Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Garbanzo delight

I wrote several days ago about finding a new product at the ethnic grocery -- split garbanzo beans -- for which I had high hopes.  I'm back to report that I'm in love!

I used to think of garbanzos, aka chickpeas, aka ceci, as little beige spheres of blandness.  I use them in a wonderful soup which I will tell you about sometime, and I know that they can become hummus, but otherwise they are not on my culinary radar screen.  But a few years ago I became acquainted with a mixed grain product that has become a favorite in our kitchen.  It cooks up in a saucepan on the stove or in the rice cooker, in 20 minutes or so, and it makes an excellent side dish for dinner, with the leftovers perfect for a hearty warm breakfast porridge.

My favorite ingredient in the blend is the baby garbanzo beans, but sad to say, not as many of them as I might like.  At the grocery I could find dried garbanzos but they bore no resemblance to the delicate yellow hemispheres in my Trader Joe's mix.

But at the ethnic grocery I found this bag of split garbanzos among the Indian foods.

At the store I thought the Indian peas were larger than those in the Trader Joe's mix, but a side-by-side comparison found them identical.  Perhaps seeing a whole bag of them made them expand in my mind.

Left, Trader Joe's; center, Indian; right, Kroger.

I've tried my new toys twice: once to augment a batch of Trader Joe's mix and once added to brown rice. Both incarnations were excellent.

So after I brought out all these packages for a photo shoot, I decided to make my own grain mix, altering the proportions to have more of the ingredients I like.  In the bottom of the jar, what was left in the Trader Joe's bag.  On top, more orzo, some Indian garbanzos, more quinoa and for good measure, some red lentils, which also cook quickly.  I think it will taste just as good as Trader Joe's original recipe, but should be healthier and prettier, not to mention cheaper.

Friday, August 24, 2012

French toast

When my kids were still at home, sharing a big breakfast was a common activity on the weekends.  Sometimes we just had eggs with sausage or bacon, other times we'd fix pancakes, waffles or french toast.  Of course I was the cook, while the guys sat at the table salivating for their grub.

With this setup, naturally I was the last to eat.  By the time I fed everybody, then fixed my own food and came to the table, the thrill was gone.  At least one guy was probably done and clamoring to be excused.  I got the pleasure of a nice plate of food, but the companionship of a shared meal was mostly gone.

Well, so much for companionship.  Let's focus in on the food.  The last egg out of the pan isn't qualitatively different from the first, and if you're vigilant in saving enough bacon for yourself, who cares if you're the last to eat?  Pancakes were problematical because you might run out of batter before you fed yourself, but over time you figured out how much to make.

With french toast, though, the first piece is different from the last.

There are two styles of french toast: puffy and crispy.  Puffy comes early in the day, from bread that has soaked up plenty of eggy milk and becomes airy and light in the frying pan.  Crispy comes at the end of the road, when there isn't much eggy milk left and thus the leavening effect of the eggs is weaker.  You get nice fried bread, but it's not exactly french toast.

The cook gets crispy, even when the cook might prefer puffy.

After decades of wanting puffy and getting crispy, I decided to pull the plug on french toast for a crowd.  Since I was the one who loved it the best, and I was the one who never got the perfect plateful, I changed my approach.  Now I make french toast only for myself, and I get the puffy ones.

When it's just me, I use one egg and some milk.  That's good for two or three slices of bread, depending on the size and thickness of the bread.  I usually add a schluck of vanilla to the eggy milk, which gives a nice flavor boost.  I never use syrup, just a bit of salt at the table.  It's delicious, and good enough for dinner if I'm all by myself.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cooking hall of shame

Here's my teflon spatula, a mainstay of my cooking toolbox.  I own its twin brother, too.  Looks pretty nice, doesn't it?

But it's not.

The handle is affixed to the spatula blade with some hidden connection, covered with a metal ring.  And in between the handle and the blade is apparently a reservoir that fills with water when the spatula is washed.  Even a day or two later, the water lurks there.

When you get it out of the drawer again and start using it, the water oozes out from under the metal ring and gets your hands wet.  Drying off the utensil (and your hands) doesn't get it all; it springs eternal as you cook.

So why do I keep using this tool?  It's hefty enough to bust up semi-frozen ground beef in the pan, strong enough to press down firmly without bending the handle, and the teflon coating hasn't worn off the front edge in years of use.  It's hard to find a teflon coated spatula that fulfills these requirements, and I know because I've bought a dozen other kinds, none of them satisfactory.  Too bad this one oozes on me.

What a lousy design!  I know it's design and not faulty manufacture, because both spatulas behave the same.    Shame on KitchenAid.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Starring role for escarole

The lettuce family has many members, and not all of them are suited for salads.  One of my favorites is escarole, a coarse, slightly bitter green that really needs to be cooked to bring out its best.

We were introduced to escarole at a fancy Italian restaurant in New York in 2000 when it came unbidden, the vegetable du jour alongside our entrees.  It was sauteed and dressed with something acidic, and we had to ask the waiter what it was.  We came home and started fixing it as a cooked vegetable, sauteed in olive oil in a frying pan and finished with a squeeze of lemon, a bit of white wine in the pan or a little vinegar sprinkled over the plates.

But a few years later I saw a recipe in the New York Times for escarole and beans, and it was one of those  moments that changed my cooking and eating repertoire forever.  I've made it so many times that it's been internalized; I don't need the recipe any more, and in fact it has graduated from a recipe to a concept.

That's an important step for people who cook like I do; I don't like recipes because (a) you might not have the right stuff on hand to follow them exactly and (b) you might not have your cookbook available.  It's better to have a concept, a general idea of what to do, but open to lots of flexibility as to specifics.

So here's the concept of escarole and beans.  I use it once or twice a month, pretty much whenever we can find a nice head of escarole at the store (not always).

Put some beans in a really big pot.  Canellini are best, and failing that, another white bean such as great northern or navy is next best.  Or heck, something red or yellow or black would probably work just fine too.  Canned beans are fine (Progresso and Bush both make excellent canned canellini) but if I have time I'd just as soon cook up a pot of dried beans from scratch.  Two cans of beans will generously feed two for dinner, but a pound of dried beans will feed two for several meals.

Season the beans with some mojo -- garlic, onions, anchovies, hot peppers, country ham, whatever you like.  If you're starting from dried beans, make sure to add enough salt.

If you want, put some other vegetables in the pot.  Carrots and celery seem obvious, but see what else you have in the fridge.  Add liquid to make a soupy consistency.  If I start with canned beans, I add a can or two of chicken broth.

To this point, basically you have made bean soup.  If you have a favorite way to make bean soup, by all means use it.

Now get your escarole.  Wash it, chop it into bite-size pieces, remembering that it will wilt and shrivel once it hits the hot soup, so the pieces can be on the large size.  You will think that you have enough of this stuff to feed an army, but not really.  I find that a big head of escarole will feed two of us for dinner, with enough green stuff left in the soup pot for another meal.

Dump the cut-up escarole into the pot, stir so the greens go underwater, and simmer for 10 or 15 minutes until the thickest pieces of escarole -- the white stems -- are not crunchy any more.

Serve as soup, or if you like, use a slotted spoon to fish out the beans and greens, leaving much of the liquid behind.  You'll probably still want to eat it with a spoon rather than a fork, but who knows.  I like to add grated parmesan cheese at the table, or stir in some pesto.

The leftovers are just as good tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More weird stuff at the ethnic grocery

The other day we went to the ethnic grocery and as usual, as we meandered slowly up the best aisle we came upon strange food products that I have no idea what one might do with.

It's really PURPLE!!!

Many times I buy some of these strange products, which subsequently sit in my pantry shelves for years unused.  This time I restrained myself, buying only five bags of Goya canellini beans and a bag of split garbanzos.  I have used the canellinis many times in the past -- much richer than great northern beans, their closest standard-grocery-store equivalent.  The garbanzos are a new experiment.  I'll let you know how they work out.