Friday, October 30, 2009

Warm Beet Salad with Parmesan Dressing

I’ve made it my mission to convert those who think they don’t like beets. With red, golden, and Chioggia, roasted, raw, and fried, there are so many ways to enjoy the humble beet that I think beets deserve a second chance or third or fourth. When Leela at She Simmers mentioned the beet challenge, I decided right away I had to contribute something. I almost always roast beets whole and then peel and chop them. More often than not, my roasted beets end up in a salad of some sort. I spotted this warm beet salad in the May issue of Living magazine. It’s very simple to assemble, and the flavors were eye-poppingly good. One more item of business: the pretty plate in the photo above was sent to me as part of a fun plate swap organized by Cheryl at A Tiger in the Kitchen. My new plate came from Heather at BodaciousGirl. Thanks Cheryl and Heather!

The beets were roasted with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Once removed from the oven and cool, they were peeled and sliced. A vinaigrette was made with shallots, Banyuls vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. I was intrigued by the use of Banyuls vinegar, and I have another recipe that recommends it as well, so I splurged on purchasing a bottle even though it’s an expensive vinegar. It’s a French vinegar made from sweet wine, and the flavor is milder than typical red wine vinegar. Its taste is closer to wine than vinegar usually is but there is some acidity. Certainly, this salad would also be delicious with a vinaigrette made with another red wine vinegar, but the flavor of the Banyuls was very nice here. The vinaigrette was set aside while the parmesan dressing was made by warming cream, adding shredded parmesan, and stirring until smooth. There was supposed to have been some thyme in the cream and parmesan mixture, but my plants failed to survive the summer heat, and I forgot to buy thyme at the grocery store, so I skipped it.

The salad was assembled by placing the sliced beets on a platter, the warm parmesan cream dressing was spooned onto the beets, and then some arugula micro greens, and any baby greens could be used here, were strewn about on the warm dressing. Those greens were drizzled with the shallot vinaigrette, and last but certainly not least, some chopped pistachios were added. This could be the dish to change the minds of all the beet haters out there. If it’s the earthiness of the beet root that they object to, then they should taste beets with this simple, warm, parmesan dressing. The richness blends with the flavor of the beets in a lovely way, and the greens and vinaigrette perk up the salad and keep it from being too heavy while the pistachios add crunch and one more layer of flavor. I already like beets, but trust me, this is a really, really good beet salad.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beer, Pretzel, and Cashew Caramels

I mentioned the beer-themed food blogger potluck the other day, and when I first heard about this theme, I was immediately inspired to attempt these beer caramels. I had seen beer and pretzel caramels on Serious Eats, and I wondered if I could adjust the caramel recipes I’d used before to include beer and still have a good resulting texture. I’ve previously made two types of caramels from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert. The first was fleur de sel caramels which were firm but still chewy. The second version was honey pecan caramels which were softer, a little sticky, but deliciously tender and chewy. Both types were made with two cups of cream for the liquid, and I decided to experiment with one cup of cream and one cup of beer. I chose Maredsous which is a richly-flavored, malty, Belgian-style dubbel ale. When I stopped by the grocery store to buy beer and pretzels, I found Utz brand pretzels. We’ve been watching Mad Men, we’re halfway through season two, and I didn’t realize the Utz brand chips seen in a couple of episodes was in fact a real brand. I love that logo, and the Utz pretzel wheels were the perfect size to use in these caramels. With all the ingredients collected, I got to work. My first attempt ended in failure, but the second try resulted in a very edible confection.

Let me explain what went wrong the first time. I followed the same instructions for the fleur de sel caramels but used half beer and half cream. The beer and cream mixture was warmed in a small saucepan while sugar, corn syrup, and salt were melted and then brought up to 305 degrees F in a three-quart saucepan. When the sugar mixture reached 305, the heat was turned off, butter was added, and the beer and cream were stirred into the larger pan. My first lesson during round one, as I’ll call it, was that a three-quart saucepan is not large enough for this mixture with beer in it. The recipe notes, and I remembered from past caramel experiences, that there is a lot of sputtering and bubbling when the cream is added, but with beer, there’s even more bubbling. I quickly grabbed a larger pan and transferred the hot, bubbling mess. That mixture was then to have been brought up to 260 degrees F, and at that point, it was removed from the heat, vanilla was added, and it was poured into a prepared pan in which I had placed pretzels. I left it to cool and set until the next day when I discovered the caramel was rock hard. Not only did it require some serious force to break off a piece, there was no chance of being able to chew it.

I moved on to round two. The other recipe I’ve used before, honey pecan caramels, suggests taking the sugar and cream mixture to a final temperature of 248 degrees F, and that’s what I did the second time. I used the same ratio of one cup beer to one cup cream. I used sugar, corn syrup, and just a little honey which was brought to the same 305 degrees F before the butter and warmed cream and beer mixture were added. For round two, I smartly started with a five-quart pan. When the final mixture reached 248, I turned off the heat, added vanilla, and poured it into a prepared pan with pretzels and cashews. Somewhere between round one and two I decided some nuts would go well with the pretzels. I also added a sprinkling of sea salt on top. After sitting overnight, the caramels had become firm enough to cut but were still tender and chewy. They were the same texture as the honey pecan caramels I had made before. This was success with beer in a caramel. As for the flavor, I wasn’t sure how noticeable the beer would be to someone who didn’t know it was there. I detected a maltiness, and there was a hint of a little something extra in these caramels, but there wasn’t an overwhelming flavor of beer. After they sat for a day, I thought the beer flavor had become more noticeable, but it was still subtle. The color was darker than that of other caramels, and the pretzels and cashews were nice additions. This was a fun, learning experience and an interesting use of beer in a sweet treat.

Beer, Pretzel, and Cashew Caramels
Adapted from honey caramels recipe found in Pure Dessert
1 cup small pretzels, such as round Utz wheels
1/2 c roasted, salted cashews
3/4 c light corn syrup
1/4 c honey
2 c sugar
1/4 t salt
1 c cream
1 c beer such as a Belgian-style dubbel
3 T butter, softened
1 T pure vanilla extract
1-2 t sea salt

-line bottom and sides of a nine-inch square baking pan with foil and spray foil with cooking spray oil; place pretzels and cashews on foil in pan and set aside on a heat-proof surface
-combine corn syrup, honey, sugar, and salt in a heavy five-quart pan set over medium heat and attach a candy thermometer; stir occasionally with a wooden spoon until mixture has melted; cook without stirring until temperature on candy thermometer reaches 305 degrees F
-while syrup mixture comes up to temperature, place cream and beer in a small saucepan over low heat just until warm
-when sugar and syrup mixture has reached 305, turn off heat, add butter and stir to combine; carefully stir in cream and beer mixture; it will boil and sputter and then eventually calm down; turn the heat back on to medium-high and continue stirring until mixture is smooth; allow this to cook while stirring occasionally until temperature on thermometer reaches 248 degrees F
-turn off the heat, add vanilla, and stir to incorporate; carefully pour this mixture over the prepared pan with the pretzels and cashews and allow to cool slightly; sprinkle with sea salt and leave to cool and set for several hours or overnight
-invert caramel onto a cutting surface and remove the foil; flip the caramel right side up and cut into desired shapes with a serrated knife so as not to crush the pretzels; cut caramels can be wrapped in cellophane or parchment paper

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beer Braised Chicken Stew with Biscuits

You would think I would have learned from the last two food blogger potlucks I attended, but no. Another potluck was held on Sunday, and I really thought that this time I’d just nibble on a few things and not leave completely stuffed. The theme for this potluck was beer, and the event was held at 512 Brewery. So, not only did I lose track of how many incredible dishes I sampled, I also sampled several delicious beers. More info about the potluck can be found at Foodie is the New Forty and at Relish Austin. I had a couple of ideas for dishes made with beer, and one was savory and the other was sweet. I’ll post about the sweet one soon. First, I wanted to try braising chicken in beer, and I imagined the flavorful, slow-cooked meat and vegetables would work well in a pot-pie kind of dish. I mostly followed the recipe for Ina’s Chicken Stew with Biscuits from Barefoot Contessa Family Style after the chicken was cooked. This was an experiment because I had never before braised chicken in beer and wasn’t sure if that would incorporate too much beeriness or not enough or if the chicken meat would be an odd brownish color. I decided to give it a whirl and find out the answers.

I wanted to be sure that I was in fact braising and not stewing or roasting, so I first referenced Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking. After a quick look at his definition, I knew that I needed to lightly coat the chicken pieces with flour, briefly sear the pieces, and then add enough liquid so that it would not evaporate as the chicken cooked but not so much that the chicken would be submerged. I used four bone-in breasts and two thighs, and in the roasting pan I used, two and a half 12 ounce bottles of Boulevard Oktoberfest beer was the right amount. After searing the chicken, I added small potatoes, whole shallots, and big chunks of carrots and celery before pouring in the beer and covering the pan. Also, from Elements, I learned that braising should happen at a temperature no higher than 300 degrees F, and that’s the temperature at which I set my oven. After an hour and a half, the chicken was cooked through and had reached 165 degrees F. The next step for a successful braise is to let the meat cool in the braising liquid. This is why I started this process early. I left everything in the dish with the braising liquid and placed it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, I removed the meat from the bones and chopped the vegetables into small pieces for the stew. Good news: the chicken meat had not turned an ugly brown at all, and it was as tender as can be.

For the stew, the sauce was made with five cups of stock. Again, I wasn’t sure if the braising liquid, which was all beer, would be too beery for the sauce. It had been flavored with the chicken and vegetables while in the oven, but I decided to use only four cups of it and one cup of plain chicken stock so as to hedge my bet. Some finely chopped shallots were browned in 12 tablespoons of butter with some finely chopped sage and rosemary, and then three-fourths of a cup of flour was added to form a roux. The stock and braising liquid were stirred into the roux to form the sauce, and after thickening, one quarter cup of cream was added as well. The chicken, potatoes, carrots, and celery were added with a package of frozen peas and some chopped parsley. Once well mixed, that all went into a baking dish which was placed in a 375 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Then, the stew was removed from the oven and topped with biscuits that were made with parsley in the dough. After brushing an egg wash on the biscuits, the stew went back into the oven for another 30 minutes.

After all my worrying about the dish tasting too beery, in the end, the flavor from the beer was actually very subtle. I could smell the beer in the dish, and the flavor was there but it was nicely mixed with the chicken and vegetables and biscuits and herbs. This whole process may seem labor-intensive, but each step was very easy. The original recipe in Barefoot Contessa Family Style suggests quickly roasting chicken breasts and using them as soon as they are cool enough to handle. However, if you’d like to try a beer-themed meal, I highly recommend a slow braise with a medium-bodied brew and letting the meat cool in the pan. It smells amazing as it cooks, and the texture of the meat is as good as it gets.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chocolate^2 Chip Espresso Cookies

If there is such thing as a sweet tooth, I would like to suggest that there may also be such thing as a coffee tooth. Going with that assumption, my coffee tooth has been acting up lately, and that led me to this recipe for double chocolate espresso cookies from Demolition Desserts. The cookie dough was made with cocoa powder and finely ground espresso, and dark chocolate and white chocolate chips were added. You might think a dark, chocolaty, coffee-flavored cookie like that would be slightly bitter, but this one wasn’t. I suspect it’s the brown sugar that smoothes out the flavors in the dough. The tender, almost-cakey texture is a nice surprise about them too. You can use any ratio you wish of white to dark chocolate chips, and I went with a whole cup of white to one-third cup of dark chocolate.

In the recipe, the suggested method for preparing the dough is to stir it by hand with a large wooden spoon. I prefer the hands-free method of tossing everything into a mixer, so I went that route. The flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and ground espresso were sifted while the butter and dark brown and granulated sugars were mixed. One egg, vanilla, and salt were added to the butter before the flour mixture was mixed in just until combined. I folded in the white and dark chocolate chips, and then the dough was refrigerated for 30 minutes. Small, one-inch balls of dough were formed and baked for about ten minutes.

These cookies are found at the beginning of the book with a few other versions of the chocolate chip variety like the chocolate chip cookies xs. This particular chocolate chip espresso cookie is also used in the chocolate chip mania dessert found on page 35 of the book. For that, the cookies are baked as minis and are stacked on top of a blondie with brown sugar-chocolate chunk ice cream and chipped cream with dark and white chocolate sauces. That sounds like a great way to satisfy a sweet tooth, a coffee tooth, and a chocolate tooth all at once, but for now, the cookies by themselves made me and my coffee tooth very happy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cider-Glazed Apple Muffins with Blackberries

Is it just me, or have there been an awfully lot of tempting apple cakes out there lately? I’ve wanted to try them all, but I knew what would happen if I had an entire, big apple cake in this house. It would disappear too quickly, and I would need to spend a lot more time in running shoes. When I found this recipe for apple muffins, it seemed like a perfect compromise. Kurt loves muffins for breakfast, and a few could go into the freezer for a later date. The other part of this story is that one of those cake recipes that is tempting me involves apples and blackberries. When I found some fresh blackberries from Mexico at the grocery store, I had to add them to the tops of these muffins. I found the recipe on Epicurious, and it’s from the September 1997 issue of Gourmet.

My only changes to the original recipe were to bake the muffins at regular size rather than as mini muffins and to top them with blackberries. I left the apple chunks slightly bigger than one-quarter inch pieces and didn’t chop the walnuts fine either, but no big changes. While the muffins were baking, apple cider was simmered until reduced to a syrup. When the muffins were removed from the oven, they were poked on top with a skewer and then brushed with the syrup.

With apple chunks, walnuts, apple cider, and blackberries in the muffins, these were full of delicious. The syrup glaze on top kept the muffins moist and gave them a little shine. The walnuts were particularly nice with the flavor of apples and cider. This was a practical choice for satisfying my apple cake craving, but that doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind and bake a big, full cake in the very near future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

South of the Border Irish Insomniac

My bottle of Kahlua was wondering why I hadn’t used the rest of it, so I searched around for something that included it. I found an interesting cocktail in Viva Margarita, but I didn’t really like the name for it in the book. It’s made with espresso, tequila, and Baileys Irish cream in addition to the Kahlua, but the name ‘Tijuana speedball’ didn’t seem to do justice to all those great flavors. I wanted to call it ‘an Irishman woke up in Mexico’ but decided that sounded like the beginning of a joke, and I didn’t have one to go with it. Friends and family all tried to suggest other possible names, but nothing seemed quite right. I gave up just now, and went with the name you see above. Send me a better idea if you have one.

Throughout the book, the drink recipes are written for either one or two drinks. In this case, it was for one. I made slight changes and will give quantities below for two drinks as I made them. The suggested garnish was to float espresso beans on the top surface with some cinnamon. Instead, I finely chopped chocolate-covered espresso beans and sprinkled that on top with a dusting of cinnamon. Because this is a chilled cocktail, I brewed the espresso in advance and left it in the refrigerator for about an hour.

The hint of caramel from the Kahlua and the smooth Baileys added just enough sweetness to the espresso and tequila. A small, six ounce serving was just enough for a caffeine jolt with a kick, and the dusting of cinnamon and crushed chocolate-covered espresso beans on top was delicious. I’ll definitely be mixing more of these, but what should I call them next time?

Espresso, Kahlua, Baileys Cocktail That Needs a Better Name:

1 ounce tequila
1.5 ounces Kahlua
1.5 ounces Bailey’s Irish Cream
3 ounces espresso
3-4 chocolate-covered espresso beans, finely chopped

Add a handful or two of ice to a cocktail pitcher (or shaker) and then pour the tequila, Kahlua, Baileys, and espresso over the ice. Stir (or shake) to blend and chill. Strain mixture into two six ounce cocktail glasses and sprinkle tops with cinnamon and chopped chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wheat Berries with Vegetables

Perhaps this post should have come with a hippie food warning. Wheat berries with lots of vegetables isn’t exactly decadent, drool-worthy fare. But, considering that I spared you the millet pilaf of last weekend and the brown lentil salad on mixed baby greens from last Wednesday, I was hoping you’d have a look at this dish. I cut this recipe from an issue of Living magazine eight years ago. Of course wheat berries are a whole grain and are very good for you, but they’re also nutty-tasting, filling, and delightfully chewy. Since my fall CSA just started last week, I was happy to use the eggplant, yellow squash, and tatsoi from my first pick-up in this. The dish also includes chopped, canned tomatoes, garlic, and fresh oregano, and with that mix, it takes on that pleasing pizza parlor aroma that works as well as a dinner bell.

First, the wheat berries were placed in a large saucepan and covered with water which was brought to a boil, and then they simmered for 40 minutes until tender. When the wheat berries were about half-way cooked, I started sauteing the vegetables. Minced yellow onion and garlic were sauteed in olive oil and once softened, chopped eggplant, yellow squash, and broccoli were added. After cooking for a few minutes, chopped, canned tomatoes were added with fresh oregano, and that was left to simmer for 10 minutes or so. Last, the cooked and drained wheat berries were added, and I tossed in a handful or two of fresh tatsoi leaves just because I had them. After the wheat berries were incorporated and warmed through, the dish was ready to serve, and I topped it with chopped parsley.

I know it looks like something that makes you think dessert better be really good, but it’s not like that, I promise. That pizza parlor thing I mentioned about the tomatoes, garlic, and oregano give the dish a lively flavor while forming a sauce. The fresh, crunchy, sauteed vegetables contrast with the chewy wheat berries and give lots of varied texture. Admittedly, I like hippie food, but the flavors here were so good it might not belong in that much maligned category.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Persimmon Flan

I’m repeating myself from almost exactly one year ago. Last October, I made a pumpkin flan, and this year, I’ve made one with persimmons. It couldn’t be helped. There was a big table of persimmons at the farmers’ market, and I had to bring some home. Then, I found this recipe for persimmon flan in Potager which is a book devoted to cooking seasonally. I think of flan in the same way I think of souffles. They both seem a little daunting because it seems like things could go horribly wrong, but in the end, they’re actually very easy and almost never fail.

The persimmons were peeled, seeded, chopped, and briefly cooked before being pureed. The puree was pushed through a strainer to make it very smooth. Although the recipe was very straightforward in that just plain persimmon puree was to be added, I had to introduce a little something extra. To the puree, I added a pinch or two of nutmeg and cinnamon. As usual for flan, sugar was caramelized in a small cake pan and then set aside. The custard was made from six eggs, milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and a bit of salt. The persimmon puree was stirred into the custard, and the custard was poured onto the caramelized sugar in the cake pan. It was baked at 325 degrees F in a bain-marie with water coming halfway up the side of the cake pan. The recipe noted it should bake for about 45 minutes, but mine required a few more minutes before it was set in the middle.

The flan was removed from the roasting pan with water and left to cool on a rack, and then it was unmolded onto a plate. That’s the scary part, but just like last time, it popped out without any problems. The remaining caramel in the pan was then pooled onto the inverted flan. I have to admit the caramel is the real reason I like flan so much, but the custard was delicious too. The persimmon flavor was mild, but by adding fruit, the custard is prevented from tasting too much of egg. Next time, I might add a larger pinch of cinnamon, but I’m not complaining about the results here at all. I should really consider making flan more often than once each October, but at this rate, it has been a special, appreciated dessert each time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wild Mushroom-Egg Tacos with Blue Corn Crepes

So, breakfast tacos, where to begin? For the uninitiated, breakfast tacos are an institution in Austin. They’re easily found at countless restaurants, coffee houses, and food trailers around town. They’re inexpensive and convenient. Everyone has his or her favorite filling. For me, bean, egg, and cheese or potato, egg, and cheese are the best, but I also love a spinach, cherry tomato, egg, and cheese on a whole-grain tortilla. Kurt’s preferences are chorizo, egg, and cheese and bacon, egg, and cheese. They’re usually made with flour tortillas except for that multi-grain option I mentioned which I’ve only seen at one place in town. Also, salsa is served on the side in little cups with lids if the tacos are to go, and I always request an extra cup. With so many options for going out for breakfast tacos surrounding me in this town, I’ve never made my own until now. And, to be honest, these are really just something like breakfast tacos. What we have here is a fancy, worldly relative of the breakfast taco. When I was looking for something different for a weekend breakfast, I found truffled egg tacos in Nuevo Tex-Mex, and I always have fun cooking from that book. That main recipe does require two, not one, black truffles which are sliced over eggs, and the filling is then rolled in blue corn crepes to make fancy-pants tacos. Luckily, since I was fresh out of whole black truffles, variations on this theme are offered. I went with the wild mushroom-egg version and added a little truffle oil to the mushrooms after they were sauteed.

As simple as this dish seems, and as familiar as the concept of the breakfast taco is, I was a little nervous about making it because I’d never before made crepes. Without the crepes, this was just scrambled eggs and mushrooms. I doubled the recipe so I’d have plenty of batter for practicing. The first crepe was, of course, a failure, but then things improved. I made my crepes larger than the five inch diameter suggested, so it was a good thing that I had doubled the batter. Blue cornmeal was combined with milk, eggs, and melted butter and then was left to sit for 30 minutes before using. My bigger crepes cooked for just over one minute on each side. The filling was simply sauteed mushrooms which were drizzled with truffle oil and scrambled eggs. I added some grated monterey jack cheese and chopped garlic chives as well.

I always wish blue cornmeal were really blue instead of grayish-pale blue, but regardless of the color, it made a nice crepe with a sweet nuttiness about it. The tenderness of the crepes made them very easy to fold and turn around the filling. It was a little strange to sit down to a meal of breakfast tacos with fork in hand and the aroma truffle oil in the air, but I could get used to this sophisticated variation.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

African-Spiced Chicken with Green Olive Sauce

Back in May, I made a spicy slaw from Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book and then realized there were several other things in that book I needed to make. One of those other things was this African-spiced chicken. In the book, the complete dish involves shredding the chicken and wrapping it in flatbread with apricot couscous and the sauce. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I really just wanted the chicken and the green olive sauce. I was drawn in by the mix of spices rubbed on the chicken and the burnished, oven-roasted, finished bird, and I had to find out how it tasted with that sauce.

The spice mix was made by toasting broken cinnamon sticks, cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, peppercorns, and sweet paprika in a dry skillet. Once the heat made the spices aromatic, they were placed in a coffee grinder which I use just for spices. Salt was added, and the mixture was ground to a powder. The spice mixture was rubbed onto the chicken, and I always loosen the skin over the breast so as to season under the skin as well. Then, cilantro, one halved lemon, and on halved head of garlic were placed in the cavity. I left the chicken in the refrigerator for a few hours to absorb the flavors, and then it was roasted in a 400 degree F oven for just over an hour. For the sauce, shallots and one red chile were sauteed in olive oil until the shallots were caramelized. That mixture was added to a food processor with one half pound of pitted, green Spanish olives, parsley leaves, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. That was pureed until very smooth.

Not only did those spices smell wonderful as the chicken roasted, they also really permeated the meat. Then, there was the sauce. The sauteed shallots sweetened the brininess of the olives, the parsley gave it herby freshness, and the oil smoothed it out nicely. It complemented the chicken well, and served as a nice dressing with some mixed baby greens. I can also report that the leftover chicken made one of the best chicken salads I’ve had. This was a twist on roasted chicken I'll be repeating often.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Vegetarian Crystal Dumplings and Chiu Chow Dumplings

When I first heard the news about this book, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. In Asian Dumplings, Andrea Nguyen presents various kinds of dumplings from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. This is a very informative guide to dumpling making, and homemade wrappers are encouraged for all of them. I had been curious about making dough for wrappers for a long time, and I was a little afraid of it, but with these instructions the process was a breeze. There are also ‘lazy day tips’ throughout the book that explain how to use packaged wrappers for quicker versions of recipes, but there are advantages to making your own. For one thing, I gained a new appreciation for carefully made-from-scratch dumplings. Of course the fresh dough is delicious and chewy, and it’s also fun to shape. With homemade wrappers, you don’t have to moisten the edges to seal it, and it’s much more forgiving and stretchy when being filled. I learned so much from cooking from this book just once that I’m already looking forward to whatever I might learn next time. I noticed this morning that Heidi at 101 Cookbooks just posted a list of Andrea Nguyen’s favorite cookbooks, and it’s a great list.

So, for my first dumpling adventure, I chose the vegetarian crystal dumplings and chiu chow dumplings. Both are made with wheat starch dough, and this was a fun dough to make. Wheat starch was combined with tapioca starch because the tapioca gives it more elasticity. The two starches were combined in a mixing bowl with a little salt, and just boiled water. After stirring in the water, a little canola oil was added. I doubled the dough recipe, but before kneading it, I divided it in two equal parts. I thought kneading would be easier that way. The dough was kneaded for a couple of minutes on a flour-free surface, and it quickly became smooth and white. It’s noted that it should feel like Play-Doh, and it really does.

For these dumplings, each half (since I doubled the original quantity) was divided into three balls. The balls of dough were placed in a plastic bag and left to rest for five minutes. Then, one ball of dough was removed at a time. It was rolled into a log, and the log was cut into eight pieces. Each of those little pieces was then placed between pieces of plastic cut from a zip bag that had been lightly oiled. The dough was then pressed with the bottom of a glass measuring pitcher (or any heavy, flat, round-bottomed object) to form a three and a half inch round. A tortilla press would have been ideal for this. Each round of dough was then filled, the edges were sealed, and the goal was to crimp the edges for a pretty ruffled look. I did what I could. I’ll have to keep practicing for pretty edges, but the important thing is to be sure the dumpling is sealed.

To backtrack just a bit, it’s actually a very good idea to prepare the dumpling filling a day or two before assembling the dumplings. My first choice was the vegetarian filling including dried shitakes, dried wood war mushrooms, shallot, garlic, jicama, carrot, and scallions. The dried mushrooms were soaked and then drained and chopped, and the other ingredients were either minced or finely diced. The shallot and garlic were sauteed, and then the mushrooms, jicama, and carrot were added. A seasoning mixture of sugar, soy sauce, and reserved mushroom soaking liquid was added to the saute pan followed by the scallions and then a small amount of cornstarch dissolved in water. That cooked together just briefly, and then the mixture was left to cool. I decided to go all out and make a second filling as well because since I was doing this whole homemade dumpling thing, I thought why not. And, I thought two kinds of dumplings would be even more fun than one.

The second filling I made was for chiu chow dumplings. That filling is flavored with dried shrimp and includes some kind of meat, usually pork but I used ground chicken thighs, and it includes some vegetables which make it less dense. It’s made by sauteing garlic and chopped dried shrimp before the ground chicken was added. Once the meat was browned, chopped re-constituted dried shitakes were added, with finely diced jicama, and chopped peanuts. A seasoning mixture of sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, shaoxing rice wine, and water was then added to the saute pan. Once again, a cornstarch slurry was added along with scallions. Both fillings were refrigerated overnight before being made into dumplings.

It’s suggested that the dumplings be steamed right away once assembled and not refrigerated until after they’ve been steamed. So, as I assembled them, I placed them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and covered them with plastic wrap. When they were all assembled, I lined steaming trays with parchment so the dumplings wouldn’t stick, and let them steam for seven minutes. Then, I placed enough for dinner in the refrigerator, and the rest went into the freezer. To re-heat them, they went back into the steamer for just three minutes. To serve, soy sauce and/or chile garlic sauce are suggested as accompaniments. I made the homemade chile garlic sauce from the book which included red chiles, garlic, salt, sugar, and distilled white vinegar. If you cook the sauce, which I did, it can be kept refrigerated for about six months.

Does the whole process take some time? Yes. Is it worth it? Definitely. I was thrilled with the dumpling dough and how easy it was to shape. I was also really thrilled that every step of the process turned out exactly as described in the book. The quantity of filling for each type of dumpling was exactly right. The texture of the dumpling wrappers was chewy and springy and delightful. The fillings were full of umami, and I really mean that. There are a lot of savory flavors at work in each, and I kept thinking that both were very good examples of umami. The freshly made chile garlic sauce was bright and hot but not painful in small doses. The whole experience from cooking and assembling and steaming to eating was a fun one, and there will be a lot more dumplings in my kitchen in the future.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chickpeas and Swiss Chard in Parmesan and Sun-Dried Tomato Broth

We tend to go through cycles of what we want to eat. It starts with the let’s eat light and healthy segment followed by the let’s have a nice big dinner spurt and then comes the we need a lip-smackingly decadent dessert after our big dinner stretch which leads us back to the beginning. Right now, it seems we’re back at the beginning, for a few days anyway, and this soup fit perfectly into that part of the cycle. This chickpea and swiss chard soup was in the April issue of Food and Wine. Not only was it a healthy meal, there’s a great tip in this recipe for adding rich flavor to a broth in a very simple way. A piece of parmigiano rind was added to simmering broth. That’s a well-known trick, and I save rinds for this purpose even though I usually forget to use them. After just a few minutes, a so-so broth is transformed. This recipe didn’t stop there either. Before serving, sun-dried tomato pesto was stirred into the soup. Not only was this a light and flavorful dish, it was also very quick to prepare.

It would have been one of those record-time dinner preparations, but I decided to make homemade pesto instead of buying a jar of it. I followed the sun-dried tomato pesto recipe from Vegetarian Classics which included flat-leaf parsley along with basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, parmesan, and sun-dried tomatoes which were soaked in boiling water before being drained and added to everything else in the food processor. The soup was started by simmering some broth with the cheese rind and chickpeas. The rind was discarded, and then chopped swiss chard was added and cooked for just a few minutes. The soup was removed from the heat, and some pesto was stirred into it. That was it. Each bowl was garnished with a little bit of pesto and some grated parmesan.

This recipe is a keeper for how quick and full-flavored it was. Chickpeas and swiss chard are always a great match, but the pesto perked them up and gave the soup a tangy freshness. Meals like this make our eating light and healthy kick last a little longer, but soon enough I’ll be deciding what to make for a tempting, rich dessert.

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