Sunday, March 28, 2010

Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Mayonnaise

There are some ethnic foods that can easily win fans outside their native lands. Even if you've never heard of Tibetan momo, chances are that you'll adore the flavorful dumpling of meat or vegetables wrapped in a soft and slippery dough. And you might be hard-pressed to spell dacquoise, but who wouldn't love disks of nut-enriched meringue layered with luscious buttercream? These foods seem to hit upon cravings and tastes that hold wide appeal, regardless of your background.

And then there are the foods that are a somewhat harder sell. It's like learning a language: if you're not exposed during that critical period in childhood, chances are it's never going to come easily to the tongue. At least not without a good deal of work. Gelatinous chicken feet, and ripe cheeses that smell like unwashed socks (Taleggio, I'm looking in your direction). And while I adore the fermented funk of shrimp paste, I can see why some, like my boyfriend, think it stinks like something that died on the beach. Which brings me to one of the least popular foods of my people: gefilte fish.

Gefilte fish gets a bad rap. It's a classic peasant food, a poached patty made of a mix of lake fishes that have been chopped and mixed with matzoh meal, eggs and seasoning, and poached in broth. Like meatloaf, it's a way of stretching an expensive or valuable ingredient, making sure everyone gets a taste of fish even when there aren't quite enough fillets to go around. It's similar to (and arguably developed from) the quenelle of French high court cuisine. But that's not how most people know it. To most Americans, gefilte fish comes in a jar from Manischewitz, surrounded by a yellowish jellied stock. It's not delicate, and it's not delicious.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In its traditional form -- made from fresh fish, and seasoned well -- it can be a lovely dish. Here on the West Coast, people often make their gefilte fish from salmon and halibut. It makes for a great variation, but I want something with just white-fleshed fish to meet my craving for tradition. The usual lake fish of Eastern Europe (or suburban New York) are pretty hard to come by out here. But last year I discovered a variation made with smoked whitefish. I grew up eating this delicacy on deli brunch trays, and am a sucker for its flavor. In this gefilte fish, the dense smoked fish is combined with tender sole. The salty/smoky flavor is offset by sweet carrots, mellow cooked onions and nippy scallions. The mixture is so tender it must be steamed on cabbage-lined trays instead of poached, but the resulting gefilte fish has a delicate, pate-like texture. Nobody's feeding this version to the dog under the table. I daresay it will win converts, even outside of the chosen people. (And yes, the smell of steaming cabbage + fish is exactly as awesome as you're thinking.)

And while I have some hesitation in mixing my Blog Life with my Real Life, I humbly direct you toward a radio story I produced on gefilte fish's historical preparation and West Coast incarnation. Perhaps that version will make it onto our Seder table next year.

Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Mayonnaise
adapted from Jayne Cohen's Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Lemon-Horseradish Sauce in Bon Appetit, May 2002

yields ~15-20 patties, depending upon size of patties, and amount of additional matzoh meal required

Gefilte Fish
3/4 cup sliced peeled carrots
1/2 cup matzoh meal
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped scallions
4 eggs
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 lb sole (or other mild fish, such as flounder), cut into cubes
3/4 lb smoked whitefish, flaked off the bone
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 head cabbage

Horseradish Mayonnaise
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp dill leaves, chopped (optional)

Place the carrots in a saucepan with water to cover, and simmer until beyond tender (and nearly mushy), ~7-10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid in a large bowl. Add the matzoh meal to the cooking liquid, and place carrots in a food processor.

Heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy skillet. Add the onions, and saute until soft but not browned, ~5 minutes. Add the green onions, and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, and add to the carrots in the food processor. Add matzoh meal mixture, and puree until smooth.

Crack 3 of the 4 eggs into a large mixer bowl, and beat until foamy and thickened, ~3-4 minutes. Add the carrot/onion/scallion/matzoh meal mixture, and mix well.

In your now-empty food processor bowl, add the fish, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely chopped, but not pureed. Add the remaining egg, and pulse until just combined. Add this mixture to the vegetable/egg mixture, and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, ~2 hours. Check after an hour -- if the mixture seems like it's too soft to shape, add additional matzoh meal.

After the fish mixture has chilled, set a steamer basket (or multiple steamer baskets if you've got) over simmer water. Peel the leaves off of the cabbage, and use them to line the baskets. Scoop out 1/3 cup of the fish mixture, form into a patty shape of your choosing, and place on the cabbage-lined steamer. Repeat, leaving a bit of space between (the gefilte fish will swell slightly upon steaming). Top with more cabbage. Cover and steam until the gefilte fish is firm and cooked through, ~40 minutes. Remove the cooked patties to a container (along with their cabbage leaves, which will keep them from drying out), and repeat the process with remaining mixture. The fish will be somewhat delicate when you remove it, but will firm upon chilling. Chill cooked gefilte fish in the refrigerator until cold, ~5 hours. Gefilte fish can be made up to two days in advance.

Combine sauce ingredients in a bowl, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve with the gefilte fish.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Middle Eastern Spinach Turnovers

An old college friend once told me that in Japan, the progress of the cherry blossoms is reported on the evening news. There are special color codes for buds, for partially-opened flowers, and for those in full bloom. These are placed upon green screen maps for television audience to see, and plan their picnicking accordingly. Maybe it's not so exciting in real life, but in concept it sounds slightly dreamy -- natural beauty making it into the evening news just for its own sake. Such excitement is understandable. Even if cherry blossoms aren't one of your national symbols, they're still breathtakingly beautiful. And right now in Portland, the blossoms are out in full force.

Although we officially crossed into Spring just a few days ago, we've been feeling it for quite some time. The trillium have blossomed out in the woods, and the daffodils have blossomed out on the lawns. Speaking of, we're already in need of a mow. I headed out the other day with nothing more than a cotton cardigan to protect me from the balmy weather. Spring, I have missed you.

This past weekend a few of our neighbors hosted a picnic to celebrate the cherry blossoms at a local park on a volcano. (What? Your town doesn't have one? And yes, it's defunct.) We sat amidst a shower of blossoms, which according to one guest were actually flowering plums, not cherries. But it's all relative. They were gorgeous. We caught up with friends and enjoyed the sunshine. And, of course, we ate.

Having recently mastered hamantaschen, I felt up to tackling another triangular turnover. Although I'm fairly besotted with a cheesy spanakopita, this leaner Middle Eastern version of the classic spinach pie seemed better suited to the occasion. It's a one-hand snack, with no drippy sauce or need for utensils. And the dough-encased turnovers were sturdy enough to survive the hike in a tupperware in my backpack, as my dog towed me the 30 or so blocks from home.

Instead of creamy cottage cheese and salty feta, the spinach in these turnovers is accented with just a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, pine nuts and onions. I snuck in a sprinkling of sour sumac and sprinkling of grassy/nutty za'atar, but both of these are quite optional. The spinach is rubbed with salt and squeezed, a nifty trick that releases liquid and reduces the volume, without sacrificing the fresh taste. The bright, slightly puckery filling inside the savory dough makes for a perfect Spring surprise. Be sure to pack some for your next picnic.

Middle Eastern Spinach Turnovers

Filling inspired by numerous sources, dough tweaked from Chicho's Kitchen, which I found via a comment on this very site. Thanks, internet!

yields ~30 small turnovers

3/4 cup water, at room temperature
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
additional flour as needed

1 large bunch spinach, washed and chopped
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided, plus more for brushing
1 large or 2 small onions, finely diced
1 tsp sumac (optional)
1/2 tsp zataar (optional)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Pour the water in a large bowl (or mixer bowl, if you have a mixer with a dough hook. Sprinkle in the yeast, and allow it to soften for a few minutes. Add the salt, sugar, egg, olive oil, and whole wheat flour. Mix well. Add the remaining white flour until a slack-yet-workable dough is formed (this may take more or less flour). Cover the bowl, and set aside for ~1 hour.

While the dough is resting, prepare the filling. Sprinkle the salt over the spinach, and set aside to allow it to begin to give off water.

In a heavy pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions, and saute until soft and translucent, but not colored, ~7 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add the sumac and zataar if using. Set aside.

Take the salted spinach, and squeeze it to release as much liquid as you can. It will reduce slightly, and become a bit translucent, like a day-old salad. Place the squeezed leaves in a bowl, and toss with the onions. Sprinkle on the lemon juice, tossing, and add just enough additional olive oil until it is just moistened (better to err on the side of dry, otherwise your turnovers won't hold together). Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and grease two baking sheets (or preheat pizza stones).

Turn your risen dough out onto a lightly floured countertop. Roll out to a thickness between 1/8" and 1/4". If the dough doesn't roll, let it rest a few minutes to relax the gluten, and try again. Cut out 3" circles. Place heaping tablespoons of dough in the center of the circles, and pull the sides up to form a triangular shape. Squeeze tightly to seal the edges! Place your triangles on the prepared sheets, brush with the additional olive oil, and bake until golden, ~20 minutes. Serve warm or cold, at the picnic of your choosing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Artichoke Panzanella

Oh, artichokes. These prickly thistles are one of my absolute favorites. I know they're not universally adored -- it's hard to love a food that can draw blood -- but their grassy-yet-sweet flavor is like nothing else. I adore them steamed with lemon-butter, or roasted until the sugars caramelize and become sweeter still. But until now, I really haven't cooked with them that much. Sure, I've tossed marinated hearts into salads (including a couscous salad that's become a potluck favorite), or heated them into a deliciously retro creamy dip. But that was about it, until I tried this recipe.

I first spied this on a blog a few years ago, where the cook's husband proclaimed it the best thing she ever did. How do you argue with that? I filed it away in my bookmarks, and there it sat for years, gathering electronic dust on its electronic shelf. But recently I fell in love all over again with Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, and baked a smattering of loaves. After the first few weeks I wasn't able to keep pace, and one of the loaves staled on the counter, yielding the building block of panzanella (aka Italian bread salad). For this dish, the cubed bread is doused with olive oil and toasted, then combined with peppery arugula, grassy olives, shavings of aged cheese, and the ever-important artichokes. And how does it taste?

I'll be honest: it still hasn't unseated a simple steamed 'choke as my go-to method. How do you beat lemon-butter? But this panzanella is delicious in its own right -- the interplay of artichokes, bread, greens, cheese and olives yields a dish with a punch of flavor, and is simultaneously light yet substantial. I think its best role would be as a crazy elegant room temperature buffet or potluck contribution, allowing guests to enjoy the beauty of the artichoke without needing to fend off a protective hedge of thorns.

Artichoke Panzanella

adapted from Becks & Posh's adaptation of Annie Somerville's recipe from Everyday Greens, as interpreted by Jessica Lasky at Tante Marie's Cooking School. Whew!

4 artichokes
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
zest of 1 lemon
1 day-old (or older) loaf of rustic artisan-style crusty bread
~1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for artichokes and bread
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar (or a lesser amount of a stronger vinegar)
3/4 cup pitted green olives
1 large bunch arugula, washed and dried
4 oz aged sheep cheese, such as Manchego or Idiazabal, shaved with a vegetable peeler to make nice dramatic shards

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove. Trim the artichokes -- if you haven't done this before, you can find handy tutorials here or here -- and cut into sixths. Toss the hearts in the water, and simmer until the artichokes are just tender (~10 minutes). You can flavor the simmering water with lemon juice, white wine, garlic, peppercorns, etc., but I've never found it makes too much of a difference. When the artichokes are done, drain and toss with the garlic, lemon zest, and ~1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside.

Cut the crust off the bread, and saw into hefty bite-sized cubes. Drizzle with a few tablespoons olive oil, and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the cubes on a baking tray, and place in the preheated oven until crisp and light golden (~10 minutes). Tip from pan into a large bowl.

In a small bowl mix the oil and vinegar with additional salt and pepper, and adjust to your taste. Pour the vinaigrette over the bread cubes, and add the artichoke hearts and olives and toss to combine. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes for the dressing to absorb. Add the arugula and cheese, toss again, and serve.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ordered Pear Pie (aka Pear Frangipane Tart)

Few people know this, but I happen to have been Fox Lane High School's Biology Student of the Year for 1991. It's not a fact I bust out all the time -- I don't want friends to feel inadequate about their own lack of two-decades'-old scientific achievement -- but it represents a small yet significant part of me. I also subscribed to Ranger Rick magazine all through my formative years, and recently took an Anatomy & Physiology class for kicks. Which is all to say that beneath this unassuming exterior beats the heart of a science nerd. So when I heard about the practice of Pi Day, wherein scientists and bakers come together for a deliciously pun-tastic day of pastry on March 14th (Get it - 3.14?), I couldn't resist.

Sandwiched between the heavy pumpkin pies of winter and the first berry tarts of spring, March isn't usually prime pie season. In fact, pretty much the only fruit in season near me is canned fruit. Luckily, I've got that in spades.

And, because I can't leave well enough alone, I needed to add my own groan-inducing science-themed "humor" to the occasion. I dug up a quart of lightly-spiced canned pears from last fall, which led to thoughts about mathematical pairs. Namely, ordered pairs. Last fall I played around with a pear frangipane tart, with a splay of poached pears pinwheeling on top of a cushion of marzipan-like almond frangipane custard. While my pears don't have the standardized mappable coordinates of classic ordered pairs, they do feature a precise fractal-like placement and beauty (at least until the frangipane puffs around them -- you can go with a thicker frangipane or fewer pears if you want the ordered placement to stand out, but I tend to err on the side of tenderness and lots of fruit).

Some sticklers will argue that with its crumbly-not-flaky patee sucre short crust and straight-sided pan, this would be more accurately described as a tart than a pie. But as it's been noted, they are close enough cousins. And Pi Day is not about divisions -- it's about bringing us together around a love of math. And pie.

Pear Frangipane Tart (aka Ordered Pair Pie)

adapted from the Pear and Almond Frangipane Tart in Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From my Home to Yours (is there anything that book can't do?) with further crust-tweaking from Smitten Kitchen

I used a quart of canned pears, probably about 3-4 pears' worth. You can used canned pears, or poach your own using the instructions on
this recipe. Four pears is a pretty pear-heavy dessert -- if you'd like it to be a bit more like a traditional dessert, use two pears, and make half again as much frangipane (otherwise you'll have a gap of empty crust).

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons; 4 1/2 ounces) very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces1 egg

Filling and Finishing:
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup ground almonds
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp flour
1 tsp cornstarch
1 egg + 1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla extract1 1/2 tsp almond extract
~3 canned pears, sliced in whatever fashion you find prettiest

To make the crust:
In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter, and pulse until oatmeal-sized pebbles form. Add the egg, and pulse until it just starts to come together (do not over-mix). Turn the dough into a bowl or lightly-floured work surface, and knead until it finishes coming together and seems uniformly moistened. Shape into a chubby disk, cover in plastic, and chill for ~2 hours.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator, and allow to soften for ~5-10 minutes, until roll-able. Place between sheets of plastic, parchment or waxed paper, and roll out until it forms a circle large enough for your tart pan. Press into a greased pan, and pierce (aka "dock") with a fork in a few places. If your tart pan is metal, throw it in the freezer for half an hour. If your tart pan is ceramic, and you don't want it to shatter from going from freezer to oven, toss it back in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the chilled crust from the freezer or refrigerator. Butter a tart-sized piece of foil, and press it against the crust (no pie weights required, which is good because you probably don't own any). Bake 20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, until the crust is beginning to turn light brown. If any air bubbles form, you can release the air with a fork and push them down. Remove from the oven, and set aside to cool while you prepare the filling.

To make frangipane and finish the pie:

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Combine the butter, sugar, almond meal and salt in a food processor. Pulse to combine. Sprinkle in the flour and cornstarch, pulse, then add the egg and egg white and extracts, and process again until very smooth.

Spread the frangipane gently on the cooled crust, and arrange the pears on top in any fashion you like (ordered or not). Bake until the frangipane puffs and turns golden, and feels firm to the touch, ~45-50 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Baby Shower Cookies (aka Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing)

There comes a time in life when it seems like almost everyone you know is having babies. At first, it kind of floors you every time you hear the news, and you struggle to come up with a gift commensurate to the occasion. In years past, I crafted ornate homemade cards, cooked obscene amounts of food, and stitched patchwork quilts and a stuffed pink satin armadillo. But as more and more friends began to have babies, I realized that keeping up with that sort of gifting protocol could quickly become a second job. I started turning to the gift registry, pairing a cotton onesie with a heartfelt card and calling it a day. For the most part, this seems appropriate. But every now and then, I hear about the pregnancy of a friend who is so dear that the registry just doesn't cut it. I start looking around for a more personal way to share the love. And recently, I hit upon these baby shower cookies.

Having never made gingerbread houses as a kid, I was pretty new to the world of royal icing. This sweet-yet-structural topping combines powdered sugar with egg whites or meringue powder, and is versatile enough to pipe intricate designs yet sturdy enough to be shipped across the country in a pre-baby care package. And it's fun. Arts and crafts such as these are sadly in short supply in adulthood. Although my own journey with these cookies took three attempts (due to some boneheaded mistakes on my part that are too embarrassing to detail, namely refusal to read ingredient listings and refusal to use a timer), they're really not that hard. I piped my royal icing with a pastry cone I taped out of scratch paper, and although the resulting designs are somewhat "rustic," nobody complained. The hardest part of the whole process is the waiting, from chilling the cookies to letting the icing set. It's one of the sweetest ways I've come up with to welcome the good news.

Baby Shower Cookies

Cookies adapted from Martha Stewart's Classic Sugar Cookies, icing and technique from Not So Humble Pie blog, tasteless decoration idea all my own.

yields ~2 dozen cookies, depending on the size

Meringue powder generally requires a trip to a cake or craft shop, but carries less salmonella danger than egg whites, so it's worth seeking out for the pregnant set. It also costs much more than you think powdered egg whites rightfully should, but generally comes in packages that are large enough for several batches. And once you learn how to make these cookies, you might find it hard to stop.

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 lb powdered sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp meringue powder
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp water
splash vanilla, if desired
food coloring

To make the cookies:
Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a mixer with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, mixing until well combined. Add the flour mixture, and stir until the dough comes together. Shape the dough into a chubby disk, cover in plastic or waxed paper, and let chill in the refrigerator until firm (at least an hour, though you can easily let it sit overnight).

When the dough is chilled, remove it from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for a few minutes, until soft enough to roll. Roll out on a floured surface to 1/4" thickness, and cut out your desired shapes (I used a 2.5" round cutter (or, more accurately, glass jar), which yielded cookies that fit perfectly inside a wide-mouth canning pint jar for shipping). Mush together scraps, re-roll and cut again, and repeat until all the dough is used.

Now to freeze the cookies, so that they bake evenly and provide you a smooth, non-domed icing surface: take an 8" brownie pan, line it with plastic, and place a layer of cookies in it. Repeat with more plastic and more cookies, until they're all in. Make sure they're laying flat. Place in the freezer until very firm, least 20 minutes.

While the cookies are chilling, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the frozen cookies on prepared cookie sheets, and bake until the edges are golden, 15-18 minutes. Let cool on racks.

To ice the cookies:
In a mixer with a paddle attachment (a whisk incorporates too much air), beat together the powdered sugar, meringue powder, water and vanilla for 5 minutes. Divide the icing into bowls, and tint with food coloring until it reaches your desired shade. Add additional water until it reaches the desired consistency: if you lift up the icing and let it drizzle back from a spoon, it should be firm enough that it holds the shape of the drizzle for at least 5 seconds, but liquid enough that it's totally disappeared by 10 seconds.

To ice cookies, you probably want to look at some good tutorials, such as this or this, and pipe a few practice designs on a plate before you attack the cookies. But basically, you want to put your icing into a pastry bag/makeshift paper cone, and pipe out the outline on your cookie. Let this dry for 10 minutes, and then add a bit more water to thin your icing so that you can "flood" the cookie inside the outline with some spooned-in thinned icing. Neat! You might need to poke the icing with a toothpick or skewer to guide it to the very edge of your outline. Let this base layer dry another 10 minutes.

Using another pastry bag/paper cone, pipe on decorations as you choose. If you're using multiple colors next to each other, allow another 10 minute drying session in between colors, so that they don't bleed. Allow the finished cookies to dry for several hours, preferably overnight, then pack them in a tin and send them on their way.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Tom Kha (Thai Hot & Sour Coconut Milk Soup)

I'm generally something of a wuss when it comes to chili-spiced food. I like complex seasonings, sure. But too much heat, and I start to break a sweat and grab for the water glass (I've heard that dairy is a better foil for the volatile oils, but water's usually closer). I think there might be an actual physiological component to my wussiness, as my lips often redden and swell to pouty bee-stung proportions. Whatever the reason, I'm not one to prove my machismo when it comes to chili-eating. But there are some exceptions.

Well, maybe one exception: tom kha soup. This Thai recipe is a ridiculously herbal-fragrant hot-sour soup, with a coconut milk background. It's sour from lime juice, sweet and creamy from coconut milk, salty and pungent with fish sauce, and piquant with lemongrass, galanga root and lime leaves. And in addition to that, it's spicy. Breaking-a-sweat spicy, cutting-through-congestion spicy. Somehow, in this context, I can't get enough. (A big scoop of rice to balance this out doesn't hurt either.)

The chili heat I use in this soup is Nam Prik Pao, a sweet and spicy paste made with dried pods that are toasted, soaked, and blended with ingredients like garlic, shallots, and dried shrimp. It can be so intense that neighbors called the cops on a London Thai joint that was cooking up a batch, mistaking the chili fumes for a chemical attack. Seriously. But in Tom Kha, it's well balanced by the other ingredients. If you don't have Nam Prik Pao, you can substitute some red Thai curry paste, or other asian chili paste, to good effect. The most distinctive element of the soup's taste comes from the galanga root, an Asian rhizome with a difficult-to-describe lemon-ginger-piney flavor. You can substitute standard ginger, but this one's worth seeking out.

I realize that this recipe may seem somewhat daunting: the ingredients are unfamiliar to many cooks, and the amounts are very imprecise. But these obstacles can be easily overcome. The galanga root, lime leaves, and lemongrass can be easily found at most Asian markets, and can be stored in your freezer until you make the soup again (and you will want to make it again). As for the amounts called for, you're going to want to play around with these to your taste. Chili pastes vary in heat levels, just as individual palates vary in heat acceptance. Some love the funk of fish sauce (me!), while others might just want a salty whiff. As a general rule, I find that the final seasoning of lime juice/fish sauce/chili paste should be tinkered with delicately, tasting as you go. But as for the lime leaves, galanga, and lemongrass that form the basis of the broth? Those are pretty much impossible to overdo.

Tom Kha

adapted from a combination of several sources, including the Tom Kha Goong from The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook blog, the Tom Kha Gai from Chez Pim, and a recipe from a Minneapolis restaurant I learned many years ago at the Carleton College Tofu Festival

serves 6

4 cups stock (vegetable or shrimp)
1 large handful kaffir lime leaves
4" chunk galanga root, hacked into thick slices if possible
4 stalks lemongrass, peeled of tough outer layers, cut into chunks and whacked with knife to bruise
1 can coconut milk
juice of 2-3 limes
2-4 Tbsp fish sauce
1-4 Tbsp Thai roasted chili paste (Nam Prik Pao), or other Thai chili paste or red curry paste
1 pinch-1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced in halves or quarters, depending upon size
1/2 head cauliflower, broken into florets
2 small broccoli crowns, broken into florets
3 shallots or 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, if it's the season
1 large handful mint leaves (optional, but nice)
1 lb shrimp, peeled
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, coarsley chopped

rice for serving (preferably sticky rice or jasmine rice)

In a large soup pot, combine the stock with the lime leaves, galanga root, and lemongrass. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until it's just enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes to infuse the broth with the flavorings.

After 30 minutes, pour in the can of coconut milk. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, chili paste, and sugar, starting with the smaller amounts and tasting until you like the balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors. The soup will be served with rice, so you can go a little heavier with the heat than you might otherwise. Add the mushrooms, cauliflower, and broccoli, and simmer for a couple of minutes, until a little shy of tender-crisp. Add the shallots or red onion, tomatoes (if using), and mint leaves, simmering another minute or two until the vegetables are just shy of done. Add the shrimp, and cook another minute until pink (they'll continue to cook in the residual heat, so err on the side of underdone). Turn off the heat.

Taste again to finally adjust the seasonings, add more lime juice, fish sauce or chili paste if needed. The inedible lime leaves, galanga root and lemongrass can be fished out, or left in to further infuse (just make sure diners know to set them aside as they eat). Serve in bowls with rice, topped with the fresh cilantro.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Red Lentil Walnut Burgers

When I look back on my college days, there are many things that I can't help but miss. The lack of responsibility, for one, when your only real job is to learn (well, also to scrub trays in the dining halls, and babysit local children who laugh at your hair, but I've tried to forget most of that). There's the sense of potential and common purpose, and the sweet delaying of adult decisions. But more than anything else, there's this: dozens and dozens of friends, many of them living right down the hall. You don't even need to put on shoes. If I had known how rare that was in the grown-up world, I might never have left.

In the grown-up world, friendships can be a bit more difficult. Your nearest and dearest are often busy with their own work woes and family obligations, and at best might live on the other side of the neighborhood (at worst, the other side of the world). So I know how lucky I am to say this: the only thing separating me from some of my favorite people in town is a shared driveway.

It took us a while to broach the usual neighborly anonymity. But our kitchen windows face each other, and lord knows I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. If you're doing dishes, it's impossible not to be staring into the facing window. So after several weeks of watching each other prepare separate meals, we proposed sharing dinners. Which has further developed into sharing living-room happy hours, next-door grocery runs, and a rudimentary through-the-window sign language (mostly used to gauge whether or not to shake up an additional cocktail). On the sad sad day when we're no longer living in slipper-wearing distance of each other, I'll have many fond memories to look back on. And I'll have the recipe for red lentil walnut burgers.

My neighbor happened upon this recipe several months ago, and it entered her regular rotation after a bit of tweaking (swapping oatmeal for breadcrumbs, and red lentils for brown). These healthy patties freeze wonderfully, and we both regularly make double batches to have on-hand. The spicing yields a flavor reminiscent of falafel, but with less grease and a smoother texture. We've crumbled them in pita bread with tahini, and topped them with kraut and russian dressing like a reuben (as well as enjoying them with traditional burger condiments). The combination of lentils, oats and walnuts makes them especially heart-healthy. Of course, I'd take a stellar neighbor over a delicious vegetarian burger any day of the week. But for now, I get to enjoy both.

Red Lentil Walnut Burgers

adapted from PBS's Everyday Food

yields 4 burgers

These patties reheat wonderfully, but not in the microwave for some reason (which tends to dry them out in a strange and unappetizing way). Allot a bit of extra time to warm and crisp up leftovers in a skillet or toaster oven.

3/4 cup red lentils
3/4 cup toasted walnuts, cooled
1/2-1 cup rolled oats
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 - 1/2 tsp chili flakes
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large egg
2-3 Tbsp oil for frying

Rinse the lentils, and place them in a pot with 1 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook until tender, ~20-30 minutes. Check every now and then, adding more water if needed. Let cool.

In a food processor, combine the cooked and cooled lentils, walnuts, oats (start with the smaller amount), garlic, cumin, coriander, chili flakes, salt, olive oil, and egg. Pulse until combined but not totally mushed (having little chunks of walnuts and oats will make the texture more interesting). Turn out into a bowl, and knead for a moment to evenly distribute the ingredients. Let sit ~5 minutes for the oats to absorbthe moisture. Divide into 4 pieces, and shape into patties that are about 3/4" thick. If the mixture is too moist to shape (it should be fairly moist, but not ridiculously so), add additional oats, waiting 5 minutes after each addition.

Heat a few tablespoons oil over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Add the burgers. Cook until crisp and browned, 8-10 minutes per side. The burgers will be very delicate while warm, so turn gently (they'll firm up a bit as they cool). Serve with the condiments of your choice.