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Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Chickpea Crêpes, Masala Dosa style

instant dosas with chickpea flour, ground rice and yogurt

Project 1 of Panic Week: “instant” dosas made with chickpea flour, rice and yogurt. The heavy dose of mustard seed and black pepper is surprisingly good.

Planning the cooking for Passover usually means thinking about the week itself, buying matzah and gefilte fish and horseradish and so on. But for me, it also means using up the open bags of flour, beans, rice and pasta, plus whatever yogurt, cheese and milk I have left, and yet not overdosing on starches. And I’ve just gotten the taxes done, so it’s time to look in the fridge and panic.

We’ve got just over a week to go before Passover, and there’s still a lot of chametz in the house…a pack of fillo (luckily only one), a pound each of dried chickpeas and red lentils, a bag of mung beans I don’t really know how to use, some rice, a bowl of dough…wonton wrappers. Chickpea flour! Rye flour! Why did I leave it all this long [breaks down and bangs head against wall for a second]?

I don’t usually want to cook or serve that much starch in a single week, but at least most of it is legumes with some fiber and protein. So I’ve been thinking about foods–both chametz and not-chametz–that don’t have to be devastating dietwise or empty your wallet or take forever and a half to cook.

Because even with snow on the ground all over the east coast, where my mom and my sister and most of my old friends are still shoveling it out of their driveways this late in March, Pesach is coming. And then maybe an actual spring with shorts weather? We can only hope! Time to lighten up in anticipation.

This week I’ve decided to post the chametz countdown (aka, “Panic Week”), and the next week or so, a couple of attempts at a Pesach week with mostly fresh, simple foods and a lot more vegetables, and without the usual total matzah-on-eggs-on-more-starch-and-potatoes-and-choke-cake-and-too-many-canned-macaroons kind of meal plan…can it be done? I think so. As long as I don’t let my husband do the shopping. Can it be done in a microwave? I’m counting on it.

Anyway–back to the Panic Week Project. First up, the chickpea flour and rice…as a batter for on-the-spot masala dosas. Continue reading

New hope for lowering arsenic levels in rice

A new study has identified a key protein in rice plants that allows some varieties to keep any absorbed arsenic safely contained in a separate part of the plant from the grain itself. The authors are hoping to introduce the gene for this highly effective transporter protein into plant strains that don’t have much of it and see whether the new genetic hybrids can reduce the arsenic level in major rice crops.


Taking the chaos out of batch cooking

When my husband and I were much younger, we stayed a week with the children of some friends who wanted to go off skiing on spring break. In preparation, the mother batch-cooked a huge dutch oven each of chicken breasts and brisket for the week–just for their two young children and us. She left elaborate instructions about how to reheat it (I’m not sure she trusted us to know how to cook anything). I can tell you that even in my 20s I thought that was an awful lot of meat, and by the end of the week we were really, really tired of it. Even the kids.

On the other hand, a friend out here who has something in the range of adult ADD has a hard time cooking anything that takes longer than about 5 minutes because she’s so easily distracted she forgets to eat. Keeping track of multiple cooking steps  is genuinely daunting to her, as it is for many people with ADD and ADHD. She’s taken the expensive brown-rice-bowls and organic-microwaveable-freezer-meals-for-one route (keeping brand names out of it for the moment) but wishes she could find a better and cheaper way to deal with dinner. I suspect she wishes my east coast friend could supply her with a couple of dutch ovens’ worth of meals…

I bring up these two friends because lately I’ve started running across Meals-for-a-Month how-to books. They pop up every once in a while in the cookbook aisles of your favorite bookstore (or the 641 section of your local library). They’ve been reappearing since at least the early 1970s, when a major recession under Nixon led people to rethink their household budgets. Now these books are back in “For Dummies” and “Everything” versions, complete with tie-ins to About.com and other popular web portals.

The basic premise sounds ideal: shop and cook just once a month, the books promise, and you get a month of frozen real-food reheat-and-serve meals at your convenience, and you still save money. I keep hoping there’s some kind of solution in them for people short on time, cash and kitchen tolerance, but so far I’ve been disappointed.

Read one of these books and you quickly realize why almost no one follows them for long. First, if you hate to cook, you’re going to hate cooking marathons even more. Especially if they look like all-kitchen circus-style nightmares of boiling chicken and roasting AND stewing beef and slicing ham and cheese while also cutting vegetables while mixing sauces while separately packaging just enough gingersnaps for each package of the sauerbraten (assuming you even like sauerbraten or know what it is anymore) and finding the right sized bags and labels and and and and….

If you batch-cook the way these books suggest (in the intro section “game plan” complete with NFL-style charts), your once-a-month cooking scheme will probably take you all weekend (shopping alone is a full day) and wear you out from dawn til dusk. One weekend a month. I bet this is where most people flipping through to see if it’s the solution to their dilemma quietly shut the book, put it back on the shelf and edge away as quickly as possible.

These books also seem to replicate the worse aspects of frozen tv dinners, only without the convenience. The food’s too elaborate and long-cooking–mostly heavy meat stews and casseroles taken straight out of the 1950s Americana repertoire, and the scale-ups still only stretch to two or three meals for a family of four. If you go that route, you’d need ten recipes, and a huge freezer.

Also, there are no, and I mean no, shortcuts. I’ve looked. Each main dish is an hour or more by conventional methods. The reheats alone typically take at least half an hour and some extra cooking steps–and this is after having thawed the packages overnight in the fridge. Have the authors never heard of a microwave? Wasn’t avoiding repetitive, excessive cooking the whole point of once-a-month cooking? Do you really want to have to plan so much and follow so many steps–especially if you’re on the ADD end of things? Or even if you aren’t.

It would make so much more sense to simply buy a big resealable bag of frozen chicken parts and some bags of frozen vegetables and large cans of beans and tomatoes and boxes of spaghetti and relearn some cheap, easy and fast-cooking techniques from your college student repertoire. Wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, this is not the way people who traditionally have to cook big on a tight budget cook. Most people don’t have as much money at any one time as they’d need to pay for a month’s worth of food in a lump sum, nor do they generally have a dedicated extra freezer to fit it all in.

But batch cooking itself can work out and still treat you gently on a more modest scale. You just need to choose what makes sense to cook in multi-meal batches, and not do every possible big job all at once.

Unless you hunt and dress venison for the winter or have a garden with enough produce that you need to harvest and put up in bulk at the end of summer to keep it from spoiling, you don’t really need to do marathon-style cooking. Continue reading

Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.

Still….

2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and Continue reading

A Handful of Farina Breads

Simit bread or "beigele" with labaneh and herb spread

It’s been a couple or three weeks since my last post. I am currently in the desperate process of using up as much hametz, which is flour-yeast-bread-beans-lentils-rice-pasta-fillo-dough-oatmeal-etcetera, as possible before Passover. Right after Purim  I discovered I still had about 5 sacks of dried beans and lentils cleverly saved up and a sack of whole wheat flour and a 2-lb. bag each of bulgur AND farina! And a pound of wild rice. And a new bag of soy flour. Most of all which I couldn’t donate to the food shelter because it was either bulk or partly opened. Yeesh. What’s a girl to do?

Well…we’re certainly going to find out in the next couple of posts, aren’t we?…Even my suddenly-vegetarian daughter–yes, the very same one who kept bugging me about why I wasn’t cooking enough chicken for her last year–is wondering whether she has the stomach for more black bean burritos in the next two or three weeks (her conclusion: as long as there’s chipotle salsa around, what’s the problem?) My husband is looking at both of us cross-eyed.

Okay, then. Project #1 (well, after the pot of black beans, anyway; those were pretty standard and don’t call for a post): bread.

Long, long ago, in a kibbutz kitchen far, far away, I made some bread for my parents, who were coming to Israel for a visit during the year I was there. December in Israel–drizzly and cold some days, bright and cool others. You never know what you’re going to get.

But I’d missed my parents dearly for half a year. To celebrate seeing them I had in mind something like one of the blackish poppy-filled strudel I’d seen in a Romanian bakery in the middle of Haifa’s downtown “Hadar” shopping district amid the felafel stands and bookstalls. Only I wanted something not sweet, and with a better dough. A savory bread, like a bialy but with poppy seeds. So onion and maybe a little parsley or dill, now that I’d worked in the side kitchen for 5 months and knew the Hebrew names for both herbs.

I decided on a basic bread dough, flour-water-yeast-salt with a bit of oil. I rolled it out flat into a long rectangle and filled it with chopped, fried onions, parsley, dill, thyme and salt (it actually had too much salt, to my embarrassment, but my mother loved it anyway) and a couple of handfuls of poppy seeds. Then I rolled up the column of bread, twisted it around itself into a longish double rope, glazed it with egg yolk and baked it. It was pretty good and looked impressive. And it was really easy. My mother ate it all week sightseeing while my dad was at his conference.

Those days are gone, but a recent trip my husband took brought back the memory along with a couple of loaves of multigrain herb bread from a traditional German bakery he discovered in Tehachapi. The breads lasted an entire week at room temperature (of course, our humidity’s so low in Pasadena that this may be an exception) without seriously high salt in the dough, and every time we passed the dining room table, the aroma of dill and thyme and scallions and sourdough made us want to tear off a chunk to eat just as-is.

Two weeks ago was Purim, the feast of lots (as in drawing lots to determine someone’s fate, not lots as in lots-of-hametz-to-use-up). It’s the holiday from which we get the term “the whole Megillah”–the Megillah being the Scroll of Esther, a long Scheherezade-style story set in Persia and very long to read out loud in one sitting to a large congregation while they cheer the heroes and boo the villain (also Scheherezade-style, it’s the wicked vizier–am I giving anything away? It’s always the wicked vizier, except when it isn’t. And did I mention it’s kind of long? Okay, then).

So anyway, I decided to make some of this scrolled bread to give as Purim shalachmones–food baskets sent to friends, but didn’t get that far this year. Hamantaschen was about the limit of my ability, since it’s also get-your-kid-into-a-decent-school-for-next-year lottery time.

Usually these days the mishloach manot (same term, without the Yiddish accent) are candy bars, bagged snack foods, and maybe some raisins or an orange to round out the “3 different foods” custom. Occasionally you still see hamantaschen but the junk food factor has really taken over very sadly, I gotta say, even if it’s Israeli junk food. I mean, okay, felafel-flavored Bisli is fun once, but it’s really not much better than Cheetos, except that the wrapper is a good exercise for my daughter’s Hebrew reading skills (especially once she figured out which word meant “carbohydrates” on the nutrition label).

Nobody on the west coast even makes poppy seed hamantaschen anymore, to say nothing of prune lekvar filling, the two classics of my childhood. It’s a cultural deterioration I aim to remedy. Maybe next year–but for now, this weekend, with a container of poppy seeds still in the freezer, I’m thinking about making the bread, since it’s delicious, also involves poppy seeds and is unlike anyone else’s. And because I have flour and yeast to use up before Pesach, which is now right around the corner.

So I started pulling the flour off the shelf and realized I’d used up all the bread flour for hamantaschen but I still had a good 3-4 pounds of whole wheat, which wouldn’t make a good bread all by its lonesome. And on the other hand, I had both bulgur and farina–bulgur for tabbouleh or a wheat version of polenta, but farina–2 pounds of it. Well…it’s wheat and fairly fine. Maybe if I ground it up a bit further in the coffee grinder? I did, though the end result seemed less than convincing that I’d made any difference in it at all. Still pretty grainy. Dumped it into the food processor anyway along with an equal amount of whole wheat flour, some yeast, a little salt, and enough water for a fairly stiff but elastic ball of dough once it was processed.

The dough was pretty heavy to lift out and the farina absorbed a lot of water but it did seem to be developing some stretch, at least. I let it rise overnight in the fridge and started testing it out the next day. Continue reading

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