Friday, October 23, 2009

Citrusy Pecan Garbanzo Couscous: A salad for cold weather

When the temperature drops, so does my salad consumption. I live in Alaska, and the only iceberg I want to see in winter months is the type that fell off a glacier. Even though plenty of cooked vegetables make their way into our cold-weather meals, my body craves the vitality of raw fruits and vegetables, minus their chill; hence, the salad conundrum of summer’s end.

Here’s one solution:

Citrusy Pecan Garbanzo Couscous.
It’s crisp, crunchy, nutty, and warm. It also happens to be vegan. (Serves 2 as an entrée, 4 as a side)

1 cup whole wheat Israeli couscous
1 – 15 oz. can Garbanzo beans, drained
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 orange, juice and zest
½ cup diced red bell pepper
¼ cup roughly chopped parsley
2 green onions, chopped
¼ cup chopped pecans, toasted
2 tablespoons dried currants
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper, to taste

Prepare couscous according to package instructions. Meanwhile combine all remaining ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Drain couscous and add to bowl while still hot. Thoroughly mix all ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving! (a primer on mashed potatoes and gratitude)

No, I’m not in a time warp. I’m celebrating Thanksgiving Canadian-style. Today is the day on which Canadians celebrate and give thanks for a successful harvest. It’s not just about mashed potatoes, but about people gathering with food in the spirit of gratitude, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, because I believe it to be one of the most transformative forces in the universe. It’s been a trying year for many. Our jobs, our homes, our savings, have been tested, and sometimes lost. Our illusions of security and stability have been deeply rattled, if not dissolved. But even during the hardest times, we can find things to be thankful for, and doing so brings us back to the present, and back to basics. The silver lining, in these wanting days, is that we are remembering how much we already have.

I was thumbing through some papers the other day, and I found this little journal entry, dated December 19, 2008:

(Missoula, MT) Noah and I had lunch at Taco del Sol today—seems like everything happens there. We had just sat down with our fish tacos when I saw a disheveled derelict-looking guy walk over to the table next to us and set his taco down in front of him. He stood over his food, and pressed his hands together in front of his mouth. He was smiling, huge. Before he sat down he raised both fists in a little cheer.

“Yeah” he said, so excited to eat this good food. He was looking at it the way someone might look at a trophy or a new-born child. He admired it for a while before taking the first bite, and when he did, he chewed the food quietly, thoughtfully, like a prayer.

Later, while we were warming the car up, I saw him on his way down Higgins Avenue. One of his legs had a rough hitch while he walked, and one of his arms was turned grotesquely inward. I wondered if he was a veteran. It was 8 degrees. He had no gloves on and limped down the street, slowly. But his eyes were lit up, like the food he had just eaten was casting a warm glow, outward from his full belly. All day I couldn’t stop thinking about him, cheering over his taco. I’m learning so much about gratitude these days.

Our household has gone back to basics of late. Noah had his wisdom teeth removed last week, so I’ve been making a LOT of mashed potatoes—great practice for American Thanksgiving. I pretty much have it down to a science at this point, and believe me, mashed potatoes are a science. Below you will find my mashed potato primer.


Use a starchy potato like russets for the fluffiest mash. Peel and cut into large cubes.
  • Start the potatoes in cool, salted water. This ensures that they cook evenly throughout, whereas adding them to boiling liquid tends to overcook the outside of the cubes before the inside is done.
  • Cook the potatoes just until soft. They should break apart with a fork when pierced. Do not overcook.
  • When mashed potatoes are over-processed (or over-cooked), the starchy molecules can break down and make them gummy. To prevent gluey mashed potatoes avoid over mixing. I use a hand mixer on the lowest speed, for no more than 1 minute.
  • Heat your liquid. Whether you’re using chicken stock, milk, sour cream, half and half, cream cheese, or all of the above, combine and heat in the microwave before adding to potatoes. This will help prevent the potatoes from becoming gluey—it’s less stress to the starch granules, and we want to keep those intact.
  • Use enough liquid. I use about 1 cup of liquid per 2 large russet potatoes. It took me a while to figure out that potatoes can take quite a bit of liquid, and are best when made moist enough that the mixture yields easily to a spoon—not heavy and firm, not runny and lifeless, but light and fluffy.
  • Don’t be shy with the salt. Potatoes can take a lot of the stuff. I add at least ½ teaspoon per 2 large russets.
  • Do not melt the butter before adding; instead, add it cold. I owe this valuable tidbit of information to cookbook author Diane Morgan, and her informative newsletter. I used to melt the butter before mixing the potatoes, but no matter how much I added, the flavor seemed to get lost. Then I learned from that potato molecules are highly absorbent, and if the butter is added hot, it just gets soaked into the starch molecules. This blocks the butter from hitting your tongue. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to eat butter, I want to taste it. So add some cold, diced-up butter to the bowl just before mixing, and you’ll get a lot more flavor bang for your buttery buck.
  • Got it? Start in cold salted water. Cook till fork tender. Drain and place in a mixing bowl. Add hot liquid, hefty salt (and pepper), and cold (salted) butter. Blend briefly with a hand mixer, and avoid over mixing.

    Follow those tips and you’re well on your way to perfect mashed potatoes, and we can all be grateful for that.

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Chicken Cacciatore and the Art of Flavor Balance

    I’m going to let you in on a big, expensive secret. I had to go to culinary $chool to get a thorough grasp on the concept, but it’s been the single most important lesson I took from my formal training.

    At the heart of every great meal ever made is this one guiding principle, the key to unlocking flavor, the essence of kitchen success. Are you ready? Drumroll….


    That’s it. The acid-salt-fat balance is a three-legged stool. Flavor comes to life when there is the right amount of fat (in the form of oil, butter, meat renderings), salt (kosher, sea, seasoned,soy sauce, etc.), and acid (citrus juices, vinegars, wine, etc.) When one of the “legs” is out of balance, it just doesn’t stand up.

    But when you strike that harmonious three-note chord … LaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaH… success!

    Ever made hollandaise sauce? Egg yolks, butter, salt, lemon juice? The stuff is pure fat, salt, and acid. While making hollandaise I’ve tasted the yellow froth consisting of pure egg yolks and butter, before the salt and lemon were added. Bleck! But add a hefty pinch of salt, and the right amount of lemon juice, and it’s, “like Baby Jesus sliding down your throat in velvet slippers.” (from Ruth Reichl’s memoir, "Comfort Me with Apples").

    How do you know how much fat, salt or acid to add? Taste. And taste again. Take baby steps at first, following the rule that you can always add more, but you can’t take it out. Soon, you will become a master.

    This recipe is a great one for learning to tune your acid-salt-fat senses. Anyone who knows a lick about cooking knows how to make a tomato sauce, but if you want to make one that takes your quick Tuesday night pasta dinner from lackluster to HALLELEUJAH! then make this.

    Olive oil carries the flavor, white wine and tomatoes brighten it with acid, and enough salt makes your mouth say hooray! to this Chicken Cacciatore. If it’s not working, add another sprinkle of salt, stir, and taste. Close your eyes, roll it around in your mouth with a noodle or two. Tastebuds are a cook’s best friend. They’ll let you know exactly when you’ve hit the bull’s-eye.

    Chicken Cacciatore (serves 4-6)

    1¾ lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into ½” cubes
    ¼ cup flour
    ½ teaspoon seasoned salt (like Lawry’s)
    ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
    3 tablespoons olive oil
    1 med. onion, diced
    1 red bell pepper, diced
    3 large cloves garlic, minced
    ½ teaspoon paprika
    ½ teaspoon dried oregano
    ½ teaspoon dried basil
    2 teaspoons sugar
    ¾ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
    Dash cayenne (optional)
    ½ cup white wine
    1 – 6 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
    1 – 4 oz. can sliced black olives, drained
    1 – 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
    1 lb. dried pasta of choice (gemelli, rotini, or penne recommended)
    Freshly grated parmesan cheese

    1. In a large ziplock bag combine the flour, seasoned salt, and pepper. Shake to mix thoroughly. Add chicken to the bag, and shake to evenly coat pieces. In a large (5 quart) dutch oven or soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over med-hi heat. Once the oil is hot and shimmery, add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown in spots, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

    2. Reduce heat to medium, and add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil pan. Add onion and bell pepper and sauté 5 minutes or until soft. Add garlic, paprika, herbs, sugar, salt, and cayenne to the pan, and cook stirring, 1 minute more.

    3. Add wine to the pan and bring to a simmer before adding artichoke hearts, olives, browned chicken, and crushed tomatoes. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

    4. While sauce is cooking, boil the pasta. Before serving taste and adjust seasonings in the sauce. Top or toss pasta with sauce and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Mangia!
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