Barley Salad with Kalamata Olives, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Parsley

I have cooked with whole grains for a long time.  My fascination began, simply enough, with bulgur wheat used to make tabouleh.  It was a gateway to all sorts of other grains; winter wheat, soft summer wheat, oat groats, farro,  you get the idea.  There are lots of grains readily available that a few short years ago were very difficult to locate.  A good earthy health food store went a long way to rectifying the shortage but now about every food store carries some sort of whole grain. Continue reading “Barley Salad with Kalamata Olives, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Parsley”

Peanut Butter, Butter, and Lingonberry Jam Sandwiches

I went to my regular restaurant, the one I favor over all others. I ordered my favorite dish only to be disappointed. It lead me to wonder why it wasn’t as good as usual. In my head I worried the quality of the restaurant was slipping, are they ordering a lower quality product that isn’t as flavorful? To be fair I stopped and thought it might be me, maybe my taste buds were off that night. It happens.

I think a lot about taste, not so much about the five taste receptors; bitter, sour, sweet, salty, and umami but more about the law of diminishing returns. Take for instance today, I am making a tomato soup that clearly states in its recipe title it’s the only recipe I will ever need. I hope it’s that good and it may well be delicious but I also know after I eat it 5 or 6 times I will more then likely move on to another recipe for tomato soup, say, the world’s best tomato soup. Knowing my taste buds become familiar with tastes, if the food on the plate in front of me becomes to familiar at some point it is less likely to excite me. I also know there are people who don’t care. They eat simply to survive, their interest lies elsewhere, or they want the familiar. I don’t.

How many times have you eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Are you ever excited to eat them anymore? As a kid I could eat them breakfast lunch and dinner if my mother would have let me but they began to wear thin and I started to eat ham sandwiches or turkey, sometimes a grilled cheese. As an adult there are times I get a kick out of eating a PBJ but they never seem to match the intensity and joy of eating them as a child. I compare it to going back to the neighborhood sledding hill as an adult only to find what at one time seemed like the Rocky mountains now looks more like a speed bump. Childhood can make experiences larger then life.

Peanut  Butter, Butter, and Lingonberry Jam Sandwiches

While I am and always have been enamored with simple foods that use honest ingredients it doesn’t mean I don’t stray from time to time. My cooking has become more about good technique and nurturing rather then showmanship. In a way simple food is like going back to my childhood experiences without fear of being disappointed.

1 brioche hamburger bun or 2 slices of brioche, toasted almost burnt

1 1/2 tablespoons Skippy Natural Peanut Butter

2 unsalted butter pats, about 2 teaspoons at room temperature

1 tablespoon lingonberry jam or red currant jam

Maldon Sea Salt (this is a big flaky sea salt meant for finishing dishes)

  1. When the bread has cooled enough not to melt the peanut butter spread the peanut butter evenly across the bottom bun.  On the top bun smear the butter and top it with the lignonberry jam.
  2. Sprinkle the peanut butter with Maldon salt to taste.  Smush the top bun onto the bottom and serve.

 

Cheats, Lies, and Hucksters (How to Cook a God Damned Grilled Cheese Sandwich)

As a kid, learning to cook a fried egg and bologna sandwich is like teaching me how to load a gun without establishing any safety guidelines. While the combination of griddled bread, egg yolk, mayonnaise, seared bologna, and American cheese is white trash foie gras, perfecting the fried bologna without having made a grilled cheese, well, it is Picasso without a Blue Period, Miles Davis having composed no song book before Bitches Brew. There is no reference and no history, a drifting ship with no anchor. At the time, I didn’t understand the damage done by using the cliff notes without ever reaching for the novel.

But here we are, in that time of year when we think about grilled cheese. It is the age old discussion, as if we forgot the combination to the safe and it needs to be cracked again, of how to cheat a grilled cheese. As if the answers locked away are new kinds of offerings; in a waffle maker, with an iron, use mayonnaise instead of butter, or turn a toaster on its side.

So I am just going to say it, I am tired of hucksters and cheats. It pains me to be over sold or even worse, blatantly lied too. I am not putting myself on a pedestal, far be it from me to cast stones, I am no practicing perfectionist and neither am I an Elmer Gantry. I have my faults and I try to be honest about them. Even so, when I witness an egregious wrong I can’t keep my mouth shut. After all, I can’t have my children wondering around this world thinking they will be able to succeed without ever learning the fundamentals. It happens everywhere and now, of all arenas, the kitchen is under attack.

Why can’t we just learn to cook a god damned grilled cheese? What are we afraid of, actually learning how to cook? There are so many basics to be learned by placing a sauté pan onto the stove to griddle two pieces of bread with cheese stuck in between and yet at all costs we try to avoid it. I don’t care what kind of cheese is put between the slices of bread, I don’t even care what kind of bread you use but I do care that you know how the different kinds of bread are going to react to the heat, that types of bread with more sugars and fats are going to brown faster then lean breads made with nothing more then water, flour, and yeast. Or that certain kinds of cheese are so stringy when you go to take the first bite every bit of the cheese is going to come along with it.

Cheats and shortcuts are wonderful but only after you know how to cook the original dish in the tried and true fashion, only after you have mastered the grilled cheese is it okay to riff on it. If you ignore, or fail to recognize, the subtle nuances of cooking you can follow a recipe to the T and still have it fail. It is because there are so many variables that can lead you down the path to disappointment that it becomes imperative to learn how to cook, which is wildly different from simply following a recipe.

DSC_1312

Grilled Cheese Sandwich (makes 2 sandwiches)

4 slices Pullman bread
1 1/2 cups gruyere cheese, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon green onion, minced
a splash of heavy cream
fresh ground black pepper
unsalted butter, softened

1. Combine the grated gruyere, horseradish, green onions, and a splash cream in a medium sized bowl. Add a grind or two of fresh ground black pepper. Mix everything with a spoon to combine.

2. Place a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat. Liberally butter one side of each of the pieces of bread making sure to cover the whole surface. Place the bread, buttered side down into the pan. Top each piece with one quarter of the cheese mixture. Turn the heat to medium low.

3. Once the cheese begins to compress and soften check the bottom of the bread. If it is browning to fast turn the heat down. Once the bread is browned and the cheese melted put the sandwiches together. Cut the sandwiches into 4 crusty cheese sticks and serve.

 

A Delicious Lentil Soup With A Dirty Little Secret

What you need to know about lentil soup is everyone has their “simple” version.  Knowing this, it reminds me how easy it is to get a nutritious hot bowl of soup to the table.  It also tells me that it must taste really good if there is a reason to keep publishing simple lentil soup recipes, and we do keep publishing them and it does taste good.

The hardest part of  making this soup is cutting the vegetables, which with the exception of the potatoes, can be done up to two days in advance as long as the vegetables are stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The recipe calls for four types of lentils but the truth of the matter is, I had just a small portion of different kinds of lentils I needed to use up.  It so happens that the different textures and subtle flavor differences in the legumes was a welcome addition but if you don’t have but one kind of lentil in the house the soup is still really good.

And here is the secret, soups depend on good broth but sometimes the broth isn’t strong enough.  Without a good broth soups come off as watery and bland and no amount of salt is going to change this.  This fact, and this fact alone, is enough of a reason to keep bouillon cubes in the pantry, or some sort of stock base, that can be used more as a seasoning then as an actual broth.  The idea is to taste the soup after it has cooked and if it comes off as a little flat you add a quarter teaspoon or more of stock base or break off a small piece of bouillon cube to kick up the flavor.  Add the base to the pot, let the it dissolve, stir, and taste again. Keep adding a small piece if needed until the soup is delicious.  Get the picture?  It works, makes the soup more exciting, even if it is a dirty little secret.

©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 All Rights Reserved
©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 All Rights Reserved

4 Lentil Soup (makes 6 servings)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, small dice
3 carrots, peeled and cut into thin rounds
1 large celery stalk, small dice
3 medium yellow potatoes, cubed
1 cup lentils, a mix of beluga, du pays, yellow, and red
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. fresh thyme
1 cup crushed tomatoes
salt
pepper
vegan sodium free bouillon cube
5 cups homemade vegetable stock or no-sodium vegetable stock
2 handfuls baby spinach
1.Place a 3 1/2 quart (3.5l) enameled Dutch oven over medium heat and add olive oil. Once the oil is warm add onions, carrot, celery, and garlic.

2. Season with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Stir, and sauté the vegetables until they are soft, about 3 minutes

3. Add oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Stir again and add potatoes and lentils. Stir. Add tomatoes, broth, and bouillon cube. Season with a pinch of salt and fresh ground pepper.

4. Bring the broth to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.

5. Remove the lid, taste the soup, and add any seasoning necessary. Add 2 big handfuls of fresh spinach and stir it into the soup. Once the spinach is wilted, ladle up bowls of soup and serve.

A Simple Pot Of Beans (And Tips For Pressure Cooking Them)

©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reserved
©Tom Hirschfeld 2016 all rights reserved

Just about anything can be cooked in a pressure cooker. It does lots of things well. Stews, roasts, soups and one pots all come to the table hot and delicious. Even so, what really keeps the pressure cooker on the stove top is the basics. A pressure cooker cooks beans, grains, rice, and stocks effortlessly and it cooks them perfect every time. A pressure cooker is a natural in the kitchen. Not only that, as everybody knows, the pressure cooker saves time and when it comes to cooking beans it saves lots of time.

Bean Myths

We live in a world of bean myths. A world where bits of anecdotal information is passed from one generation of cooks to another. Dried beans carry suitcases full of informational baggage around with each and every pound. But what is truth and what is fiction and how should it all be sorted out?

Dried beans

There are a lot of choices when it comes to the kinds of beans you choose to cook. There are all the traditional beans -‑ black, pinto, garbanzo, navy, and kidney but there are also limitless kinds of heirloom beans with fancy names like Tiger Eye, Eye of the Goat, and Snowcap. There are even more.

When combined with a grain, more often then not rice, beans make a complete protein. This makes beans one of the least expensive healthy foods to put onto the stove. Combine them with a few spices and herbs and it becomes a flavorful dish the whole family will love.

To buy the best beans frequent a grocery that has a high turnover of dried beans. The newer the bean the better it cooks. Beans that have been around for a long time might not ever soften no matter how long you cook them. It pays to pay a little extra for good quality beans.

There are other legumes too. Split peas, lentils, and field peas cook up just as wonderfully in a pressure cooker as any of their cousins mentioned above. These legumes don’t need any kind of soak either, they can go right into the pot and cook in no time at all.

To Soak or Not to Soak?

This is a personal question. It is up to the cook whether or not to soak the beans overnight. In pressure cooker you do not need to soak the beans but there may be reasons why you want to.

One reason would be how are the beans going to be used. If they are to be pureed soaking isn’t necessary but if they are to be left whole a pressure cooker often splits beans leaving them cracked. If this is important then soak the beans.

Under pressure dried beans are cooked in minutes. Not something that can happen when they are cooked traditionally. The question becomes one of digestibility. If the beans are soaked a good deal of the gas causing chemical, phytic acid, is leached out into the soaking water which is discarded and fresh water is then added for cooking. If gastrointestinal issues are a factor presoaking is mandatory.

So while you can eliminate the soaking water when pressure cooking here is another reason it might not be a good idea. Almost any presoaked bean cooks in 10 to 14 minutes in a pressure cooker. That is what is amazing. Cooked delicious beans in such a short amount of time!

A Quick Soak

If you should forget to soak you beans you can still get a pot of beans to the table with a quick soak. Simply put the amount of beans you want to cook into the pressure cooker and for every 1 cup of beans add 4 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil and lock on the pressure cooker lid. Bring to pressure and set a timer for 2 minutes. When the timer sound turn off the heat and let the beans sit for 20 minutes or until the pressure has released. Drain the soaking liquid and proceed.

Salt

There is an old wives tale about salt and beans. It says that salting beans extends their cooking time and makes the beans tough. It does not. Salting beans is paramount to great tasting beans. It is best to salt them during the soak time. About 2 teaspoons of salt per 4 cups of water is sufficient.

Foaming

Foaming is always a concern when using a pressure cooker. Foam carries particulate which can lodge and clog the pressure valves. It is best to add a tablespoon of oil or fat to the cooking liquid. This will help to prevent foaming. It is also best to use a natural or cold water release beans for the same reasons.

When To Add Acids

Tomato sauce and vinegars are often added to beans for flavor. The acids in these products can cause the beans to toughen and take longer to cook. It all depends on how much you add. A can of tomato sauce is going to affect the cooking time, a tablespoon probably not. Nevertheless, it is always best to add any of these products toward the end of the cooking time.

Baking Soda

There is no good reason to add baking soda to beans.

 

A Simple Pot Of Beans
2 cups pinto beans, rinsed and picked over for debris soaked in 8 cups of salted water for 4 hours to overnight
1 small yellow onion, peeled, small dice (about 3/4 cup)
3 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 TB.)
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 bay leaf
[1/2] tsp. fresh ground black pepper

  1. Drain the beans into a colander and strain. Rinse the beans.
  2. Place the beans into a 6 quart (5.51l) or larger pressure cooker. Add enough water to cover the beans by about 1-inch (2.5cm) about 5 or 6 cups.
  3. Add onion, cloves, garlic, salt, bay leaf, and pepper to the pot. Bring the water to a boil over medium high heat (traditional)/high(electric).
  4. Lock on the lid, bring the pressure to level 2(traditional)/high (electric). Set a timer for 10 to 12 minutes.
  5. After the time sounds either perform a natural or quick release. Serve or cool and refrigerate beans until needed.

Pimento Cheese Sandwiches

Is it the heat in August, or the midday cicadas—grinding, grinding, grinding—that reminds me of the time of year?  The horizon, corn pollen and gravel dust, is smudged.  This is the first August I can ever remember going outside after lunch to find it refreshing instead of repressing.  The sun is as bright as on a crisp fall afternoon and the humidity is nowhere to be found—grinding, grinding, grinding.

I like to hear the corn grow and without the humidity there is nothing from which the growing pains can echo.  An ambulance, siren blaring, leaves town.  The sirens grow louder until the emergency vehicle turns north on the state highway.  The sirens begin to fade.

It has been like this all summer and  I am being robbed.  I like the heat.  It is the humidity and heat that makes my vegetables grow.  I have nothing growing in my garden this year.  By rights I should be eating okra.  I should have so much zucchini I have to feed it to the chickens.  I should be looking forward to garden succotash and fried chicken but my lima beans died long ago in the continual down pours of early spring. I should be picking fresh field peas and pole beans but I never even got the baskets down from the cabinet.  I should be cutting sweet corn from the cob and freezing it.

I rock gently in an easy chair on the front porch and eat a pimento cheese sandwich.  From out across the fields I can hear the announcer for the high school football game calling plays.  I think back to all my first days back at school.  I feel the butterflies in my stomach,  another summer grows quite.

pimento and mixed tomato sandwich

Pimento Cheese

(Makes 2 cups)

3 cups cheddar cheese, grated (about an 8oz. block)

2 teaspoons yellow onion, grated on a micro plane

3 tablespoons jarred pimentos plus 1 tablespoon pimento juice

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Nathan’s mustard

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Tabasco sriracha

1 tablespoon ketchup

fresh ground black pepper to taste

  1. Place all the ingredients into a mixing bowl.  Stir gently with a spoon until everything is combined.  Let sit for an hour before serving.  Store in the refrigerator tightly covered.

 

The Best Corn on the Cob in the World

foodquarterlySomething as simple as good corn on the cob shouldn’t be elusive.  There shouldn’t be any big secrets but there is and it is this, the best corn on the cob in the world is cooked in a pressure cooker.   It couldn’t be simpler to do  and the results are divine.

I live in corn country.  If there was a vortex for the center of a corn universe I am at ground zero.  And if not the exact center I am still close enough that if it shook in the middle of the night it would knock me out of bed.  What I am saying is in the Midwest we know corn, and all you have to do is visit any state fair to know I am telling you the truth.

We roast it, boil it, we scrap it off the cob, we make it into pudding, make chowder out of it, we slather ears of it with mayonnaise and sprinkle it with any number of spices, and we even deep fry it like it is a corn dog.

But when a real treat is in order, in the heat of late-summer,  we set up a table under the shade tree, even put a table cloth on it along with plates and silverware.  Then we grill some thick cut pork chops, cut thick slabs of ripe homegrown tomatoes and lightly salt them, maybe a green salad with a sugary vinegar and oil dressing, and  we steam perfectly rip ears of sweet corn under pressure, slip the ear out of the husk from the stalk end and roll the perfectly steamed ears through sun softened sticks of butter.

Pressure cooking an ear of corn does something magnificent.  It gives the kernels a snap, and by leaving the husk on the ears develop a robust corn flavor, much like wrapping tamales in a dried husk.  It tastes like corn should, pure and simple.

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The Best Corn on the Cob in the World

(serves 6 to 8 people)

When buying ears of corn look for husk that are vibrant and fresh.  It is also always best to cook sweet corn the same day you buy it.

8 ears of sweet corn still in the husk (buy ears that fit your cooker)

1 cup water

1 stick of unsalted butter

sea salt

fresh ground black pepper

Equipment: a 6 or 8 quart pressure cooker with a steamer basket

1. Set an ear of corn onto a cutting board.  Using a good chef’s knife trim the stalk end back so that there is no stalk showing just kernels, about a 2-inch piece.  Repeat with all the ears of corn.

2. Place each ear of corn cut end down into the steamer basket.

3. Place the cooker over medium-high heat.  Add 1 cup of water and bring it to a boil.  Slip the steamer basket with the corn into the pot.

4. When the water returns to a boil, lock on the lid, and bring the pressure to level 2, or high.  Once pressure is reached lower the heat while maintaining pressure.

5. Set a timer for 6 minutes.  When the timer sounds perform a quick or cold water release.

6. Remove the lid and use a pair of tongs to lift out the steamer basket.

7. Using a dry and clean kitchen towel grab and ear of corn by the silk and push the ear out of the husk toward the stalk end.  The silks should come along with husk and the ear should be clear of silk.  Repeat for all the ears.  Serve immediately with lots of butter, salt, and fresh ground pepper.

(A tangent: If you own a pressure cooker you are in luck, if you don’t then you are going to want one. So go buy one, I am serious, and I don’t peddle stuff on here.  Not only do pressure cookers cook things well they are going to help save the planet one meal at a time by conserving energy, water, and time.  If you like that sort of stuff, conservation, then you have to get one.  A 6 or 8 quart stove top cooker will feed your family delicious meals for years to come.)