining sauce ingredients in the bowl you mixed the stuffing in. Pour over the top of the cabbage, poking the cabbage at the edge of the pot so that some of the sauce drains down along the edge.

Cover the pot and place in the oven for 2 hours. Remove the cover and cook for another 30 minutes until the cabbage is very tender and the sauce has reduced. This is a dish that improves with reheating. Make it ahead, chill it down, then reheat it. The flavors become more harmonious and smooth.

As you probably figured out from my story above, stuffed cabbage (or unstuffed cabbage) freezes very well.

Note: I used commercial beef stock (Better Than Bouillon is my preferred brand in instant broth). If you use homemade or unsalted stock in the box, you will need to add more salt to the sauce.

Friday, January 9, 2015

If in Waterbury, Connecticut...

Grotto cavatelli with chicken, pesto, and artichoke hearts
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I traveled to Connecticut to visit my sister and her family. And see my lovely daughter who is taking an intensive year of math nearby in Massachusetts. And I got to see an old college friend too! It was wonderful visiting Ann and Michael. I need to visit them again. These people know food. As if visiting a dear old friend isn't enough? There's great food too!

They took us to the place for homemade cavatelli in Waterbury: Grotto. This is a treat. Ann was kind enough to purchase two pounds of it for us. We stashed it in the freezer until our daughter came home for Winter Break. Delicioso! It has the perfect bite and these wonderful crannies for holding the sauce.

If you find yourself in the neighborhood, buy some. You will not regret it!

634 Watertown Avenue, Waterbury, CT 06708

Friday, January 2, 2015

Lemony Shrimp Risotto

Happy 2015, everyone! Here was the first dinner of the new year in my house, a lemony shrimp risotto. Huge shrimp! You don't need to use such gigantic ones; that's just what I had in the freezer. The hardest part of this recipe is finding the shrimp or fish stock. You can make your own shrimp stock from the shells. It's wonderful stuff. Or, you can use Better Than Bouillon Fish or Lobster Base. This is a very good product. All their bases are quite good for not-homemade stock.

This recipe is adapted from one by Jamie Oliver. That one is sort of a disaster. I think someone edited it in a half-hearted way and it ended up a mess. I'm not going to even tell you where it is because I don't recommend you try following it. Yes, it's that jumbled up. And it's in metric to boot.

The original recipe called for the juice of a whole lemon. My family unit said it was too tart. The zest isn't tart so use all the zest but only half the juice.

Peppadews are sweet and very mildly spicy peppers.  You can find them in jars or at your supermarket olive bar. Most of the olive bars in Boulder carry them. They are very tasty!

Lemony Shrimp Risotto
(serves 4)

7 cups shrimp or fish stock
2 Tablespoons dried minced onion
1 teaspoon kosher salt, if using unsalted stock
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 ⅔ cups Arborio or similar short-grain rice
6 oz. white or rosé wine
1 ½ cups frozen peas
about 1 pound peeled and deveined medium to large shrimp
1 lemon
4 Peppadew peppers, diced or a pinch of crushed red chile flakes
black pepper

Zest the lemon and set aside the zest. Juice half the lemon and set aside the juice. In a medium saucepan, mix together the stock, dried onion and salt (if using). Heat to a simmer and keep it there. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat up the olive oil on medium-high. Add the rice and cook it until the grains of rice chance from translucent to opaque. They turn a milky white. Add the wine and cook until wine has evaporated/been absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium. Add ¾ cup of hot stock and stir until all the stock is absorbed by the rice. You don't need to stir it constantly, but you need to stir it regularly, every few minutes. When the liquid has been absorbed, add some more stock and stir once more. Keep this up until the rice is very nearly done. At 5400 ft., that takes nearly 30 minutes, longer than most recipes say to cook it. I recommend you try the rice so you know how close you are to done. If it's crunchy, not done. If you say "hmm, very close but not quite there," it's time to add the shrimp and peas. Stir to combine. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes until the peas are hot and the shrimp is pink and cooked. You don't want to cook the shrimp any longer than necessary because it will get tough. So, there is some timing involved here - you want the risotto just done when the shrimp is just done.

Just before serving, add the lemon zest, lemon juice, Peppadews, and a light sprinkle of black pepper. Taste for salt and season with more if needed. Serve in hot bowls with some shrimp arranged on top, because you want to show off the shrimp, especially if they are as big as the ones in my risotto!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Beans and Pork

Not too much pork though. Just enough to lend delicious piggy flavor to the beans. Italians love beans and I am particularly enamored with many wonderful Italian bean recipes, such as this one from Fagioli, The Bean Cuisine of Italy by Judith Barrett. I've made a few minor modifications.

Beans and Pork
(serves 8)

2 cups dried navy beans or cannellini beans
6 oz. salt pork or pancetta, cut into 1" dice
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red onion, finely chopped or 2 Tablespoons dried minced onion
10 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only, chopped
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
black pepper

Soak beans (see Note). Drain and rinse under cold water. Combine beans, salt pork, and 12 cups of cold water in a soup pot. Heat over medium-high until it reaches a boil. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for about 1 hour until beans are tender. Reserve 6 cups of the cooking liquid and drain the beans. If using dried onion, add it to the reserved water.

In the same pot, heat olive oil. Sauté garlic, red onion (if using), and parsley for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, a generous sprinkle of salt, black pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Add beans and reserved water. Once beans come to a boil, reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes. Check seasoning; add more salt and pepper if needed. Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid. This next part-mashing the beans-is optional, but it will result in creamier beans. Take 1 cup of beans and mash with a potato masher. Add back the rest of the beans and as much cooking liquid as you like. If you add just a little, the beans will have very little sauce. If you add more, the mashed beans will thicken it and make a lovely sauce. If you add a lot, you'll have soup! All are good choices.

Note: You have 2 ways to soak beans. You can soak the beans at least 4 hours or overnight - cover them with a few inches of cool water. Or if you want them in ¼ the time, use the fast soak method. Put the beans in a pot and cover them with a few inches of cool water. Bring to a boil, and boil rapidly for 3 minutes (2 minutes at sea level). Remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for 1-2 hours.

Adapted from Fagioli, The Bean Cuisine of Italy by Judith Barrett, Rodale, Inc., 2004.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Super Slow Mo Better Pork

My friend John (you can see news of his vineyard at Kiger Family Vineyard) is a very good cook (and baker and winemaker). He has introduced me to many great cooking techniques. He is definitely a technique person. The process is what it's about. He made a pork shoulder for us on our last ski trip together. Heaven! I had to replicate it at home while my pork-loving daughter was back from college.

This process is long but requires very little work on your part. It results in delicious unctuous pork. The flavorings here are mine. Herbes de Provence has nothing to do with this kind of slow cooked pork, as far as I know. Pork takes to many flavors and these are some of the many that makes a pork shoulder even better. Herbes de Provence is one of those blends that you buy, usually in those too-large crockery jars for one particular recipe and then wonder what you are going to do with all of it. Well, this is a worthy place to use it, trust me.

You can read more about why this technique works on this tough cut of pork at Serious Eats. I'm going to give you the condensed version.

Super Slow Mo Better Pork
(serves an army)

8 lbs bone-in pork shoulder (also known as pork butt), preferably with skin on

1 Tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence, crushed in your fingers
½ teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence, crushed in your fingers
1 teaspoon kosher salt

The night before you will cook your pork shoulder, apply the rub. Combine the salt, herbes de Provence, and black pepper in a small bowl. Place the pork shoulder in a roasting pan. Sprinkle all sides with rub and rub it into the pork. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and park in the fridge until the next morning.

About 10 hours before you plan to eat the pork, heat your oven to 250 °F. Remove the plastic wrap, return pork to the pan, skin side up, and stick in the oven. Cook until internal temperature reaches 200 °F (this is where a probe thermometer comes in handy) and the meat falls apart easily when prodded with a fork.

Remove the skin from the top, remove any meat, scrape off the fat. You can add it back to the pan to mix with the pork but there's probably enough fat in the meat. There is no denying it tastes delicious! Set aside the skin. Using a couple of forks, rip apart the meat, which should fall to pieces easily and remove the bone.  Sprinkle the shredded meat with the seasonings.

Place the skin in a 500 °F oven for a couple of minutes to crisp it up. Chop and add back to the meat (or if you are evil, eat it all yourself).

Serve with most anything - rolls, potatoes, noodles. Cardboard. No, just kidding!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Persimmon Bread

Fuyu Persimmon, small and squat and can be eaten while still crunchy. Illustration from USDA
I don't eat a lot of persimmons. But, sometimes it's fun to step away from the parade of wintertime citrus, too-long-in-storage apples, and grapes from warmer climes. For the persimmon novice, you need to know there are two varieties and they are very different. One, the Fuyu, can be eaten  while still slightly crunchy. They taste a bit like apples to me. You can also eat them when they are fully ripe. They will be sweeter and the texture will be slightly squishy.
Hachiya Persimmon, taller and can only be eaten when very soft. Illustration from USDA
The other type of persimmon, the Hachiya, can only be eaten when fully ripe and very, very soft. Before this stage, the tannins in the fruit are overwhelming and you will get a serious pucker-face from trying to eat it. You must be quite patient to eat this; I found it took weeks for my persimmons to soften up. Persimmon season runs from October until mid-winter in the US, so we're right in the thick of it now. As a specialty fruit, they are expensive, but you can find them on sale throughout the winter.

Rather then eat them out of hand, I used them to make persimmon bread, like banana bread. They add a nice flavor and plenty of sweetness. They are very sweet when ripe so there isn't a lot of sugar in this quick bread. This is a great snack or tea bread.

Persimmon Bread
(serves 12)

1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder (1 teaspoon at sea level)
1 ½ teaspoon baking soda (same at sea level)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2-3 Hachiya persimmons or 4-5 Fuyu, very ripe
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
¼ cup sour cream
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 cup dried apricots, chopped
½ cup slivered almonds, toasted (see Note)

Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven . Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 8"x4"x2½" loaf pan. Set aside.

Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a medium bowl.

Cut each persimmon across the equator and gently scoop out the flesh: run the spoon under the skin to loosen the flesh, then spoon out the flesh away from the center part that is fibrous and contains the seeds. Place in a small bowl and mash the pulp with a fork. Measure out 1 cup of persimmon pulp. Any leftovers can be eaten with a spoon, frozen for another bread, or added to a smoothie.

Cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, and beat to combine well. Add the persimmon pulp, sour cream, and almond extract. Beat to combine. With the mixer on slow speed, slowly add the dry mixture, scrapping down the sides so everything is combined. Add in the dried apricots and toasted almonds and mix to distribute evenly. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan, set on a rimmed cookie sheet (in case it overflows; it shouldn't), and bake for 1 hour - 1 hour 10 minutes. The bread is done when a skewer comes out without any wet batter.

Let cool on a rack for 20 minutes. Remove from loaf pan and cool to room temperature. The bread is hard to slice when warm so be patient!

Note: to toast almonds, place nuts on a sheet pan in a 300°F oven for 8 minutes. Set a timer - it's easy to burn nuts. I speak from experience.

Adapted from Nicole Routheir's Fruit Cookbook by Nicole Routhier, Workman Publishing, 1996.