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The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Holy Mole!

amarillo (thick yellow mole), frijoles negros colados, arroz con tomatillos, basic corn tortillas

DinnerPlateI’ve had The Food and Life of Oaxaca for a number of years, but have never cooked from it until now. This is partly because when I lived in Portland, I wasn’t sure where to find the authentic Mexican ingredients. Then I was supposed to use it in November, but November sort of spun out of control. And in fact I made the dishes nine days ago, but by the time I was done that night I didn’t have time to format and load my photos and start writing before I had to get my suitcase packed and get to bed for an early morning flight. So here I am, better late than never.

Ingredients3If you are coming to Oaxacan food, it is better to do it late than never. This stuff is amazing. I have only last Sunday’s dinner to judge by, I admit; I have never been to Mexico (though I’ve been within shouting distance a couple of times, but was too well-mannered to do that), so I have never had Oaxacan food in Oaxaca cooked by Oaxacan cooks. I think I need to do something about that before long.

For those who don’t already know, Oaxaca is a state in Southwest Mexico in the area Tomatillos2where the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico draw near each other. It features rugged mountain ranges and fertile valleys, and was home to the Zapotec people starting thousands of years ago; they dominated the area until the Aztecs and the Spanish made their conquests. I learned all this from the introduction to this cookbook, which is a rich resource for both history and cookery.

Because Oaxaca’s growing areas range from tropical lowlands to cool mountains, the variety of food available is immense, and the recipes offer a vast range of choices: meats, seafood, rice, corn, beans, fruits, vegetables. It was hard to choose what to make, though I was able to narrow the selection down right ToastingJalapenos3away by the constraints of our dinner party. One guest is lactose-intolerant, one is vegetarian, and Scott avoids shrimp because it exacerbates his gout. I ruled out meat-centered dishes, food that called for cream or cheese, and a surprisingly vast list of items made with ground dried shrimp. I bet they were good, but with me gone for three days, Scott would have nobody to tend him while his foot swelled, so I struck those off the list.

ToastingVegs3Fortunately, I did not have to rule out any mole sauces, the heart of Oaxacan cuisine. Most Americans are probably familiar with mole as a spicy sauce that contains chocolate, but in fact the key to a mole is ground dried chiles, and only a few of the sauces presented include chocolate. Author Zarela Martinez dances around the difficulty of defining mole — it can mean many things to many cooks — but suggests that a mole will be a sauce that has a large number of ingredients, most especially dried chiles, that can be used to give depth and flavor to a broad range of ingredients. The cookbook gives recipes for the sauces and meats or seafood to go with them, but notes that any sauce can be used with any suitable meat, vegetables or seafood.

ToastingAvocadoLeavesI decided to try five dishes: a mole, a pepian (similar to a mole but with pumpkin seeds), refried black beans, rice with tomatillos, and corn tortillas. I made a list and set out in the neighborhood, prepared to go to several stores to find all the things I would need. I didn’t have to do that. I started at Key Food, where I had seen a section of Mexican ingredients. Guajillo, ancho, and arbol chiles, dried? There they were. Dried avocado leaves? Check. Masa harina? Several sizes of bags. Fresh tomatillos and jalapenos, dried black beans, cilantro, all were ready to hand. The only things I still didn’t have when I left that store were a hard green tomato (but I decided a standard hard red supermarket tomato was essentially the same thing), epazote in either dried or fresh form, and a tortilla press. I found dried epazote at Penzey’s, and with garlic, onions and rice already in my pantry, I was ready for a busy day.

EpazoteAndBeansI read through the recipes and saw that the prep was far more elaborate than the actual cookery in most cases; the stovetop time for a complete dish was far shorter than the time spent getting all the ingredients ready to combine. So I just tied on my apron, emptied the sink and got started. I was cooking black beans from scratch, so I washed and picked through a bag of dried beans, then put them into a pot with a whole onion, a head of garlic, and some dried epazote, an herb similar to but not quite like cilantro, which apparently is standard for cooking dried beans. It’s going to be for me from now on; the green flakes had a delightfully grassy and savory flavor.

ToastingDriedChilesWhile those cooked, I started to on several rounds of skillet dry-roasting. First up were the dried chiles; for each dish that called for them, I rinsed the appropriate dried chiles, shook off the excess water, then pan-toasted them for a minute or so on each side, until the remaining water droplets had disappeared and the chiles began to release their scent. I then DriedChilesDrainedpulled off the tops and extracted the seeds and pith of each dried pepper, as best I could; this turned out to be easier than I expected. I put the peppers into bowls (grouping each recipe together), poured boiling water over them, and let them soak for about half an hour.

SeedingChoppingJalapenosThe next things to dry-roast were the fresh vegetables. Jalapeno peppers, an onion, tomatillos in the husk, that not-truly-green but truly hard tomato, and garlic cloves in their peels all spent some time in that dry skillet. I turned them periodically to give them even charring or discoloration. When each item was done I removed it to a bowl (again, grouped by recipe), and removed the husks or peels. The jalapeno peppers actually went into a paper bag to rest for a bit before peeling; this was supposed to make the skins easier to slip off but I probably needed to roast them longer.

DicingTomatillosThe other key item of vegetable prep was to soak and then dice some tomatillos for the rice. Tomatillos have a center pulp that can be sticky, which works well for some dishes but not for others, and the rice dish called for its removal. So I pulled off the husks and quartered four tomatillos, soaked them in cold water for about half an hour, then cut away the center pulp and diced the flesh.

AllspiceClovesOreganoOften when I’m writing these blog entries I will say “at this point I did X,” but that’s a bit tricky to do here. I was working constantly, and I hadn’t made a cooking plan — and if I had, I would have been way off it within half an hour because I’d never done most of these things before and didn’t really know how long any given task would take. So I just kept working and paid attention to my timers to keep up with when I needed to drain off the soaking water for chiles, when I needed to add salt to the beans, when I needed to lower the heat. Now that I’ve made these dishes I could probably write an accurate cooking plan for the next time I do it. For the purposes of this blog entry, I’m going to shift now to describing how each dish is made in turn.

PepitaBlendFailI’ll start with my dish of failure, pepian con pollo, which was going to be pepian sin pollo anyway because I wasn’t going to use chicken. A pepian is a pumpkin-seed sauce, and you don’t have to gut a pumpkin to get its seeds; retailers in many areas, certainly in my neighborhood, offer both hulled and unhulled seeds. And this is where I went wrong, because I didn’t double-check the recipe when I made my list and I bought unhulled seeds. The recipe required hulled seeds. The difference is not unlike that between peanuts in the shell and peanuts out of the shell. So imagine making peanut butter with peanuts in the shell. I realized my mistake at a fairly advanced point; I had toasted jalapenos, and ground cloves and allspice berries and oregano, and was ready to throw it all into the blender with the seeds and some broth. Hmm, I thought, the balance seems pretty liquidy; perhaps I can go ahead and blend it and then sieve out the hulls. This was the wrong answer. Within about 10 seconds my blender began to make unhappy grinding noises and I could smell its motor overheating. I turned off the blender, dipped in a spoon and tasted the liquid. Absolutely inedible. I felt very Iron Chef (“I was going to have five dishes but one of them didn’t work out”) as I disposed of the chalky, salty slurry.

MoleIngredsInBlenderFortunately, the mole went much better. Amarillo mole takes its name from the deep orange-yellow color, and mine would have been a bit yellower if my tomato had been genuinely green. In a blender I combined three tomatillos, pan-roasted and husks and stems removed; one onion, pan-roasted and peeled; two garlic cloves, pan-roasted and peeled; one hard tomato, BlendingMole2pan-roasted and peeled; three dried guajillo chiles and one dried ancho chile, rinsed, dry-toasted, seeded, soaked and drained; and 10 peppercorns and 8 cloves, ground together in a spice grinder. I put on the lid and hit puree, and within a few minutes I had a gloriously deep orange, smooth, thick liquid. At this point I was supposed to force the sauce through a medium-mesh sieve, CookingMolebut I didn’t have a medium-mesh sieve, only a fine one, and I was running out of time and patience as well. I then heated some oil in a saucepan (the recipe recommends lard but when you are cooking for vegetarians that’s not happening), then added the sauce and covered and cooked it for about 10 minutes. While it cooked I mixed two teaspoons of masa harina with some water; MolePlusMasaHarinawhen the 10 minutes were up I added it to the sauce and whisked it in. At this point the recipe says to whisk constantly for another 15 minutes, but I was far too occupied with the other dishes coming together to do more than occasional whisking, and it turned out just fine. The sauce was done ahead of the other dishes, which was my goal; I set it aside and kept going.

BeansAvocadoLeavesChiles2The beans were the next focus of attention. I had started cooking my dry beans, and after they’d been cooking about 30 minutes I tested them fairly often for doneness, because this can vary depending on how old the dried beans are. These took probably an hour to cook, maybe a tad longer; it’s possible they’d have been ready a little sooner if I had waited longer to add the salt, which I think made them slightly tough, but they softened after a while. I drained the beans, reserving about 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid and discarding the onion and garlic. BeansPureedWhen they were cool — or, more accurately, when I had time to pay attention to them again — I put the beans into a food processor (I was giving the blender a rest after the pepian disaster) and added three dried arbol chiles (pan-toasted, soaked and drained) and 12 dried avocado leaves (pan-toasted and crumbled). I pureed these until they were an even consistency. I was supposed to push these through a sieve too, but I had decided by this point that if things were a bit coarse I would call it “rustic” and invoke Julia Child’s admonition to never apologize. I set aside the pureed beans and sliced three large onions into thin rings; I heated some oil and cooked the onions in it for about 8 minutes. Then I scooped out the onions and added the bean puree. I was supposed to discard the onions, but I had a qualm about wasting them, decided that rustic is as rustic does, and added back perhaps one-third of the onions. I mixed it all together, covered the beans and turned down the heat, and let them cook for about half an hour, stirring when I thought of it. Which was at least twice.

TomatillosCilantroThe arroz con tomatillos also required some food processing. I took the tomatillo flesh that I had diced and put it in the processor with a chopped onion, a chopped clove of garlic, and about half a cup of fresh cilantro leaves. A few whirs later and I had a lively green puree. In a saucepan, I heated some oil, then promptly forgot about it until I smelled it scorching. I pulled the pan away and put it on the windowsill to cool. In a different saucepan I heated some oil and paid attention this time; when it was hot but not scorching I added a cup of long-grain dry rice, stirring it for several minutes until it began to color and smell nutty. The recipe says it should “sound like sand as you stir it,” and this is surprisingly accurate; I can’t improve on the description. I added the tomatillo puree and stirred the mixture for about three minutes more; then I added 2 1/4 cups of vegetable stock, covered the pan, reduced the heat, and let it cook about 18 minutes.

MasaHarinaBalls2Now it was time for the final piece, the one with the least prep time and most cook time, for a change of pace: corn tortillas. (I took a few minutes to cut up some zucchini and green peppers to saute with mole, but I ended up delegating the cooking on that to a helpful guest.) Corn tortillas are easy to find in grocery stores; really good ones, not so much. The cookbook advises finding RusticTortilla2fresh masa, ground from lime-treated corn, which can be obtained from tortilla manufacturers. There is one in Queens, but not in my neighborhood, so I opted for the second-best step, combining masa harina (not cornmeal) with water and shaping it into balls. Once you have a tortilla dough ball, you are supposed to flatten it with a tortilla press, but I didn’t TurningTortilla2have one; the book says that you can use a flat-bottomed pan instead, which after my hardest pressing turned my corn dough spheres into inch-thick round slabs. I decided to roll them flatter from that point with a rolling pin, and was able to produce tortillas with a fairly consistent thickness but jagged edges. Pardon me, rustic. Once I’d flattened the tortillas (which I CookedTortillas2stacked in layers of wax paper to keep them from drying or sticking together), I heated some oil in a skillet and cooked each in turn, about 90 seconds on the first side and 60 seconds on the second. The first was not quite the best texture but the remaining 11 were pleasantly toasty. I toasted and turned while Scott and our friends set the table, cooked the zucchini and peppers, and plied me with lemonade. The tortillas were not flexible enough to roll as for soft tacos, but they made a very nice flat base for the other dishes.

VegsInMoleFinally the food was all cooked and we were ready to eat. I was worried that the dishes wouldn’t be good enough after all my labors, and maybe they wouldn’t have passed muster with a Oaxacan cook, but everything tasted fantastic to us. The beans were rich and savory, with a good smooth texture even in their rustic un-sieved condition. The rice was really delightful, fresh and bright and nutty. The tortillas had a deep corn flavor that put them far beyond store-bought. And the mole, oh, the mole! It was remarkable. Despite the dominance of chiles the sauce was not so much hot as complex and multi-layered; it had smoky and sweet overtones.

Verdict: Success. (Even despite the pepian failure.) I will be cooking from this cookbook again.

Eat More, Weigh Less: The Joy of Eggplant

pita chips with roasted eggplant dip

EggplantAtPicnic2Lately it seems to be taking an act of God to get me to cook much. I’m cooking dinner most evenings, but I’ve been doing easy lazy things. Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chickpeas. Stir-fry. Hot dogs. Things that don’t require measuring or even really counting. I feel like I haven’t quite caught up with my domestic life yet, what with travel and Eggplantsome fairly mentally demanding projects at work.

But this past Friday was the office picnic, in Central Park no less, and I knew I had to get my act together. By the time I signed the contribution sheet the dessert and entree categories were pretty full, so I turned my attention to appetizers, and chose two: a spicy roasted eggplant dip, and a EggplantRoastedgoat cheese spread with roasted garlic (next post).

I’ve made roasted eggplant dip before, about a year ago. This one is a little bit different, with the inclusion of a minced jalapeno pepper and a slightly different blend of spices. Spices are a key element in Eat More, Weigh Less, the first of two healthy lifestyle cookbooks by Dr. Dean Ornish (I ShallotChileSpicescooked from the second, Everyday Cooking With Dr. Dean Ornish, in November). Dr. Ornish’s recipes are drastically low in fat, so strong flavor elements are featured to help counteract the popular notion that low-fat food isn’t flavorful.

This dip was definitely flavorful. I began by halving two eggplants lengthwise and putting them in a EggplantRoasted3350-degree oven to roast. While they cooked, I minced a jalapeno pepper and a shallot, juiced a lemon and a lime to get a teaspoon of juice from each, and mixed that in a bowl with some cumin, cinnamon and salt. Once the eggplants were out of the oven and cool enough to handle, I put them into a food processor with the shallot-pepper mixture and processed it all until it was EggplantInProcessorsmooth.

I did push the eggplant halves into the processor bowl without cutting them up (come on, you try neatly slicing a roasted eggplant! It kind of falls apart on you), and this meant that there were some oversized pieces of the skin that I had to pluck out for aesthetic reasons. I think if I did this again I’d scoop the EggplantDip3eggplant flesh out of the skins, even though I favor eating the skins of vegetables on principle.

I also cut up some pitas into single-layer slices and toasted them. Dr. Ornish’s recipe said to brush them with an egg white wash, which I didn’t bother to do. That might have made them stiffer and better able to scoop up dip, but I wasn’t convinced the MorePicnicSpread2extra effort would have been worth it. I cut up some additional pitas and left them uncooked, and they seemed robust enough.

The next day I hauled my dips, pitas and bread to the park, where our crew found a picnic spot that was very close to, but not exactly, the spot we had chosen ahead of time. We laid out blankets and massive quantities MorePicnicSpreadof food, and began to dish up a welcome late lunch. People seemed to enjoy the eggplant dip. There was a fair amount of it left at the end of the day, but that was because we had managed to bring enough to feed at least twice our number. And it was a little too warm out to overstuff ourselves.

Verdict: Success. Easy, tasty, and low in fat. I’ll want to make this one again.

Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook: Pasta Salad for a Warm Evening

asparagus and carrots with pasta; chickpea saute with garlic and olives

PastaSaladDressedYou’ll have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. You know how it feels when you’re busy all the time but if you stop and look back it’s hard to point to anything specific that quite accounts for all the time that passed? Yes, I did the AIDS Walk last Sunday, but that’s only one day. OK, we went to a movie the day before that and had dinner out. I worked quite a bit, but not exceptionally ChickpeaOliveSaute2late. No single thing that explains such neglect.

Cooking for yourself, even from scratch, doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Most of the recipes I’ve chosen (especially recent ones) are not in and of themselves time-consuming. Where this blog project takes time is in going through the cookbooks and choosing what to AsparagusSlivers2try. That’s what I have balked at doing when work runs late and the weekend starts to fill up.

For last night I knew I had to make time for a blog project, because we’re about to take a trip and I won’t be able to cook during it. (I suppose that theoretically I could find something that requires no cooking or chopping, or mixing in KalamataOliveHalves3bowls I won’t have available, and that won’t produce leftovers we can’t store…it doesn’t seem that likely now that I examine it in detail.) I promise to get back in the swing of things when we return. Heck, I’ll have to.

It’s been warm the past few days, so I chose a couple of light and easy dishes from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook. I’ve RedOnionused this book before. My chief memory is that dishes that claim to be hot or spicy aren’t really; this is true of the magazine as well. But the dishes generally taste good. I made my way through the salad chapter and lit on a pasta salad with carrots and asparagus, and then added a chickpea saute for good measure.

I began with the prep for both BlanchedAsparCarrdishes. The trickiest thing is to quarter the asparagus spears lengthwise. The recipe says to do that before cutting them into shorter pieces (about an inch and a half), but I found it easier to cut the shorter pieces and quarter those lengthwise. I cut up a couple of carrots to similar proportions, and minced some parsley, and that was it for prep for the pasta salad. For the CookedPastachickpeas I minced some garlic and red onion.

The pasta salad is a breeze. I cooked some whole-wheat spirals according to the package directions, drained the pasta, tossed it with some olive oil to help prevent the noodles from sticking together, and let them cool. In the meantime I blanched the carrot and asparagus slivers. PastaSaladBeforeDressingWhen the pasta was cool I mixed the vegetables and parsley in (yes, I know parsley is a vegetable, I’m just trying to be specific). I could have added capers as well, but didn’t have any. They’re optional. I then whisked together a dressing of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and poured it over the salad, mixing well so it would be evenly distributed.

ChickpeasPlusOlivesThe chickpea dish is easy too. I sauteed the red onion and garlic in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then added a can of chickpeas (rinsed and drained) and some dried thyme, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I added salt, pepper, and a bit of water, plus some kalamata olives (pitted and halved), and cooked that all together for a few minutes more.

ChickpeaOliveSauteThe recipes say both dishes are best at room temperature. This was convenient, because it meant I could cook ahead and then get the kitchen cleaned up and get some other things done before dinner. It also meant that when our dinner guests were running late, we could assure them it didn’t make a difference.

The pasta salad was really tasty, and the vegetables were still crisp enough to have a good bite to them. The chickpea dish was also good, with a rich, savory flavor.

Verdict: Success. And that will have to hold until we’re back from our travels next week.

Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Light Veggie Goodness

zucchini saffron pasta

PastaPlated2This is the pasta dish that I meant to make yesterday but saved for this evening. A good choice, as it turned out, since it was even hotter today and very stuffy. Last night’s hour-by-hour weather report forecast storms coming in by 4 pm, which would reduce the heat only a little but improve the air quality considerably. As of 9 pm there is no rain, but the pressure is SlicingZucchini2enough to make one’s head explode. The cats are sprawled in the hallway, sniffing at faint breezes. The kitchen is cooling down from the baking I did earlier (I never said I was a smart planner). So a light and easy pasta dish was just the ticket for tonight.

I’ve used Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites often in the past. ZucchPastaIngredsI had to dig a bit to find something I hadn’t already tried. Chili burgers? Been there. (Mash beans with grated carrot, oats, ketchup, and a few other odds and ends, and pan-fry — surprisingly good.) Seitan fajitas? I haven’t actually made that one but Scott has. Quinoa black bean salad? Already tried it, but thanks for the reminder — that will be good this summer. I turned more SaffronThreadscarefully to the pasta section and realized that I’ve flipped past zucchini saffron pasta before because it calls for saffron.

Ah, saffron, luxurious and expensive spice. The stigma of a crocus, saffron is known for its rarity and its intense color. I’ve often substituted turmeric, which doesn’t quite match the flavor or color but costs considerably less. OnionsZucchInPan2But as it happens, I have some saffron on hand, since I bought a jar for the Indian food I made in December, when I knew substitutions would not be right. A little saffron goes a long way, and while a jar with what looks like a modest number of thin red filaments seems expensive, you’re going to be able to do a lot with it. The per-use price may not be much worse than that of SaffronWatervanilla.

This dish is fairly simple. I did my vegetable prep first, juicing a couple of lemons, slicing some zucchini into rounds, mincing some garlic, and slicing a large onion. Then I put a pot of water to boil for the penne pasta. While that heated, I sauteed the garlic and onions in olive oil, then added the zucchini. When the onions VeggieMixture2were translucent and the zucchini had started to brown a little, I crushed some saffron threads — or tried to, anyway — and mixed them with some water, then poured that into the pan. I rinsed the saffron bowl with the lemon juice and poured that into the pan as well, added a bit of salt and pepper, then lowered the heat and covered the pan to continue cooking while the penne finished.

PastaInBowl2When the penne was cooked, I drained it and poured it into a large pasta bowl, then added the vegetable mixture and stirred it well so the chunks were evenly distributed and everything was a pleasant, warm, golden color from the saffron. I grated on some romano cheese and served it up.

This dish is delightful. The saffron PastaBowlCheese3gives it a rich and unusual flavor, which is accentuated by the brightness of the lemon juice. It was ideal for a hot, sultry evening.

Verdict: Success. This goes on the list for as long as I have saffron left — which ought to be a while.

Vegetables Every Day: A Green Leafy Respite to the Bisquick

kale with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar

KalePlusOnionsVinegarWhen I was deciding what to cook from the Bisquick cookbook, I knew we would need something green and leafy to accompany it. Something healthy, non-processed, made of real food. So I reached for Vegetables Every Day.

This is a very handy cookbook for people who want to add more vegetables to their diet. It’s ChoppingKaleorganized by vegetable, so you can pick something up at the farmers’ market and be confident that you can find some way to prepare it. Each vegetable gets an intro section with general guidance — seasonal availability, how to recognize quality, how to store, basic preparation techniques — and then several more detailed recipes. This is the book that taught me how to roast BrowningOnionsasparagus (which was a revelation). Everyone should have a copy, and use it regularly.

I decided that kale would be a good balance to the beef-and-pancake nonsense, and chose the recipe for kale with caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar. It’s not at all difficult. You stem and chop some kale, then toss it into boiling water with some salt and CaramelizingOnionslet it cook for about 8 minutes, then drain. Then you halve and thinly slice a couple of onions, heat up some olive oil in a skillet, and cook the onions 12-15 minutes or until they’re golden brown. At this point you sprinkle on a bit of sugar and continue to cook them another 10 minutes or so, until they’re very brown and verging on crispy. Now it’s time to add the kale and toss it together KalePlusOnions2well, cooking for 2 minutes or so. Then you pour in a bit of balsamic vinegar and grind on some fresh pepper, and it’s ready to serve.

This dish was wonderful. I’m not sure there is a better smell than onions cooking in olive oil, and the caramelized onion flavor is wonderfully complex, smoky and rich. The kale is still pungent enough to provide a contrast, but not aggressively so. The vinegar adds a nice tart overtone, and if I’m not mistaken it helps make the nutrients in the kale more available to your body.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to make this again, alongside a main dish more worthy of it.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest: The Cute Overload of Casseroles

enchanted broccoli forest

BakedBroccoliForest2I’ve had the book The Enchanted Broccoli Forest for probably 20 years now, and it’s a great cookbook. It has a wide range of tasty entrees, plus one of the best instruction sections for how to make bread that I’ve seen anywhere. But I had never tried the title recipe, “enchanted broccoli forest,” before tonight. It really seemed kind of silly, and I was always more interested in BroccoliTrees3distinctive dishes like soups or pasta than in a rice casserole. But of course when I reached this title in my blog planning, Scott and I agreed: I needed to make the forest.

The idea is fairly simple, really: spread a brown rice casserole mixture in a baking pan, add broccoli florets so that they look like little trees, drizzle on some CookedRicelemon butter, cover with foil and bake. The assembled ingredients don’t sound all that exciting — as I said to Scott, “If I’d said I was going to make a broccoli-rice casserole you’d have yawned” — but the presentation makes it rather fun.

I started by cooking some brown rice. While it cooked, I cut some broccoli into long-stemmed SpicedOnionsflorets, then set it to steam; when it was just tender I rinsed it with cold water to stop the cooking. I also chopped up some parsley, beat some eggs together, juiced a lemon, melted butter, and mixed up spices, while Scott chopped an onion and a clove of garlic and shredded some cheddar cheese.

When the rice was ready, I pulled it from the heat and fluffed it with AddingCheeseMixture2a fork. Then I sauteed the onion and garlic in some melted butter, and added a mixture of dried dill, dried mint, salt, pepper and cayenne. I mixed the onions into the rice. Then I lightly beat the eggs with the parsley and cheese, and mixed that into the rice as well. I spread the rice mixture in a baking pan.

Then I poked the broccoli RiceInPan“trees” into the rice mixture, finding that I had to trim a few of the stalks so they would stay upright. As a once and future Oregonian, I also added a few of the bare stalks to the pan as “stumps of mystery.” With all the broccoli in place, I mixed the lemon juice and melted butter together and drizzled it over the broccoli. Then I carefully covered the pan with foil and put it into the oven.

BroccoliForest2The baked dish looked a little more finished than when it went into the oven: the rice mixture had firmed up a bit, and the broccoli had lost a bit of its brightness during cooking. I didn’t bother to photograph the mixture on the plate, because it’s really not possible to keep the stalks standing up and it didn’t look particularly exciting. But it tasted terrific: the rice had a rich and hearty flavor, and the lemon butter made the broccoli really delightful.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make this again. I don’t know if it would be an effective way to get kids to eat broccoli, but it might motivate adults who know they ought to be eating fewer cheeseburgers.

The Moosewood Cookbook: Hearty Veggie Fare

ratatouille

RatatouillePlatedI’ve owned The Moosewood Cookbook for years, decades perhaps, and cooked from it quite a bit. It’s very charming, with hand-lettered recipes and illustrations, and it has a kind of cute hippie tone to it — lots of whole grains and bliss. But don’t let that fool you. The food in here is good, and the recipes are varied. There are a few starch-intensive recipes but for the most EggplantCubespart the dishes present great combinations of vegetables, textures and flavors. My go-to minestrone recipe is in here, and I see from marginal notes that I’ve made the rarebit before (“more horseradish, get a wire whisk, need LOTS OF BREAD,” say my notes).

I’ve never made ratatouille from either this book or any other. I’m ZucchiniGarlicPeppersnot sure why. It’s not at all difficult, and it’s an excellent vegetarian dinner. It was a good choice for a cold night. New York’s in the middle of a cold snap, though we’re weathering it much better at our place now that we’ve replaced the broken middle blind in the front windows — especially since in the process Scott discovered that all three windows were slightly open at the ZucchinitomPastePeppersTomatoestop, which explains the draft and chill that we’ve had since *ahem* 2005.

I started by doing most of my vegetable prep, then heated some olive oil in a heavy pot. I crushed in some garlic and added diced onion and a bay leaf, then let them cook until the onion was softened and translucent. Then I added a little red wine, some OnionsGarlicBayLeaftomato juice and a diced eggplant, and let them stew for about 10 minutes. I did the last of my chopping (the tomatoes and parsley) and washed the cutting board and dishes while it cooked. When the eggplant was softened a bit I added some diced zucchini and green pepper, as well as some herbs, and let them continue to stew. Now it was time to add tomato paste and diced Ratatouille2tomato and let it simmer a little while longer. When the vegetables were tender I turned off the heat and stirred in some chopped parsley.

I served the ratatouille over rice, topped with grated romano cheese and some chopped Kalamata olives. It was delicious: The vegetables were tender but not mushy, and the flavors were RatatouillePlatedOliveslively and complex. And there are leftovers, so I know what I’m taking for lunch on Monday.

Verdict: Success. This is definitely going into my repertoire. It comes together pretty quickly, so I could probably make it on a weeknight, and it would be ideal for a brown-bag lunch.

Two at One Blow: Moosewood Cooks at Home, CIA Vegetables

spaghetti with zucchini and lemon, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

Brussels sprouts with mustard glaze, Culinary Institute of America Vegetables

FettuciniInBowl3This is not the first time I’ve made more than one blog recipe at once, but I think it’s the first time I’m combining two books’ worth in a single post. I’m doing it because the recipe I chose from the Culinary Institute of America book isn’t quite enough to warrant its own post, though the book itself probably is. I could have made many more elaborate things from this book, and intend BrusselsSproutsto do so in the future: corn chowder with chiles and Monterey Jack, spinach salad with marinated shiitakes and red onion, and chiles rellenos all beckon, but none of the more elaborate dishes fit with this weekend’s constraints, which were to make something not overly time-consuming and to buy as few additional groceries as possible. Brussels sprouts with IngredsForPastaNBrussmustard glaze, on the other hand, sounded tremendous, but not sufficient for dinner.

So I flipped through Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which is a 1994 offering from the famed vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York (I’ve never been, but I do have a Moosewood apron courtesy of a former boss). I wasn’t finding much to fit the bill BrusselsSproutsTrimmedthere either, and was beginning to seriously consider the possibility that I was just being picky and distracted. My usual approach to such picky distraction is to make something I know by heart (chili-rubbed chicken, anyone?) or to propose a trip to the diner, but I thought I had better try to master my lazy impulses — and avoid falling even further behind on the blog — and make something BrusselsSproutsCookinganyway. Spaghetti with zucchini and lemon seemed appealing, if not perfectly seasonable, and I knew it would be easy to get what I needed. I even had a box of long pasta just waiting for use, so it seemed perfect.

The Brussels sprouts would make a great side dish for a traditional dinner, and they’re really easy. I rinsed the sprouts, trimmed the MustardSaucehard ends, pulled away any loose or yellow leaves, and cut an X in the stem end of each. Then I cooked them in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes, after which I drained them. I was a little afraid they’d get too soft, but they were just right — tender and bright green. Then I heated some vegetable broth and some grainy mustard (the grainiest I found was still rather less grainy ZucchSlicesthan what was pictured in the cookbook), and simmered the mixture briefly to thicken it, then tossed the sprouts in the glaze and served them.

The pasta was a little more involved, though not by much. I sliced some zucchini into rounds, minced some garlic, cut some basil leaves into thin strips, juiced a lemon, and grated a fair bit of CookingZucchiniRomano cheese. Then I brought the water to boil for pasta. The recipe calls for spaghetti or linguini, but the long pasta I had on hand was fettucini, and I decided it was close enough for my purposes. Once the pasta was in the water I heated some olive oil in a skillet and sauteed the zucchini and garlic. As you can tell from the picture, I had a bit more zucchini and less skillet AddingLemonNBasilthan would have been ideal, but with some judicious turning I was able to cook the slices pretty evenly without managing to knock an unreasonable number out of the pan.

When the zucchini was a bit browned, I added some salt and pepper, then the lemon juice and basil. At this point I pulled the pan off the heat, and the fettucini PuttingItAllTogetherwas just about done too, so I drained the pasta and mixed everything together in a pasta bowl, adding the cheese at this point as well. One drawback of the long flat noodles is that it is tricky to evenly mix a chunky vegetable mixture with them; perhaps the spaghetti or linguini would have been more suited, though not by much. When I had it as well combined as I thought I AllMixedCloseup2could manage, and the cheese had begun to melt and distribute itself pretty evenly, I dished it up.

The Brussels sprouts were tasty. I like their bitterness, and I was a little afraid the mustard sauce would make them overwhelming, but it gave them a different kind of savory balance and worked quite well. The pasta was delicious as well, with the lemon FettuciniInBowl2juice giving the zucchini a brighter, fresher flavor. The dish is probably better suited to late summer, but it was quite welcome on a snowy Saturday night. The two dishes were good complements, with the bitter edge of the pasta balancing the mellower zucchini and rich cheese.

Verdict: Success. I’ll definitely make both again, and I will make a special effort to pick up the CIA Vegetables book again when the Greenmarket is in full swing.

Vegetarian Express

curried chickpea stew, green rice, tossed salad

StewAndSaladWe’re back, babies! I’m still catching up with the rest of my life, but it’s time for another 107 Cookbooks post, with dinner cooked using the new stove. You can see it in the second photo at right. Isn’t that nice? A smooth ceramic top, and it heats quickly and efficiently. The oven works well too, but wasn’t needed for tonight’s recipe.

NewStove1Vegetarian Express is a book I’ve owned for some years, and used to be one of my go-to cookbooks. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve made the rotini with spinach, chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes…well, I probably couldn’t retire tomorrow but I could at least get a new MetroCard. I stopped using it as much when I began eating meat again, but frankly, I should add it Saladback into the regular rotation, because the recipes are good and the preparation is pretty quick. It’s clearly written, too; the instructions are neatly organized, and the recipes are arranged in menus so it’s easy to assemble a wholesome dinner.

The cookbook promises meals within 30 minutes. I didn’t quite reach that tonight — it was more Onionlike 60 — but that’s partly because I hadn’t organized the ingredients as well ahead of time as I might have and partly because I didn’t have enough clear counterspace to streamline my prep. But it was straightforward nonetheless. I started with the rice, which I made in a rice cooker. (It was supposed to be brown rice but I GreenPeppersdidn’t have any.) While it cooked, I prepared the lettuce for the salad, then diced onion, green pepper and garlic for the stew. I heated some olive oil in the stew pot and sauteed the onion and green pepper, then added garlic, chickpeas (canned, rinsed and drained), curry powder (a nice hot blend from Penzeys) and some water. This first stage of the stew StewStage1cooked for about 5 minutes. And I spent a few minutes being grateful to have a working stove.

While it cooked, I cut the large stems off the parsley and chunked up some scallions. These went into a food processor to mince. I set them aside and tended to the next stage of the stew: I added a can of sliced tomatoes with the liquid, two StewSecondStage310-ounce packages of frozen spinach that had been thawed and squeezed, and a bit of salt. This cooked for another 10 minutes.

By this point the rice was done. I had forgotten to melt two tablespoons of butter, but I cut the cold butter into the rice and let it sit for a moment to melt, then stirred in the parsley and ParsleyScallionsMincescallions along with some salt and pepper. I mixed this up well and let it sit warming in the cooker for a few more minutes while I finished chopping celery and rinsing cherry tomatoes for the salad. Everything was ready, so I put some rice into bowls, then topped it with the stew, and dished up salad.

GreeningTheRice2Verdict: Success. The stew was tasty, with a good blend of flavors; the spinach, tomato and curry blended well, and the rice was a good base for it all. (Brown rice would have been good too.) The prep was simple and it was easy to keep things organized and to clean up afterward. I will be making this again, and using the cookbook RiceAndStewCloseup2again.

Deceptively Delicious: More Fun With Fooling the Kids

burgers, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies

My apologies for the long hiatus. I’m not even sure I can fully account for all my time, but it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been able to cook for the project and post about it. But on Sunday night I got back into the swing of things with the second fool-your-kids-into-eating-vegetables book, Deceptively Delicious. To make an effective comparison with The Sneaky Chef, I made the same dishes: macaroni and cheese, burgers, and chocolate chip cookies.

Jessica Seinfeld’s basic philosophy isn’t all that different from that of Missy Chase Lapine. Nutrition is really important, kids will resist what they don’t understand, being “deceptive” will enable you to ensure they’re getting good food while you establish a more peaceful atmosphere at the dinner table, blah blah blah. (I suppose to be a Seinfeld purist I should say “yada, yada, yada,” but I’m not; I was so over the show like five years before it ended.) But the specific approaches are a bit different; where Lapine has you prepare an array of specific blended purees and mixes, Seinfeld simply recommends you puree particular vegetables ahead of time. The final recipes are not identical, though of course many of the same kid-friendly dishes are offered. Where Lapine’s book has supporting quotes from a cook and nutritionist, Seinfeld’s is peppered with suggestions from other parents and cute sayings from her husband and kids. I’m still confident that the publisher didn’t plagiarize from Lapine, but simply turned down a relative nobody in favor of a celebrity mom. Which doesn’t mean Seinfeld’s recipes are better, just that she’s an easier sell to a celebrity-hungry public.

I started by making the chocolate chip cookies. Seinfeld’s call for regular flour, oats, salt and soda on the dry side, and trans-fat-free margarine, brown sugar, egg whites, vanilla, chocolate chips and chickpeas. Whole, cooked chickpeas — rinsed and drained if from a can — that are added to the wet ingredients together with the chocolate chips. I double-checked the recipe to see if they were supposed to be mashed first, but no; Seinfeld specifically mentions that if your mixer bowl is broad enough you may get flying chickpeas, which the kids will find hilarious. I didn’t have flying chickpeas, but for quite a while I also didn’t have chickpeas that were in any way blending into the dough. The photo didn’t show obvious signs of chickpeas in the finished cookies. Puzzled, I turned up the mixer, and now I was able to break them down sufficiently. There were still some obvious chickpeas and chunks of chickpeas to be seen, but they were mostly assimilated. The dough was wetter than regular chocolate chip cookie dough, and it baked up into a nice, puffy cookie; credit the egg whites for that. I tasted one of the warm cookies and found an unmistakable chunk of chickpea, but it went well with the cookie as a whole, which was quite tasty. I think these cookies were just as good as Lapine’s, but not necessarily any better. And I’d probably give the chickpeas a few whacks with a potato masher before adding them if I made these again.

I turned next to the macaroni and cheese. This recipe was a lot more complicated and time-consuming than Lapine’s. I started by halving and roasting a butternut squash, which I pureed. Theoretically I could have done this part ahead. While the squash roasted I did the rest of my prep: grating cheddar and measuring cream cheese for the mac and cheese, and chopping mushrooms, grating zucchini and grinding bread crumbs for the burgers. (The bread crumbs could have been prepared ahead too.) When I had things ready, I boiled and drained some macaroni. This is a stovetop mac and cheese: I made a sort of roux with olive oil and flour in a saucepan, then added some seasoning and milk. When that had begun to thicken a bit I added the squash, cream cheese and cheddar, and whisked them until they had melted into a smooth, thick sauce. Thicker than the usual mac and cheese sauce, in fact; a little thicker than I prefer. But it blended well enough with the macaroni. It didn’t taste as cheesy as Lapine’s recipe, though I might have mismeasured the cheddar; one could certainly adjust the sauce ingredients to taste pretty easily. Overall I thought it was a lot more work for not quite as flavorful a dish.

While I put that together I was also assembling the burgers. I used bison again, and blended it with chopped mushrooms, bread crumbs, grated zucchini, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and seasonings. I cooked the patties on one side on the stovetop, in a cast-iron skillet, then turned them and slid the skillet into the oven to finish them. I’m not sure why one couldn’t finish them on the stovetop, but they turned out just fine: moist and flavorful. The mushrooms were certainly less visible in the uncooked patties than the spinach-and-blueberry mixture had been.

Once again, Scott knew that there was something “deceptive” in the dishes, but not what it was. He didn’t think the macaroni and cheese was as good as Lapine’s, but he thought it was all right, and he couldn’t figure out what the vegetable component was. He thought Seinfeld’s burgers were just as good as Lapine’s if not better, though when I explained that the main vegetable ingredient was mushrooms he was surprised. “Why not just saute mushrooms and serve them on top? That would taste better,” he said. Maybe not if you were an ornery seven-year-old, I suggested. Finally he tried the cookies, and since he didn’t happen to choose one with an un-broken-down chickpea evident he was hard pressed to guess what the mystery ingredient was. He did like the texture and the rich chocolate flavor from the chips, which accentuated the sweet and puffy cookie.

Verdict: Success. The dishes were all good, though the mac and cheese was more work than I found reasonable. I still don’t buy into the idea of sneaking vegetables into kids’ food, but I think I’d make the burgers and the cookies again. Maybe not right away; I’m a little burgered-out at the moment.