I’ve made more hummus this summer than I’ve made in my entire life previously, because I’ve finally realized how easy it is to make, and it’s dang good.  For macho American fast food aficionados who think of hummus as sissy hippie food, remember that hummus is the great grandfather of bean dip, and it’s been around longer than McDonald’s, or even Clan MacDonald.

This is the recipe I use, based on the recipe from Cook’s Illustrated.

Ingredients

  • 1 14 oz can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • tahini
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed or minced
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • the juice of one lemon
  • 1/4 cup water

Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, and water together in a small bowl.  Drain the beans and put them into a food processor along with the garlic, cumin, and salt.  Pulse them a few times until you’ve converted them to a very thick paste.  Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the beans that are stuck to the sides.  Add a few big spoonfuls of tahini – you’re looking for around 1/4 cup, but you don’t need to be precise.  Now, turn the machine on and slowly pour in the lemon juice mixture.  Once it’s all added, stop the processor, scrape down the sides again, turn on the processor, and leave it running for a minute.

Transfer the hummus to a serving dish, and, if you want, sprinkle some paprika (or smoked paprika) over the top, and finish with some olive oil.  We have found pita chips to be a much more convenient way to eat hummus than regular pita bread.

This is a recipe from Jaques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of pressure cooking for some time now, but have been unwilling to spend the money on one until I’d tried some recipes.  Recently, a friend loaned us her pressure cooker, and tonight, I finally got to take it for a spin.  If you’ve ever used one, then you won’t be surprised to hear me say that I was amazed at the results this thing can produce in so short a time.  To get these kinds of results using traditional methods like braising or roasting would require hours, but tonight, in 30 minutes, we had fork tender meat that was falling off of the bone, and deeply flavored.

Ingredients

2 lbs beef short ribs – the meatiest and most lean you can find

1 lb small yukon gold or red potatoes

8 dried shiitake mushrooms, stem removed, caps broken in half

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

3 garlic cloves, peeled

2 sprigs of fresh tyme

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 tsp tomato paste

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup water

This recipe begins by searing the ribs in oil over high heat right in the cooker until they have a rich brown crust on the outside.  Due to the size of the pan, we had to do this in two batches, and while it would have been quicker to do this in a larger, separate pan, it’s essential do do this in the cooker.  The juices from the meat brown on the bottom of the pan, creating what the cooking world calls fond, which is full of complex and savory flavors brought about by a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction.

Once the meat has been seared, pour out most of the fat, and return the pan to medium heat.  Here, I modified the recipe by adding the tomato paste and cooking it for a minute to develop more fond.  Tomatoes, when cooked (also through the Maillard reaction), release flavor compounds called glutamates, which contribute more deep, savory notes.

Next, pour in the wine and water, then stir and scrape away at the fond to dissolve it into the liquid.  Add the remaining ingredients, then top with the ribs and potatoes.  Cook according to the pressure cooker’s instructions for 30 minutes.  At this point, I modified the recipe further by removing the cooked food to a dish in a warm oven, and boiling the liquid until it had reduced and thickened slightly.

My wife and daughter went out of town to visit my wife’s family for a few days about two weeks ago.  I don’t often get these times to myself, and since my wife doesn’t like lamb, I take advantage of those rare opportunities to consume copious amounts of lamb.

My favorite preparation is simple and straightforward.

Note: My wife took my camera with her on her trip, so the photos in this post were taken with my phone, so please excuse the quality.


Begin by bashing up a big handful of fresh herbs (rosemary is best, but this time, I only had thyme), 3 fat cloves of garlic, and some salt in a mortar and pestle.  There are lots of other things you can add here: lemon zest, coriander seed, mint, and cumin seeds are all good (though I wouldn’t mix cumin with rosemary or mint).

If you’re using rosemary, it’s helpful to chop it up a little bit first.  Also, in addition to adding flavor, the salt helps to pulverize the herbs and garlic by acting as an abrasive.

Next, grind in a generous helping of black pepper, and then pour in enough olive oil to make a slush.  Now rub the marinade on all sides of some thick chops, then let them rest in the fridge for several hours – though they’ll still be good if you don’t have time for this.

Get a grill or grill pan nice and hot.  You want instant sizzling when the chops hit the hot bars.  To me, the charred marks left by the grill are essential for good flavor, so leave them long enough to get a good sear, but beyond that is up to you.  Lamb, unlike beef, retains a good amount of moisture even when cooked to medium, but personally, I like it more on the rare side.

Once they come off of the grill, squeeze a lemon over them and let them rest for a few minutes.  This is essential when cooking nearly all meats and poultry.  The protein strands in the meat have pulled tight during the cooking, and if you cut into the meat too early, a good deal of the juices will be squeezed out.  As the meat rests after cooking, the strands of protein relax, and the juices will remain in the meat.

This time, I had my lamb with potatoes, which had been cubed, steamed until just barely done, then pan fried in a generous amount of oil until they had gone crispy on the outside.  Honestly, it was a strange combination, but good nonetheless.  Lamb feels like it wants to go with spinach or some kind of white beans, like navy or garbanzo, or even couscous or polenta.

Homemade bread is one of those things that everyone loves but nobody makes, unless it’s in a bread machine, and yet, it’s really not that difficult, unless you’re talking about those great European breads that require 4 days and a real wood burning oven.  But a really good, down home loaf of whole wheat bread is lots easier than you probably think.

Why should you do it?  There are two big reasons: 1) it’s cheaper than buying bread that’s worth eating, and 2) you know and can pronounce all of the ingredients.  Most of what passes for “bread” on the grocery store shelves is loaded with artificial ingredients and preservatives.  Whole wheat bread is WORLDS better for you than that made with refined white flour, and bread that’s labeled as “whole wheat bread” frequently has quite a lot of regular flour in it; look at the ingredients and see if the first or second isn’t “wheat flour” as opposed to “whole wheat flour.”  This is lots better for you, and it’s not hard to do.

Recipe

Nuke 1 cup of milk and 1 cup of water, mixed together, for about a minute, so that it’s warm but nowhere near scalding, then stir in 2 tbsp honey or sugar and 5 tsp active dry yeast (not rapid rise) until everything is dissolved.  Let this mixture sit for about 5 minutes, until it’s starting to look foamy.

Pour this into the bowl of a mixer, if you’ll be using one, or just a large bowl if you plan on doing this by hand.  Whisk in 2 large eggs and 6 tbsp unsalted butter which has been brought to a soft room temperature.  Now add 6 cups of whole wheat flour and 2 tsp salt.  If you’re using a mixer, attach the dough hook and turn it on low.  If not, then lightly flour your counter top, mix everything together well, tip it out onto the counter and start kneading.

Either way, you may need to add some extra flour to keep it from sticking.  I had to had nearly a whole cup extra.  Keep adding and kneading, until you have a tacky, but not either too dry or too sticky, dough, which will take about 8 minutes.

Now transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it in a warm place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until it doubles in size and develops that great, bright scent of yeast.

Lightly butter 2 bread pans (5 x 9″ or so).  Punch the dough down and divide it in half.  Roll each half into a ball, and then flatten into a disk which has a diameter about equal to the length of your bread pan.

Fold a bit of the edge of the disk over and press it to seal.  Now fold a little bit of the folded part over and press to seal again.  Continue doing this until you have rolled the dough into a log.  Place this into one of the bread pans, seam side down, and then press it down into the bread pan.

Repeat with the other half of dough and cover the pans with a kitchen towel.  Place them in a warm spot for about 45 minutes, until the loaves have doubled in size.  Preheat an oven to 375 F and lightly dust the tops of the loaves with a little more flour.

Bake for 40-45 minutes.  A loaf that is done will sound hollow when you tap on the bottom of it.  Remove them from the pans and let them cool on a wire rack.  Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to cut into them until they’ve cooled, or they’ll dry out, but who can resist?

On Wheat Bread

Wheat bread doesn’t have the chewy texture that some white breads can have.  This texture is the result of strands of a protein called gluten, which develop during the kneading process.  Whole wheat contains the outer hull, or bran, of the wheat grain, and the ground up pieces of bran are like tiny knives that chop up the strands of gluten, keeping the bread from becoming chewy.  This is why regular flour is often mixed with whole wheat flour to make loaves that are labeled “wheat bread.”  It does contain some whole what, and it has more of that chewy texture that people love.

The bran, however, is what contains most of the nutrients and nearly all of the fiber.  When you take away the bran, you take away almost everything that makes wheat worth eating, from a health standpoint, and all you’re left with is mostly empty carbs, which is why white flour is often enriched by the addition of vitamins and minerals, but usually not fiber.  Still, enriched flour doesn’t provide all of the health benefits of whole wheat flour, not just because it’s missing fiber, (which plays a HUGE role in not only keeping you…ahem…regular, but healthy in general) but also because whole foods contain lots of micronutrients that we’re only just beginning to learn about.

The drive to have “more,” and the accompanying stress and busyness have gotten the better of me, which is why I haven’t written here in a while.  I took on an extra project late last summer because I thought the extra money would be nice, and while I hadn’t even planned on using the money for myself, I learned that the acquisition of extra money would be costly.  It would come at the expense of time to slow down, time to rest, time to spend hanging out with my family, time to be at peace, time to enjoy simpler things.  It cost me time spent enjoying Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s this past holiday season, and I hope that I’ve learned my lesson.

Things are finally slowing down again, and so I hope to be making up for lost time here on this blog over the next few weeks.  The past several days have seen a return to more relaxed evenings and this evening was a good one.  We had snow again here in Houston, the third time this Winter, and while snow is always fun for me, it’s even more fun now that I have a young daughter, and I can enjoy it even more, vicariously, through her.  We went outside several times when it was falling particularly thickly, trying to catch snowflakes on our tongues.

Coming back into the house meant returning to the scent of the cookies that my wife and daughter were baking, a recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies from Cook’s Illustrated‘s early days, way back in 1996.  We’ve been making this particular recipe almost since then and nothing else has come close.  They bake up with a warm, toffee-like flavor, slightly crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle.  CI came out with a new recipe for chocolate chip cookies last year, and we haven’t tried it yet, but their old recipe will be hard to beat.

Today was my wife’s birthday, and a birthday around here means lots of food.  The morning started off with Cook’s Illustrated’s French toast.  It’s a surprising recipe, because the batter into which you dip the bread (challah) contains flour, one egg, and 3/4 cup of milk, plus a few other things.  It produces a great crust, and, depending on how long you let the bread soak, a wonderful, custard-like interior.

Lunch was a simple pasta dish that used to be a staple at our house.  Not sure why it’s been so long since we made it.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and throw in enough linguine or capellini (angel hair) for everyone.

While the water is coming to boil and the pasta is cooking, in a pan that is large enough to hold the pasta after you’ve cooked it…

warm a puddle of olive oil over medium low heat.  Don’t use “lite” olive oil.  You want something full and flavorful, and since it will provide the base for the sauce, you’ll need a good amount, more than just enough to barely cover the pan.

Add at least 1 clove garlic, crushed per person.  The heat needs to be low enough that you can barely see it simmering.  You don’t want it to turn brown on you.

Add at least 2 anchovies, along with 1 tsp fresh thyme and  a pinch of crushed red pepper per person.

In another pan, toast a big handful of fresh bread crumbs (yes, again, one handful per person) in some olive oil over medium heat.  I prefer to make the crumbs myself and leave some large-ish chunks of bread intact.  Salt them as you go, and once they’re crispy in spots, dump them onto a paper towel lined plate.

The anchovies should eventually, within five minutes or so, fall apart.  Once the pasta is done, drain it, throw it into the pan with the garlic and anchovies, and then squeeze over at least 1/2 lemon (for one or two people).  You’ll probably need some salt, too, in spite of the anchovies.  Toss it all together and taste it.  You’re looking for brightness from the lemon, a kick from the garlic, savor from the anchovies, a little heat from the pepper, and the warmth of thyme.  Squeeze in more lemon or add more salt as you need it.  Dish it up in shallow bowls and top with the toasted bread crumbs.

Dinner was crabcakes (from Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner) with red sauce and cole slaw (from Pepin’s Fast Food My Way).  We finished it all off with an Apricot Almond Pastry.

Heat the oven to 350 F.

Cut a few apricots (fresh or canned) into wedges – there’s no need to peel them.

Grind 3/4 cup almonds in a food processor, then combine these with 2 tbsp flour and 1/8 tsp baking powder.

Combine 1/4 cup sugar with 4 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temp.  Mix this with the almonds.

Beat 1 egg with 1/2 tsp almond extract, and then add this to the almonds.

Scrape the batter into an 8 or 9 inch pie dish or cake pan, which you have greased with butter, and then top with the apricot wedges.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the pastry has risen and is heading toward a toasty brown.  Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.  I prefer it with ice cream.

It had become pretty cold out by the time I was putting the dessert in the oven, so we lit the fireplace for the first time this year.  It was a great way to finish off the day.

The cold blew in today, and we were wanting something warming and comforting to combat it, but were also feeling too tired to make anything very involved.  This is some seriously good stuff, even if you don’t think of yourself as being a fan of tofu, and it’s also seriously easy.

For 4 not huge servings:

cook 1/4 lb ground pork in a little oil over medium heat in a medium stock pot, until no longer pink.

add 1 tbsp grated ginger, 1 tbsp crushed garlic, and 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper.

Stir for about a minute, then add 1/4 cup sliced green onion and cook for a minute or so.

Pour in 1 cup chicken stock and add 1 lb medium hard tofu, cut into 1/2 inch cubes.

Once it’s hot, stir in 1/8 cup soy sauce.

Sometimes I want it to have more of a kick, and sometimes I want it to be more like soup, so I vary the amount of red pepper and stock.  I’d like to try making a variation using ground mushrooms – probably shiitake – in place of the pork.  Since mushrooms contain a fair amount of liquid, which will cook out of them, you’ll need more weight of mushrooms than of pork.  Try increasing it by 1/8 of a pound.  Serve with steamed rice, or even better, sticky rice, if you have some on hand.

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