Archive for the ‘Cook’s treat’ Category

The Winter Kitchen: Salsa Macha

When I’m on a Mexican cooking binge I have to make some condiments to serve with meals and Salsa Macha is among my favorites. I love the name, which could be translated roughly as “bold sassy woman sauce,“ and I love the flavor, which manages to be very hot and very delicious. This one is for fire-loving palates. When most Americans hear “salsa” they think immediately of the tomato-based pico de gallo, but in fact there is a huge range of salsas and table condiments in Mexico and, as far as I can tell, most of them are delicious.

Among published recipes there are infinite variations, and my preference is for the simplest version, which I learned from the writing of Zarela Martinez more than a decade ago and have been making with only slight alteration ever since. You will need both a spice grinder and a mini food processor. The blender doesn’t work, since too much oil would be needed to keep the blades turning.

1 ounce chiles de Arbol, about 25

1 cup roasted peanuts

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

salt and mild olive oil as needed

Snip the stem end off each chile and shake out all the seeds you can. Discard the seeds. Put the chiles in a small saucepan over the lowest heat and cook somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, stirring and shaking occasionally. When you start, notice the sound they make when you stir them, because your best indication that they are done is when the sound becomes higher pitched and somehow drier. They will be a couple of shades darker and a little smoother and glossier than when you started, and more brittle if you squeeze one between your fingers. Be careful not to scorch them.

At the same time, put a small skillet over low heat, put the garlic cloves still in their skins in the skillet, and turn them occasionally while the chiles cook. When the skins are browned in spots, take them out of the skillet. The important thing is that the cloves inside be a bit cooked and no longer raw-tasting. At times when I have leftover roasted garlic or garlic confit in the refrigerator I often use that, using several cloves instead of two to compensate for the milder flavor.

Grind the chiles in the spice grinder to a fine powder. Put the powder in the mini prep and add the peanuts. Process until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.

Peel the cooked garlic cloves, add them, and process to the fine-crumb stage. Sprinkle in the teaspoon of vinegar and add olive oil to taste. I add the oil a tablespoon or two at a time, processing briefly between additions, and add only enough to coat the “crumbs” and bring the salsa together. Many commercial versions are swimming in oil, which doesn’t appeal to me, but suit yourself. Now taste and salt as needed. I can’t guess at a quantity because it depends how much salt was on your peanuts, but this is a condiment and in my opinion it should lean salty, to balance the heat.

It’s great on a grilled tortilla as a snack or cook’s treat, and good as a table condiment with any dish that isn’t too delicate in flavor. I’ve enjoyed it with shrimp rubbed with chipotle and garlic and grilled. It would be good with simply cooked and salted earthy greens. Today I dished up simply cooked black beans from Rancho Gordo, grilled some asadero on top, and dolloped  some creme fraiche and salsa macha on the side. Simple, filling, and interesting to eat.

 

The Winter Kitchen: Earth and Fire Sauce

 


In the past, when I traveled in Oaxaca, I fell in love with the moles, as nearly every traveler there does. My favorite is the rich, complex, highly seasoned mole negro, and I have made the mole paste for it a few times but find that I seldom have enough uninterrupted time to collect all the ingredients, prepare and fry them individually, grind them together, etc. There are a few good commercial brands of mole negro paste, and on the rare occasions when I want this special dish, I tend to use them.

 

But I often crave flavors that are somewhat reminiscent of mole negro, involving deep, rich, earthy tones with a spicy seasoned overlay and an element of slow, dark fire. For those occasions, I have come up with a seasoning paste that I can make in the winter, keep in my refrigerator, and add where appropriate. Properly speaking it’s a salsa, but in the American minds salsa is the fresher lighter tomato concoction, so I call it a sauce. The ingredient list is simple, although if you live in an area that lacks a substantial Mexican population you may need to order the chiles by mail. The prep may seem time-consuming, but comfort yourself that it’s insignificant compared to the time spent making mole negro. You’ll need a blender.

The long, narrow Pasilla negro and the light brown chipotle meco are the two on the right

7 chiles Pasilla Negro, often just sold as chiles negros

7 chiles chipotle meco (medium-sized and light brown, not small and dark red)

1 7 ounce can chipotles in adobo, including all the liquid

8 cloves garlic, not peeled

1/2 cup raisins

3 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon Ceylon (canela) cinnamon or a bit less standard cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground allspice

2 tablespoons grated piloncillo or coconut sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt, oak-smoked if available.

2 cups avocado oil for frying

1/4 cup homemade lard or more avocado oil for searing the sauce

 

Cut the stem ends off all the dry chiles, cut them open down one side with kitchen scissors, and scrape out most of the seeds and veins. Snip each one across the length a couple of times. In a small deep sauce pan, heat the avocado oil intended for frying to about 350 or until a piece of chili put into the oil immediately bubbles and sizzles. Have paper towels ready for draining. Put a small handful of the chiles into the oil at a time, fry them until the color changes visibly turning as needed, fish them out with a slotted spoon, and drain them. Now put the cloves of garlic, still in their skins, in the oil and let them fry until the skins are somewhat browned, and drain them. Put the raisins in the hot oil and fry just until they swell and puff, then drain. Now set the saucepan of oil aside in a very safe place to cool off.

Heat the chicken broth to boiling in another pot, turn off the heat, and put all the fried chiles in the hot broth to soak for 20 minutes. Peel the garlic cloves and add them.

Put the soaked chiles and peeled garlic cloves and their fluid in the blender jar along with the seasonings, the sugar, and the canned chipotles with all their adobo fluid. Grind smooth, scraping down the blender as needed. Add a little more water if needed to keep the blender blades turning.

Now for the dramatic step that pulls the sauce together. In a large frying vessel (I prefer a wok to minimize the inevitable splattering,) heat the lard or avocado oil over high heat. When it’s very hot, pour in the purée from the blender jar. Use an apron and don’t lean over the stove, because it will sizzle and splatter viciously. Stir cautiously with a wooden spoon. After 3-4 minutes turn the heat down to simmer and simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When ready, the sauce is very thick and will hold indentations when stirred, but it’s not cooked down to a paste. Taste it and adjust the salt if needed, but in my opinion use table salt and not smoked salt at this point. If it tastes a little bit on the acrid side, you may need to add a little more dark sugar.

Now you’re done and can quickly and efficiently add notes of earth and fire wherever you think they are needed. Use diluted or undiluted. The finished sauce can be spread directly on hamburgers immediately after grilling. A tablespoon or two per serving of black beans adds immeasurably to their meaty richness,  and this combination is especially good with a dollop of crème fraîche on top. A few tablespoons per cup of chicken or turkey broth makes a wonderful sauce for roasted or smoked birds. It could be used as a rub for grilled chicken, although you need to be careful not to burn it. I think that it might make a good grilling rub for salmon or other strong-flavored fish. It adds wonderful depth to sautéed mushrooms, and I think it would be great on grilled carrots or roasted sweet potatoes, especially with a pat of butter on top. For a quick snack or lunch, nothing beats a quickly griddled tortilla with a smear of Earth and Fire sauce, a sprinkle of crumbled cotija  cheese, and a few quick-pickled vegetables. A quick soft taco also makes a great cook’s treat. If you’re hungrier than that, add some frijoles negros or frijoles refritos as shown at the top of this post. A good dollop in a bowl of good posole elevates it to a feast.

It can be frozen after preparation for use later, either in jars or in individual portions in large ice cube trays. On late afternoons when you need something warm and not too filling, a cube could be dropped in a cup of hot chicken broth to make a warming “instant” soup.

 

A few notes on ingredients:
The best chiles that I know of come from The Chile Guy
The best beans and posole corn that I know of come from Rancho Gordo
The only lard worth using is the lard that you render yourself, not the awful commercial stuff. If you don’t want to render a little, use oil instead.
My favorite tortillas are the nixtamalized heirloom corn tortillas from Masienda. In my area, Whole Foods carries them.

Snacking Greens

Probably everybody has made kale chips, the delectable snack made by oiling and seasoning pieces of curly kale and baking them at 375 or 400 until they are crisp. They are delicate, and not much good for dipping in anything, but they are quite wonderful by themselves. Recently I was making a batch and began to wonder about using some of my other available greens. Ultimately I used both green and scarlet curly kale,  carrot leaves, and torn sections of collard leaf because that was what was left in the garden.  The leaves were washed, allowed to drain, and 12 mid ribs removed from the larger leaves. In the case of the small carrot leaves, the stem was snapped off just below the lowest leaflet. I drizzle them with olive oil and seasoned with salt, finally grated Parmesan, nutritional yeast flakes, and a sprinkling of roasted ground garlic. If you want an exact recipe, there are dozens on the Internet. This is something you can do in a very improvisational way as long as you don’t oversalt.

Lesson learned:  don’t put them all on the tray at the same time, no matter how pretty it looks. The three greens finished at very different times.  Collards needed the least time, and despite several experiments I never did get them quite right. They go from olive-green and ready to eat to brown and burnt-tasting  in under a minute. Also, they don’t cook very evenly despite your best efforts, so ultimately what I ended up doing was just picking out the brown leaves, which taste burnt, and throwing them away. I still think there are real possibilities here but I did not get them to work as a satisfactory chip.

The carrot leaves were astoundingly good, with a perfect delicate crunch and a mild flavor. Even the stems had a good texture, lost their toughness, and tasted just fine.  I wish I had discovered this earlier in the year when I had more carrot leaves. But this is a good reason to keep a blog, or a written record of some kind, because if you don’t you end up “discovering” the same things every few years.  I am recording it so that I won’t have to discover this again. It’s a handy thing to know if you buy carrots with the leaves on. Remove the leaves as soon as possible before storing in the refrigerator, because they seem to go limp more quickly if still attached to the roots.

Curly kale was delicious, as it always is when baked this way.  I just love the stuff, and have no idea how large a bowl of kale chips I could eat, but I guarantee that it would be a big one.  If you live in a snowy climate, it is very likely that you can keep curly kale in good shape through much of the winner in your garden. Here in the high desert it does not get all that cold but we don’t have any snow cover and we have a lot of drying winds,  so by this time of year the curly kale that is growing uncovered looks pretty tattered. Also, for reasons I don’t know, there is an invasion of aphids in early December, and they are hard to wash off. But this year I did plant a row of curly kale and put frost blankets over it in early November, and that row is looking great and has no aphids.  So I have at least a few more batches of homegrown kale chips coming.

Incidentally, if you are cooking a meal and have the oven at 375 or so for something else, a few kale leaves out of the garden in a little pan make a great cook’s treat to tide you over until the meal is ready.

Green Slaw, and notes on salt-curing greens

Right now my garden is full of savoy cabbage and collards, the cold-hardiest greens around, and I’m trying to eat them in as many forms as possible. There are no greens more nutritious, and after a few hard frosts the texture is excellent. One way I really love to eat them is salt-wilted or salt-cured, which makes them more tender and gives them a velvety texture. The slaw shown above was designed to go with Mexican flavors and makes use of cilantro stems, which are often wasted but shouldn’t be. They have pure cilantro flavor and, unlike the leaves, will stand up to marinating or cooking.

For two people, I used one giant outer leaf of savoy cabbage and cut the midrib out. I then rolled the leaf halves up and cut them into thin strips less that 1/4” wide. Half a red onion was cut into very thin slices. The cabbage and onion strips were put in a bowl and salted generously. I didn’t measure the salt, but the idea is to use somewhat more than you might sprinkle on at the table, not to drench them with salt. Half a teaspoon for this small salad would probably do it.  Then- this step is important- I massaged the salt in with my fingertips for about a minute. The bowl was then put aside for half an hour. Meanwhile, I chopped a small clove of garlic finely and cut a handful of cilantro stems in fine cross section, as well as getting the chicken breasts and sauce ready. While the chicken breast was cooking, I squeezed out the greens to get rid of excess liquid. Then I tossed in the cilantro stems and garlic, squeezed the juice of half a lime over the leaves, tossed with couple of tablespoons of good olive oil, and finished with a few grinds of black pepper and a generous sprinkle of ground toasted cumin. The most important final step is to taste and consider the seasoning before serving. It may need additional salt, since much was lost when the liquid was squeezed out. And after considering the flavor balance, I ended up tossing in a light sprinkle of stevia, probably equivalent to about half a teaspoon of sugar.

This basic technique can be taken in many other directions. For a more Chinese take, leave out the cumin, use rice vinegar instead of lime juice, and add some grated ginger with the garlic and finish with a final drizzle of roasted sesame oil.  A sweeter take that can accompany Korean food or barbecue with equal facility can be achieved by tossing the wilted veggies, garlic, and cilantro stems with quasi-Korean sauce.  (Incidentally, when making that sauce, remember that oligofructose is not an essential ingredient and, if you aren’t low-carb, you can just use a smaller amount of sugar.) If pursuing an Asian flavor, use a neutral oil like macadamia oil rather than olive oil.  Rather than cilantro stems, you can use finely chopped parsley stems or a handful of finely sliced celery. You might want to salt-wilt the celery with the cabbage and onions if you use it, to make the texture blend in more harmoniously. You can dress the wilted veggies with wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar, add some finely chopped fresh thyme, and finish with a very good olive oil to have the slaw accompany more traditional western flavors. Parsley stems, lemon juice, oregano, and a final sprinkle of feta on top makes it more Greek, which is where I learned the salt-wilting technique in the first place. You can of course use part of a cabbage head rather than outer leaves, and red cabbage turns a lovely scarlet when salt-wilted and dressed with something acidic.  The point is that salt-wilting is a way to make thick cabbagey leafy greens more tender and chewable so that they can readily be eaten raw, and then you can take the flavor in any direction you want.  If you absolutely don’t have time for the salt-wilting step, you could try just massaging the finely sliced veggies with your fingers for an extra couple of minutes, and depending on your greens, this may soften the texture enough to make them very tasty, although the plush texture achieved by salt-curing won’t be there.  And if you don’t want to serve it as part of your meal, a small portion from half a large leaf or  so made in the kitchen while you do other things is a great cook’s treat  to eat while you work and prevent overeating later on.

I never tire of harping on the fact that leafy greens form the basis of the Cretan diet, the diet that nourished some of the healthiest and longest- lived people in the world. Also, they are full of soluble and insoluble fiber and very filling, so you have half the chicken breast left over to eat the next day, providing economies of time and money in addition to the health benefits.There is a meme going around that says

“How do you reset your body back to its factory settings?

It’s kale, isn’t it?

Please don’t say it’s kale”

Substitute “leafy greens” for “kale” and this becomes fairly accurate, and can be made delicious. If you grow your own greens, it’s also dirt-cheap. So there just isn’t a downside.

 

Fall and Winter Leaves II: Nettles

Nettles are one of my favorite greens, and one of the most nutritious plants around, so treating them with the respect and care that helps you avoid stings is definitely worth the trouble. I have a thriving nettle patch in a corner of my yard that I don’t routinely have to visit, so I have always harvested the new greens in the spring and then assiduously ignored the nettle patch for the rest of the year.  This is partly because I get interested in other things, but mostly because as a child, when I first started foraging to the intense dismay of my parents, my mother wisely bought me a set of Euell Gibbons books so that I would not poison myself.  Mr. Gibbons wrote eulogistically about nettles, but cautioned his readers that after the spring flush they develop oxalate crystals and are gritty and inedible.  I believed every word he wrote, and so I never tried them after they were about a foot high.

Here in the desert, in the unwatered spot where they have to live in my yard, nettles die back beginning in July, and the stems look dead by September.  But this year we got an uncharacteristic long heavy rainstorm in late September, and to my surprise the dead nettle stems began to leaf out again.  This week I noticed a mat of fresh nettle leaves, and told myself that no doubt they would be gritty, exactly as Euell had predicted.  But I did gather a couple of quarts (using leather gloves) of nettle sprigs and tried cooking them. They were exactly as verdant tasting as the spring greens, and neither gritty nor tough.  Now that I know this, I will try to remember to cut my nettle patch back when it dies in the hottest late summer weather, and begin to water in September so that the late fall shoots will be easier to pick.

Cooked greens in the refrigerator are an appetizing snack or light meal waiting to happen.  Today I didn’t particularly feel like eating a heavy lunch, but I did want something, and I wanted it to be healthy. I had a cup of blanched nettle greens hanging out in the refrigerator, and half a cup or so of leftover cooked cauliflower rice, so I grabbed two large scallions out of the walking onion patch and picked three large carrot leaves off the last remaining carrots.  The garlic that I planted in late summer is sprouting, so I picked one stalk that was about 6 inches high  to use as green garlic.  The fresh green stuff was chopped and sautéed in butter until cooked through, then the cooked nettles and cooked cauliflower rice were added along with about 2 cups of canned chicken broth and half a cup of heavy cream.  You could certainly leave this as a chunky soup, but I decided that I wanted a cream soup, and put the little potful in my Vitamix blender. About a minute later, it was completely creamy and thickened. I poured it back in the cooking pan, added a little water to thin it to a good consistency, simmered for 10 minutes, salted to taste, and ate it with a spoon full of drained yogurt on top to supply a subtle acidic element.  The entire process, including grabbing the green stuff from the yard, took about 15 minutes. This is a pretty small time investment for something as absurdly healthy as nettle soup.

Needless to say, vary to suit your own taste. Cooked cauliflower is a surprisingly good creamy thickening agent, and if you are vegan you could use olive oil for the initial sauté  and vegetable broth for the cooking liquid, and leave the cream out or substitute nut milk. It could be finished with a few drops of lemon juice instead of drained yogurt. Vegetarians can change the broth and leave everything else the same. As written it is a delicately flavored and very comforting soup, perfect for days when fate is being unkind, but if you want something more emphatic  you can start playing with herbs.  If you don’t happen to have a nettle patch, use some other leafy green. Have fun in your kitchen and make the result work for you.  My mother objects to my greens soups on the undeniable grounds that they are green, but if you have a prejudice against the color green in food I do hope that you will get over it, because it is the marker for some of the healthiest food that you can possibly eat.

And by the way, Euell Gibbons wasn’t right about everything, but his foraging books are still well worth reading for their palpable joy in the outdoors.  In one plant essay he says that wild foods are his way of taking communion with nature and the Author of nature, and I think this sums it up.

A Quick Thai-ish Snack

After yesterday’s brief dissertation on nam prik pao,  it occurred to me that one thing I had not really demonstrated about this Thai seasoning paste is its ability to make something very good very fast.

Today I was not hungry for lunch but did want something healthy in a hurry to tide me over.  I decided on a quick very small bowl of greens. I used mulberry shoots, but any rather sturdy green would do. If you use something substantial like collards or kale, one collard leaf or two kale leaves  would work for a passing snack.  For smaller leaves, a generous handful is the right spirit.

All you need is your leaves, fish sauce, a little coconut oil or other cooking fat, and nam prik pao.  Wash and chop the leaves or, if they are large and substantial, chiffonade them.   Heat your smallest skillet, put in the coconut fat and heat it briefly, and put in a heaping teaspoon of nam prik pao.  Stir it around for about 30 seconds to distribute it through the fat, throw in your greens over medium heat, and stir around for a couple of minutes, drizzling with a little bit of fish sauce but not too much because the small quantity of greens can get too salty in a hurry.  When the greens are done to the degree of tenderness that you like, put them in a little bowl and eat them.  Simple as that. You will feel a pleasant glow of virtue because of the soluble fiber and antioxidants that you have taken in, and it will taste good  and take less than five minutes. The leaves are whatever struck your eye on the way from the garden to the kitchen and took approximately a minute to gather. No fuss no bother.  You can chop some herbs on top if you want to and that will be delicious, but it will still taste awfully good without them.

You could use the same principle to make a side dish for dinner, or for that matter a main dish, and a few different Southeast Asian vegetable dishes with a cushioning bowl of rice if you can eat it make a wonderful dinner full of interesting flavors.  If you are a low-carb person, you can use cauliflower rice instead of real rice, or have both available for the various kinds of eaters at your table.   But the recipe as written is for your own private pleasure.

My Years with Cardoons

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It took me a long time to learn to eat cardoons. My own cardoons, at least. I first found them in the market while honeymooning in Italy, and there they are neatly blanched, trimmed, and ready for the pot. I loved them, and ordered seeds from Italy as soon as I got home. They grow robustly in my desert climate and alkaline soil, and they are very ornamental. I had them for years before I successfully cooked them, and they were wonderful bee fodder all that time, blooming in the blasting-hot late summer when few other flowers are available to our pollinators. I tried to cook them without the tedious step of blanching the plants, and would say that this just doesn’t work.

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They die back unattractively after flowering, but then sprout again from the ground up. The foliage is silvery, full, and stunning in November. Unfortunately this is also the time when they’re best for eating, so mine aren’t exactly ornamental right now.

Before eating, blanch the stalks for a couple of weeks. I covered mine with some landscape cloth I had around, which is black and fuzzy and nearly lightproof while letting air and water through. You could also wrap your bundled plant in a couple of layers of corrugated cardboard, tieing it on carefully to exclude light from the stalks.

When blanched, use a sharp knife to cut the whole center out of the plant. Wear gloves, because cardoons are thistles and have nasty bristles down the edges of the leaf stalks and at the leaf margins. Cut off the leaves, leaving a bundle of stalks, and pull off any outer stalks that look ragged. My goat adores the leaves and trimmings, and since the leaves are intensely bitter, this is the best use for them.

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Separate the leaf stalks, wash well, and use a vegetable peeler to skim off the outer margin on each edge, where the bristles are. Now use the peeler to skin off the tough stringy part on the convex outer surface of each stem.  When you are done, they will look like the peeled stalk on the right above. The innermost stalks are tender and fairly stringless and just need the base trimmed and the row of bristles on each edge skinned off. Be sure you pull off the leaves from the center stalks, because even though they are very blanched and not bitter, they are tough even after cooking. Cut off the stalks at the point that they start to look corrugated and use everything below that.

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Cut the stalks in half-inch cross sections  and blanch in boiling salted water for about two minutes, then drain well and either continue cooking as you desire or refrigerate them for later.  They have a flavor rather similar to artichokes, so I gave them a bagna cauda treatment by sautéing them for about five minutes in plenty of good olive oil with a chopped clove of garlic and half a mashed anchovy fillet and a final garnish of roasted pine nuts.  Their own flavor is subtle, so don’t get too heavy handed with the seasonings.

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I think they are awfully tasty. The bad news is that one large plant, with a fair amount of preparation, makes two generous servings.  But given that they are drought tolerant, attractive, and truly carefree perennials, I don’t mind putting in some effort in the kitchen.  As for the low yield aspect, I will just work on growing more of them.

Incidentally, before they flowered last summer, I picked a flower stalk when it had lengthened to about 3 feet but before the buds started to swell. I peeled the thick tough skin off the stalk, cut it in sections about an inch long, and sautéed it in olive oil with some salt until cooked through and fairly tender.  The upper 8 to 10 inches of the stalk, when treated this way, made a delicious vegetable with a crisp texture and a pronounced artichoke flavor.  The other 2+ feet of the stock were not usable because, even when the outer tough skin is peeled away, fibers have developed in the pith itself.  But if you have a lot of cardoons and can afford to pick several stalks, this makes one really delicious vegetable. Otherwise treat the top of one stalk as a Cook’s Treat and cook it in your smallest skillet and eat it standing up in the kitchen, gloating quietly to yourself.

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