Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mashed Potatoes (with Peel)

I threw in a mention of mashed potatoes last week, almost as an afterthought - but I realize I'm probably not the only person to have reached the Age of Consent (or, at any rate, Householding) without having a clue how to mash a potato.

When I was a kid, my family never ate mashed potatoes. There were two basic reasons for this.

First, we really didn't eat potatoes in any form, or pasta, or bread, very much at all. First there was the concept that starch was just what you filled up on to stretch the meat... and we were lucky enough to be able to afford as much meat as we wanted. And starch was all just Empty Calories (which wasn't so far off if you were just talking about instant mashed potatoes, or what my mom called Marshmallow Bread...)  Then the first iterations of Low Carb came around, and a series of doctors put Mom on a series of severely low carb diets. (None of which had any long term effect, but that didn't seem to bother anyone but her.) So, we thought,  potatoes=starch=filler=bad for you...

Secondly, my dad specifically disliked mashed potatoes. When we did eat carbs, we ate rice or noodles, occasionally baked potatoes. He married late in life, and before then ate in a series of boarding houses, faculty clubs, and restaurants - and he traveled a great deal for work, so still ate in restaurants all too often. Mom's theory was that he'd just eaten too much gluey mashed potato...

Flash forward a few years. I'd dipped my toe in vegetarianism, which changed my relationship to brown rice and whole wheat bread - and potatoes *with* the skins. And my then husband was going along with the idea... Now, I wasn't against *ever* eating meat - I just wanted to limit it - so every so often I'd try to serve him a meal that was a bit more typical of what he'd eaten growing up. Pot roast, meat loaf... and mashed potatoes. Sometimes, I admit it, I used potato flakes - but the first time I mashed a potato, I was astonished by both how easy it really is (especially if you *don't* peel it)  and how much better it tasted.

So - I don't peel potatoes. Most of the vitamins are in, or directly under, the peel, and peeling wastes them. Almost all the fiber is in the peel, and peeling wastes it. So - I should take an extra step, and do extra work and fuss more, to throw away almost all the nutrition? I don't think so... On the other hand, a big clump of coarse peel can be unappealing (pun, not intentional) especially if you're serving it to people not on board with all this nutrition stuff. (People often known as Family...)

The two techniques to allow you to do this are choosing the right potato in the first place, and cutting the pieces small.  (Well - you can also work the Trendy bit... I'm seeing restaurants serve them, calling them Smashed Potatoes... You, too, can Smash your fashionable potato!)

Big Idaho bakers? Save them for baking... You want the thin skinned ones. (Idahoes mash beautifully - but the skin stays pretty obvious... I'm OK with it, but other people might not be.) I usually, for just us, just use generic Potatoes sold in the bag or at the farmer's market - but to serve, say, Rich's parents, I used Yukon Gold. They mash nicely, and the skin is reliably thin.

Then, cut them fairly small before cooking. It takes a minute of cutting, but much less time than peeling, and lets the potato cook very quickly. Again, for us, I usually just cut them in eighths - or even quarters, if they're not big - but I cut them smaller for someone else. Little squares of thin skin just melt in - Rich's mother couldn't find them at all, and asked me about it!

After cutting, put them in a pot with water, cover and bring it to a boil, then simmer. Cut small like that, the potatoes cook in 10 minutes or less... It can vary, though, with both size and the particular potato, so I check every few minutes, by poking them with a knife. I want it completely tender, but not yet falling apart. I then turn it off (and leave it in the hot water, covered, until I am ready for it, as long as it is within ten minutes.)

When I'm ready to mash - usually just before serving dinner - I drain them. Then, I used a classic old fashioned potato masher... there are both this kind, and one with a squiggly sort of metal piece at the business end. If you don't have one, or are just mashing one potato, you can use a fork, but it will be a bit of a nuisance. If you're doing a lot, and have a stand mixer, I've been told that can be helpful - I think the manual has directions (though of course it assumes you've peeled the potatoes...) but I've never done that. If you do use a mixer, don't overmix - I understand that's the culprit behind the gluey potatoes in many a diner. That's not really an issue with a manual masher.

It's really pretty easy. You have at it with the masher, until the potato is all crumbly. Then you add something wet... Milk is traditional. I happen to like yogurt, and that's what I used here- we like the tang - but that's a very personal taste. If you're being luxurious, and have it on hand, a bit of half and half, or cream, or sour cream is really rich... Don't use plain water if you can help it, though - it leaves it, well, watery...  Most non-dairy milks should work well, too - I've used soy and it's fine. Rice milk might be a bit sweet... but that's a matter of taste. I haven't used almond milk, but I bet it would be good. The key is - a liquid with a bit of flavor.

Again, the amount will vary... I start with about a spoonful of whatever per potato. Start mashing again - and suddenly all the crumbles melt into this wonderful soft fluffy stuff, that just keeps getting fluffier as you mash. If it doesn't look quite right, add just a little more liquid - keep going until you have the texture you want, but stop before it gets runny. If you're going to put gravy on it, you probably want to keep it pretty firm - if you're just serving it by itself or maybe with a bit of butter, you may want it moister. I like having that control...

I don't seem to have gotten a picture of it all getting fluffy - I need another hand, sometimes...

But, anyhow - really easy, much better tasting, I think, than packaged flakes, and certainly more nutrition...  not Just Starch, or a filler.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ratatouille - or... Using Up Vegetables

I had eggplant. Oh, boy, I had eggplant..

So - ratatouille. It's a classic French dish from Provence, a stew of summer vegetables. Roughly equal amounts of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, with onion, garlic and basil. Unlike most vegetables dishes, it's cooked until the vegetables are soft, and freezes (and reheats) beautifully.

And, well - we've been getting eggplant every week, and it's getting ahead of me.

I also had a couple of zucchini - bigger than I usually like, though still pretty tender. (I don't know how our farmer does it - we get big squash that haven't gone to seed... Choice of cultivar, I assume, but I'm not used to seeing it elsewhere.) And I had some tomatoes, though not really quite enough for the traditional proportions.  (Yes - I know the home gardener usually has Too Much Zucchini. Our farmer is careful not to overwhelm us with it... and I can use a lot of it anyway, as it cooks so easily. The same concepts apply, though.)

First, let me address the tomatoes. I had several choices of how I wanted to deal with that. I could, of course, just make something else. I could make a small amount of ratatouille, using the tomatoes I had, but less of the eggplant and squash than I wanted to. I could go out and buy more tomatoes, or use a can of diced tomatoes.  I could go ahead and make it with the "wrong" proportions, and either eat it or freeze it as such.

My choice was going to be dictated by my goal. If I were, for example, cooking it for a dinner party and trying to impress someone with my cooking, I'd definitely either change what I planned, or go buy tomatoes. In this case, though, the goal was to do something with all those eggplant, and maybe work down the squash, too, because this is the time of year when the CSA gets ahead of me, and I may get more vegetables than I can use that week. I like, though, to have some prepared vegetables in the freezer, for winter, or just for busy days.

I decided, therefore, to just go ahead and cook it as it was, freeze it all,  and add a note that I might want to add tomatoes...  which, then, I may or may not do. I can get good quality diced canned tomatoes, so that's an easy option, down the road - and, in fact, this saves me freezer space.

First, I chopped a large onion, and a big clove of garlic, and sauteed them in olive oil. I was a bit more generous with the oil than usual, as that's a traditional ingredient of ratatouille and adds richness, and I was going to want enough for the rest of the vegetables, too. I cooked them until they were just starting to soften.

Meanwhile, I cut the eggplant into big chunks. I added them to the pot, and tossed them with the onions and oil. Did the same with the zucchini. Then I chopped the tomatoes and added them. I didn't bother peeling them - we don't mind a little tomato skin in our food.

You sometimes also see directions to press out all the liquid and seeds. There are a couple of problems with that... First, the gel around the seeds has a lot of the flavor, so you'd be losing that. And, in this case, I want to have some liquid to start this - as the other vegetables cook, they will release plenty of moisture, but I want a bit of liquid in the bottom of the pan to start it. (And - well - I tend to leave out the fussier steps - but that's a  matter of individual taste. They're not worth it to me - they might be to you.)

A glance at the picture will tell you that I had less than half as much tomato as I did eggplant. But that's OK... While I was working on this post, I was talking to a friend about the ratatouille she was making - she didn't know I was working on this, but we all have eggplant, it's that time of year - and she was talking about red and green peppers. Peppers? I've eaten it with peppers, but also without, and I'm not sure I ever cooked it with peppers...
I hauled out the Larousse Gastronomique I recently inherited - the arbiter of French Cooking...  Yes, peppers... (though it doesn't specify red or green.) But I've certainly eaten it, prepared by others, without peppers... and I've always... wait... I've always cooked it without peppers, but I've made this since I was in my late teens or early 20s, and was still at my parents' house much of the time. And my mother was allergic to bell peppers, which means that I have absolutely no idea whether or not the first recipe I followed included peppers - I would have left them out reflexively.
A key to this sort of adaptation is understanding the major flavors of the dish. The keynote, as it were, of ratatouille is eggplant, with zucchini and tomatoes as the secondary layers. (I've always heard it described as an eggplant recipe, with Summer Vegetables coming second - never as just a zucchini recipe...) Onions, bell pepper, garlic, herbs are all grace notes. They add to the flavor, but they are not central. So I could make a delicious stew with zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers - but it would not be a ratatouille. This is - but just barely... it really should have a little more tomato to *properly* be that classic dish.  So, I may serve it as is, or I may add a can of diced tomatoes - it will depend on how and when I use it.

Anyhow, I tossed all the vegetables in the pot, to coat them with the oil, and mix them thoroughly. Then I put a lid on, set the heat very low, and let it all simmer about 15 minutes. When I came back, the vegetables had started to shrink, and liquid was cooking out of them. I stirred them some more, and continued to simmer them, over low heat, without the cover. Oh, and I added about 2 teaspoons of crushed dried basil.

 Normally, I prefer zucchini just lightly cooked, still firm, not mushy. Eggplant, though, needs to be cooked soft... and this medley works best if the texture is all the same. So, I continued simmering it until all the vegetables were soft, and the flavor had melded - and most the liquid had cooked off. If I were serving it immediately, I might have left it moister, but I didn't want to give freezer space to water, and, if I add tomatoes later, I'll be adding their liquid... I cooked it about half an hour, all together.

I let it cool, then, and packed it simply in take out containers. I'm not actually going to keep this long - I'll make another batch and freeze it in freezer containers, which let in less air and take less space in the freezer. This will just be prepared food for times I can't cook.


One large onion, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
3 medium eggplant (or one large one)
2 medium zucchini
4 (or more) tomatoes (Ideally, classically, the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes should be roughly equal by weight.)
2 t dried basil

Saute onion and garlic in oil until starting to soften.

Chop eggplant and zucchini into bite sized pieces. Add to the pan, and stir to coat with oil.

Chop tomatoes, add, with liquid, to pan. Stir and cover. Let simmer, covered, 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove cover. Add basil. There will probably be a good bit of liquid in the pan. Let simmer without the cover until it has cooked off a little, and vegetables are done to your taste - probably another 5-10 minutes.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage

Autumn is here!

Well - the Autumnal Equinox is actually tomorrow... but close enough. The season has changed... The weather started fluctuating between cool and hot a few weeks ago, but, this week, the warm spell following the cool weather was in the seventies, not the nineties. We called this weather cool a month ago - now, we think of it as warm. It's Fall...

Fall in New York City is wonderful. The air is crisp and clear, the sky turns a remarkably deep blue, with little wispy clouds drifting (or racing, often) through the air. The sun is warm and the air is cool, and it's perfect walking weather.

And it is the height of the harvest season. I'm still inundated with eggplant and tomatoes - but the winter squash is starting to come in, and cabbage, broccoli, and glorious crisp apples... And we start to be in the mood for a less summery meal.

The other day, I cooked a sweet and sour red cabbage, and added shredded pork. Served it with mashed potatoes, and it was just right for a cool evening! And it is another variation of the basic Sauteed Vegetables.

Since I was using pork anyhow, I decided to use bacon to saute the onion. I don't eat it alone very much, but I do like to use a little in cooking, sometimes - it can add a lot to a simple meal. I am able to buy "bacon ends" which is fine for me, as I'm not looking for the strips anyway. I loosen them up, and freeze the whole package - then cut off just what I need. I can easily cut it with a sharp, fairly heavy knife. Then I dice it small, and put the dice in a heavy pan over low heat so the fat will render out, and I get crisp bacon bits. (This means... the fat gradually melts, so you have liquid fat, and crisp bits. Use a low heat so it doesn't burn.) You can drain off some of the fat, if there is too much - I just use a small amount to begin with, and keep it, since I'm after the flavor. If you would rather not use bacon, just heat some olive oil.

Then I chopped a red onion, and added it to the bacon and grease. I used red largely because I had it... but also because it's a bit sweeter, and I was going for the sweet and sour taste. And, of course, the red onion is pretty with the red cabbage. I stirred it around every so often, as the onion started to soften.

I don't seem to have taken a picture of chopping the cabbage... this cooking and picture taking at the same time means I sometimes get distracted... A whole cabbage is almost always much more than I want to cook at once, for two people - so I cut off a big chunk from one end, and work with that. The rest goes back in the crisper - when I next want it, I cut a paper thin layer off the cut edge, discard it, and the rest is good to go. Meanwhile, I place my chunk on the cutting board, and slice it, so the cabbage falls in shreds. If I get to the core, I cut it out, and discard it. I may then cut the shreds in half, to make them easier to eat.

I put the cabbage shreds in the pan, with the bacon and onion, and stirred it around a lot to distribute the bacon grease over as much of the cabbage as possible. I let it wilt a few minutes, then added just a splash of apple cider vinegar, for the Sour. Then I cored and chopped one of the lovely new apples (I left the skin on, but discarded core and seeds) and added it, for the Sweet. (Rich wandered into the kitchen, and said "You know, an apple would be really good in...  oh ... that's an apple core, isn't it?" Two great minds in the same rut, as my father used to say...)

I covered the pan, to hold in the steam and speed up the initial cooking, then checked it after about 5 minutes.

Usually I would just cook and serve this as is, as an accompaniment to pork chops or something. In this case, I had some pork left from a pork shoulder I'd cooked. I decided that, instead of just heating and serving it plain, or trying to figure out some way to season it, I'd just throw it in the cabbage mixture. This is, of course, purely optional - but it made this meal simpler. I just put the frozen block down in the fridge a few hours earlier, and then dropped it into the cabbage. I covered the pan again, briefly, until the meat thawed (I wouldn't have, if it hadn't been still partially frozen) and stirred it in. I then let it cook until cooked to our taste.

I served it with mashed potatoes - which I'll talk about another time - but plain boiled ones would have been great. If I'd felt really energetic, potato pancakes would have been delicious - I might do that for guests, or a special occasion meal. Pork roast, probably, in that case, the cabbage, and potato pancakes... very fancy in a Good Home Cooking way...

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage

1 strip bacon, diced small (or substitute olive oil)
1 red onion, chopped
2 cups shredded red cabbage
1 oz cider vinegar
1 apple, cored and chopped

1/2 pound shredded cooked pork, opt.

Put finely diced bacon in a heavy pan over low heat, and cook until the fat renders out and the bacon starts to crisp. (Or, if you aren't using bacon, just heat some olive oil in the pan.) Add the onion, stir, and let cook until onion starts to soften.

Add the cabbage. Stir it around thoroughly, to coat it with the fat, and let it start to wilt slightly. Add the vinegar and the apple, stir, and cover. Remove the lid after about five minutes, then stir and cook until done to your taste.

If you wish to add the meat, do so after removing the lid. Stir in, and heat through.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Preserving - and Using - Leeks (and other aromatics) Conveniently

This was a difficult week for me. A huge cold front came through, which is always hard on my body - especially my head. (Major, major migraine trigger.) So I didn't write my blog.

We were still eating, mind you, and I was still cooking (since we had to eat) and we were still getting large amounts of produce from the CSA, and I was still dealing with that, and I even cooked publicly! (I sometimes demonstrate cookware or kitchen appliances professionally, and I had a gig.) I just wasn't writing about any of it...

So, I'll do a quick list, here, of some of the things I did with vegetables - and discuss leeks further.

Starting with the leeks. I did mention this when I grilled a leek with the eggplant and other vegetables. Farmers growing leeks pile sand around them, in hills, to get the long white part, as any parts exposed to the sun are green - and tougher. This means that leeks are very sandy... and a bit of a nuisance to clean. Leeks are also often quite large, and you usually buy them in bunches, and one leek is usually more than I want for just two of us. All this makes it a perfect choice for a preprep - cleaning three is no more fussy than cleaning one, I get it all over with, and I can use just the amount I want.

First, you trim the leek. Cut off the tougher green leaves. Exactly where you cut is up to you - most directions tell you to discard all the green, but I find I can use all of the light green part and sometimes several inches of the leaves before it gets too tough. (The leaves are great for soup stock, by the way...) Also cut off the root end. (Just discard that.)

Cut the leek lengthwise. This gets you in all the little crevices that sand has gathered in. Then, slice the two halves across, in half inch or so pieces. Put them in a bowl or sink of water, and swish them around like crazy, using your fingers to separate the rings. The vegetable floats, and the sand sinks, making it easy to lift out the leeks into a strainer.

I usually wash the whole bunch like this, then let them drain and dry. Then I use a large fry pan or saute pan to saute them in olive oil until they are soft. (If there is a lot, or my pan isn't big enough, I do them in a couple of batches.)  I then use some that day - but set the rest aside to cool, and freeze them in freezer bags,. I find the bags work best, as I can break off the amount I need.

Another vegetable I preprepped this week (but didn't get pictures of) was celery. When I first got celery from the farmer's market, I was disappointed. I was used to big bland ribs that mostly contributed crunch in a salad, or filled with peanut butter. These had too much taste! Then I realized - they're *supposed to*... There's a reason celery is used as an aromatic in mirepoix or in Cajun cooking...

So now, when I get a bunch from the farmer, I cut off the end, keep the tender center for celery sticks and salad and all - but chop and saute the big ribs. Again, I do it all at once - we just don't use enough celery in a week to finish it while it's fresh, but we like having the addition to our meals for the next month or more. Again, I saute a pan full at a time, and freeze it, and break pieces off when I need them.

When I had a little time - and some energy - I chopped and sauteed leeks, celery, and onions. I chopped and froze more hot peppers. I could do that with sweet peppers, too, but I haven't - I just wash and chop enough for my salads. Which I also did - I filled my little containers with sweet peppers, celery hearts, radishes, scallions, and cucumber, for salads.

When I didn't have energy, I pulled containers from the freezer with cooked ground meat or shredded cooked pork. I put precooked onion and celery, and frozen peppers, in a pan, heated them, cut up a zucchini or something equally easy, and sauteed it. Then I added the cooked meat, perhaps a tomato, heated it through, and called it dinner...

So, even on the days I felt horrible, I ate reasonably well. When I did have energy, I used small amounts of time to get ahead a step,  so that when I didn't have energy,  I had options. And we always had a nice meal.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Peanut Sauce, over Tofu and Broccoli, and Tofu Tutorial

The fastest and easiest way to pull several disparate foods together into a Real Meal is to add a sauce.

You can pour it on top. (Gravy.) You can cook one or more components in it, for the flavor. (Spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese.) You can use it to hold everything together. (Mayonnaise in countless salads.) Sauces add seasoning to bland foods, moisture to dry foods, and interest to everything.

A very quick and easy one I learned many years ago is a simple peanut sauce. This was making the rounds of vegetarian sources back in the 80s - inspired by an Indonesian dish, gado-gado. Well - most books called it gado-gado, but it isn't, really...  (With the wonders of the internet, you can look up real gado-gado. It looks delicious - but it's not this quick and mindless...)

That said - here is a simple vegetarian dish made interesting by an easy sauce, which, several levels removed, was vaguely inspired by an Indonesian food...

I used tofu. Chicken works well, too, or, really, almost any meat or fish I can think of. Tempeh has the advantage of being, even... Indonesian! The basic meal is some kind of protein, with some kind of vegetable, cooked in, or served under, a peanut sauce, the whole thing served over rice. In this case, I cooked the sauce separately from everything else, and poured it over.

For this, I prefer a firm tofu. For years I read, and ignored, instructions to put slabs of tofu on a slanted board with weights on it to make it firmer. Do it if you want - too much fuss for me... Then I learned a method of simply wrapping it in a clean kitchen towel (or even paper towels, if you must, but the paper gets soggy) and letting it sit on the drain board while you chop onions or start the rice or whatever your first step in cooking is. I find that just that little bit of time and attention makes a big difference in the end product - it's firmer, and browns nicely, and seems to get a bit more flavor from whatever it is cooked with. (If you prefer a soft tofu, don't do this - that's a different method, I'll talk about it another time.)

So, I wrapped my tofu and set it aside. Then, I sauteed an onion in a little olive oil, and added a bit of the chopped hot pepper I froze. I let them cook until just soft. Then I unwrapped my tofu, diced it, and added it to the pan.

If you use a stainless steel or enameled pan, the tofu will stick, at first. If you try to stir it too soon, the cooked browned bits will peel off the cubes, and it's messy looking (though fine to eat.)  It feels counter-intuitive - but if it sticks, leave it for a while longer. When the side touching the pan becomes firm and golden, it will magically release, and you get the nice cubes (or slabs) of browned tofu. *Then* stir it around, so the other sides have a chance to do the same - and the vegetables also move around and soften.

Meanwhile - I heated brown rice, and steamed broccoli... (If I'd been cooking the rice fresh, I'd have started it first.)

Once the tofu and aromatics were nicely cooked, I put them over rice on the plates, and arranged the broccoli around it. Then I started the peanut sauce (Yes - it's that fast...)

I used natural peanut butter - just peanuts and salt, thank you...  I scooped up a big spoonful for each of us - a heaping tablespoon per person, basically - and put it in the pan with about a cup of water, and a splash of soy sauce. (OK - true confession - this was more than a splash. There is something wrong with the plastic insert in my soy sauce bottle... This was Way Too Much soy sauce. Tasted OK, but... not Great... saltier than we'd usually want... This means that, when you do it, the sauce will have a lighter peanut color. Don't be surprised.)  Normally, at this point, I'd also add some Tabasco or other hot sauce, but this time I'd put hot peppers with the tofu, so I skipped it.

I heated the mixture, stirring. (I use a silicone spatula - it's great for scraping the pan.)  At first, it looks pretty awful, with blobs of PB in the liquid, but it emulsifies quickly, and then thickens surprisingly. You may even find that you want to add more water, in a bit, if it gets too thick. Once it is heated through, and smooth, just pour it over the rest of the food. For family service, it can be put in a sauceboat on the table - let everyone help themselves.

I did this separately, so you could see how the sauce itself works, and that it can be used in many ways. I often, though, just add the water and peanut butter to the tofu or chicken or whatever in the pan, and go from there. I may even have all  the vegetables in that mix, as well. That probably works better for just one or two, though.

Peanut Sauce

Per Serving - 

1/2 c water
1 1/2 T natural peanut butter
1/2 t soy sauce
dash hot sauce - opt.

Put all ingredients - using roughly those amounts per person - into a pan over medium heat. Stir while heating, until sauce becomes smooth and thickens. Add more water, if needed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Preserving the Harvest - Conveniently - Peppers

People are starting to return to the idea of  putting up their own produce. People are canning, again - even here in Manhattan, high end cookware stores carry canning kettles and jars. In their desire for local food, people are buying produce and canning it, or making jams and pickles.

Yeah - I'm not going there...

OK, understand - if you enjoy it, it can be a cool thing to do. If you have your own garden, and the time and energy, it's wonderful.  If you have a good source of produce, and like to cook, it's a great and productive hobby. I have, in my day, made small batches of pickles and chutneys. I thought it was fun, and I enjoyed having them in winter. That's not what this blog is about, though...

I've discussed my take on Convenient Foods.  This is an elaboration of that, with the seasonal nature of produce added. For example - in August and September in the Northeast, we get lots and lots (and lots...) of hot peppers. I can't use them all at once... In fact, cooking for two, I don't always want even one whole pepper (depending on the dish and the type of pepper.)  But I can chop them, put them in a freezer bag, and then sprinkle a little out at a time, and add a bit of zip to our meals for months. I've never found I needed to cook them first - they cook rapidly, and I haven't had them deteriorate in the few months I store them.  (Most vegetables do need to be blanched or sauteed to kill enzymes.)

We interrupt this blog to give the Pepper Warning.

Hot peppers are - HOT. When cut, they exude capsaicin, which sticks to your fingers. It burns. This is easily avoided... so avoid it.  Wear gloves, do small amounts at one time. Most of this won't bother most people *too* much chopping one pepper at a time. But sensitivities vary, and it will still cause a great deal of discomfort, and doing it all in advance means you never have to worry about it again...

Wear gloves. These can be rubber dishwashing gloves, or latex (or other) food handlers' gloves. Even with the gloves, be aware that you have transferred oil to anything you touched - including the hand that took the glove off... and to any objects you are now picking up.

Wearing the gloves, you still need to be very careful about not touching your face. We tend to do that without thinking - brush a hair away, push up glasses, scratch a nose... heaven forfend, rub an eye... Don't! The skin on your face is more reactive than most other skin. Do Not Touch your Eye. I was planning this post a few weeks ago, though didn't have a chance to shoot pictures and write it up then. I was thinking about this, while chopping peppers - and five minutes later cleverly rubbed my eye (I had hay fever) and felt pretty foolish... Remove contacts *before* handling peppers, unless you can be certain there will be *many* hours before you need to. (A friend told me that...) When you are done, wash your hands thoroughly with soap - and *still* be careful for a couple of hours.

Do not (how to put this delicately...) touch mucous membranes - your own or anyone else's. (You don't want to know...) That includes mouth and lips, by the way...  don't pick up a piece of cheese and pop it into your mouth - or your child's. (Children are more sensitive than adults.) Don't lick your fingers 10 minutes later.

Now that I've scared you all... I usually actually don't bother with gloves. I have small hands, and have trouble getting them to fit, and feel more control without them - so I try to be careful and, unfortunately, accept a certain amount of a burning sensation. As I said, though, different people react with greater or lesser severity - start by being cautious. Still, none of this (usually) does any actual damage - you just really don't want to hurt if you don't have to.

The easiest way to do it - the way I do so much of this - is to just chop a few at a time. Get 5-6 peppers from the market or CSA? Chop 3 this evening, toss a bit into tonight's dinner and the rest into a freezer bag, do the same in another couple of days...  takes maybe five minutes (if that) more than you would have spent on tonight's dinner anyway... This time, I had a lot, so I did about a dozen - but you don't have to.

You often hear that the hottest part of the pepper is the seeds. That's not exactly true - the hottest part is the whitish pith that surrounds the seeds. Removing the seeds *and* much of the pith is generally a good idea... I cut the pepper lengthwise, and then use the tip of the knife to sort of scrape out the seeds and pith (the knife helps me avoid touching it, as well as cutting any thick parts.)

Then I chop the peppers into pretty small pieces - you don't want to suddenly bite down on a big hunk o'pepper in your sauce - and scoop them with a knife or a spatula into the bag. One handy thing is that I find I can just keep adding, and replenishing - you can see this bag has been used a lot. I do periodically empty and wash it. And I do use up all the peppers at some sad point in midwinter...

I flatten the bag, and lay it flat in the freezer. The bits don't stick together - after they freeze, I can put the bag, with all the peppers in the bottom, on the freezer door. That is where I keep all my assorted flavor boosts. They're easy to find, and don't get in the way of, or get confused with, the other food. I don't want to have to push through frozen peppers and leeks and celery and parsley to find the cooked kale for tonight's dinner!

I like being able to add a bit of heat without it being any big deal at all - I just drop a  little in with my onion and/or other aromatics. I like having that summer taste in December. I like that mixing the different kinds evens out the heat a little - we get a wide variety, as you see, and some are much hotter than others. If I have them mixed, I don't accidentally get a fiery dish from using the same amount as I did of another kind last week... And, really, I like the attractive variety of colors. Don't they look festive?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Grilled Summer Vegetables - Pretty Little Eggplant...

We got the cutest little eggplants from the CSA... 

I don't normally go all ecstatic over Cute - but really, aren't these adorable? Delicate, tiny little things, streaked with lavender, almost too pretty to eat.

I couldn't see just simmering them into a sauce, or mushing them up into baba ganoush or some other spread. They had to stay intact. So I decided to grill them.

I also had a patty pan squash. The other day, I wrote that I haven't really found an attractive way to cut them - but then I'd thought of slicing them to preserve the flower shape, and grilling the slices. Put the ideas together - and I had this leek I'd already trimmed (so it would fit in the vegetable keeper...) and I had a dinner concept.

I washed the eggplants, and cut them lengthwise, to preserve the shape. Then I sliced the squash horizontally, so I had flower shaped discs. I could, of course, use the same treatment on any slices of eggplant or summer squash - I have, in the past. It's particularly good, though, for preserving the appearance of an attractive vegetable.

I sliced the leek lengthwise, too. I'll go into this in more detail another time - but leeks should always be slit up the middle. The way the farmer gets the nice long white part is to hill sand up around the growing plant (a process called blanching.) Since they are grown buried in sand, they get sand inside the plant, and it is almost impossible to wash all the grit out leaving the layers intact. Usually, I slit them up the middle and then slice them, but you can also, as I did here, slit them while leaving the root end intact, and then wash thoroughly under running water, to get all the grit out from inside the leek. (You can see the sand and grit in this picture... that is normal,  but it did all wash out.)

I find that grilled vegetables, even on a grill pan (rather than an outside grill, which I do not have) cook better with just a little oil brushed over them. In this case, I put a splash of olive oil in a bowl, and then added just a drizzle of sesame oil for flavor.

I used an open pan - this could also be done with one of the closed grill pans - George Foreman is well known, but Cuisinart has one, also, and there are others. The vegetables will cook more quickly in one of them, partly because heat is being applied to both sides, and partly because the natural steam is being held in to some degree - an advantage with the vegetables. The disadvantage to them, though, is that bigger pieces hold the top up, so it doesn't touch the thinner or smaller pieces. They work best when all slices of food are the same thickness, which was not the case here. (If you don't have a grill of any kind, you can do this in any good skillet - the whole side will brown nicely, instead of giving you pretty grill marks, but that doesn't make a serious difference.)

Anyhow, I used a pastry brush, and lightly  brushed one side of the vegetables with the oil mix, then put them oiled side down, on a preheated pan. I wanted the pan to be hot when the veg first hit it - that's what gives you the nice browning effect. Then I brushed the side facing up with oil, so it would be ready when I flipped it over.

Unfortunately, as they cooked, the eggplants did lose the pretty lavender color... oh, well. They made up for that by attaining the pretty brown grill marks...  I watched them, and, as the individual vegetables showed signs of softening (and changing color) I turned them over with tongs.

I had more than fit on the pan, so, as they then cooked, I removed them to a platter, which I covered to keep them warm. I was cooking potatoes and leftover ham for the rest of the meal, so I microwaved the potatoes until mostly but not completely cooked, then sliced them and added them to the grill pan for browning. (In my microwave, that was 2 minutes for four small/medium potatoes, then turn them over and give them another 2 minutes. I find that timing varies considerable by oven, though - that would have taken a minute or two longer in my previous one.) Meanwhile, I heated the ham in a fry pan, until it, too, browned.

Notes for future - the leek was basically cooked, but a little bit chewy, still. Another time, I might start it well before the more tender vegetables, or parboil it, or (more simply) microwave it a minute or two, as I did the potatoes, to, essentially, parboil it.

Also, Rich said he felt the ratio of skin to meat on the eggplants was a little high. Well... He suggested peeling them, and I suggested that he was welcome to peel a dozen tiny ones if he really wanted to, though I wasn't sure how much eggplant that would leave, and... The real issue was that, while the meat was tender, the peel was just slightly tougher - so parboiling might be an option for them, also. (I didn't mind it. OTOH, in general, he likes eggplant better than I do, so keeping him really liking it is worth something.)  Of course, if I were just grilling slices of larger eggplant, which would be more common, none of that would be relevant. On the whole, we did like it, and felt it came out well, as an experiment.

The other thing we were experimenting with was taking pictures. I do want to improve them, and Rich is the photographer in the house. So he hauled out a tripod, so we could try available light, instead of flash... and you see the results. (Now we're working on another light source...)

Meanwhile, though - this is a *tiny* kitchen. The building was built in the late Forties, as part of the G.I. housing rush, at the height of the fascination with the inefficient Efficiency Kitchen. Two people cannot work together in this kitchen. (Two people can barely stand together in this kitchen!) So, there we were - him and me and the tripod, with not really enough room for any two of the above, when the Big Cat (all 20 pounds of him) decided to join us, and stretched out smack in the middle. So helpful... He's going to Inhabit that Kitchen, all right!

Grilled Summer Vegetables

Assorted vegetables - eggplant, summer squash, leeks, onions, potatoes, whatever is on hand, and suits your taste.
1 T olive oil
1/2 tsp sesame oil

Wash vegetables, and slice into appropriate shapes. If desired, microwave or parboil tougher vegetables, until barely cooked, so they cook in much the same time as the more tender ones.

Heat grill pan. Mix the oils in a bowl. Use a pastry or basting brush to brush the oil very lightly on one side of the vegetables. Place the vegetables on the hot pan, oiled side down. Brush the other side with oil.

As each piece cooks (determine by color and tenderness) turn it over. If you need more than one batch, removed cooked pieces to a platter, and cover lightly with a clean towel, to keep warm.