Thursday, January 26, 2012

I <3 Ottolenghi

It’s rare that a cookbook captures my attention like this one does. In fact, I stalked it for quite a while before committing to allowing another cookbook into the house. But ohhh… what a book.image I’m talking about Plenty, a vegetarian cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi.  I’d hoped to add some new vegetarian dishes to our repertoire and have been delighted with our success so far. The photos in the book are so luscious, I really want to make everything. Well, everything that doesn’t feature eggs. And most everything we’ve made has lived up to our (very very high) expectations.
We’ve made four dishes so far:

Quinoa pilaf with Persian Lime

This pilaf is a mix of quinoa, brown rice (our sub for the white rice in the recipe), wild rice, feta and yams. I feared that it would be a serious hassle to put together, but it wasn’t. Most importantly, it was phenomenal. We both went back for seconds. Unbelievably good.

Chard cakes with Sorrel Sauce Lemon and Yogurt


Our second foray into the book was to make chard cakes, as the Swiss chard at the market is irresistible this time of year. The recipe includes a sorrel sauce, but we couldn’t find that so substituted lemon and yogurt. And we subbed pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for the pine nuts. Again, fantastic! Sadly, there were no leftovers. This was good enough for company. But we won’t wait for company to make this again either.

Yogurt Flatbreads with Mushrooms and Barley

This again was delicious, though I would tweak it a bit next time. The flatbreads are not yeasted, so I was concerned that they’d be pretty doughy. The recipe indicated that you should roll out the flatbreads to 1” thick. I knew that couldn’t be right, but did not know how think they should be. I guessed at 1/4” thick. They puffed up a startling amount during cooking, and I wish I’d rolled to 1/8” thick. But it was still quite good. The picture showed less barley than what we had when making it. Not a complaint, just an observation. We haven’t had barley in who knows how long, so it was great to get reacquainted with an old friend.
Our fourth attempt was honestly a bit ‘meh’ for me. Saffron fettucine with spiced butter. Nothing wrong with it, but I am not a huge fan of saffron anyhow and the spiced butter had the cinnamony-moroccany thing going which is also not a fave. I love moroccan food but not when the sweet spices get invited to the party. I am sure it is me, not the recipe. No pics because we don’t celebrate what we don’t love.
On the stove now is a ribollita from the book and planned into next week’s menu is the broccoli and gorgonzola pie.
So, yes, I <3 <3 <3 this book. It’s making me eat better food from a health perspective (loads of whole grains and vegetables) and from a taste perspective. I really like his approach to cooking and his sense of playfulness with the food. If I never made any other recipes than the ones above, I’d feel I got my money’s worth from it. Instead, I just can’t wait for the next taste – in fact the monkey is now insisting that we have one or two meat dishes on the menu each week, where it used to be the other way around. How cool is that?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hot Tamales

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This month’s Daring Cooks challenge was to make tamales! Yum! It was a perfect challenge for the season, as tamales are a customary Christmas dish in many households and are a perfect thing to make with a group.

We’ve made tamales before, once using masa flour to make the dough. Those were so dry, they were virtually inedible and unenjoyable to say the least. Since then, we’ve turned to prepared masa dough, which you can buy in many Mexican markets. However, inspired by the challenge, we decided to try again on making our own masa dough. Whew! success this time. And a good thing, as we have the rest of a 2 kilo sack of masa leftover..

For fillings, we chose to make green chiles and cheese and also chile colorado with pork. We wrapped the green chile tamales in banana leaves and the chile colorado tamales in traditional corn husks so that we could tell them apart. The recipes that Maranda provided also looked excellent, but we were stuck on making a couple of our old favorites.

Making tamales is a bit time consuming. Perhaps it gets easier with practice, but the process took the better part of an afternoon. This is why a group is good: you get to share the load and chat away the hours. On the upside, you get a lot of leftovers that are perfect for lunch later in the week. Tamales also freeze well, so its always best to make a whole lot of them.

The process is quite simple, really:

  1. Soak the corn husks
  2. Make the filling
  3. Make the dough
  4. Assemble the tamales
  5. Steam
  6. Enjoy!

1. Soak the husks

If you’re using traditional corn husks, soak them in water for at least four hours. They start out quite water resistant, but eventually soak up a huge amount.

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If you use banana leaves, they don’t need soaking – just be sure to give them a good rinse. Tear off sheets that are approx. 6-8 inches wide.

Both these wrappings impart a subtle flavor to the finished tamale. I find banana leaves a little easier to work with, but really like tamales with both these wrappers. You can find corn husks at most Latin American markets. Some will also carry banana leaves. The latter can also be found frozen or fresh at many Asian markets.

2. Make the filling

Whatever filling you make, it should be a bit wetter than you think is right. The first time we made tamales, our fillings were too dry – we made them the consistency of what you might eat plain. the filling shouldn’t be runny, but very very stewy.

For the pork:

We coated 1 1/4 pounds of pork shoulder with ground cumin, ground coriander, black pepper and salt, then roasted it along with a couple of diced dried chiles at 300 degrees F for about an hour and a half. The meat was fall-apart tender, then we cooled and shredded it.

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We then toasted a couple more dried chiles in a skillet, then popped them into a blender with about a cup of water and pureed until smooth. You want the sauce to be fairly runny – it will thicken as it stands. Mix the sauce into the shredded pork and you’re ready to go.

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For the green chile:

Roast a half dozen or so large poblano peppers (aka pasilla peppers) and about a dozen peeled and washed tomatillos separately until the skin blackens. Peel the skin off the peppers and then roughly chop and set in a bowl.


Blend the tomatillos with a good handful of fresh cilantro. It doesn’t need to be thoroughly pureed – we blend until the cilantro looks fairly evenly chopped. Add to the chiles.

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Grate about 1/3 pound cheese. We used Queso Oaxaca, which is pretty much like a mozzarella – choose something that will melt nicely.

Add the cheese to the bowl with the chiles and tomatillos, mix and season to taste.

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3. Make the masa dough

If you can buy masa preparada at a nearby store, go for it. Otherwise, pick up instant masa flour for tamales and follow the directions on the bag. We noticed that there were several masa options at the store: some were specific for tortillas, some were generic for anything, and one was designated for tamales.  I think we used the ‘good for everything’ kind the first time. I also think we skimped on the shortening. Not a recipe for success in our case.

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4. Assembling the tamales

Whichever husk you’re using, tear off small strips of a small or broken section so that you have ties to use to seal up your tamales. I like to roll the tamales as if I am wrapping glassware and the husk is the tissue paper; roll the tamale until it’s complete, then fold the top and bottom of the husk inwards and keep rolling. Of course, I only remember this after I’ve made a couple of dozen in various ways trying to remember what works best for me. Naturally, my preferred approach is not what we filmed, but the video is probably easier to understand than the description below.

Lay out the husk  with the narrow end away from you. The banana leaf should be positioned with the ‘veins’ pointed vertically.  Spread masa in about a 4 inch square right up against the right or left edge of the sheet, leaving a 1 or 2 inch edge on the other side to wrap. The masa should be about 1/8 inch thick. If your husk is too narrow, you can overlap two to make a large one or save the small one for the strips mentioned above.

Spoon maybe 2 Tbsp of filling in a column down the center of your masa square. Starting from the filled side, roll the tamale to encase the filling in your masa. Then fold down the uncoated tops of your sheet and continue rolling. Tie in the center to hold the parcel together.

5. Steam the tamales

Place a steamer insert in a large stockpot. Fill with water to just the level of the steamer. Place your tamales in the pot as you finish them – if you stand them up vertically, you can usually squeeze a few more into the pot than laying them flat. Steam on medium-high heat for 40 minutes. Check halfway through to make sure you still have enough water in the pot – you definitely don’t want to go dry on this.

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6. Enjoy!

We served our tamales with a cabbage, avocado and pepita slaw. And of course, a couple of cervezas.

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They were also great for lunch the next day:reheat tamales in the microwave for about 2 minutes.

Maranda of Jolts & Jollies was our January 2012 Daring Cooks hostess with the mostess! Maranda challenged us to make traditional Mexican Tamales as our first challenge of the year!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!


We welcomed in 2012 in our customary manner – by preparing a nice meal and ringing in the New Year on East coast time. Since we live in San Francisco, this meant that we could be in the arms of Morpheus by 10pm. Party monkeys we are not.

After several large meals over the holiday period we wanted to make something lighter, and crab salad leapt to mind. Our recipe was based on Thomas Keller’s crab salad from Bouchon – crab meat with a mixture of fresh herbs (we used parsley and tarragon), some crème fraiche and a little lemon juice/zest:


You’ll notice that the crab is sitting on a pale yellow hockey puck, which is actually cauliflower panna cotta. I’m pleased to report that it had neither the consistency nor the flavor of a hockey puck, and was a light though luxurious counterpoint to the crab topping. Here is the Monkeyshines recipe:

8oz cauliflower
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 eggs
salt and white pepper

Chop the cauliflower into large florets and roast at 375°F, loosely covered in foil, for about 30 minutes until soft, then puree together with the cream and eggs with a handheld blender until smooth. Press through a sieve to make sure that it’s creamy with no lumps, then spoon into buttered ramekin dishes. Bake in a water batch at 350°F for 40 minutes until set, then remove from the oven and cool. Watch nervously as you invert the ramekins over your serving platter and hopefully remove in one piece!
We made two other salads to accompany our dinner: cucumber/pasilla pepper, and carrot/chick pea:

For the carrot and chickpea salad, we went back to Bouchon cookbook. To be honest, the chickpeas were a bit more fussy than we normally make (involving cooking them in stock with various vegetables and a bouquet garni – I’m not convinced they were that much better than boiling in water). However, lightly cooking the julienned carrots in a skillet with a sprig of thyme, bayleaf and clove of garlic imparted wonderful flavors to the whole salad.

The cucumber salad was based on a recipe that we’ve made previously during one of the Daring Cooks challenges that we did a year ago (Poaching with the Daring Cooks.) The original recipe apparently came from the Top Chefs cooking show, although we simplified it somewhat, to no detriment in our estimation. The mixture of cucumbers, pasilla peppers, lime zest and spice-infused oil seems a bit weird until you taste it – it all comes together wonderfully.
Finally, the orange pools that you can see in the photos above are orange vinaigrette – also Thomas Keller-inspired. I think it was nice, but perhaps not essential to the overall dish. Besides, I think the texture and plating of this element need some work: somehow it doesn’t look like the artful swooshes that adorn restaurant dishes.

All in all, a fine way to bid farewell to 2011, all washed down with a bottle of Acacia 1995 brut sparkling wine. Onwards to 2012, and a Happy New Year to our readers – both of you Smile!