Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Fenugreek

There's a great Indian supermarket near Chicago. Not a little store front with a few shelves of dusty imported jars of curry paste; but a full-on grocery that makes Indian cooking seem a lot less stressful for western cooks like me. Shopping there was so much fun and certainly inspiring.

I had a small list of ingredients to be on the lookout for. I found all but dried mango powder, and I'm sure it was there somewhere, escaping my inexperienced eye. The best part about shopping in an unfamiliar ethnic market, however, are the whims--items that catch your eye and you just have to have even if you're unsure what you'll do with them. I picked up ping pong ball-sized Thai green eggplant and a big, leafy bunch of methi leaves.

The methi leaves looked kind of like watercress and smelled a bit peppery. I did not know them by name and was not sure how they should be used. But they looked so fresh and alluringly unfamiliar, I knew I could figure something out. At home, I learned that these greens are also known as fresh fenugreek. You may be familiar with dried fenugreek seeds, which add a pleasantly bitter sweet flavor to savory dishes like curries.

I decided to use my bunch of methi leaves as the centerpiece of a red lentil soup, sauteeing them separately with a mixture of toasted spices and onion. Along with the Thai eggplant they brought some novelty to simple lentil soup. When was the last time you used an ingredient that was totally new to you?

Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Fenugreek
You can substitute cooked shrimp or hard boiled eggs for the crab meet. If you don't have fresh fenugreek, add some dried seeds along with the cumin seeds and use fresh baby spinach or watercress. Any type of eggplant may be substituted for the green Thai variety; or opt for chopped zucchini.

Serves 6

7 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups red lentils, rinsed (about 1 lb)
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp garam masala
5 green Thai eggplant
½ tsp salt
1 (14 oz) can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 Tbs ghee
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/8 tsp red chile flakes
1 medium yellow or white onion chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 cups methi leaves (fresh fenugreek leaves), about 4 handfuls, thick stems discarded and chopped, plus additional for garnish
1 cup crap meat (from about 1 lb Jonah crab claws, or from canned)
Lime wedges for serving

In a large pot, combine the broth, lentils, coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Add the eggplant and ½ tsp salt. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes more, or until lentils and eggplant are very tender. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 2 minutes.

About 10 to 15 minutes before lentils are done, heat the ghee in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cumin and chile flakes and cook, stirring often, until cumin starts to pop and brown. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the methi leaves and a pinch of salt and cook until wilted about 2 minutes.

Add onion mixture to lentils. Stir to combine and taste for seasoning. Ladle soup into bowls and top with crab meat. Sprinkle with reserved methi leaves and serve with lime wedges.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Irish Soda Scones with Raisins and Ginger



Simple Irish soda bread never gets old to me, but last week I was on the hunt for a new St. Patty's Day treat. I've already done Guinness cupcakes and was very tempted to bake up a batch of these Guinness brownies and call it a day. But holidays are the perfect time to be creative and take advantage of some festive inspiration, don't you think?.

Since I felt the chocolate options were well-represented here, I was leaning in the direction of buttery, pistachio-flecked something or other, but I couldn't quite get on board. I actually had a box of pistachio-flavored instant pudding in the cupboard purchased over 2 years ago to make these cookies. It never happened and the pudding came along when we moved from Florida to Chicago last summer. That was a wasted trip, since the stuff was marked with an expiration date that sadly passed over a year ago.

I wasn't too heart broken since cookies weren't quite what I wanted. Instead, I reverted to a favorite on this blog: big, hearty scones, studded with dried fruit and spices. This is a version of my absolute favorite recipe, with whole wheat pastry flour, oats and buttermilk. It also contains just enough butter to make the scones flavorful, not greasy, and the buttermilk (and gentle mixing) keeps them tender. They're much better tasting that a standard healthy scone recipe, but still quite good for you.

My favorite thing here is the contrast of the savory caraway seeds, which you usually find in rye bread, with the sweet pastry. It's a nice little surprise flavor that's still well-balanced. While sweet soda breads often contain raisins or currants, there are endless variations, and I swear I've seen ginger in the mix at some point. I used very finely chopped candied ginger and really liked the hit of spice and chewy texture.

Are you making anything special or traditional for St. Patrick's Day? Tell me about it in the comments!

Irish Soda Scones
This is an adaptation of my favorite scone recipe that I developed for a story on NPR.org. Click over for a cherry-walnut variation. If you can't find candied ginger, substitute 1/2 to 1 tsp ground; do not use fresh ginger. Coarse sugar is a pretty, simple topping that requires no extra work, but a vanilla and powdered sugar glaze would be delicious too.

Makes 8

3/4 cup oats, quick-cooking or regular
1 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (210 g)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
6 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup raisins
3 Tbs candied ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp caraway seeds
Coarse sugar (such as turbinado) for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg and vanilla.

Work the cold butter cubes into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, a fork or your fingers until you have a loose mixture with some chunks of butter remaining.

Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir for a few seconds to barely moisten the flour. Add the raisins, ginger and caraway seeds, and stir gently just until ingredients are combined. Do not over mix.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a thick disk. Dust lightly with flour and roll it into a circle, about 8 inches in diameter and 3/4-inch thick. With a large, floured knife, cut dough into 8 wedges and place on prepared baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until bottoms are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Mini Goat Cheese Biscuits with Lavender

I recently had friends over for Sunday brunch. Since I love making breakfast food, it was the perfect opportunity to go a little overboard. When it's just Mike and I, I need to restrain myself. We can't eat a frittata, a sweet quick bread, a savory quick bread and crepes all by ourselves. But throw a party and suddenly that menu is totally acceptable.

Dreaming up various complimentary combinations of biscuits, muffins and scones was half the fun. Since I actually have other things to do besides bake breakfast breads, I ended up relying on a lovely friend who contributed some delicious banana bread, and whipped up these mini biscuits myself the night before. I froze the unbaked, cut biscuits overnight, then slid them into the oven just before the guests were scheduled to arrive. That left me plenty of time to wrangle a fantastic potato frittata, and make the house smell all nice and brunchy.

These are cute and irresistible--who can turn down a mini biscuit? The flavors of the cheese and herbs are subtle enough not to put off traditionalist, although you could increase the amount of cheese by an ounce and up the quantity of herbs if you want to. Dried lavender buds are on the large side, and I didn't want people getting chewy pieces of herbs stuck in their teeth, so Mike crushed them in our mortar, along with the thyme. The biscuits were great with our brunch spread and equally tasty when we ate the leftovers with curried carrot soup the next day. And finally, two words: honey butter.

Mini Goat Cheese Biscuits with Lavender
If you can't find dried lavender (get it online here), substitute other herbs like marjoram, mint or rosemary. Fresh herbs will also work--chop finely and double (at least) the quantity. I'd try fresh mint, thyme or chives.

Makes about 20

1/2 tsp dried lavender
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (210 g)
1/2 cup medium stone ground cornmeal (66 g)
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp coarse salt
6 Tbs unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
3/4 cup lowfat buttermilk
3 oz. goat cheese, crumbled (keep chilled until ready to use)
1 egg, for egg wash (optional)
1 tsp milk, for egg wash (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently crush the lavender and thyme in a mortar (or place in a Ziploc bag and crush with a rolling pin). Whisk the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and a crushed herbs together in a large bowl. Add the butter and toss to coat it with flour. Using a pastry blender, a fork or your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture until you have a coarse meal with visible chunks of butter. Take care not to over mix.

Add the buttermilk and mix gently with a spatula until most of the flour is moistened. Fold in the goat cheese, stirring just until all the flour is moistened (take care not to over mix). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and sprinkle lightly with more flour. Flatten dough with your hand and roll it out into a 1/2-inch thick disk. Flour a small (about 2-inch diameter) biscuit cutter and stamp out as many biscuits as you can, pushing firmly into the dough and flouring the biscuit cutter each time. Transfer biscuits to prepared baking sheet. Quickly re-roll the dough scraps and make more biscuits until you've used it all up. If using egg wash to create a shiny surface, beat the egg and milk together in a small bowl. With a pastry brush, lightly coat the top of each biscuit.

Bake 8 to 12 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown on the bottom. Serve right away.

To make ahead: After you’ve applied the egg wash (if using), slide the baking sheet into the freezer. Leave overnight, bake directly from the freezer (do not defrost), and add an extra minute or two to baking time. To store up to one month, wait until biscuits are completely frozen and transfer to a zip top bag.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Haitian Red Beans

This recipe is a reminder that simplicity can be incredibly delicious. I found it on Gherkins & Tomatoes, a blog about food, history and hunger that I can't adequately explain in a short sentence, so please check it out for yourself. Cynthia posted this recipe in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. She once lived there and offered it as a meal of solidarity with the nation's people.

It's a big pot of beans to be eaten with rice and other dishes, or as a simple meal in itself. The method of frying aromatics in oil and using them to season the beans at the end interested me. It's similar to toasting spices in ghee to finish curries and dals in Indian cooking. Pureeing some of the beans and their rich cooking liquid creates a thick sauce. Adding the seasonings saturates the beans with flavors that keep you taking bite after bite.

I did embellish the recipe slightly, but I think it's still the ultimate in simplicity. You don't need fancy heirloom beans--I bought my grocery store's house brand of small red beans. And of course the leftovers are great. In fact, every time I ate them, I raved about just how great they are. I'm so making this again and again. If you try it, I hope you'll love what you end up with as much I did!

Haitian Red Beans
Adapted from Cynthia Bertelsen
Cynthia gives us this dish's proper name, Sos Pwa Rouj, or Red Beans in Sauce. She calls for peanut oil instead of ghee, but I didn't have any and didn't want to buy the refined, flavorless type they were selling at the supermarket. An organic or unrefined peanut oil should have actual peanut flavor and would be preferable here. Any oil good for high heat cooking will work, but ghee (clarified butter) tastes the best to me. For my version as written below, I couldn't resist adding 2 fat shallot cloves, which added beautiful aromatic flavor to the ghee mixture. Don't skimp on fat or omit this step--it creates an incredibly rich, satisfying sauce that is sometimes meaty, sometimes buttery, and quite complex for a simple pot of beans. Serve as a side dish with simply cooked meat or fish, or enjoy as a main course. Other possible accompaniments are pickled veggies, Indian pickles, hot sauce, chopped chile peppers and fried or hardboiled eggs.

Serves 6-8

1 lb small red beans, rinsed and picked over
1/2 onion, skin removed
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 Tbs ghee
2 large shallot cloves, thinly sliced (about 1/3 cup)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley leaves, divided
Steamed rice for serving (I used long grain brown rice)

Place beans, onion, bay leaf and thyme in a Dutch oven or heavy stockpot and cover with water by about 3 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium and cook, partially covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until tender. Stir occasionally and add more water as needed to keep beans from crowding (I added about 2 cups). Note: Unless the beans have been sitting on a shelf for years, you don't need to soak them. However, soaking for at least 6 hours will speed up the cooking time. Be sure to discard the soaking water and rinse the beans before proceeding with the recipe.

Place a colander over a large bowl and drain the beans. Measure the bean cooking liquid. You'll need 3 cups. If you have more, boil to reduce to 3 cups. If you have less, add water to equal 3 cups.

Put 1 1/2 cups beans and 1 cup of the cooking liquid in a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth. Combine the puree, the whole beans and the remaining cooking liquid in the bowl you used to drain the beans. Add 1 tsp salt and black pepper and stir to combine.

Wash the pot you used to cook the beans. Add the ghee and heat to medium-high. Add the shallots, season with salt and pepper, and cook until light golden brown. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the garlic and 1/2 cup of the parsley. Cook until garlic just begins to color, taking care that it does not burn. Add the bean mixture and stir to combine. Cook until heated through. Taste for seasoning.

Serve over rice and sprinkle with remaining parsley.