Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sauerkraut and Fermentation

Fermentation is a very old form of preservation, and the process gives us many things we wouldn't have otherwise (at least maybe not in such an easily recognizable manner). Tea, coffee, chocolate, olives, beer and wine, pickles, yogurt, breads...
Thrilling as it may be, I realize there's probably no one out there with a burning desire for sauerkraut. Well, I suppose I can't say that for certain- maybe there is, I don't know.
Anyway, while you personally may not have a strong desire for it, sauerkraut can definitely make a nice accompaniment to certain dishes.

And the flavor of freshly homemade kraut to that you can find in a can...? I think it's better. Completely different- it's still sauerkraut, but somehow it's more fresh, and can be almost fruity sometimes. Plus, it's crunchier since it's not been completely drowned.

Fermentation occurs because in a situation where there is an absence of oxygen, the micro-organisms that naturally live on plants reproduce rapidly and are able to suppress development of the "bad" microbes that would cause spoilage. The "good" ones are the first to digest the sugars in the cabbage and then give off substances like carbon dioxide and lactic acid that keep the baddies from forming.

However, you've got to remember that fermentation can potentially be a bit dangerous. When things start to ferment, they produce gas and build up pressure. No one wants a sauerkraut explosion, so just keep an eye on things. You'll need to periodically open the jar and let off the carbon dioxide, maybe use a knife along the sides of the jar to release bubbles, the compress the ribbons of cabbage so that everything stays under a layer of liquid.

So, the thing is, you can make your own sauerkraut very easily.

All you need is a little salt, cabbage, knife, cutting board, large glass jar, time, and a cool room temperature.  Additionally, you could add other flavors such as juniper berries, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, caraway, anise, ginger, apples.
When the sauerkraut has finished fermenting, just place it in the refrigerator. It will continue to ferment, but the cooler temperature in the refrigerator drastically slows the process.


2 lb. (900 g) cabbage (red or green)
4 t (20 g) sea salt

Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage. Cut the cabbage in quarters from top to bottom and remove most of the solid core. Slice one of the quarters into ribbons somewhere between 1/2 cm and 1 inch depending on our preference (more thinly sliced cabbage will ferment more quickly and be softer in texture, while the thicker cut will be crunchier). Repeat with the other three quarters, and attempt to cut the cabbage all about the same thickness. 
Place all the cut cabbage in a large bowl. Sprinkle the cabbage with the salt and with clean hands fold, toss, and finally massage the salt into the cabbage. In the beginning this may be a bit difficult, but it should become easier after a while as you see some progress.  Eventually, the cabbage will soften and begin to give off liquid (this can take up to 15 minutes). 
Once you are able to squeeze liquid out of a handful of cabbage, firmly pack it into one or more jars. 
Use a spatula, glass, or another smaller jar to push down the mixture and get rid of any air in the jar. The liquid should rise above the cabbage and completely cover it. Make sure that there is at least an inch (2.5 cm) of space between the cabbage mixture and the top of the jar to accommodate for expansion during fermentation.
Close the jar and place in a cool dark place. 
Check the sauerkraut daily. Open the jar, re-pack the sauerkraut to cover with the liquid and release the bubbles.  After a few days the mixture will become very bubbly (and build up a lot of pressure in the jar). Smell and taste the mixture, which should start to sour. 
Let the cabbage ferment at least 5 days and up to a month, depending on your taste. 
Place the sauerkraut in the refrigerator in an airtight container, where it should keep several months. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sweet Potato Casserole

I would love to call this something more like Candied Pecan Sweet Potato Puree, and I could if I wanted.
But I didn't.

I wish there was a word that was more appropriate than "casserole."
The word has the power to conjure up ideas of grey grade school lunches, or perhaps a mash-up of whatever can be found at a particular moment and thrown together. But actually, "casserole" really refers to the dish that the food amalgam is cooked in, not said jumble.  It's too bad though, because that's probably not what comes to mind for many of us.
Like the word "surprise" in the title of a dish, "casserole" may fill certain people with dread.

The thing is, I don't think I can come up with a word other than "casserole"... too bad.
And technically... this is a casserole.

With Thanksgiving coming up, this type of a dish is slightly ubiquitous. However, it also makes a nice addition to a big Sunday afternoon meal with a roast of some sort and a few guests included.

Moving on, the version here is not so syrupy sweet and sticky as what one may imagine when he or she thinks of sweet potato casserole.
It's another one of those recipes that's parts of at least two versions put together, or my ideas of them, adjustments made, and with a dose of executive decision making thrown in for good measure.

As far as sweet potato casseroles go, this one is not too sticky-sweet and syrupy, and it has a nice toasty-nutty crunch with the candied pecans on top.

It's actually more like a crustless pie. The egg and cream help to make the sweet potatoes custardy, like a pumpkin pie. So, really, it could technically be dessert. A vegetable with a dessert personality.

And perhaps it'll never win any beauty competitions, but it tastes good no matter what.
If you would like it to look a little prettier, you could spoon the sweet potatoes into individually buttered dishes (like ramekins) before baking 10-15 minutes or so.  In this case, instead of topping with the pecans before baking, it may be better if the pecans were baked separately on a pan so that they had the time to get toasty and the topping crunchy. Just prior to serving the pecans could be sprinkled over the tops of the individual portions.
If it something you plan to use as a dessert, this might be the best option since things would stay together better than in the large dish.

Mostly adapted from a recipe by Leslie Porcelli in Saveur issue 142, November 2011.

Sweet Potato Casserole with Candied Pecans
serves 6-8

4 lb. (1.8 kg) sweet potatoes
1/2 c (100 g) packed brown sugar
6 T (81 g) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 c (80 ml) heavy cream
1 t (4 g) vanilla extract
1 1/2 t  (5 g) cinnamon
1/2 t (2 g) freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t (2 g) kosher salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1, 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1/2 t (2 g) freshly ground black pepper

1/3 c (74 g) packed brown sugar
2/3 c (90 g) chopped pecans
1/2 t (4 g) kosher salt (if you only have a finer, more bitter salt such as iodized table salt, use less)
3 T (42 g) butter, softened

Preheat oven to 425 F/ 220 C.  Place the whole, unpeeled sweet potatoes on a parchment lined sheet and bake until soft, about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool about 30 minutes. 
Reduce the oven heat to 350 F/ 175 C. 
Remove the skin from the potatoes and discard. Pass the sweet potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer into a large bowl. Stir in the sugar, butter, cream, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, eggs, ginger, and black pepper. 
Spoon the sweet potato mixture into a 2-3 qt. or L baking dish and smooth the top.  
In a medium bowl mix together the brown sugar, pecans, salt and butter with your fingers until crumbly. Sprinkle the pecan crumble over the sweet potatoes. 
Bake about 30 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are hot, and the pecans are browned and toasty. Let cool 15 minutes before serving. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thai Pumpkin Soup

This was inspired by an outstanding pumpkin curry shared in Australia...  and I think this type of meal is really nice for a cold day.

Though it was something I wanted to take care of before I completely lost the taste memory, it turned out more like one of those spur-of-the-moment-lets-see-what-we-can-do-here things I end up being very glad I happened to write down. Though to be honest, I don't know that I could actually make sense of my notes a week from now if I hadn't made a rapid translation. Even so, it'll probably evolve, but it has to start somewhere.

It incorporates many Thai flavors and includes the lovely blend of sweet/salty/sour/spicy that's important in Thai cuisine, a blend especially well noted when served with the accompaniments.

How are these flavors portrayed? I'm so glad you asked.
Squash has a lightly sweet flavor as does coconut milk, and the touch of brown sugar adds a bit of depth. Fish sauce give an intensely flavorful savory note (yes, it's strong stuff),  and both the broth used and the additional salt in the end add some savor and help balance things out. As far as spice goes, fresh chili adds heat, as does chili paste stirred into individual bowls to accommodate each's taste. I prefer to err on the mild side when making something spicy and use fewer chili peppers in the pot since people can adjust to their own taste and tolerance. Well, I like to err on the mild side if I can help it and I'm attentive- but I'm not always aware or careful enough.

Ginger, cinnamon, and star anise included probably add to both the spicy and sweet categories. The final (sour) squeeze of lime juice in the end right before the soup is eaten really brightens things and helps make the flavors explode.
At least that's my interpretation.

If something isn't quite right to your taste, correct it. A sprinkle of grated cinnamon, a splash more fish sauce, maybe it'd be just right with just a bit more brown sugar.

The pumpkins I chose in this case were two knobby kabocha squash, but acorn or butternut are fairly easy to find and would probably work just as well.
This could be adapted to use as a curry if you would like. Maybe some curry paste goes in with the sauteed spices, the mixture gets thinned with a little more coconut milk, some shrimp or chicken find their way in along with vegetables (perhaps green beans, eggplant, tomato, and mushrooms). Don't forget the steamed rice.


I ended up adding some shrimp to cook in the hot soup during the last few minutes, and they turned out to be a very welcome addition.

Thai Pumpkin Soup

4 lbs. (about 1.8 kg) pumpkin
sunflower or canola oil, coconut oil if desired
1 large onion, diced
4 large cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
1 1/2 T (25 g) freshly grated ginger
generous 1 t (4 g) turmeric
2 sticks cinnamon
2 whole star anise
1 qt. (950 ml) chicken or vegetable broth
1-2 serrano or jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise, ribs and seeds removed, flesh roughly chopped
1 stalk lemongrass (perhaps 2 if they seem small or a bit dry)
14 oz. (400 ml) coconut milk
1 1/2 T (17 g) packed brown sugar
1 1/2 T fish sauce (22 g)
freshly ground black pepper
chopped cilantro leaves, thinly sliced green onion, chili paste (such as sambal oelek), and lime wedges for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
Cut the pumpkin(s) in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, rub the skin side with sunflower or canola oil, and place cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast the pumpkin at least 35 minutes, or until the flesh feels soft when the skin is poked. Set aside to cool until easily handleable.
Heat 2 T sunflower, canola or coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until slightly caramelized. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant (this maybe takes 10 seconds). Add the ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and star anise and toast the spices a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the turmeric coats the bottom of the pot in a scrape-able layer. Stir in the chicken broth and scrape the spices from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon so they become incorporated into the broth. Scoop the flesh from the roasted and partially cooled pumpkins and add to the chicken broth mixture along with the chopped chili peppers.  Remove the outer dry leaves from the lemongrass along with the dry top of the stalk. Bruise and bend the stalk to help release it's fragrance. Roughly cut the lemongrass into 4-5 pieces and add to the soup. Keep track of how many pieces of lemongrass you've added as you'll later remove them. Bring the soup to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, and place a cocked lid on top. Simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. 
After the soup has simmered and the flavors have blended a bit, remove the pan from the heat and pull out the pieces of lemongrass, star anise, and cinnamon sticks. Reserve the cinnamon and star anise. Pour the coconut milk into the soup and stir to combine.  Blend the soup to a smooth puree with an immersion blender or in a standard blender in several batches (just be careful with the blender, and only fill about halfway since hot liquids expand and you probably don't want a soup explosion). 
Pour the soup back into the pot and stir in the brown sugar and fish sauce. Place the star anise and cinnamon sticks back in the soup pot. Simmer the soup over low heat about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add salt and pepper to taste (maybe start with 1 t or 5-7 g salt). 
Serve soup with chopped cilantro leaves, thinly sliced green onion, chili paste, and wedges of lime.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quinoa Tabbouleh

So, I suppose this is a little unorthodox when it comes to tabbouleh since it should be bulgur-based instead of quinoa. And probably not include the basil...

But while quinoa isn't traditionally part of tabbouleh, it's still a good choice when it comes to grains (though not really a true grain). Quinoa has a low carbohydrate content and contains a good proportion of unsaturated fats as compared to other grains- and it also has a good protein content. On top of being a protein source, it happens to be complete protein containing all eight essential amino acids. 

Tabbouleh is a very fresh and colorful sort of Middle Eastern salad with many textures, and a great accompaniment to roasted or grilled vegetables or meats.

The proportion of parsley, especially, makes it taste very fresh and green along with the lemony brightness. Fresh flavors parter well with things that are savory, charred and roasty.

The nice thing is that one doesn't have to be extremely exact when it comes to this recipe- it can easily be adapted "to taste"depending on what you might like. More mint or no mint, a little extra lemon, perhaps a tad more chili...

(With the heavy-handed dose of minced parsley in the salad, the chances of having parsley stuck in your teeth are greatly increased. The one really great thing is that if everyone has parsley in their teeth, it doesn't matter.)

Quinoa Tabbouleh
serves 8 or more

1 c (165 g) uncooked quinoa, rinsed well and drained
2 1/2 c (575 ml) vegetable or chicken broth
1 large bunch parsley (this should give you a generous 1 1/2 c or more than 300 ml minced parsley)
1 large handful basil
1 small handful mint leaves (or to taste)
6-8 green onions
1 scant lb. (500 g) cherry tomatoes (halved), or other tomatoes roughly cut into 1-2 cm pieces
1/2 green bell pepper cut into thin strips
1/2 red bell pepper cut into thin strips
6 T (90 ml) extra virgin olive oil
6 T (90 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 t (15 g) fresh chili paste (or maybe 1 minced jalapeno pepper)
kosher or sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place quinoa and vegetable broth in a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook 15 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and spread the hot quinoa on a pan to cool completely.
While the quinoa cools, assemble other ingredients.
Mince the parsley and mint, chiffonade the basil and set all aside. Thinly slice the green onions and set aside. Have the cherry tomatoes and bell peppers prepared and ready. 
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and chili paste. Add salt and black pepper to taste (for salt I start with 1 t or 5-7 g depending on the type of salt). 
In a large bowl, carefully fold together the cooled quinoa, parsley, basil, mint, green onions, cherry tomatoes, and peppers until combined. Pour the lemony vinaigrette over the salad and carefully fold again until the salad is thoroughly blended. Taste for seasonings and adjust as necessary. Serve at room temperature.