Noodle Nest Stir-Fry

November 24, 2009

Ingredients: Chinese soup noodles, TVP (textured vegetable protein), broccoli, bean sprouts, onion, scallion, carrot, wood ear mushroom, soy sauce, corn starch, palm sugar, fermented tofu, garlic, ginger, dry vermouth, cooking oil, sesame oil, black pepper, salt.

Pondering what to do with a package of Chinese soup noodles led me to this dish, which was very tasty. It’s a fairly basic vegan stir-fry on top a “nest” of fried noodles.

I made the nests first. I boiled the noodles, chilled them in ice water to prevent them from mushing up, and dried them thoroughly in a salad spinner. Then I heated up plenty of cooking oil in my wok and fried individual portions of the noodles into solid masses. Although I wanted form birds’ nests, ultimately I had to settle for lily pads. They tasted great anyway.

For the stir-fry, I soaked some meaty TVP and seared it along with garlic, ginger, and onion. Then I tossed in sliced carrots, cubed broccoli stems and florets, and wood ear mushrooms (which I had rehydrated along with the TVP). Toward the end of cooking, I added fresh crunchy bean sprouts and sliced scallions. For the sauce, I mixed together water, soy sauce, corn starch, mashed fermented tofu, dry vermouth, palm sugar, sesame oil, and a bit of salt & pepper.

Combining the noodle nests with the stir-fry was a big hit. That transitional phase when something crispy gradually becomes saucy is such an amazing texture.

Kolokithokeftedes

November 17, 2009

Ingredients: zucchini, Travnicki cheese, bulgur wheat, egg, scallion, lemon, bread crumbs, oregano, mint, black pepper, salt.

I came across recipes for kolokithokeftedes (Greek for “zucchini meatballs”) a few times while browsing other people’s food blogs, and finally got around to making them at home. This was an instance of being fairly sure I’d enjoy what I was cooking, yet with hardly a clue as to what it would taste like.

I started by preparing some coarse wheat bulgur. I love the chewiness of bulgur, and figured it would blend into and fortify the texture of my fritters. Most recipes suggested either breadcrumbs or plain flour, but I wanted more “tooth.”

When the bulgur had cooled, I combined it with the rest of the ingredients: an entire grated zucchini, an egg, chopped scallion, oregano, mint, a big squeeze of lemon, and plenty of salt & pepper. I also crumbled and blended in a block of Travnicki Sir, which is a Bosnian brined sheep’s milk cheese similar to mild feta. Although it surely didn’t matter for this particular recipe, I just love the texture of Travnicki. It’s light, nowhere near as dense as feta, yet with a stiff integrity and springy resistance to the bite. I often enjoy it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

Many of the kolokithokeftedes I saw online were flat patties, like latkes (Jewish potato pancakes, the only fritters Mom used to make). For some reason I wanted mine to be spherical. Another common feature I wished to avoid were the dark burned bits of zucchini flecking the outside of the fritters. So, before frying, I shaped the dough into golfballs, and gave them an extra roll-around in some bread crumbs. This provided a protective layer that saved the zucchini bits from blackening.

The results were spectacular, if a bit hard to describe. The outsides were crispy of course, but gave way quickly in the mouth to a creamy-yet-chewy filling, almost like risotto. There was no zucchini texture, but its flavor lurked in the background, providing a slightly bitter “healthy” taste. The foreground of the flavor profile was all Greek: herby from mint & oregano, tangy from lemon and feta, rich from the olive oil I used for frying.

Porcini-Sunchoke Risotto

November 16, 2009

sunchoke-risotto

Ingredients: Arborio rice, sunchoke, parsnip, carrot, button mushroom, porcini mushroom, shallot, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, sage, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Pecorino Sardo cheese, dry sherry, vegetable stock, butter, olive oil, black pepper, salt.

Last time I made a risotto, I remarked that it could have easily been served on its own as a complete meal. This time, I decided to do just that, and was very pleased with the results. My risotto was rich, creamy, herby, and filled with the woodsy flavors of mushrooms and root vegetables.

One particular root vegetable, the sunchoke, was my source of inspiration for this dish. What’s a sunchoke? I really didn’t know either, but damned if those Top Chefs don’t drape their steaks over sunchoke purée every single time. So I looked it up; sunchokes are the tubers of the sunflower plant! They can be roasted or mashed like any other root vegetable, or even served raw and crispy like jicama. They taste like artichokes, which is what led to their name.

[Sunchokes are also called Jerusalem artichokes. From what I can tell, this term is slowly being phased out, as these tubers are neither artichokes nor are they from Jerusalem. The latter is simply a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. If you find this interesting, I’m sure we could be friends.]

For a simple dinner one night, I hacked up and roasted a variety of root vegetables in the oven. There were potatoes, sunchokes, parsnips, and carrots, seasoned only with salt & pepper. This was the first time I’d tasted a sunchoke, and was really impressed with its deliciously-concentrated roasty artichoke flavor. I figured the leftovers would match well with an earthy mushroom risotto, so I made that for lunch the next day.

The first step was to sherry-soak a generous portion of dried porcinis. We’re periodically sent bags of these mushrooms by my girlfriend’s parents, who hand-pick them up north. I like to think of this as the vegetarian version of having hunters in the family — not that I’d actually prefer deer jerky. The flavor of wild porcini mushrooms is hard to beat, especially in “meaty” soups and stews.

When the porcinis had softened sufficiently, I diced them up, along with a handful of regular button mushrooms. I puréed the leftover roasted sunchoke, carrot, and parsnip chunks, and set them aside for later. I also prepared a nice mound of grated cheese, using both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo (an amazing sheep’s milk cheese, softer and much less harsh than Pecorino Romano).

To get the risotto started, I heated olive oil in a heavy pot and sautéed 2 cups of raw Arborio rice until very slightly brown in color. Then I added my chopped mushrooms, plus a bay leaf and some minced garlic & shallot, taking care not to burn anything. Next, I poured in the sherry I had used for soaking the porcinis. When that got absorbed, I added ladles of hot vegetable stock, stirring all the while, encouraging the rice grains to release their natural starch into a creamy sauce.

For the final step of the process, when the rice had cooked through, I mixed in the vegetable purée, followed by a hunk of butter and the grated cheese. I also added a pinch of thyme and sage, for an herby accent. The risotto was delicious. I especially liked the artichoke flavor lent by the sunchokes.

Spaghetti with Clam Sauce & Seared Scallops

November 12, 2009

scallop-clamsauce

Ingredients: spaghetti, scallops, clams, green peas, butter, olive oil, flour, garlic, parsley, oregano, lemon, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chili flakes, black pepper, salt.

One item I always bring back with me to Sweden is canned clams. Canned mussels are sold here, but they have no texture at all, and pretty weak flavor. Canned clams kick so much ass in comparison. I love their seashore aroma and just-chewiness.

The best part, however, is the broth they are packed in. It’s liquid gold! If I didn’t have to smuggle the stuff, I would add it to just about everything I make. Clam broth has such a bright, warm, mineral-rich taste. It’s also a natural way to get more umami in your mouthful.

What I decided to make with my very last can of clams (until next visit home) is a simple classic from childhood: Mom’s spaghetti with clam sauce. She used to make huge batches of this, with plenty of plump tiger shrimp on top. If this wasn’t my favorite of her specialties, it was certainly near the top.

Here, as you can see, I chose to swap the tiger shrimp for seared scallops. They tasted just as good as they look! First I defrosted them slowly in cold water overnight (to preserve texture), then dried them thoroughly by wrapping them in paper towels for an hour. Scallops need to be as dry as possible before searing, or else they stay jellylike and don’t pick up any color in the pan. It’s also important not to move them once they start cooking; this is another way to ensure a nice crust.

I seared the scallops in ghee, which is the Indian name for clarified butter (which is when butter is simmered and skimmed of all water and milk solids). I like using ghee for jobs like this, because unlike whole butter, it doesn’t burn on high heat. Analogously, this is why “regular” olive oil should be used for frying, as opposed to Extra Virgin.

The sauce for the spaghetti was easy. I melted whole butter (not ghee) in a pan on low heat with some olive oil, then lightly sauteed 2 diced cloves of garlic in it for a minute. To this I added parsley, oregano, chili flakes, salt, pepper, and a big pinch of white flour, making sure not to burn anything. Then I poured in the clam broth, plus the juice from half a lemon, and let the sauce simmer and thicken. This is a good time for frozen peas to be added, because they help to quickly lower the temperature. I dropped the chopped clams in last, because they are pre-cooked and easily overdone.

I tossed the sauce with hot spaghetti, sprinkled a generous amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and served it with the seared scallops. I’m sure Mom would be proud of this one.

Chinese Shrimp-Egg Noodles alla Carbonara

November 10, 2009

carbonara

Ingredients: shrimp-egg noodles, dried shrimp, shallot, green peas, butter, egg, Parmesan, dry vermouth, parsley, black pepper, salt.

Ah yes, another valiant vegequarian attempt to re-create a baconcentric dish using dried shrimp! Check out my first post about it here.

Pasta alla Carbonara is a very simple and satisfying meal. The idea is to use beaten raw eggs (along with grated cheese) as a sauce, and to let the hot pasta cook it. To be honest, until I looked it up online, I thought Carbonara was just Alfredo with green peas & ham. Beaten eggs? I guess all those classy Italian joints I went to growing up were confused, too. It’s okay fellas!

Since I already planned on replacing the pancetta with dried shrimp, I decided to push the Italian/Chinese fusion angle even more by using shrimp-egg noodles for pasta. These aren’t egg noodles; they’re regular wheat noodles, fortified and flavored with pink shrimp eggs. I saw them on Iron Chef once (Japanese version) and was intrigued, so I picked up a package at the Asian market soon afterward. Very tasty.

Preparation was simple. I soaked the dried shrimp in vermouth to soften them up, then diced and sautéed them in butter, quickly, with shallots and parsley. I poured this over steaming hot shrimp-egg noodles, along with some frozen peas (which don’t really need to cook much, merely thaw). Then I folded in beaten eggs and grated parmesan cheese, which set rather quickly into a creamy sauce. Salt, freshly ground black pepper, delicious!

Next time I try this, I will use scallions as a garnish, for a more distinct Asian flavor. I might even (bravely) substitute fermented tofu for the Parmesan.

An Inspired Sandwich

November 6, 2009

dibrunosandwich

Sandwich ingredients: ciabatta roll, hot-smoked salmon, red bell pepper, Västerbotten cheese, mâche, cornichons.

Dressing ingredients: olive oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, honey, shallot, thyme, oregano, basil, black pepper, salt.

When I had a job in downtown Philadelphia a few years ago, I loved stopping by DiBruno Bros after work. They’re an Italian fine-foods store, with an extensive cheese selection and all kinds of other culinary goodies. I wasn’t making enough money to justify buying anything there, but gazing/sniffing was free! Then one day a coworker tipped me off to a brilliant tactic: show up after 5pm and steal a sandwich for half price. Done and *haumph* done.

My favorite DiBruno Bros sandwich was humbly titled Ham & Cheese. It was, of course, so much more than that. Layered between two triangular halves of a rosemary-kissed ciabatta bun were thin shavings of Parma ham, sharp aged provolone, roasted red bell peppers, field greens, Italian dressing, and curious little pickles that looked like baby cucumbers. As these pickles were the best or at least the most distinctive part of the sandwich, I asked the guy behind the counter what they were called.

Cornichons. French. Eat ’em all over Europe.”

So, that’s the story of how I moved here! Well, no, it isn’t. But it is the story of how I came to appreciate a really tasty pickle. Cornichons are made from unripe gherkins, which are related to cucumbers but are much smaller and bumpier. As a result, they are crisper too. Flavor varies by recipe, but cornichons are typically tart and garlicky, with a hint of dill and/or clove.

I decided, upon sampling a particularly good jar of cornichons, to attempt a recreation of that wonderful half-price sandwich from long ago.

Instead of ham, which I no longer eat, I used Swedish hot-smoked salmon. The salmon is not actually hot. Rather, it is fully cooked (and richly flavored) by heated smoke, as opposed to cold-smoked salmon, which is cured raw with unheated smoke.

Instead of sharp provolone (a South Philly specialty), I used Västerbotten cheese (a North Sweden specialty), which I find to be texturally similar. It’s semi-hard and crumbly, but with enough moisture to support thin slices. Västerbotten tastes somewhere between aged Cheddar and young Parmesan.

Roasting and peeling bell peppers isn’t exactly difficult, but it does require foresight. Unfortunately, sandwich and foresight don’t jibe too well; sandwich pairs better with impulse. I forced myself to make the peppers ahead of time on this occasion, though. I don’t think I would have made the effort if not for this blog. So, thanks everyone!

The sandwich came together really nicely. Crusty ciabatta, tangy homemade dressing, gentle mâche lettuce (find some if you’ve never tried it), plus the aforementioned pickles, salmon, cheese, and roasted pepper. Next time I make this, however, I will be sure to add the ultimate finishing touch: wrap the sandwich up in butcher paper, then wait until after 5pm to eat it.

Cranberry-Halloumi Burrito

October 8, 2009

cranburrito

Ingredients: cranberry-studded halloumi, orange and green bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, black bean, cranberry, bulgur, cumin, black pepper, salt.

Served with: whole wheat tortilla, sour cream, cilantro.

I wrote about halloumi before, here. An excerpt:

“You might not be familiar with halloumi, but you should be! It’s a salty, somewhat rubbery cheese from Cyprus, a bit like a super-firm block of mozzarella. What’s unique about halloumi is that it doesn’t melt, so you can pan-fry or grill it. This puts a delicious brown crust on the surface and takes away the rubberiness. In fact, the resulting texture is very similar to grilled chicken, so it makes a great meat substitute.”

What I did not mention previously is that halloumi usually comes folded over a bit of torn mint leaf. It’s a nice touch, and solidifies the cheese’s Cypriot/Greek identity. So, I was taken aback recently when I saw a package of halloumi featuring cranberry instead of mint. I gave it a try on the grill and was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the tart & sweet flavor of the fruit had permeated the salty cheese. The result was a nuanced yet exceptionally balanced product.

It would not be inappropriate to call this cheese inspirational, considering that’s literally how it affected me. For days, I woke up thinking about new and better ways to enjoy cranberry halloumi. One recurring idea was to construct a sweet & savory “Tex-Mex” burrito, with halloumi replacing grilled chicken strips, and dried cranberries mixed into the rice and/or beans. Does that even sound good? I had to find out one way or another, because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

To begin preparation, I fired up the grill-pan and blackened a jalapeño and a pair of bell peppers (orange & green). To remove the charred skin, I let the peppers steam inside a sealed plastic bag for a while after grilling, then let them cool. This process allowed the skin to slip off easily.

Next, I made a quick “rice” & black beans using bulgur (coarsley cracked and parboiled wheat). To this I added cumin, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of dried cranberries. It was tasty, and reminded me of Moroccan couscous dishes, which often feature raisins or other dried fruit.

I divided the halloumi into thick slices, grilled them carefully, and began to assemble the burritos. For a finishing touch, I tossed in a little chopped cilantro and a dab of sour cream. The whole wheat tortillas I used seemed a little raw, so I sat the finished burritos on the grill to pick up some color and texture on their outsides.

I enjoyed my burrito, but I think a Top Chef judge would say that it “needed refinement.” The flavor basically worked, but it was missing something(s) despite having probably too many unique tastes. My proportions were also a bit off, which resulted in a fairly dry burrito. I will probably try this again sometime, perhaps with a sauce to moisten it up.

Wasabi Tuna Salad

October 4, 2009

tunasalad

Ingredients: tuna, mayonnaise, celery, wasabi-flavored vegetarian caviar, rice wine vinegar, fermented yellow soybeans, wasabi paste, palm sugar, ginger powder, shallot powder, sesame oil, sesame seeds, salt.

Served with: whole wheat toasted baguette, iceberg lettuce, nectarine.

Isn’t mayonnaise funny? A spoonful of mayo is hideously unappetizing … until you slap it onto or into something. Then it becomes mmmmmmayo. Hits the spot. A can of tuna sprouts wings when mayonnaise is applied.

Anyway, this sandwich was an experiment that turned out really well. I wanted to use up some wasabi-flavored vegetarian caviar (made from seaweed, also used here) and figured it would make for an interesting accent to tuna salad. I remember long ago having excellent chicken salad made with Soy Vay toasted sesame marinade, and decided to try matching that flavor profile.

I created the base for the tuna salad with mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, palm sugar, ginger powder, shallot powder, sesame oil, and salt. Then I mixed in the wasabi caviar and some whole fermented soybeans. It seemed like a good occasion for the soybeans because I wanted the flavor of soy sauce without the wetness or dark color.

In went the tuna, and some diced celery and sesame seeds for texture. It tasted amazing. I couldn’t wait to get it into sandwich form! The hint of wasabi was so nice that I decided to break out my seldom-used tube of wasabi paste and kick my tuna salad up another notch. I’ll remember this trick in the future.

To frame my sandwich, I toasted a whole wheat baguette. I like my bread surface brown and crusty, but I also want the insides to remain chewy. Therefore: high heat, short oven time. It’s also important to let the bread cool down before the mayonnaise touches it. Mayo is funny like that too.

Crispy Potatoes, Cheesy Spinach

October 1, 2009

creamedspinach

Ingredients: potato, spinach, butter, olive oil, flour, milk, lemon, aged Gouda, black pepper, salt.

I’m not sure if my dinner here qualifies as an actual meal or just 2 side dishes on one plate. This exact dilemma comes up quite a lot as a vegetarian, at least in my experience. It’s so hard to let go of the protein-veg-starch model. At any rate, the potatoes and spinach came out very tasty and satisfying.

To make the potatoes, I cubed them (with skins intact) and tossed them in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then I scattered them on a foiled baking tray and popped them in the oven for an hour. Halfway through the cooking I shook them around because the bottoms were getting much browner than the sides. This procedure worked out fine, but I suspect there are better ways to achieve evenly-browned roast potatoes. Anybody have tips for me?

For the spinach, I simply made a Mornay sauce (Béchamel plus cheese) and drizzled it into the pan where my thawed frozen spinach was cooking. The Mornay was really tasty. My cheese of choice was a grainy aged Gouda, which has a marvelous caramel flavor and a sharp bite. Then, as I usually do with anything heavy & creamy, I added a little lemon juice at the end to freshen it up.

Sesame Cucumber Salad

September 24, 2009

cucumbersalad

Ingredients: cucumber, onion, rice wine vinegar, palm sugar, sesame oil, black sesame seed, chili flake, salt.

This was the first time I’ve made a vinegar-based cucumber salad. It worked out so well for me that I can’t imagine not making another variation sometime soon. The process was fast, easy, and lots of fun (I keep my santoku knife super-sharp). The end product was absolutely lip-smackingly delicious, and way healthier than most of the stuff I’ve been eating recently.

For this salad, I started by making a simple vinaigrette. I used rice wine vinegar, which is so mild (and tasty) that you can practically drink it straight. I sweetened this with palm sugar (which has hints of smoky caramel), salted to taste, and whisked in just a bit of toasted sesame oil. That stuff is heavenly, but less is more. I decided then to add a pinch of hot pepper flakes, as a complimentary accent to the vinegary tang.

Next, I thinly sliced half a fresh white onion and got it soaking in the dressing. I followed that with an even-more-thinly sliced cucumber. I was worried at first that the raw onion would be unpleasant or overwhelming, but the acid in the vinaigrette broke it down sufficiently. I finished off the salad with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, then let it sit in the fridge for about half an hour.

Timing is fairly important here. A little wait is required in order for the flavors to marry each other and penetrate the cucumber. However, I noticed that when I came back for seconds a few hours later, the cucumber’s water had escaped and flooded into the vinaigrette, significantly diluting its intensity. If I were to make this farther ahead of time, I’d want to pre-soak and pat-dry the cucumber slices before dressing them.