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Black-eyed pea cakes, snatched from the jaws of defeat

jason

Black-eyed pea cakes with harissa mayonnaise

Trying to be clever sometimes gets me into trouble.

I was planning to make a soup this week. I thought it would be a good idea to cook some black-eyed peas one night ahead of time, so that I'd be able to eat dinner at a reasonable hour when I went to prepare the soup the next evening.

I didn't soak the beans earlier in the day, so I pulled out my 70s-era slow cooker after dinner, and let it do its thing. Clever, yes?

Just before bedtime, I went to check on the peas. Disaster had struck.

The peas were way overcooked. The soup I had in mind was not based on a puree. Of course, I didn't want to let the effort, or the food, go to waste.

A small disaster, yes, but I was disappointed. I lose interest in hearty soups the moment warm weather takes hold in Seattle, and there's not much time left before that happens (he says hopefully).

A rescue operation was in order.

I remembered having a sort of black-eyed pea hoppin' john (or is that johnnycake?) at Seattle's Kingfish Cafe several years ago, and then I thought that these overcooked beans might have a second chance at life. Not being a Southerner, in spite of a couple of years living in Knoxville, TN as a teenager, I'm not the right person to ask how to make the "real" thing, but I ground up a bunch of cumin, a little coriander seed, and even a touch of dried gobo (burdock root), only the first of which is terribly likely in any Southern version of this dish.

Although the beans were already pretty well mashed on their own, I used a fork on a little over half of the beans to make them a little more likely to hold together, and then worked in a couple of eggs, some panko, the spices, and salt.

The only kind of cornmeal I have around is instant masa, so I went ahead and used regular flour (an early experiment with the masa wasn't promising). I formed the bean mixture into patties, dusted each patty with the flour, and placed them one-by-one in an hot cast-iron pan. I used plenty of oil, more than coating the bottom of the pan, but not so much that the patties would be floating in it.

The patties are cooked until just a bit beyond golden brown.

To serve, I mixed up some harissa, a chili and garlic mixture with cumin, coriander, and a bit of olive oil, with some prepared mayonnaise. This went on each patty rather artlessly, as my squeeze bottle's tip fractured, leaving me to resort to a spoon.  A little parsley made it almost look pretty.

From a near fiasco, I had a very high protein, fairly flavorful dish, built from the humblest of ingredients. Sometimes failure is rewarding.

One part convenience, two parts easy

jason

Sunday brunch with brix-tested grapefruit

A couple of weeks ago Matthew Amster-Burton wrote about some frozen croissant dough which Trader Joe's now carries, and gave the product the thumbs up.

I thought it would be nice to do breakfast at home this morning, so I decided to give them a try. All I did was put out a couple on a sandwiched aluminum cookie sheet last night, then I woke up, preheated the oven, and baked them for a little under 20 minutes. They reminded me of the quality of croissants I found at average chain bakeries in Tokyo, which is pretty good. If I walked down the street to one of the coffee shops in my neighborhood, I'd have croissants with no crunch, a victim of transport... they resemble dinner rolls more than croissants, even though they come from a reasonably decent bakery.

The Trader Joe's version were also just the right size... I usually want two pastries just for variety's sake, but in the typical portion sizes in the U.S. that's a prescription for a heart attack, or at least some substantial weight gain. These ones work out to be 150 kCal a piece, assuming you don't slather too much in the way of toppings on them. I ate two with some kaya custard, so it wasn't exactly diet food, but I should live to see tomorrow.

Cafe Besalu is an occasional (frequent?) weekend indulgence for me, and their laminated pastries are hard to beat, but there's something to be said for being able to eat freshly baked croissants in your bathrobe.

Even though I like eating well on my own, I tend to keep breakfast and brunch rather basic, so I thought it would be good to have some more good stuff that required little work.

I had half a grapefruit from Harbor Island Citrus in Florida, which I picked up at Sosio's. These grapefruits were labeled in Japanese with the phrase 「糖度センサー使用」, which means that they are sugar-tested with a brix sensor (yours for just $3000, or $9000 if you want the melon-testing model). They're sweet, but also incredibly full-flavored. Thanks to the label, I discovered that this grapefruit is exported to and sold in Japan (at least online), and are actually fairly reasonably priced... not much different than I paid, and slightly cheaper in quantity.

The season's pretty short, so I bought a couple more this weekend, just in case it's my last chance. They might have them for another week at Sosio's downtown; I was told that there are only about 40-50 cases left in the country.

I also had a sunny-side up egg with truffle salt, making a simple but luxurious breakfast. Sometimes it's good to stay home.

Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

jason

Baked chevre and fresh fava beans

Variations of baked chevre always haunt me. Deceptively basic, this dish really only needs a little chevre and some tomato sauce, and some fresh bread or maybe toast. And yet, I continue to succeed in finding new ways of botching a good thing.

What do I do wrong? Well, I occasionally get wistful for a dish of baked eggs, which I enjoyed once at brunch on a trip to Orcas Island. Some self-defeating part of me wants it to be possible to combine baked eggs with baked chevre. Every time I attempt that, the eggs end up being a gelatinous monstrosity. I do like the slightly gelatinous hanjuku tamago, or not-quite-hard, not-quite soft boiled eggs, but that's not at all what I end up with, in spite of valiant attempts. As soon as the egg white turns opaque and reasonably solid in the tomato sauce, the yolks are nearly inedible.

I've decided that trying to do both at the same time is a losing proposition.

So this time, I reverted to the basics. The only particularly creative touch I took this time around was adding some freshly peeled fava beans to the tomato sauce.

Did this result in disaster?

Thankfully, no. Fava beans are almost as frighteningly easy to overcook as eggs, but somehow they survived a bit more than ten minutes in the oven. Their texture remained firm, as the oven's radiant heat concentrated their signature spring flavor.

I served the baked chevre with slices of some excellent pumpernickel bread from Tall Grass Bakery.

Maybe my dreams of baked eggs and chevre will never be realized, but now I have something else to tempt me.

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Kale with onions and almonds

jason

Kale, onions, almonds, and red wine

As a small child, I already had vegetarian leanings, and generally refused red meat. Then, one night, my parents and I went out to dinner at their favorite nearby "fancy" restaurant, a Black Angus, where, without warning or provocation, I placed my order for prime rib.

The waitress was taken aback, as that was a pricey cut of meat for a 3 or 4 year old in the 7 Especially at a restaurant. She checked with my parents, who said "if that's what he wants, give it to him." My mother was surprised and, apparently, somewhat relieved, and she figured it was best to indulge me on a rare occasion when I was willing to entertain the idea of eating meat. Even if that meant that I was condemned to have expensive taste for the rest of my life.

While I did eschew meat, I still hadn't overcome the typical childhood fear of salads and bitter greens. During the same period that I was refusing red meat, I was equally hostile to eating salad, even though the standard salad in the 70s was a mound of nearly flavorless iceberg lettuce drenched in about a pound of Thousand Island dressing. Reportedly, my reaction to being served salad (quite possibly with that very same steak) was to say, "I can't eat that, it might kill me!"

In retrospect, maybe I was on to something. Although I warmed to that style of salad in my junior high school and high school years, it only took a couple years beyond that before I couldn't imagine a salad with anything less flavorful than romaine, nor any dressing poured heavily enough to resemble a lettuce soup. And I now generally reserve Thousand Island dressing for its divinely intended purpose: as a sauce for french fries.

Artery-clogging quantities of mayonnaise do not belong in something ostensibly healthy; they belong right out in the open, served with something you expect to be bad for you*.

So what does steak and expensive taste have to do with kale? Well, a little bundle of kale in the supermarket runs over $3, which is probably more than a pound of prime rib would have cost in the supermarket during the 1970s. That's about three times the price of spinach. (Or maybe not... spinach has been expensive of late, too).

How interesting that kale, a much feared vegetable by even reasonably adventurous cooks, is nearly a luxury item.

And yet, treated reasonably well, kale is a remarkably flavorful and pleasing green. Most of the hard work of washing the kale is done for you, at least as far as I've seen; I still give the greens a bath in a big bowl of water and let any sediment settle to the bottom. I separate the tender leaves from the sturdiest parts of the ribs by ripping the leaves along either side of the rib.

Then I usually do a quick braise with good, gently heated olive oil, garlic, a little bit of flavorful vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice, and sometimes some wine. This time, I actually started with quick-sauteed onions, cooked down the kale a bit, and added a heavy splash of red wine and a little lemon juice, along with some sliced, toasted almonds. I added just enough salt to bring out the flavor of the greens, and to let everything cook for a few minutes to let the wine and kale come together.

Kale is certainly more bitter than spinach, but it stands up to longer periods of cooking than spinach tolerates, allowing for more intensely flavored creations. The red wine-olive oil combination creates a beady, tangy sauce, brightened up by the acidity of the lemon. The almonds add a little textural contrast, though they'd be more flavorful if freshly toasted and used as a garnish.

Along with a few other plates of more substantial fare, the kale adds a massive boost of Vitamin A and other nutrients, but my fork keeps wandering back to this plate for the flavor.

And it won't kill me.

* I reserve the right to inconsistency when you later catch me eating copious quantities of my homemade citrusy mayonnaise with theoretically healthy artichokes.

 

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Naked roasted cauliflower

jason

Naked roasted cauliflower with Spanish paprika

Isn't this sexy?

Cauliflower soup may look homely, but the most minimalist preparation of roasted cauliflower can still make heads turn.

Roasted cauliflower became trendy a few years back, and I fell in love with it long ago. In my kitchen, it's become such a common fixture at when I bring home cauliflower that I never give it much thought.

It's certainly fun to play with the basic ingredients. Sometimes I add a few pine nuts in the last few minutes of baking; maybe a splash of wine and a few currants; perhaps some herbs.

But roasted cauliflower is equally satisfying at its simplest. I usually slice the head of cauliflower or break it into florets, then I do little more than add a generous sprinkling of olive oil and salt.

This time, I used some Korean bamboo salt and a little bit of Spanish paprika. The bamboo salt that I used has a small amount of a Korean herb incorporated into the blend, but the flavor is very subtle, if it's recognizable at all. The Spanish paprika adds a pleasingly smoky quality and a sweet aroma.

Roasted at 375F until golden, the cauliflower requires little attention. I usually flip over the florets once or twice, usually after each 15-20 minutes in the oven. I usually bake it somewhere around 40 minutes in total, sometimes a little longer. Most vegetables don't hold up to long periods of cooking, but cauliflower is an exception.

The best thing about roasted cauliflower is that it only takes two or three minutes to prepare, and you can let the oven do the hard work while you're preparing the rest of the night's dinner.

When the cauliflower is finished, it becomes soft and inexplicably sweet. You can serve it naked, like I did, or, if that's not exciting enough for you, it goes nicely with a little tsatziki or aioli.

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Tricolor roasted peppers and cheese curds

jason

Tricolor roasted peppers and Beecher's cheese curds 

Although bell peppers are available year-round, they're really a summertime thing. But bell peppers have been a bit cheaper than typical for this time of year, and I've noticed a few good deals. So I threw seasonality to the wind and brought a few home.

When I have bell peppers around, the first thing that occurs to me is to roast them, which brings out an incomparable sweetness. I can eat them with nothing more than a sprinkle of salt, and I can make them disappear like candy.

With just one or two peppers, I typically roast them on my little tabletop gas konro which I bought to enable nabe-making, but starting at about 3 bell peppers, it's far more efficient to stick them under the broiler in the oven. The only problem is that, when the skin finally blackens under my broiler, the peppers are more than fully cooked, and they become mushy and undesirable by the time I get to eat them.

As a result, when using the oven, I now halve the peppers, and I only roast them until about 1/3 of the skin has turned black. Then I place them in an airtight storage container for 15 or 20 minutes to let the skins loosen up and the flesh cool down enough to handle.

With this method, the peppers get just enough caramelization to have all the desirable flavor, without turning into a near-puree. The downside is that the skin is a bit harder to peel than when the skin is fully blackened.

This time, I picked up one yellow, one orange and one red pepper, so I thought I'd turn them into a simple and colorful salad.

After I finished roasting and peeling the peppers, I sprinkled a little salt and olive oil on them, and mixed in some broken cheese curds I had picked up the same day at Beecher's. Because the roasted peppers are so flavorful, no special seasoning is needed, but some fresh basil or shiso might be a nice addition.

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Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

jason

Cheddar and cauliflower soup with cannellini puree

Soups aren't the sexiest food in the world.

But they can be seriously comforting.

This spring, Seattle has frequently been visited by unwelcome blustery, unpredictable spring weather, punctuated by misleadingly clear and balmy days that invite unfortunate delusions... During such moments, Seattlelites indulge vivid fantasies of leisurely walks around Greenlake that won't be interrupted by a sudden downpour, only to be disappointed by the harsh reality of rapidly encroaching storm-clouds after hours of deceptive partly sunny skies.

And those of us who are fooled, as all Northwesterners want to be, find ourselves shivering and craving the comforts of winter.

Even if it is April.

I gently roasted golden cauliflower in the oven, knowing that the next unseasonably cold day could strike as soon as tomorrow. I prepared a dark blonde roux of butter and flour, stirred in minced onions and garlic, then worked  in some milk and soup stock. I realized that I needed a bit more liquid, so I called to duty a bottle of stale beer left since I last entertained people who, unlike myself, like to drink hoppy fermented beverages. I added some ground mustard and celery seeds.

I took some cannellini beans cooked overnight in a slow cooker and pureed them in a blender, added them to the stockpot. After things simmered for a while, I incorporated the roasted cauliflower, and ultimately added plenty of sharp white cheddar.

White cheddar. Yes. Like the partly sunny skies of spring in Seattle, the yellow color of this soup is, in fact, a deception.

I was not pleased when my lovely smelling soup took on an unpleasantly beige color, likely thanks to the perhaps-too-dark roux and the white beans.

So I improvised, as one does.

I have a plentiful supply of annatto seeds, which are, in fact, the same source of coloring used in the aggressively orange cheddar sold in massive loaves at most supermarkets.

I cooked a fair tablespoon in a heavy dose of oil on medium-low heat, until the sizzling annatto seeds produced a pleasing aroma and colored the oil.I strained the oil and incorporated it into the pot of soup, and the color became... well... eerily orange. But I suppose that's better than beige.

On this first serving of the soup, I drizzled a bit of argan oil onto the surface of the soup. This proved to be wholely unnecessary, as the soup had sufficient depth of flavor that the nutty aroma was merely a slightly expensive distraction. When I brought the leftover soup to work for lunch, I didn't even consider such pointless additions.  The freshly ground pepper, on the other hand, was far more well-considered.

The cheddar and beer provided a well-balanced complexity, and the white beans contributed plenty of protein and fiber. The soup had just a hint of the onions and garlic, which added body and aroma without dominating the flavor.

I served the soup with a whole-wheat breadstick, whose dough I prepared the night before serving the soup. I retarded the yeast dough overnight in the refrigerator, and let it rise in a cool kitchen while I was at work. When I got home, I turned on the oven, formed several long cylinders from the dough, and brushed each with a bit of milk. (An egg wash would have worked equally well). I rolled each breadstick in plenty of poppy seeds, and baked them at 425°F about 15-20 minutes, until they were crisp and golden outside and reasonably moist inside.

Gnocchi with tomatoes, kale and mushrooms

jason
springveg 018

Although I have a weakness for ravioli, tortellini, and other stuffed pastas, the prototype of stuffed pasta, gnocchi, is really the stuff of my dreams.

It's alluring because, without any special equipment, one can quickly pull together a decent result, even on a weeknight, so long as only one or two people are eating. But the perfect gnocchi is often elusive: nearly melt in your mouth, proper gnocchi must still have enough texture to hold together, and should not be dense, uneven, or hard in the center. But circumstances sometimes conspire against us.

While I'm inclined to reserve the most attention for clever variations such as kabocha gnocchi, the simplest and most basic version, built on little more than hot, riced potatoes, an egg yolk or two, and flour, is everything I really could ask for. Sometimes I add a bit of salt to the dough, and sometimes I salt only the water for boiling.

This time, the gnocchi alchemy worked out in my favor, and I got almost exactly the texture I wanted.

In spite of the unavailability of decent tomatoes this time of year, I had an uncontrollable craving for some form of tomato sauce. A decent variety of canned tomatoes came to the rescue. I made a thyme-heavy sauce with onions and garlic. I wanted something a little more substantial, though, so I worked in some nice black kale and ordinary crimini mushrooms.

I made enough to have leftovers for lunch at work the next day, and my lunchbox version also featured the addition of small balls of mozzarella, which I actually meant to be part of this dinner, too, but, you know, I'm occasionally a little forgetful.

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Nori furikake popcorn and an exercise routine

jason

springveg 012

Over the last 5 months or so, I've been stepping up my exercise routine. The last couple of years working in software during the day have been particularly bad for my waistline, and a broken foot last year kept me away from the gym for several months. My newer office is inches from dozens of cheap, massive-portion quick-service lunch joints, and for most of my return to software I've just not been exercising as much as I used to. It's a dangerous combination.

A long time ago, I had an ugly knee injury from running, and I never quite got back to normal. Every time I tried running more than about 3 miles, the pain would come back.

While Hiromi was staying with me in Seattle, both of my knees started acting up, inflamed by little more than walking. My usual standby of walking long distances, either out and about or on the treadmill, just became too painful to handle.

In November I realized that my avoidance of exercise was unsustainable, and I started hunting around the gym for something that wouldn't be murder on my knees. I found most of the cycling machines boring, and elliptical striding machines were more stressful on my knees than running, so things seemed hopeless. Then I stumbled on the Concept2 rowing machine, and everything started to click.

For the last few weeks, I've been focusing on strength training, but I'm really glad to have found a cardiovascular exercise that doesn't punish my knees.

My routine since November has kept me in the gym 4 or 5 nights a week, and I get home pretty late on weeknights. I usually manage to eat a reasonable dinner, though I'm not usually finished cooking until around 9:30 pm.

Weekends are more complicated. Somehow I often end up eating irregularly, and my appetite strikes at the most inconvenient moments.

Last Sunday, I got an after-dinner craving, so I went straight for my go-to snack: popcorn. Often I toss a little truffle salt and melted butter on it, but I have another favorite: nori-shio popcorn.

I stole the idea from a microwave popcorn product that comes from Hawaii, and the nori-shio potato chips popular in Japan. That brand of microwave popcorn is crazy expensive in Seattle, so I started making it on my own.

It's easy enough to make popcorn on the stovetop with a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan; I just heat a little oil on medium heat, add a few tablespoons of popcorn to the bottom, and shake occasionally as the kernels heat up. When popping starts to slow down, I turn off the heat and wait for the last few popping sounds.

Most of the time, I use a mortar and pestle to grind up prepared nori furikake, which I buy at Uwajimaya in Seattle. If I don't have that, I sometimes mix up aonori, sesame seeds, salt, and a bit of sugar, and work that into a fine powder with the mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.

I toss the cooked popcorn and the nori blend in a big bowl. Sometimes, there's not quite enough oil to get the furikake mix to stick to the popcorn, so I might spray or drizzle a little more oil onto the popcorn, which usually helps a bit.

Nori, sesame and salt get along with popcorn swimmingly, so this is one of my favorite snacks.

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