Friday, January 24, 2014

Egging Us On: Shakshuka and Noodle Pudding

It gets tough around now to find a farm fresh product to celebrate, so let's salute the egg.
Sometimes it's sold as organic, which means the chicken feed was certified organic and the hens weren't fed prophylactic antibiotics. Sometimes local farmers sell both organic and non; the guy I buy the most incredibly large and tasty eggs I've ever found describes the difference as: chicken feed. "Sometimes I run out of the organic and have to give the other hens ordinary grains."  My theory is: if that's the worst of it, stick with the local farmer's non-organic before you even think about the supermarket shelf.

Free-range is supposed to mean the chicken got to walkabout. But in truth, there's no telling whether that means the chicken got out of its cage for sixty seconds or actually spent its days in the great outdoors free to peck and claw. Chances are from a local farm, it's the latter.

One of the reasons the egg is nature's most perfect food is its packing case. That seemingly thin, vulnerable shell is a marvel of insulation. Eggs do not need to be continually refrigerated to be clean. It's widely known in the baking business how much better it is for separating the white from the yolk to leave eggs on the counter for a few hours.  It's also true that if you keep them on a windowsill where the average temperature is, say, 55º , they'll stay fresh for two to three days.  Unless the weather is torrid, a hard boiled egg in its shell can be carried in your pocket all day long for an evening snack.

So boil, scramble, fry and bake.  Here's a very colorful, flavorful and unusual way to enjoy eggs right now:
poached in spicy tomato sauce.


for 2  (all amounts are variable except the eggs)

3 tbsp fruity olive oil
2 lg garlic cloves, minced
1 sm red onion, diced
1 sm green bell pepper, seeded and chunked
1 sm yellow bell pepper, seeded and chunked
1 chili pepper like Serrano, seeded and minced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp caraway seeds, smashed or ground
1-2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2  tsp dried mint leaves
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp ground cayenne or arbol chili powder
pinch ground cinnamon
1 tsp wine/balsamic vinegar
½ tsp honey
1 tsp tomato paste
3-31/2 cups chopped tomatoes in their juice
salt to your taste
black pepper to taste
4 eggs
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed, washed and chopped for garnish

optional add ons: feta cheese, pitted black kalamata olives, chopped spinach

In a large heavy-gauge sauté pan that has a lid, heat olive oil. Sauté onions, bell and chili peppers and garlic over medium heat til soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the spices—cumin through cinnamon—and heat until fragrant, maybe 60-90 seconds.

Stir in vinegar, tomato paste, honey and tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper.
Cook until the sauce thickens, maybe 10-12 minutes depending on how juicy the tomatoes were.  Taste for flavor and add seasonings to your taste.

Get the sauce very hot and bubbly over medium heat and have the pan lid handy.  Carefully create 4 small pockets in the sauce and crack an egg into each one. Try to nudge a little sauce into the eggwhites. Lightly salt the eggs  Cover and continue cooking to poach the eggs to your liking, usually they're done in 3-4 minutes.

Uncover the pan. Add the optionals you desire.  Remove pan from heat. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve right out of the pan.
(NB: this photo is of a two egg/one person version)

Serve with crusty or pita bread to mop up the plentiful, thick sauce.

A more prosaic way to celebrate farm products still available at this point in time is an old European dish,  noodle pudding, which can be served as a main or side dish, snack or dessert, warm or room temperature.  It keeps in the fridge several days and is perfect for potluck and parties.

for 6

1/2 lb wide egg noodles, cooked and drained
1/2 c granulated sugar
1/2 stick/1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 lb cottage cheese or fromage blank
4 oz cream cheese or mascarpone
5 oz sour cream or creme fraiche
salt to taste
1/2 c raisins
5 extra large eggs
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
pinch ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 doz dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 c dried cranberries
1/2 c Graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375º. Lightly butter an 8" sq baking pan.

In a very large bowl, put the cooked noodles and add all other ingredients down through cranberries. Mix well.  Pour into prepared pan and smooth into a level layer.

Make topping by adding melted butter to the cracker crumbs. Blend well. Sprinkle this topping lightly over the pudding.

Bake at 375º about 45 minutes or until pudding is set: a cake tester should come out clean.
Cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting to serve.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bean me up, Scotty

 News from the meat world is getting worse all the time now. Latest revelation is that chickens marked "organic" or "antibiotic-free" may harbor as many deadly pathogens as the cheaper birds. All the supermarket stuff is tainted, potentially with killer bacteria that can now outwit our antibiotics. So once again, cozy up to your local farmer if you want poultry.

That said, let's think vegetarian for the moment, and in keeping with the thought that January needs a lot of color added, consider beans. They're red, pink, black, white, yellow, green, even spotted. And they're great with greens and bright yellow cornbread as I said about black-eyed peas last time. This time, think black bean chili with luscious red salsa and a dollop of sour cream on top sitting beside cornbread and maybe slices of avocado dressed with a squeeze of fresh lime.

Or think about yellow split peas enticingly spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger as a soup or served with less liquid over red or black rice. Here's the recipe from my book: Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking:

Split peas with kale and cinnamon for 6

2 cups yellow split peas, cleaned
1 bunch Tuscan kale, chopped (thick stem removed)
1 lg. cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
5 cloves
1 tsp. cumin seed
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ inch fresh ginger, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. turmeric
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 medium red onion, diced
2 tbsp. olive oil or ghee if you prefer
5 cups water
½ bunch fresh cilantro for garnish

Bring water to boil in a large saucepan or medium casserole. Add split peas, turmeric, cinnamon stick and half the salt (1 tsp.). Cook covered for one hour, checking that there is always some water in the pot. While the peas cook, heat the oil or ghee in a medium-sized frying or sauté pan. Over medium heat, fry the bay leaves, cumin seeds and cloves for one minute. Add the onion, ginger and garlic and cook until the onions lightly brown, stirring to blend. Stir in the kale and 1 tsp salt. Continue cooking until the kale is glistening and soft.  Remove the bay leaves from the pot. Add the contents of the fry pan to the split peas. Add the ground cardamom, cumin and black pepper, stirring to blend. Taste for seasonings and adjust to your preference. Continue cooking until the peas are soft, adding water if necessary.  Some people prefer this soupy and others on the dry side. 

There is a very nutritious and aromatic Nepalese soup made from 9 beans, also in my book Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, called Kwaati.

And finally, to top this all off, how about bright orange carrot pudding!  It's super popular comfort from Kathmandu to Kuwait. And the recipe, yes, is in Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, so no need to repeat it here.

Next up, I'm working out the best recipe for the colorful, fragrant and yummy North African eggs in tomato dish: shakshuka. Not quite there yet so stay tuned.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hot Around the Collard

The cold, the dark, the dull post-holiday weeks cry out for colorful and hearty food, so this is a time to celebrate collards, maybe the most flavorful green in the garden. It's definitely one of the most nutritious.
Happily, collards are cheap right now: for $3.00 I got 2 organic bunches and that nourishes a crowd.

Since many northerners are baffled by collards, and they're no good raw, I'd say the simplest way to get them on the table is to braise them for 20-30 minutes, however much time you have. You can't overcook them.  The basic recipe is to soften a small onion in a tsp or two of oil  in a medium-size heavy-gauge pot while you rip the greens off the thick stems. Cut or shred the leaves into large pieces and throw them into the pot. Add a minced garlic clove and a pinch of salt. Then cover the greens with water or vegetable broth; water is fine because collards have so much flavor to offer. Put a lid on the pot, put the heat on low and come back in 10 minutes to make sure there's still liquid in the pot. Add if not. Continue cooking until you're ready to eat. The longer you cook collards, the more melt-in-your-mouth they become.

What do you serve these with right now? Well for color, how about sweet potatoes, quickly cooked in the microwave? Ham or roast pork, of course, or any barbequed meat if you're not vegetarian. If you are, I suggest arepas, the Venezulan cornmeal pancakes. You can buy Masarepa, the special cornmeal for them, wherever Goya products are sold in the international aisle of the supermarket.

It's traditional in the South to start January with collards as a lucky food: their green color represents greenbacks, so they're supposed to magnetize money in the year ahead. They're most often served with that other lucky and very flavorful food, black-eyed peas. Indeed my second simplest way to get collards to the table is to braise them as above, then 15 minutes into the cooking, dump into the pot a can of black-eyed peas and a pinch of smoked paprika.

When I have more time, and I make time this time of year, I put collards in the traditional black-eyed peas dish: Hoppin' John. It's a vat of peas with rice and collards--and if you're not vegetarian, chunks of smoked ham. It's champion comfort food for a multitude.  Here is my own vegetarian version. Last week I made it with a small smoked ham hock: I simply started the whole process with the ham in the pot and in the end I pulled out the naked bone, all the meat deep in the beans.

Happy Eating!

Hoppin' John Recipe: Vegetarian but see above to add ham

For 6-8

½ lb. black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and drained
2-3 tbsp corn oil, enough to cover the bottom of your pot
1 lg onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 sm Poblano pepper, roasted and diced
1 tsp chipotle chili powder
½ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp ground cayenne
2 celery ribs, diced
4 cups vegetable broth
½-1 cup water
½ bunch collard greens, chopped
1-1½ cups rice (depending on how thick you want this)*
Salt and black pepper to your taste

*I find using short-grained paella rice better than long grain basmati for this dish.
Heat oil in a heavy gauge casserole or stock pot. Add onion and sauté over medium heat until onion is soft and translucent, maybe 5 minutes.

Add garlic and Poblano pepper, stirring to blend.  Sauté 1 minute.
Add spices and celery. Sauté 2 minutes. (Add oil if necessary)
Add broth, water and black-eyed peas. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, cover and cook 45 minutes.

Add collard greens, rice, salt and pepper. Cover and continue to simmer another 20-25 minutes, checking from time to time that you have enough liquid. Add water by the ¼ cupful if you need it.

Taste for seasoning, adjust if necessary, and serve with freshly chopped cilantro leaves.