Monday, January 28, 2008

The Previous Week's Kitchen Adventures

I've been been waiting for this blog to get "crawled" so my Amazon list and other widget-type things show up on the page, and ... well, I'm still waiting. So, despite my feeling the site's incomplete, I'll post a bit more.

This week I did some exploring of my latest cookbook purchase, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman. Bittman writes a weekly cooking column in The New York Times. As the title -- The Minimalist -- implies, he focuses on dishes that are easy for the home cook to prepare. They are not dumbed-down, Sandra-Lee-esque, bland middle-American fare, but full of flavor, quality ingredients, and sometimes a bit of ethnic adventure. He's written numerous cookbooks and even has a PBS show or two under his belt.

So anyway ... HTCEV made it onto my shelves for several reasons. I'm not a vegetarian, and never will be, but I enjoy vegetarian meals and never feel meat is obligatory. I enjoy a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, etc., but wanted to prepare more of them at home. I'm trying to cook more in general, and I definitely need to regain control of healthy eating habits that had slipped precariously in the last year or so. A new cookbook would help get me jazzed about all of this, and HTCEV was selected because it wasn't just a collection of recipes, but like most of Bittman's writing, went to lengths to explain, present the logic or tradition behind something, provide variations to encourage your own explorations, etc. This book is also much-discussed and praised by cooks whose opinions I trust. (More on that on another day.)

I've made two things so far. (For me to make two new, real, actual recipes in a week is pretty remarkable -- day to day I'm a throw-something-together-that-sounds-good kind of cook.) The first was Whole Wheat Couscous with Cauliflower and Almonds. In this dish, shallot and finely chopped cauliflower are sauteed, then combined with the couscous, stock, and a hefty amount of smoked paprika to simmer. At the last minute parsley and chopped almonds are added, then grated Manchego cheese is used to top the dish. Because I'm counting calories, it's not something I'll make as written a lot, but I was glad I made it. A serving is well over 400 calories, and if you make it as a main dish, the amount of food isn't huge. I did reduce the almonds and the oil called for, and was judicious with the cheese. It's too tasty to not make again, so next time I might reduce the couscous and increase the cauliflower. You could also omit the cheese to make it a more reasonable side dish. I also think I will increase the amount of liquid to give it a little more smoothness. I made my first mail-order purchase from the famous Penzey's to get the smoked paprika for this. This was the "stretch" for me for this recipe, and it was worth it. It gave the dish a beautiful color, and the aroma was mouth-watering.

The second item I made was fresh cheese. I'd read about this several times before, and had seen Michael Chiarello do it on his old PBS show Casual Cooking. I'd wanted to do it for a long time, just never did. Having a very simple recipe in a book I wanted to make use of talked me into it. Basically, you heat milk until it starts to bubble (providing you are at sea level), then add buttermilk and continue to heat. The mixture will break into curds & whey (shades of Little Miss Muffet), and you scoop up the curds, strain through cheesecloth, and squeeze the moisture out to make a ball or disk. I used 2% milk and lowfat buttermilk, and did add some salt. Honestly I will probably add more salt next time -- I like salty cheese. The flavor is very mild, but delicious for all that. I had some for dinner with home-toasted whole wheat tortilla wedges and a salad. There are other methods for easy fresh cheese -- Chiarello mixes the milk & buttermilk at the start. Some use milk and either lemon juice or vinegar. Etc. So, I can see that this will be an area for experimentation for me. Then, watch out -- I will be mailordering special cheese cultures, and a press, and .... Well, let's just see if I make another batch of fresh cheese first, hmm?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

One small step for blogdom

In the spirit of, "Well, everybody else seems to be doing it, why not me?" here's my first stab at a blog. At this point the main focus is going to be on food and cooking (hence the title) but meandering is definitely a possibility. A lot of food blogs I've visited have lovely, high-quality pictures of dishes the authors prepared, and I'm not there yet. So for now, text will have to do. :D

To start, I'll launch right in and talk about today's menu. Last weekend I'd made some black bean soup, portioned into individual servings for the freezer. This morning I decided to have some for supper, but didn't want just "soup." I had pureed it and cooked it down to a pretty thick consistency, like thin refried beans, and thought it would be good over something. I made a pot of polenta, using fat-free half-and-half for part of the water, then poured it into a small loaf pan and put it in the refrigerator to chill. At dinner time I sliced off several slabs of the polenta, gave them a dusting of flour, and pan-fried until golden on both sides. I plated the polenta, then the warmed black bean soup was poured over. Topped with thinly sliced scallions and a dollop of sour cream made a hearty, warm, comforting entree. The side was a tomato-onion ragout, picked up on a rerun of Everyday Food today. Tomato-Onion Ragout (with Flounder).

I was pleased with the outcome, but next time I'd use polenta that was made with just water, and chilled for a longer period. It was cold but still a little soft. The ragout was excellent and I'll definitely be making that again as well!