Nik Sharma's Ground Beef Pulao

Beef Pulao with Raita

As any close observer of my daily meals or longtime reader of this blog can attest, we don't eat a lot of meat. My husband was traumatized by gristle as a child, and by parents who made him clean his plate, no matter how long it took. In my family, where some form of Italian cooking mostly reigned supreme, vegetables and vegetarian meals were always the stars of the show. Roast chicken was the special occasion dish at my mother's house; brisket was the counterpart at my American grandmother's house. These days, there's the environmental factor to consider, which is huge, and also the cost: good-quality meat in Germany is expensive. We simply can't afford to cook meat that frequently if we insist on buying organic meat or even just sustainably raised local meat. It's just as well that my family would almost always prefer a meatless meal.

These days, the meat that ends up on our table most often is (organic) ground beef. Max will never understand the appeal of a rare steak, but give the man a hamburger or a meatball and he's in seventh heaven. The children love the meat ragù that I make on a weekly basis, but they're hot and cold on burgers and meatballs, which is insane, but these are the same children WHO DON'T LIKE PIZZA I AM SERIOUS SEND HELP. Since I am the only cook in the house and I will die of boredom (or become extremely resentful and grumpy) if I can't try new recipes, I'm always thrilled to have a new way to try and get ground beef into their bellies.

(A brief interjection here to rail against the fact that it is still nearly impossible to find ground poultry in Germany. Butchers consider it a hazardous substance and almost all of them refuse to prepare it—only one that I know in western Berlin will grind it for you on the condition that you buy no less than 5 kilos of it. Recently, the grocery store on the corner has started occasionally selling packages of ground (conventional, not organic) turkey, but it's seasoned and...I....just refuse to buy it. For a while, I thought I'd just be resourceful and make my own. I bought a meat grinder attachment for my KitchenAid mixer years ago only to have it languish in my cupboards until...I resold it a few months ago. Sigh. So beef, pork and lamb are our only options.)

Beef Pulao

One way, of course, is Fuchsia Dunlop's celestial spicy celery with ground beef, but it is too spicy for the boys at their ages now. (I shake my fist at their northern European taste buds!) Another way is in this one-pot meal that has you cook ground meat with spices and aromatics, then mix that with turmeric-colored rice that you cook in the same pot (don't bother washing it out). Fresh mint and scallions folded in at the end give the dish a little lift, though it's the cool bowl of cucumber raita alongside that really makes this a pleasingly complete meal.

The recipe as written was originally meant for lamb, which is far fattier than ground beef, so Nik Sharma has you cook the lamb first to get the excess fat out before you continue with the spices. I made it as he wrote, but since the ground beef had less fat to give off, I actually think you could move steps around a little to get a more aromatic result. In other words, cook the ginger and garlic first, then add the spices and salt and cook until fragrant, then add the beef and cook until slightly browned. Lime juice on top, scrape out of the pan, proceed with the rice. If you do it this way, then I think you should also add a chopped onion together with the garlic and ginger. My adjustments to the recipe are below.

Either way, when the pulao's finished, be sure to make raita to dollop on top. The one in the photo I made by pouring plain whole-milk yogurt into a smallish bowl and seasoning it with salt and ground cumin to taste, then grating in a small Persian cucumber. I love the cooling feel the raita gives against the piping hot rice and meat, plus, if you've actually made the pulao with red chile powder, you'll be happy for the respite from the heat. (I left out the chile powder because I wanted the children to eat the pulao for lunch. And Bruno obliged happily, a minor miracle. Hugo, on the other hand, was unimpressed and left half behind. As I scraped his portion into the trash at the end of lunch, I thought to myself hey, at least our parenting has progressed so far that we don't make our kids clean their plates anymore, right?)

Serenity now.

Ground Beef Pulao
Serves 4

2 cups basmati rice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds ground beef
4
garlic cloves, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 ½ teaspoons garam masala
½ teaspoon red chile powder
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons lime juice, divided
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 bunch scallions (about 6), trimmed and thinly sliced
¼ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

1. Check the rice and discard any debris. Place the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Place the rice in a bowl, cover with water by 1 inch, and soak for 30 minutes. Heat the oven to 250°F/120°C.

2. As the rice soaks, cook the beef: Place a medium saucepan with a heavy lid or a Dutch oven over medium heat. When the saucepan is hot, add the olive oil, garlic, ginger, and onion and sauté for 1 minute. Add the garam masala, chile powder, black pepper and 1 teaspoon salt and sauté until the spices are fragrant, 1 minute. Add the beef and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until cooked through and slightly browned. Add 1 tablespoon lime juice and stir well. Scrape the mixture into an oven-safe bowl or pan and keep warm in the oven.

3. Drain the soaked rice. Add to the same pot and cover with water by 1 inch. Stir in 1 tablespoon lime juice, the turmeric and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then cover, and reduce heat to simmer until the rice absorbs all the water, about 10 minutes. (Do not stir the rice as it cooks, or the grains might break.) Remove the saucepan from heat, and let sit, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

4. Fluff the rice and combine with the cooked meat, then drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice. Fold the scallions and mint into the rice, and serve immediately.
Print this recipe!


Aglaia Kremezi's Warm Yogurt Soup with Grains and Greens

Warm Yogurt Soup with Grains and Greens

Another soup, I know, but you're going to want to know about this one for the warm days of spring and summer. I got the recipe from Aglaia Kremezi's Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts, which was published almost two years ago, but which I only got my hands on last week when Aglaia came to Berlin to launch the book. Aglaia lives on Kea, in the Greek Cyclades, is the author of several books on Greek cuisine and, together with her husband Costas, runs dreamy-sounding cooking vacations. Bucket list alert!

Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts is a really thoughtful assembly of recipes not just from Greece and Italy, but also Turkey, France, the Balkans, and the Middle East. But it's also a very personal book, full of Aglaia's favorite recipes collected over the years, like the stuffed vegetables she grew up with as well as the simple loaf of bread she and Costas eat every day. I can already tell it's going to become one of those books I just keep in the kitchen so that I can cook from it all the time.

The first recipe that I made from the book was this Turkish yogurt soup that's thickened with rice and cornstarch and streaked with soft leafy greens. The soup is traditionally made with Swiss chard, but on our Saturday morning market run, I found some nice-looking baby spinach to use instead. Just about 30 minutes after getting home, lunch was ready to be served. I know that for some, the sound of "warm yogurt soup" will not be appealing, but please trust me - it's delicious. The dried mint, pepper flakes and olive oil drizzle give the light, creamy soup liveliness and pep. The cornstarch and rice helps give it body, and the water-thinned yogurt base is just the right level of sour. It's so refreshing. I served it with nice sourdough bread and a big salad to eat afterwards and we were all very happy. Well, "we" the adults. Hugo refused to even try the soup, but we found out afterwards that he had a fever. He gets a pass!

I've been loving our Saturday routines recently. I wrote a little bit about it on Instagram. Our weekends used to feel scattered and grumpy. But since instituting this new rhythm - market, playground, cooked lunch at home in the dining room, not the kitchen - things have changed rather dramatically. Things run more smoothly, we all feel calmer, saner and happier. Funny how such a seemingly small thing can have such impact. Do you have any routines or weekly traditions that you feel have helped your family harmony? I'd really love to know.

Aglaia Kremezi's Warm Yogurt Soup with Grains and Greens
Adapted from Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts
Serves 3 to 4

1 bunch Swiss chard or several bunches spinach or baby spinach
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
3 scallions, white and most of green parts, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup/50g white rice or 1 cup/160g cooked wheat berries or pearl barley
1 cup white wine
5 cups water
Salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups/480ml plain yogurt (not Greek)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons dried mint
Crushed red pepper flakes

1. Wash and trim the chard. Cut the leaves from the stems. Chop the stems into bite-sized pieces. If using, spinach, wash and chop. If using baby spinach, wash.

2. Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the onion and scallions and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the chard stems, if using, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or two. Add the rice or wheat berries/barley, stir well, then add the wine and water. Add salt to taste, bring to a boil, and reduce to medium-low. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the chard leaves or spinach/baby spinach. Simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the greens are very tender. Remove from the heat.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of cold water. In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt with the cornstarch slurry. While whisking, pour in a ladleful of hot soup. Slowly add 2 to 3 more ladlefuls of soup, whisking until the yogurt mixture is pretty hot. Pour it back into the soup pot, return to low heat and cook, stirring, until it almost boils. Add black pepper and the dried mint. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Serve, drizzling each bowl with a bit of olive oil, and sprinkling with red pepper.


Riso al Forno alla Siciliana

IMG_3570

We are in the final days of our vacation, when things get sort of panicky and weird. The temperature has dropped and it's now colder here than in Berlin, which is no good at all. I'm wearing a very strange mish-mash of clothing (palm-frond leggings! a stained t-shirt! my mother's cardigan! white Birks!) from the vacation closet to stay warm. And in a minute, I'm heading downstairs to make our third crostata this vacation so far. But! I know what you're making for dinner tonight! Or tomorrow. Or this weekend. WHENEVER. You're making this.

I found it in yet another of my mother's cookbooks, you know, the ones with no author, the ones you'd normally see in a grocery store instead of a bookstore and pass on by without a second glance. This particular one was published by La Repubblica, the newspaper, and is part of a series on regional Italian cooking. The region in this case, Sicily.

I paged through it the other day and found about seven hundred and thirty things I wanted to make right away, but this baked rice dish stood out because it didn't require much of anything exotic, besides maybe caciocavallo cheese (which I substituted with provolone.)

You par-cook Arborio rice and dress it with olive oil and grated cheese. Then you stew together garlic, onions, bell peppers, eggplants and tomatoes and season them with basil, some red pepper flakes, salted capers and cured black olives. This mixture is layered with the par-cooked rice and more of that grated cheese and baked in the oven until the top is good and melty and brown.

It sounds sort of fussy, but the payoff is huge. We loved how elaborate it looked and tasted and yet I slapped the whole thing together just before lunchtime. Vacation lunchtime, but still - this could totally be a weeknight dinner. (I'd even go so far as to say it could be dinner party fare, but it falls apart on the plate in a way that might not be quite what you're going for when you have guests. But I don't know your life, so do whatever the spirit tells you to do.)

150 grams of cheese sounds like a lot of cheese, but it's spread out throughout the dish and seasons the rice really nicely. Plus, when you dig out a scoop of the rice, tiny filaments of cheese hang off the spoon and wiggle. YESSSSS.

Riso al Forno alla Siciliana
Serves 6

320 grams Arborio rice
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the dish
150 grams caciocavallo or provolone, grated
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 small eggplants or 1 large one, halved and sliced
3 plum tomatoes, cored and sliced into thin strips
2 tablespoons salted capers, soaked and rinsed
1/4 cup cured black olives, pitted
Red pepper flakes, to taste
8 basil leaves
Salt

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the rice and lower the heat. Simmer for 10 minutes, then drain the rice. Place the rice in a bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir in 50 grams of grated cheese. Set aside.

2. Place the remaining olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two, then add the onions, peppers and eggplant. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Then lower the heat to low, cover and stew for 10 minutes.

3. Remove the lid and add the tomatoes. Stir well, then cover again and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

4. Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium-high, add the capers, olives, red pepper flakes and basil leaves. Stir well and cook for a few minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Oil a baking dish.

6. Place half the rice in the dish evenly. Distribute half the vegetable mixture over the rice evenly. Top with half of the remaining grated cheese. Repeat with the remaining rice, vegetables and cheese. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 25 minutes, until the top is a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.


Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese

DSC_8287

I've just returned from a week in Sicily, where Rachel and I taught our food writing workshop at the splendidly picturesque Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. I have so much to tell you, but the words and impressions and images are still swirling around in my head and haven't had a chance to settle yet. While I was away, Hugo and Max went to visit Max's grandparents in deepest Bavaria. They communed with sheep, cows and chickens, wore rain boots all week, and generally had the best vacation a little boy could hope for.

We all got home this past weekend, to an empty fridge and an uninspiring larder. Even the bread box was bare. And since stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, shopping was out. Mercifully, my mother had us over for lunch on Sunday. There were oven-baked polpette encrusted with breadcrumbs, roast potatoes, salad, and gratineed eggplant. After a week of being cooked for at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I might feel like cooking again once I got home. But no, actually, being fed by someone else still felt pretty good.

At dinnertime, though, we were on our own. I picked up and considered a can of baked beans, a jar of millet, some carrots asleep in the fridge. I thought about doing a bit of tinkering. Roasting nuts, cooking lentils, trying to make something fresh out of the drabness staring back at me from the pantry. But after all that Sicilian home cooking - the expertly balanced menus, richly flavorful sauces, the vegetables that tasted so deeply of themselves and the earth, and crisp fritti - culinary experimentation felt a little sacrilegious. And after a week of not seeing my loves, the last thing I felt like doing was sequestering myself in the kitchen for an hour.

Instead, I went all the way back to the most basic of basics with the things I always always always have around: rice and peas and a little bit of broth; an abbreviated, simplifed risi e bisi. You could go elsewhere for more complicated versions of that classic Italian dish (David Tanis' with pancetta and pea shoots and lemon zest, oh my, or Rachel's via Marcella Hazan, with homemade stock, fresh peas and Italian rice). But in a pinch, it's good to know that cutting corners works just fine too. This is how I cook when I don't want to cook.

I heated olive oil in a pan, then cooked the rice (regular long-grain, nothing fancy) in the oil until it was toasty and fragrant. In went a lot of water, enough to cook the rice and still have a bit pooling in each plate after serving. The water sizzled as it hit the hot pan. Then a few spoonfuls of Better than Bouillon's vegetable base were stirred in. (You could also use a bouillon cube. I often do.) When the rice was halfway cooked, tiny droplets of oil pooling at the surface of the water, I added twice as many frozen peas, then let the whole mixture cook together until the rice was finished.

DSC_8304

I spooned the rice and peas into our bowls, the broth pooling just slightly at the edges, put grated Parmesan on top to shrivel in the heat and melt. It felt like the truest nursery food, calming and nourishing, piping hot and agreeably savory.

You don't actually need a recipe for this, I think. But sometimes it's nice to know about the simplest, silliest meals, how we feed ourselves when we must make do. Knowing how to make a little thing that will fill you up and taste like home is just as important as knowing how to make a feast. These are the dishes that end up making up the fabric of flavors of your life.

Rice and Peas and Broth and Cheese
Serves 2 adults and one toddler

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup long-grain rice
2-3 teaspoons Better Than Bouillon vegetable base (or a bouillon cube)
2 cups frozen peas
Grated Parmesan, for serving

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan, then add the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice is fragrant and slightly toasted. Pour in 3 cups of cold water and add the bouillon base. Bring to a boil, then reduce to the heat to a simmer, with the lid on and slightly askew.

2. After about 7 minutes, add the frozen peas and stir well. Raise the heat to bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer again and finish cooking, with the lid on and slightly askew, another 7-10 minutes. The rice should be soft but not mushy. There should still be some liquid in the pan.

3. Ladle the mixture into bowls and top with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.


Amy Chaplin's Black Rice Breakfast Pudding with Coconut and Banana

Black rice pudding

Last fall, a publisher sent me a heavy package. Inside were two copies of Amy Chaplin's At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, a vegan cookbook and whole foods manual of sorts. Amy used to be the executive chef at Angelica's Kitchen, the legendary vegan restaurant in New York City, and now works as a private chef, teacher and recipe developer. At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen is her magnum opus, if I may be so bold, a well-researched, deliciously crafted and carefully written guide to making the most of all the wide array of plants - from whole grains to beans to vegetables to seaweed, yes - available to us today. It feels like an instant classic, modern and interesting and definitive. (Also, the photography is jaw-droppingly beautiful.)

These days, it's tough to keep up with the onslaught of information blaring at you from every corner, and the cookbook market is no exception. The rate at which new cookbooks come down the pipeline is crazy, for lack of a better word, and the speed and haste in which they are thrown together is sometimes depressingly apparent. But in this case it's clear that Amy poured an enormous amount of work into getting the book just right. There is so much information here, so many thoughtful little tips and nice stories, not to mention the delicious recipes, that it really earns the adjective of encyclopedic. I'm so impressed.

Black rice pudding with bananas

I've cooked from the book for several months now, but I've also kept it by my bed for a soothing bedtime read and I'm happy to say that it works on both counts. For those of you who are interested in why soaking grains is so good for you, how to use seaweed to bolster the flavor of beans, for example, or how to make desserts out of things like ground toasted coconut, maple syrup and oat flour, you need this book. And if you're a vegan, this book will become your Joy of Cooking. I'm not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but the recipes are so richly conceived and so well-developed that they don't read as "special diets" food, but rather as warming, soulful, wonderful food, the kind I'd like to eat all the time. (There are a few exceptions, mostly in the dessert chapter, but I imagine that for people who are gluten-free or vegan or lactose-intolerant or all of the the above, it's manna from heaven. I mean, toasted coconut crust for pies, chocolate pots de crème, Earl Grey fruit cake, helloooo?)

My latest discovery in the book is a black rice breakfast pudding made with coconut milk and lightly sweetened with maple syrup. You soak the rice overnight first, then cook it with coconut milk, water and nut milk (those of us who aren't vegan can use regular milk, like I did, which makes the pudding creamier than nut milk will) until it's soft and creamy and the "pudding" is a deep, beautiful purple. Spooned into a bowl and topped with cool slices of banana and some crisped-up toasted pieces of coconut (regretfully missing from the photos here), it's the nicest breakfast I've had in a long while. Warming, rib-sticking, tropical. Hugo loved it too, by the way!

Black rice pudding with banana and coconut

My husband is obsessed with Amy's turmeric lemonade that I doctored with blood oranges during a recent onset of the flu, and next up on our to-try list is her silky cauliflower-celery root soup made with two whole roasted heads of garlic and roasted shiitakes. There's cherry-coconut granola and a corn-tofu frittata, a hibiscus drink made with ginger and citrus and a black bean butternut stew, among so many other things I cannot wait to try.

And! The second copy is for one of you! Yippee! Just leave me a comment and tomorrow evening I'll pick a winner.

Have a wonderful Friday, everyone. March is almost here!

UPDATE: Anne is the winner! Thanks for participating, everyone! Comments are now closed.

Amy Chaplin's Black Rice Breakfast Pudding with Coconut and Banana
Adapted from At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup black rice, washed and soaked in 4 cups of water for 12-24 hours
1 cup coconut milk
1 1/4 cups milk (cow or almond)
2 cups water
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup maple syrup or coconut nectar
Sliced banana, for serving
Toasted coconut flakes, for serving

1. Drain and rinse the rice. Place in a heavy-bottomed pot and add the coconut milk, almond or cow's milk, the water and the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat without the lid, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes. (Some liquid may escape - as above.)

2. When the rice is tender and the pudding is creamy, remove from heat and stir in the sweetener. If desired, you can thin the pudding with a little extra nut or cow's milk. Serve topped with sliced banana and toasted coconut. Leftovers can be reheated the next day with a little water stirred in to loosen the pudding.


Diane Kochilas' Tomato, Oregano and Feta Risotto

DSC_2724

I've been feeling a bit like a wrung-out dishrag lately, creatively speaking, I mean. A reader very kindly pointed out the other day that you all would be a lot happier if I posted more often, to which I could only bleat "I'm so sorry, I know!" at the screen and sink my head in defeat. I mean, I'm the first to feel bereft when my favorite blogs go silent for more than a few days.

I guess I poured so much energy and heart into finishing the book that now that it's over, instead of feeling full of inspiration and moxie, I'm feeling a little empty when it comes to cooking and writing about it. For a few weeks after I finished work on the manuscript (and the final testing of the recipes), I could not turn on the stove to save my life. I just couldn't. I couldn't stand the sight of the measuring cups, the mixing bowls, the sink waiting to be filled with dirty dishes. I had to stop seeing it as the final frontier, the final battle zone between me and the finished manuscript before I could enter it again with hunger and a lust for cooking.

Add that to the fact that I am now single-digit weeks (eeep!) away from giving birth and you'll understand why sometimes I sit here in front of the computer trying to think of things to tell you, but coming up empty. I mean, I can spend hours thinking about organic baby mattresses, what on earth - WHAT - we should name our baby and, uh, trying to wrap my head around labor, but then dinnertime rolls around and I'm eating a handful of sliced cucumber and a peanut butter sandwich. You know?

But enough about that.

DSC_2708

Remember Elaine Louie's wonderful The Temporary Vegetarian column in the New York Times? The source of such delicious things as Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez's Chana Punjabi, Aytekin Yar's Zucchini Pancakes and Julie Sahni's Green Beans Bihari? I loved that column so much. (It no longer exists, but you can buy the book it was turned into right here.) Slowly but surely, I'm hoping to cook my way through most of the recipes she published (Cabbage Strudel, anyone? I'm still kicking myself for having lived mere minutes away from the strudel shop on Queens Boulevard for almost three years and never having made it there.).

The recipe with which Louie retired the column was from Diane Kochilas, Greek food writer and consulting chef at Pylos: a Greek riff on the classic Italian risotto, using ouzo instead of white wine and feta cheese instead of Parmesan and butter. I made it for dinner last night and the one thing I kept thinking as I ate it was, forgive my ineloquence, woah.

The risotto looks like it will just be a sweet little tomato-ey thing, flecked with some well-meaning oregano, but it turns out to be a flavor bomb, an umami explosion, if you will, almost too intense to actually eat. The convergence of the feta and the anise liqueur and the fresh tomato and the lemon zest is sort of epic, really. I practically had to wipe my brow as I worked my way through the bowl. (And this was without adding any salt besides what was already in the broth, people.)

I left out the garlic that was in the original recipe, because I think garlic in risotto should be against the law, and I used Pernod instead of ouzo because that's what I had in the house and if I made this again, I would use water instead of broth, probably, and also a bit less feta, because I actually don't really like to feel like I'm fighting my way through dinner, even if it does taste very good. But eating it in the soft dusk light that came in from the balcony and being reminded of our trip to Greece last September was lovely, really, and just the kind of thing that makes me want to cook again and again and again.

Diane Kochilas' Tomato, Oregano and Feta Risotto
Serves 4
Note: To grate a tomato, halve crosswise and grate the cut side with a coarse grater over a lipped cutting board or bowl. Grate as close to the skin as possible, then discard the skin.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth
1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1/3 cup Pernod
1 1/3 cups grated ripe tomato (about 3 or 4 large plum tomatoes)
2/3 cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves
Finely grated zest of a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, optional

1. In a large, deep skillet over medium-low heat, heat olive oil until shimmering. Add onion and stir until soft, about 6 minutes. Place broth in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.

2. Raise heat to medium, and add rice to skillet. Stir until well-coated with olive oil and starting to soften slightly, 2-3 minutes. Add 1 cup of the simmering broth. Keep stirring gently until the rice absorbs all the broth. Add Pernod and stir until absorbed.

3. Add grated tomato and stir gently until the mixture is dense. Add remaining broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring until each addition is absorbed, until the rice is creamy but al dente, 25 to 30 minutes.

4. Add feta and stir until melted and risotto is creamy and thick. Stir in oregano and lemon zest, and season to taste, if needed, with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and serve immediately.


Corinne Trang's Rice Porridge with Chicken and Lemon Grass (Chao xa ga)

DSC_9088

I have been doing a lot of stock-cooking lately. Beef bones, chicken wings, bay leaves, peppercorns - these all have moved to the front of the burner lately as I adjust to a life without ready-made chicken or beef stock base in my fridge. Who would have thought that of all the goods stocked in an American grocery store, I'd come to miss Better Than Bouillon most of all? Not I.

First of all, I underestimated my reliance on it. Second of all, I had no idea that it would be so hard to come by anything other than granulated bouillon (ick) or very, very expensive jars of chicken stock (we're talking 2-cup servings for, oh, 5, 6, 7 euros a pop) in Germany. So I make a lot of stock these days. Combine that with the fact that I have the most adorably tiny freezer (if by adorable you understand that I mean infuriating) and my new normal is coming up with weekly reasons to eat soup.

Of course, as I'm sure many of you would love to yell at the screen right now, Better Than Bouillon, even if miles - many of them - better than granulated, does not hold a candle to homemade stock or broth. Still! I loved it so. It really was a cornerstone of my kitchen. Anyway.

S. Irene Virbila wrote the loveliest article the other day about congee, Chinese rice porridge, a simple meal of rice cooked in water that you then get to gussy up with all kinds of delectable things: chile paste, roasted peanuts, drizzles of soy sauce, fried ground pork. In all my years in New York and during my long love affair with Chinese food, I'd actually never eaten congee before. I tried to go for dinner at Congee Village once and was thwarted by the masses waiting ahead of me for a table. And let's be honest, rice gruel or rice porridge always sounded a little disappointing. A little too medicinal for dinnertime. Like something you had to grow up eating to love.

Silly, silly girl.

Because I'd had a big pot of chicken stock hanging out in my fridge for a few days, I decided to make the Vietnamese version of congee, chao xa ga, which has a slightly more flavorful base (chicken broth boiled together with lemongrass and chili) than regular congee. You cook rice in that fragrant broth until it's soft and (almost) falling apart - the recipe said to cook the rice for more than an hour, while I stopped after 45 minutes. Cooked, shredded chicken meat bolsters the porridge a bit, turning it into a proper meal, while fresh lemon juice and chopped cilantro or saw leaves brighten up the final plate. A plate gobbled up so fast I'd almost rather not admit it.

I initially meant to make this for dinner last night, for three men at our table. But I got a little spooked by the idea that rice porridge might be more of a lady's meal - after all, would I be able to sufficiently feed hungry dudes on something as delicate-sounding as lemon grass-scented rice gruel? After eating it for lunch, by myself, I decided I need to have those friends over again to make up for the error of my ways. Flavorful, filling, slightly spicy and - of course - delicious, I almost felt guilty enjoying chao xa ga all on my own.

Best of all, while I sat here in my Berlin kitchen, waiting for my Vietnamese soup to cook, planning to make Hunanese chopped salted chiles (did the water just spontaneously burst forth in your mouth?) for when I make a proper Chinese congee, I was struck yet again by how much fun cooking can be, how deeply satisfying a venture it is - you have directions in front of you from someone you must trust, who got those directions from someone else herself and so on, you follow those directions, you stand back and suddenly you're in the middle of eating a meal that people on the very opposite side of the universe might be having for lunch right now. Pardon me if that sounds rather obvious or silly, but it made me very happy indeed.

So next up, congee. And then my chicken broth/stock stockpile will be depleted once more, and it'll be back to the stove with chicken parts again. So, tell me, readers, what's your very favorite broth or stock recipe? What do you come back to again and again to stock your freezer with?

Chao xa ga (Rice Porridge with Chicken and Lemon Grass)
Servings: 4 to 6

9 cups chicken broth
2 stalks lemon grass, trimmed (outer leaves, tough green tops and root ends removed), cut into 1-inch pieces and lightly crushed
2 to 3 red bird's eye or Thai chiles, stemmed
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 cup jasmine rice (or similar rice)
2 cooked chicken legs, boned, skinned and shredded
Coarse sea salt
1/2 cup julienned saw (ngo gai) or cilantro leaves
Lemon wedges for serving

1. Pour the chicken broth into a pot and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the lemon grass, chiles and fish sauce and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the rice and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an 1 hour.

2. Stir in the shredded chicken and season to taste with salt. Continue to cook until the chicken is heated through, about 15 minutes, or if the chicken is freshly cooked and still warm, just until combined. Divide the congee among 4 to 6 large soup bowls, garnish with the herb leaves and 1 wedge of lemon for each serving.


Mark Bittman's Hainanese Chicken with Rice

Dsc_3927

Thank you all, you big sweethearts, for your congratulations and good wishes and love. I'm basking in it all - we are, I should say - and I don't want this feeling to ever end. I knew people liked romance, but I didn't know how much! It feels a little anti-climactic to write this next post about food again: "I just got engaged! Now let me tell you about this toast." But we keep eating and I keep writing and so it goes, just with a bigger grin these days.

* * *

I am, in a word, a sucker for Chinese food. It's become a full-blown obsession of mine, in fact. Perhaps it's fed by the fact that Ben dislikes it and we've moved to a neighborhood where there's no good Chinese food in walking distance (O, Manhattan, this is what I miss!), I don't know, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of ways I can eat more of it.

(A few times after the New York Times published this map, I'd get in the car and drive to Flushing, where I'd scurry into the subterranean warren of food stands where no one speaks any English and the food seems as cheap and authentic as I imagine it to be in China itself. Five minutes later, with hot, porky, chili-oil-slicked noodles packed into a plastic take-away box and wrapped in a plastic bag dangling from my wrist, I'd dash out, hop in the car and speed home to eat noodles in blissful, mouth-tingling silence. The fly-by-night nature of the operation almost made it seem like I was conducting an illicit affair. My darling had plans after work and I dallied with translucent-skinned dumplings and fragrant soups. My sweetheart had to go into the city on a Saturday and I schemed to eat hand-pulled noodles and let Sichuan peppercorns numb my lips. Hoo, I get sweaty just thinking about it.)

But for some reason, I'm still a little scared of making Chinese food at home. Yes, I'm daunted by the long ingredient lists. Also, I don't own a wok or have the pleasure of a dining companion willing to ingest copious amounts of ground pork at every meal. Is that enough reason to keep myself from making the food I currently love the most? Absolutely not. Do I jump with glee every time one of the newspapers publishes a Chinese recipe, just because then it feels like a challenge that I have to complete? Yes, indeed.

Dsc_3935

Mark Bittman's Hainanese chicken has quite a bit going for it. First of all, it makes A Lot of Food. Enough to feed a family of four or six, I'd say, or two with leftovers for lunch for at least a couple of days. Second of all, you'll get a few quarts of chicken stock - lovely, ginger-and-garlic scented chicken stock - out of it, perfect for freezing and drinking in times of sickness or for cooking rice. I'm trying my hardest right now to economize and find meals where I didn't before (but spending a few extra dollars on an organic, free-ranging chicken seems worth it, nevertheless). Third of all, in the annals of Chinese recipes, it is so easy you could almost do it with your eyes closed, which is what I find most appealing, of course.

You boil a chicken with ginger and garlic for 10 minutes, then turn off the flame and let the chicken sit in hot broth for almost an hour. Then you use the hot broth to cook the rice. It's a one-dish meal, with cucumbers and tomatoes and chopped scallions all arranged right on top of the chicken and rice and served at the table with a dipping sauce.

The dipping sauce is the one problem with this whole recipe. It's basically just oil mixed with ginger and chopped scallions and it feels a little odd, to be dipping chunks of chicken into oil (I halved the amount of oil called for, but still). The next time I make this, I'll simply toss the chicken with the ginger, scallions and sesame oil and then pile the whole lot on top of the rice.

For someone who professes to dislike Chinese food, Ben had an awful lot of this at dinner. It's not takeout from Flushing, no, and it's not nearly hot and funky enough for my tastes, but I'm counting it as a minor success. Besides, now I've got the goods for homemade fried rice - my first ever - and that's cause for celebration!

Hainanese Chicken with Rice
Serves 4 to 6

Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole (3- to 4-pound) chicken, trimmed of excess fat
Several cloves smashed garlic, plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
Several slices fresh ginger, plus 1 tablespoon minced ginger
4 tablespoons peanut oil, or neutral oil, like corn or canola
3 shallots, roughly chopped, or a small onion
2 cups long-grain rice
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1/2 cup minced scallions
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
2 tomatoes, sliced
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add chicken to pot along with smashed garlic and sliced ginger. Bird should be completely submerged, but only just. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let bird remain in water for 45 minutes to an hour, covered, or until it is cooked through.

2. Remove chicken from pot, reserve stock, and let bird cool to room temperature. Put 4 tablespoons peanut oil in a skillet over medium heat; you may add trimmed chicken fat to this also. When oil is hot, add remaining garlic, along with shallots; cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, until glossy. Add 4 cups reserved chicken stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover; cook for about 20 minutes, until rice has absorbed all liquid. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.

3. Combine the sesame oil, ginger, half the scallions and a large pinch of salt.

4. Shred or chop chicken, discarding skin. Toss the chicken with the sesame oil mixture. Put rice on a large platter and mound chicken on top of it; decorate platter with cucumbers, tomatoes and cilantro, and serve.


Regina Schrambling's Edamame and Rice Salad with Fines Herbes Vinaigrette

Dsc_0021

I was planning on writing a post about granola today - about how I didn't think I'd like it, how I prefer my un-sugared flakes, how I was converted by this recipe, how I'd seen the light and now you could tooooo, except that it was a total disaster. Over-salted, burnt, cringe-worthy even when doused in yogurt and studded with blueberries. And it left me with nothing to write about, to boot. Oh, I hate hate hate it when that happens.

I guess it's a lesson. Don't mess with breakfast? Just keep eating your plain old flakes with milk and leave granola to the others. Sigh. Do you think I should try again? Molly's chocolate granola sounds dreamy, though I fear for my energy levels if I start having chocolate for breakfast. (I used to eat this treacly German cereal called Crunchy Nut when I was in high school - sugary corn flakes bedazzled with little pieces of peanuts, man, that stuff was heaven in a bowl and furthermore, much like crack for the delicate bloodlines of this girl who would eat a bowl for breakfast and proceed to practically hum with zany energy until lunchtime. Unless that was just because I was fifteen. Fifteen! Oh, come back, would you?)

And maybe it's also a kick in the pants to tell you about this rice salad I've been sitting on (well, not the salad, but you know) for a few weeks now. Upon first impression, there's not all that much special about this salad at all. I mean, there's rice, and some tender edamame (or favas, as the original recipe calls for but which are far too difficult to track down in this city and, in any case, to deal with once they are tracked down) and a few crunchy bits of red pepper and fennel, some nice bright herbs and a sprightly dressing. But it's not exactly rocket science, right? In fact, it seems mostly like a kitchen-sink type of dish, you know, the kind that you cobble together out of all the odd bits and bobs lying around your pantry and your fridge.

Dsc_0016

So, you know, not all that special, though certainly delicious and filling and different - for God's sakes - from all the pots of plain boiled rice we seem to eat around these parts. And goodness, but suddenly that recipe seems a little scant for two people, let alone four, let's double it next time. And there was the strange fact that I kept making versions of this salad with whatever I could find lying around the house. Sauteed ramps and peas with mint and some lemon juice instead of the edamame and peppers and fines herbes. Or toasty Indian spices and canned lima beans. Suddenly room-temperature rice spruced up with all sorts of delicious things feels elemental, like we'll be eating it all summer long and with gusto.

It's hardly rocket science, no, but it's creeping its way into my permanent repertoire and that's chemistry, at least.

Edamame and Rice Salad with Fines Herbes Vinaigrette
Serves 2 to 3

1/3 cup sliced almonds
Salt
1 1/2 cups frozen edamame
1/2 cup long-grain rice, preferably basmati or jasmine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
2 teaspoons chopped chives
1 teaspoon finely chopped oregano (technically this is meant to be chervil, but oregano is what I've got on my balcony)
1 teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely diced red pepper
1/4 cup finely diced fennel

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Toast the almonds in the oven on a baking sheet until fragrant, about 10 minutes, and set aside.

2. Fill a medium saucepan with water and add about a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil and cook the frozen edamame for 4 to 5 minutes, just until tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a shallow bowl to cool. Bring the pot of water back to a low boil.

3. Rinse the rice in a small strainer, then add the rice to the boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, just until tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

4. While the rice is cooking, whisk together the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl, then whisk in the oil until the dressing emulsifies. Whisk in the chives, oregano, parsley and tarragon. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper, or to taste.

5. Strain the cooked rice and add it to the edamame. Pour half the vinaigrette over the mixture. Add the red pepper and fennel and toss until coated. Add more vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste.

6. If you are serving the salad right away, sprinkle the toasted almonds over the top. If you want to chill it, cover the salad and refrigerate until needed. Just before serving, stir the salad again and add more vinaigrette if needed, then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.


Chez Panisse's Butternut Squash Risotto

P1120679

I've been reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us over the past few weeks. Usually, I breeze through books in a few hours flat, but I can only take a little bit of this one at a time. I read part of a chapter each night before bed, then close the book feeling slightly wide-eyed and totally desperate. It's tough to read this book without feeling that life on earth really is rather futile and pointless, and I'm sure I don't need to tell anyone that this isn't exactly a helpful attitude to have if you're trying to be a normal, functioning human being with hopes and dreams and goals (who wants to end up like George Sibley, after all?).

We drove out to a nature preserve on Long Island yesterday, past empty strip malls and prefab homes, down winding lanes and old stone walls. We ended up in a tiny 6-car parking lot where the air was light and clean and almost entirely quiet except for the very gentle wind in the trees and the occasional bird calling out and the usual hustle and bustle of chipmunks skittering over the moist earth and softly rotting leaves. We sat in our car with the doors open and ate sandwiches Ben had made, chewing quietly in order not to disturb the aural peace, then made our way through the grassy paths - hot underfoot from the strange October sun - to the cooler, darker, sun-dappled forest. Fallen tree trunks, covered in moss and lichen, blocked our path now and then, and the crackling twigs and leaves that heralded our arrival made birds and smaller animals flit away in a small flurry of movement. The forest smelled fresh and piney.

Our winding path led us to a grassy bluff overlooking the Long Island Sound. We took our shoes off and walked up and down the beach, picking up opalescent rocks, creamy-white quahog shells, and weathered sticks of driftwood. We watched seagulls feast on their lunch, dashing mussels on the rocks, diving underwater and coming back up with their beaks smacking, picking at little and not-so-little crabs. Regular gourmands, those gulls. The Sound was a deep, dark blue - the color of my great-aunt Luisa's silk wedding dress - and lapped at the shore soothingly. We passed a lone couple splayed out on a blanket fast asleep and I could almost feel the cool, wet sand under my shoulder blades as I watched them out of the corner of my eyes.

P1120713

On our drive back home again I tried hard to hold onto the sounds of the ocean and the forest. But it's harder than you think, once winding bridle paths give way to turnpikes and local highways. Plus, Led Zeppelin was on the radio, and I can't ever turn off Led Zeppelin - it reminds me of Berlin and the people I grew up with, 8th grade dances on a ski trip in Austria and the absolutely glorious awkwardness of youth. Those are memories I've always got time for. The nature preserve fell further and further behind us, and we daydreamed about the day when we'll live by the ocean full-time - writing, making music, sipping tea. It's mostly an illusion, but these conversations move life forward, I suspect, keeping our gears oiled and running.

Forgive me, readers, but at home I took one look at my newspaper recipe files and turned away. I've read them through one too many times lately, can't seem to find the enthusiasm right now to make my way through another one just yet. Instead, I went to the fridge and poked through the various bags of CSA produce sitting in the crisper drawers, finding half a butternut squash, some crusty-looking beets, limpish kale, a dusty-brown head of garlic (well, that wasn't in the fridge) and a bundle of soft sage. Ben wandered in and wondered out loud if we shouldn't just order. I shooed him out again.

With Chez Panisse Vegetables open on the counter, I started roasting the beets for salad (page 44), cubing the butternut squash for risotto (page 282) and gently frying rosemary and garlic for the beans and kale (page 40). The beets sweetened and mellowed in the oven. I slipped off their thickish skins and sliced them thinly, then dressed them with nothing but flaky salt, olive oil and vinegar. The cubed squash simmered gently in sage-scented broth, while rice toasted in oil and butter and the onions grew translucent from the heat. The risotto, green-flecked and squash-studded, was sweet and faintly chewy - the squash toothsome and yielding. The crispy, fried sage leaves broke with the tiniest of crackles under the tines of our forks. The beans, canned, because life is sometimes not ready for dried, grew melting and stewy in their rosemary oil bath, and the chopped kale cooked down silkily around them. Drizzled with a greenish thread of fresh olive oil, the greens and beans were pleasingly herbal and earthy.

P1120746

It was a good dinner, after a good day, despite the pinprick of melancholy I couldn't shake. The routine of preparing a meal and feeding the people you love: it never really gets old. That's part of what keeps us going, I suppose, routines and love and stupid, foolish hope that we won't really destroy the very thing that enables our existence.

Butternut Squash Risotto
Serves 6 to 8

1 medium butternut squash (about 1 pound)
24 sage leaves
Salt and pepper
7 to 8 cups chicken stock
1 medium onion
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

1. Peel and clean the squash, then dice it into very small cubes. Put the diced squash in a heavy-bottomed pan with a few whole sage leaves, salt and 1 cup of the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, but not too soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop 6 sage leaves fine and cut the onion into small dice.

2. Heat the rest of the stock and hold at a low simmer. In another heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of butter, add the chopped sage and cook for a minute or so; add the onion and continue to cook over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and a pinch of salt and cook over low heat for about 3 minutes, stirring often, until the rice has turned slightly translucent. Turn up the heat and pour in the white wine. When the wine has been absorbed, add just enough hot stock to cover the rice, stir well and reduce the heat.

3. Keep the rice at a gently simmer and continue to add more stock, a ladle or two at a time, letting each addition be absorbed by the rice. While the rice is cooking, saute the remaining sage leaves in butter until crisp.

4. After 15 minutes, the rice will be nearly cooked. Stir in the cooked squash, the rest of the butter and the cheese. Continue cooking for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Taste for texture and consistency, adding more stock if necessary. Adjust the seasoning. When done, serve in warm bowls and garnish with crisp sage leaves, and more cheese if desired.