Saturday, October 10, 2015

I Must Be a Farmer- I Grew My Own Fenugreek!

The world can be a very small place at times. Thanks to the Internet and social media it's growing ever smaller by the day. I am making friends in far away lands and enjoying those connections through food, through music, through family, all the commonalities that make in-person friendships so wonder also help shape our online friendships. In my journey as a blogger and Facebook page owner, I met a young lady who lives in Holland. She has a very diverse background, being of Trinidadian descent, born in England, moved about Europe and settled in Holland with her husband and daughter, where Sue cooks amazing Indian recipes using the freshest ingredients, all homemade, and demonstrates a skill far too many cooks these days don't know how to deliver- portion control.

On Sue's Facebook Page Sue, You and Cooking Too she shares photos of everything she prepares for her family. The first thing I noticed when I first met Sue, besides in creative use of spices and the Euro names for foods we call something totally different in the U.S., was the heavy handed use of fresh vegetables on her plate. Her portion size is perfect- no monster piles of meat and starches, and the vegetables are often the stars of the plate. Lots of stir fried and fresh steamed veg. Careful use of lean proteins such as fish and other lean meats. Of course, those spices. Sue is a flavor master when it comes to spices. She inspires me to get out of my comfort zone and try all things Indian.

The fenugreek plants were sturdy and bright and the
blooms were fragrant and pretty.
Since I have this desire to try these new flavors, and spices I have been accumulating them over the last several months. Fenugreek is one such spice that Sue and I were talking about one day. I have a packet of the seeds but Sue says the leaves of the plant are also commonly used in Indian cooking. a gardener that just seemed like a challenge and a great idea. I have always loved growing "weird" things just to see how they turn out. Last summer it was a pot full of lentil plants- which resulted in a small palmful of lentils. Kind of fun actually. I separated out about 6 or 7 fenugreek seeds and planted them in a pot on the deck. Lo and behold they sprouted- very quickly I might add, making their appearance on the third day after planting. The plants grew quickly but weren't especially huge- maybe because they were grown in containers, I'm not really sure as I have no idea what they are like ground in the ground (maybe at the new house?). Anyway, the leave were bright green and solid. Sue told me I should make curry and chop up and include the leaves from the fenugreek plants in my dish. I did a little research and found lots of recipes using the leaves. Sue said they stink, but I didn't find them stinky at all- I found them to smell green and herbaceous. With all this information I was armed with fresh fenugreek leaves and ready to get cooking.

My schedule being as it was I never was able to utilize the leaves in any cooking so when I saw seed pods forming I knew it would be best to let the pods go and until they were fully formed and dry. The leaves browned and dried up and fell off the plants, as most plants often do.

The pots looked like just a bunch of dead sticks but those sticks held on to the seed pods, which hadn't fully dried yet.

After a week or so on the plant, the pods were finally dried. Splitting them open was interesting- they opened easily and revealed a line of squarish brown fenugreek seeds, packed in there like sardines. They popped out easily and are ready to go into whatever dish I plan to use them in, or to replant, for an ever-bearing harvest of fenugreek.

What happened was not only did I replace the few seeds I began with, I have an additional couple tablespoons worth of seeds to add to my jar. I can see this being a regular part of my herb gardening from now on, even if just for the seeds. Since I have these beautiful little seeds, it's time to get busy making something with them. I'm going to rely on Sue for some guidance in this department and get a recipe recommendation from her. I know it's going to be outrageously delicious.

Sue's West Indian Masala Blend
Photo is property of Sue, You and Cooking Too.
Sue's West Indian Masala

 2 tablespoons coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Combine the seeds in a DRY skillet. Toast the seeds over medium high heat for several minutes until they become fragrant. Remove to a plate and allow the seeds to cool. Grind and use as desired.

So with Sue's masala blend, we are all set to make something really memorable. Once again I reached out to her for a recommendation on how to best use this spice blend and she suggested using the mixture as a dry rub for chicken or fish. She also said if you add a teaspoon of turmeric to the ground mixture it becomes a West Indian Curry. With that in mind, let's play around with some ingredients and do some research and come up with a great way to use this spice blend.

West Indian Curry Roast Chicken and Vegetables

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Sue's West Indian Masala (one batch with the turmeric)
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
1/3 cup cooking oil
6 roma tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, cut into chunks
2 zucchini, cut into chunks
head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 stick butter
1 cup coconut milk
chopped fresh parsley
hot cooked rice, for serving

Cut the chicken breast into bite sized cubes and set aside.

In a large bowl add cooking oil. Add the curry seasoning and the garlic, stir to coat with the spices. Add the chicken cubes to the spice mixture, tossing to coat the chicken with the spiced oil. Allow the mixture to rest at room temperature about half an hour to marinate the chicken.

Add the vegetables to the bowl with the chicken. Toss to coat everything. Spread out in a rimmed baking sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Drizzle with the stick of butter, melted. Roast in a 425 degree oven until the chicken is cooked and golden and the vegetables are crisp/tender. 

Remove pan from oven, with a spoon scoop out the chicken, zucchini, onions and cauliflower and place in a bowl. Use a fork to mash the tomatoes in the pan. Add the coconut milk to the tomato mixture and heat to boiling.

To serve, scoop a serving of rice into a shallow bowl, top with chicken and vegetables and spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley before serving.

Amazing, right? The vegetables really come to life with the flavorful spice mixture, and retain their texture and color in the oven. I added half a dried ghost chile, crushed, to the spice mixture for some heat. A LOT of heat actually. You can also add an orange veg such as carrots, butternut squash or sweet potatoes- simply cut into chunks and pre-cook until almost tender, then scatter in the roasting pan with the chicken and other vegetables. 

As a relative newbie in the world of Indian foods I am thoroughly enjoying all the culinary experiments. Sue has been an excellent tour guide too. If you're on Facebook you really should give Sue's page a Like. It won't be long and you'll see what I mean about her portion size and abundance of vegetables. The typical plate at Sue's house has a realistic portion of protein and a colorful variety of veggies- most steamed or roasted. The few times she does serve fried foods like "chips" the portions are small as regarded as a treat, not a main portion of the meal. You will also appreciate the genuineness of Sue's "real people food"- no fancy plating or tricks with lighting in her pictures, just real homemade cooking for her family. I can honestly say I have learned more from Sue than any other person in my foodie network.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Bacon, You Have Been Replaced

Bacon, your days as THE flavor maker in just about everything might be coming to a close. Anyone who cooks knows the importance of using bacon- in soups, stews, sauces- cut into lardons or chopped, cooked until crisp and brown and added to the recipe at just the right moment, bacon can make the whole recipe. Can you imagine sweet and saucy baked beans without the crispy bacon and onions sweated in a little of the bacon fat? Of course not! That's a critical part of building the smoky savory flavors. Crisply cooked bacon makes beef stew so much richer and many soups just wouldn't be the same without it.

The Chef made a surprising choice today. After perusing the meat selections in the fridge he decided it would be a pasta day at The Little Lake House. It's a cool autumn day and a nice spicy red sauce over pasta is always a welcome comfort food. Meatballs versus meat sauce? Meat sauce wins out. The Chef has his secret recipe filed away in his memory and as he was working away he had a stroke of brilliance. Now, as we talked about, loads of cooks and chefs use bacon as an initial ingredient in making a memorable dish. Italian chefs have the same theory, but they tend to choose pancetta over bacon, as it isn't smoked and adds a different flavor. It just so happened that The Chef had a secret weapon tucked away in the fridge- a little leftover remnant of something delicious that he really didn't know what he was going to do with until it struck him- chop it up, saute it briefly and use to flavor that meaty red sauce.

What is this mystery ingredient? Capicola! You better believe it. That Italian deli standard, spicy and delicious, gets a whole new mission in the kitchen. There are as many versions of this ham-like dry cured meat as there are spellings. 

The Chef had been contemplating what to do with this end piece leftover chunk that wasn't enough for sandwiches, but too much to just throw away. In the name of science he cut the leftover hunk of capicola (left over from a big chunk that he had been slicing off for sandwiches at the restaurant) into small dice, tossed them in a Dutch oven with a little drizzle of olive oil and gave it a quick saute before adding the onions, garlic, mushrooms, and the remaining sauce ingredients and letting it simmer. The capicola infused the sauce with loads of warm spiciness and added just a subtle change in flavor. I knew something was different, but I couldn't figure out just what (he kept me guessing for quite a while). In the spirit of No Recipe Cooking I suggest you guys give this technique a try next time you're making red sauce, minestrone, or vegetable soup- you'll get an unexpected boost of flavor and hint of heat without overpowering your tastebuds. Delicioso!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Autumn Mushroom Season- Risotto with Forest Mushrooms

I was watching a rerun of the Food Network show Chopped the other day and this particular episode featured teen chefs. One of the teen chefs made a sorta-risotto that to me sounded like a pretty decent dish for an adult chef put in the hot seat, let alone a 16 year old. Risotto is not an easy dish to prepare well, especially under the pressure of a clock looming overhead and three competitors at your side. While this teen chef did a pretty good job and had what I consider a very successful dish, obviously it wasn't a true risotto. You have to invest the time and attention to have a well prepared dish, and you have to have the right kind of rice. Any old rice will not do.

So if you can't use regular rice, what do you use? Arborio rice. This Italian short grain rice is perfect for the long, slow cooking with constant stirring. It's high starch content keeps the grains firm, holds their shape perfectly and combines with the broth during cooking to make a creamy consistency. In the package it seems to be covered in a fine starchy dust. Other types of rice, such as long grain rice, could never hold up in this kind of cooking. The grains are too brittle and crumbly and your risotto would be more like Cream of Wheat.

Risotto is so much more than just rice though. Often times you will see recipes that include vegetables like leeks or asparagus, squash and even some greens. Mushrooms make a regular appearance in all kinds of risotto recipes and is a very unique way to use wild mushrooms, fresh or dehydrated. Every once in a while if my timing is just right I stop at the store in the city at the same time they have a huge selection of mushrooms. Today was my lucky day! They had all kinds of mushrooms I had never heard of, and one that many people forage for. 

The first mushroom I noticed was the Trumpet Royale. The price tag caught my eye as well, but I figured I was only going to need a couple....... This interesting mushroom is pleurotus eryngii, and is also known as a king trumpet, French horn mushroom, and a handful of other names. A native of the Mediterranean region this big boy is the largest of the oyster mushroom family. It has a thick stem, and a meaty texture. 

Another awesome score was a nice clump of grifola frondosa, known to mushroom hunters as Hen of The Woods. I remember my dad bringing these frilly delicate mushrooms home when I was a kid. In Japan this is one of the most widely used mushrooms, known there as maitake, and has many medicinal properties as well as being delicious. It's a clump of delicate petal-like mushrooms that cooks in a flash. If you ever see this one, you really should give it a try, it's a gorgeous mushroom.

Now I had never heard of Forest Nameko mushrooms before (philiota nameka) but I was definitely intrigued. They were teeny tiny and long like enoki mushrooms but had a more pronounced brown cap. I had to come home and do a little research to figure out exactly how to use these guys to their full advantage. If I ever decide to make miso soup, I'll be looking for these mushrooms. They are also great in stir fries.

Also on the shelf- brown clamshell mushrooms. Lyophyllum shimeji is native to the Asian region and is a mushroom that needs to be cooked thoroughly to remove the bitter taste it has in its raw state. It works great in stir fries and any dish with wild game. Agrocybe aegerita, or velvet pioppini mushrooms, are very similar and were also available at the store today, as well as the more common oyster mushrooms, cremini, and shiitake

I chose the trumpet royale, maitake and oyster mushrooms for my risotto and bagged up my mushrooms. While the trumpets were quite pricey, and the maitake not much cheaper, I figured it was worth the splurge since I didn't need a huge pile of each, and the maitake clump weighs just about nothing. A quick spin around the store and I finished up my shopping- a bag or arborio rice, a nice crisp white wine, and a carton of chicken broth along with something easy for dinner tonight, and I was on my way, with a recipe building in my mind. The resulting risotto is the perfect dish for a light dinner- just grab a glass of nice white wine. It also serves well as a side dish for grilled seafood, filet mignon, or grilled marinated chicken.

A couple bacon wrapped steaks seared in a hot cast iron
skillet make a great accompaniment to risotto.
Risotto with Forest Mushrooms

1 1/2 cups chopped fresh wild mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large leeks, sliced, white and light green parts
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
2 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
handful or two frozen peas, thawed
chopped fresh parsley

Clean the mushrooms and chop into evenly sized pieces. Thoroughly clean the leeks of any sand or grit and slice; mince the garlic; set aside. 

Heat the chicken stock in a saucepan and hold, covered.

In a large skillet, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook until they start to soften. Add the leeks and saute until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two. Add the rice to the skillet and stir to coat the rice with the butter. Add the wine to the skillet. Cook and stir until the wine has evaporated.

Begin adding the chicken stock a cup or two at a time. 

Stir while cooking. When the broth is absorbed, add more and continue until all the broth is incorporated and the rice is tender and creamy. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese and peas. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve.

I have been seeing a number of "easy" risotto recipes making their way around the blogoshpere lately, even a baked version that promises to be no-stir risotto, but really, if you want the best dish, you need to invest the time to do it the right way, the real way, the Italian way. You will not regret it.