Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Bay Leaves

Monday, January 24, 2011

[left: California bay leaf; right: Turkish or Mediterranean bay leaf]

Bay leaves. We've all seen them. You've passed by them in the spice aisle at the supermarket, have seen them in the spice section in huge bulk bags if you visit import markets, and have most likely tasted it and not known it. It's used in French, Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American cooking from North America down to South America. If you've had chicken soup you've tasted it. If you've had gumbo or jambalaya, you've had it. Pasta sauces, braises, stews from Italy, parts of Eastern Europe, Spain, Turkey...you've had it. Indian food? Yup. Sometimes you'll see it show up in the dish and sometimes you won't. But chances are you've had it.

But what the hell is it?

Yes, it's a real leaf from like a tree and stuff. Specifically, from the laurel tree. Bay leaves are aka "laurel leaves." They are the same leaves you'd see made into a crown on Julius Caesar's head or other Roman emperors if you've noticed some of those statues or history books. Its history stretches far out from the kitchen and includes a place in important ancient ceremonies, accolades, medicinal purposes, healing potions, and even candles and incense. It's a very versatile leaf that wears many, many hats.

Laurel leaves have been cultivated for forever. Originating probably in Turkey, it quickly expanded west and took firm root along the Mediterranean, and reaching as far up as the coast of France and even Spain, and ventured north to Russia and east to Asia. It grows best in moderate climates, but can technically be still grown in colder ones (although not as successfully).

The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to really incorporate the laurel as more than just a cooking spice. In fact, the laurel tree itself has been depicted by these cultures as a symbol of honor, a symbol found often on coins, pottery, drawings, and various other artistic representations. Laurel leaves were picked off the tree and fastened into a crown that was worn by emperors as a symbol of honorable nobility. They were given as crowns of glory to the first Olympians on Mt. Olympus in ancient Greece.

The ancients also used bay leaf for medicinal properties. The naturally occurring acid in the leaves and flowers are powerful attackers of fungi and bacteria, and were used steeped in teas or ground into powders for potions to help aid digestive issues, ulcers, and bacterial infections. So powerful is the laurel leaf, high quantities can actually induce miscarriages, so ancient medicine women would use it as a means to offer an  abortion to ancient prostitutes and noble women who secretly did not want to get pregnant. Laurel leaf also has anti-oxidant properties and is an anti-inflammatory, and has been used by cultures to treat arthritis, rheumatism and colic for centuries. It's also been used effectively to treat migraines.

But for purposes of this blog, we want to know how to use it for food!

Bay leaf by itself can be used in its fresh or dried forms. Fresh, meaning picked right off the tree and thrown into a pot (assuming of course this is not a tree sprayed with pesticides!). Dried leaves are fresh leaves picked off then simply let to dry out in the sun for 3-4 months. They can be kept in the dried form for years; the fresh form will eventually naturally dry out and then turn into the dried form on its own. Bay leaves are extremely potent -- one leaf can flavor an entire pot of stew -- so they are used sparingly. The fresh form is actually weaker in taste than the dried form, so keep that in mind when working with recipes (you may need to throw in two fresh to 1 dried).

In terms of the taste of bay leaves, they are highly aromatic with pine, woodsy, earthy, and bitter tones. In my opinion it has a slight minty taste as well. The bitterness is quite lovely actually, like a floral bitterness that is very pleasant in cooking especially when paired against sweeter ingredients like carrots, onions, or shellfish. Cooking is all about balance, so you must treat the bay leaf as more so a tool rather than an ingredient, to help you balance out your dishes to get a range of flavors. The bay is also used to add aroma to the dish, and gives the food especially if braised or roasted or stewed for long periods of time a nose and taste of depth and earthiness that makes it quite comforting to eat.

There are actually two kinds of bay leave out on the market now available to us: the California Bay Leaf and the Turkish or Mediterranean Bay Leaf. California bay leaves are longer and more slender, with a decidedly deeper forest green coloring. Either fresh or dried, they will retain that deeper green color. The Turkish bay leaf is always oval-shaped, a little wider rather than slender, and its color ranges from silver-green to green-light brown when dried. The California bay is considerably more pungent; in my experience it takes 2-3 Turkish bay leaves to get to 1 California bay leaf. And often, California bay leaves are larger by size so you must really use those wisely when cooking so it does not completely overtake your dish. When working with California bays, I often cut it in half and use only half of it or pull it out of cooking considerably earlier than I would if using Turkish (which I often can leave until the very end of cooking and remove just right before serving).

Speaking of which, why do we remove the bay leaf? Is it edible? Yes, it's perfectly edible. But it's not pleasant to eat. It's a very tough leaf and hard to chew and digest, even when the shit is cooked out of it for hours. In other words, it's impossible to make a bay leaf tender. Ever. So unless you particularly enjoy gnawing on tough leaves, it's a pain in the ass to chew so just take it out of your dish. Also, if you are sensitive to spices and the like, eating a whole leaf might not be a great idea as it might send you to the bathroom in a fit of diuretics way earlier than you'd like. Eating something whole is different than infusing some of its flavors and properties throughout an entire dish, so best to just take it out before serving.

Bay leaves work beautifully in combination with black peppercorns, green herbs like thyme, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram, garlic, sweeter vegetables like carrots, onions, peppers, and parsnips, other sweeter spices including cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, and curry, and works very well with shellfish actually. Many people get so scared of flavoring shellfish. We've been screamed by cooks and chefs on TV and in books not to mask the delicate flavors of a flaky white halibut or expensive lobster. That's all bullshit. Bay leaf, although powerful in flavor, goes amazingly with shellfish including lobster and shrimp. Just monitor it closely and pull it out of your cooking process if you taste that it's getting overwhelming.

Here is a recipe using bay leaf with lobster I adapted from a recipe byTyler Florence, adding my own twists. I love making this when I'm feeling lazy but need lobster, and don't want to go through the trouble of boiling one whole. You can ask your fish monger to take off the lobster claws and tail for you, or buy them frozen and thaw them out. This recipe is In Your Face Flavor that doesn't let the lobster puss out and be wimpy, but rather elevates it to a powerful force. This recipes serves 2 people well or 4 for an appetizer. And don't forget the fresh bread to soak up the juices!

Baked Lobster with Garlic, Bay, and Cognac
claws and tails of 2 (1 lb) lobsters
4Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, cut in half
3 large cloves garlic, left whole and smashed with flat side of your knife
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 thick strip orange zest (use a vegetable peeler to get one good strip!)
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1/2 cup cognac

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter and olive oil in an oven-proof pot or pan.* Add the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, orange zest, and peppercorns and cook for 5 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally so the garlic doesn't burn. Add the lobster claws and tails whole to the pot and toss to coat with the butter mixture. Remove completely from the heat and add the cognac all at once. Then using a lighter stick, stand back and light the cognac, creating a flambe. This will burn the alcohol right off. Once the flame has died down, place the pot in oven and bake uncovered for 15 minutes, or until the lobster is cooked through (if you're using larger than 1.5 lb lobsters, start adding 2 min per pound!) Remove and serve as a whole pot with lobster crackers (the utensil to crack the lobster, not real "crackers") and fresh French baguette.

*A Dutch oven is a perfect pot for this. Even though you're not using the lid, it's size and even cooking will work great for this dish. Conversely, you can just use an oven-proof saute pan. Make sure the entire pan is aluminum or copper, and that there are no plastic parts -- these will melt in the oven! So this means no non-stick pans please! If you have a saute pan that's metal but the handle has some plastic or rubber on it, simply wrap the handle tightly a few times with aluminum foil to do the trick. And remember the oven gloves!

Date Night: Curried Chicken Pot Pie for Two

When I went to England (it seems now eons) a few years ago, one of favorite snacks were curry chicken "pasties" -- little pastry pockets filled with piping hot curry-spiced chunks of chicken, carrots, and peas sold on corners from carts. It was a welcomed warmth to hold and eat these tasty pockets on the cold, rainy spring days we were in London. I've since been making a version of these, combining the traditional American Chicken Pot Pie with the curry flavorings from my beloved pasties, and thus my Curried Chicken Pot Pie recipe was born. The crust is flaky and goes perfectly with the creamy curry-spiced gravy and tender pieces of chicken and sweet vegetables. I go heavier on the chicken and lighter on the peas because in all honesty, I'm not a huge fan of peas. But if you are, then add a full cup! I flavor mine simply with some garlic, bay leaf, and thyme to round out the savory flavors in order to balance out the sweeter curry. It's a perfect meal for a cold, rainy day.

In our house, we have In House Date Nights probably more often than we go out. This is one of my favorite meals to make just for The Hubsters and I, as we sit in front of the fire place, have a glass of red, and watch a movie. This recipe is for two larger portioned pot pies or can be split up into appetizer-sized mini individual sized ones if you'd like to serve it for your next dinner party. I use two 7-oz ramekins to make two individual pot pies. You can certainly pile it all into one larger ramekin as well for a larger pie to serve family style, but I do love the "individual" style because personally it reminds me of my own English pasty. I use my Grandmother's Corningware ramekins (link here) but you can use any oven-proof, ramekin style dish for this recipe.

Curried Chicken Pot Pies
1 Tbsp butter

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped small
2 carrots, peeled and chopped small
1 stalk celery, ends trimmed and chopped small
1 Tbsp minced fresh garlic

2 chicken breasts, trimmed and washed and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

3/4 cup frozen peas
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
1 small bay leaf
1 Tbsp curry powder (plus more to taste if desired)
1.5 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped

1 portion basic pastry dough (recipe follows), chilled and ready to use

1 egg, lightly beaten + 1 Tbsp water = "egg wash"
course sea salt for garnish

Heat the butter and oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the chicken cubes, frozen peas, thyme, bay leaf, curry powder, and mix to incorporate well. Add the chicken broth and using your wooden spoon, scrape up any "brown bits" that have formed on the bottom of the saute pan -- this is flavor and shouldn't go to waste! Bring the mixture up to a boil then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 10 minutes to cook the chicken through and let the flavors develop. You'll also notice the liquid is going to reduce a bit -- let it reduce by about half. If it reduces more then add more broth, or cover the pot with the lid if you see the liquid is evaporating too quickly. Give a taste and adjust with more salt, pepper, or curry powder to your liking. Take the mixture off the heat and add the parsley and cream (which will both flavor and thicken the "gravy"). Set filling aside.

To make the egg wash, simply lightly beat the egg and water in a small bowl. Set aside.

Remove your pastry from the fridge and cut it into two equal parts. Roll out each piece to a rough circle/oval shape that's large enough to cover the top of your baking dish you're using, and have 1-2 inches to hang over the sides. Spoon the chicken filling mixture into the baking ramekins, gravy and all. Top each ramekin with a piece of rolled out dough, and crimp the overhanging dough to the side of the ramekin. This is important because you want to create a "seal" of sorts to not let air escape so the filling won't evaporate. Press the dough onto itself over the sides if you have to to make it stick if it's not sticking to the ramekin.

Brush the tops of the pies with the egg wash -- this will give the pastry top a nice color when baking and give the salt something to stick to. Then sprinkle a tiny pinch of sea salt right on top. Place the pies on a baking sheet and bake in oven for about 40 minutes or until pastry is starting to get golden. Remove, let stand 5 minutes before serving, and enjoy!

Basic Pastry Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 Tbsp ice water

Place the flour, butter, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the butter is the size of peas. Add the water a little at a time and process until the dough comes together into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes. It is now ready to be rolled out and used.

Shrimp Pockets

Thursday, January 20, 2011

[photo courtesy of Maryn from Le Cupcakerie]

Now that the dead of winter is in full effect, I usually start to crave brighter and more "impact" foods. So usually now, about mid-end January I become obsessed with southern food, especially from Louisiana. I remembered these shrimp pockets I made last year for our Mardi Gras-themed Superbowl party when the New Orleans Saints went to the Superbowl. These were super easy to make, extremely flavorful, and were a hit at the party. My good friend Maryn took this fabulous picture of the pockets as they just came out of the oven.

The filling is warm and a little spicy from the cayenne, which of course can be toned down for milder pallets. The original recipe from Emeril Lagasse calls for crawfish, which I've done also and are great, but I also substitute often with easier-to-find-year-round sweet shrimp. If you can choose shrimp from Louisiana; they're a lot more tender and have a wonderful sweetness about them. I love these because they can be done even weeks in advance, then frozen in freezer bags, and just popped right into a hot oven on the day you want to serve them. I love serving them on a napkin, making it a transportable food people can eat with one hand and drink their cocktail from the other.

Crawfish Pies (aka "Shrimp Pockets")      by Emeril Lagasse from Emeril's New Orleans Cooking
1 recipe basic pie dough (recipe follows)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced green bell pepper
1/4 cup minced red bell pepper
1/4 cup minced celery
1.5 Tbsp Emeril's Creole Seasoning (or other Creole seasoning blend)
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1 lb (about 2 cups) peeled crawfish tails OR peeled, deveiend and de-tailed shrimp cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup shopped green onions
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs, lightly beaten in a separate cup
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
2 Tbsp olive oil

Prepare your basic pie dough. Cut the dough into 12 equal pieces, and roll each piece into a ball. Wrap each ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

To make the filling, melt the butter in a medium skillet over high heat. When the butter sizzles, add the onions, green and red bell pepper, celery, creole seasoning, and salt and saute, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and crawfish/shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally and shaking the skillet, for 2 minutes. Add the hot sauce, Worcestershire, and green onions and cook another 2 minutes. Whisk in the cream. Stir in 1 of the beaten eggs -- slowly -- just a little at a time (if you do it too fast you'll have scrambled eggs). Remove the mixture from the heat and mix in the breadcrumbs. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge. On a floured surface, roll out each ball thin a thin circle of dough, about 1/8 inch thick. You do want to keep it roughly into an even circle shape if you can, but if it's slightly lopsided that's fine too.

Brush a 1/4 inch border around the edges fo the rolled out dough squares with the remaining beaten egg. Place about 1/4 cup of the crawfish/shrimp mixture in the middle of each dough circle, then take one side and wrap it up and over the filling, making a half-moon shape (see above). Use a fork to crimp the edges; this will not only seal your pockets but make it look decorative. You can also use your fingers but a fork will really press it together properly. Place the pockets on the baking sheet and brush the tops with the olive oil. Place in oven and bake until lightly golden brown, about 25 minutes.

To serve, wrap the pockets in a paper towel or napkin and serve with an ice cold beer or Hurricane!

Emeril's Basic Pie Dough
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup (10 2/3 Tbsp) very cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes, OR lard OR shortening
4 1/2 Tbsp ice water.

Combine the flour and salt in a food processor with a fork. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the butter is the size of peas. With the processor on and feed tube open, add the water all at once and pulse until the dough comes together into a ball. Take out and form into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap very well and refrigerate until ready to use.

Conversely, you can combine all the ingredients into a bowl and use a pastry cutter to incorporate the butter in, then work the dough with your own hands until combined. Form into a ball, warp, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Gumbo! Gumbo! Gumbo!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Despite having never actually been there, I love the south. I love the food, I love the attitude, the history, the music, the soul in the south. I don't think there is any place in America that has more soul than the south. And this is coming from a Southern California girl born and raised, who was a Yankee for a few years. And again, me never having actually phsycially gone to the south...ever.

But I know it. How? Because of the food.

My favorite kind of food is one where I can taste the history, the soul of people who made it. I want to taste their tears, their laughter, their journey in that food. I want each bite to take me back and transport me to a different time. And no other cuisine in America that I've ever tried can do that, except for southern food. In particular, gumbo.

Gumbo has its history extending far out from Louisianna. It's a thick stew, using The Trinity as the flavor base, then flavored with different proteins (usually fowl of some type, andouille sausage, and shellfish), spiced with cayenne pepper, garlic, and other aromatics, and thickend with roux. It often uses okra as both a vegetable and thickener. In fact, the name gumbo comes from the West African tribe, The Bantu's, name for okra, which is "ki ngombo." The roux and Trinity come from France (the Trinity being the American version of the miripox), and is largely based on the French fish stew, bouillabaise. The African slaves brought their use of okra, spicy peppers like cayenne, and other ingredients and merged it with the French settlers who contributed the Trinity part and use of proteins, and after a few years of mingling incredible cuisines called Cajun and Creole were born. And amazing dishes like gumbo.

Gumbo is literally a Throw It All In The Pot type of meal. The only rule is you have to use a roux and you have to use The Trinity. There are hundreds of various flavor combinations, using a variety of different ingredients. Even the color and flavor of the roux can yield twenty different gumbos. They even have a special gumbo for Lent, using only vegetables and fresh herbs.

Everyone's got their own family gumbo. Each neighborhood has their own gumbo. Each restaurant specializes in their own version of the flavorful stew. It's one of those things that you will never tire of eating, because each bowl comes with its own story.

My friend Lisa recently surprised me with a package of homemade andouille sausage last week, so of course the first thing I had to make was a pot of gumbo. I don't have any pictures to share with you, because it was eaten that fast in our house. This recipe is based on a super basic gumbo recipe from Emeril Lagasse. It hits all the basic flavor marks of gumbo and is a great introduction into the world of Creole and Cajun cooking. You need to invest some time in it, pop open a beer and love that roux into existence. Here's a link for Roux from a previous posting, explaining the different stages of roux and some tips on making it. And another piece of advice: make sure you prep and cut all of your ingredients before starting; that roux will literally require you to stand next to it -- you will not have time to leave and chop up an onion!

Chicken, Andouille, Shrimp and Okra Gumbo with White Rice
1 Tbsp + 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 lb andouille sausage, cut crosswise 1/2-inch thick pieces
2 large chicken breasts, trimmed and cubed
1 Tbsp Creole seasoning (recommend: Tony Chechere's or Emeril's Bayou Blast)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell peppers
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 bay leaves
9 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup frozen chopped okra
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined and tails removed if desired
1/2 cup chopped green onions
2 Tbsp chopped parsley leaves
1 Tbsp file powder
White Rice, recipe follows
Hot sauce

In a large enameled cast iron Dutch oven or large pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook until well browned, about 8 minutes. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Season the chicken with the Creole seasoning and add in batches to the fat remaining in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until well browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan, let cool, and then refrigerate until ready to use. Don't worry if the chicken isn't cooked all the way through yet -- it will finish cooking in the broth soon.

Add remaining 1/2 cup oil and all of the flour all at once into the same Dutch oven, right over the oil from the sausage and chicken. Cook over medium heat, stirring slowly and constantly for 20 to 25 minutes, to make a dark brown roux, the color of chocolate.

[amount of bay leave you use will also depend on how small they are; here they were smaller so I used 5]

Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers all at once and cook, stirring, until wilted, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the reserved sausage, salt, cayenne, and bay leaves, stir, and cook for 2 minutes. Stirring, slowly add the chicken stock, and cook, stirring, until well combined. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

Add the reserved chicken to the pot and simmer for 45 minutes, skimming off any fat that rises to the surface. Add the okra and shrimp together all at once, and cook another 5 minutes. You can add the okra frozen; no need to defrost it first.

Remove the pot from the heat. Taste and adjust flavors with more creole seasoning and cayenne to taste. Stir in the green onions, parsley, and file powder.

Spoon rice into the bottom of deep bowls or large cups and ladle the gumbo on top. Serve, passing hot sauce on the side.

White Rice
2 cups long-grain white rice
4 cups water, chicken stock, or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 bay leaf

In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the rice, water, butter, salt, and bay leaf and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let sit, covered and undisturbed, for 5 minutes.

Uncover and fluff the rice with a fork. Discard the bay leaf and serve.

Emeril's ESSENCE Creole Seasoning (also referred to as Bayou Blast):
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all ingredients thoroughly. Yield: 2/3 cup

The Holy Trinity

If you love southern food, especially Cajun or Creole like I do, you've already acquainted yourself with The Holy Trinity. A combination of green bell pepper, celery, and onion, this combination is the foundation for all Creole and Cajun foods. You'll find it from gumbos and jambalaya to pastry fillings. I think the only place it isn't found is in desserts. The trinity is very similar to other food foundations, such as the French miripoix (onions, carrots, celery) or the sofrito of Spanish cuisine (garlic, onion, tomato). They all operate the same way -- chopped very small and sauteed in fat (oil or butter) until very well softened, then other ingredients added on top with a liquid usually, then braised so their flavors can incorporated throughout the dish.

But of course, even this simple combination can vary among those claiming to be "purists"....

Let's first talk about the pepper. With so many kinds of peppers out there, which one do you use? Does it matter? Yes, it does. First, for a true Trinity, you want a bell pepper. Usually this means a green bell pepper, but sometimes if making certain dishes you can use a red bell pepper. Is there a difference? Yes -- the red bell pepper is sweeter than the green one so if you're making a really savory dish like gumbo you might want to use green if you want to keep it on the savory side, or use red to balance it out. You also want to think about the color of your dish -- if working with shrimp like for say shrimp creole or shrimp pockets, you may want to go with red if you want to keep the color of the dish more like the shrimp's color; or go with green if you wanted a slight color contrast. Either way, make sure it's a bell pepper. When you start using other peppers like the slightly spicy poblano, you're entering now Spanish cuisine territory. Which is fine too, but I personally like to keep it authentic as possible.

Most often the celery part is just that -- celery. However, I've seen some people use celery root. I guess you can, but I don't know why you necessarily would unless the recipe specifically called out for it. Celery root is going to give the dish a different color and sweeter flavor, so unless you want those characteristics on purpose, then stick with good old fashioned regular green celery.

And the onion. There are sweet onions like Vidalia or Maui and then savory onions like white or brown onions. I like to go with a regular, big white onion. Using a sweeter onion like Vidalia or Maui will give a considerably sweeter Trinity, and overall sweetness to your entire dish. Using white or brown onions will keep it on the savory side. When making foods like gumbo or jambalaya, I like to use savory bases because it makes the entire dish more grounded in my opinion. Especially when adding other ingredients like shrimp or okra that are sweeter, I like those flavors to come out as sweet; if the base is already sweet because I used Vidalia onion and celery root, then I won't be able to taste the shrimp as well as I could if they were contrasted with a savory base!

I've also heard some cooks say that any onion can count as the onion portion. This means that leeks, shallots, scallions, and even garlic can satisfy the onion component. I believe this is categorically false. There is a HUGE difference between using garlic and onions in a gumbo for example. You need the onions in their amount in large part to help build the body of the entire dish as well; to use that amount of garlic to provide the body would be insanity. Same thing if you used leeks or shallots -- they would simply disappear in the dish and leave zero texture. That said, if you were making a different dish like shrimp pockets you could use a milder leek to help the shrimp flavor stand out more. So pay attention to what the recipe says: if it says white onion then use white onion -- not Vidalia or Maui, not leeks, not garlic instead -- it's there not only for flavor but also for body and texture of the dish!

So how about how much of all of this do we use? The standard ratio seems to be 1:2:3, meaning 1 part of celery, twice as much of pepper than celery, and 3 times as much of onion than celery. Other sources say it's all equal parts, 1:1:1. While my personal opinion, based on my own cooking, I love 1:1:2, meaning equal parts of pepper and celery and double that mount of onion. So, for example, for a typical gumbo I'd do 1 cup of bell pepper chopped small, 1 cup of celery chopped small, and 2 cups of white onion chopped small.

There are a few other ingredients in Creole and Cajun cooking that are found in the dish 99.9% of the time, but are not included in The Trinity. Playing off of the Trinity name, here are my names for them:

Mother Mary: cayenne pepper
Saint Peter: garlic
God the Father: roux

These of course are not real terms, but my own. Feel free to use them also.

Now that you have been blessed with the Holy Trinity, get cracking on that gumbo!

A Departure From Hummus: The Eggplant Caponata

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Being 1/4 Armenian myself, and 1/4-1/8 Greek (long story), I'm no stranger to the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern foods. In short, I love me some hummus. Always have, always will. But even I get sick of it sometimes and yearn for another creamy, heavily spiced dip. Enter the eggplant caponata.

I've made Mario Batali's version which is UH-MAYZING, using pine nuts and cocoa powder to form some of the spectacular flavorings. I tried Ina Garten's using marinated red peppers and capers to balance out the eggplant with something sweet and somthing salty. But if I do say so myself, my own eggplant caponata beats them both. Mine starts off with a slow pan-roasting of eggplant, then adds onions and both are cooked on low flame until very well caramelized. This gives such insanely good flavor and really makes the eggplant take a step forward ahead of the rest of the flavors in the dish. Other caponatas I've tried I feel the eggplant gets masked by tomato paste, capers, olives, or other intense flavors. Mine the eggplant stands out in all its sweet glory. It makes eggplant taste like what it should be.

I add ground walnuts for some body and texture, some jalapeno for heat, currants for sweetness, and cumin for earthy smoky spice. Everything is balanced out with some balsamic vinegar and garlic. But my secret ingredient would be mint. Fresh, cool and crisp mint that just makes the rest of the flavors pop right out and gives an unexpected although totally appropriate note to the rest of the dish. I puree the mixture in a food processor for a creamy texture, add some good quality imported extra virgin olive oil, and your dip is served. This dip can be made 2 days in advance, but it is best served up fresh. I like it slightly warmer than room temperature so if you make it in advance, heat it up in the microwave a couple of minutes before serving. Serve with pita chips or fresh pita bread triangles as an appetizer for your next Mediterranean inspired meal or as a great snack!

Eggplant Caponata
1 medium-sized eggplant
1 small white onion, chopped small
1/2 jalapeno (with seeds), roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp freshly grated orange zest
2 Tbsp ground walnuts
2 Tbsp dried currants
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil + more as needed
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped

Cut the ends off of the eggplant and discard. Cut the eggplant in half down the length, then each half again down the length. Cut strips and then into cubes so you have 1/2 inch cubes. Heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the eggplant and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Toss in the oil and cook on medium heat. Add more olive oil if the eggplant soaks the 1/4 cup up. Cook 5 minutes, then add the onions and mix in. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook stirring occasionally until eggplant and onions are well caramelized, another 10 minutes. Add the jalapeno, garlic, orange zest, walnuts, and currants and cook another 2 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook about 3 minutes more, until the vinegar is absorbed into the mixture. Remove from heat and let stand to cool a couple of minutes.

Set up your food processor. Transfer the eggplant mixture into the food processor and pulse a couple of times. Add the cumin and mint, and taste then adjust with salt and pepper to taste. Pulse until mixture is pureed but still chunky in consistency (like above picture). Transfer mixture to a serving bol and garnish with fresh mint if desired. Serve with pita chips or pita bread.

Jalapeno will give this dip a little kick, so if you want it mild then use seeded jalapeno or omit it all together.

Kitchen Basics: Tools of the Trade

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I get this question quite often: "What tools should I have in my kitchen?" The short answer is how ever many you need. The longer answer gets more complicated...

There are many gimmicky items out there that target the Home Cook -- machines that chop garlic for you, food processor type thing that you throw in all your ingredients for guacamole and with a couple of button pushes gives you guacamole, deep fryer boxes you plug into the wall. The list is endless. And frankly intimidating and confusing to the Home Cook. The truth is you don't need any of that bullshit, but rather should spend your time and money in honing in your skills in the kitchen. Much like school, you can't pay to have someone else do you work for you, or study for the test for you; you're gonna have to buckle down, figure it out, and in other words, do it yourself.

That said, you still need a few basic tools to help you along on your cooking journey. After about 10 years of cooking now (omg!) I've figured out what works and what doesn't, what you should invest your $300 in and what you shouldn't, and what's best to avoid all together. There are tools out there like the food processor that will do a number of tasks for you, so invest in a good one rather than four or five shittier items that won't do the job half as good as the processor. Similarly, a good quality sharp chef's knife will peel, chop, mince, spread, and otherwise perform any function in your kitchen. You're better off learning to use it properly rather than investing in 3 items that claim to cut up your garlic. For example, you can invest in an item that chops your garlic for you. Great. But what if you need it minced? That machine can't mince it for you -- it can only chop it -- so you have to invest in a mincer. Ok, but what if the recipe calls for the garlic to be smashed? Now your fucked. The chef's knife can perform all of those functions including turning that clove of garlic into a paste right on your cutting board. See what I mean about investing in high quality, multi-tasking tools? Forget the stupid gimmicky shit.

Here's a list I've compiled for some basic kitchen tools. Of course, this is not applicable to every single person in the world. If you do pasta on a regular basis for example, perhaps a classic hand-cranked pasta maker would be on your list. If you do a lot of Asian cuisine, a wok would be. So this list is for basic continental American cuisine. Use it and add to it to suite your cooking style.

1.  A Basic Set of Knives

[top: Santoku chef's knife; second: pairing knife; third: serrated tomato/cheese knife; bottom: boning knife]

By far, the most important tool in the the kitchen is a set of basic, quality-produced knives. Mine are Wusthof, one of the premier makers, but it doesn't have to be. You can have Henckle, or even market-purchased generic brands. What's important here is to make sure they are sharp, so invest in a knife sharper and get to know your local professional sharpener. He will save your life.

In terms of knives, in my opinion you need the following for basic functions:
  • Chef's Knife or Santoku
  • Pairing Knife
  • Serrated Knife
  • Boning Knife
The Chef's Knife or its Asian counterpart, the Santoku, will be your go-to, all-purpose knife. This knife will do 90% of your cooking and prep work. So you want it comfortable in your grip, appropriate to your size, and trusty. Since I'm a little smaller on the stature side, I prefer using a Santoku knife -- the grip is smaller for my smaller hands, it's light, and the blade is a little shorter. I also love a longer classic chef's knife, but honestly I personally use the Santoku every day. The Hubsters who's considerably larger than me prefers the chef's knife. The Chef/Santoku knives can come in different styles and finishes, so go to your local kitchen supply store like Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table and ask to hold and use each one. Pick the one that feels best for you, the one that "feels right" in your hand. You want it really comfortable. If you find you're struggling to use it, it's too big for you or too heavy. You want the knife to feel like an extension of your hand.

The pairing knife is used for smaller details and cutting up fruit. It's what you'll use to peel fruit by hand with a knife (or just use a vegetable peeler), what you'll use to cut fine thin strips of something, or segment an orange. The pairing knife will basically look like a mini-version of the chef or Santoku knife.

A serrated knife is a knife with ridges on the blade. It's invaluable in cutting bread. You can have a large bread slicing knife (which I also have but not pictured above) which is perfect for cutting bread loaves into even slices if that's your thing, or smaller ones as pictured above which are perfect for tomatoes! Tomatoes are characteristically a pain in the ass to cut, because they are often sold at the markets with an annoying waxing covering to help them stay preserved on the shelves. You'll find a straight bladed knife like a pairing or chef's knife will slide off of the tomato, unless super sharp. You can cut tomatoes quite easily using a serrated knife as shown above. Double duty for a smaller serrated knife is it can also cut cheeses extremely easily. In fact, the one pictured above is a combo cheese-tomato knife put out by Wustoff and is one of my most favorite knives ever. The serrated blade cuts through anything, and the tip can be used to pick up cheese slices and wedges.

Finally, a Home Cook should really invest in a good boning knife. Boning knives look similar to a chef's knife, but are thinner and longer in the blade -- about 1/3 of the width of a chef's knife blade actually -- and are designed to fit in crevices and slide around cartilage and bones easily. They are essential for cleaning up raw meats, like chicken breasts or pork tenderloins or even beef  to remove cartilage or unwanted fat. The knife is thin and pierced at the tip to really be able to give you the ability to work different angles. They are great for fish filleting as well.

Here's a tutorial from Chef Jean Pierre that explains perfectly why these knives are important:

2. Measuring Cups and Spoons
Now that you have something to cut your food with, the next most important thing is having something to measure the food with. You must invest in a good set of measuring cups and spoons. This is right behind having a good set of knives in your kitchen. You want your measuring cups to come in 1- 1/2 - 1/3 - 1/4 measurements, and your spoons to include 1 Tbsp - 1 tsp - 1/2 tsp - 1/4 tsp. They are often sold in sets. I know many of us grew up with our parents using the glass Pyrex measuring cup to measuring things out, even flour and other try ingredients. Those are "ok" but tricky -- to properly measure with those cups, you need to fill them and then move yourself down to their level to see if you've got it right. When you're looking down from above them, your view point will be off and it might look like you have less in there than you really do; when you look from a down-to-up perspective it will look like more. So you'll really need to be right at eye-level to use those correctly.

This is too much effort. So use the damn measuring cups that you can just throw into a vat of flour, level off with your finger or knife, and dump right into your recipe.

 3. Whisks
[left: standard whisk perfect for making omelets; middle: stirring whisk for cake batters; right: small whisk perfect for making vinaigrettes]

Another hugely important tool in the kitchen is a good whisk. In fact, I'd venture to say you need a couple of different sizes and capabilities. The whisk will enable you to add air to your dish, so when preparing say an omelet, the fluffiness is going to come from the air your pushing into the beaten egg mixture. The whisk acts like 4-5 forks working together at the same time. If you'll notice the way it's designed, you have these wire loops all interchanging with each other. This enables the wires to not only pick up the batter, but to hold it in the air so the batter can catch air when you bring it down.

The whisk is also great for stirring, which is invaluable when you have a batter that needs to be well mixed but not overworked, like cake or pancake batter. The second whisk pictured in the middle above is an example of this. Notice how it has considerably less wires than the ones flanking it -- this whisk is perfect for mixing a batter quickly and efficiently without over-mixing it. I can literally mix a pancake batter in 3 turns with this tool, which yield fluffy and tender pancakes, not hockey pucks.

I like have my two sizes for the regular or standard whisk -- the larger one for when I'm working with large batters like pumpkin pie or a big bowl of beaten eggs for frittata; and the smaller one for smaller incorporation like making vinaigrettes. The little one is an exact copy of the larger one, only smaller to work out smaller bowls. The whisk should match the size of the bowl you're working with for optimum success.

4. The Wooden Spoon (enchanted if you wish!)

Another equally important tool in the kitchen is a spoon. You need something sturdy and reliable to stir sauces, stews, soups, sauteing vegetables, and various other food preparations. I like using wooden spoons. Some people out there would have you use plastic ones because wood can retain some bacteria -- this is bullshit. If you properly clean your spoons with soap and water then you're fine. I find they are much more reliable than plastic, don't melt if left on the side of the pot (plastic will melt and you'll be left with a fabulous indentation on your handle!), and it gives you the sturdiness you'll need to scrape up bottoms of pans for those brown bits. You can use any size you like, but I like this standard 3 inch head spoon with a medium-long handle for most of my cooking. You'd want to have some spoons with longer handles though as well to work with those larger and deeper pots; the smaller handles will disappear into the liquids!

5. Spatulas!

Now that we've covered the essentials for the kitchen, we can get to the Stuff You Should Have but don't necessarily need. Spatulas are one of those things. They're great if you work with lots of batters, so if you're into baking you should probably invest in a couple. Their grip is amazing -- the rubber flat head grips on one side to the batter and on the other side to the bowl and creates a total separation. In short, they're really great to get out every last inch of batter from a bowl and into another container. They work best with liquids or wet things, but can also be used to mix salads or fold in other ingredients. They are a key if you work with cream a lot and like to make your own whipping cream.

They come in a variety of sizes as you can see above. The size is mostly for how much volume you're working with, so say a batch of big brownie batter would work best with the large spatula. They're fun to use to decorate your kitchen as well, as they come in a range of colors and sometimes even themed. I recommend having a medium-sized one and smaller one in your kitchen arsenal at least.

6. Frosting Spatula

This is a frosting spatula. The curved handle and flat head makes for easy and even frosting, so if you like to bake cakes, cupcakes, make pies, or other baking then this might be a tool you'd want to invest in. The shape makes for an easy grip and maximum control to even out a larger section of frosting at one time. They come from large (best for cakes) to small (best for cupcakes), so depending on your frequency of baking I'd say get the small one and/or both. 

7. Fish Spatula 

While we're on the topic of spatulas, I thought I'd mention this fish spatula. If you cook a lot of fish, then this is a great tool to have especially if you're a fan of pan-frying the fish. The blade is very thin and pliable, so it gives a lot when you apply pressure. This helps you not break your fish when you lift it or turn it. When you use a stiffer spatula then you run the risk of forcing the fish onto the spatula; here the fish spatula is lighter and gives more so it works around the fish instead of making the fish work around the spatula.

If you're a fan of blackened salmon or catfish, like to pan-fry fish like salmon, halibut, roughly, catfish, or cod then this is the tool for you. You'll be able to preserve that whole fillet without having it flake off on you. Especially good on the grill when working with very delicate white fish like halibut or sea bass that come apart easily.

8. Wire Basket aka "Spider"

If you fry this is a must have. The wire basket at the head is intertwined with a pattern much like a spider's web, hence its nickname, "The Spider." The wooden handle is also key as it won't react with oil while deep-frying as much as metal (and can't use plastic ever! it will melt!), and won't heat up on you while cooking either like a metal handle would. If you fry a lot and make things like fried shrimp, doughnuts, fried eggs, or anything that would call to be deep fried, then you need this tool.

Some people will invest in a portable plug-in deep fryer that's temperature controlled and you can set the oil to stay at a certain temp. They're great, I hope to invest in one eventually, but they do take up space and can get expensive. If you don't fry that often but would like to make the occasional coconut shrimp or homemade doughnut, then all you need is a good steel pot, peanut oil, and this spider to perfectly fry foods.

Spiders also work well when steaming vegetables as they can grab about 3 cups full of veggies with one scoop. They're not expensive so I'd invest in one to have around.

9. Zesters v Graters
[left: grater by Microplane; right: zester by Microplane]

The box grater is great, especially for grating carrots or cheese blocks. But now that most cheeses are pre-shredded or grated anyway, and you can buy veggies the same, and if not your food processor can do it in literally 10 seconds, the box grater has become a little archaic. More important than the grater, however, is the zester! 

A hand-held zester is a fantastic tool to have in your kitchen. It's super sharp but a hell of a lot safer than that silly box grater. It can zest any citrus fruit for you for baking and vinaigrette, and even finey grate cheese for you. And a handheld grater like shown above can get you perfectly grated Parmesan cheese from that imported wedge you bought a few days ago. Throw away that canister of processed "parmesan cheese" found in the spaghetti aisle and go the route of the grater! 

10.  Thermometers
[left: candy/deep fry thermometer; right: oven-proof meat thermometer]
I think everyone should have thermometers in their kitchen. Pictured above are two kinds for two different functions. The one on the left that's longer is called a candy thermometer. This one is digital and you can set your desired temperature so it beeps when the stuff you're cooking reaches that temperature. Or, you can just read it outright. This one also can be used for deep frying as well, and I like it because it can easily clip to the side of your pot when cooking and just stay there. It's not dishwasher safe, but the entire thing wipes off very easily with sop and water. If you like making marshmallows, pralines, caramel, candies, sugars, or other confections, then this is a good thing to have. Same thing if you like to deep fry. I personally have learned to gage by eye when the oil is right for frying, but some recipes are adamant about a specific temperature so it's good to have.

The other thermometer is a meat thermometer and invaluable if you like to make roasts. The one I have is oven-proof so I can stick it into the thing I'm roasting before it goes into the oven, and then just read it while it's cooking instead of piercing it constantly. It's great to have for roasted chicken, turkey, beef, prime rib, and pork if you like those items. It will guarantee you will get the perfectly cooked meat, never underdone or overdone.

11. Strainers aka "Wire Baskets" 
[top: large wire-mesh strainer; bottom: fine strainer]
A few different-sized strainers are also great to have in the kitchen. I keep a larger one (top) for things like straining boiled vegetables and for baking. Often cake recipes will ask you to put dry ingredients through a strainer to remove balls for fluffier cakes and any rocks (yes, sometimes they have rocks) so this is what I'll use. It's also great to use when straining homemade broths to remove any bigger pieces. The smaller one is great for dusting so like if a recipe calls for a dusting of powdered sugar, I'll use the little one. Or, if a recipe calls for a fine strain I'll run it through this second smaller one. There are a few on the market but I like a larger strainer and a finer one as pictured above -- they will both get you through all your cooking needs.

12.  Lobster Crackers

If you eat a lot of shellfish then this is a great tool to have. The lobster crackers can crack lobster and crab quite easily. Some people won't prepare those shellfish at home because they are afraid of how to eat them; using these makes cracking crab or lobster super easy.

13. Citrus Squeezer 

One of my favorite tools in the kitchen is this citrus squeezer. This one is set for lemons and limes (yellow for lemon, green for limes) and you simply cut the lemon or lime in half, place it inside the holder, and push the level down and it will juice it for you and catch all the seeds. Pop the juiced lemon out, replace with another, and repeat! Some daunting dishes like key lime pie that require the juicing of those tiny limes can be tedious if using the old fashioned hand one where you press down with your palm and turn the lemon or lime around on the ribbed dome. This is much faster. I clocked once that I juiced 10 lemons for lemonade in 10 seconds!

14. Cocktail Time! The Zester and Melon-Baller
If you like making cocktails especially fruit martinis, then you need these two tools. The one on the left is called a zester. It can actually zest two ways for you: the middle hook will give you a nice, thick zest which is perfect to achieve that lemon or lime "twist," and the top holes will give you super thin strips that are nice to garnish dishes with.

The melon-baller is so named because you can scoop out balls out of melon. So watermelon, cantaloupe, Israeli melon, etc. for a fun-shaped salad. But the tool is quite versatile and I find myself using it very often. First, it's a super easy apple-corer. Cut your apple in half straight down the middle, remove the stem and bottom sprouts, then take out all the seeds in one clean swoop with a quick twist of the wrist using this melon baller! Making apple martinis? Scoop out a ball of apple instead of the predictable thin slice. Serving cranberry sauce for dinner from the can? Scoop it out using the baller instead for little balls of jelly goodness. You can even use it as a mini-ice cream scooper for sorbets and ice creams. I highly recommend investing in one and playing around with the possibilities!

15. The Food Processor

And then the heavens parted and God said: "let them have a food processor!"

I love my food processor. It's one of those truly must-have tools in the kitchen. They are expensive but worth the investment. You can chop and shred things in large amounts in literally 3 seconds. If you like making cole slaw from scratch, this is your machine -- shred those carrots, cabbage, onions, and even broccoli in seconds. You can emulsify large quantities of dressing -- pour all your ingredients in the bowl, mix to combine, then drizzle in your olive oil from the feeder tube. If you like making pureed dips like smoked salmon spread, hummus, babaganouj, eggplant caponata, cheese dip, etc. -- this will do it all for you in one bowl, in seconds.

And you can even make pastry dough in here! Oh yes, I said it. Place your flour, butter, salt, etc. in, pulse, then add the ice water through the feeder and you've got a ball of dough with all the hard work done for you.

I'm not one for gimicky shit but this is a wonderful tool that truly can do so many things for you. They are expensive, so I'd advise to save and splurge. It will last you for years and years if cleaned and maintained properly. Choose a size that's big enough for the kind of things you make. I like making pastry dough and gougeres in mine, and sometimes even puree soup in it so I have the super large one myself. 

And last, but certainly not least....
16.  The Standing Mixer

"Aaaaaahhhh, ah ah ah aaaaaaahhhhhh....." 

By far, the best kitchen machine ever invented. This guy makes it all for you. If you bake or make bread,  you need one. Period. End of discussion. I make my cakes, cupcakes, crumbles, scones, breads, etc. in this thing and it's always perfect. I even make my marshmallows in it. And frosting for cakes. And even flavored whipped creams. They are expensive -- usually running around $300 -- but extremely useful in the kitchen and for life. And they me in lots of cool colors now too! And even clear glass bowls! I'm eyeing one of those now... (hint, hint to The Hubsters)

Well, those are my basic tools in my kitchen. There are plenty more and other cool tools to use that I'll blog in the future, but if you asked which ones to register for on your registry, I'd say the ones above to get you nice and prepared for basic cooking and baking.

Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About: Grits

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'm probably going to get reamed for this post from all you Southerns, but I can't help it.

Every time I think about or eat grits, I cannot help but be reminded of that scene in My Cousin Vinny where Vinny is questioning the guy about his grits. It's a classic scene and one that never fails to make me laugh in hysterics, especially the part about liking his grits al dente LOL. So here's a piece of that classic dialogue for you right here:

Vinny Gambini: Oh, oh, oh, you testified earlier that you saw the boys go into the store, and you had just begun to cook your breakfast and you were just getting ready to eat when you heard the shot.

Mr. Tipton: That's right.

Vinny Gambini: So obviously it takes you 5 minutes to cook your breakfast.

Mr. Tipton: That's right.

Vinny Gambini: That's right, so you knew that. You remember what you had?

Mr. Tipton: Eggs and grits.

Vinny Gambini: Eggs and grits. I like grits, too. How do you cook your grits? Do you like them regular, creamy or al dente?

Mr. Tipton: Just regular I guess.

Vinny Gambini: Regular. Instant grits?

Mr. Tipton: No self respectin' Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits.

Vinny Gambini: So, Mr. Tipton, how could it take you 5 minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit eating world 20 minutes?

Mr. Tipton: I don't know, I'm a fast cook I guess.

Vinny Gambini: I'm sorry I was all the way over here I couldn't hear you did you say you were a fast cook, that's it?

Mr. Tipton: Yeah.

Vinny Gambini: Are we to believe that boiling water soaks into a grit faster in your kitchen than anywhere else on the face of the earth?

Mr. Tipton: I don't know.

Vinny Gambini: Well, I guess the laws of physics cease to exist on top of your stove. Were these magic grits? Did you buy them from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans?

Hahahaha. Yes, I'm laughing right now.
In addition to being the subject of a classic movie scene, grits are awfully tasty too. Grits are hominy, which is basically dried corn kernels treated with an alkali process. It is a process the indigenous native Americans used throughout north, central, and south America to prepare maize and infuse it with nutrients. It's the process by which they made everything from grits to masa to corn tortillas. Without getting terribly technical about it, the process involved stripping the corn kernels off the cobs and then boiling them in a water solution that had a mix of ash (from various plants) and lime (as in lime water, not the citrus fruit), and then allowed to steep like a tea in that water solution anywhere from a few minutes to a few days depending on what they were making with it. What this process did was allow the kernels to soften and the hulls to loosen, which allowed nutrients like potassium and calcium to then get absorbed back into the kernel.
The nutrient absorbed depended on whatever the natives used as their alkali. Potash, a naturally occurring salt that contains potassium, was used extensively for this process as well as throughout the ancient world for making soaps. So when the natives used potash as their alkali, they ended up infusing their kernels with potassium. If they used a natural calcium bicarbonate from plant ash, they'd end up infusing it with calcium. Some Mayans even used the ashes from burnt mussels shells to provide calcium. It was a rather ingenious way of fortifying a food with more vital vitamins and minerals that helped balance out their diet. Something similar happened when they'd make their beans.
At any rate, the kernels would be boiled with these other natural vitamins and minerals and it would produce plumped up kernels of maize. These kernels were then dried and either used as such or more likely, ground up coarsely to very finely to be used for foods. So grits, comes from hominy which is the coarsely ground maize from this entire ancient process. And are made much the same way even today.
So what do you do with it?
Well, you can combine it and make dough out of it. This will give you arepas which are tasty treats! Or you can  use it as masa harina and make some tamales. Or make tortillas with it. Then you could fry the tortillas and make tortilla chips out of it. Or, you could do what most of the natives and even poorer American Southerns did during the Great Depression and just add it to boiled water to make a sort of porridge.
A staple breakfast food in the South, for example, is grits. Simply boiled in water, the hominy grits are seasoned with a small pinch of salt and topped with butter. It's often served with some fried eggs and some bacon or ham. Or you could spruce up your grits with flavored broths, add cheeses and cream to make it creamier, flavor it with garlic, various spices, and eat it as a sort of polenta or as a side dish to anything from meat to fish to eggs. You could make it, set it in molds and chill it, then fry it up as you would fried polenta. The options are endless frankly!

Dinner Grits: The OTHER, Other Side Dish

I love grits. I love grits. On a cold day, I just want to take a swim in a piping hot bowl of grits. Or, as Little Girl calls it, "porridge." Grits is made from hominy -- maize treated with alkali solution (more on that later) -- that are dried and then ground up super finely. The texture is a lot like cornmeal, except white. In terms of taste, the texture and flavor is similar enough to polenta or cornmeal, but in my opinion a little sweeter. You can make them plain with boiled water and some butter, also known as Breakfast Grits or add some more flavorings and cheese for Dinner Grits. This recipe uses chicken broth for the bulk of its flavor and is extremely simple. A combo of sharp cheddar and creamy jack add the perfect finishing touch. It's a great side dish to almost anything from chicken to fish. I've made it with a few different combinations, but the classic sharp cheddar and monteray jack cheese mixture remains my favorite. And I know I'll take flak for using instant grits for this (or quick grits), but I'm a mommy of 2 little ones. If only I had the time to make grits from scratch!

This recipe will serve 4 people, but is easily adjustable to make more or less.

Dinner Grits
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 cup 5-minute grits (recommended: Quaker brand)
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shredded monteray jack cheese

Bring the broth and salt in a saucepan up to a boil. Add the grits all at once and using a whisk, stir in and cook 5 minutes on medium-high heat. Be careful because the mixture will start to bubble a bit, so keep stirring it to avoid the big bubble-ups. Cover with lid and reduce heat to low. Cook another 15 minutes stirring occasionally. Again, be careful every time you open that lid because the grits will bubble up on you! Keep stirring with the whisk occasionally to help the grits get creamy and to avoid sticking to the bottom of the pan. After about 15-20 minutes the grits will be plumped up nicely and the mixture will be thickened considerably. Take off of heat and add the cheese all at once, whisking in to help the cheese melt. You will now have a pot of cheesey golden creamy goodness. Serve piping hot!

Jalapeno Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits with Black Pepper and Scallions

Monday, January 10, 2011

I love three things: onions, cheese, and spicy. So after the holidays and gorging on the sweets, I was craving something super savory. And I'm always craving something spicy. After reading a posting from my friend Maryn at Le Cupcakerie and her cheddar-jalapeno scones she made from Smitten Kitchen, there was no turning back....I needed the scones and I needed them now. So I went to the kitchen and threw this  recipe below together on the fly.

Although cheddar and jalapenos are a classic combo, it wasn't enough for me. I love the subtle onion flavor from scallions so that was going into this recipe, and I've been obsessed with black pepper biscuits since going to Mesa Grill for brunch eons ago when we were in New York. Buttermilk adds body and tang to the whole thing, but if you don't have it just use cream or even milk. So, I threw it all in here to satisfy my cravings and with resounding success.

And The Hubsters' verdict: "Mmmm....garb...lllgllll...mmmm hmmmm.....oh....mmmmm." Translation: "fucking good."

These are super easy to make and come together in less than an half an hour. Love these on their own piping hot out of the oven, with some soup like chili or chicken tortilla, or with a hot cup of tea. Make them. Now.

Jalapeno Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits with Black Pepper and Scallions
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup cold buttermilk
1 jalapeno, minced (seeded if desired)
1 scallion, chopped finely
1 cup shredded sharp white cheddar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the flour, butter, salt, baking powder, and black pepper in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low until combined and butter is size of peas. Conversely, using a pastry cutter or dinner fork, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until coated and butter is the size of peas. Add the egg and buttermilk and mix on low until a sticky dough is formed, about 3-4 minutes. Remove bowl and using a spatula, fold in the jalapeno, scallion, and cheese until well combined.

Using a spoon or ice cream scoop, scoop out a baseball sized ball of the dough out and place on the baking sheet. If making the baseball sized biscuits, you'll end up with 8 scones. You can make them smaller but then adjust baking time accordingly. Make sure your biscuits are evenly spaced on the baking sheet, at least 1 inch apart; use a second baking sheet if needed.

Bake in oven for 15-20 minutes (depending on your oven) or until scones are turning light golden brown. Remove promptly and let cool on wire racks. Serve hot or at room temperature.