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.

 

A Very French Beef Stew

DSC_2850If you are like me, you have made what seems like hundreds of variations on beef stew; the classic tomatoey American version, a Korean version, Chinese, Irish, with beer, or with wine. It’s all done in the name of variety and the constant quest for new flavors to excite the taste buds. We do it in order to make dinner ever more interesting, because let’s be honest, if you only cook the same 5 or 6 meals and present them over and over again at some point they become lackluster and boredom sets in. This is not to say, as a cook you need to know how to cook a hundred variations on beef stew because you don’t. If you are like me though you are curious, always looking for upgrades, and it is nice to have some surprises in your back pocket when you need them.DSC_2888

While I call this a French stew it is far from a classic daube.  Daube’s make use of lots of red wine, olives, and orange peel. This stew does not. What this dish does do is keep flavors separate. By cooking the meat on its own, roasting the vegetables, then combining them only when it is time to serve the dish some very wonderful flavors only become present when everything is in the bowl.

Let me say a few things about clay pot cooking.  Clay is unique, so if you have a clay pot stored in a cabinet somewhere begging to be used then this is a great place to start and here is why.  Cooking in clay pots feels like cooking.   The smell of the clay as it heats, the aroma that reminds you of the last meal you cooked,  the cracks in the glaze, the smell of olive oil as it heats seems basic in an elemental way.  It is comforting.  It’s as if you a are connected to every cook that came before you and every meal too.

When you heat clay on the stove the culinary history of the particular pot makes itself well known very quickly. Often pots are dedicated to certain kinds of cooking like curry, or rice, or beans. They are used for meals made with similar spices.  They are the original slow cooker and you can find them being used all around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia and throughout South America.

The recipe doesn’t require cooking in a clay pot for it to be good but it does add to its mystic. It can be cooked in a slow cooker or in an enameled Dutch oven on the stove top.

 

Clay Pot Beef Stew with Roasted Vegetables (serves 4)

2 TBS. olive oil

2 pounds beef brisket, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 1/2 TBS all-purpose flour

3 medium yellow onions

15 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

3 cups homemade beef broth of sodium free beef broth

1 1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence

1 tsp. kosher salt

2 tsp. Japanese tonkatsu sauce or Heinz 57

1 bay leaf

2 tsp. flat leaf parsley, minced

3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch cylinders

7 fingerling potatoes, washed and halved

  1. Peel and trim one onion.  Halve it and dice both halves into a small dice.
  2. Place a 3 1/2 quart clay pot or enameled Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add olive oil and let it become hot.  Add half the beef and brown it on all sides.  Remove the meat to a tray.  Repeat with the remaining beef.
  3. Add the flour to the oil and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour begins to color and smells nutty (do not taste the roux it will burn your tongue off.)
  4. Add diced onions and garlic.  Stir.  The roux will stick to the vegetables and clump.  This is as it should be.  Add the hot broth while stirring. Continue to stir until the liquid comes to a boil.
  5. Add a 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, Herbes de Provence, tonkatsu, bay leaf, parsley, and a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper.  Add the brisket back to the pot, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and let it gently bubble until the brisket is tender but not falling apart.  About 4 hours.
  6. About 1 1/2 hours before the brisket is tender heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Peel the remaining 2 onions and cut each into 6 wedges.  Place the onions, carrots, and potatoes into a bowl.  Toss with enough olive oil to coat them.  Season them with salt and fresh ground pepper.  Toss them again.
  7. Spread the vegetables out onto a sheet tray and roast them for 1 hour or until they are brown and blistered.  Remove them from the oven.
  8. To serve place a sprinkling of vegetables into the bottom 4 bowls, ladle over meat and broth over the vegetables and them top with some vegetables.  Sprinkle with parsley 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.

 

Searching for the Perfect Risotto

I don’t get the allure of risotto. Years ago at culinary school, every student revered the dish except me, and slowly I’ve come to hate it. It’s overrated.

I’ve practiced making it at home with the guidance of some of the best cookbook authors of the day. I stand at the stove as instructed, stirring, hot broth on the back burner, and all of the ingredients at hand. Inevitably after the required 19 minutes of stirring, ladling, and coddling as instructed, I have a pot of hot, goopy rice, but I am never impressed.

I never get tired of cooking, but eventually I did tire of making risotto.

I had given up ordering risotto in restaurants long ago for the same reasons I quit making it at home. But on a chance, just like the dollar I dropped into a slot and pulled the arm as I walked by, I ordered it. I took the gamble and it too payed off, just like the $1600 slot earlier in the day.

I don’t eat at restaurants often. Not because I don’t enjoy them – because I do – it’s more that my wife, Amy, and I splurge when we go out to eat. A few times a year we spend lots of money at a few restaurants. A weekend in Napa or New York City is perfect for this. This time we headed to Las Vegas where there are lots of great restaurants tucked within a confined space. We made plans to hit several famous chef’s restaurants. It’s what we do when we go to Vegas. Others gamble, we eat.

On a whim, we decided to go into Le Cirque, the off shoot of the famous New York City restaurant. Le Cirque is whimsical. It ’s dinner under the big top, draping curtains hanging from the ceiling like a technicolor circus tent, highlighting a huge chandelier centered in a huge circular room. No corner table. Gaudy at best but it pairs perfectly with Cirque Du Soleil playing one ring over.

As I glanced at the veritable circus around us, the ringmaster balanced hot plates on his arm and delivered them to our table. The risotto dish set in front of me was the most exquisite rice dish ever. Tender rice but with a spring to it. The acidity of the white wine, added and burned off au sec, is a perfect match for the Parmesan and the starchy rice. Brothy, but not too much so. Fine dinning at its best. It is out of place in Vegas: to simple, not garish enough. Still, that rice dish will hold a place at the front of my mind for the rest of the weekend and follow me around for a long time to come.

I arrived back home with renewed determination. I had to figure out how to make risotto like that. It’s like a three-ring circus in my kitchen: ingredients spread all around while I’m stirring and ladling and stirring and measuring and stirring some more. Another carefully measured attempt ends yet again with disappointment. How could it not? I can make a perfect pot of rice, but I can’t make risotto. No amount of hope can fix that.

I did my best to just move on. There are so many wonderful foods in this world; there is no point in getting hung up on any one failure. It’s not like anyone notices a gaping risotto hole in my cooking repertoire. And what if they did? It’s only risotto.

But I do. I notice. And for me it is an empty pan smoking over high heat. Cooking is what I do. Making food the best that I possibly can is what drives me. Once my palate has experienced something new and exciting there are no lengths to which I won’t go in order to replicate that experience.

And so I head back to the stove with another recipe for Risotto Milanese, seeking yet again that illusive pairing of a creamy texture and toothsome rice. I carefully ladle in the broth, stirring and stirring and seeking to master the ultimate balancing act.

Perfect Risotto Milanese (serves 4)

2 tsp. unsalted butter

1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup arborio rice

1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 3/4 cup homemade or sodium free chicken broth

1/2 tsp saffron

2 TBS. unsalted butter, cold

1/2 cup Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

1 TBS. chives, minced

  1. Place a 4-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat.  Add the butter, and when it begins to bubble, add the onions.  Sauté until the onions begin to soften.
  2. Add the dry white wine and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the wine by half and add the rice and stir to coat.  Add salt, chicken stock, and saffron, and bring the liquid to a boil.
  3. Lock the lid into place and bring the pressure to high.  Once the pot is to pressure start a timer set for 7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and use the cold water release method to drop the pressure.  Remove the lid.
  4. Stir in the chilled butter followed with the Parmesan.  If the risotto is stiff, add more broth 1 TBS. at a time until you reach the desired consistency.  Divide the rice into 4 bowls, garnish a little more cheese and chives.  Serve immediately.

 

 

Middle Eastern Braised Green Beans

I don’t know when it came to be that chefs and cooks decided that your veggies needed to be cooked al dente. While I know they retain more of their vitamins when cooked a minimal amount I also know it’s not like the vitamins just vaporize into thin air but instead I am pretty sure, and take note I am not a scientist, that they wind up in the cooking broth.

Either way and no matter how you slice it I like veggies that can stand up to multiple cooking methods giving me choices as how best to enjoy them. I like green beans blanched then sautéed al dente but then I also like them long cooked. That doesn’t mean I want mush because I want something that still has character and a bite.

So after cooking green beans and eating green beans pretty much all my life with potatoes or onions, and even bacon and onions I was looking for a change. This last summer I found a wonderful recipe for okra that was stewed and I liked the recipe so much I made it two or three times.

The other night I was thinking how good that recipe would be with green beans and, actually even easier and less time consuming then the okra. So here is a link to the original article and recipe from the New York Times’ Recipes for Health by Martha Rose Shulman http://tinyurl.com/7ebxpk3 just in case you have any interest in the original okra recipe which I will make again this coming summer.

Middle Eastern Braised Green Beans  (Serves 6)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon all spice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 pounds green beans, clipped and cleaned
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
juice of half a lemon
14 oz chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons tomato paste
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

  1. Place a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and once it is hot add the onions. Season the onions with a pinch of salt and some pepper. Sweat the onions until they begin to soften trying not to brown them.
  2. Add the garlic and once it becomes fragrant add the all spice and sugar. Then add the beans and stir them to coat with the oil.
  3. Now add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. Cook on medium until you hear the pot sizzling then reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for an hour remembering to stir about every twenty minutes. They may take longer the an hour but not much.
  4. Taste, adjust the salt and pepper 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.