Monday, August 31, 2009

ground beef and pistachio kebabs

There are those that believe that ground beef knows no higher calling than a hamburger. I know a few such individuals, and I suspect they would have been quite scandalized when, the other night, Con Queso announced that this beef-pistachio kofte (adapted from Ana Sortun’s Spice) might forever render the burger immaterial. Yes, it was a shocking statement (and, to be fair, one made spontaneously, mid-kofte), but I believe there is some truth to it. Let us then explore Con Queso’s hypothesis in greater detail, weighing the pros and cons of both beef creations:

1. The Meat. Both use quality ground beef. To this, the kofte adds finely ground pistachios. Some might say this compromises the integrity of the meat, but it’s hard to argue with the kofte’s juicy, nutty texture.

1a. The Seasoning. For the burger: salt and pepper. For the kofte: salt, Turkish red pepper paste, Aleppo chilies, cumin, oregano and dried mint. High maintenance? Maybe. Delicious? Absolutely.

2. The Bread. Or, in the burger’s case, the bun. Where burgers are concerned, I am a decided bun loyalist. (Crusty and rustic are two words that should never be applied to a bun.) It is a beautiful example of culinary co-dependence; neither the patty, nor the bun, can stand alone. Kofte, on the other hand, is a more sovereign beast. Customarily, it is folded into pita or paper-thin lavash, but you could also eat the meat by itself. Likewise, good pita has its own special place, independent of the kofte.

3. The Condiments. Traditional burger condiments: Heinz ketchup, lettuce leaves, red onion, tomato, Hellmann's mayonnaise, mustard, and dill pickles. Classic and delicious. Kofte condiments: labne, pickled vegetables, red onions dusted with sumac, mint leaves, and beet tzatziki—a product, not of our own labors, but of Sofra's tasty meze buffet. (For the record, Ana Sortun's beet tzatziki is more delicious than mine.) In both cases, improvisation is common.

4. Companion Dishes. Forget onion rings; french fries are the hamburger’s designated life partner. Well executed, they are truly a thing of beauty. But, to be honest (M., this was a long time coming), I believe that this beauty is never truly transcendent. I would almost always prefer the pleasures of a meze platter over those of a McDonald’s french fry.

So, what is my conclusion? Well, this is something of a doomed experiment, as the result is ultimately one of personal preference. And I am prejudiced by a preternatural love of Middle Eastern food (particularly where Sortun is concerned). Yes, it’s true. While I recognize that both the burger and the kofte have their place—that each is a unique and valuable exercise in texture and flavor—I am decidedly on Team Kofte.

Con Queso, I salute you.

Ground Beef And Pistachio Kebabs

Adapted from Spice, by Ana Sortun

For the kebab spice mix: 

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried mint

1/2 tablespoon Aleppo chilies

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

For the kofte:

1 pound ground beef (you can also substitute ground lamb)

1 teaspoon Aleppo chili

2 teaspoons Turkish red pepper paste
 (or 1 roasted bell pepper, finely chopped)

1 egg white

1 cup toasted and coarsely ground pistachios

To serve:
Pitas, cut in half

, or lavash
1 cup sliced red onions tossed with sumac

1 cup labne or Greek-style yogurt

1 cup roughly chopped tomatoes

1 cup roughly chopped romaine leaves

8 mint leaves, roughly chopped
Beet tzatziki (optional)

Prepare a charcoal or gas grill. In a small bowl, combine all the spices.

Knead the ground meat with 2 teaspoons kebab spice (reserve the rest for another use), chilies and red pepper in a standing mixer with paddle attachment on medium speed until the meat becomes creamy and a little sticky. (If you don't have a standing mixer, use a food processor fitted with a metal blade, and carefully push the pulse button on and off until the meat becomes smooth. You can also do this by hand, but it will take much longer.)

Add the egg white and pistachios and continue to knead the meat until the mixture comes together again and resembles a wet dough. You can pinch off some meat at this point and cook it to test seasoning. Add salt to taste.

Shape the meat into 8 (2-ounce) short sausage shapes and press each patty into a skewer. Squeeze and shape the kofte into long, thin cigar-shaped meatballs around the skewers. Set aside.

Grill the kofte for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown and cooked through.
Rest the kofte on pita halves. Pass them around the table with bowls of sliced red onions sprinkled with sumac, yogurt, tomatoes, romaine and mint leaves.

Monday, August 24, 2009

chocolate marble cake

What differentiates this from the middle-of-the-road marble cakes I've known before? Alas, its virtues derive entirely from vice—specifically, great quantities of butter, sugar, chocolate and that culinary Unholy of Unholies, corn syrup.

Yes, don't be fooled by the buttoned-up appearance of this marble cakes; its crisp exterior belies the chocolate tempest within.

Buttercake Bakery's Marble Cake
Adapted from the LA Times

2 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
2 2/3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
4 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup chocolate chips
Powdered sugar for dusting

In a small saucepan, whisk together one-half cup of the sugar, the cocoa powder and corn syrup with one-half cup hot water. Bring just to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Add a half-teaspoon of vanilla off the heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and lightly flour a 12-cup bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter with the remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Whisk in the eggs one at a time until thoroughly incorporated, then whisk in the remaining vanilla.

Whisk about a third of the flour mixture into the batter, then a third of the milk. Continue whisking in the flour mixture and milk, alternately and a little at a time, until everything is added and the batter is light and smooth.

Gently fold in the chocolate chips, then divide the batter into thirds. Pour a third of the batter into the prepared bundt pan.

Whisk the chocolate syrup with another third of batter, then pour this into the prepared bundt pan. Pour the remaining third of batter over this, lightly swirl the batters with a wooden skewer or knife to give a "marble" effect and place the pan in the oven.

Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted comes out clean and the cake springs back lightly when touched, about 1 hour. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack. Invert the cooled cake onto a serving platter and dust lightly with powdered sugar.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

fairytale eggplants in a spicy honey sauce

The day that my mother acquired her Eggplant purple Volvo was the day I fell in love. It wasn’t the dual seat cushion warmers. Nor was it the enduring counter-culture chic of the Volvo brand. It was that color. Every morning on my way to school, I lost myself in deep aubergine.

Perhaps that explains my particular affection for the eponymous vegetable. Few things seem as perfect and evocative as a plump globe eggplant (except perhaps, a plump baby eggplant). Alas, where flavor is concerned, my feelings are less absolute. Between eggplant’s notorious bitterness and its spongy constitution, the challenge is in finding a culinary preparation to do it justice.

Of late, I’ve had some luck in that department: Eggplant fries with sea salt and buckwheat honey at Poppy. Smoky baba ghanouj. A sharp, capery bite of caponata. Bechamel-smothered moussaka. Each one was able express eggplant’s nutty, sweet-sour flavor.

This recipe does exactly that, and more. Mired in a delicious tar pit of harissa-honey sauce, eggplants become almost silken in texture.

Eggplants in a Spicy Honey Sauce
Adapted from Traveler’s Lunchbox and Claudia Roden

If baby eggplants aren’t available, substitute 2 large globe eggplants, peeled, stemmed and sliced into 1/3-inch rounds.

1½ pounds fairytale eggplants, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
5-6 tablespoons honey
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon harissa or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2/3 cup hot water
Chopped cilantro, to garnish

Lay the slices of eggplant out on a towel or cloth and sprinkle all the cut surfaces generously with salt. After 15 to 20 minutes, wipe the pieces dry with paper towels.

Preheat a large, heavy skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of each eggplant slice with olive oil and cook, not overlapping the slices, until browned on both sides. [You'll no doubt have to do this in batches.] Remove the slices to a plate and set aside.

In a bowl combine the honey and lemon juice with 2/3 cup hot water, stirring to dissolve. Heat your skillet again, adding a little more oil if there is none left. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring for about 30 seconds, then add the cumin and harissa, stirring for another 30 seconds. Stir in the honey-lemon water and bring everything to a boil.

Lay the eggplant pieces into the pan, overlapping if needed, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning the pieces as necessary to ensure all are coated with the sauce, until it has been reduced to a thick glaze and the eggplant pieces are completely soft. [Hoping to maintain the eggplants' structural integrity, I removed them from the pan after 2 minutes, and returned them once the sauce had reduced fully.] Season to taste.

Let cool, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and serve at room temperature, preferably as part of a meze spread.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

peach caprese salad

Another illustration of tomatoes' kinship to the fruit kingdom. BLP sandwiches soon to follow?

Peach Caprese Salad
Adapted from Real Simple

3 ripe peaches, halved, pitted, and sliced
1/2 cup basil or mint leaves, torn or cut into chiffonade
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into slices
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste
Balsamic vinegar to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Arrange peaches and mozzarella on a large plate. Drizzle with olive oil and vinegar to taste. Season and sprinkle with basil.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

tomato and melon salad with ricotta

Tomato: fruit or vegetable? This question has plagued children and culinarians for centuries. (To botanists, the answer is relatively straightforward.) And perhaps there is reason for the taxonomic confusion. Yes, the tomato is technically a fruit — the “ripened ovary of a seed plant.” But science doesn’t always agree with intuition (according to which tomatoes = savory = vegetable)—nor, in this case, does it agree with the U.S. legal system; an 1893 Supreme Court ruling classified tomatoes as a vegetable as such so that they could be taxed under tariff law.

Of course, this both explains, and complicates, the tomato’s identity crisis. But fortunately, its vegetable and fruitlike components find the perfect consummation in a tomato + fruit salad. The combination is at first surprising, but, once you taste it, completely intuitive.

Tomato Salad
Adapted from Dan Barber in Chef Interrupted, by Melissa Clark

I've experimented with most summer fruits here: melons, apricots, peaches, etc. But the cantaloupe & watermelon combination is a perennial favorite.

3 large heirloom tomatoes, cut into ¾-inch wedges
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup cubed seedless watermelon
3/4 cup cubed cantaloupe
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped mixed fresh herbs (basil, lemon thyme, mint, purslane)

1. Divide heirloom and cherry tomatoes and melon among 4 bowls. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and let rest for 10 to 20 minutes, until tomatoes and melon begin to give off their juices.

2. Dot the tomatoes with spoonfuls of the cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with herbs. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

fava bean and pecorino salad

My meals alone tend to be cold, ascetic affairs. It’s not that I don’t appreciate myself. But half the pleasure of cooking and eating seems to come from doing it with and for other people.

When it comes to fava beans, however, that kind of attitude will get you nowhere. Between their narrow window of availability and their woefully low yield, fava beans demand a more selfish approach. Faced with a plate of freshly shelled favas, I bristle with Gollum-esque avarice, shielding the beans from tricksy passersby.

This salad could serve four selfless individuals. But I would happily eat it all by myself.

Fava Bean Salad with Pecorino
Adapted from Saveur

Some fava purists argue that even a quick blanch adulterates the beans’ texture, opting instead to remove the skins with a small knife. To my mind, favas are already labor intensive enough. I blanch them.

2 pounds shelled fresh fava beans
6 ounces young Tuscan pecorino cheese
1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts (optional)
3-4 tablespoons high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh lemon juice

1. Blanch the shelled fava beans in a large pot of boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain the beans and immediately transfer them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Once cool, gently peel the skins from the beans.

2. Place the fava beans in a medium bowl with the chopped walnuts. Break pecorino into small chunks into the bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice to taste. Gently toss salad, then divide among plates. Serve with toasted baguette, if desired.

Monday, August 10, 2009

olive oil granola with dried cherries and pistachios

I've never been a huge fan of granola. As Con Queso would say, it falls under the frustrating category of foods that seem like they should be good for you, but aren't. (Cracklin' Oat Bran, for the record, is #1 on this list.) More that that, it never tasted that great. In the near infinite cosmos of cold cereals, granola simply was not a priority.

But when Melissa Clark described the cult following behind Brooklyn's Early Bird Granola and its unique olive oil variation, my curiosity was piqued. Three weeks later, the blogosphere still abuzz with olive oil granola, I decided to try it.

You may officially consider me a granola convert [read: fanatic?]. Indifference has given way to compulsive, round-the-clock snacking.

Please send help.

Olive Oil Granola With Dried Cherries and Pistachios
Adapted from the NY Times

Something about the salty, caramelized flavor of these oats is totally irresistible, and unique from other versions I've tried. The original recipe calls for dried apricots, but I substituted dried cherries (a souvenir from our Pacific Northwest adventure). Feel free to improvise with other nuts and dried fruits. Make sure that the mixture is evenly coated with the olive oil and maple syrup, or it will not yield the crispy chunks that we all desire in granola.

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups raw pistachios, hulled
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 cup coconut chips
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 cup chopped dried cherries

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and cardamom. Spread mixture on a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until golden brown and well toasted. [Ideally, you want to leave the chunks somewhat intact.]

2. Transfer granola to a large bowl and add cherries, tossing to combine. Serve with ricotta and fruit, if desired.

Friday, August 7, 2009

tempeh tacos

The exact history of these tacos is difficult to recall (and would require venturing into the uncharted realm of ex-stepparents); I'll just say that one day, many years ago, through some combination of serendipity and vegetarian intervention, they came into our family—and our hearts.

Really, their origins are not important. What is important is that these may be my favorite tacos ever. And no, I do not mean favorite home-cooked tacos, or favorite tacos showcasing a meat substitute. I mean favorite. tacos. ever.

I lack the anthropological evidence to back this up, but when the Javanese invented tempeh, a nutty, almost mushroom-tasting brick of fermented soybeans, I can only assume they intended it to be simmered in taco seasoning, spooned into steaming tortillas, slicked with sour cream and sprinkled with cheddar cheese. If not, they were missing out.

Tempeh Tacos
Adapted from Regina's Vegetarian Table, by Regina Campbell

It's up to you whether or not to fry the tortillas; I've come to prefer the pliancy of soft tortillas, but a lot of canola oil can go a long way.

Serves 4

2 (12-ounce) packages tempeh, thawed and cut into large chunks
1 envelope taco seasoning, or your favorite taco spices
¼ cup canola oil
¾ cup water
½ pound Cheddar or Jack cheese, grated
2 tomatoes, diced
Lettuce, shredded or chopped
1 avocado, sliced or guacamole
Sour cream
Taco sauce (optional)
12 corn tortillas
1 cup canola oil
Chopped cilantro, for garnish

1. In a large non-stick pan over medium heat, crumble the tempeh into chunks with the back of a fork. Saute tempeh in ¼ cup oil until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. [Optional: You could also saute some chopped onion along with the tempeh.]

2. Sprinkle in seasoning packet. Stir tempeh until seasoning is mixed in. Add water; stir and simmer until water is absorbed (add more water if needed to get a moist, tender texture). Set aside on very low heat.

3. To steam the tortillas, wrap them in barely damp paper towels and microwave on high for 30 to 45 seconds. To fry the tortillas, Heat 1 cup canola oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When very hot (but not smoking) place corn tortilla in the oil. It will puff up in 15 to 30 seconds. Fry for another 10 seconds or so, until just starting to get golden spots. Flip tortilla carefully with tongs and fry another 20 seconds or until starting to brown. Using tongs, remove to paper towel. Quickly blot excess oil with a folded paper towel and fold in half before they start to cool. Keep finished tortillas warm in covered dish in low oven.

4. Assemble tacos with tempeh mixture, cheese, and desired condiments. Sprinkle with fresh cilantro.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

braised zucchini with mint and lemon

It's not that I'm opposed to culinary routine. To be honest, I could subsist (quite happily) on McCann's Irish oatmeal and take-out pho ga for several months. But when it comes to cooking dinner, I tend to avoid repetition.

Blame curiosity, or the sense of guilt induced by a shelf full of untested, unspattered cookbooks. Either way, even my favorite recipes never achieve regular rotation, filed away for birthday celebrations or dinner parties. Tuesday Taco Night, I fear you shall never come to pass.

So when I tell you that I cooked this dish twice in as many weeks, please consider that telling. Braised beyond recognition (squash haters, take note), zucchini is elevated to buttery, translucent transcendence.

Braised Zucchini with Mint and Lemon

Adapted from Russ Parsons via The Wednesday Chef

Serves 4-6

2 pounds zucchini
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped mint, divided
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

1. Cut the ends from each zucchini, slice the zucchini in quarters lengthwise and then cut the quarters in half crosswise. You'll have large pieces of zucchini about 2 to 3 inches long.

2. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, warm the olive oil and the onion over medium-low heat until the onion softens and becomes fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the zucchini, the garlic, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon mint and 2 tablespoons of water and stir well to combine. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is extremely tender and almost translucent, about 25 minutes. There should be some liquid still in the bottom of the pan.

3. Remove the lid, add the lemon juice and increase heat to high. When the liquid begins to bubble, remove from heat and set aside uncovered. When the zucchini is at warm room temperature, stir in the remaining mint and the pine nuts, then taste and add more salt and lemon juice if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature.