Or, Let baigans be baigans.

Get it?  See, 'baigan' is Hindi for 'eggplant'.  And it sounds like 'bygone'.  I AM GOOD AT JOKES.

I’ve got another wine to pair with food for Raffi and Margaret over at Tuscany Distributors.  This week, it’s the Graffi white Pinot Noir, which has a pleasant, apple-y taste and scent, and a nice crispness when we drank it at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is maybe 20 minutes out of the fridge.

They also call them 'brinjals'.  I like that, too.

I planned an Indian meal around this wine: Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta, from her lamentably out-of-print An Invitation To Indian Cooking, a book which I first encountered at my college roommate’s home in New Jersey; his mom served us some delicious chana masala – spiced chickpeas – and I eagerly inquired after their provenance.  Her copy was battered, taped-together, and falling apart.  If I were a cookbook, I don’t think I could imagine a greater honor.  Last year, visiting Heather and Kyle in Seattle, I found a copy in excellent condition in a used bookshop.  I pounced on it, explaining unnecessarily to the clerk that I had been looking for this book for some time.  She made a noncommittal noise of congratulation and indicated toward the register, as if to say, “So?  You gonna buy it or what?”  I purchased the book and left, feeling a little embarrassed.  And then I recalled a story from earlier in the week: I was taking the bus back to West Seattle from downtown, and I found myself seated across from a man reading a book titled How to Talk to People.  I tried, and failed, to strike up a conversation with this man:

“Hi, how’s it going?” I said.

“Uh.  Good.”

“I noticed your book.”

“My book?” he said, somewhat alarmed.

“Yes.  It, ah.  It’s called How to Talk to People.”

“Oh. Heh.  Yes it is.”

“How is that going?”

“Not well.”  He smiled weakly and looked away.

Basically, either Seattle is demonstrably weird and full of introverts who don’t like to be bothered, or I just kinda suck.  Either or.  Heather and Kyle have since moved to Los Angeles, if that’s any indication.  ANYWAY.  EGGPLANTS.

I also served a rajma dal, which is nothing more than slow-cooked red kidney beans and lentils, some steamed brown rice (throw in a half-stick of cinnamon and three cracked cardamom pods for a delicate fragrance – it doesn’t have a strong taste on its own, but it complements other Northern Indian foods nicely.), and some roti, although this would go quite well with naan.

This here is what the rice looks like when it's done.

The Graffi white Pinot Noir isn’t particularly dry, but neither would I call it sweet – it tastes of apple without being apple juice-y.  The heat of this dish blooms on your tongue when you follow a bite with a sip of wine – I wouldn’t use it to kill the heat; that ain’t what wine’s for anyhow.

You’re probably wondering, too: “Wait a second – I thought Pinot Noir was a red wine grape.  How is this a white wine?  Wouldn’t that make it a Pinot Grigio?”

That’s what I thought, too – but it turns out that Pinot Grigio is another grape varietal entirely.  You can, it turns out, make white wine from red grapes.  It sounds like a somewhat fiddly process, and apparently Pinot Noir is the most popular grape varietal to do this with.  To the recipe!

Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta
Serves 4; adapted from Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking

The Setup

You will need:

  • 3 large eggplant, washed and dried
  • 1 large onion, cut into quarters or eighths.
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 smallish jalapeno chile, with or without the seeds (depending on your heat preference)
  • 1 can diced roasted tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
  • Lemon juice
  • salt to taste

Part of the traditional way in which this recipe is prepared is to take the eggplant and sear them over an open flame, or cook them in the ashes of a fire; I find that you still get an excellent smokiness when you broil them, but to assist that flavor, I like to use those ‘flame-roasted’ canned tomatoes that pretty much everyone makes nowadays.

Also, feel free to replace the vegetable oil with ghee (clarified butter), although I can honestly say I’ve never even tasted the stuff.  As it stands now, however, this recipe totally counts as Vegan.  Oh man, and I didn’t even do it on purpose.  Incidentally, if you buy dairy-free products online, check out my friend’s Amazon store, All Dairy-Free.

The Heist

1.  First, set your oven’s broiler to “HIGH”.  While it heats up, start prepping everything – you might as well!  Open the can of tomatoes; measure out your spices; quarter the onion, and peel the garlic and ginger.  When the oven hits temperature, put your eggplants (be sure to remove those produce stickers!) on a broiler pan and put them under the heat.  Broil for 20 to 25 minutes.  You could check on these every ten, and turn them with tongs (which I recommend, to keep ‘em from sticking), or you could simply let them go for the whole time – it’s not the end of the world if they get stuck to the pan; you’re trying to get the skin off anyhow.  Make sure your sink is empty.

Go on now, get to cuttin'!

2. While the eggplant is broiling, plop a few of the onion pieces, as well as the ginger and garlic, into the beaker of an immersion blender or a regular blender.  Pour in a few tablespoons of water, and blend into a paste – get everything incorporated, once the first big things of onion are all annihilated.  You’re going to want this to be nice and smooth and even.

Splorp. Brian indicates his approval.

3.  When the timer goes off, and the skin of the eggplants are nice and blackened, pull them out, and put the broiler tray directly into your sink and let the water run over the eggplants.  As the water cools them off, peel the burnt skin off with your hands, keeping the stem ends of the eggplants attached.  Put these in a colander or a deep bowl or a colander set over a deep bowl.  They’re gonna be a trifle wet.

It's a mighty fine smell they got, I tell you wut.

They’ll look like this when you’ve peeled ‘em:

Splorp.

4. Get out a nice big saute pan – nonstick is probably best – and heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in there (I would recommend something neutral like canola or peanut oil, rather than olive oil).  When the oil is nice and ribbony-hot (waggle the pan around and watch to see what it does), pour the onion-garlic-ginger paste from your beaker/blender, add the turmeric and garam masala, and cook over medium heat, poking it about with your spatula intermittently, for about five to seven minutes.  While you’re doing this, chop the cilantro, reserving half of it for a garnish.  Then chop the jalapeno pepper.

We cannae escape the maelstrom, captain! We're goin' dooooooooon.  Doon.  Doon.

5.  When the aromatic paste has reduced a little bit, and turned somewhat brown, add the jalapeno chile and the tomatoes (with all their juice), as well as the cilantro.  Cook this for about ten minutes, and while it’s working, cut the eggplant into smallish pieces.

Yeah, I made the mistake of  putting too many chiles in this one - it was a trifle unpleasant to eat.  I have since ironed out this error, and the recipe will reward you with a heat that is warming, but not punishing.

6.  High five!  You’re almost done.  Add in the eggplant and cook for 15 minutes.  Add salt and lemon juice to taste, as well as cilantro for garnish.

This is an earlier and less chilefied version.  And it was goddamn delicious.

7. Serve promptly: spoon it onto a plate, scoop it up with a piece of naan and some rice, and chase it with a sip of wine.

Wash 'er down.

Enjoy!  Or, as they say in Punjabi, भोग कीजिए! (bhog keejeeae – have a pleasurable meal!)

Happy cooking!

-D

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

After a recent pizza party, I ended up with a surfeit of goat cheese in my fridge.  One of the many distinct advantages to hosting a pizza party is that when everyone goes home, you’re left with a staggering amount of leftover unused toppings.  All the chopped onion, roasted red peppers, smoked and cured meat, and cheese make for fabulous frittatas in the week or so after a party, but then there are the matters of all those little logs of chevre.  Those, combined with the two butternut squash I’d received in my final CSA pickup of the season, inspired this recipe.

You see a lot of curried squash soups this time of year, and I wanted to do something that was perhaps a little less common – this soup takes more of a Provençal tack – we’ve got thyme, basil, and red pepper as contributing flavors, with a big ol’ hunk of goat cheese stirred right in.  For sweetness, two apples.

This soup is so simple to make, it’s almost harder to recite the first three letters of the alphabet in an endless mantra for 45 minutes than it is to make it.  That’s why I’ve dubbed it:

ABC Soup
A tasty autumnal potage!

The Setup

You will need:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 butternut squash
  • 2 large apples, of the crisp and sweet variety
  • 4 cups water or stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1 4-oz log of goat cheese

You’ll also need:

  • A large soup pot
  • an immersion blender (or a regular blender)

The Heist

1. Do your mise-en-place: peel and chop your butternut squash into one-inch chunks, chop (but don’t peel) your apples, chop your onions and garlic, and get crackin!

Howdy, squashies.

2.  In a large soup  pot, melt the butter along with the olive oil, and sauté the onion and garlic until brown – about seven minutes.

Get that butter WORKIN', son.

3.  Dump in the apples and the squash, and add the seasonings – cook over medium heat for ten minutes.

This is a super delicious smell.

4.  Add the stock or water, bring the pot’s contents to a boil, and reduce the heat – simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash and apple are soft.

Apples and thyme!  Apples and thyme!  List' to my rhyme for 'tis apples and thyme.
5.  Kill the heat, and either A) blend with an immersion/stick blender, or B) remove the pot’s contents with a slotted spoon to a standup blender and blend, using as much of the stock as you require, until smooth.

Blendification!
6.  High five!  You’re makin’ soup!

7.  Return the soup to the heat and simmer until thickened – another 30 minutes.

8.  When the soup is thickened, it’s almost ready to serve – you may choose to either drop in the log of goat cheese, like I did, or crumble it up and sprinkle it over each individual serving portion.  Individual-serving crumbles have a more pronounced goat cheese flavor, of course, but it’s sort of pleasant to have the other flavors predominate, too, and let the goat cheese sort of hang out in the background.

Droppin' a log.  Heh.  heh.  heh.  GROW UP DAVID

Enjoy!  I liken this soup to takin’ a warm bath.  A warm bath in butter and thyme.  Eat this and pretend to be a French stew, or something.

Look at that lil' swirl!

Happy cooking!

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

So, with the onset of the colder months, like I’ve been saying, I think it’s time to hunker down.  The winds of winter are going to slice through the cracks between the wall and the windows, shred through your clothes, and freeze your blood, so you might as well fill yourself with food that keeps you warm.  To that end, I’ve decided to begin a new series on macaroni and cheese.

Actually, I think this was Editor Girlfriend’s idea.  Carolyn’s really good at saying, “Hey!  You should write about Thing X,” and providing an excellent rationale for it.  It’s not like she tricks me into thinking that something was my idea in the first place (that’s not her style), but she can just be very quietly persuasive.  Anyway, one of my most popular recipes on the blog is my Thai Red Curry Macaroni and Cheese.  I didn’t advertise it or anything; people just find it through Google searches.  And I want to provide recipes that people are looking for.  So I’m doin’ this series.  Let’s get to it!

Here comes everybody!  Also, that macaroni is whole wheat, yo.

There are three schools of mac and cheese in this country:


Type I: Blue-box Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  You cook the pasta, you drain the pasta, you add milk and a powder mix.  This stuff is well-loved for its comfort value, but I didn’t grow up on it, so I find it rather grainy, gummy, and glossy in that plasticky way, for my tastes.  Besides, making it barely counts as cooking.  But it is in a class of its own, and I’m sure it’s by far the most popular school of mac and cheese in the United States.  From 2008 to 2010, sales of packaged macaroni and cheese rose by 25%.

Type II: Macaroni Casserole.  You undercook the pasta, drain and rinse it, and toss it in a cheesy, eggy custard, and pour it in a casserole pan, dust the top with bread crumbs, and bake it until it firms up.  This is the sort of macaroni and cheese you’re the most likely to be served in a restaurant, because it’s really easy to do the prep on it, portion it out, and “bake it off” in individual servings.  It’s also easy to do in a cafeteria setting, because you can do exactly the same thing with an enormous aluminum tray of the stuff as you could with a single ramekin.  It’ll keep in the fridge, unchanged, for hours or even days until it needs to be baked.

Type III: Stovetop Macaroni.  I like to imagine that this was the version that Thomas Jefferson commissioned in 1802, although it is most assuredly not.  It was, however, in the early 19th century that Antonin Carême developed his classifications of the Four Mother Sauces, which Éscoffier would later revise and expand into five sauces.  Stovetop macaroni is dressed with a Mornay sauce, which is a cheesy version of the milk-and-roux-based Béchamel mother sauce.  This is the version we’re gonna be working with.

This is going to become a series on macaroni and cheese, and so a number of recipes are going to be referring back to this page quite often.  After a lot of testing, I have determined that this is, to be certain, my master recipe for Stovetop Mac and Cheese.  I may, at some point in this series, try and come up with a good Type II recipe, or even a Type I knockoff (although I don’t think I have the materials and wherewithal to make cheese powder.  I could be wrong! I haven’t even begun to research that.).  But I’m going to stick with Type III for now.

I’m not going to wax political for particularly long here, but I think the global recession has affected our stomachs.  It may just be how it looks from where I’m standing, but El Bullí is closed now.  It’s not 2007 anymore, and although sous-vide cookery is probably here to stay, and it’s still a nine-month wait to eat at The French Laundry, I think the era of conspicuously consumptive food is over.  At least until the next boom cycle.  America is aching – hurt, unemployed, uninsured, unhappy.  Now is the time for meatloaf, macaroni, cupcakes.  We just want a little comfort, something to take solace in while, bruised and brooding, we sit, blanket-huddled, with our friends and loved ones.  Something to allay the gnawing feeling that nothing’s going right for you.

Well.  I’m looking out for you, America.  Mac and Cheese is food for a period for austerity, but it sure as hell won’t feel like it.  Not the way I make it.  Make this recipe, close your eyes, take a bite, and allow yourself to feel, for a moment, that things are going to be okay.  Then lift your head high, get out there, and kick some ass.

Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side dish

The Setup

You will need:

  • 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, sharp cheddar cheeze
  • 1 ounce (by weight) of parmesan cheese (or 1/2 teaspoon salt)
  • 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni noodles
  • a 2-quart saucepan
  • a 6-quart pasta pot
  • a colander

The Heist

1. First, do your mise-en-place.  Dice the celery and the onion very small – 1/8th-inch dice, if you’re up for it.  Hell, if you can, brunoise them.  Why not, right?  And mince the garlic, too.  Measure everything out now, because sauce-making can be kind of tetchy work, and you want to have your full attention on making sure nothing burns, so what’s the harm?  Measure your flour, your milk, and your cheeses.

Yeah, that's totally not a brunoise.  I didn't say I was that good.

2.  Start heating the pasta water, too.

3.  Melt the butter in your saucepan and cook the aromatics (the celery, the garlic, and the onion), stirring occasionally, over medium heat, until the onion is translucent and smells cooked – approximately 5 to 7 minutes.

Carolyn says that the celery kind of gives the whole thing a very faint white wine taste.  I'm not sure I disagree.

4.  Add in the flour, and stir briskly until everything begins to come together in a chunky paste, about two minutes’ worth of stirring.

Like that!

5.  Add the milk, and stir briskly (but not overexuberantly!) for about a minute or so, until all the lumps of roux-paste are gone.  Continue to stir and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats the back of your spoon or spatula.

Here's your completed béchamel!  It should exhibit this kind of coat-a-bility.

6.  Give the nearest person a high-five.

7.  You may wish to season the mixture further, here.  I’ve added a teaspoon of homemade chili powder.  For funsies.

We'll cover how to make that chili powder in another entry.  I promise.

8.  Once thickened, kill the heat and mix in the cheddar cheese and parmesan (or salt, if you don’t have –  or want to use – parmesan).  Stir until it’s all incorporated and melted.

Other recipes want you to add way more cheese.  I think this is overkill, and something can only taste so cheesy, honestly.  It's just not going to get super powerful in a creamy sauce like this - that's just not really the way butterfat or milk interacts with the tongue - everything is kind of diffuse.  You want intense, pointed flavor?  Make a cheese sorbet.Actually, if you make a cheese sorbet, I will be frigging impressed.  I want that recipe, if you've got it.

9.  Cook and drain your pasta, and then plop it all in! You’re done.

Le plop.

10.  Eat with pride.  You’re going to come through this just fine.  There’s macaroni and cheese and you’ve made it.  We’re all going to make it.

The macaroni wants you to be happy.  You can do it!

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!