Monthly ArchiveFebruary 2007
Seasonal Cooking 11 Feb 2007 02:01 pm
I went out on a limb for this dish. I had to defy a long-standing tenant, always accepted as truth in my kitchen: french-fries are never good the next day. No method of re-warming them will work. Steamed, baked, panfried, or microwaved, they come out with a flavor like library paste and a texture like chalk soaked in milk-of-magnesia.
But I had to try, because these weren’t just ordinary fries. They were chili cheese fries from a neighborhood favorite, the late night burger joint Schnäck. The fries were too plentiful to eat all of last night, and too yummy to throw away today, so I had to try. I had to make something out of the mass of cheese, beef, potatoes, beans and spicy goodness stowed in a Styrofoam clamshell in my fridge. I’ve always been a big fan of the chili omelet, and of course nothing goes better with potatoes than eggs (ok everything goes well with potatoes, but give me a little dramatic license, ok?) – so I knew how I would salvage these fries: I would invent the Chili Cheese Fries Frittata.
Could I flout the rule that rewarmed fries will always suck? The challenge was doubled because I had to warm not just the fries, but the whole, solid mass of potatoes chili and cheese, and in such a way that the fries would heat up while the cheese stayed intact and didn’t bubble away into nothing. I started with a thin layer of oil in a large non-stick skillet over relatively high heat (medium high, but a high medium high). I broke up the mass with a fork just a bit, so that as many of the fries would have contact with the skillet as possible. I shook this gently from time to time until the fries were good and warmed – but the chili and cheese, still mostly on top, were still relatively cool. To heat the top layers, I turned the heat down and put on a lid, baking the chili and cheese in the heat inside the pan. I didn’t add any liquid but I knew that with the lid on there would still be enough steam that the fries would never get crispy. That was ok though: it was a better tradeoff than pan-frying the cheese to death, and the fries would soon be soaked in egg, where a bit of mushiness might be ok.
Now I turned my thoughts to the egg. I wanted a deep frittata, with egg soaking through and cooking into the layers of fries and chili. So I broke 4 eggs into a bowl, added salt and pepper and a gave them quick toss with a fork, and poured this into a smaller (8 inch) skillet in which a teaspoon or two of olive oil had been heated. As the bottom began to set, I lifted the edges to let some of the uncooked egg flow underneath. I left plenty of liquidy uncooked egg on top, though, for the next step: lifting the skillet of fries off of the flame, I slid the leftovers out and into the egg. The potatoes needed to be good and hot, because I wanted their heat to do some of the work of cooking the top layer of the egg. I gently pressed them down into the egg as they did so.
To make sure the egg was all cooked and the top was heated, I gave the frittata a very quick run under the broiler. I let it rest for just a minute to set up , then slid it onto a board and cut it into wedges. Now came the moment of truth: had I broken the next-day french-fry barrier? Had I created an edible dish from leftover fries? I raised a bite to my lips.. I bit.. I tasted… chalk. Library paste. Milk of magnesia. The fries stayed true to their nature and would not be reheated. Overall the frittata was not so bad and made a decent breakfast, but the creation was far from a triumph. The rule stands: French fries, like seafood, are good only near their source.
Seasonal Cooking 06 Feb 2007 10:50 pm
Home by myself on a Sunday with my death of cold. Coughing, snuffling, feeling very sorry for myself, I could think of only one thing: chicken stew. Peppery, floury, spiked with herbs and topped with – yes – dumplings. How does such a creation come about? I consulted a stack of my most reliable cookbooks for an old fashioned recipe. I combed Google and Epicurious and found many variations on the theme, but none matched the food in my mind: no tomato, no cilantro, no garbanzos in this stew, just silky, buttery white gravy and puffy dumplings.
Finally, that most reliable of old friends, the Joy of Cooking (’97 edition if you want to know) came through for me with the strange word: “fricassee.” Joy doesn’t explain much about this word, but the sparse description was enough: “chicken braised in liquid that becomes a flavorful sauce or gravy, which can be thickened with flour.” I was already convinced, but then my eye moved down the page to the next recipe, a brief extension of the fricassee, and I knew I’d found what I was looking for: chicken and dumplings.
The dish starts with heresy to the diet-conscious: browning the salted and peppered chicken pieces in butter. I did it in two batches, in a cast-iron Dutch oven, until they’d all gotten a golden tan on their skins and the fat in the pan smelled like love. Into the love went chopped onion, carrot and celery, and after this had sautéed, some sliced mushrooms. This was all coated with some all-purpose flour, (in my only variation from the recipe, I sautéed all the veggies before adding the flour), and topped with hot water and stock, salt and lots of pepper (on the advice of the proprietor of Two for the Pot, I used Malabar black pepper, which he claimed is best for soups and stews). The chicken pieces went back into the liquid, the cover went on, and the glorious dish was left to simmer for half an hour.
The dumplings were simply butter cut into a mixture of corn meal, flour, baking powder and salt (which I embellished with chopped parseley), moistened with milk and egg. They were spooned into the fricassee liquid (after its half-hour simmer was done and the surface was de-greased) and left to steam with the lid on for another 20 minutes. They puffed up like pillows.
It would be hard to hyperbolize about this dish, but the way the chicken fell from the bones into the floury gravy was a happy site to see. Yes, it was full of butter and starched with white flour, but I defy anyone to tell me something this delicious can really be bad for me. In this age of hydrogenated, processed plasti-food, this seemed pretty damn healthy to me. In fact when I make it next time I’ll look into making the dumplings with lard.
Seasonal Cooking 04 Feb 2007 02:49 pm
Success #2 from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking cookbook. These pancakes were amazingly light for an entirely whole-grain concoction (I opted for the variation in which the egg whites are whipped separately, beating them until they were just starting to firm up), and with the addition of orange zest (a bit more than the recipe called for), plenty flavorful as well.
I ate mine with chopped apple, toasted walnuts, plain yogurt and a drizzle of maple syrup.
I baked them one at a time on my old (as in it used to belong to my grandmother) largest cast iron skillet, and I was skeptical at the book’s instruction to simply brush the pan with oil. True enough though, these cakes didn’t stick a bit, and by the end I was regretting my precaution of re-oiling the pan between each cake — especially since i was using butter, which threw nasty smoke as soon as it hit the hot pan. Next time I’ll try no oil between cakes, or at least use canola oil.
The three cakes I have left (I made 4 large ones instead of the dozen tiny ones specified in the book) will go into the freezer, and I hope they’ll make a quick workday morning breakfast. Tomorrow I’ll put one into a warm oven while I shower, and see whether it emerges anywhere as light and tasty as it was today.
Seasonal Cooking 04 Feb 2007 12:16 pm
Several weeks ago, when I hunted up recipes for this dish, I was (and honestly still am), clueless about Indian cuisine, with very little understanding of its techniques, regional differences and terminology. “Saag paneer” I knew as a favorite from Indian restaurant restaurants, and ‘paneer’ I knew as the cheese in this dish, so I assumed that “saag” must be the spinach. So, when I googled recipes for this dish, I was puzzled to find two recipes with different names – from the same source – that seemed to make roughly the same thing. Why the different names for the same dish? What is the difference really between Saag Paneer and Palak Paneer?
To find out, I turned again to Google, and the internet being what it is, I found varying answers with varying degrees of certainty and authority. The general theme though, (best described here) is that “Palak” is a word specifically for “spinach,” while “Saag” means something like “greens.” Saag Paneer might be made with mustard greens or fenugreek leaves instead of, or in combination with, spinach. (Fenugreek leaves, also apparently known as “methi,” sounds very interesting. Stay tuned for some future post where I head to Queens to seek them out.)
But enough of the preliminaries and on to the recipe itself, and to the quick and delicious curried chick peas I made to accompany it. When my Paneer was finally firm and ready, I cut it into smallish rectangles (each about the size of my last thumb joint; though next time I might cut them into squares about half that size) which went into a skillet where a tablespoon or two of oil had been heated over a medium flame. I tossed them until they were browned and crisped, and drained them on paper towels. Back in the skillet, I picked out any crumbs of cheese that’d been left behind, and into the remaining oil* I tossed half of a large onion chopped semi-fine, followed after five minutes or so with 1-1/2 or 2 teaspoons or so of minced garlic and about the same amount of minced ginger. After that’d become soft and fragrant, I added a generously heaping teaspoon of curry powder (good stuff I’d gotten from Two for the Pot (a favorite coffee / tea / spice store in the neighborhood), and stirred until the curry powder developed a dry, toasty smell.
(*NB: As I’m editing this for posting, several weeks after originally drafting it, I wonder now about the dubious step of continuing with the same oil I’d cooked the cheese in. Is it really possible to pick out all remaining bits of browned cheese? Or will some remain in the pan, getting browner and browner until they impart a burnt taste to the dish? It may be better to wipe the pan clean and use fresh oil for the aromatics.)
Then I added a bunch of spinach which had been washed, stemmed, steamed, thoroughly drained, squeezed dry, and roughly chopped. I stirred until the spinach was completely broken apart and evenly distributed. Then, I turned the flame off and let the mixture cool, (being overly cautious, I think, of the next step, as I’ve had a yogurt sauce break too many times). Once the mixture had cooled for 15 minutes or so, I added about 3/4 cup of greek yogurt and stirred to mix thoroughly. I then turned the heat back on – low and slow – and poured in a very thin stream of chicken stock, stirring and pouring until the mixture had the consistency I wanted –creamy, not too liquidy, and not too thick & sticky. Then I folded the cheese back in, and gingerly continued to heat it through, cautious not to let the yogurt break.
I served this with a cucumber-yogurt raita, some phyllo-wrapped samosas from Sahadi’s, steamed basmati rice, and a very quick curry of canned chick peas and fresh diced tomato, with minced garlic and the other half of my big chopped white onion. Start by cooking the onion & garlic in oil, then add the curry powder to toast for 5 or 10 minutes (For this dish I used Two for the Pot’s hot curry powder – again, a good round teaspoonful – and was rewarded with a nice spicy bite). Add a coarsely chopped fresh tomato (maybe use canned if the good fresh ones are out of season), and the drained chickpeas. After this has cooked into a nice liquidy stew (getting its liquid only from the tomato), add a big fistful of chopped cilantro and plenty of salt and pepper.
Here is my saag paneer written as a recipe.