Friday, August 31, 2012

Almond Milk, the Vitamix Way


If you remember my earlier post about the tortured decision-making that led to our purchase of yet another expensive item of kitchen equipment—in this case, the Vitamix blender—then you might recall that making almond milk had some small part (see post: http://eatingreadingwriting.blogspot.com/2012/06/mixed-berry-vanilla-smoothie-and.html).  I conveniently referenced the fact that someone mentioned Vitamix as an essential tool in making almond milk.  Never mind that I had no thought of making almond milk before I read this item in a foodie magazine designed to make you spend money… The salient fact was that IF one were ever to consider making almond milk, a Vitamix appeared necessary.

So, we got the Vitamix.  Berry smoothie, asparagus soup, cantaloupe soup—everything!—just blended better.  Naturally, I next sought an almond milk recipe.  There are plenty of almond milk recipes out there, with each just a tiny bit different—perhaps to justify the existence of yet another recipe.  In fact, it’s quite likely that someone else has posted a recipe that is identical to the one I eventually developed.  (There can only be so many variations of using almonds and water…)  Let me say at the outset then that I am cataloguing my experience of making almond milk rather than offering up a super-original recipe.  Also let me give credit to one source I did use to get me started: http://vegetarian.about.com/od/rawfoodsrecipes/r/almondmilk.htm

If you’ve tried the About.com recipe above, you’ll notice it uses dates for sweetener and vanilla for flavoring.  I use agave nectar and cinnamon instead since I have a fondness for horchata with its cinnamon-y sweetness.

Ingredients:
1 cup raw almonds (whole, unblanched)
At least 5-6 cups of water for soaking
4 cups fresh cold water
Agave nectar to taste (at least 1 Tbs)
Ground cinnamon to taste (a dash or two at least)
Ice cubes

Special Equipment:
Vitamix (or other powerful blender)
Fine-mesh sieve
Cheesecloth


Step 1:
Soak a cup of raw almonds in 5-6 cups of water for 1-2 days.  You might want to drain, rinse, and refill water halfway through if you get concerned with seeing sediment develop in the bottom of your bowl.  At the end of the soaking period, your almonds should be much more plump.  In the picture below, the almonds on the right were soaked for almost 2 days.  Drain and discard the soaking water and rinse the almonds.


Step 2:
If you have a large enough blender to make your milk in one batch, pour in 4 cups of cold fresh filtered water into the blender.  Then pour in the rinsed almonds.  Squeeze in agave nectar and sprinkle ground cinnamon to taste.  (If you are unsure, you might want to start with ½ T of the nectar and just a dash of cinnamon to begin with and then increase the amounts later.)  Grind at high speed (or 10 on “Variable” speed if you have a Vitamix) until you see only very tiny flecks of almond skin.  Taste for seasoning and correct if you need to and then blend again.

Most likely, you will have to blend in 2 batches.  If so, just blend 2 cups of water with half of the almonds with each batch.  Don’t worry about getting the proportion exactly right since they will all be combined later anyway.


Step 3:
Place a fine-mesh sieve over a large bowl, and then line the sieve with cheesecloth.  Pour the blended liquid over the cheesecloth-covered sieve.  (See picture above.)  You may need to use a spoon occasionally to dislodge the ground almonds settling too solidly on the bottom of the sieve.  (Some recipes say that you can skip the cheesecloth, but my experience tells me that you want to skip the cheesecloth only if you have a hankering for a chalky taste in your almond milk.)

Step 4:
Pour into a glass with ice cubes, and enjoy! 


Refrigerate the unused portion for later, but do stir each time you pour yourself some more almond milk.  Consider saving the almond grounds, letting the mixture dry, and using it as substitute for “almond flour” or “almond meal” in recipes that call for those.  You can use them in biscuits, scones, and pie toppings! 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Like Meat Loves Salt?


When teaching King Lear, I find some students are familiar with the folk tale of a daughter who told her father—who, like Lear, demanded elaborate public proclamations of filial love—that she loved him the way "meat loves salt."  If you are familiar with Shakespeare, then you should have a pretty good idea about the folk tale’s premise—though this tale offers a happier ending than Shakespeare’s tragedy.  (Click here if you want a link to the tale: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/salt.html#rushes.)

This is a convoluted way of conveying that I agree with all those who argue that salt is the most important seasoning in cooking.  I'm against over-salting and was aghast when a man at a table next to us at brunch last weekend poured about a tablespoon worth of salt onto his eggs (eggs!).  But I value enough the judicious use of salt such that I possess more than half a dozen different kinds of salt (and none of the Lawry’s seasoned salt variety).  In fact, my kitchen currently has fine sea salt, grey sea salt (French), regular coarse grinding sea salt, extra coarse sea salt, kosher salt, salt crystal pyramids (Balinese), white truffle salt, and alder wood smoked salt.

You might ask what I do with all these different kinds of salt.  I use kosher salt mostly for seasoning food during the cooking process.  French grey sea salt and coarse salt chunks are combined in a salt mill calibrated to dispense fairly robust grinds at the table.  The fine sea salt is used for fairly mild-flavored dishes like the cantaloupe melon soup that I “vitamixed” for a dinner this week (surrounding a mound of crab and apple salad).  The regular coarse grinding sea salt (from Trader Joe’s—a fantastic deal) is what we bring with us, along with the matching pepper grinder, when we go on long trips that require cooking our own meals—like when we lived in Park City, Utah for a month this summer.

That leaves the most interesting 3 salts: crystal pyramids, alder wood smoked salt, and white truffle salt.  Here are some streamlined ideas for how to use these lovely salts:

Salt Crystal Pyramids

For finishing a dish, there is no more dramatic visual statement than crystal pyramids.  I fell in love with these when we were in Tarifa, Spain (in May 2007).  When the whole fish dish I ordered was presented to me, there were several salt crystal pyramids sprinkled on top of the fish—not dissolved but left whole to slowly disintegrate with the heat of the dish after arriving at the table.  If salt can be called “cute,” these were.  In fact, they were so adorable that I went on a mad search for them once I returned to the states.  I found them at Williams-Sonoma, and I have a stash that I return to whenever I want to “finish” a salad or other simple dishes with a dramatic statement.  (Click here for the link: http://www.lovingearth.net/growers/13/balinese-pyramid-salt-producers) 


In the picture above, you can see the salt pyramids atop a bowl of steamed edamame.

Alder Wood Smoked Sea Salt

If we are strapped for time, we find smoked sea salt is great to sprinkle on fish or meats (especially pork ribs or thin pork steaks) to give that extra smokehouse flavor. 

But the best use of it might be the method we discovered in Seattle.  At a popular restaurant near Pike Place Market, a signature dish is grilled asparagus with smoked sea salt.  While the restaurant dish was fabulous, we realized that we could make the same dish for a fraction of the cost at home—only if we could get our hands on smoked sea salt.  We found some we liked at Whole Foods (here’s a link with more information: http://www.saltworks.us/salish-alder-wood-smoked-sea-salt.html), and now we drizzle olive oil over organic asparagus spears, put them on a grill to lightly caramelize (and get grill marks) and then finish with smoked salt after they are transferred to a serving plate. 


Another use I’ve developed on my own is for Honey Smoked Roasted Almonds (click here for the post on roasting almonds: http://eatingreadingwriting.blogspot.com/2012/06/roast-your-own-gourmet-honey-sesame.html)


White Truffle Salt

We love truffle-flavored gourmet food items like black truffle oil, white truffle oil, and truffle butter.  When—in the exquisite Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco—we came across the Spice House’s White Truffle Sea Salt (http://www.thespicehouse.com/spices/salt-white-and-black-truffle), we bided our time till we returned to Chicago.  Since we had a Spice House just minutes away from where we lived, we marched almost immediately to Evanston on our return from San Francisco to purchase a small jar of white truffle sea salt. 


When we are not using it to add extra “oomph” to (“truffled”) wild mushroom risotto (above), we enlist its aid to make popcorn extra special.  Just make popcorn as you would normally except substitute regular salt with truffle salt after you drizzle the butter.  Then throw on some grated parmesan over the popcorn.  Overpriced movie theater popcorn with artificial “butter-flavored topping” doesn’t compare.


 So salt away!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ad Hoc Broccolini Salad for Home Cooks


I love experimenting with foods, second-hand.  While I don’t always create the most unique dishes on my own, I always try to re-create imaginative dishes I’ve enjoyed at restaurants.  It need not be anything too outrageously inventive.  Two of my favorite re-created items now served regularly in our kitchen are Asparagus Risotto with Truffle Oil (a dish I first tasted at the Chef’s Station in Evanston) and Butternut Squash Ravioli with Mascarpone Cream Sauce and Toasted Hazelnuts (from Zia’s Trattoria in Chicago).  As long as I can identify component elements and am able to discern underlying flavors or spices, I enjoy meeting the challenge of conjuring up that magical dish in my home kitchen.  “Re-creating Restaurant Dishes” is essentially my constant Iron Chef challenge.

Sometimes, restaurant dishes are faithfully represented in a celebrity chef’s cookbook.  Other times, dishes in cookbooks are just a shade less interesting (less restaurant-worthy?) than they tasted on site.  Such might be the case with a broccolini salad that Will and I enjoyed at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant in Napa Valley.

Last June, when we were in Napa Valley, Will and I kicked ourselves for not attempting to get reservations at the French Laundry.  But trying to get a table seemed a difficult endeavor, involving calling the restaurant exactly 2 months before the date you wanted to reserve for.  Plus which, the projected tab for the dinner—no doubt exquisite and worth every penny—seemed prohibitive, especially during a recession. . . for those of us in the 99%.   So we passed on dining at the French Laundry and contented ourselves with taking pictures of their vast herb and vegetable garden. 


But wait! There’s another Thomas Keller restaurant called Ad Hoc (so Frommer’s told us), and it turned out there was Bouchon as well, and the Bouchon Bakery.  Indeed, the strip of Yountville seemed to fairly teem with Thomas Keller restaurant spawns.

We liked the concept at Ad Hoc.  (Click here for their website with a sample menu so you can see what I’m talking about: http://www.adhocrestaurant.com/)  You reserve your date and time and show up.  They feed you whatever they are serving that day, and you hope that you don’t have an aversion to those particular dishes.  (It helps if you don’t have dietary restrictions and are not repulsed by any particular meats or fish…) 

Our main course happened to be pork roast (very large bone-in stuff, that), and our desserts of little financier cakes and made-from-scratch butter-caramel sauce were delightful.  But we’ve had pork roasts before—and even excellent financier cakes and homemade caramel sauces.  What we were surprised by were the broccolini salads they brought out to begin the meal.  I suspect that others have that reaction too as I heard a server describe the salad to another table and confessing that he devours the savory salad as if it were candy.

After our Napa Valley trip, we purchased the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  They do have a recipe for a broccolini salad, but I’ve never tried making that.  It’s not the same one.  Instead of the recipe in the book, I refer back to mental notes I made of the meal afterwards and re-created the dish we tasted at Ad Hoc.

Since I don’t cook this from a recipe, I am going to outline some basic steps.  You can, of course, change the dish entirely and put your own stamp on it.

1.  Parboil the Broccolini:  Put a large pot of water on to boil.  While the water is heating up, take about a pound of (organic) broccolini and trim any parts necessary to produce lovely and fresh pieces without any dried out end parts or withering tiny leaves.   When the water has come to a full boil, salt it slightly and then throw in the broccolini.  Depending on how large the pieces are, you want to parboil them no more than 5-6 minutes.  Make sure they are still firm and bright green—not limp and dark green—when you take them out of the boiling water.  Either drop them into an ice bath or rinse with cold water in a colander and rinse again and again until they are cool to the touch.  (You want to stop the cooking process with the repeated cold rinses.)  Drain completely.

2.  Toast the Pine Nuts:  Either place about a ¼ cup of pine nuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat for 3-4 minutes, or toast in a 325 degree oven for about 5 minutes.  You want to toast them without the nuts getting too brown and bitter.  Remove from heat and let cool.

3.  Prepare the rest of the salad:  Drain and rinse a can of chick peas (garbanzo beans); thinly slice some red onion; crumble to produce about 1/3 cup feta cheese; and crack open and pit about ½ cup of large castelvetrano olives (or other good quality large green olives).  

Note: Castelvetrano olives, if you can find them, are great for this salad.  They are firm and much brighter a green than other green olives, and, as the package below describes, "mild & buttery."  Place a large chef's knife over an olive and apply pressure (by lightly pounding once with the heel of your palm) to crack open.  After that, you should have little difficulty extracting the seed from the olive.  The irregularly cracked large pieces of olives lend a sense of the salad's freshness.


4.  Make the Dressing:  Combine about 1/3 part olive oil, 1/3 part mild-flavored nut oil (like walnut oil), and 1/3 part sherry vinegar.  Season with coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Shake in a jar or stir until the mixture emulsifies into a dressing.  (Note: If you don’t have a nut oil, you can just use 2/3 part olive oil.) 

5.  Assemble the Salad:  Place the broccolini on the bottom, then pile the rest of the salad components on, then pour over the dressing and lightly toss.  Then sprinkle the pine nuts over.

Enjoy!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tastier, Crispier Eggplant Parmesan


Decades ago, on PBS’s The Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith fried up some eggplant slices and served them over pasta.  Even though I was quite young and hadn’t tried eggplants much, I thought the dish looked tasty.  (It could have something to do with the fact that the eggplant was fried…)

Many years later, I came across essentially the same dish in a Land o’ Lakes cookbook called Treasury of Country Recipes.  They called it “Garlic Parmesan Eggplant Slices,” and it was offered as a vegetable side.  Of course, by that time, I had actually eaten a dish called “Eggplant Parmesan,” a staple of most Italian restaurants, but I didn’t think these restaurant Eggplant Parmesans were as tasty as Jeff Smith/Land o’ Lakes versions, so I continued to just bread and fry up my eggplant.

Looking for a more interesting Eggplant Parmesan recipe—to add some variation to my fried eggplant slices—I recently found one by Bobby Flay which sounded right up my alley.  The recipe involved breading and frying eggplant, smothering the slices with four different kinds of cheese (regular and fresh mozzarella, fontina, and pecorino), and finishing with a home-made Roasted Red Pepper Tomato Sauce.  (Here’s the recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/eggplant-parmesan-recipe/index.html)

While the recipe sounded good—especially the four kinds of cheese!—I wanted something a bit simpler, something a bit more restrained, something for a weeknight.  So I combined parts of Jeff Smith, Land o’ Lakes, and Bobby Flay recipes and came up with one which is streamlined and very tasty.  One of the virtues of this recipe is that you can still enjoy fairly crisp fried eggplant slices even though these slices have been covered with some cheese and sauce.  Give this version a try!

Ingredients (to serve 4-5):

1 large eggplant (sliced almost ½ inch thick, about 12-15 slices total)
salt and pepper
3 eggs
½ cup flour
1½ cup or more panko bread crumbs (or other bread crumb)
1 t dried parsley flakes
½ t dried oregano
½ t dried thyme
canola or vegetable oil for frying

2½ cup or more jarred marinara sauce
2 large or 3 medium fresh bufala mozzarella balls (cut thinly to total 12-15 slices)
¼ cup grated parmesan
2 T fresh basil, thinly sliced (chiffonaded)

½ lb. angel hair pasta
2 T butter

(Note: I prefer panko to another kind of breadcrumb since they stay very crunchy and light.  Even if you don’t live near an Asian grocery store, you should be able to find these since the world has gotten very small in terms of finding international foods in your local stores.  As for marinara sauces, my current favorites are from the Mario Batali line.  They really do taste very fresh!)


Directions:

1.  Lightly salt and pepper your eggplant slices and let them rest on a cooling rack set over a baking sheet.  Turn oven on to 350 degrees.

2.  While the eggplant slices rest, set up your 3 separate shallow bowls (or pie plates) to facilitate the preparation for frying.  In the first bowl, mix the flour with a bit of salt and pepper.  In the second bowl, crack and lightly beat your eggs—and just ever so slightly salt and pepper the eggs.  In the third bowl, mix the panko breadcrumbs with the dried parsley, oregano, and thyme, and lightly salt and pepper.  Fill a large frying pan with about ½ inch of oil deep enough to fry in, and heat on medium high to go up to 350 degrees.

3.  As you wait for the oil to come to the proper temperature, triple dip your eggplant slices.  Taking one slice of eggplant at a time, dip in first bowl (flour), dust off, and then dip in second bowl (egg), let drip, and dip in third bowl (breadcrumbs), shake off, and then place back on the rack.  Repeat with the rest of the slices.  After about 3 slices, you’ll find that your fingers are coated with flour, egg, and crumbs.  Wash your hands and start again until you are finished with all the slices.

4.  Now you’re ready to fry—if the oil is hot enough.  (Do not fry until the oil is hot enough since eggplants will soak up oil that is not hot enough, and you will be left with a greasy mess.)  You should be able to fit 4-5 slices of eggplant in a large pan, in a single layer, without crowding them.  After about 3-4 minutes, turn and fry on the other side for another 2-3 minutes.  Pick up each slice with tongs and let the oil drip back in the pan, and place fried slice back on the cooling rack.  Repeat.  You should be able to finish frying in 3 batches.

5.  Pour about 1/3 of the marinara sauce onto the bottom of a 9x13 casserole.  Lay down a layer of eggplant slices, top with a thin slice of fresh mozzarella.  Lay down another layer of eggplant and mozzarella, staggering the slices so that slices are not directly on top of each other.  Repeat if necessary until you are done with all eggplant and mozzarella slices (2-3 layers total).  Top with remaining marinara sauce and sprinkle the parmesan, and then pop the casserole into the hot oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese has melted.  Remove from oven and sprinkle the chiffonaded basil strips on top.

6.  While the eggplant is in the oven, boil a large pot of water and salt it when it comes to a full boil.  Cook your angel hair pasta until al dente (about 4 minutes, no more than 5!) and drain.  Put 2 T of butter into the hot pot and put the pasta back in.  Lightly salt and pepper and toss. On a plate, place 3 slices of eggplant next to a side of cooked pasta.  Enjoy!


Friday, August 3, 2012

Farmers Markets, Festivals, and Food Fun in the Sun


With my proclivity towards fried foods, I am a devotee of summer fests.  I’ve been known to attend state fairs displaying farm animals as well as local village carnivals with cheap-looking rides—all for the privilege of purchasing over-priced funnel cakes (which, incidentally, might be my favorite fair-food item).

This month, we are on a working vacation in Park City, Utah.  More accurately, Will is working; I am enjoying as much of my summer vacation as possible, in between stints at writing, reading, and research.  But it’s difficult to concentrate on Shakespeare and Milton with such beautiful scenery and—more to the point for this post—all the festivals to attend!

When we arrived here, the Food & Wine Festival was going on.  Since then, I’ve browsed through Redstone Art Fair and am now looking forward to Kimball Art Center Festival (this weekend).  There are gallery walks and open-air concerts galore.  Most importantly, there are two weekly events that I have on my calendar. 

On Sundays, the historic Main Street area of Park City is transformed into Park Silly Sunday (10am-5pm).  At the top of this post, you can see a picture of a typical Park Silly Sunday—except that I wasn’t able to capture a picture of the llama (or any of the other exotic animals) walking around the market.  In fact, it looks like you cannot even see any of the dozens of dogs roaming around the bustling and historic Main Street of perhaps the most dog-friendly town in the world.  Trust me though.  There are animals, kids, and whacky vendors aplenty to suit all sorts of appetites.

Speaking of appetites, Park Silly Sunday Market foods include roasted sweet corn (huge ears of corn on the cob!), fresh fried potato-chip encrusted corn dogs (or, maybe it would be called a hot-potato-dog), and even some international items like the food we ordered: vegetable samosas and chicken taquitos.  As a sidenote: When they re-lit the oil to fry up the taquitos fresh for me, I knew I made the right choice.

In case you cannot wait until the next Sunday to get your fill of festal fun, Park City offers its Farmers Market on Wednesdays to let you survive the rest of the week.  Between noon and 6pm on Wednesdays, I am able to attend one of the best-balanced farmers markets.  Back in the Chicago area, I find myself vacillating between the smaller-town market that only offers a few stalls (2 each of vegetables and fruits and 1 each of bakery items and cheese, etc.) or the way-too-large farmer’s market where it takes you a couple of hours just to get your bearings.  With 17 stands of fruits, 23 of vegetables, 9 bakeries, 8 flower-sellers, and even a few that sell elk steak, the larger markets can get a bit overwhelming and time-consuming.

I fell in love with Park City’s farmer’s market the first time I went.  It was just right: not too small, not too big.  There was just enough choice to let you feel like you could have a variety without confusing you into a food oblivion.  Most likely, local residents will have their favorite stands that they return to time and again.  As a temporary Park Citizen, I can afford to be democratic in my purchasing largesse.
 

Last week, we brought home a savory ciabatta (with roasted garlic and rosemary), Early Glo yellow peaches, a tray of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, 6 ears of the freshest corn I’ve ever tasted (shucked in the picture above), and a sheep cheese that was reminiscent of fontina.  Of course, we got a bag of the obligatory kettle corn to round out the market experience…

This week, I got a Honey Oat loaf with cranberries (slightly sweet and nicely nutty for breakfast toast), sweet green plums and white peaches, more berries (well, we can’t very well skip out on the anti-oxidants, could we?), and a just-packed tangy-sharp Aggiano cheese (yes, like Asiago).


All that and lunch food stalls that include pulled pork sandwiches, grilled reubens, and polish sausages.  If we stayed here any longer we would hit every stand, each full of deliciousness!