Mushroom Powder

January 14, 2012

And its multifarious uses!

I adore mushrooms.  I love shiitakes stir-fried with strips of flank steak, I love the earthy funk of fresh morels in cream sauce, I love porcini-and-pea risotto – I even love the unjustly-maligned white button mushroom (which is, you may not be aware, the exact same thing as a brown crimini or portobello mushroom – they’re all agaricus bisporus, and they don’t taste different in the slightest.).

Why is an Algonquin spirit selling mushrooms, anyhow?  I guess there's probably a Mushroom Manitou, but I would have associated that sort of nature spirit with, y'know, higher phyla like... chordata.  Or angiospermae.  Whatever, this undercuts my thesis that mushrooms are great, so ignore it.

I also love that my parents have a membership at Costco, where rather large quantities of dried mushrooms can be had for not too much money.  They recently picked up a big ol’ jar for me, at my request, since I’d used up most of the Chinese Black Mushrooms (same species as the shiitake, Lenintula edodes) that my friend Allison gave to me as a host present.  Thanks, Allison!  They were delightful, and giving people dried mushrooms is the best tradition.

Anyway, Carolyn and I were at Volo again, and we had the BMG flatbread on their current menu.  That menu won’t be around forever, since it’s seasonal, so here it is for posterity:

12        B M G     F l a t b r e a d
Berkshire bacon, mushroom, goat cheese

There’s no way that could be bad!  And of course, it wasn’t.  There were chunks of cooked mushroom, little batons of bacon, and half-teaspoon-sized dots of goat cheese – and simply typing that makes me salivate.  But the interesting part was the smell.  Cooked, fresh mushrooms don’t have a particularly intense flavor most of the time.  It’s the dried mushrooms that have that intense, musty flavor.  There was, I noticed, a dusty coating on the flatbread.  I asked the waitress, “Is this powdered mushroom?” and she was like, “Good eye, yes it is!”

So that was one of those things that I tried and immediately knew I wanted to steal.

Mushroom Powder
Not exactly a spice, not exactly a condiment

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 cup (by volume) of dried shiitake mushrooms (or other dried mushrooms, but shiitakes are relatively inexpensive)
  • A clean and odorless coffee or spice grinder

I'm not particularly concerned about sand or grit, because it's going to get ground so fine you won't even notice it's there.  Whatever, it's good for you.

The Heist

1. In batches, grind the mushrooms into a rough powder, and gradually add in the mushrooms until they’re all ground up, and continue to process until they become a relatively fine powder.  You could grind them into a superfine, almost cakey powder, if you wanted, but I think you’d have to add salt (the added agitation of the salt helps grind other, softer stuff).

2.  Put the resulting powder into a bowl – you should have, by volume, about a half-cup.  Store in a tightly-lidded plastic container, out of direct sunlight, for a few weeks to a month or so.  Whole dried mushrooms have a shelf life of about half a year before they start to lose a lot of their flavor, so I figure the ceiling on this powder is maybe two months.

It looks like sand but smelled like mushroom!  I felt like a WIZARD.

It won’t last that long, however, because once you make  a batch of this stuff, you’ll want to put it on everything, like…

Mushroom Popcorn!

The Setup

You will need:

  • 4 parts mushroom powder
  • 2 parts kosher salt
  • 1 part black pepper
  • oil
  • popcorn
  • a large, heavy pot with a lid

The Heist

1. Combine the mushroom powder, the salt, and the pepper in your spice grinder and process until everything turns into a fine powder.  For a half-cup (unpopped) serving of popcorn, I’d use 2 teaspoons of mushroom powder, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/2 a teaspoon of pepper (and feel free to use the whole peppercorns here – they’re getting scrunched up anyhow)

If you need me, I'll be downstairs, with the shopvac.

When combined, it’ll look kinda like this:

You can call, but I prob'ly won't hear you, because it's loud with the shopvac on.

That is, rather like sawdust and pencil shavings.  Never fear, though; this stuff is delicious.

2.  Get some potholders ready.  Heat a few teaspoons of oil in your heavy pot, measure out your popcorn (more than 1/2 a cup of unpopped kernels in a 6-quart pot will result in I Love Lucy-esque overflow hijinks, so be forewarned.), and stir briskly over high heat for a minute or so, until the kernels begin to turn opaque.

3.  When this happens, cover the pot, and wait for the sound of popping kernels.  At this point, take hold of the pot’s handles with your potholders, and shake the pot vigorously, making sure it stays in contact with the heat.  Don’t shake it up and down, just side to side.  Give it a good shake at least once every ten to fifteen seconds so nothing gets stuck on the bottom.

4.  When the space between pops exceeds, oh, 10 seconds or so, turn off the heat, and let the pot stay covered for about a minute to protect yourself from rogue poppers.  Then decant into a large bowl, and from a relatively high height, sprinkle the mushroom seasoning mixture over it, and toss until coated and tasty.  You probably won’t need any additional oil to make the mixture adhere to the popcorn, since the grains are so small they’ll fit in the nooks and crannies of the popped kernels.  Health food!

Food blogger's secret: I test the recipes in full proportion, but sometimes, for photography purposes, I just make enough to create a single serving.   There is a second, smaller prep bowl underneath that popcorn, to give the appearance of greater volume.  The more you know!

I guess lots of upmarket restaurants, at least in Chicago, are giving out pre-dinner popcorn instead of bread.  Graham Elliot is known for it, and so is decorated newcomer Ruxbin.  It makes sense.  Popcorn is cheap, not particularly labor-intensive, and easier to customize on the fly than bread is.  It’s also less filling than bread, but it takes as long to eat.  Graham Elliot does theirs with parmesan and truffle oil; Ruxbin does it with furikake.  I’d like to put my mushroom popcorn right up against theirs.  I also love to douse popcorn in garlic oil, but we’ll get to that.

If popcorn’s not your speed, then allow me to return to a Clean Platter standby: Macaroni and Cheese!

Mushroom Mac
A recipe identical to the Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese, with emendations in bold text.

  • 1 stalk of celery
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 of a medium onion – about 1/4 cup, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk, any type of fat (I used skim and it was fine.)
  • 3 ounces, by weight, grated/dry mexican cotija cheese (or parmesan)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons mushroom powder
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional but awesome; I didn’t have any fresh on hand)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

Prepare identically to the Essential Stovetop recipe:

1.  Dice the celery, garlic, and onion; measure your milk, cheese, fat, and flour.  Slice the mushrooms.

2.  Start heating the pasta water.

3.  Melt the butter in the 2-quart saucepan and cook the celery, garlic, and onion until soft, 5-7 minutes.  Add in the flour and mix into a paste over medium heat, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.

4.  Add the milk a little at a time, and stir vigorously but not extravagantly, until all traces of roux-lumps are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is pleasantly thickened.  Reduce heat to low.

5.  Add in the mushroom powder, stir, and taste.  Don’t add any salt, because the cheese is plenty salty.

6.  Yeah!  Add the cotija or parmesan cheese.  High-five the person nearest you.  Kill the heat, stir to combine.

7.  Cook the sliced mushrooms in oil over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they’ve lost most of their liquid, shrunk, and browned.  Cook in a single layer.

8.  Cook the macaroni in the boiling, salted water, and cook until al dente – then drain and incorporate into the cheese sauce.  Add the mushrooms, stir to combine, and serve.

I only made a little bit, and I made it without the fresh mushrooms, and I should have put it in a ramekin and not a plate, but it’ll look something like this.Who serves Mac and Cheese in such a flat way?  It must be heaped, like a righteous, bounteous pile!

But with tasty chunks of mushroom on top.

Anyway.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a version of Volo’s bacon, mushroom, and goat cheese flatbread, but with an addition of my own – garlic oil!

Garlic oil!

You will need:

  • a head of garlic or two
  • a cup of good-quality olive oil
  • a clear plastic squeeze bottle – these should usually cost about 1 to 2 bucks.
  • a small saucepan.

Instructions:

1.  First, separate and peel all the cloves of garlic and, once peeled, tumble them into a saucepan.  Fill the pan with oil to cover the garlic, and put it on the stove over low heat – at the barest simmer.  You don’t want to really cook the oil here; you want to heat it enough to soften up the garlic, but you want to keep the oil as bright-tasting as you can.

2.  Let it go for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the kitchen smells magnificent.  Hot olive oil smells surprisingly fruity, so you may find yourself sniffing around for an unexpected banana (like ya do).

3.  Once the garlic is soft, remove it with a slotted spoon.  Let the oil cool off, and then pour it into a measuring cup, then a squeeze bottle.  Keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

4.  Do something wonderful with the oil-poached garlic cloves.  Slather them on a toasted baguette, eat them plain, throw them into a batch of mashed potatoes, dab them behind your ears – I don’t care.  They’re going to be delicious, whatever you do.

Bacon, Mushroom, and Goat Cheese Flatbread with Garlic Oil
Makes either 2 full-size pizzas or 4 little flatbreads

The Setup

You will need:

  • A recipe of pizza dough
  • Garlic oil (see above)
  • Mushroom powder (see above)
  • a 4-ounce log of goat cheese
  • 4 ounces of bacon, cut into little sticks
  • 4 ounces of mushrooms, sliced thin.

The Heist

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.  Cut your dough into either two or four balls, depending on your preference, and roll them out; place them on an oiled baking sheet.

2.  In a small skillet, cook the bacon over low heat until cooked through but not crispy.  Reserve the bacon, and cook the sliced mushrooms in the fat until they give off their liquid and turn brown.  Take off the heat and place in a bowl.

3.  Drizzle each flatbread with a teaspoon or so of garlic oil, then dot them with bacon pieces, mushrooms, and half-teaspoons of goat cheese.  Dust generously with mushroom powder!

4.  Bake in the 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the dough is crisp and brown around the edges.  Let cool for two minutes, then cut and serve.

Well.  I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you?

Happy cooking!

-D

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Or, I Did It Chai Way.

There’s a resale shop in Chicago – actually, there are a few of them – whose proceeds benefit the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, the premier GLBT health services provider in the Chicago area.  It’s called The Brown Elephant.  I go there whenever I can, because A) It benefits a good cause, B) there are treasures in their used books section, and C) their kitchen goods section is expansive, awesome, and cheap.

I recently bought a teapot that matches my cup-and-saucer set, and since then I have been making tea like a lunatic.  Sure, I made tea before, but in that way that I never particularly liked; I’d fill a teabag with loose tea, plop it in a coffee mug, and pour hot water over it to steep.  It’s the single-serve coffee-shop way of selling tea in the U.S., the way I used to dish out tea when I worked in a coffeeshop as a teenager.  I don’t like the way the teabag flops out of the mug and hits you in the nose; it’s like being slapped by a tiny sea lion.  It seems evident to me that the best way to drink tea is in little cups, out of a teapot.  You can control the sweetener on a per-portion basis, you can make rather a lot at once, and you feel a little bit more like a grown-up, rather than an on-the-go-nup drinking lukewarm, second refill tea out of your sustainable but silly to-go sippy cup.

So, I’ve been drinking a lot of Kenilworth Estate Ceylon tea.  It’s the business, brother.  It’s damned fine, and I can get a pound of it for 16 bucks at the Coffee and Tea Exchange near Carolyn’s apartment (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Teavana, you 8-bucks-an-ounce tea thieves!).  I love this city.

Carolyn’s wanted a Chai Spice mix recipe for a while now, so here we go!  Chai is just Hindi for tea (Hindi and Russian and Persian and Aramaic and Mandarin and Japanese – cha/chai is an incredibly common pronunciation.  Medieval trade was global too, people.), and what we generally think of as the chai stuff in a chai latte is the chai spice-mix, the chai masala, and that’s what I’ll be describing today.

A spice-mix like this has applications beyond tea!  We’ll investigate them after I give you the recipe.

Aww.  Spicy group hug.

Four Friends Chai Spice Mix
A recipe in proportions

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 part cloves, either ground or whole
  • 1 part cardamom, ground or whole (more on that later)
  • 2 parts ground cinnamon
  • 2 parts ground ginger
  • a spice grinder, probably
  • a plastic bag and a wooden rolling pin for the cardamom

Chances are, if you don’t have ground cardamom, you’ll have purchased the green seed pods.  These things are obnoxious, and until I figured out this option, I used to crack the pods open with my fingernails, and laboriously loosen each of the pod’s small black seeds free from the papery-white pith.  Predictably, the seeds would spring out like cannonballs, shooting across the kitchen, into my shirt, behind the refrigerator, onto the stovetop.  This would not do.

So, what I do now is take my cardamom pods, place them in a bag, and roll them over with a rolling pin or wooden dowel until they’re completely broken up.  Then I put them through the loosest wire-mesh strainer I have to catch the husks, and then I chuckle to myself for my cleverness.

Of course, you could always just buy pre-sorted cardamom seeds, which will keep their flavor longer than ground cardamom but save you the bother as well.  I think you’ll have to buy them online or in specialty shops, as whole cardamom is hard enough to find in this country in the first place.

The Heist

1.  Sort out and measure all your spices.

2.  Using a spice grinder, a mortar and pestle, or a draft horse-driven mill, grind all the spices into a fine powder.

3.  Bottle and label.  Store in a cool, dark cupboard.

 

Making a pot of Masala Chai

 

My girlfriend's parents bought me this lovely bowl as a holiday present!  Isn't it nice?  It came from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.  I mean, it came from the museum store.  They didn't just lift it from an exhibit.  Although that would have been pretty sweet of them, too.

1.  For every cup of tea you intend to make, use one teaspoon of tea.  For every teaspoon of tea that you add, add 1/3 teaspoon of chai spice mix.  (Thus, a teaspoon of spice mix for every tablespoon of tea.)  And when you’re done calculating that, always add another teaspoon for the pot.  And use a black, unflavored tea, something with a strong taste and a good body – Darjeeling is traditional, but Ceylon or Assam will do fine.  Earl Grey is a no, because of that bergamot oil.

 

The artist's name is Barbara Humpage, which is a name I can't say without snickering and I'M SORRY.

2. Fill your teabag with the chai spice and tea, place it in the teapot, and pour boiling water into the pot.  Cover and steep for five to six minutes.

3.  Pour into cups, add milk and sweetener to taste (I don’t think it’s masala chai unless it’s a milk tea), and enjoy.

Sip.  Do not chug.

Making other things with your chai spice mix

Melissa Clark, the food writer I seem to reference the most often in these entries, has an all-purpose shortbread recipe, which Carolyn swears by.  After I made this spice mix, she made the Rosemary Shortbread, subbing out the rosemary for a teaspoon of masala.  I’ll reprint it here, but buy Melissa’s latest book, Cook This Now!  It’s a recipe book organized seasonally; unsure of what to make?  Befuddled by the variety of recipes available?  Flip open Cook This Now to January.  There.  She’s just made it easier for you.

Melissa Clark’s Everything Is Shortbread Cookie (Chai Spice Edition)

You will need:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chai spice mix
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons dark, full-flavored honey (optional).

Instructions:

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, chai spice and salt. Add butter, and honey if desired, and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don’t overprocess. Dough should not be smooth.

2. Press dough into an ungreased 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan or 9-inch pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.

You could also make Heather’s Blackberry Flan with chai spice instead of (or in addition to the vanilla) – take out the blackberries.  And my sister Julie likes these Chai Cupcakes, but I think you could get away with using a tablespoon of chai spice (or 2 and a half teaspoons of chai spice and a half-teaspoon of nutmeg), and make your own chai-spiced milk tea for the cupcake batter instead of using bagged chai.

But really, the applications are pretty widespread.

Ah, friends.  Where would I be without friends?  And tea?

Probably prison, that’s where.

Oh.  Oh, that was a rhetorical question.  You didn’t need to hear the end of that thought, did you?

Happy cooking, everyone.

Take Me to the Pie-lette

November 5, 2011

I am but a stranger.

I’m not even going to try to convince you that pie is better than cake. I’ll just tell you that no pie-eating nation can ever be permanently vanquished, and that “in our own glad and fortunate country the seasons are known by their respective dominant pies.” We set our clocks by pie. Pie is, to be truthful, the pinnacle of human achievement, and anyone who tells you that it’s vaccines, rockets, and wireless internet is blowing it out his ass.

Well, if I’m reading my watch correctly, pumpkin pie season is here, and will be for another month or two. If, in that time, you choose to roast your own pumpkins (which I recommend, heartily! It’s fun!), you will probably end up with an excess of pumpkin puree, and, by extension, pie filling. Now, I wouldn’t stoop to call this a bad thing, but probably by the time you have leftover pie filling, you’re probably sick of making crusts – sure, you could nip out to the store and get a coupla pre-made graham-cracker crusts (that’s what I did, after all, because there ain’t no pie like spontaneous pie), but let’s imagine that it’s the day after thanksgiving, or, okay, two days after thanksgiving, and you’re exhausted from pie-crafting. But you desire more pumpkin – I feel that. I can identify with that. This recipe is for you.

Pumpkin Pie Custard Cups
 A scrumptious little nibble for the fall and winter months

Remember, a pumpkin pie filling is mostly just puree, milk, and eggs. It’s a custard! And what can you do with custards? You can dole them out into ramekins and bake them as crustless custard cups! Easy.

I do this in a water bath (or bain-marie) because the water regulates the temperature fairly well, and, though it’ll take a little longer than it would if I’d just arranged the ramekins on a cookie sheet, they’ll bake more evenly because of it.  Since these custards are in individual servings, they don’t need to set as firmly as they might for pie, but it’s really up to you.  The toothpick test will tell you whether or not the custard is at your desired consistency. I cannot.

The Setup

For the last several years, my go-to pie has been the late, marvelous Camille Glenn’s brandied pumpkin pie from her glorious Heritage of Southern Cooking by Workman books. I like it because there’s liquor in it. But also because I roast a pumpkin for it.

Roasting a pumpkin is no different from roasting any other kind of squash – you could do it two ways:

Way #1: Quarter the pumpkin, and, in a large roasting pan with an inch of water in it, roast the pieces at 350 degrees F, cut-side down, until they are soft – about an hour (The Acorn Squash method).

Way #2: Peel and cube the pumpkin, and roast on a lightly oiled baking sheet at 450 degrees until soft, maybe 20 to 25 minutes (the Butternut Squash Method).

I like Way #2 better, and it doesn’t really matter how you do it, because whatever you do, that pumpkin is going to be removed from its shell and scooped into a large food processor. Puree it into submission. Unless you’ve got an enormous food processor (or a relatively small pumpkin), you probably won’t be able to fit it all in there, and that’s totally okay. You can freeze your excess pumpkin and use it later.

Camille Glenn’s recipe calls for brandy, and brandy’s a fun flavor to have in pie, but you know what I like better? Whiskey. And Southern Comfort. A shot of each will do for flavoring this baby.

Very Nearly Camille Glenn’s Pumpkin Pie Filling

  • 1 cup of pumpkin puree, canned or otherwise.
  • 1 cup of evaporated milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp fresh-grated nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp cloves
  • 1 ounce bourbon or other whiskey
  • 1 ounce Southern Comfort liqueur

You will also need:

  • a 4-ounce ramekin for each custard cup
  • pumpkin pie filling (as above, or otherwise)
  • A glass baking dish

The Heist

1.  Mix puree with eggs and milk – beat with a whisk or a spatula until well-incorporated and maybe a little frothy.

2.  Combine sugar and spices, stir well to combine, and then mix with the custard mixture until fully incorporated and dissolved.  Set aside!

3. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

4. Measure a half cup of pie filling into each ramekin and place it in the baking dish – then, when you’ve filled all your ramekins, pour water into the baking dish so that it comes up to about half-an-inch to an inch around the ramekins.


5. Put them in the oven until they’re set, 35 to 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven, and when the water’s cool enough to touch, remove the ramekins from the water bath.

While you’re doing that, you can get to work on the topping!

Now, originally, I thought, “Hey!  What if I put some marshmallows on top?  That’d be kind of neat.”  I had some marshmallows in the pantry – a little old, sure, but unopened and perfectly serviceable.  I figured, hell – this’ll work out fine!

However, what I neglected to realize was that melted marshmallows look… really unappetizing.

But.
Like someone sneezed in the pan. Or something. I don’t know. Draw your own conclusions.



But then I decided, “You know what this pumpkin pie could use? That’s right! More pumpkin.”

So into my pantry I went for some green, hulled pumpkin seeds – they’re called pepitas.

Toasty Pumpkin Seed Pie-Topping/Snack Mix Component

For pies or otherwise
Ingredients:

1. In a small nonstick skillet over medium-low heat, toast the pepitas and toss to coat with chili powder; cook for about 2 to 4 minutes.

2. Kill heat, toss with 1/4-teaspoon of salt, or to taste.
3. Sprinkle over pumpkin pie! Or mix with raisins and cashews and call it Autumn-Flavored Trail Mix.

And that’s it!  Enjoy that prince of foods, the wondrous pumpkin, in his most glorious aspect.
Pie.
I mean, if I wasn’t being clear about the most glorious aspect of the pumpkin.  Yeah, definitely pie.

Happy cooking!

-D

The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu.  She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her.  I had one, once, and liked it.  I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.

And then I forgot about it.  Completely.  Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches.  “Remember when you made those?” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly.  I know what you were after, Girlfriend.  You mercenary.  She was in it for the naanwiches, America!

So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic.  Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies.  (Or Lebanese fatayer.  Or calzones!)

My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico.  I shall never rest.  I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.

I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really.  It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried.  I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener.  But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large.  If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough.  It’s its own classification.  Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.

Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.”  It is very easy to make your own paneer.  I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe.  In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.

But guess what?  There is.  Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland.  It doesn’t melt like other cheeses  would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet.  It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela.  Identical.  There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it.  The end.  Cheese.

It looks like this!

Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods.  You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’  chunk.  This stuff is delicious.

So.  If you can get paneer, excellent!  Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place.  And you could always make your own.  But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff.  It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.

* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once.  She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent!  I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?”  Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.

Naanakopita
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!

The Setup

You will need:

  • One full recipe of naan dough
  • a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • salt, to taste

The Heist

1.  First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F.

2.  Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.

3.  Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too.  Set it aside.  Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.

4.  In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them.  Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides.  Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl.  Keep the pan on the stove.

What a fantastic smell this is.

5.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl.  It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach.  I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly.  I think this way is a little easier.

And there's fewer pots and bowls to clean, too.  The more surface area you have, incidentally, the faster this'll go.

6.  Give the person next to you a high five.  You’re making naanwiches!

7.  In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes.  I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.”  Carolyn almost slapped me.  She was right.  It cooks down.  And there’s no much thing as too much onion.

Just like there's no such thing as too much garlic.  And just like there's no such thing as Toledo.

8.  When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk.  Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy.  We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita.  Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.

You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is.  We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan.  Just sayin’.

 

Still not too many onions!

9.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray.  Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go.  Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.

All rolled out.  I made mine into half-moons, just 'cause.

 

10.   Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.

10 deposit

11.  Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges.  There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.

Crimp my ride.  Yo, Carolyn - we heard you liked Indian food, so we put Indian food inside your Indian food so you could, I dunno.  Eat both at once.  Look, don't blame me.  I know I wasn't Xibiting proper judgment at the time.

 

12.  Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be.  Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.

The one on top is upside-down.  You may want to flip them during cooking, if you want each side to be evenly browned, but I didn't mind.  It's still delicious.

These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though.  But pop ‘ em in, hot ’em up, take ’em out.  And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang.  It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything.  And I don’t want to get takeout.”  This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.

Why would you want to, honestly?

This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!  As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes).  So there.  Lots of caveats, but request away.  If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it!  Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.

Happy cooking!

Spent-Grain Bread

August 26, 2011

Or, “Beer Bread, Minus The Beer”.

Homebrewing is on the rise.  In 2010, according to a press release from the American Homebrewers’ Association, 82% of homebrew supply shops “saw an increase in sales of beginner [homebrew] kits”, which means, well, more folks are getting into the hobby.

Last summer, I started homebrewing, also from a beginner’s kit.  My friend Jack and I journeyed over to Perfect Brewing Supply in Libertyville, and I snatched up Jack’s father’s old carboy, as well as some of his other old brewing supplies.  Jack and I made a hefeweizen I named Too Clever by Hef, which was followed by a lemongrass and ginger-infused black ale I called Fit to be Thai’d, and that brewing season finished up with some hard apple cider (made from apples I picked with my friend Josh at his family’s home), which I dubbed Justifiable Applecide.

I am not a nice man.

Anyway, this year I’ve also been brewing – whenever a friend of mine visits, I put him to work in the brew-forges, crafting beers with me.  When Dave visited, we made a wheat beer.  When Michael visited, we made an October Ale (just like Foremole Diggum would have drunk – oo er aye.).

Now, when you make beer, you’re essentially making a sweet grain tea (the wort), which is a tasty substrate for your yeast to swim around in, eat up, and convert to alcohol and CO2.  You can make wort by adding malt syrup concentrate to a large quantity of water, or you can do a whole-grain mash and soak grains in hot water until they release all their sugars.  Basically.

Doing a whole-grain mash, as I do, leaves you with a lot of leftover, somewhat soggy grains – they don’t remain in the wort for fermentation.  And, if you’re like me, you might end up with quite a few pounds of spent grain.

Rather like this.

DON’T THROW THIS STUFF OUT.

Everyone’s always telling you to eat more whole grains.  Now you’re sitting on eight pounds of it and you just wanna chuck it out the back door?  No, sir or madam!  No, indeed!

Most of you are probably not homebrewers.  That’s okay!  Most of the people I know aren’t, either.  But, with the rising popularity of the hobby, I’m sure you have a friend or neighbor that brews.  I can think of two or three of my Chicago friends or neighbors who make beer, and I’m not even in any clubs.

My local homebrew shop, too, makes a lot of beer in-house (unsurprisingly).  I might call them, to see what they do with their spent grain, if I get the urge to make this recipe again.

Anyway, this recipe: it’s dense, it’s chewy, and it’s not too sweet.  I think a lot of bakers go wrong in their wheat breads by making them nearly dessert-cake-level sweetness.

I developed the recipe myself, after trying and failing to produce good bread with the spent-grain bread recipes I found online.  I have made this bread twice, and I am delighted to say that, for having developed a bread recipe on the fly, it works quite well.  (I followed my recipe to the letter the second time, so I know it works.)

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: this bread would taste awful if hops got into it.  Make sure that you get spent grains that haven’t touched any hops.  (This shouldn’t be an issue, if you’re brewing in the right order.)

Spent-Grain Bread
makes one large loaf

The Setup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups spent grain from all-grain mash, milled to a fine pulp in a food processor (measure after processing)
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

The Heist

Directions

1.  First, if you haven’t, mill your grains in a food processor.  If you’ve got a lot, as I did, this may take several batches.  That’s fine.  You’ve got all the time in the world.

Doesn't that look pretty?  And not like a bowl full of unspeakable?

2.  Mix the water, the yeast, the honey, and the vegetable oil in a measuring cup, and let it sit until the yeast wakes up, about five minutes.

(Photo note: these photos are from two separate sessions, which is why it’s night outside in some and day outside in others.  You don’t actually have to work from dusk till dawn to make this recipe.)

3.  Take two well-packed cups of spent-grain mush and plop them into a great big bowl.  Mix in the four cups of AP flour, as well as the salt, and mix until everything is incorporated – it might get a little ropy or clumpy, but that’s okay!  Break it all up with your fingers until everything comes together.  It should feel a little like wet sand, honestly.

It's sort of like playing with brown sugar.  It makes that same sort of satisfying thwop as it falls into a bowl.

4.  Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in the liquid ingredients; mix until everything is completely hydrated and doughy, but not sticky.  If it’s sticky, add flour, a little at a time, until the dough becomes workable again.

See - the mixed grain-and-flour looks kind of sandy-pebbly.

5.  Oil the bowl, cover it, and let the dough rise until it doubles in volume, about 90 minutes later.  Punch it down, and transfer it to a well-greased 9-inch loaf pan, which you should also cover.  Let the dough rise again for another 90 minutes to 2 hours.

It's not so terribly pretty, as far as breads go, I'll warrant.  But is really good.
6.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and, once it’s ready, bake the bread at that temperature for 50 minutes.  If you’re a stickler for doneness, and who isn’t with bread, you can check the internal temperature of the loaf when you pull it – it should be hovering around 190 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Isn't that better?  I think so.

Now, you don’t need to put anything on this bread, as bread that requires butter to taste good is scarcely a bread at all.  However, bread that asks politely is rewarded with a pat on the crumb:

Hello, little pat of butter.  You are going in my mouth.

Good bread.  Good little bread.

This hearty bread makes fine sandwiches, but I like to just cut hearty slabs of it, spread it with mustard, and top it with a few pieces of strong cheese.  I had some for lunch today with a few slices of freshly-cooked beet, and it was marvelous.

Happy cooking!

or,

A Lemon Tea Cake, My Dear Watson.

This week’s entry would not have been possible without the help of the fine folks at Chicago Computerland at 2640 N. Halsted.  First, a story of my own stupidity.

A few weeks ago, when I was posting La Macchina, I wanted to put in a few extra photos of Actual Ravioli that I’d made a few days prior, since the pasta shapes pictured in that entry were tortellini.  I was chatting up my roommate at the time, and I happened to be looking at him and not at my laptop as I moved to put my camera’s SD card into the laptop’s designated slot.  Welp.  I inadvertently slid it into the optical drive: the felt-lined slit where CDs and DVDs go.  Couldn’t get it out.  Cursing, and growing increasingly anxious, I tried to figure out how to remove the optical drive, and discovered that, on my laptop, it was a process so complex that it would have resulted in deconstructing the entire machine.  I can handle replacing a keyboard, or reconnecting the trackpad, but I’m not prepared to confidently reconnect every single part of my computer – that’s above my paygrade.

So to Yelp I went, and I found a willing assistance at Chicago Computerland; they performed the delicate computer surgery necessary, and restored my machine to its original glory.  It was $60, which was a small price to pay for my own foolishness.  Thanks, guys!

ANYWAY.

Back in March, I went to Seattle to visit my friends Heather and Kyle, and we cooked a ton: we made pizza, and mussels, and I taught Kyle to enjoy the tender mercies of a seared brussels sprout.  Heather taught me how to make this cake, which, true to the familial precepts that guide Heather’s absurdly-palatable pie crust recipe, contains oil instead of butter.  Some months later, I had a glut of yogurt in the fridge, and I decided I’d make the lemon cake.  But it wouldn’t do to simply reproduce the recipe, no indeed – not when you can just read it here.

Well, okay – the only difference here is that I changed the infusing syrup, but that does change the profile of this cake a bit – the tea adds a gentle astringency to balance the sweetness, which is, in turn, equalized by all the lemon.

A final note – always use parchment paper to line the loaf pan – this cake will get sticky, and no amount of pregreasing will ease its passage out of the pan.  Keep the cake in the parchment paper, even after removing it from the pan; it’s just easier for everyone.

Let’s get cracking!

Heather’s Lemony Yogurt Cake, Now With A Hint of Tea!
Makes one 9-inch loaf-pan full of tasty cake
The Set-Up

I mixed all the Dry Team ingredients in a tupperware container and set it aside for later, because I was originally down to two eggs and I needed three.

Ingredients:
Dry team:

  • 1 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Wet team:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla (or, if you want an even more pronounced lemon flavor, some lemon extract, although I might recommend almond)

And

  • 1/2 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil (like canola, soybean, or corn)

Lemon-Tea syrup:

  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp loose black tea, bagged

The Heist

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a smallish bowl, combine the Dry Team ingredients; in a larger bowl, combine the Wet Team ingredients.The Wet Team
  3. Fold the Dry Team into the Wet Team with a spatula until everything is incorporated and there are very few lumps.  Then pour the 1/2 cup of vegetable oil into the mixture and beat it soundly.  Ew, that’s creepy.  I’ll have you arrested for battery.  (Hiyo-o.)That's not funny, Ed McMahon.
  4. Line a 9-inch loaf pan with parchment paper and pour the batter into it.  Give it the old tappa-tappaand hurl it into your hotbox for 50 to 70 minutes, depending on A) the way your oven behaves, and B) how gooey you like your tea cake.  I like mine hella gooey, thank you much, so I tend to undercook it.  In this case, I don’t measure my toothpicks for whether or not they come out clean, but when they come out coated in batter, do they have too much batter on ‘em or just enough?The Old Poura-Poura
  5. As the cake cools in the pan, heat the lemon juice and the sugar in a tiny saucepan, and cook it over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves.  Meanwhile, make the cup of tea and let it steep for about five minutes – you want to oversteep it a little bit, because we want some of that tannic overextraction.  Not a lot of it, but since the tea is going to be spread out across the entire cake, you want it to be a little bitter and noticeable.Oh, Tea.  You are my only friend.
  6. Give your nearest friend a high five.  Failing that, give yourself one.
    After all, you just made THIS!
  7. Mix the tea with the lemon syrup to taste – I might start with a quarter cup and add no more than a half; discard the rest of the tea, or drink it, if you like it bitter.Careful.  It is totally possible to just mainline this.
  8. Pour the lemon-tea syrup over the cake and let it soak – the cake will drink it up (and, in fact, the drier you cook the cake, the more tea you can probably add to the syrup.  Your call, though.).Bluaaaaaargh.
  9. Once the cake has cooled to room temperature, place it, and the pan, in the refrigerator until cooled through; then you may depan, slice, and serve.  Beware – these slices will be sticky.So okay Carolyn got this really silly alcoholic whipped cream and I've been putting it on everything.  Blame her!  I'm not a lush. *hic*

This whole Infused Cake thing has got me electric with ideas.  There’s no reason you couldn’t put any kind of syrup over this cake, really – I mean, why not blueberry syrup?  Why not ginger syrup?  Why not beer-batter cake with a hop-syrup infusion?

These things may await me in the future.  God, especially the hops syrup.  Has anyone ever done that?  Now I have to know.

Happy cooking, my friends!