Friday, May 29, 2009

Crispy Onions are as Good as Mark Bittman Says

Last night, I wanted a quick late lunch before I met up with a friend at the bar. I wanted something that wouldn't require a whole lot of attention, as I was feeling lazy, and I also recalled that I had most of an onion in a plastic bag in the fridge. Then I thought of this.

I have about half a bag of lentils, and a giant bag of rice that I'm slowly using, and I recalled the article by Mark Bittman saying that the finest topping for these two grains was crispy burnt onions. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it was, and it was delicious. The Bitten post tells you pretty much everything you need to know, but I'll give you my take on it here.

Lentils and Rice with Crispy Onions

1/4 cup lentils
1/4 cup rice
1/2 onion
Salt

Okay, so this really isn't hard. 1:1 ratio of lentils to rice. Boil the lentils, covered mostly or entirely, for about 15 minutes. Then throw in the rice and continue cooking, adding water as needed, for about 20 minutes until the lentils are mushy and the rice is done. While the rice is cooking, make your crispy onions. Mark Bittman recommends a splash of oil; I used butter. I salted them, and cooked them over a slightly-higher-than-I-was-comfortable-with heat. They browned and shriveled, and began to give off an amazing smell. They started to crinkle, and the edges slowly blackened. At this point, they got a touch smoky - not too bad, but I did turn on the hood fan. After about 10 minutes (Mark says 15 to 20; I guess I wussed out), I scooped them on top of my lentils and rice. The edges were crunchy, the outer skin crispy, and the insides sweet and juicy and soft. Their sweet tanginess complimented the soft, cozy, stick-to-your-ribs taste of the grains perfectly. I highly recommend it. Just be sure to LET THEM COOL before you start eating. I have poor self-control.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mac n' Blue Has Me Green

Short update: last night I made mac n' blue cheese. It was delicious, but I think I ate too much of it, as I was feeling a little sick until this morning. Perhaps man was not meant to eat that much blue cheese in a single sitting. You are warned.

This dish is so astoundingly easy I'm amazed I don't make it all the time.

Mac n' [Cheese of Choice Here]

1/2 lb pasta
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 1/2 - 2 cups milk
1 cup cheese, any kind that melts well will do, crumbled or grated

Set your pasta on to cook in some well-salted water. I'm sure Italian purists will be furious with me, but I don't wait for my water to boil before I throw the pasta in; it seems to take less time this way, but I've never actually pulled out my stopwatch. Just make sure you stir it once in a while until it starts boiling, otherwise the pasta might stick to the pot.

While that's going, make a bechamel sauce. This will keep the cheese nice and melty and creamy, and will keep your mac n' gouda (or whatever) delicious after reheating. (Don't you hate reheated Kraft? I know I do.) To make a bechamel, melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan over medium heat until it gets foamy. Then add the flour, and stir to combine (use a whisk if you're concerned about it being lumpy; I was just making myself a quick snack). Cook the flour for a minute or two. This gets rid of that dry, dusty taste that raw flour has. Once the flour has cooked for a bit, begin adding the milk, slowly. It's best to use slightly warm or room-temperature milk, but if you know me at all, you know I don't have the patience for that sort of thing. I always use cold milk straight out of the fridge, and it just takes a bit longer.

Add the milk a bit at a time, and stir - or better, whisk - together with the flour mixture. Soon, the whole mess should start to thicken up. When it does, add a little more milk, and continue the process until you have a nice thick sauce. I really just eyeball this. Be sure to leave it a little thinner than you'd like, because you'll be adding cheese momentarily, and that will thicken it up.

Once you have a satisfactory sauce, take the pan off the heat. Whisk in your grated or crumbled cheese a handful at a time, waiting for it to completely melt before adding more. The amount you feel like adding may vary - just keep tasting until it seems right. If you need to re-warm the sauce a little bit to get everything to melt, do so over very low heat. Once you have your sauce, add cracked pepper to taste. I find that the cheese is usually salty enough on its own, but if you like Dead Sea cuisine, go for it. Then, drain your pasta, and toss it with the sauce, and you're done!

Makes 2 servings - unless you're really hungry, or really like cheese, or are named Megan.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Asparagus Pizza

And so, I am back. I made some tasty dishes last week, but nothing too remarkable. There was a strawberry salad that I made for a picnic with the Sugar Daddy, with mint leaves and a honey-lemon vinaigrette dressing, but that's the most spectacular thing.

Last night, however, I was on my own for dinner - we were going to the Pub for trivia night, and sadly my current food policy prohibits my traditional fish and chips. (Not the beer, though, thank God.) I wasn't entirely sure what I would make for dinner, but I saw this as a pretty good opportunity, as I had some asparagus in my fridge that needed to be used. (Asparagus has been in season now for a couple weeks, by the way! If you're interested in eating seasonally, like I am, check out this page at Epicurious.com. It will tell you month-by-month what's in season for your state or any other state you like, and that way, you can find local ingredients at their freshest.)

And then, while I was at work perusing my RSS feed reader, what should arrive but this little gem? Mark Bittman, of Edward Schneider, a frequent contributor to the Bitten blog, frequents farmers' markets and focuses on seasonality; he got a bit tired of all the asparagus, as it's been around for a while now, and wasn't sure what to do with it. And then, he had one of those moments that people like me adore: when you see a few ingredients laid out in front of you, and a flash of inspiration hits and you build the perfect dinner in your head. Asparagus pizza! Brilliant!

I modified his plan slightly - I only used ricotta cheese, and I added thinly-sliced garlic to my pizza toppings (seriously. EVERYTHING.). It turned out extremely well - I'd recommend the garlic, but not my ricotta-only strategy. It doesn't melt as well as, say, mozzarella, and you get a drier pizza with toppings that tend to fall off a little. Still, it turned out quite delicious.

Asparagus Pizza (compiled from Mark Bittman's Bitten blog and www.smittenkitchen.com)

SmittenKitchen's Really Simple Pizza Dough

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I used a whole package. It won't hurt anything.)
1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in the water and olive oil, and stir the mixture into ball-like form.

Dump the mixture out onto a surface. (I found that the dough was oily enough not to need flour, but flour the countertop if your dough is sticky.) Knead it for a couple of minutes - just enough to develop a little gluten, but you don't want a super-elastic dough. If you're having trouble getting everything to become, or stay, a homogeneous lump, Deb at SmittenKitchen recommends upending the bowl over the whole mess and walking away for five minutes. When you come back, your dough should be much better-behaved.

Oil the bowl you mixed the dough in. You won't need much, and the bowl should be relatively clean. Turn the dough-ball in the oil to coat it, and then cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled in bulk, about an hour for me. (While my dough was rising, I made my Ricotta Cheese, recipe below.)

Once the dough is doubled, dump it out on the counter again and, with flat hands, press the gas out of it. Then fold it (don't clump it or knead it) into a sort of ball-ish-shape, throw the plastic wrap back over it, and let it sit for 20 minutes. (I chopped my veggies while the dough was resting.)

Ricotta Cheese (based on Daniel Meyer's efforts over at Bitten)

1 quart whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Juice from 1 lemon

Pour the whole milk and salt into a saucepan over high heat. When the milk begins to simmer, turn the heat down and pour in the lemon juice. Like magic, curds will form and float to the top of the liquid in the pan. Give it three minutes or so, and then scoop the curds out with a slotted spoon. (I had a colander standing ready, lined with paper towels. Once I got toward the end of the curds, I just poured the whole mess through the colander - three layers of paper towels held up ok.) Drain the ricotta in the paper towels, pressing out all of the liquid and letting it dry for about an hour and a half. Voila!

Making the pizza

8 (or so) asparagus stalks, trimmed
3 cloves garlic
1/4 large onion
Ricotta cheese

Cut the asparagus stalks in half lengthwise, and then into 1 to 1 1/2 inch lengths. Slice the garlic cloves as thinly as possible, and do the same with the onion.

Once the pizza dough has rested (see above), preheat your oven to its hottest setting. Roll out the dough - I think pizzas look better when they're blobby and not round, but maybe I'm just sublimating my own inadequacies. Crumble the ricotta cheese all over the pizza. (Mark Bittman leaves the ricotta cheese off during the baking, and uses mozzarella for his base, adding the ricotta at the end - I'll try it his way sometime and let you know how it turns out.) Top the pizza with the vegetables, keeping it light so the crust can puff up. Then bake and serve! The pizza should bake for about 10 minutes, until the crust browns and blisters slightly. Mmm-mmm, good.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Return and a Reboot

Hello, everyone! I return!

I know, I know. I never finished my stories about the Middle East. Suffice it to say, I saw many things, I went to Cairo, I slept on buses and in bus stations and in the same clothes for two days, I barely dodged super-sketchy cab drivers, and it was the trip of my dreams. Someday I'll write about how phenomenally stupid of an idea it was to just up and go to Cairo (did you know that from the border crossing to Cairo is six hours by cab through literal wasteland? I do now!), but today is not that day. I'm back to writing, due to popular demand. But now, I'll be talking about something ELSE that you all seem to love hearing me ramble about: food.

Yes, I'm turning this into a food blog, sort of anyway, because I love talking about food, thinking about food, cooking, and bragging about what I've cooked. This will necessitate the acquisition of a camera in the very near future, so that I can post pictures of the deliciousness, but until then you'll have to settle for my loving and perhaps slightly exaggerated descriptions. My plan these days is not to eat anything that I have not made myself. Currently this excludes pasta, even though I know how to make it and have done so in the past, and bread, because bread is a pain (har har har). I do plan to start making more complex artisan breads, but let's save that for when I don't have classes and homework to deal with. The goal here is that when I want something quick and easy, I will turn to raw foods (fruits and veggies) for snacking; also that I will go to the farmers' market for my groceries. I tend to shop very healthy, but I also buy processed foods like chips and ice cream sometimes because they're there, you know? This plan will also mean that I learn how to cook lots more stuff, and that you'll get to hear all about it. Blogging it will help keep me honest, too, because nobody ever lies to anybody on the Internet. That, and I know my mommy reads this.

Anyway, tonight was a bit of an experiment. I like making soups; I'm comfortable with soups, especially stews that contain lots of root vegetables. I also can hack together a stir-fry or fried rice in a few short minutes. I've realized this, and have decided to start pushing my comfort zone. Tonight, Sugar Daddy (the boyfriend, Ben - this new nickname was sarcastically requested by him, and I'm perpetuating it just to get on his nerves) and I came up to his apartment in Logan Square to watch the basketball game. Because I'm not eating processed foods, I decided to whip together something from whatever he had in the fridge. Being as how he lives with another twentysomething (soon-to-be-ex-) bachelor, that turned out to be Not Much.

"Okay," I thought to myself, "I've managed with less."

I checked the freezer and found a gallon bag of frozen beef. (Seriously?) SD started the process of thawing it enough to scrape off a few chunks for me to use. I let the big strong man handle prying it apart with a spoon, and set about dealing with vegetables. I found a big bag of broccoli, and a plan began to take shape: Chinese food. Broccoli beef! It's one of SD's favorite dishes, and I've always loved the way broccoli soaks up sauce. Deee-licious. Matt, SD's roommate, is Korean, and keeps all the basics around: soy sauce, rice. We also had a range of white wine, unopened thank-you gifts from a bunch of party guests a month or so back.

While SD dealt with the beef and hollered at the game, I chopped up an organic leek that I'd left in the fridge a while ago. These organic leeks were particularly filthy and took some very careful cleaning. I also got out a bunch of broccoli and rinsed it down. Finally, I chopped up a couple cloves of garlic. I put garlic in everything - you really can't go wrong.

When I had a few beef chunks separated from the cancerous, rock-solid mass, I sliced them thin (way easier when it's frozen, BTDubs) and threw them in hot oil in a skillet. I kept the heat a little on the low side, since the meat was still fairly frozen. Still, they browned on one side pretty quickly. I flipped them, and dumped in the leeks and the broccoli. The broccoli began to cook down nicely once I stirred it up and coated it with the oil. I let this mess sizzle for a while until the meat looked barely pink, and then I threw in the garlic. It's better to do this later in the process, so that the garlic doesn't burn, and the flavor is stronger.

At this point, I had to freehand a sauce. I had looked up a number of recipes, but for things like this, I don't really have the patience to actually use them. So I poured about a half-cup of soy sauce into the skillet, followed by maybe a cup of white wine (I dunno, I just make this stuff up as I go). I didn't add any salt - soy sauce is PLENTY salty on its own. I also added some cracked black pepper, and then let it simmer for a bit. The mixture smelled fantastic, and tasted a little sweet, but mostly sour - the soy sauce and wine mixed fairly well, but I threw in a pinch of sugar to help it out. I let the sauce reduce down a bit on its own, and then I added a bit of cornstarch to thicken it up. This isn't something that I usually do, but I wanted a quick, thick sauce here - something that would stick to rice and not be too soupy. After a few minutes, things thickened up beautifully, and hey presto, takeout-caliber broccoli beef. Served over white rice, it ended up being pretty tasty - I sit here feeling the satisfaction of a delicious meal, and then periodically remembering that I cooked it. Which makes me smile.

Side note: I'll be food-blogging a lot on here, but for those of you that like to hear about my Middle East adventures, Ben and I will be heading to Cairo at the end of August. I'll certainly be blogging it, and maybe I'll even have pictures for you this time (what with the whole "hopefully getting a camera" thing). If we're lucky, perhaps I can even convince Sugah to do a little joint blogging. That way, you can get a different perspective, from someone who hasn't had fedora-and-whip-and-pyramid fantasies since the age of eight.

See you all tomorrow!