Thursday, January 26, 2012

Saag Paneer

It's hard to count how many of my meals begin with a browned onion. Half of them? The dicing, crying and sauteeing is the standard first step down the path of most of my dinners, especially in these chilly winter days of comfort food. When I think of a good hearty meal, I grab for the drawer full of papery skins.

But recently I brought dinner for some friends with a ridiculously adorable new baby. They set up a delivery calendar on one of those handy websites, which also let them detail their dietary preferences and restrictions (and, smartly, see what other people are bringing, thus avoiding the dreaded all-lasagna maternity leave). My friends are vegetarian, and listed a love of Indian food. And an allergy to onions and peppers.

While onion allergies are thankfully rare, a temporary avoidance is not that uncommon in new parents (some of whom find that the allium family gives their babies gas). But thankfully, there's actually a long tradition of onion-free cooking in Indian cuisine, thanks to some religious prohibitions I don't fully understand. Which meant that I could easily find a onion-free inspiration for saag paneer.

This dish -- cubes of mild white cheese in a creamy, delicately seasoned spinach sauce -- is my go-to order in any Indian restaurants. Even when I try to branch out, I keep coming back to it. It's just that good. And it's great for new parents, giving a shot of the healthy green vegetables, protein and calcium that new mommas need, along with the richness and delicious flavor that under-slept bodies crave. I also upped its parent-friendly quotient (and flavor) with some fenugreek, an herb said to help with breastfeeding. I know this picture looks kinda muddy (I was running out the door to make my delivery), but it tasted great. Even if you have the good fortune to enjoy onions, you should give this version a try.

Saag Paneer (for new moms)

adapted from several sources, most notably Manjula's Kitchen
serves ~6, or more as part of a larger spread

2 Tbsp high-heat oil, such as coconut or grapeseed
12 ounces paneer, cut into cubes or triangles (large pieces make for a more dramatic presentation, but smaller pieces may be easier to eat)
1 tsp cumin seeds
large pinch asafoetida*
1 Tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp chili powder (I omitted for my pepper-free friend)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 cups tomato puree
1" ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp coarse salt
2 bunches spinach, washed and finely chopped (you can pulse in a food processor)
2 Tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (optional -- available at Indian groceries)
1 half bunch cilantro, divided, washed and finely chopped
2 Tbsp flour
1 cup half-and-half or cream

Heat a pan over a medium-high heat, and add the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the paneer cubes, and fry for a few minutes until they just begin to color, then flip and brown the other side. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the cumin seeds, asafoetida, coriander, and chili powder to the pan, and fry for a half minute or so to toast (the cumin seeds should darken). Add the turmeric, tomato puree, ginger and salt (the tomato puree will probably sputter and spit, so step back a bit), stirring to combine. Cook for a few minutes, until the tomato puree reduces somewhat.

When the mixture has cooked down a bit, ad the spinach, fenugreek leaves, and half of the cilantro. Let the mixture come to something of a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and let cook for ~25 minutes (you can cook for less time if you're in a hurry, but the long-cooked approach leads to a nice creamy result). Stir occasionally, and add liquid if it dries out.

When the mixture has cooked down, stir together the flour with a bit of the cream or half-and-half to make a paste, then whisk in the remainder of the cup. Stir this mixture into the spinach, and let simmer for a few minutes, until the dish thickens and comes together. Add the reserved paneer cubes, and let heat through. Taste to adjust seasonings, and serve, topped with remaining cilantro.

* asafoetida is a funky-smelling resin available at Indian groceries -- just a small pinches adds a great savory bass note to Indian dishes, especially those without onions and garlic.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 44 Cordial

When I was young, I had piles of books. Given my lifelong literature consumption, this should be no surprise. But it wasn't just the usual kiddie lit -- there were all sorts of practical how-to guides, science manuals, craft instructions, and the like. I had a book about evolution that, in addition to detailing the living fossils growing on every forest floor, explained how to pan-fry puffballs for dinner (I don't think I ever did). I had kid-centered almanacs that have made me a fount of useless knowledge (although quite useful on trivia teams), and volumes of experiments leading me to set up balloon-taped-to-straw ziplines criss-crossing my room, and even, thrillingly, set a cylinder of tissue paper on fire and watch its ashes rise, ghostlike, towards the ceiling (sometimes, terrifyingly, still aflame -- thanks, Dad!). Often I tend to live in my head, and forget how much fun these sorts of projects can be. Like making a 44 cordial.

To an extent, all cooking is an experiment, a transformation of ingredients into a new whole. But making a 44 cordial really makes you feel like a kid again, holding your breath and sticking out your tongue slightly as you navigate the blunt-ended scissors. It reminds me of those pomander projects kids can diligently labor over for hours, pushing dozens and dozens of cloves through the thick skin of an orange. Except here, instead of studding an orange with cloves, you use 44 coffee beans. And then, to take the project into the grown-up realm, you submerge it into a jar of booze. You sweeten it up with sugar (44 teaspoons), and let it sit for 44 days, enough time for the flavors to infuse, age and soften.

Most versions of the 44 cordial seem to use rum, although there are variations with vodka or grain alcohol. The coffee beans can be bolstered with a vanilla bean, or swapped out (partially or entirely) for cacao beans. I've seen this concoction credited to Madagascar (which, given its delicious coffee, vanilla and chocolate, would make any of these variations credible), though it's also similar to France's vin d'orange.

I realize that it's a bit dangerous to post a recipe before I've had a chance to fully appreciate the finished product, but I wanted to tip folks off while citrus season is in full swing. And, as with any hands-on experiment, it piques the curiosity. Do the acids inside the orange do something to the coffee beans? Would the result be as good if you just stabbed the orange a few times to release the oils and expose its innards, and then just tossed the coffee beans alongside? I suppose I could do a side-by-side comparison and see. But, given the type of all-too-grown-up week I've had, I'm happy to just sit back, meditatively poke a bunch of coffee beans inside an orange, and dream of the boozy sweetness to come.

The 44 Cordial

traditional, as per various sources

This yields a strongly-flavored apertif -- you can sip it on its own, or use it as an element in building ridiculous cocktails. It also makes for a great gift. 

1 orange
44 coffee beans
44 teaspoons sugar (aka a scant cup)
4 cups light rum

Taking a paring knife, make 44 small stabs into the orange, and slip the coffee beans inside (they should stud the skin, making it look like it has some sort of pox). Marvel at how fun it is. Then place the coffee-studded orange in a large jar, and add the sugar and the rum. Let age in a cool, dark place, swirling occasionally, for 44 days.

When it has aged, discard the boozy coffee orange, and strain the liqueur through a cheesecloth. You can enjoy right away, chilled or at room temperature (although, like all good booze, it will improve with age).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cocas (Catalonian Flatbread)

Most of my photography depends upon natural light. Yeah, I know that to some extent that's true for everybody -- it's hard to capture sun-dappled beauty without it. But the window is a little narrower for me. My house is particularly dark, as is my city of Portland. Every now and then I flirt with purchasing some sort of light setup to extend my photograph-able hours, but laziness and thrift have kept me from it. For the most part, I time my wintertime cooking around the last of the natural light, or nudge the leftovers back into a semblance of deliciousness the next time the sun rises. But that all falls to pieces when it comes to drinks.

See, it's hard for me to mix up a cocktail without drinking it. And it's hard for me to drink a cocktail during daylight hours, since they end around 4:45 pm these days (well, to be fair, it's actually kind of easy for me to drink a cocktail then -- it just tends to wreak havoc on the rest of my day). For the record, I have been drinking, and fairly deliciously at that (there's a gin-pomegranate-mint cocktail that I promise I'll photograph and post one of these days). But since the drink photography is lagging behind, I'll leave you with pictures of the next best thing: drinking snacks.

I make no secret of my fondness for cocktail party nibbles, nor of my position that they make a perfectly respectable (and awesome) dinner choice. And my current favorite in this genre is the coca. Cocas are Catalonia's answer to pizza, a flatbread (usually cheese-free) topped with all manner of Iberian delicacies. I pulled together a few of the most delicious examples for a recent story -- you can find recipes and a bit of backstory over at NPR's Kitchen Window. They're great, whether or not you've got a glass of vino in hand. Salud!

Monday, January 09, 2012

Miso-Creamed Kale

Everywhere you look these days, people are talking about New Year's cleanses and diets, about atoning for holiday indulgences with dark green leafy vegetables. And so, in a nod to the season, I present to you some kale. It's wholly delicious, softened into a savory-salty bath of cream, butter and booze. What? Was that not the point?

So yeah, this might not make any low-cal diet lists. But oh is it delicious. It packs an umami wallop, with miso, shallots, booze, and garlic, and some soy-bathed mushrooms. And then there's the butter and cream, which bring everything together into a luxurious whole. The green fustiness of kale stands up to these flavors, but is enriched and softened. It's like kale's turn as a steakhouse side dish (well, an Asian-inspired steakhouse).

Sure, the new year can be about resolutions and deprivation, about making up for what you did wrong in the past. But it can also be about celebration, raising a glass to all of the good things we have around us. Like kale. And cream.

Miso-Creamed Kale

adapted from Portland's Wafu, via Mix Magazine
serves 2 (they claim 4, but who are we kidding)

3 Tbsp butter
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bunch lacinato kale, stems removed (or left on, if you don't mind), and roughly chopped
1/4 cups shimeji mushrooms with stems, or shiitake mushrooms
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 cup dry vermouth (I subbed sherry)
1/2 cup heavy cream (or, if you'd prefer, half and half)
1/4 cup white miso (this is a mellow miso, so if you have a dark miso, use less)
freshly-ground black pepper

Melt 2 Tbsp of the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan or pot over a medium heat, then add the shallot and garlic. Cook until soft but not colored, ~3-4 minutes. Add the kale, and cook a few more minutes until wilted.

Meanwhile, set a skillet over a medium-high heat, and melt the remaining tablespoon of butter. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened and colored, ~5-7 minutes (I favor leaving them in one place until they brown, then turning, but feel free to use a better method). When they're almost done, sprinkle on the soy sauce, stir to combine, let cook another minute and then turn off the heat.

When the kale has softened, turn up the heat to medium-high, and add the vermouth. Cook until it evaporates (~1-2 minutes). Add the cream and miso, stirring until the miso has broken up and everything is well mixed. Cook for a minute or two, until the mixture reduces slightly and clings to the kale. Season to taste with pepper, then transfer to a serving dish and top with the mushrooms. Serve.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Raspberry Rosewater Ginger Smoothie

What is it about saying the word "smoothie" that leaves me somewhat embarrassed? I'm not sure whether it's the preciousness of the contrived word, or its mainstream health fad connotations, or something else. But for some reason, I have trouble talking about them. Which is a shame, because they're delicious.

The smoothie can take many forms, most often gaining some milkshake-like body through the use of a ripe banana. But as an avowed banana-hater (several decades and counting), I just can't take that route. So instead I base my smoothies in yogurt and fruit.

This time of year, the fruit pickings are somewhat slim (beyond citrus), so I used some frozen raspberries I found at the farmer's market. I sweetened things up with a touch of maple syrup (because, remember, smoothies are "healthy"), and gave it a bit of freshness with grated ginger and a splash of rosewater (the latter is optional, but adds a nice, clean lightness). Then just a bit of milk for consistency, and (if you choose) ice for slushy fun -- it comes together to make a cleanly refreshing drink that you can be proud of.

Raspberry Rosewater Ginger Smoothie

yields 2 large servings (~3-4 cups total)

2 cups yogurt
1/2 cup frozen raspberries
3 Tbsp maple syrup
1/2" knob ginger, grated
1/2 tsp rosewater
1/4 cup milk
handful ice cubes (optional)

Add all of the ingredients except for the ice cubes to a blender, and blitz until well-combined. Taste, and adjust flavorings as desired. Add the ice cubes (if using), and blend to combine. Enjoy cold.