Monday, November 30, 2015

Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Soup with Ginger

While shopping for Thanksgiving, I ended up buying far more food than I could possibly cook. I wanted to have a huge variety of side dishes, but then I found that my stamina wasn't up to the level necessary to make a Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, Brussels sprouts, onions, butternut squash, sweet potato, and pumpkin pie. That's a bit much for one person to undertake, especially when my husband had no interest in the sprouts, squash, or yams.

The answer to cramming in more of the foods I wanted was to combine some of them in soup and The New York Times recipe for sweet potato and butternut squash soup with ginger fit the bill. The best part was that I could do it ahead and freeze the soup for later. The second best part was that it included real ginger root. I've always felt that ginger is under-used in savory cuisine in America and hoped it would bring something special to this soup.

I followed the ingredients list fairly faithfully including weighing the squash and sweet potatoes. The only thing I may have done "wrong" was use too much onion because my idea of "medium" is different perhaps than others after years of buying enormous monster onions in gargantuan bags at Costco.

Though I followed the ingredients list pretty closely, I made the soup in an electronic pressure cooker in order to save time and effort. I browned the onions and ginger first then added in the potatoes, stock, and squash. I make nearly all of my soup in the pressure cooker and have never found that the flavor suffers for it, especially when it comes to soup which is pureed with an immersion blender. My soup looked like this:

This is a time when my result looked nearly identical to the picture on the recipe. Mine looks slightly darker, but I think that is a lighting difference since I decided after tasting to add a small splash (about 1/4 cup) of half and half to mellow out the onion flavor that was lurking in the background. After doing that, all of the flavors seemed to come together and the soup, which was thick and somewhat sludgy in appearance until I added the half and half. That seemed to make it come together more smoothly. I didn't use much fat initially and my guess is the half and half emulsified the soup and made it smoother.

As soup recipes go, this one is a winner provided that you like the flavors of the components. It has a multi-layered and complex flavor that has a richness and a sweetness as well as a savory nature from the stock. I will definitely make this one again. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meera Sodha's Chicken Curry

A big part of the purpose of this blog is to motivate myself to try new things. I'll admit that I'm not new to curry in terms of consuming it nor making it. I've been trying to perfect truly good curry and sampling various recipes for the last year or so.

I spent years making curry-like concoctions that were fine, but nothing like the sublime experiences that I had when going to a good Indian restaurant. I've perfected a really fantastic almond curry (murgh badami) recipe that I discovered online. It has become my husband's favorite and it has a good deal of depth of flavor. It's a rare recipe that has no cumin and gets richness from the almonds.

While my husband can't get enough of the murgh badami, I don't want to exclusively focus on it. I've been trying for some time to get a tomato-based recipe that reminds me of the steaming bowls of curry offered at Indian establishments, and I've largely failed. It is for this reason that I decided to try The New York Time's oft-mentioned (on Facebook) recipe for Meera Sodha's chicken curry.

The picture on the Time's recipe is very vibrantly red. I think the picture is color adjusted digitally to look that way given that I followed the recipe fairly closely and mine was brownish orange. My tomatoes were plenty red, and I used good quality tomato paste which was thick and a rich red shade, but mine looked like this:

I think that the turmeric brought out a lot of the orange shades and the yogurt lightened the overall vibrancy. This isn't an important point, but I do wish that pictures weren't manipulated to make them look less realistic than the result. That being said, my curry is definitely less photogenic than the one on the Times.

The alternations I made were based on my experience with previous curries. Instead of adding the yogurt separately near the end, I marinated the chicken in the yogurt overnight with about a half teaspoon of  salt, a teaspoon of garlic powder, and about a half teaspoon of chili powder. I do this because my husband is the main consumer of my curries and he dislikes dry white meat. Marinating the chicken in yogurt for eight hours or more makes sure that it is flavorful and tender.

Beyond marinating in the yogurt with a few extra spices, the only changes I made were to use three small serrano peppers because that was what I had instead of jalepeno or cayenne. I also didn't want the curry to be too hot because my husband can't tolerate too much heat. To that end, I also skipped adding a pinch of cayenne at the end as well. The garam masala was plenty hot enough to make up for these changes.

I also had to cook the onion mixture longer than the recipe said, but it has always been my experience that the amount of time it takes to get onions to the proper "golden" state is longer than recipes assert. I think they don't want to scare people off by listing the real cooking times, which can be intimidating in their length.

The end result was an excellent curry that was richly savory and slightly thick with a hint of heat. The tomato flavor merges and is mellowed by the onion and all of the spices come together with equal power to form an excellent backbone. Usually, it takes an overnight sit in the refrigerator for the flavors to fully merge in curry (at least for me), but this one seemed to pull together very rapidly and tastes great right off the burner. This is one I'd definitely make again with the hopes of repeatinf the same result. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Creamed Spinach

Creamed spinach sounds a food that was popular in the 50's. It conjures up visions of slimy greens swimming in gray canned cream soup. I've had spinach plenty in my life; at least I have done so in my later adult years when my desire to try more health-promoting foods outvoted my wish to consume highly palatable foods from my younger days. I never even considered having it "creamed" until The New York Times Creamed Spinach recipe made an appearance on my Facebook feed.

While "creamed" made me think there would be actual, well, cream, in the dish, it is actually a white sauce (B├ęchamel sauce). For those who don't know what that is, it's essentially flour cooked in butter with milk added to it. It forms a creamy base for the pureed spinach in this dish. It's incredibly simply and comes together rapidly. Mine looked fairly similar to what was picture on the Times page, but it's less vibrantly green. I attribute this to both my using the stems (which are lighter in color) and the fact that I didn't adjust the colors in Photoshop to make mine look more verdant.

I followed the recipe fairly faithfully, though I had less spinach on hand than the recipe called for so I cut it in half. The white sauce came together beautifully, but I was careful not to get the butter too hot and that helps. I also used a pretty light hand with the nutmeg and didn't add any salt until the end.

After tasting the final result, I was quite happy, but I wanted more depth and complexity. I especially wanted more savory ("umami") notes so I added a tablespoon (keep in mind that I cut the recipe in half) of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. I think this punched up the flavor a bit and would probably include this variation again. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sweet Potato Cornbread

Much of the food that we favor is less a choice based on personal tastes than the result of exposure to certain types of food in our youth. There are exceptions, of course. We are genetically primed to like sweet and savory foods because they tend to be the types of food that helped us survive. However, some cultures have a much better taste for bitter food or less instantly palatable fare. This is usually because of exposure to those foods during their upbringing.

I lived in Japan for a long time and many of the natives took pride in how healthy their diet was, but the truth is that they didn't choose their diet. History and types of available food chose it for them. What we choose to eat is rarely a reflection of character or individual choice. The Japanese certainly are not alone in a sense of superiority based on diet. They just tend to have more healthy food in their traditional diet so they have more to base their feelings on.

My upbringing, as I mentioned in this blog intro, was full of very conservative menus of poorly cooked food. I had to teach myself to diversify and that is part of why I'm doing this blog and trying the New York Times recipes. I will say that I love anything made with cornmeal now, but I did not grow up with food using this ingredient. My only exposure to cornbread was the rare purchase by my mother of a box of "Jiffy" corn muffin mix and the even rarer preparation of said mixes. More often than not, they languished in the cupboard until worms took up occupancy. I remember open those little blue and white boxes in expectation and then recoiling in horror from the creatures stirring in the dusty innards.

Though I still have a nostalgic desire to make Jiffy corn muffins, and I know there are no small number of folks who love that mix, I found the last time that I made them that they failed to satisfy. Since then, I've just made my own corn muffins from scratch.

When I found the New York Times recipe for sweet potato cornbread,  I figured this was going to be two great tastes that could very well taste great together. I followed the ingredients list and quantities fairly faithfully, though I cut it in half and only made six muffins and I added a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract because I feel you can never go wrong with vanilla.

I took a shortcut on the preparation both in terms of how I made the sweet potato and mixed the wet ingredients. My usual way of making a sweet potato is to scrub it, stab it four or so times with a knife, wrap it in a paper towel, soak the paper towel with water, and then microwave it for about five minutes (flipping it halfway through). Depending on the size of the potato, it may need more time, but I just check it for tenderness and then let it sit for at least five minutes to cool and finish cooking.

Instead of mashing the potato normally, I cut it into slices while still quite warm, and threw it into the blender attachment of a Magic Bullet, added milk, oil, and vanilla and then pureed that. After the milk cooled the potato, I added the egg and blended it until it was very smooth. I think this works well and is less troublesome with no negative impact on the resulting cornbread.

My muffins ended up looking like this:

The inside of the muffin was tender and fairly moist, especially for a cornmeal-based baked item. The tops and bottoms got darker than I would have liked and next time I would reduce the cooking time from 20 minutes to 15 minutes. The batter from this was very thick and I know that this was not due to any errors on my part with measuring as I used weight rather than volume for the potato and all dry ingredients. I used a measuring cup for the milk and had no control over the egg, but any variation in wet ingredients due to egg size could not have made any difference in batter thickness.

I think the batter turned out as it should, but the picture on the New York Times site of these muffins is simply a different recipe. Given the color of the pictured muffins (very yellow) in the linked recipe and the smooth tops, I think someone was lazy about getting a picture of the product of this recipe because my muffins were very orange and the batter too thick to produce smooth tops. This isn't a big deal, but it is misleading.

These are not especially sweet muffins and should be regarded more as a different type of bread rather than as a sweet. There is just enough sugar in them to make them tender, but not enough to make them sweet. They are best consumed warmed up with some butter or perhaps even some jam in a complementary flavor (e.g., apricot). I will definitely make these again, but will likely modify the cooking time and possibly even the temperature. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Arepas With Cheese and Corn

Sometimes, you run across a food that makes you say, "Why isn't this widely available already?" These are usually dishes that are approachable on multiple levels and include familiar ingredients, but come together in a relatively different presentation as compared to the cultural norms. It is one thing to experience yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit with a complex flavor that feels like what you'd get if you mixed the essential qualities of lemon, orange, and grapefruit in the best possible way, and decide it is incredibly palatable, but so unavailable in the U.S. as to not be a mainstream flavor; it is quite another to experience arepas with their easily available ingredients list.

I am a big fan of cornbread and, when I came across the The New York Times recipe for arepas with cheese and corn, it seemed like something that would be easy to love. In the silly video that accompanies the Times recipe, Mark Bittman likens them to a cornmeal English muffin. I think that is based on how it is eaten rather than how it is prepared as it is cooked more like a pancake.

I followed the recipe faithfully except for skipping the chilis. I already had a black bean mixture that I'd made the day before which I'd made with too much chili and I didn't want more heat added to the meal. In the future, I would certainly consider using the chili in the arepas, but not this time. The black beans that I had were so messy that my result resembled a Venezuelan sloppy joe:

When I mixed them up, it came out very wet and didn't really absorb much over time. I should note that I didn't just toss everything together as Bittman did, but rather added the milk and butter to the cornmeal to see how it came together first. I don't know if the wetness of this was because my cornmeal was a little old and had picked up moisture or if I hadn't allowed the milk and butter mixture to get hot enough to partially "cook" the raw cornmeal.

I "fixed" this very well by tossing the milk, butter and cornmeal mixture into the microwave for about 30 seconds to thicken it up. This worked extremely well and I added in the cheese, scallions, corn, and cilantro. Making patties was much easier after cooking the mixture a bit.

Arepas are frankly fantastic eaten on their own. I plan to make them again and just eat them plain with butter. The exterior is pleasantly crispy and the interior moist and tender. Storing the extras overnight in the refrigerator robs the exterior of its snap, but you can restore it easily by re-heating in the toaster oven. As cheap, nutritious, and accessible flavors go, you can't beat this.