Mix and Match Tabouleh

Now that my Aerogarden is in full swing, I have herbs coming out my ears and was trying to think of something to do with the excess parsley and mint which, in turn, made me think of tabouleh (love it!). I ate the most amazing, fresh tasting tabouleh in a Lebanese restaurant in the United Arab Emerites some time ago (along with hummus, khoubiz - a Lebanese flat bread - and a plate of "small tasty birds").  I have since perfected my own method for making this popular, traditional Middle Eastern salad and decided to make some for lunch.

Normally I pour a cup of boiling water over ½ cup medium grained bulgur wheat (fine grained is ok, but I prefer the texture of the medium) and set it aside to soak while I chop a cucumber, a tomato, a big handful of parsley (¼c finished product), a couple sprigs of mint and toss the veggies with 1-2T extra virgin olive oil, all of the juice from one large or two small lemons, salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste. When most of the water is absorbed by the bulgur and I'm happy with the texture, I squeeze out the grains with a few paper towels and combine it with the veggies and dressing.  The result is a tart, fresh, delicious lunch for two. 

I had beaucoup fresh herbs, bulgur (a highly nutritious, wholesome wheat product that has been that has been parboiled, cracked, and dried for ease of use), a good quality olive oil and even a huge lemon - everything but the one ingredient I consider essential - a cucumber. I wasn’t going to go to the store for one thing, so I considered my options.

Chagrined and cucumberless, I poked through the tidbits of leftovers in the fridge and pulled out some steamed broccoli, a small container of peas, and diced tomato and shredded romaine lettuce left over from taco night.  The lettuce?  Not so weird because tabouleh is often served with and eaten on crisp romaine lettuce leaves...but broccoli?  Peas?  Nonetheless, I mixed it all up and was pleasantly surprised - the salad was terrific.  But was it tabouleh?  I decided to find out.  

The more I read about the history of tabouleh and the more recipes I perused, the more I learned that the vegetables used in the dish change from region to region, season to season and even from from cook to cook.  The one thing that remains standard is the usage of bulgur, olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice and lots and lots and lots of parsley.  (Indeed, the dish I had in the UAE seemed to consist of more parsley than bulgur.)  So...yes, I had tabouleh and no, in the future I will not hesitate to make it if I'm missing one of the veggies.  So, what's for lunch today?  I have a little asparagus in the fridge and plenty more parsley...

Get Back to Your Roots

Yesterday was National Pie Day and, true to my Buy Fresh Buy Local mantra, I went to Whidbey Pies in Greenbank, Washington for – what else – pie. They make very tasty fruit pies (I’ve had blackberry, loganberry and cherry but am dying to try huckleberry and marionberry). Each time I’ve been in to buy a pie, I’ve noticed the seated patrons feasting on what seems to be a very tasty lunch menu as well – so I decided to grab a bite.

The special (in honor of pie day?) was a savory pie stuffed with "Sea Man's Stew" also called as Lapkaus or Skaus (served with a delicious side of organic house salad). This traditional Norwegian fare is a meat and root vegetable stew commonly eaten by sailors throughout Northern Europe. I presume this is because it is a hearty dish chock full of winter root vegetables known for their long shelf life (sea life?). This particular version contained corned beef, cabbage, celery, carrots, potatoes and rutabagas – or were they turnips? Or parsnips? Darn it. It was some sort of light colored “root” veggie with a little more texture than a potato.

Rutabagas, turnips and parsnips are all root vegetables which means they are the underground portion of the plant – usually a tuberous root (potato) or taproot (a large single root versus the many small, branching fibrous roots as seen in lettuce and tomato plants, etc). A rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica) is a close botanical relative of the turnip (Brassica rapa). (Indeed, a rutabaga is an ancient cross between a cabbage and a turnip.) Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa), on the other hand, are more akin to (and look a lot like) carrots. All three can be served boiled, broiled, mashed, smashed…or in Lapkaus pie. All three are in season right now and all three are nutritious and delicious (and cheap!).

One serving of turnips (100 grams, about 3/4 cup cubed) has a mere 28 calories but 35% of a daily dose of vitamin C along with a healthy bit of fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, calcium, folate and more.

The same amount of parsnips (100grams, 1 cup) has 64 calories, 28% vitamin C, 20% fiber, about 1/3 of the rda of vitamin K (for blood clotting), folate, magnesium, phosphorous and other good for you stuff.

Rutabaga (100g, 2/3 cup) has 36 calories and a healthy 42% of daily Vitamin C (take that, scurvy) combined with potassium, calcium, and folate.

While the German side of my family loved their kolarabi (Brassica oleracea - another turnip/cabbage cultivar), I’ve never regularly eaten turnips, parsnips or rutabagas and decided to dig through Cook’s Illustrated to see what they said about the under-appreciated, under-the-ground-growing three.

Among the recipes for roasted root vegetables, parsnip cake (why not, they do look like carrots) and corned beef and cabbage ala rutabaga, I saw minestrone with turnips. But of course! I wrote about the virtues of turnips in Meatless Minestrone last March, so I guess it’s about time to make another pot.

I may not figure out which I had for lunch (without calling and asking) but I know I will be serving some or all three roots in upcoming lunches and dinners of my own.

Nutritional information courtesy of http://www.nutrition.gov/
Whidbey Pies: http://whidbeypies.com/
Meatless Minestrone: http://agoodcooker.blogspot.com/2010/03/meatless-minestrone.html

Chemistry of Cooking

One thing I love about Alton Brown - whom I have not watched much of lately because, sadly, I was a little put off by his sudden weight loss (it falls under my “never trust a skinny chef” mantra) – is the fact that he digs into the whys and hows of cooking. I appreciate knowing the science behind why yeast makes my bread rise and how vinegar “cooks” seafood and more. Much to my delight, I was recently made aware MIT – yes, that MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – has hundreds of FREE online courses ranging from Multivariable Calculus to German and…Kitchen Chemistry.

Kitchen Chemistry, complete with fourteen assignments, is described as the following:

“This seminar is designed to be an experimental and hands-on approach to applied chemistry (as seen in cooking). Cooking may be the oldest and most widespread application of chemistry and recipes may be the oldest practical result of chemical research. We shall do some cooking experiments to illustrate some chemical principles, including extraction, denaturation, and phase changes.”

Sounds boring? Difficult? Nerdy?! Maybe to some, but how can they go wrong with lectures like “Cookie - death by chocolate,” “Scones and coffee,” and “Pasta, meatballs, and crème brulee.”

Each lecture has associated recipe(s), lessons and assignments though the questions are not your run-of-the-mill school stuff. Take the first lecture, for example. In “Guacamole, salsa, make your own hot sauce, and quesadillas” serious cooking issues are addressed including the following:

Why do onions make us cry?  What makes peppers taste hot?  How do you make tortillas?  Why does guacamole turn brown?

Fascinating!  Maybe I AM a nerd, but I’m certainly looking forward to learning more of the hows and whys and chemistry of the kitchen and writing about it here…and, I feel inspired to set up a few Alton Browns to record again.

Kitchen Chemistry: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/special-programs/sp-287-kitchen-chemistry-spring-2009/
Check out all the rest: http://ocw.mit.edu/

In all fairness...

The homemade pasta sauce was amazing. It did, however, make WAY MORE than “enough to sauce more than a pound of pasta,” but no one here was complaining - they all loved it. I packed spaghetti in the kids’ lunches the next day, and they finished off the leftovers another time for snack. To make the recipe sweet enough for the tastes around here, I ended up using 1T of raw sugar (a little more than the recipe notes – or maybe not because raw sugar has larger granules and is probably roughly equivalent to 2t of white sugar), and I puréed the sauce in my new chrome KitchenAid blender because I was afraid it was too much (volume wise) for the food processor (yes, yes…I could have done it in two batches). Other than that, I followed the recipe to the letter.

Sidebar: One of my cousins wrote that she always makes and cans (jars!) her own sauce from her own, homegrown veggies and herbs. This is my goal for the spring/summer – to have a huge garden at this new house with its corresponding acreage. And a greenhouse. Oh, and some chickens. Fressssh eggs rule!

The only drawback to the recipe was how long it took to make. I know in the grand scheme of pasta sauces, one hour is a mere moment, but spaghetti has always been a quick, cop out meal for me. Boil the water…crack open a jar…throw in a few frozen turkey meatballs (thank goodeness I DON’T have an old Italian grandma – she’d probably bop me on the head with her ladle). I am not alone in this, as I heard the same thing from a few others. Fortunately, Cook’s Illustrated also extensively taste-tested jar sauces, so I thought I’d share a few.

In the January 2008 edition, tasters tested nine popular brands and this is what they found:

~Bertolli Tomato and Basil Sauce was noted as the best because it, “tasted the most like fresh-cooked tomatoes.”
~Next came Francesco Rinaldi Traditional Marinara (“thick consistency and good texture”) and Prego Marinara Italian Sauce because it did not have “that fake herb flavor.”
~Also recommended were Barilla Marinara Sauce, Newman's Own Marinara, and Muir Glen Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce.
~Highly NOT recommended was Ragú. “Ragú” is an Italian term (derived from the French word “ragoûter” meaning "to revive the taste”) for a meat-based sauce traditionally served with pasta. Ironically, this one was deemed very yucky. (my word – not theirs.)  I guess they missed the bus on that one.

As a note, I always use jar pasta sauce (usually Bertolli or Prego) when I make pizza.  It works very well on my homemade (or on ready-to-stretch dough in wheat or white from Trader Joes) crust topped with cheese and any array of miscellaneous toppings.

So, mash your own 'maters or some from a can or even pop a jar in a pinch - all have a healthy does of lycopene (an antioxidant thought by some to prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis) as well as tons of Vitamin A and Vitamin C.  I'm certain any old Italian Grandma would approve of that! 

Say No to the Jar

Despite my penchant for making all things from scratch, there is one shortcut from which I have been unable to wean myself - jar spaghetti sauce. Recently though, a friend of mine asked me for a good marinara recipe. Much to my chagrin, I had none – nor do I have an old Italian grandma - so I did the next best thing and turned to my trusty Cook’s Illustrated annuals to see what they had to offer. In March, 2006 I found the answer…Marinara sauce in less than an hour.

After I emailed the recipe to her, I scanned the list of ingredients again and realized I had ALL of them. AND, since my youngest could and would eat saucy spaghetti – with or without meatballs - every single day, I decided to give it a try. I got out the tomatoes, garlic, onion and merlot (Yes, I keep some in the house for cooking – just cooking) and snipped fresh basil from my 7 Pod Aerogarden (I love having fresh herbs at my fingertips. It often inspires dishes depending on what is currently growing like crazy). Technically I didn’t have plain dried oregano but instead had a shaker of Mrs. Dash Italian Medley which contains oregano along with garlic, basil, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, white pepper, sage, savory, cayenne pepper, thyme, bay, cumin, mustard, and coriander – wow! Even with all the extras, I reasoned this one change would not make or break the recipe.

I chopped, minced, sautéed and simmered and the smell in the house is divine! All that is left to do is feed it to the spaghetti connoisseur and see if she approves. If so, then it’s bye-bye Ragu and Progresso…

Regarding the ingredients…Cook’s Illustrated regularly tests food products to pick the best brands. These are a few pertinent to the sauce:

~Extra Virgin Olive Oil - The highest recommendation was for DaVinci brand (they also make the “best” regular olive oil used for every day cooking). The Filippo Berio I use did rather well too.

~Whole Canned Tomatoes - Progresso Italian-Style Whole Peeled Tomatoes with Basil were the hands-down favorite with Redpack and Hunt’s right behind. (Hunt’s also won in the diced department with Muir Glen Organic Diced Tomatoes in a close second)

~Dry pasta – Ronzoni was number one with De Cecco, Mueller’s and Barilla also on the tasty list.

Here’s the recipe. I encourage all to throw away the jars and make marinara from scratch.  I did!

Makes 4 cups. This recipe makes enough to sauce more than a pound of pasta; leftovers can be refrigerated or frozen. Because canned tomatoes vary in acidity and saltiness, it's best to add salt, pepper, and sugar to taste just before serving. If you prefer a chunkier sauce, give it just three or four pulses in the food processor in step 4.

2 (28 ounce) cans whole tomatoes, packed in juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/3 cup dry red wine, such as Chianti or Merlot
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1-2 teaspoons sugar , as needed (see note above)
1. Pour tomatoes and juice into strainer set over large bowl. Open tomatoes with hands and remove and discard fibrous cores; let tomatoes drain excess liquid, about 5 minutes. Remove 3/4 cup tomatoes from strainer and set aside. Reserve 2 1/2 cups tomato juice and discard remainder.
2. Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden around edges, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Add tomatoes from strainer and increase heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring every minute, until liquid has evaporated and tomatoes begin to stick to bottom of pan and brown fond ("fond" is defined as carmalized bits of food) forms around pan edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Add wine and cook until thick and syrupy, about 1 minute. Add reserved tomato juice and bring to simmer; reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally and loosening browned bits, until sauce is thick, 8 to 10 minutes.
4. Transfer sauce to food processor (or transfer to saucepan and insert immersion blender) and add reserved tomatoes; process until slightly chunky, about eight 2-second pulses. Return sauce to skillet and add basil and extra-virgin olive oil and salt, pepper, and sugar to taste.

Thanks to Aerogarden for the picture: http://www.aerogarden.com/

Po-tay-to, po-ta-to

I had a question regarding my Black Truffle Scalloped Potatoes recipe – specifically what kind of potato I used. The answer is…whatever was in my pantry at the time. I know there are big differences in the world of taters – one stop by the bins in the grocery is enough to confuse even me. I know some potatoes make great home fries while others make perfect, creamy mashed potatoes.  Some types hold their shape better in potato salad and some disappear when put in chowders and stews. (As a matter of fact, I made some delicious ham and potato soup the other day that ended up completely smooth with no chunks which probably means I used the wrong potato for the job and is why I typically put potatoes in my clam or chicken/corn chowder in two stages – one in the beginning to thicken the soup and a second, diced small, added toward the end for texture.) 

Why so many differences? Which is which? And for that matter, what is a baking potato? Is a “red russet” really a russet? Is a sweet potato even a potato and what about yams? Such a simple food, yet such a complex list of questions. I decided to do a little research.

I went straight to http://www.potatoes.com/, the home of the Washington State Potato Commission, to dig into the facts (ha ha, dig…potatoes…get it?)  By the way, everyone thinks of Idaho when they think potato, but according to the WSPC, “Washington State potato growers rank first in per-acre yield of potatoes, far above other potato-producing states and countries, and 57 percent more potatoes per acre than that other potato-producing state.” Sorry Idaho…

On the potato page, I found a handy chart (see below) dividing potatoes into six main groups: russets, whites, yellows, reds, blue/purples and fingerlings (different from “new” potatoes which are actually immature regular potatoes). I likewise learned that potatoes are either “floury” or “waxy” based on the ratio of their starch components (there are two types). Floury potatoes (like russets, yellows and blue/purple varieties) are more starchy and work better in roasting, baking and mashing. Waxy potatoes (reds and fingerlings) have less starch allowing them to hold their shape better during boiling. (Whites seem to fall in the middle of the spectrum and are recommended for a wider range of uses.)

But, back to answer the questions that sent me on this tuber tour…

-According to the potato commission, whites or reds are the preferred potato for soups, potato salad, scalloped and au gratin potatoes. (I probably used russets which are the most commonly seen in the 10lb bags I usually buy.)
-Baking potatoes are plain old russet potatoes of a large and consistent size
-Reds and russets are two different varieties of potato.  ("Russet" is defined as a shade of dark brown with a red-orange tint.)   
-Although sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) come in orange, yellow, purple and white varieties, they are not a potato.  Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are in the same genus as tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and egg plants (Solanum melongena). 
-Sweet potatoes - even though the names are often interchanged - are not even remotely related to any of a wide variety of yams (genus Dioscorea).

However one slices, dices, shreads, chops, or mashes them, potatoes (peeled or not) are packed with nutrition including loads of potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, zinc and more - along with a surprising amount of vitamin C - all for only 100 calories and zero fat.

Delicious, and nutritious…and diverse!  I've got to get more potatoes into my daily diet.  Hey, vodka is made from potatoes, isn’t it? 

For more information, see the following links:

Six Salts a Seasoning

I said it before, and I’ll say it again – specialty foods are the one-size-fits-all perfect holiday gift. Last year I wrote about giving family, friends and neighbors fabulous foods from our newly opened Trader Joe’s. This year, I felt obligated to send out slabs of a delicious Pacific Northwest specialty – smoked Sockeye salmon from locally owned Seabolt’s Smokehouse (http://www.seabolts.com/).

I too was gifted with some WONDERFUL culinary contributions from Kris Kringle...both childhood favorites to savor (Neumeister’s chocolates ~ http://www.neumeisterscandyshoppe.com/) and exciting new items to sample. Several of the more unusual indulgences – Lime and Chili Infused Macadamia Oil, Barrel Aged Fig Balsamic Vinegar, black truffle powder – came from a website previously unknown to me, but one definitely worth a more serious look.

The Cooking Enthusiast (http://www.cookingenthusiast.com/) boasts everything from coffee and condiments to cutlery and cookware (I spied some beautiful hand-painted Polish pottery I need to add to my collection). While the oil and vinegar are yet to be opened, I – on a whim – added a level tablespoon of black truffle powder to the white sauce I was making for my scalloped potatoes. The results were simply maahvelous and shall be repeated soon!

SaltWorks (http://www.saltworks.us/) was the source of a savory sampler including Wild Porcini, Black Truffle, Spanish Rosemary, Vintage Merlot and Espresso Brava gourmet salts (boxed nicely with a set of small salt dishes and tiny little serving spoons).  I’m sure I’ve talked Fleur de sel and Kosher salt to death, but I also have an affinity for black and red Hawaiian sea salt and make a wonderful seasoning blend containing one, the other or both along with coarse white Hawaiian sea salt, minced ginger and garlic and crushed black pepper.  I also love diversely flavored and textured salts for different dishes. While these new tasty salt blends are still in the box, I’m already calculating the range of uses. Spanish Rosemary salt paired with boneless leg of lamb, anyone?

Last but by no means least is the Duckleberry Grunt bestowed upon me from the Westport Winery in Westport, Washington (http://www.westportwinery.org/). Touted as a blend of blueberry, huckleberry and Gewürztraminer (a type of white wine grape), this wine (and I don’t really “do” wine, so pardon my naiveté) was simply yummy. It was sweet and fruity and downright delicious, and I can’t wait to head back down to Westport and pick up a couple more bottles. Best of all, proceeds benefit the Gray’s Harbor Ducks Unlimited which is an waterfowl conservation organization that specifically works to protect and restore wetlands and wildlife habitat (a cause near and dear to my heart) .

Now, if only Santa had seen fit to slip a couple delectable Dungeness crabs in my stocking as well…

Here’s the recipe for my newly invented taters:

Black Truffle Scalloped Potatoes
3lbs potatoes
2T butter
2T flour
2c milk (or half and half, or 1c half and half and 1c milk)
1 clove minced garlic
1t kosher salt (or more to taste)
1/2t fresh ground black pepper (or more to taste)
1T Black truffle powder

1. Preheat oven to 350. Scrub potatoes. Do not peel. Slice thin with a mandolin slicer or in a food processor. Cook in large pot of boiling salted water for five minutes until tender. Carefully drain and place ½ in 2qt baking dish sprayed with cooking spray.
2. For sauce, melt 2T butter over medium heat. Lightly sautee garlic until fragrant.  Whisk 2T flour into melted butter. Add 2c milk/half and half, salt, pepper and truffle powder and whisk until smooth. Raise heat to med/high and whisk continuously until sauce is thickened. Immediately pour ½ sauce on potatoes in dish. Add second half of potatoes and top with remaining sauce.
3. Bake in oven covered 45-50 minutes until center potatoes are soft when pierced with a toothpick.

A Good Cooker in the House

Yesterday was New Year’s Day. As I cracked open a jar of tomato relish I bought when driving through Oklahoma (the little roadside shop had hot and regular and I’d never heard of such a thing so had to buy a jar) for my “lucky” black-eyed peas and collard greens, I realized it was time to get to cracking on my blog again.

Back in September, I quit writing. No, it was not for lack of interest on my part; it was for lack of time. My husband had just found out he got a new job in the great state of Washington and would be leaving a few short weeks after for places west. After he left, the whirlwind of moving, cleaning and other fun began and there was little time for anything else (like bathing, sleeping…and cooking). But that was then and this is now.

Approximately three months and 3876 miles later, I am home again…and it’s time to get to cooking!

Stay tuned…