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Stinging Nettle and Israeli Couscous With Lemon, Parsley and Capers

by | Dec 9, 2008

Saturday at the farmers market I was talked into buying some stinging nettle and I must admit, I was pretty skeptical. Who wants to put something in their mouth that has stinging in the name?

But despite my reluctance, I could not deny that the nettle (to avoid negative connotations I am going to ditch the “stinging” part) was beautiful, fluffy and green, things that I generally associate with delicious. Besides, I pride myself on not being afraid of trying and cooking new foods.

I accepted the challenge. Now what to do with these weird things?

Eating the nettle alone did not sound particularly appealing. If I really love it I could always go back and get some more, right? I had heard that nettle has an earthy, green flavor, so I thought it might pair well with pasta, garlic and lemon.

I do not usually keep pasta in the house (I prefer fresh pasta if I am going to bother eating it), but I did recently purchase some Israeli couscous from Trader Joe’s. Israeli couscous, also called ptitim, is basically just giant couscous. It is made out of semolina wheat, the same kind of flour Italian pasta is made from. (No, couscous is not a whole grain).

I was starting to form a mental image of my meal: Mediterranean style Israeli couscous with greens and garlic. Oh! And I just bought a beautiful Meyer lemon at the farmers market. It’s juice and zest would be a perfect complement to brighten the dish. And since we are going Mediterranean, Italian parsley and capers would be lovely accents.

On a whim I decided to roast an acorn squash as well and use the nettle dish as a stuffing. It was good, but I do not think it was the best pairing and I do not recommend it. I looked nice, but the flavor profiles were a little off.

The nettle and couscous dish on its own was spectacular though. I wish I would have paired it with my Romanesco broccoli instead.

I should also confess that my lips are stinging a bit, but in the good way.

Stinging Nettle and Israeli Couscous With Lemon, Parsley and Capers
Ingredients:
  • 1/2 bag of stinging nettle
  • 1/2 cup dry Israeli couscous
  • 1/3 bouillon cube
  • 1/2 shallot
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1-2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
  • 1/2 Meyer lemon, juice and zest
  • 1 tbsp capers

Start some water boiling. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a sauce pan on medium heat and add couscous. Toast couscous in olive oil, stirring frequently until light brown, about 5 minutes (just following the instructions on the box here). Slowly add 1/2 cup of boiling water to couscous, add bouillon cube and return to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes.

In the mean time dice your shallot, garlic and parsley. Rinse your nettle in a strainer (you can touch it a little, but I would keep your hands off as much as possible). Heat a little olive oil in a pan and add the chopped shallot. Cook shallot for 2 minutes then add garlic. After 30-60 seconds add nettle and salt, then stir and cover. After one minute, uncover the nettle, stir again and add parsley.

If the couscous is ready, add it to the pan. If not, turn off the heat until couscous is ready to add. Stir couscous into the greens until well mixed. Squeeze lemon juice into the pan and add grate lemon zest directly on top of the dish. Add capers, salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately. This is probably enough for 2 people as a side dish. Yum!

Anyone else have any nettle ideas?

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Easy Potluck Idea: Homemade Hummus

by | Dec 5, 2008
Hummus

Hummus

 

Last night I went to a potluck and I have to admit, I was dreading it a little.

It’s not that I don’t love my friends or cooking for them, but I have been feeling queasy this week (I contracted some nasty food poisoning on my vacation–that’s what I get for not cooking my own meals!) and have not had much energy for anything, especially food.

But I have a food blog. Not only did I have to bring something, it had to be impressive!

I needed something quick, easy and delicious, made mostly from ingredients I have laying around. Hummus was my answer. Hummus is a Middle Eastern style dip made of chickpeas. Remember all that talk about how easy and delicious homemade beans are in the pressure cooker? Well chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are no exception.

Hummus is a perfect potluck contribution because it is easy to make, easy to transport and exotic enough to be impressive. Also, homemade hummus is way better (tasting, but also for you) than anything you can buy at the store… no offense to Trader Joe’s.

You can make the basic recipe with beans, tahini, garlic and spices, but I have added a couple extra ingredients if you want to take your hummus to the next level.

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • tahini to taste
  • 1 Meyer lemon
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (gourmet paprika or fresh ground sweet chili powder is best)
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or more if you’re feeling spunky – optional)
  • pure olive oil or canola oil
  • good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt to taste
  • preserved lemon (optional)
  • parsley (optional)

I always have tahini in my fridge, but if you do not it is fairly easy to find. Tahini is a paste made out of sesame seeds with a consistency similar to natural peanut butter (the oily kind). It has a delicious smokey flavor and I use it to garnish many different dishes.

Olive oil is a key ingredient in this recipe, but it is important to understand that you cannot put extra virgin olive oil into a blender, or it will turn unpleasantly bitter. Use either pure olive oil or canola oil for blending, then add a good extra virgin olive oil on top as a garnish. Your extra virgin olive oil should have a bright green color, not a dull yellow or brown.

You can use canned beans if you are in a pinch, but I don’t recommend it.

Here’s what to do:

Pick over, rinse and soak the dry chickpeas overnight in excess water (they expand quite a bit). The next day rinse them again, put them in a pressure cooker and cook on high until done (mine works in 12 minutes). Once they are cooked, use a slotted spoon to move chickpeas from the liquid into a large bowl. Reserve the liquid. Throw out any chickpea shells that have separated from the bean.

If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can boil the chickpeas until they are soft, about an hour and a half. Add more water if necessary.

While the beans are cooking place whole, unpeeled garlic cloves into a toaster oven and bake at 400 for 3-5 minutes (I like them less cooked). Let them cool a bit then remove the peel, which should come off easily.

Add the garlic to your beans (mince it if you prefer to add it raw), along with 1/2 cup (or whatever) of the liquid they cooked in, 2 tbsp pure olive oil, 1/2 tsp of salt and lemon juice to taste (I use the whole thing).

Also add 2-3 tbsp of tahini (honestly I eyeball it and keep adding tahini until I’m happy with the taste) and the other spices. I recently purchased some amazing New Mexico chili powder from Tierra Vegetables and a few slices of preserved lemon from Boulette’s Larder that added incredible dimension to this already wonderful recipe. I am particularly impressed with the preserved lemon, which contributed a unique, rich lemon flavor unlike anything I have ever tasted.

David Lebovitz claims that making your own preserved lemons is not very difficult if you want to try. Rinse the lemons before adding them to your recipe, I added 5-6 slices.

Blend the ingredients together using a hand blender. If you do not have a hand blender you can use a regular blender or food processor. They work the same but are harder to clean.

Puree the mix until smooth, adding more liquid if necessary. Once the hummus is creamy, taste it with a clean spoon and adjust the salt, lemon and tahini.

When finished, move hummus to a tupper (for potluck) or serving bowl. Use a spoon to make a crater in the center, garnish with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with paprika and chopped parsley. California extra virgin olive oil is the best choice, in my opinion, and Trader Joe’s has a great one that is affordable. In San Francisco, however, I like to use Stonehouse olive oil. They have a store at the Ferry Building.

Serve with warm pita wedges or bread.

Hummus can be modified in a million different ways. It is fantastic with roasted peppers, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and different kinds of nuts.

Be creative!

 

What is your favorite hummus recipe?

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How To Cook Dried Beans Using A Pressure Cooker

by | Dec 2, 2008
Squash, Peppers and Beans

Squash, Peppers and Beans Recipe

I am not a vegetarian, but for convenience, financial and health reasons I do not cook a lot of meat. Consequently my dietary protein comes from many different sources, not the least of which is beans.

I realize that many of you have preconceived notions of beans and what goes along with eating them, but I am going to ask you to keep your mind open until I finish my explanation. If you read all the way to the bottom, you are more than welcome to unleash your fury in my comments section.

Let me begin by stating that I am not talking about canned kidney beans. I do not eat beans from a can unless I am desperately short on time. Not that there is anything wrong with canned beans: they are quick, healthy and relatively inexpensive. However, I have found canned beans to be very one dimensional in flavor and even less appealing in texture. They are also more prone to cause the digestive problems many people associate with “the musical fruit.”

Dried Beans

A little over a year ago my apartment acquired a pressure cooker that opened my eyes to the potential of dried beans. Dried beans, which are even less expensive than canned beans, can take hours to cook under normal circumstances. But a pressure cooker can cut this time to under half an hour and allows you to prepare large batches that can be stored frozen for months.

In my estimation, however, the best reasons to cook your own beans are taste, texture and variety. Home cooked beans taste worlds better than canned. First off, they do not have the characteristic slimy ooze of canned beans. (Definitely rinse your beans if you do buy canned). Dried beans also have a richer, more complex flavor without the metallic tinge you get with S&W. (Hint: Your beans will taste even more delicious when cooked in bouillon or broth.)

The mouthfeel of home cooked beans is also superior to canned. Different varietals have unique tastes and textures, so with each bean you try you embark on a new adventure. Some are silky and delicate, others rich and creamy. Larger beans tend to be heartier than smaller beans, but there is really no telling how they will taste until after you cook them.

While there are only five or six kinds of canned beans commonly available, the number of dried beans is innumerable. Rancho Gordo is an heirloom bean vendor I visit regularly at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that has a fantastic variety of dried beans. Ever had a Black Calypso bean? Me neither, but I cannot wait to try them! Visit the Rancho Gordo website if you want to order online.

There are also fantastic bean selections at most health food stores, including Whole Foods. Check the bulk bins for the best deals.

Soaking Beans

One caveat of cooking your own beans is that they require a significant amount of soaking time. I recommended that you rinse them well and soak them overnight. All this requires is 5 minutes of planning the day before, and if you prepare large batches you do not have to soak beans very often. Be sure to pick over your beans for pebbles before cooking them.

Another bonus of rinsing and soaking beans is that it eliminates many of the sugars that your body cannot digest, thereby reducing (in my experience eliminating) unpleasant bodily byproducts. Toss out your soaking water when you are finished and add fresh water or broth for cooking.

Pressure Cooker Precautions

Pressure cookers can be dangerous if used improperly, so it is imperative that you follow the instructions carefully. In general, it is important to get a tight seal on the lid and be sure the pot is not over-filled (total volume should be less than half the volume of the pot). However, it is necessary to add sufficient liquid to the beans to prevent burning and dehydration. You also want to avoid adding salt until after your beans have cooked.

Follow the instructions on your pressure cooker to determine the appropriate amount of cooking time, usually 10-20 minutes. The contents of the pot are under a tremendous amount of pressure while cooking, so be sure to allow the pot to depressurize completely before attempting to remove the lid. This takes an additional 10-15 minutes.

Here is the pressure cooker I use.

I imagine that a slow cooker would be equally advantageous in cooking beans, but I have never tried it.

What are your favorite tricks to make beans more user friendly?

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Simple Gourmet: How To Peel Garlic

by | Nov 23, 2008

It came as a bit of a shock for me to learn that some people hate peeling garlic so much they have completely given up using it.

Sure the flavor is strong, but almost all cooks consider garlic indispensable. If peeling it is your problem, don’t fret! This one little trick makes garlic a cinch to peel.

First, remove single cloves from a very fresh garlic bulb (garlic is cheap, you should buy it every week). I rarely use more than one or two when cooking for two people.

Next, place the garlic clove on a cutting board oriented so that its curve is pointed upward, or at least sideways. There may be space beneath the clove, which is good. Grab a wide blade knife, such as a chef’s knife or santoku knife. Rest the flat end of the blade on the top of the garlic (as shown) and hit the top with the palm of your hand once or twice, quickly and firmly.

The impact will slightly crush the garlic clove while the outer skin retains its shape and becomes dislodged. Examine the clove and remove as much of the skin as you can (usually all of it). If some skin remains stuck to the clove hit it a few more times, using a bit more force. It does not matter if you damage the garlic.

Use the knife to cut off the hard end that attached the clove to the bulb. This may help to remove any remaining skin as well. If you still have some skin stuck to the clove, it should be easy to pick off at this point. If not, smash it a couple more times.

Recipes often called for minced garlic, so after I peel my clove I often crush it completely then make thin slices along the length, then width. Scrape off any pieces of garlic sticking to the side of the knife then quickly mince the remaining chunks. This entire process takes less than 1 minute.

It is a great idea to prepare your garlic at least 10-15 minutes before you plan to cook with it, something that makes it substantially healthier.

I can’t imagine this being any easier, but I am always happy to hear your suggestions and comments!

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Weekday Breakfast: Cereal and Fruit

by | Nov 10, 2008
Healthy Breakfast

Healthy Breakfast

Monday mornings are rough, but skipping breakfast is not an option. Current wisdom recommends you drink a glass of water and eat breakfast within an hour of waking. The quickest, healthiest thing you can have in the morning is a bowl of cold whole grain cereal with fruit.

But buyer beware. Almost all breakfasts cereals these days claim to be “whole grain.” Yet as you can probably deduce on your own, Cocoa Puffs is not a nutritious breakfast. All that sugar negates any benefit of their “whole grain” health claims.

The Truth About Whole Grain Products

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined the requirements that must be met for a manufacturer to use the term “whole grain” on its label (along with the respective health claims):

“Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis – should be considered a whole grain food.” (emphasis added by me)

Understand? To be considered “whole,” grains do not actually have to be intact. Armed with this, manufacturers set to work demolishing grains as normal, then adding back the required ratios of grain parts (germ and bran) to meet the standard. Presto! Magic health in Lucky Charms.

Would you then be surprised if I told you that intact grains are much, much better for you than demolished and reassembled grains?

If you really want the benefits associated with eating whole grains you should be able to see an intact grain in what you are eating; something like an oat, for example. If not, there has definitely been some processing involved, which reduces the whole grain benefits. That being said, processed whole grains are better than purely refined grains (without germ and bran). White sandwich bread is indistinguishable from sugar in my view.

So this is the problem with breakfast, and it is difficult to avoid in cold cereals. Real whole grains are tough and bland, so some demolition and sweetening are almost always necessary for most people to eat them regularly.

Oatmeal is a fantastic choice. Steel cut oats are even better, but they take 45 minutes to cook. When you just want to pour, eat and run you will need a quicker alternative.

My Solution

I first turned to granola. Those grains sure do look intact, right? But take a closer look and you will find granola often contains ungodly amounts of sugar. Though I enjoy granola and occasionally eat it during outdoor activities, I cannot bring myself to eat it every day for breakfast. It is just too sweet and dessert-like for me. You can make your own granola and add less sugar if you have the time. But still.

The good news is there are some products that are whole grain, palatable and not packed with sugar. But making a good breakfast out of them requires a touch of creativity. I have found one company that makes a kind of granola without sugar. Muesli is actually the appropriate term for this kind of cereal. It is regrettably difficult to find, but is available at Whole Foods in a variety of flavors. The company that makes it is called Dorset Cereals out of the UK. It is not cheap, but I only use about 1/4 cup per serving, so a box lasts me several weeks.

Another cereal product I like is the Ezekiel 4:9 brand made by Food for Life. Though these cereals are not exactly intact grains, they are made from many different kinds of sprouted whole grains and are free of flour and other bad stuff. To give you an idea of what they are like, think of Grape Nuts with more flavor.

I wish I could say that these products solved all my problems, but there is also the issue of taste and texture. Both these cereals are very dense, and eating them without any additional sweetness is a little brutal. For this reason I do not eat them alone, but instead mix them with my favorite flake cereal, Nature’s Path Flax Plus.

I also always add fruit. These days I am using pomegranate seeds (see pic), but almost anything will do. I even keep a bag of frozen organic wild blueberries for emergencies. Fruit is sweet, but also very good for you. Hooray, problem solved!!

What is your healthy breakfast?

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Simple Gourmet: How To Clean A Pomegranate

by | Oct 13, 2008
Clean Pomegranate Seeds

Clean Pomegranate Seeds

Pomegranates can be intimidating because they are notoriously messy and the tiny seeds can be difficult to separate from the convoluted center. However, with a few simple tricks you can have a pile of clean pomegranate seeds in about 5 minutes.

First cut off the flowery tip and score the leather-like skin of the pomegranate along the veins where the membrane goes through to the center. Make the slices about 1/4 inch deep. You can cut the pomegranate in half if you like, but this will damage some of the seeds and make an unnecessary mess.

Next, fill a large bowl with cool water and submerge pomegranate. Use fingers to pry open the skin at the incisions and break pomegranate in half as shown. The skin should bend easily where it has been scored, so continue to break open the fruit and gently begin removing the seeds under water with your thumb and fingers.

Submerge Pomegranate

Submerge Pomegranate

Because the seeds are filled with juice they readily sink to the bottom of the bowl, while the airy, white interior of the pomegranate floats to the top.

Once you have dislodged all the seeds, remove the large chunks of skin and lining with from the water with your hands. If any seeds remain floating, they are likely attached to a floating piece of the pomegranate interior. Separate these pieces.

Removing Pomegranate Seeds

Removing Pomegranate Seeds

Next, add cold water to the bowl then let the seeds settle to the bottom again. Dump off the top layer of water, being sure not to let any seeds escape from the bowl. Remove as much water as possible and then refill the bowl. With the water now slightly cleared, check the seeds at the bottom for any stuck pieces of the white interior of the pomegranate and remove them.

Continue to rinse and drain the seeds until no more pieces of pomegranate interior float on the water. Finally, dump the clean seeds into a strainer to remove the water. These can be stored in a sealed contain in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.

Pomegranate seeds are a fantastic addition to salads, cereals, rice, couscous and vegetable dishes.

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Simple Gourmet: Fire-Roasted Peppers

by | Sep 28, 2008

Sometimes I feel I have an undeserved reputation for being a brilliant chef. Let there be no mistake, I most certainly am not. A true chef has years of training and a magic ability to turn the good into the sublime. I am proud to know several amazing San Francisco chefs, and I am the first to admit there is not a single thing I could teach any of them about taste or the culinary arts.

So how have I fooled people?

I will acknowledge I have a well-developed gustatory sense. I can tell delicious from ordinary even with a stuffy nose. In fact it was precisely my taste for exquisite food that forced me to learn a few tricks in the kitchen, since financial concerns make it impossible for me to eat at my favorite restaurants every night. To spare myself from accepting the mediocre (which is never okay), I had to learn to prepare my own great food.

In this quest I have discovered a few cardinal rules of food preparation. First, fresh, seasonal, high-quality ingredients are the cornerstone of any excellent dish. Logic dictates that your meal can only be as good as the ingredients from which it was made. They may cost a little extra (though not prohibitively so), but exceptional ingredients are more than worth the price, especially when compared to a night at the Slanted Door.

Second, meat is not needed in a meal if plants are utilized correctly. Ten years ago I would not have believed this, but today I live by it. Don’t get me wrong, I love high-quality meat, poultry and seafood with a passion. But I have learned that they are not necessary on most days to create delicious, satisfying dishes.

Third, most bad food is either overcooked or poorly (i.e., insufficiently) seasoned, or both. Great ingredients do not need much cooking and fresh herbs are a requirement if you want your food to have flavor.

Finally, over the past few years I have picked up several tips and tricks in the kitchen that invariably cause people (myself included) to marvel at my creations. These tricks, which I will feature in a new series called Simple Gourmet, are not extravagant recipes and sauces that baffle with their complexity. Rather, they are little hints to make a good meal great, and turn simple things like salad into something extraordinary. Unleash these tricks on your friends and family and they will literally be eating out of your hand.

Today’s lesson: Fire-Roasted Peppers

We are currently at the height of pepper season and this should make you very excited. Peppers are one of the most naturally rich and complexly flavored vegetable families on the planet. And nothing brings out the deep flavor of both sweet and spicy peppers like roasting them on an open flame.

For those of you with an electric stove, I apologize in advance. You do not have access to fire so you must roast your peppers in the oven, which requires significantly more time. I am afraid my method will be far less useful to you.

If you have a gas stove, turn it on low and simply lay your pepper on the burner (see pic). When the skin of the pepper becomes blackened, use tongs to turn it to another side. Continue to roast and turn the pepper until is blackened on all sides, about ten minutes. Be careful not to let the pepper catch fire or allow the skin to turn ashen white. You will find that words cannot describe the deep, sultry smell of a fire-roasted pepper as its flesh softens and its sugars caramelize.

When the pepper is finished roasting use tongs to move it to a plate or cutting board and allow it to cool, about five minutes. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, grab it by the stem and use the sharp side of a knife to gently scrape off the blackened skin. Do not worry if some small burnt pieces stick to the pepper. Resist the urge to rinse the pepper with water; doing so will remove many of the aromatic oils that give it its flavor.

Once the skin is removed slice open the pepper and cut out the seeds and stem. If you used a spicy pepper be especially careful to avoid touching the capsaicin-filled seeds. The oil can stick to your skin for hours and is easily transferred to other body parts such as your eyes. Use gloves if necessary.

You can then cut your roasted pepper into strips or squares. Try sprinkling them in salads or use as an accompaniment to vegetable and egg dishes for a rich, late-summer flavor. They also pair exceptionally well with goat cheese. Honestly though, the smell alone will keep you coming back for more.

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