Sunday, January 31, 2010

Baked Orzo and (Faux) Meatballs

This dish has a few strikes against it, blog-wise. First off, I make my version with fake meatballs, which I realize are not a universal favorite (although you can easily substitute the real meaty deal instead). Secondly, it's kinda ugly. Just a homely casserole, and not helped by my low-light pictures. I first discovered this dish a few months ago, and loved it. But I was a bit too embarassed to bring its homeliness into high resolution. But when I made it for the third time in two months, I figured its day had come. Admittedly, it's a far cry from fancypants dinner party fare. But oh man is it delicious.

Living with a lactard, I've learned to go without comforting baked pasta dishes -- it's really hard to find one that isn't bound with lashings of cheese or cream sauce. But this orzo is different. A base of aromatic onions, celery, and pepper are sauteed up, made saucy with tomatoes, and baked with slippery bits of orzo pasta. The whole mess is topped with meatballs (faux or otherwise), and a sprinkling of sheep's milk feta (which is deemed easily digestible by our household dietary restrictions). It's one-pot easy, satisfying, and delicious. Really delicious. Well worth swallowing your pretty-food pride.

Baked Orzo and (Faux) Meatballs

adapted from Ivy's Feast

serves 4-6

If you don't have a stovetop-to-oven pot like a Dutch oven, you can prepare this in a large sautee pan, and then transfer to a casserole dish to bake. As written, this recipe features a balanced mix of vegetables, rather than a strong tomatoey flavor. If you'd like it saucier, substitute the additional tomato sauce for part of the water (details below). Both variations are nice.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 small yellow or green bell pepper, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 15-oz can chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup tomato sauce (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried dill
1 1/2 cups orzo
4 - 4 1/3 cups water or broth
salt and pepper
4 oz feta, crumbled
1 1-lb package of faux meatballs, or an equivalent amount of standard meatballs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper, and sautee until the vegetables are softened and the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and sautee another minute. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce (if using), and dried seasoning, and stir to combine. Add the orzo, and mix well. Turn off the heat.

If you're using a Dutch oven, add the broth or water (the smaller amount if using the tomato sauce, the larger amount if not). If you don't have a Dutch oven, transfer the vegetable-orzo mixture to a casserole dish now, and then add the broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper (keeping in mind that the feta will contribute a bit more salt). Cover, and transfer to the oven. Bake 30 minutes.

While the orzo is baking, prepare the meatballs according to directions (I usually just throw them in a baking pan alongside the casserole, to crisp up while the oven is on). If using meatballs, pan-fry until done.

After 30 minutes, remove the casserole from the oven. Scatter the meatballs over the top, pressing them down into the orzo. Sprinkle with feta, cover, and return to the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, and the feta is melting. Remove from the oven, and let stand for an additional 10 minutes (the remaining liquid should absorb). Enjoy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Corniest Corn Muffins

I basically remember just two things from my middle school home ec class: that sour milk can be substituted if you don't have buttermilk, and over-mixing results in muffins with a tougher crumb and a peaked top. I was reminded of both of these facts when I made these delicious corn muffins.

Please forgive these muffins, all pointy instead of nicely domed on top. That's entirely my fault, the result of my refusal to heed my own advice. So take it from me: you really should mix until *just* combined. And I mean just. Still see a few lumps of flour in the batter, instead of a homogeneous mixture? Totally okay. That's what you want, in fact, and you'll be rewarded by muffins with tender delicacy.

But even with my heavy hand (heavy wooden spoon?), these muffins were totally delicious. The crumb is tight and moist, sweet with sugar and whole kernels of corn (for the corn-on-corn taste alluded to in the title). They're sweet enough for a dessert, especially with a swipe of butter and drizzle of honey, but not so sweet that you can't pair them with a bowl of chili. And with frozen corn, and a substitution of soured milk for buttermilk, they can be easily whipped up at the last minute. And if you happen to have leftovers? Toast them. Amazing.

Corniest Corn Muffins

adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours

yields 12 muffins

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
6 Tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
pinch nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk (or soured milk)
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
3 Tbsp neutral oil, like corn or canola
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup corn kernals (thaw and dry, if using frozen)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease or line 12 muffin cups.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, butter, oil, egg and egg yolk until well combined. Pour this mixture into the dries, folding until just combined but still lumpy. Do not overmix. Fold in the corn kernals, and divide the mixture evenly into the muffin cups. Bake 15-18 minutes, until the tops are beginning to get golden, and a tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven, let rest in the pan for a few minutes, and then turn out onto a rack to cool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When I first moved to Portland, there was a local chain of drive-through coffee shops called Coffee People. As you could probably predict, they were bought out by Starbucks. Coffee People still sells their beans online, for those who miss the roast. But for me, it wasn't about the coffee. It was about the milkshakes. Specifically, the chai milkshakes.

Chai milkshakes weren't on the menu, but you could usually talk your way into one. The coffee shops stocked Oregon Chai, of course, a locally-made concentrated version of the Indian spiced tea. This was tossed into the blender with vanilla ice cream, where the peppery heat and clovey bite would be tempered by by the sweet frozen cream. It was like sipping a fluffy cardamom cloud.

I've always had a soft spot for cardamom, the strong-tasting seed pods that are seldom found outside of Indian cooking. Which is why I love chai. Chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, and is generally used to describe what Indians would call chai masala, or spiced tea. The spices can vary, but usually feature a strong cardamom presence, some nice warm cinnamon and cloves, and a few peppercorns for heat. When it's too chilly for shakes, a cup of chai, spicy-sweet and milky, makes for a perfect coffee break.


Chai is found throughout South Asia, and takes many forms. You can fiddle with the seasonings to suit your taste, spice cabinet, and sweet tooth. One recommendation: I started adding fennel seeds after seeing a Pakistani take on chai in
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, and urge you to do the same, even if you think you don't like fennel seeds. Although I'm not normally a fan of their licoricey overtones, here they add a subtle edge that really completes the flavor.

yields 4 small servings

4 cups water
4 slices ginger
18 cardamom pods, crushed
8 cloves
1 heaping tsp fennel seeds
12 black peppercorns
1" stick cinnamon (about half a standard stick)
2-3 Tbsp sugar
3-4 teabags
1 cup milk, or milk alternative

Combine the water, ginger, cardamom, cloves, fennel, peppercorns and cinnamon in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. The liquid should reduce and darken. Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and 3 of the tea bags, and simmer until the tea steeps. Taste, and add more sugar or tea if needed (this will be diluted by milk, so you're aiming for a strongly-flavored concentrate). Pour through a strainer to remove the spices, and return to the pot. Add the milk, bring to a simmer, and serve.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saffron-scented Vegetable Couscous with North African-spiced Halibut

One of the big differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking is consistency. Well, perhaps a bigger one would be the liberal use of salt and fat, but consistency is a close second. Students at a culinary school might spend an entire day poaching eggs, going through more cartons than most of us see in a decade. At the end of the lesson, they've got it down. Any time they poach an egg, every time in fact, it will be the same. Perfect.

By contrast, consistency is seldom the primary goal in home cooking. The goal is to stir the soup while conducting telephone negotiations with your health insurance company, come up with a dish using the about-to-wilt items in the fridge, or finish baking before you've got to run out of the door. Sometimes these circumstances lead to amazing dishes. But sadly, they're often hard to replicate. What did I changes did I make to that recipe? What did I end up adding when I was out of paprika? Sometimes we're just left with the memories.

Last spring I freestyled a couscous and fish recipe that ranked as one of my best creations. I used halibut, which is something of an indulgence in our house, so it was half a year until I tried it again. By which time, of course, I'd forgotten what I'd done. Luckily I had emailed a description to a friend, which gave me a vague overview of the ingredients and technique. And a link to the recipe which had inspired it, a link which was now broken. Great.

The recipe I had linked to was for charmoula, the herbal and lemony North African marinade. But since I was using herbs and lemon in the couscous, I wanted some different flavors in the fish. So I looked to recipes for Ras Al Hanout, the North African spice blend. There are literally dozens of spices that can be included in this blend, so I picked the ones I liked best (and happened to have in my pantry), mixed up a marinade, tasted it, and made a few adjustments. I marinated and baked the fish, serving it on top of the herbed and seasoned vegetable couscous. The results were amazing.

The strong-tasting cauliflower and fennel are set off by fusty saffron couscous, studded with green herbs and olives. The warmly-spiced halibut plays against these flavors, and the whole combination is brightened with lemon juice. And best of all, I actually wrote down this time. It turned out so well, I'm aiming to make it exactly the same next time.

Saffron-scented Vegetable Couscous with North African-spiced Halibut

serves 4
The marinade calls for a lot of seasonings, but it'll just take a few minutes to rifle through your spice cabinet (or pick them up at the store). You can also substitute tofu slabs for the halibut, if you'd like to create a crazy elegant vegan option.
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, presed or minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 pound halibut (or tofu)

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and cut into bite-sized wedges
1/2 small cauliflower, cored and broken into bite-sized florets
2 cups Israeli couscous (also called pearl couscous)
1 pinch saffron
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup green olives, quartered
1 handful parsley, roughly chopped
1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
1 lemon, cut in wedges

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Assemble the halibut marinade: in a bowl large enough to accommodate the halibut, mix together the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and spices. Taste, adding more salt if desired. Add the halibut, spooning the marinade over the top. Marinate at room temperature for ~30 minutes (the marinade has citrus, so you don't want to over-marinate for fear of mushy fish).
When the fish has marinated, transfer it into a baking dish. Scrape out any remaining spice paste from the marinade dish, and spread thickly on top of the fillets. Bake until the fish is done and flakes easily, 25-30 minutes.

While the halibut is baking, prepare the vegetable couscous. Heat a large pot over a high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then add the fennel and cauliflower. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to caramelize and develop light brown spots. Add a few tablespoons water and cover to steam, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender (2-5 minutes). Remove from pot, and place in a large serving bowl.

In the same pot, add the remaining tablespoon olive oil. Add the couscous and cook, stirring occasionally, until the couscous toasts and darkens slightly (just a couple minutes). Add 2 1/2 cups water, crumble in the saffron, and add the salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat just enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender, ~10 minutes.
While the couscous is cooking, assemble the remaining ingredients. Add the olives, parsley, and cilantro to the serving dish with the cooked cauliflower and fennel. When the couscous is done, tip it into the bowl with the herbs and vegetables, and toss well. Scoop the couscous onto plates, and top with the marinated halibut. Serve with lemon wedges.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Manny's Matzoh Balls

My grandpa Manny owned a series of Jewish delis, in New York and New Jersey. I'm not sure exactly when he sold the last one and finally retired, but I definitely had a few years of childhood deli visits. I'd love to say that I remember slurping matzoh ball soup at the counter, but I don't. Most of my memories of the deli are full of the things that most interest a little kid -- playing with the carbon paper on the waiters' order pads, squirting drinks from the magic soda fountain, and stuffing my cheeks full puckeringly sour-salty pickled green tomatoes. Matzoh ball soup was something we made at home.

But even at home, we'd use my grandpa's deli recipe for matzoh balls. And we used it all the time. Matzoh ball soup wasn't just trotted out at the Jewish holidays -- it was the default chicken soup whenever someone was sick, or needed warming up, or just happened to have brought home some fresh dill. I've made it so many times that it no longer conjures up singular childhood memories -- it's hard to be nostalgic over something you've eaten a half dozen times in the last six months. Even so, it's still my go-to comfort food.

A good recipe is an important first step in good matzoh balls. But, ultimately, the end product is more of an art than a science. Eggs vary in size and absorption, and individual tastes vary between craving featherlight "floaters" or toothsome "sinkers." I favor something in between. It might take a few tries to find the perfect matzoh ball for you. But it's a pretty delicious process.

Manny's Matzoh Balls

adapted from Emanuel Prichep

yields enough balls for a large pot of soup

5 eggs
1/2 cup neutral oil, like canola
~3/4-1+ cups matzoh meal
1/2 tsp baking powder
~1 tsp salt
a handful chopped parsley

Whisk together the eggs and oil. Add as much matzoh meal as needed to make a texture somewhat like thick mud -- you want it to be just a bit too soft to mound on a spoon. If you favor firmer matzoh balls, add enough matzoh meal so that it is almost scoopable. The mixture will firm up upon standing. Stir in the baking powder, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed (it should be fairly salty). Chill for 10 minutes.

While the matzoh ball mixture is chilling, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Check the chilled mixture -- if it's not firm enough to just scoop after resting, add more matzoh meal. Shape matzoh balls of your desired size with a small ice-cream scoop, two oiled spoons, or oiled hands, and plop them directly in the simmering water. Turn the heat down just enough to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally to rotate, for at least 30 minutes. Take a ball out of the pot and cut open, checking to see if the center is fully cooked, and no longer of a discernably different texture. Scoop out into a bowl, top with broth (preferably with carrots, parsnips and a bit of fresh dill), and serve.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Kale and Quinoa Pilaf

When I first began experimenting with new ingredients in the kitchen, my mother wasn't always the most supportive. More often than not, she'd insist that I haul a fan up from the basement to chase out the smells of whatever I was cooking. Now perhaps I was truly making some horrific aromas. Or perhaps she was just unhappy that I was infringing on her turf. Whatever the cause, it got to be a bit much. I remember the final straw came when I was cooking quinoa, which I had hunted out from the local health food store. I insisted that a fan was overkill, and told her that it didn't smell at all -- c'mon, it's a grain!

It turns out I was somewhat wrong on both counts. Quinoa isn't technically a grain -- the South American crop is actually a pseudocereal, with a balance of amino acids that make it great for protein-hungry vegetarians. And, sadly, it did kinda smell. Quinoa naturally comes coated with a bitter, soapy-tasting insect repellent. Back when quinoa first hit the shelves of American health food stores, it was sold in its natural unwashed state. You'd have to swish the teensy grains in a strainer, but even then it was hard to get them entirely clean. Luckily, quinoa producers have gotten much better at pre-washing their product. Commercial quinoa has only the slightest grassy edge, which is quite pleasant in most dishes.

I happened upon this particular combination when I had leftover quinoa after a hippie dinner we had made. It turned out so well that I came up with a recipe to make it from scratch. The quinoa and kale can cook together, making this a one-pot easy dish for a quick weeknight supper. I've tried variations with both feta and goat cheese, and my tasters were split on which they preferred. Try it with whatever you like.

UPDATE: This recipe will be featured in the upcoming Food52 cookbook! You can see it (with much, much nicer pictures) on their website.

Kale and Quinoa Pilaf

serves 2-4

1 cup quinoa
1 bunch lacinato kale, washed and chopped into 1" lengths
1 meyer or regular lemon, zested and juiced
2 scallions, minced (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted walnut oil or olive oil
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta cheese
salt and pepper

Bring 2 cups of salted water to a boil in a pot. Add the quinoa, cover, and lower the heat until it is just enough to maintain a simmer. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then top with the kale and re-cover. Simmer another 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow to steam for 5 more minutes.

While the quinoa is cooking, take a large serving bowl and combine half of the lemon juice (reserving the other half), all of the lemon zest, scallions, walnut or olive oil, pine nuts, and cheese.

Check the quinoa and kale when the cooking time has completed -- the water should have absorbed, and the quinoa will be tender but firm, and the kale tender and bright green. If the quinoa still has a hard white center, you can steam a bit longer (adding more water if needed). When the quinoa and kale are done, fluff the pilaf, and tip it into the waiting bowl with the remaining ingredients. As the hot quinoa hits the scallions and lemon it should smell lovely. Toss to combine, seasoning with salt and pepper, and the remaining lemon juice if needed.