Banded Armor, Plus Two Against Mush

Don’t get me wrong, I love Providence style fried calimari. You know, the battered rings fried with the peperoncini and served with marinara? Dress it up, dress it down, it serves equally well in a pub as it does as a starter on white linen al fresco.

But this is not exactly a dish I’m going to be attempting at home any time soon.

How then to enjoy the truly unique texture of squid at home?

I recommend finding out if your monger deals in calimari steaks as well as the hoods or rings. These should be a very unassuming white square, not entirely unlike a mouse pad, trivet or pot holder. As long as one remembers the golden rule for cooking shellfish (30 seconds or 30 minutes) this humble looking sheet meat can provide some nearly fat free protein, and with some careful additions, can also become a platform for epic flavor.

And then of course there’s the texture.

Don’t get me wrong. I love flakey, broiled or poached fish. I love a tender steak. Heck, I love lentil dip. But don’t you find yourself from time to time wishing for something with a bit more to latch onto, teeth wise, without having to turn to the world of crunchy or crisp? There has to be more to the world of texture than fresh apples or potato chips, doesn’t there? There does, and it is known as chewy. Chewy is usually a pejorative in the kitchen, and that’s a real shame because it has given us a cuisine landscape comprised mostly of soft foods, with some sideline crunchy and crisp foods off to the side.

But chewy can be a good thing. A very good thing.

If your monger is of the better sort, they will already have scored the surface of the squid steaks at roughly eighth inch intervals (much like what one sees on squid served nigiri style at a sushi bar) with long, shallow knife cuts. If they haven’t, ask if they can. If they can’t, I hope you’re better with a santoku than I am. Without this step, your calimari will curl up like a cannoli and flavor will find no purchase on the imperviously smooth outer surface.

Upon a sufficiently roomy expanse of iron or steel combine a small quantity of very high heat neutral flavor cooking oil, kafir leaves, garlic, lemongrass and fresh ginger. Stoke your inferno slowly so that the oil is infused with the flavors of the aromatics. Once up to full heat (I’m talking in danger of leading the neighbors to believe you are invoking unholy powers kind of hot, here), cook no more than two steak at a time for about 15 seconds on each side and then set aside. Either remove the aromatic chunks or strain off the oil. Combine (back on the heat) with a generous splash of lime juice and chili sauce (a sriracha will do nicely) and thicken.

Serve with saffron basmati rice (or gruel) and stir fried vegetables (or raw turnips), dressing the squid with the sauce (which will stick in all the scores which will have opened up like grooves on a vinyl record [1] during cooking) and either a cold lager or an Alsatian white wine. You’ll want a steak knife and plenty of time to savor and chew. And chew. And chew.

You’re welcome.

 

 

[1] Yeah? You come up with a fantasy game chronologically relevant metaphor for that. 😉

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Painless Portabella Pizzas

Mushrooms.

My frequency of using them causes them to be more mush than ‘shroom in my ice-box.  So my experiences with portabella remain limited, even novice.  I’m a level 1 ‘shroomer.  Hence, this inspiration comes from the back of a mushroom container.  Clever huckstering in the marketplace to prompt the purchase of additional ingredients!  That Grocers Guild has a groove for guile…

But simplicity!  This could only get easier, and less tasty, by removing ingredients.

  • 4 portabella mushroom caps, gills removed (But why a spoon, cousin…)
  • olive oil
  • minced garlic (or finely chopped/diced)
  • 1-2 tomatoes halved (stem to ‘the not-stem end’) and sliced thinly
  • mozzarella cheese
  • salt
  • pepper
  • (red pepper flakes)

So simple.  So simple.

Stoke your stove to rage the oven up to 400F.  Kindly assault the concave side of the decapitated mushrooms with olive oil.  Decorate with gobs of garlic, sprinkles of salt, and puffs of pepper.  Trim with tomato (this is where I found the halved tomato made this easier).  Muffle with mozzarella.

12-15 minutes singing in the steely stove should bring these to melted mozzarella magnificence.

Of course, if you enjoy these with pain, ravage with red pepper flakes at your discretion.

Tenser’s Vegan Disks

Yes, I know that I have made this joke before. I don’t care, it’s funny anyway. Novelty as a benchmark is the primary rhetorical fallacy of the 20th Century.

Besides, we’re going to use pita, not tortilla, this time.

At a loss for what to do with left over, stale pita bread? Tired of making pita chips to choke down with hummus? Me too.

Here’s a quick, easy solution to the problem.

The quickest, easiest way is to cheat and do the following things:

  • Go to Trader Joe’s and get a container of these:
    • Bruschetta (in the chill case in a white plastic tub)
    • Artichoke antipasto (glass jar)
    • Olive tapenade (either glass jar or clear plastic tub in chill case)
  • Acquire jar of simple vinaigrette salad dressing
  • Combine the three items from Trader Joe’s with just enough dressing to make the result easily spreadable

If you’re a bit more committed than this, get tomato, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil, artichoke hearts [1], olives (mostly black and/or kalamata), olive oil, dressing vinegar (not white), and basic seasonings, and chop everything up finely (either by hand or in a food processor) and combine to recreate something similar to what is described above.

Variations on this topping can be made by including roasted red pepper spread (either including or removing the artichokes) and/or capers.

Spread the result of either approach onto old pita bread which are arranged on a baking sheet and slide into a 250 degree oven. Yes, that’s very low heat. The goal here is to drive moisture out of the bread and the topping without scorching the bread.

When the bread is nearly, but not quite, completely stiff, slide them back out of the oven, and top each disc with either a spring mix salad or simply baby spinach, change the oven into a broiler, and return the tray for just a couple of moments to wilt the greens.

I find it easier to slice the discs prior to cooking, rather than after, either in half or fourths. but you could just as easily serve the discs intact and let your adventurers sort it out for themselves.

What you end up with is something very much like a “fully loaded” veggie pizza, without any cheese. However, the oily texture and umami of the preserved vegetables ensure you won’t miss it.

 

If you’re interested in a dish which is not vegan, but is Lenten, you can add chopped, pre-cooked, crab or shrimp between the vegetable spread and the salad greens just before going under the broiler. 

 

[1] I don’t recommend buying fresh artichokes, steaming them and breaking them down yourself, it is an enormous amount of work and the results are rarely as good as what you can get in a jar (or can).

Turn Your Head and Kofta

One simple way I’ve worked into my food thinking to try to ensure that more and more of the meat that I consume is at least vaguely ethical is by going out of my way to have cuts from animals which are less popular with the general public, and thus through sheer economic principles are less likely to have been industrialized. Lamb instead of beef, quail or duck instead of chicken, boar instead of pork… that kind of thing.

The good news for me, is that attending a church full of people of Arabic descent means that discovering lamb dishes, how to prepare them, and places around the city to get good Middle Eastern food (which, when done authentically, is almost always lamb, not beef) has gotten much easier.

Always budget conscious, and recognizing that eating ethical meat means spending a lot more per pound, I always have my eye open for budget friendly options. The most obvious budget friendly lamb option I’ve found is kofta (or kafta, depending on regional transliteration). This is a ground meat preparation which sort of straddles the fence between a sausage and a meatball; traditionally oblong, not spherical, not stuffed into a casing, and yet not cooked loose like Western breakfast sausage or scrapple, either. This preparation is typically cooked as a kabob, which is to say on a skewer, on a grill.

Kofta is, for me, a shining example of how Mediterranean cuisine somehow manages to have strong flavors, and use a lot of spices, and yet somehow everything still tastes like “itself”. Kofta tastes like lamb. And yet, it is anything but “plain” or “bland”. These are the kinds of food traditions I enjoy the most, and so kofta has become a fast favorite of mine.

I have found a few places around the city which serve phenomenal kofta wrap sandwiches, but of course, cooking at home is always cheaper than dining out, so of course I needed to figure out how to make my own kofta at home. And of course, I knew better than to ask any of the jadda at church for their recipe because, well, I like my ears to remain their current size, and in their current location on my head. Clearly, some deep nerd R&D was going to be required.

The first thing you learn when you start looking into ground meat preparations from the Middle East (such as gyro and kofta) is that the meat is ground much, much finer than one finds for Western sausage or meatball/meatloaf/burger preparations. During my early experiments I was inclined to ignore this detail, and I paid dearly with crumbling meat during cooking, eventually resulting in not only bad texture, but poor flavor. Yes, it is a very tricky business to put meat into a food processor and not end up with “pink slime” or some kind of wallpaper paste, but if you don’t own a grinding attachment for your pasta maker or stand mixer (and I don’t even own this hardware, yet, let alone have grinding attachments) you’re going to need to bite a bullet, develop a very adept pulse button finger, and tighten up the grind manually.

Part of the reason for this is that some of the primary ingredients you’re going to add to the meat are pureed raw onion and fresh herbs — which have a lot of water in them. A loose grind combined with a high water content is going to cause the crumbling during cooking that I was seeing.

Note, that yesterday I was making a variation on Italian wedding soup, but using kofta instead of meatballs[1]. If you want kofta for sandwiches or an entree, use all lamb, rather than the combination I have below.

So, enough foreshadowing, here’s the rundown.

  • quarter pound ground lamb
  • quarter pound ground pork
  • quarter pound ground chuck (not highly lean ground beef!)
  • half white onion, pureed and left to drain
  • four cloves garlic, pureed and left to drain (or prepared minced garlic, well drained)
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • large handful of fresh basil
  • salt, pepper, hot and smoked paprika, and sumac (or at least a zatar blend which includes it)

Puree your onion and garlic and set aside to strain. Coarse chop your cilantro and basil. Put your meats, dry seasonings, fresh herbs and pureed aromatics into a bowl and combine as best you can with a big spoon. Then, in small batches, add to a food processor and carefully work everything together more thoroughly (while making the grind on the meat finer without pulverizing it).

Form golf ball sized meatballs with the results. Arrange in a cast iron skillet and place beneath a broiler on high heat, but at some distance from the flame. Once one side is browned, drain the fat into a large cooking pot, turn the meatballs over, and put back beneath the broiler until the second side is browned, then remove from heat, drain fat again, and set aside, covered. Carry over heat will ensure they are cooked through safely.

Cook a batch of short grained rice, barley, orzo pasta or pearl couscous.

In the large pot where you put all that meat fat, add three chunked carrots, three chunked celery ribs, and the other half onion chunked, with liberal salt, on medium high heat. Once well wilted and soft, add two cartons of low sodium vegetable broth and a third carton of water. Let simmer until the vegetables all want to fall apart. Strain into a large bowl, put the vegetables aside (either to compost or to puree into a sauce base if you just can’t bring yourself to “waste” them), return the broth to the pot and add a bag of chopped spinach (I recommend working through it by hand to remove all the stems). Once the spinach is soft, you can serve your soup by filling the bottom of a steep bowl with your rice (or pasta or whatever you made), putting two meatballs on top of the rice, and then filling the bowl with broth.

Note: this makes far more broth than it does meatballs. But, broth keeps, meatballs don’t. Be prepared to make additional batches of meatballs (and cook more rice/pasta) to finish off the broth — or to store the broth for later use in sauces and gravy.

[1] Traditional Italian meatballs are one part pork, one part lamb and one part veal. I refuse to eat veal, and so I substitute ground chuck (rather than a highly lean ground beef) to ensure that I have enough fat content to keep the balls moist during their time under the broiler.

Dragon’s Breath Stew

What to do with all that napalm sauce I made?

Yet another spicy tofu dish, of course.

Slice a carton of extra firm tofu into 1/2 inch thick sheets and press between two plastic cutting boards with heavy weight for at least an hour.

Put your noodle cooking pot on to boil as you ordinarily would.

In your blender combine two ladles of your napalm with a generous spoonful of dashi miso paste, a handful of garlic cloves, a tablespoon of Chinese five spice, a quarter cup of sugar and two tablespoons of corn starch with two cups of vegetable broth. Obliterate into a smooth liquid.

Remove press and slice tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.

Fire up your wok on your hottest flame. Coat with safflower oil and toasted sesame oil. Brown the tofu cubes.

Open a carton of silken tofu and dump into the wok. Toss vigorously to break up into curdles. As all the water cooks out and pools, transfer to a sieve and back to the heat, repeating until no more water pools out.

Pour the spicy liquid over the tofu and stir occasionally to prevent burning on the bottom and to encourage thickening and evaporation.

Cook a generous portion of rice noodles in your boiling water and drain, do not rinse but immediately portion out — leaving starches on the outside of the noodles helps the sauce to stick, rinsing them makes it slide off into the bottom of your bowl.

When the sauce is quite thick, kill the heat and serve.

Do not breathe near anything flammable for some time.

Inspiration from Resurrecting a Chicken Dish

Inspiration! I need a quest to raise my inspiration level. I think I have been hit by a vampire and suffered a level drain lately. I have been following Kitchen Incantations from others … TO THE LETTER, nonetheless. I have also been afflicted by a Curse of Habit by which I am repeating these routines. These incantations, now bordering on alchemic mumbles.

Variety is crucial, beyond essential, to the Kreative Kitchen Kleric. In following my recent vegan experiment, I learned the real meaning of “variety is the spice of life” as I failed to employ variety. As a result, I managed to make myself tired of things that I normally like.

But for some of this I have been following recipes that are supposed to be quick-and-easy — something that has become important to me as I balance evening meals with a commute home. (So, what’s my excuse on the weekends… another story, perhaps.) Last night I ended up at least putting some experience to use to correct something I could see was going to go horribly wrong. The idea was that a whole chicken gets cut up into “serving sizes” and then satueed. Once prepared (simply salted & a bit of pepper) and in the pans, I could tell the breasts were going to give me the usual trouble: bone-in-breast means raw meat on the bone. I have tried cooking these several ways with the same result. The only way I have found to cook bone-in-breast chicken is in the oven or on the grill with lower heat. My theory is that my stove-top area isn’t really a good place to get the heat to permeate the meat well enough to cook all the way through, even with a cover.

So what happened…

After cutting up the whole chicken, I salted and peppered it. I used two skillets (per the recipe so that none of the parts were touching) and cooked them on high heat, skin-side first, for a short bit to crisp them. I salted/peppered the up-side while the skin side was cooking. I then flipped them and crisped the other side. This is when I noticed the breast-meat swelling and, as is my experience, threatening not to cook. Therefore I summoned an Oven of 350F.

I added a little minced garlic and some paprika, covered the skillets with oven-proof covers*, and tossed them into the oven for 15 minutes. All came out well — juicy and tender. It wasn’t according to the recipe, but it worked. It works for steaks, and it works for chicken.

*This is quite simple in my case as I use cast-iron. One of the pans has a cover that goes with it, the other I know of a kettle cover I can use that is oven-proof.

Szechuan Tofu

John has been shaming me on the recipe posts, so I’ll sneak in two weeks worth of Lenten pot luck dinner recipes and redeem myself, somewhat. Both are vegan (for Lent). I’ll start with tonight’s and work backwards. The first week of Lent’s dish was already posted here.

I LOVE spicy tofu dishes. While I’m not one of those people who wrinkles their nose at tofu, in fact I like it quite a lot, I do kind of insist that frankly, by itself, it tastes like nothing at all. BUT, this just means that it is all the more perfectly prepared to be the canvas for a universe of sauces and preparations. Thick, sticky, dark, sweet and blow your head off spicy just happens to be my favorite. As with any genuine culinary tradition, I have no idea what I’m doing, but like any good wizard or cleric, I know how to put on a good show and fake it.

Keep in mind, these are preparations for a communal meal where a few hundred people show up, so if the quantities seem big, they are — adjust down as you see fit.

Two tubs of firm (not extra firm, too crumbly) tofu, drained. I have seen this dish done with silken tofu, but it requires more finesse than I have. Slice in half such that you have to fairly flat, big rectangles — like a stack of 3×5 note cards. Lay the four rectangles out on something very flat, either plastic cutting boards or the bottom of cookie sheets. Place a second cutting board (or cookie sheet bottom) on top, and then pile on as much weight as you can find. I stack my #8 and #10 cast iron skillets and my #8 Dutch oven (with #8 lid) and that’s just about the minimum I’d use. Press and drain (this is why the cookie sheets have to be upside down, if you use the normal surface the liquid can’t drain off) the tofu for at least 30 minutes. Longer is better. Undo your press and then slide the rectangles into large squares. I usually cut the long way into four strips and then six pieces the short way for a total of 24*4=96 chunks of tofu. This is not actually as much as it seems.

Coarsely chop one good size stalk of lemon grass into pieces you’ll be able to remove easily later.

Put your wok (or other very large vessel that can take big heat) over your hottest heat source (dragon’s abdomens are just about hot enough), add a liberal amount of a high heat oil like canola or peanut and augment with toasted sesame oil (for flavor). When the pan (not the oil) begins to smoke, throw in the tofu and lemon grass. Boil the tofu in the oil, moving frequently, until the tofu just start to shrink, then scoop them out into a sieve of some kind to drain. Pick out all the lemon grass which is probably now rock hard and flavorless. Pour out the excess oil but do not wipe down the wok.

Dice a red onion. Split six Serrano peppers in half the long way. Remove seeds and membranes according to how hot you want your end result to be. The less you remove, the hotter the dish. I took out all of the membrane and seeds and the end result still wasn’t exactly tame. If you are unaccustomed to cooking with hot peppers, maybe try just one pepper the first time, left intact, and ramp up on subsequent occasions if you find you enjoy more heat. Take the long halves and make thin crescents.

In the blender or food processor place four to six big chunks of fresh ginger, peeled, along with dozen or more cloves of roasted garlic, soy sauce, honey, molasses, Chinese five spice, liquid smoke (or smoked spice alternative) and vegetable broth — enough broth so that the result is too thin to be a sticky sauce, but not so thin it will take too long to drive out the water to make it a sticky sauce. Now take a good measuring cup’s worth of tamarind paste and rehydrate it with boiling water. Once soft, push through a screen into the blender (or food processor). Alternatively, have the good sense to buy tamarind paste in a jar that you can just spoon out rather than a block of mashed tamarind with all the seeds and pulp still in it, like I did.

Put the wok back on the dragon’s belly and begin to saute the onion and peppers. Open one can of bamboo shoots and one can of sliced water chestnuts, drain both. Once the onion and pepper begins to make you sneeze violently, I mean, brown up, add the bamboo and water chestnuts. Once the extra water is off the canned veggies, put the tofu back in and pour on the liquid. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir or fold occasionally to prevent sticking down at the bottom center of the wok.

Meanwhile prep about half a pound of snow peas and a half dozen green onions. I like to leave the peas whole, with just the tips cut off, and slice the green onion into very thin rings. Get both the white and green from the onion, because both the flavor and texture are quite different.

After the sauce looks like it will be quite thick when cooled, taste it and make any adjustments. If you need more cooking time, add more veggie broth so that it doesn’t get too thick and start to burn. Once the sauce meets your requirements, add the peas and green onions, fold in and immediately remove from the heat source as well as the wok itself into a serving dish. Steamed rice, brown or white, is the obvious accompaniment.