October 30, 2006
Soothing Creamy Pasta: my faux pasta carbonara

carbonara.jpgThere are very few cookbooks that I have read from cover to cover. I love reading recipes, but they are like short stories - better suited to browsing and dipping in and out, than concentrated cover to cover reading. The exception to this rule, for me, is Nigel Slater. His early books seem to be simple reprints of his columns (which I love) and even with subsequent books he kept a very chatty casual tone. His masterpiece, in my opinion, is Appetite. I took this one with me on a trip to the US and read it through like a novel on the way there and back. The recipes could actually fit easily, with lead notes, in a book a quarter the size. What makes the book good reading is the food philosophy that makes up the main filler, with chapters entitled Why Cook?, Who are you cooking for?, Measurements (and why you don't need them) and Learning to trust your own taste. It's a delight.

One of the sections came to mind recently when I was scouring the cupboards and fridge, looking for inspiration for dinner. Storecupboard - a shortlist to save your life, on page 135, gives Nigel's list of what everyone should have in his or her kitchen. He starts out stating "I feel so inadequate, such a fraud, when I read most cook's lists of essential storecupboard items. They bear little or no resemblance to what I have in my cupboards, most of them sounding more like an inventory of Harod's food hall than a list of useful things to have around." One of the many reasons I love Nigel is that his list is very nearly identical with mine: salt, pepper, garlic, lemons, olive oil, pasta, noodles, rice, olives, Parmesan, soy sauce, stock, spices, Smarties (okay, I don't have those, but I can't fault the man for including them), sauces, tomato, pancetta or ham...well, I won't list them all. I don't agree with the Marmite and tomato juice, but really otherwise we are on the same wavelength.

And in that list you'll find the ingredients for a very soothing pasta dinner: quick and filling and so very satisfying. Some will argue that this is not a true carbonara, because it doesn't include egg. Well, in my current state, I'm not allowed anything approaching raw egg so I had to compromise with extra cream. It was still delicious. And it didn't involve my having to run to the store in the rain.

My Faux Pasta Carbonara

Pasta for two, reserving about half a cup of the salted cooking water
4-6 slices of prosciutto or pancetta
50 g butter
1/3 cup cream or creme fraiche
2 cloves garlic
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
lots of freshly ground pepper

While the pasta is boiling, put half the butter in a frying pan and melt until it begins to froth. Add the garlic, finely sliced. When the butter is just starting to turn golden (and smells wonderful) add the prosciutto or pancetta, sliced in thin strips about the length of a match. Grate the Parmesan.

Once the pasta is al dente, strain about a half a cup of the cooking water into the pan with the ham and garlic and then finish draining the pasta, keeping it in the warm saucepan. Toss the pasta with the remaining butter, then add the ham/garlic/water mixture, most of the cheese and the cream. Stir quickly to coat every strand of pasta. Serve with a handful of the remaining cheese on each plate and a generous grinding of pepper. Make sure when you are dividing up the pasta that you get every last bit of cream, ham and garlic out of the corners of the saucepan and into the bowls.

If you want to be authentic, you could add eggs and/or egg yolks to the sauce and rely on the heat of the pasta to slightly cook them. For me, that will have to wait until next May.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:36 AM | Comments (1)
October 26, 2006
Macaroni and Cheese with Stealth Cabbage

macaroni and cheese ate my cabbage!

My sister was recently in Paris for a flying visit* and since she hasn't seen her nephew since August, we decided that it would be nicer to have dinner at our place than go out to a restaurant without the boy. As usual, I wanted to make something French, but it had to be something French that the Critic would like as well. So I went for the easy option as it was a weeknight with work the next morning: raclette. And as usual, I bought far too much cheese. I don't like to run out of raclette and I never have.

This leaves me with a surplus of cheese for which there are very few recipes in the world that are more complicated than "place cheese beneath a heating element and scrape the melted cheese over boiled potatoes or ham". So I needed to look for new places to put this cheese. Because it melts so well and has a gorgeous intense flavour once melted, I decided this time to try using it with pasta. Macaroni, raclette sauce, a good start. But I'm also trying to get in vegetables and folic acid for two these days and so I thought of another element that is strong-flavoured and would stand up well to the strength of the cheese: Napa cabbage. I was right. It was a marriage made in heaven. The cabbage and raclette combination was so tasty that I might just serve some lightly steamed cabbage leaves with the potatoes the next time I make a classic raclette.

* Literally: she's a flight attendant. And the Perfect Sister brought her pregnant little sister TWO big jars of Vlassic Kosher Baby Dills. I'm so lucky.

The first time I made the dish, I layered pasta and cheese, then cabbage, then leftover chicken and ham and finally another layer of cheese. The cabbage was cleverly hidden in the center and the Critic ate a full serving and even liked it, despite a definite aversion to all things brassica (except mustard seed: just noticed that in the Wikipedia definition). Personally, I thought that the meat was not essential and even added a chewy texture that didn't mix well with the soft cabbage and pasta. So I made it a second time and the recipe is below. If you are a dedicated meat eater, you might want to mix some shredded proscuitto or other uncooked ham in with the pasta - it was mainly the chicken that seemed out of place to me.

cabbagemacachee.jpgOne other thing to note: the second time I made the dish, I meant to mix the pasta and cabbage together to make it easier to taste the flavours coming together. Although it looks prettier with a middle layer of cabbage (as in the photo above) it actually was done that way because Yours Truly is an airhead and initially forgot to put the cabbage in. So I dug out half the pasta, laid a layer of cabbage on the pasta and then covered it. Both ways work, but you do need to make sure that every little bit of cabbage is covered on the top of the finished product. Otherwise it will brown and turn dry and bitter and you will lose all the pleasure in eating it.

Macaroni and Cheese with Stealth Cabbage (serves 3-4 as a side dish or 2 as a main)

200 g whole wheat macaroni
1/2 a small Napa cabbage (about 150 g raw)
150 g raclette, divided
1 cup milk
40 g butter, plus a little extra for the pan
40 g flour
1/3 nutmeg, ground
generous dose of salt
1/3 c breadcrumbs

Cook the pasta in boiling water according to the package instructions until just barely done. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter a small casserole dish (about 22 cm by 15 cm) and dust the inside with about a third of the breadcrumbs. Wash the cabbage and slice in bite-sized pieces. Place it in a deep frying pan with the water clinging to the leaves. Cover and cook on a low flame until the kitchen smells of cabbage and the leaves are a little limp but still have some character. (A word on the smell: cabbage really only smells unpleasant when it's overcooked or has been lingering in your home too long. Don't over cook and ventilate when you are done cooking and you will be fine. Your family, like mine, might not even notice those healthy leaves sneaking into the pasta and cheese.)

In a small saucepan, melt the 40 g butter until it begins to froth. Stir in the flour and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the butter just starts to turn a bit brown. Slowly add the milk and beat quickly with a fork or a whisk to keep lumps out. Chop 100 g of the cheese in small pieces and slowly add it to the milk sauce. Add the nutmeg and taste for salt. (It will depend on your cheese, but you will want to be generous - pasta begs for it and the cabbage is nicer too for some reason.)

Once all the elements are ready, you can assemble. Drain the pata and toss it with the cheese sauce. Reserve 1/4 of the cheese and pasta sauce. Either toss the remaining 3/4 with the cabbage OR place it in the baking dish and top with the cabbage. Cover with the remaining pasta and cheese. Grate the remaining 50g of cheese and sprinkle over the top of the dish. Sprinkle the remaining bread crumbs over the cheese. You might want to add another light dusting of salt as this will make the crusty top even more delectable. Or you could think of all the cholesterol in the cheese and refrain.

Bake for about half an hour or until the top is brown and crusty and the sauce is bubbling around it enticingly. Allow to cool for ten minutes or so before serving: it will be too hot to eat before then anyway, and waiting allows the pasta and cheese to set a bit and so make serving easier.

Note on the cheese: if you haven't recently overstocked raclette or don't have access to it, you could use any strong flavoured cheese that melts well. Sharp cheddar goes well with brassicas (think cauliflower or broccoli and cheese sauce) but even gruyere would be lovely. And you could always top with Parmesan instead of your base cheese too.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:19 PM | Comments (4)
October 23, 2006
Ozzies go home! And take your smelly yeast paste with you!

nokanga.jpgAn Australian friend of mine, Sam, sent me this link to a story about my homeland denying Australians in America the right to the pursuit of happiness. Yes, I know we've tossed most of the rest of the Bill of Rights out the door already anyway. But these are Australians. They have cute cuddly koalas and guys like Crocodile Dundee. Okay, yes, if allowed they will eat salty smelly yeast excrement. Oh wait, that's the issue. Yes, that's right, we are not allowing Australians to import - for business or private consumption - their beloved Vegemite.

You'd think they'd be thanking us.

But no, they are howling at the thought of not being able to spread the vaguely edible substance on their morning toast. Some of you may remember Barrett's enlightening review of Marmite, in which he elucidates the difference between Marmite and Vegemite ("Vegemite is supposedly bland salty yeast crap"). Personally, it makes me think of a Saturday Night Live Sketch I saw many years ago, about a shop that sells All Things Scottish. "Jesus, Dad," moans the son, "it's like all Scottish cooking is based on a dare!" And some Australian ones too, it would seem...

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:33 PM | Comments (16)
October 19, 2006
Napa Cabbage with Golden Tofu

Cabbage gets no respect. It's the unloved cousin of lettuce, which quite undeservedly hogs the limelight with flashy salads and wraps. Sure, you see cabbage in slaws, but for most of us, cabbage is a food we associate with heavy Eastern Ruropean dishes and that weird smell at Grandma's house. And I don't mean the good Grandma's house that smells like sugar cookies and apple pie, I mean the other one who smokes all the time and has a big bowl of butterscotch or root beer barrel hard candy that's all stuck together in a crystal dish on her coffee table.

But that's just not fair. Cabbage can be delicious even outside of the slaw-ter house, especially when its prepared in an Asian style and spiced just right.

This recipe uses a few spices, some oil, some tofu, and a whole head of Napa or Chinese cabbage. Napa cabbage is one of my favorites because it stands up to cooking, and the tips of the leaves get this amazing texture when wilted by the heat of the skillet. You can recognize a napa cabbage by it's long leaves. Napa is to regular tightly wrapped head cabbage what Romaine lettuce is to iceberg - long shape, looser leaves and more flavor.

I was too lazy to dig out the wok and used a big 12" skillet but you could certainly produce this recipe in a wok. . And before you all write in, yes, I know this isn't strictly speaking "golden tofu", but I thought it certainly looked like golden tofu and it tastes fantastic so quit being such a stickler, why don't you? Harrumph.

Try the tofu when you first fry it and then try it again after it's cooked with the cabbage a little. The crunch on the fried and dry tofu is great, but I also appreciate the texture of the tofu after the crust has been softened by the cabbage and sauce. If you prefer, marinate the tofu first and add it in only at the end to maintain the crunch.

Napa Cabbage with Golden Tofu
1 head napa cabbage, about 2 pounds.
1/4 cup soy sauce
up to 1 cup water
1 tablespoon cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon flour (or 1/2 tablespoon corn starch mixed with water)
pepper to taste

1/4 cup peanut oil (enough to cover bottom of skillet shallowly)
1 pound extra firm tofu, not silken style - the kind packed in water

Prep the cabbage. Wash it well, cut the stem end off and chop it into 3"-4" wide pieces.

Prep the tofu. Cut it into three slabs of about 1" height each. Place the bottom slab on paper towels. Separate the layers with more paper towels and stack the tofu slabs. Put paper towels on top of the stack, then a plate and a weight (a can of tomatoes works fine) and let the weight press water out of the tofu for ten to thirty minutes. Cut the tofu into 1"-1 1/2" squares or triangles.

Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet. We'll use this skillet for the cabbage later so it should be a very large skillet indeed. When the oil is hot, carefully lay the tofu squares into the pan. Fry for 3-4 minutes until the bottom side is a light golden brown. Use tongs and carefully tur the tofu over until the other side is also golden brown. The sides will still have a stripe of white when you're done. That's perfect. Remove to a dish and set aside.

Drain the oil from the skillet, but don't wipe it clean. Return the skillet to the heat and add the smashed garlic. Sautee for about a minute then add the cabbage. Sautee for abotu 30 seconds then add 1/2 cup of the water. Let the cabbage simmer in the water for about a minute or two. Most of the water should evaporate away and the cabbage should start to wilt. add the soy sauce and cumin and cayenne and sesame oil and toss the cabbage well.

If the cabbage starts to fry at any point, add a ittle more water, but don't drown the stuff (precision instructions, eh? But you really have to just feel it out). After the cabbage has wilted in the heat, you should start to have significant liquid in the pan. Tilt the pan slightly and carefully (very carefully, please, don't spill anything) and push the cabbage "uphill" in the pan. Liquid should accumulate in the bottom part of the pan. Beat in the flour or cornstarch/water mix to thicken the sauce. Keep the pan tilted a minute or so to help boil off some of the moisture and thicken it into a brown sauce.

When the sauce has thickened a little bit (it'll still be pretty thin), add the tofu and stir the cabbage and tofu together. Cook for two minutes longer, then serve immediately. You'll be surprised at how tasty it is.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:07 AM | Comments (11)
October 18, 2006
Thimbleberry Jam

thimbleberry.jpgI remember when my brother moved to the Pacific Northwest some 20 years ago. He was living in Ohio with his first wife and they were contemplating the eternal question of "what next" when she finished her studies. I don't know that my big brother actually asked my advice about the various options, but I do remember that as soon as I heard him mention Oregon I was emphatic in pushing it. I knew he'd love it. And I think he'll agree I was right. It is and was full of folk-singers, nut and berry gatherers and - if you'll excuse me - a fair number of nuts. So over the years my brother has gotten even more knowledgeable about gardening and foraging. Not only do I have the satisfaction of knowing he's happy where he is, but I also reap the rewards in terms of the fruit he finds when he's out and about on his bike.

The last time I was pregnant, I went through the entire jar of huckleberry jam he and his wife made for us, all by myself. It was a great morning sickness remedy and by the time I was through that stage of the pregnancy I was hooked anyway. I finished the jar, licked my lips and looked hungrily towards Oregon.

And this summer when we saw my brother in Illinois, he again showed what a wonderful loving sibling he is and gave me a completely new delight, one I had never heard of: Thimbleberry Jam. So my first question was: what on earth is a thimbleberry? It turns out that it is a member of the raspberry family, but is actually softer and so does not pack or ship well. So the only place you can find them is in the wild, not your local supermarket. And even then it's apparently something of a Holy grail of berries; my brother told me he'd been looking for them for quite a while before happening on a bank of bushes large enough to give fruit for a small batch of jam. And out of that small batch of jam, he gave me a precious little jar.

So, how does it taste, you may be wondering? In a word: delicious. But that is not a very descriptive word, now is it? It tastes a bit like raspberry but indefinably different. There are a lot more seeds than raspberries (which is saying a lot, really) but they are not as hard and annoying. They don't get caught in your teeth. One of the most amazing properties, though, is the incredibly high pectin level they have. My brother told me that when he made his first batch he used pectin and the resulting jam was almost impossible to spread. I was actually convinced he'd accidentally sent me some of this batch, as the jam I received was pretty darn solid, better on crumpets and English muffins than delicate slices of toast. But my jar did not have the marking 1.0 (my brother is a geek, yes) on the lid, so obviously I got the "soft" jam.

I asked my brother how he first heard of thimbleberries and how he knew to recognise them and he wrote back the following:

"Boy, where did I learn about them first?? It probably was from my friends Leif & Michelle, who first took me hiking when we came to the Pacific NW. They were very good about educating folks about local flora; one time they took me out mushroom hunting for morels.

Thimbleberries have very distinctive five-lobed leaves, and usually grow in areas which have been disturbed by logging or trail-building. You find them at the interface where light meadow and dark forest meet; they like sun, but not too much. The berries themselves ripen singly on stems, which makes picking them fairly laborious. The berries are like raspberries, being composed of individual drupelets arranged in a thin little cap that is about the size of a small thimble, hence the name. When I went looking for a recipe I found resources on the internet that indicate that they're not just a Pacific NW phenomena; people in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula apparently pick similar berries and make them into jam.

Enclosed is a photo of a stand of bushes. These are across the road from where I work. As to how I recognize them, I'm just always on the lookout for various berries in wild places. Thimbleberries are my favorite, but I also enjoy finding blue huckleberries (which you generally only find above a couple thousand feet elevation), salal berries (which are a meaty berry that local indigenous peoples ate as a staple), and salmonberries (which are found in moist places and are not so sweet). Then of course there are blackberries, which are ubiquitous: for six weeks in the summer I supplement my breakfast with a lot of blackberries that grow along the bicycle path to work. Many people tend to lump blackberries all together, but in fact there are indigenous blackberries as well as the non-native European blackberry. Some are big and fat and sweet, while others have a flavor that is best described as spicy.

For those out here on the West Coast wishing to identify berries, I recommend this little pocket guide:

http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=0912550023 (wow, the price on these has gone up, mine has a $3 price tag on it).



You can see why I thought the Pacific Northwest was the perfect place for my brother, can't you?

RipeThimbleberry.jpgIf you happen to find a trove of berries like the one pictured here (thanks, Kurt, for the photo!), and are interested in preserving them, here is the recipe he used.

Personally, if I ever move out that way and find myself with some thimbleberries, I'd be tempted to mix them with peaches for a variation. Back when I was about 13 years old, I tried to make a batch of peach jam and ended up with a dozen jars of very sweet, very soupy peach sauce, which lingered in my mother's basement for - literally - years. Obviously the peaches needed more pectin and obviously the thimbleberries have plenty to spare, so why not?

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:54 PM | Comments (23)
October 16, 2006

Certain foods proclaim Fall is here. It seems that it's only after frost first appears on the pumpkin that fresh chestuts appear in the markets.

I've been a fan of chestnuts for years in stuffing and in pies and puddings, but the best way to eat chestnuts is the simplest - roasted.

I know I'd had chestnuts before this time, but my favorite memory of eating roasted chestnuts was when I was visiting Meg (of this very blog) in Paris one February many years ago. She'd been showing me the sights of the city and we'd walked ourselves all over town.

Exiting the Louvre, we each bought a bag of chestnuts off a street cart vendor who was keeping them hot in an enormous funnel shaped iron roaster on wheels. We tried to peel and eat the things without burning our fingers in the grey of a drizzly Paris afternoon, but I think I ended up with some pretty sore fingers.

It was chilly but very bright and Sunday when I fired up the grill again this weekend to roast a batch of beautiful chestnuts I picked up at the Lotte Asian Market in Ellicott City on Sunday. I've read recipes where one boils the chestnuts before roasting to get the nuts to cook more evenly and make them come out of the shells more easily, but I like the challenge.

If you've never tried roasted chestnuts, you're missing out. Chestnuts have a meaty texture, capped with a sweetness you don't find in other nuts. They don't need salt or sugar or spices, though you can certainly scrape the meat out of chestnut shells and use it in recipes. They go into pies and pair with pork especially well.

To prepare the chestnuts, first rinse them and pat them dry, then cut an x on the flat side of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Make the cut shallow, but make sure you make it through the tough outer shell of the nut.

I used a chimney to get the fire started on my grill, adding more coals after it was going to ensure long-lasting heat. A big cast iron skillet held the chestnuts which not only roasted, but which benefitted from the smoke from the charcoal. About 20-25 minutes after the fire had started, my chestnuts were roasted, and I was reliving the bag of chestnuts I'd enjoyed outside the Louvre many years ago.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:22 AM | Comments (5)
October 13, 2006
Light as the wind: vol au vents au poulet

volauvent.jpgHave you had enough beans yet? Feeling full? Nutritious beans may be, and delicious those recipes may be, but LIGHT they are not. So we are taking a break with an elegant French classic: the vol au vent. According to my Larousse Gastronomique, the dish was invented by the early 19th century chef Carême, who declared on serving it that it was so light it would fly away with the wind. Carême undoubtedly made his own puff pastry, as frozen ones were not available in the freezer section of your local market back then. But the beauty of a modern interpretation is two-fold: it's very quick and easy to make with store-bought pastry and it's a delicious way to use up leftover meat or seafood.

(I know that I declared in my New Year's Resolutions that I would attempt a home made puff pastry in 2006, but I didn't promise to do it on a work night and I still have a few months left to go. Cut me some slack, please.)

The timing of making your dish depends partly on the materials you have to hand. It shouldn't take more than half an hour from start to finish once your puff pastry is ready to go, though, no matter how you slice it up.

Defrost your puff pastry (if frozen) or rest it at room temperature for 10 minutes (if just refrigerated) before beginning. Preheat the oven to 200c/400f. Roll out the pastry and select a wide-brimmed bowl and small-brimmed bowl (or a wide jar, in my case), whatever you can find so that you have one circle 10-15 cm in diameter and one about 1 1/2 cm smaller. The 250 gram pastry I used (frozen) was enough for three vol au vents and a few puffy bits for topping. Cut out three large circles and place them on a sheet of baking parchement or waxed paper. Gather the remaining dough in a lump and roll it out again. Cut out another three large circles and use the smaller bowl or jar to cut a hole in the center, making rings the same circumference as the circles. Wet your finger (or use a pastry brush) and dampen the edges of the circles before carefully laying the rings over them. Be careful not to disturb the cut out holes from the rings, as they will make a jaunty hat for your vol au vent.


Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden and puffy.

In the meantime, prepare your filling.

Chicken filling:

2 cups shredded roasted chicken meat
1 leek or onion, thinly sliced
8-10 mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 Tbs fresh or 1 tsp dry tarragon
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1/4 cup sweet white wine or sherry
2 Tbs butter


1/2 cup toasted almond slivers

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the leek or onion. Saute until soft and then add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms have softened, add the tarragon. Stir for a few minutes and then add the wine. Stir in the chicken meat and the crème fraîche. Heat thoroughly. This should take about 15-20 minutes, just about right for those pastry shells in the oven.


As you'll notice in the above photos, they have a tendency to puff up everywhere, including the center of the shells. Fret not, once you start ladling the filling into the shells (which you should do immediately, while the pastries and the filling are both piping hot) the center will sink down, leaving the fluffy walls to support the filing. Top with the almonds and a lid and serve immediately.

These really are a lovely quick dinner: light but hot and satisfying. The Critic's only complaint was that I didn't make more. And that is quite a compliment, really!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 10:19 AM | Comments (3)
October 12, 2006
Full of Beans: Black Bean Lasagna

This is it - the last day of our Full of Beans project. I still have a lot of black beans left from that big pot of beans that serve as the master ingredient for this project. We've made a spicy and hearty black bean soup, formed and fried some black bean cakes which we paired with a poblano sage cream sauce, created a tangy sandwich spread, and even made black bean ice cream from the savory legumes.

For our final recipe, I found a way to use a lot of beans in a recipe that will feed a hungry family and leave leftovers for lunch - lasagna. But we're doing a Latin-inspired lasagna with a chipotle infused tomato sauce, roasted poblanos and red peppers, Mexican cheeses, red onions, and instead of noodles - cut strips of flour tortillas.

To be honest, I used this dish to help clean out the refrigerator. We're now out of beans and Mexican melting cheeses and chipotle en adobo. Lasagnas are a great "heat sink" dish and this one sucked up all the beans I had left.

Use a knife to cut the lasagna after it cools and sets up a little. The tortilla noodle strips are soft, but still have more resistance than traditional pasta noodles. If you use a dull spatulas to turn out slices, you'll just make a mess and be very frustrated with this lasagna.

There are a lot of dishes I could have made with this pot of beans. I didn't make any bao, either savory or sweet. I didn't make a black bean pizza or a true black bean cake with eggs and flour. Black bean crusted fish starts with uncooked black beans, and there are certainly plenty of other recipes I could have undertaken. I'm sure you're probably thinking of some right now. Heck, we didn't even do refried black beans.

There are hundreds of creative uses for black beans. Why not make a big pot of beans this weekend and try some of the recipes I made here, and then try some of your own?

Black Bean Lasagna

1 quart "neutral" tomato sauce (i.e. nothing too deviant from plain marinara)
2 tablespoons chopped chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
5-7 large (12") flour tortillas.
1 red onion, sliced thin on a mandoline

4-5 cups cooked black beans, seasoned with:
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste

4 cups shredded Mexican cheeses (chihuahua or a mix of monterey jack and cheddar or a mix)
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 roasted poblanos, cut into 2" long 1" wide strips
2 roasted red peppers, cut into 2" long, 1" wide strips.

Pretty much anything else you think it needs. This is a great "refrigerator cleaner" recipe to get rid of those good ingredients you want to use up.

Mix the tomato sauce and chopped chipotles in adobo together well. Taste and add more adobo if you think it needs it. You should end up with a spicy smoky base sauce. You may add other seasoning as well.

Stack the tortillas and cut them into 3" wide strips - about as wide as a lasagna noodle.

If you haven't done so already, season your black beans and stir well.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Spoon just enough sauce into the bottom of a 9x13" lasagna pan to cover the bottom very lightly. Lay 1/3 of the tortilla strips horizontally (the short way) across the bottom of the pan, not overlapping much, if at all.

Spread the onions over the tortillas. Spread about 1/3 of the cheese over the onions. Next, spread another layer of tortillas over the cheese just as you did on the bottom.

Spoon sauce over the tortillas. Spread the seasoned black beans over the tortillas. Next, add the cilantro and 1/3 of the cheese. Make a layer of the rest of the tortillas. Spoon the rest of the sauce over that. Add the peppers in a layer over the very top of the lasagna, and then sprinkle with the last 1/3 of the cheese. If you want to add a hot sauce over the top of all of it, you may.

So your final lasagna layers from top to bottom should be:

(hot sauce)
black beans

Bake for 40 minutes. Check to see if top is golden brown. If not, bake until it is - up to 10 minutes longer.

Let cool on counter for at least ten minutes before cutting. Use a sharp knife to cut. The tortillas are not as pliable as pasta though they will hae softened.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:06 AM | Comments (5)
October 11, 2006
Full of Beans: Black Bean Ice Cream

So far during the Full of Beans project, we've made a spicy and hearty black bean soup, enjoyed black bean cakes with a spicy and savory poblano sage cream sauce and made a black bean sandwich spread perfect for lunch or dinner. But you knew something like today's recipe was coming, didn't you?

Yep. You knew it was inevitable we'd go to wacky-town on the black bean express and here we are. Only... Only this isn't that weird an idea. Ice cream from beans? It's been done.

Of course there's the classic Asian originated red bean ice cream that many of us have enjoyed in our local sushi bars, but haven't you had coffee ice cream made from shade grown fair trade what? Beans. Plain old vanilla, which is in just about every ice cream is a bean-derived flavoring. And just where exactly did you think the chocolate in chocolate ice cream came from?

So think of those examples and not of the soup and fried bean cakes and savory sandwich that we've made with our black beans up to this point. If you add enough sugar to anything, it tastes good, right?

I admit to enjoying this ice cream quite a bit. It's based on one of those adzuki red bean ice cream recipes I found that uses a binary method of ingredient combination. A sweet cream ice cream base is prepared and then married to the ingredients that make up the actual flavor of the ice cream. You could use this method to make all kinds of interesting ice creams.

My wife and I noticed something when we enjoyed this ice cream. The tablespoon full of whole sweetened black beans are disturbingly like chocolate chips. The Redhead's theory (and one I share) is that in an ice cream, much of the chocolate flavor is really just a sugar flavor combined with the frozen creamy texture of the chips. I know it sounds crazy, but try it and tell me I'm wrong.

Some may question the amounts of cumin and cayenne here. The goal is not to overpower the ice cream. You should be left with just a memory of cumin and cayenne in the aftertaste of the ice cream.

Black Bean Ice Cream
based on a recipe for red bean ice cream from AllRecipes.com by INSPIRON41

Sweet cream base:
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 teapsoon vanilla

Black bean flavor component:
1 cup cooked black beans, plus a tablespoon
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne
the juice of one lime
scantest pinch of salt

I use one saucepan for this recipe and wash it out between making each part of this recipe. You can use two if you prefer. Have two bowls filled with ice ready and nestle two empty smaller bowls in each of those larger ice-filled bowls.

Combine 2/3 cup sugar with 2/3 cup water in the saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves into the water, forming a simple syrup. Stir in the cumin, cayenne, lime juice, and salt. When thoroughly combined, introduce 1 cup of black beans and simmer for about three minutes to allow the beans to soak up the syrup.

Blend the beans with an immersion blender and a cover or in a regular blender or food processor. Remove the blended mixture to one of the bowls sitting in the ice bath to cool. Stir in the extra 1 tablespoon of whole unblended cooked black beans while the mix is still hot. Stir occasionally to let the heat out of the mixture.

Wash your saucepan well. Place over medium heat. Combine and heat the cream and milk in the pan. Bring the mix almost to a boil, scalding the milk.

While the dairy heats, in another bowl combine 2/3 cup white sugar with the egg yolks and vanilla. Mix until thoroughly combined.

When the milk is just shy of boiling or just starting to boil, reduce the heat to medium. Add 1/4 cup of the milk and cream mix to the egg and sugar mix and stir together. This is tempering the mix so you don't cook the eggs when you now add the sugar and milk mixback into the cooking cream and milk mix. Stir very well to combine.

Continue to simmer until the mixture thickly covers the back of a spoon. Pour into the other bowl nestled in ice and stir to help cool the mixture down.

Once the bowls are cooled to room temperature, mix the black bean mix into the cream mix. Stir very well, then remove to the refrigerator to cool further.

Follow the instructions to your ice cream maker to finish the ice cream. If you freeze this overnight, it will set up very hard. You may need to remove it to the refrigerator a half hour or so before serving for the best texture.

Don't tell your guests what kind of ice cream you're serving. Make them guess.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:46 AM | Comments (5)
October 10, 2006
A Bun in the Oven

HCB.jpgWe interrupt your daily diet of black beans to make the following announcement. The team of Critics here in Paris is due to increase by one some time towards the end of April 2007. If you noticed a few ginger recipes popping up on our site lately, or that Barrett seems to be the only one who musters up real enthusiasm for describing food (my mother did), well now you know why: I've been so tired that I need an hour and a half nap each day to keep my eyes open until ten p.m. and I've had daily doses of morning sickness too. These do not promote creative cooking or creative writing about food.

Sadly, the Boy's reign as King of the Universe will soon be at an end. Luckily he doesn't know it yet and still orders us around as usual. Happily, the first trimester is over and soon too - I hope - the morning sickness and zombie-like tiredness. In the meantime, we have Barrett's endless supply of beans...

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:57 PM | Comments (10)
October 9, 2006
Full of Beans: Black Bean Sandwich Spread

It's a new week, but we're still cooking from that big pot of black beans we started with.

So far we've made a spicy hearty black bean soup, and paired fried black bean cakes with a savory and slightly spicy poblano sage cream sauce. Today, we're making a sandwich spread with our beans and putting together a delicious torta-inspired vegetarian sandwich.

The structure of our sandwich spread is similar to mayonnaise, only instead of the protein from eggs, we're getting our structural protein from some black beans that have been through a food processor. The fat will come from olive oil and the food processor will help beat air into the mix. Add a little lime juice, some garlic powder, and some cayenne and you've got a spread that complements the classic combination of red onions, avocado and cheese.

I made this for us for dinner, and enjoyed it enough to take a batch of small containers with the sandwich ingredients with me to work for lunch the next day. The freshly constructed sandwich was as good as the one from the night before. You could certainly assemble a sandwich, wrap it up in clingfilm and take it to work, but I recommend assembling the sandwich on site. Just make sure you toast the bread at home if, like most people, you only have a microwave at your place of work.

This is only one possible sandwich you could make with this spread. Roasted sweet or hot peppers, spinach, romaine, sprouts - any of these would work well in a sandwich anchored with a black bean spread.

Black Bean Sandwich Spread

2 cups cooked black beans
as much as 1/2 cup olive oil
juice of two small or one large lime
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt, pepper to taste

For sandwich -
Crusty white bread
sliced avocados
sliced tomatoes
fresh cilantro
chichuahua cheese, shredded
thinly sliced red onion (use a mandoline)

roasted peppers, anchovies, spinach, bean sprouts, fresh pepper slices, etc...

In a food processor or blender (food processor is much preferred), add the beans and pulse until well chopped up. Turn food processor on to run continuously and slowly drizzle in olive oil. Add spices and lime juice and blend well. taste and adjust salt and pepper to suit. Process until the spread is smooth and has a lighter aerated look to it, about two minutes.

Cut a good sized hunk of bread off the loaf and split it in half. Put a dry skillet over high heat and toast both the split sides of the bread in it until golden brown.

Spread the black bean spread on each side and assemble the sandwich alternating "sticky" ingredients like cheese with "slick" ingredients likely to squirt out the side of the sandwich like tomatoes. This should help anchor the slick ingredients.

If you wish, you may microwave the completed sandwich for 30 seconds to warm the bread, but be careful - microwaved bread gets chewy and loses much of its crusty crunch.

Carefully unhinge your jaw like a hungry anaconda and eat.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:32 AM | Comments (5)
October 6, 2006
Full of Beans: Black Bean Cakes With Poblano Sage Cream Sauce

Welcome to Day three of the Full of Beans project on Too Many Chefs. On Wednesday we made a big pot of black beans (and maybe had a bowl of them with some spices and onions and cilantro). Yesterday, we made a hearty black bean soup. Today, we're making black bean cakes with a poblano sage cream sauce that must be tasted to be believed.

We're adding binders and fillers to our beans today. Oh sure, that doesn't sound like a good thing, but it is. The black bean cakes (and I wish I could come up with a better name for them than that) will barely hang together, but the nice crispy crust and mix of flavors make the fragility of these cakes forgivable. Though I enjoyed the meal, I'm not 100% happy with the cakes themselves. They're pretty darn good, but I think they could be fantastic with just a little something. Try them and let me know what you think is missing, if anything. Cilantro? Roasted red pepper? Chile peppers?

Nothing's missing in the sauce I made to go with the cakes, however. I started with a poor man's bechamel (a roux plus dairy), simmered some sage in the sauce, and then introduced a poblano and blended it all up into a fantastic, smooth, lightly spicy savory cream sauce you can use for all sorts of dishes.

As you can see above, the mix of pale green sauce and deep purple/black cakes make these cakes exceedingly difficult to photograph, but they aren't hard to eat at all.

Black Bean Cakes

2 cups cooked black beans
2 eggs, beaten lightly
Up to 1 cup fine bread crumbs
1/2 chopped white onion
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mash the beans with a potato masher. Most of the beans should be somewhat mangled by the time you're done, but don't overdo it. Mix in the eggs and onion. Mix in the spices.

Slowly add bread crumbs until the gooeyness of the beans and eggs mixture dries up. Don't add too much. Leave the mix somewhat sticky.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the mixture and place it into the skillet. You can fry 2-3 of these at a time without much of a problem. Let cook on the one side until the bottom is showing some signs of browning and the patty holds together. Flip carefully and cook the other side until it is similarly done.

Set aside in a warm oven while you finish the rest of the cakes and prepare the sauce.

Poblano Sage Cream Sauce
1 medium sized poblano pepper
1/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup half and half
1/2 cup milk
2-4 fresh sage leaves
1/2 oz. queso fresco or queso anejo, crumbled.
salt and pepper to taste

Blacken the outside of the poblano thoroughly over an open flame. Place in a paper bag, close the bag and let sit for five minutes. Scrape off the skin from the pepper. Cut a circle around the pepper 1" below the stem end and separate teh bottom fo the pepper from the crown. Discard the crown and remove any seeds or white veins. Chop the pepper coarsely.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the flour slowly and stir with a wooden spoon. You will form a paste. Keep stirring and breaking up the paste until it has darkened a little, after about a minute to a minute and a half. Stirring all the time, slowly add the half and half and then the milk. Stir out and break up any lumps that form.

Reduce the heat to low. Add the sage leaves. Stir unitl the sauce coats the back of a spoon thickly. Add the poblano and stir.

Blend the sauce either with an immersion blender and a cover (Alton Brown used the dismembered frisbee trick), or blend the sauce in a food processor or blender with the cover on. Be careful when blending this sauce, it is sticky and hot and will burn you if you aren't careful.

Return the sauce to the saucepan if you've remoed it. Add the queso fresco or anejo and stir until it melts into the sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper to suit.

To serve, either make a pool of the sauce on a plate and lay the cakes on top of the pool or serve the cakes directly on the plate, and spoon or squirt the sauce over the cakes.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:51 AM | Comments (6)
October 5, 2006
Full of Beans: Black Bean Soup

Yesterday, I introduced you to our week-long Full of Beans project. We made a big pot of black beans and set aside a little of the liquid from the pot for some of our recipes to use those beans.

Today, we're making one of the most satisfying bean recipes with our pot of black gold - black bean soup. That liquid you set aside when you made the full pot of beans will be put to good use here. It's loaded with black bean flavor and will serve only to intesify the flavor of the actual beans we use in this soup.

I've had a lot of black bean soups, thick and thin, spicy and lime-y. In my opinion, the best black bean soup should be spicy and hearty. You should finish your bowl of soup and either be sated or ravenous for the next course (if you didn't have enough of the soup). The soup recipe I present here is among the simplest, with aromatics and spicy chipotle chile bits enhancing but not hiding the flavor of the black beans.

If you've got prepared black beans in your refrigerator (or in a can, I suppose), you can have this dish on your table in under twenty minutes.

You'll finish this soup with a slight burn in your mouth (but not too much of one), and a full belly. If you like it spicy, add more chipotle chiles.

For absolute best results, have this for lunch on a cool autumn day on your balcony or deck with a nice beer or a margarita.

Black Bean Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium leek, white and pale green part only
pinch of salt
2 cups water from a cooked pot of black beans ("bean juice") or vegetable stock
3 cups cooked black beans
1 chipotle chile in adobo
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano.
1 cup half and half
salt and pepper to taste

queso fresco or goat cheese to crumble over the soup when done.

Cut the root end off your leek. Split the leek lengthwise and wash it thoroughly under cold running water. Cut the leek into 1/2" slices across the width of the leek.

Chop the chipotle chile finely and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, heat your olive oil until it is just shy of smoking. Add the leeks and a pinch of salt. Sautee the leeks until tender. Add the beans and bean juice (I love that phrase) or add stock if you don't have any bean juice. Add the chipotle. Add the oregano. Stir. Heat until soup is hot throughout.

Transfer the soup to a food processor or better, use an immersion blender. Blend the soup until thick and smooth. Return to the saucepan if you did the blending in a food processor. Add the half and half slowly while stirring untilt he soup is a lovely attractive purple/grey (it tastes better than it looks, really). Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

Serve with a crumble of queso fresco over the top.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 6:48 AM | Comments (8)
October 4, 2006
Full of Beans

This is a lot of black beans. Six cups dry, and I don't know how many cups after cooking. Why on earth would I make such a huge pot of beans?

Partially to prove a point. Beans are an amazing and versatile food, and with a little creativity, a pot of beans can feed you and your family in many different ways. I chose to use black beans because, in addition to being cheap and delicious, they are very nutritious. Black beans have lots of protein, iron, B-vitamins, folate, and fiber, all of which are good for growing boys and girls, and black beans may even help fight cancer and reduce your heart attack risk.

From this master pot of beans, I'm going to make dinner for two for five days, and not once will we resort to a typical taco or burrito treatment. Most of the ingredients I'll use are readily available at your local supermarket. I'll use a couple of Mexican ingredients like queso fresco or chihuahua cheese that should be available in most urban markets, and will certainly be available in any Mexican grocery store.

You can always make a pot of beans and eat them as is with a little salt and spice. I start with a pretty bland batch of beans, refraining even from using much salt until I cook the prepared beans a second time in recipes you'll read over the next week or so.

I hope you'll try all these recipes and learn to enjoy one of the healthier foods our there.

Big Pot of Black Beans
6 cups dried black beans, picked over, rinsed
2 small or one medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 package dried or 3 leaves fresh epazote*
scant pinch of salt

*see recipe for caution on using epazote.

Start by heating the oil in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Introduce the chopped onion and pinch of salt which will help draw out some of the onion's juices. Sautee until the onions are softened and translucent, but before they take on color.

Add the beans to the pot and stir. Add enough water to cover the beans by about 2 inches.

At this point you can add the epazote. Be careful with this. In large quantities epazote has been used by herbalists to intentionally induce miscarriages. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, weigh the risks and be careful using the herb. Its primary benefit in this preparation is to help take some of the toot out of this magical fruit, which it does well. It also adds a nice flavor, but you can substitute cilantro/culantro or do without if you have concerns.

Bring the beans and water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Check beans every twenty minutes or so and make sure they are covered with water, adding water as needed, but reducing the amount they are submerged gradually. By the end of an hour, there should be about half an inch of water over the beans. From that point, only add enough water to keep the beans wet. They do not have to and probably should not be completely submerged. You do want some "bean juice", however, that we will use in our upcoming recipes. Continue for about an hour and a half until the beans are nice and tender.

If you taste the beans now, you'll find them very bland. Rick Bayless in his Mexican Kitchen book recommends against using much salt when cooking beans because it leads to an uneven texture. If you want saltier beans (and you will), add the salt only after cooking.

Right now, use a ladle to dip into the pot, pushing aside the beans to collect some of the liquid. Set a couple of ladles of the liquid aside. We'll use it tomorrow in our first recipe. If you leave it in the pot, most of it will be reabsorbed by the beans, which is good for them, but not so good for our plans for them.

If you'd like to enjoy a simple bowl of beans right now from the pot, dish some up out of the master pot, add salt, pepper, cilantro, chopped onion, and maybe even a little hot sauce and enjoy.

Put the rest of the beans in a large container and refrigerate them for use with the rest of our black bean recipes. And again, I promise, no tacos or burritos.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:54 AM | Comments (9)
October 2, 2006
Mexican Onion Pie

We've done a few onion tarts in the past, but I don't think we've done an onion pie. What's the difference? Um. This is pie shaped. Those were tart shaped. Except for the galette which was galette shaped.

Oh, and this one tastes entirely different from those. Of course we've done a lot of onion tart/pie recipes. They're economical, nutritious, and hard to resist. For this one, the onions are still the star. The supporting cast is typically Mexican - tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro, and despite the boldness of their performance, they are strictly support. The onions still carry the pie.

We've seen the crust before on other recipes, and it is still one of the best crusts I've ever baked, and so simple to make.

You will need to locate two Mexican cheeses. In my neck of the woods, there are an increasing number of Mexican markets where you can get authentic or at least authentic-to-American ingredients like the melty chihuahua cheese and crumbly light tasting queso fresco. If you can't find those ingredients, you can use other cheeses, but I'll decline to nominate substitutes because I'm sure if you look hard enough, you'll find a market that carries them.

A big part of this tart is liquid management. The tomatoes and onions both want to give up a lot of liquid. The crust is pretty good at resisting getting soaked, but keep an eye out and don't hesitate to resort to draining or paper towels to remove liquid after cutting to keep the crust in good shape.

Mexican Onion Pie

1 cup AP flour
1/2 cup masa seca
1 stick (8 tablespoons butter), very cold
1/4 cup ice water
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons olive oil for brushing

5-6 medium yellow or white onions or a mix of the two, sliced very thin horizontally to form rings.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
teaspoon of kosher salt
2 medium jalapenos, deveined, seeded, diced small
1 28 oz. can roasted pomodoro tomatoes, drained well
2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
1 cup chunky salsa of your choice
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

4 oz chihuahua cheese, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
1 oz queso fresco

Make the crust - Mix the flour, salt, and masa together with a fork. Cut the cold butter into tiny cubes
(about 32 from a single stick) and mash these into the flour with your fingertips. Slowly add the cold water as you mix until you get a dough that hangs together. Gather the dough into a ball and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 F

On a floured surface, roll the dough out into a round, slightly larger than a 9" pie plate. If you mess up, don't worry about it. Gather the dough together into a ball and roll it out again. Transfer the crust to pie plate and trim the edges. Patch any holes well and use a fork to poke several holes in the bottom of the crust ("docking" the crust, as it is called). This allows steam to excape during baking and prevents getting a big bubble in the middle of the crust.

Bake at 425 F for 25 minutes. While it is baking, start the onions.

You should have sliced your onions with a mandoline or knife very very thinly into ring-bearing slices. Heat oil in a large skillet until it is hot. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir well to separate the rings out from the slices. Sautee over medium heat for 10 minutes until the onions are softened, stirring occasionally to prevent the onions from burning.

Dice your well drained tomatoes and put them in a medium bowl. Add the chopped cilantro, Mexican oregano, and diced jalapenos and mix well.

Add the mix to the sauteeing onions along with the salsa and stir well. Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste. You'll notice a lot of liquid coming out of the tomatoes and onions. Try to cook this off as much as possible.

When the crust is done. Use a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the onion mix to the prebaked crust. Distribute the mix evenly and smooth it down.

Top with the chihuaha cheese evenly. Crumble the queso fresco on top of that. Bake the pie in the 425 F oven for 6-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and maybe taking on a little color. Don't burn the crust, however. If the curst looks like its starting to turn a dark brown, remove the pie from the oven.

Let stand for 5-10 minutes before cuttign and serving. The pie holds its heat very well.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 8:00 AM | Comments (5)
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