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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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It’s high season for peas in my Greenmarket, and I’ve been buying them as fast as I can.

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I should mention that for me “peas” means shelling peas, or English peas: My household has no interest in sugar snaps. Standing together at the kitchen counter shelling peas is a pleasant summer tradition for Beloved Spouse and me.

I used to buy peas in quantity, blanch them and freeze them for year-long use, but they always came out tasting like commercially frozen peas, not the tender-crisp sweet vegetable that truly fresh ones are. Now I buy only enough for one or two days’ dinners at a time, so they can be eaten quickly, before the sugars turn to starch.

There’s nothing wrong with plain boiled peas, but when I feel a little more ambitious I turn to Julia Child’s pea recipes in volume 1 of Mastering. The first three are simple enough, and each is designed for peas of a certain quality: very young, sweet, and tender; large but still tender and fresh; and large, mature, end-of-season. The fourth recipe, Petits Pois Frais à la Française, is far more elaborate. Julia calls it “the glory of pea cookery.”

Essentially it’s peas braised with lettuce and onions, in a very particular way. I’ve never gone through the entire procedure, but this season I successfully adapted the recipe for faster, easy preparation. Here are the components for two portions, using one cup of shelled peas:

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The first simplification was the lettuce. Julia calls for quartered heads of Boston lettuce, wound around with string to keep them in shape during the cooking. As you see, I simply shredded leaves of fresh Greenmarket leaf lettuces.

Second was the onions. Julia wants one-inch green onion bulbs or small white onions parboiled for five minutes. I had a larger onion – so fresh it didn’t need peeling – so I quartered it and gave it the parboiling.

The cooking began in Julia’s manner. I brought butter, a little water, sugar, salt, and pepper to a boil in a pot, put in the peas, and stirred them around. Then, instead of burying a bunch of fresh parsley stems tied together with string in the middle of the peas, as she says, I sprinkled on chopped parsley. Instead of arranging lettuce quarters over the peas and basting them with the liquid, I just strewed on the chopped lettuce and followed with the onion quarters (already falling apart, but no matter).
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Next came my major divergence. This is what I didn’t do:

So that the cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas, invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with cold water or ice cubes; or use a soup plate. Bring the peas to the boil and boil slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Several times during the period, remove the cover and toss the peas and vegetables to insure even cooking. As the water warms and evaporates in the cover or soup plate, refill with ice cubes or cold water.

I couldn’t see why a snug-fitting normal lid wouldn’t circulate steam as well as that Rube Goldberg contraption, so I just put a low flame under the pot, covered it tightly, and simmered for 20 minutes, checking and stirring once or twice. It worked perfectly well. When the peas were done, most of the liquid was gone, but that’s what the recipe said would happen anyway. So why take all that trouble? I briefly raised the heat to boil down what remained, and transferred everything to a serving dish – skipping an indicated final dose of softened butter. That would’ve been gilding the lily.

 

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The dish isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely delicious. The flavors blend in a rich harmony. For me this is indeed the glory of pea cookery – and done in the easiest possible way.

After a dinner or two more of peas like this, and while their short season lasts, I may cross over to Italy and turn to another delicious pea dish: risi e bisi. (Background cheers from Beloved Spouse.)

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Every spring and fall Tom and I make short trips to Cape May, NJ, a hotspot for finding migratory birds. Perched where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May also boasts excellent fish and shellfish. While there, we indulge liberally in that seafood, and often bring some home from the harborside fish market. One of its specialties is fresh, never-frozen shrimp from North Carolina or Florida. Costing half what shrimp does in Manhattan, and tasting twice as good, a few pounds of them are a regular treat for us. Even when frozen at home, as they have to be, they’re very fine shrimp.

A bit disturbingly, the first 10 ounces I took out from our latest batch to cook for dinner were an unattractive color when looked at closely.

Raw shrimp are normally white with pinkish shells. The brownish, yellowish tinge on these made them look as if they were beginning to rot. Even when shelled, the flesh was darkish and dingy.

But they smelled fresh and felt properly firm. To be on the safe side I decided to make them in a slightly spicy preparation, and just for aesthetics, one that wouldn’t call attention to that color.

My ever-obliging knife man sliced up a nice mess of vegetables for me – two cups of onions and two cups of mixed Bell and poblano peppers.

I softened the peppers and onions in olive oil; sprinkled on salt, pepper, and mild New Mexican chili powder; stirred in about ⅓ cup of pureed tomato; covered and cooked it all together for 10 minutes, until the veg were tender. The pan then sat at the back of the stove until called for.

 

As you can see, that mixture vaguely replicated the color tones of my ugly shrimp. So when I reheated it, added the shrimp, and stirred them about until they were just opaque, you really couldn’t tell whether their shade was natural or due to the tomato and chili powder.

Served on a bed of plain boiled rice, the dish was very good. It had a modest touch of warmth from the spicing, and the shrimp were sweet, fresh, and just as flavorful as ever. I’d used basmati rice, because that happened to be the only long-grain rice I had on hand. It and the shrimp didn’t have much to say to each other, but it strongly bonded with the peppers and onions. The shrimp also adored the vegetables, and vice versa. A very successful simple improvisation.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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I’m just back from a birding trip to Texas. It’s migration season, when millions of northbound birds cross the Gulf of Mexico and touch down on the coast to rest. Consequently, birding was excellent, but the food on the trip was dismal. I don’t say it’s impossible to eat well in rural East Texas, but I do say that we sure didn’t. Almost everything on offer was either batter-fried, heavily sweetened, drowned in tasteless gravy, or all of the above. And fresh green vegetables didn’t seem to exist – potatoes, beans, and rice were most of the story.

Evidently there are no restaurants within a reasonable distance from the bird-friendly shores, fields, and forests of that area that have learned anything new about cooking in the last 60 years. Nor wanted to: Their local clientele seemed perfectly happy with the food. To give credit to our group leaders, they chose the best places that they could find, and we 14 group members were free to order anything on the menus. But I pass over in silence our Chinese, Cajun, and Mexican dinners. Unfortunately, when you’re out in good fresh air all day, you get hungry, and so, even against your better judgment, you eat.

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Not everything we ate was dreadful, of course. Here’s one dish that was a very pleasant surprise for me: two grilled quail on a bed of sautéed Texas 1015 onions, which I had at a rustic barbecue restaurant.

quails

 

These specially bred sweet onions – relatives of Bermuda, Spanish, and Vidalia types – are Texas’s official state onion and its leading vegetable crop. I found them very flavorful, not cloyingly sweet, and free from the pungent aftertaste that lodges in the lungs after eating some kinds of onions. (Beloved Spouse says the best dish he ate all week was some of those same onions deep-fried.) As for the quails, if anyone thinks it ghoulish to sit down and eat small birds after a day of birdwatching, I can only plead guilty. But they were awfully good!

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Another trying aspect of the trip was drinks. The beers were good, but I’m not much of a beer person, and the wines – when there were any – were pitiful. Beloved Spouse nearly divorced me when I ordered this little bottle of red one evening. (Note the elegant chilled glass that was provided for it.) He insisted it would be undrinkable, and I have to admit it nearly was. Nevertheless, I drank it.

wine

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So, getting back to the reason we willingly underwent this culinary culture shock: the birds. It was a fabulous trip in that respect. The High Island area, on the upper Texas coast east of Houston, is a magnet for migrating birds. Wind and weather conditions favored us, bringing in huge numbers of birds from across the Gulf. In the five days we two saw 196 different species: shorebirds, water birds, raptors, and songbirds, including an amazing 21 kinds of warblers. It was all nearly – nearly – enough to make us forgive the food!

High Island Patch

 

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Julia Child says her recipe for a sauté of beef with onions, mushrooms, and way to cookpotatoes has “a certain jazzy style … for a rather important and intimate occasion.” She urges “an informal twosome” to prepare it “while having meaningful conversations and apéritifs together in the kitchen.” Joke it may be, but to me that sounded perfect for a quiet New Year’s Day dinner. Less so to Beloved Spouse, who is only slowly recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he gamely agreed to step – or hobble – into the role.

The recipe fills two large pages in The Way to Cook, giving a very specific order of battle and illustrated with nine color photographs. Julia claims the whole thing can be done by reasonably fast, well-equipped cooks in less than half an hour. We doubted that, especially since nowhere did it say “Have a sip of your apéritifs” – which was a first and recurring step for us.

aperitifs

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Undaunted, we proceeded. I peeled four cipolline (chosen instead of the recipe’s tiny white onions) and stewed them gently with broth, tarragon, and salt while Tom, exercising his renowned knife skills, chopped shallots, quartered mushrooms, and cubed potatoes.

First pair

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Next we jointly sauteed the potatoes in butter and oil in one pan and the mushrooms and shallots in another, engaging in such meaningful conversation as “Do you think that flame is too high?” and “The mushrooms already look done to me.”

Second pair

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Then – with a pause for a sip of Krug – it was back to the cutting board for Tom, to chunk up two thick beef tenderloin steaks while I took the mushrooms out of their pan and melted more butter in it, ready to receive the meat. It seemed a pity to mutilate those lovely steaks, but we did it as directed. The sacrifices one makes for art!

steaks

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After quickly browning and removing the beef, we made a sauce in its pan: more shallots, white vermouth, and broth; the liquid boiled down almost to a syrup; then lightly thickened with cornstarch. We stirred the beef back into the sauce, along with the onions, their remaining juices, and the mushrooms. While they all warmed together, we gave the potatoes, which had been waiting in their pan, a dose of additional butter, salt, parsley, and tarragon, and tossed them quickly over high heat. The final step was to strew the potatoes over the meat – and serve.

full saute

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I’m not sure why Julia regarded this dish as jazzy. It didn’t seem jazzy to us. But it was certainly good. The beef was still rare and beautifully tender, the potatoes crisp and buttery, the onions and mushrooms excellent complements, the sauce subtly flavored with vermouth and tarragon. A very elegant little meal. With it we drank a very elegant 1999 Barbaresco Montestefano from the Produttori di Barbaresco. An auspicious start to our 2016 dining.

P.S. While Tom and I surely qualify as reasonably speedy, well-equipped cooks, preparing that “fast sauté” took us 70 minutes.

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