Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hot Toddy

There's a picture of me at age one or so, sitting in the middle of a bucolic field, wearing adorable footed pajamas, and screaming my head off. We had taken a family trip to a local educational farm, where in addition to viewing the antique harvesters and free-ranging chickens, you could purchase bottles to feed to the wet-eyed baby goats and cows and such. But when I saw those bottles, chocked full of Purina Instant Goat Formula, I wanted them for my very own, and no amount of logic could convince me that they weren't for human consumption. Screaming ensued.

My parents were undoubtedly trying to protect me from some species-jumping zoonotic virus and the like, but they were also protecting me from this sad fact of life: often the things you covet end up not being what you'd thought they'd be at all. As any kid who has chomped a square of baking chocolate can attest, this is one of the disappointing realities of growing up.

I experience this same oh-I-thought-this-would-be-much-better wash of disappointment whenever I drink mulled wine. It promises toasty happiness, a boozy warm blanket on cold days. But instead, it often delivers a heavy, overly-sweetened and overly-seasoned concoction, too cloying to enjoy. I'm someone who normally lightens up my sweet sangria with a good splash of something bubbly to cut through, so I suppose it's no surprise that mulled wine is often a let-down for me. I much prefer a hot toddy.

Toddies take many forms, but my favorite is simple cup of weak tea, brightened up with lashings of lemon and ginger, sweetened (but not too much) with a bit of honey, and spiked with a shot of bourbon. It's barely a recipe at all, but is one of the most satisfying ways to warm up (and slow down) on cold days. The grown-up world has its disappointments, sure. But man does it have its benefits.

Hot Toddy

yields 2

1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 bag black tea (use decaf if your constitution requires)
1/2" ginger, scrubbed and sliced into thin coins
1 lemon
1-2 tsp honey, or to taste
2 shots bourbon (rum is also fine, if you prefer it)

Set the teabag and ginger in a container with the hot water and let steep. While steeping, juice the lemon (reserving a couple slices for garnish if desired). Add the lemon juice and honey to taste. Remove the teabag, and divide the liquid between two cups. Add a shot of bourbon to each, stir and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vegetarian Wontons

There are days, especially when deadlines are piling up, that I try to minimize my kitchen time. I give myself license to get take-out burritos, eat insta-meals, or thaw a container of soup that I tucked in the freezer and forgot months ago (hello, borscht!). And then, when deadlines have been dealt with, I return to my kitchen with a vengeance. I forgo take-out burritos for handmade tortillas. I make a full batch of chocolate chip peanut butter oatmeal cookies (and eat a frightening amount of dough in the process). And I fill my freezer with vegetarian wontons.

It's always so nice to welcome back a food you thought was gone forever. Take-out Chinese food was a part of our regular dinner rotation when I was growing up, as it is for many New Yorkers. Greasy lo-mein noodles, gooey shrimp in lobster sauce, and countless cardboard containers of wonton soup. I loved wonton soup as a kid -- just a simple broth, with maybe a chunk of pork or sprinkling of scallions for accent, and then the slippery, savory dumplings -- and reluctantly said goodbye when I went vegetarian. But recently, with a package of wonton wrappers and a free evening to reconnect with my kitchen, I came up with a vegetarian version that brings back all those delicious memories.

These dumplings do take some effort, but with pre-made wrappers and an uncooked filling, they're definitely a bit easier than others of their species. The protein of your choice (I favor a chicken-style patty) is ground up, and given savory heft from soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine. Minced water chestnuts provide crunch (the few that I managed to not eat right out of the tin), and scallions, ginger and cilantro provide a bit of spark. As an added bonus, they freeze (uncooked) beautifully, and can be stashed away as an insta-meal for those days when you are, sadly, separated from your kitchen. Although with a freezer full of these dumplings, you really won't miss cooking much at all.

And speaking of things that have kept me from the kitchen, here's a recent article about all the many delicious savory dishes you can make from jam. I spent an afternoon with the amazing Marisa from Food in Jars, hearing about many of her delicious recipes, and sharing some of my own. If your jam-filled pantry looks anything like mine, I recommend checking it out.

Vegetarian Wontons

adapted from numerous sources and my memories of Ho Yen restaurant
yields ~4-5 dozen wontons

8 ounces faux meat (preferably chicken-style or pork-style), roughly chopped
2 stalks scallions, finely minced
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sesame oil
pinch sugar
~2 Tbsp water chestnuts, finely minced
1 handful cilantro, finely minced
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2" minced ginger
2 Tbsp xiaoxing rice wine or sherry

1 package wonton wrappers
broth for servings
1 scallion sliced, and a handful spinach, washed and chopped (optional)

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and heat up broth for serving. Add spinach to broth if desired.

Place the faux meat in a food processor, and pulse until it is reduced to small bits. Turn out into a bowl, and add the remaining filling ingredients. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed (different proteins come with different seasonings, so feel free to tweak to best season your wontons).

Open the package of wrappers, covering with a dishtowel when not using (they can dry out quickly). Grab a small dish of water with a pinch of cornstarch, and lay out a few wrappers on your work surface. Place a scant tablespoon of filling in the center of each one, and moisten the edges with your cornstarch water. Fold each wonton in half to form a triangle, pinching or pressing the edges so that they seal. If desired, take the edges of the smaller corners of the triangle, and pinch together to join. Repeat until you've formed all of your wontons. Make sure your work surface remains relatively dry, so that you don't accidentally glue down your wontons. If you would like to freeze any wontons, place a plate of them in the freezer at this stage. When par-frozen, move to a sealed container.

When your wontons are shaped, place a batch of them in the boiling water and simmer, gently, until they rise to the surface and the wrapper is cooked (it should only take a few minutes). Remove with a skimmer or slotted spoon, and repeat until they are all cooked. To serve, place a few wontons in a bowl, add the broth, and top with a few scallions.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Basic Bran Muffins

Pity the poor bran muffin. Bakers often seem to assume it is the breakfast choice of the penitent, eaten solely as fiber delivery system. Even my beloved childhood bakery came up with a barely palatable fat-free version, composed of various whole grains shellacked together with a slurry of egg whites and honey. I was reminded of it the other day when I accidentally left the remains of a pot of hot cereal on the counter and it crusted over.

But these bran muffins, they are lovely. They take into account that you want toothsome whole grains (especially to counterbalance, say, the refried beans, cheese and guacamole that are also on your breakfast table), and have an almost nutty depth of flavor. But they're also moist and light. The molasses and honey add sweetness and depth, and the nutmeg, orange rind and buttermilk add flavorful notes to lighten up all that brown. I sometimes grate in a few carrots or an apple, or stud them with nuts and seeds if I've got em, but they're nice enough on their own. Especially with a nice spread of butter -- like I said, it's all about balance.

Bran Muffins

inspired by The New Laurel's Kitchen, but tweaked beyond recognition over the years
yields 12 large muffins

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup wheat bran
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 1/3 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp grated orange rind (optional)
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup molasses

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and grease or line 12 muffin cups.

Sift together the flour, bran, salt, soda and nutmeg in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, orange rind (if using), eggs, oil, honey and molasses until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dries, and mix until just combined -- do not over-mix. Divide among the muffin cups (they will be fairly full), and bake until a tester comes out clean, ~20-30 minutes.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Gluten-Free Pierogies

When you tell stories (fiction or nonfiction), the narrative you end up with can be vastly different than the one you thought you were going to tell. A while back I heard about a Ukrainian church here in Portland that sells handmade pierogies, and figured it might make for a good radio/print piece. The Pacific Northwest became a hub for Soviet evangelical immigration when Gorbachev let religious minorities out of the country in the 1980s, so I figured I'd find a bunch of old grandmothers making dumplings. Maybe I'd find a few young people learning the traditional foodways, or maybe I'd just profile the last vestiges of a disappearing art.

Instead, I found a basement full of people of all ages. Men and women made dough and shaped pierogies, and even the littlest kids proudly carried out salt and pepper shakers. This wasn't just a bunch of grandmothers talking about the old country. It was a mix of new and old immigrants, all having a ridiculous amount of fun. It was a community coming together, around a living, evolving recipe. It can be so nice to be surprised. (If you'd like to hear the NPR story itself, you can find it here, and I'll link to The Oregonian's longer print story when it runs next week.)

After my story ran, I heard from an old housemate who wanted to try his hand at making pierogies. Gluten-free pierogies. How could I say no? We found a pasta recipe Gluten-Free Girl was kind enough to share with the internet (thanks, Epicurious!), upped it by half in order to make an army of dumplings, and prepared the church's filling recipe. And oh, were they good. Perhaps a new gluten-free tradition has been born (one that evidently makes us so excited we only manage one blurry phone shot before devouring -- sorry there).

Gluten-Free Pierogies

dough adapted from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, filling adapted from St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church
yields ~50 small pierogies, or fewer larger ones

As with most gluten-free recipes, measuring by weight is preferable if you can swing it.

1 cup (3.75 oz) corn flour or sorghum
3/4 cup (3.75 oz) quinoa flour
3/4 cup (3.25 oz) potato starch
1 Tbsp xanthan gum
1 1/2 tsp guar gum
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
6 egg yolks

2 Tbsp neutral oil
2 onions, chopped (1 for filling, 1 for topping)
1 1/2 lb russet potatoes
1/2 cup grated cheddar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

To Finish:
sour cream

To make the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet over a low flame. Sauté the onions in the oil until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. While the onions are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Cook potatoes in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until quite tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and mash until smooth. Mix in half the caramelized onions (set aside the other half) and the cheddar cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Cover and keep the filling refrigerated until you are ready to fill your pierogie (can be prepared the night before).

To make the dough: Mix together all of the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the eggs and yolks, and mix until the it forms a cohesive, firm dough. This should take a few minutes. If it doesn't come together, add an additional egg yolk. The resulting dough will be firm but easily moldable.

To finish the pierogies: Set a pot of salted water to boil over the stove. Pinch off a small amount of dough, and cover the rest so that it doesn't dry out. On a gf flour-dusted counter, roll the dough as thin as you can, about 1/8" or thinner (alternately, you can feed this through a pasta machine). If you favor traditional small pierogies, cut out circles with a 2" cutter. If you are lazier (like me), a slightly larger cutter works fine as well. Pull up the dough scraps, mold them together, and set aside with the remaining dough. Place a small amount of filling in the center of the circle, ~1 tsp for a 2" circle. Moisten the edges of the circle with a bit of water, fold in half, and crimp closed with a fork. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

As the batches of pierogies are finished (or at the end, if you're working solo), drop them gently into the boiling water, and simmer until done, ~8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or skimmer, and toss with a bit of butter to keep them from drying out.

To serve, take your reserved caramelized onions, and add a few tablespoons of water. Bring up to a boil for a minute or so, to soften the onions and make them saucy. Serve the pierogies topped with the caramelized onions and a good blob of sour cream.