Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cooking at the Improv

I am a huge fan of applied knowledge.  I love being able to take something I have learned and use it as a frame of reference to learn or figure out something else. If I am really lucky, the knowledge takes on a life of its own, and I don't even recognize the extrapolation right away.  Instead there is just a natural flow from known into the unknown, which then turns into the known.  (Beats the unknown unknown any day of the week, if you ask me.)

That sort of extrapolation is exactly what has happened with my cooking, and I find it exciting.  I have reached the point at which I can think about recipes and techniques I have already used and create something new, or, even better, something familiar.  I think that I am even getting to the point at which I can look at a recipe someone did not care for and see why it did not work.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to make lentil soup again.  I make a lot of lentil soup, especially once the weather begins to turn colder.  I make big batches and then freeze individual portions that I take take to work for lunch.

So the time came to make another batch of lentil soup, and, horror of horrors, I couldn't find the recipe that I usually use (at least as a starting point).  This happened before my discovery of, so I had to search my cookbook collection the old fashioned way.  I checked Moosewood and The Joy of Cooking and Marcella and Julia and a few others.  No luck.  My usual lentil soup recipe was not to be found.

What's a hungry cook to do?

Improvise, of course.

Ingredients waiting to be chopped
I had the ingredients.  I had the skills and the knowledge.  I just had to figure out how to put the two together.  So I did.

I chopped up the magical trifecta that is mirepoix -- celery, onion and carrot -- along with a bit of garlic, added salt and pepper, and sauteed the lot in some olive oil, using Lynne Rosetto-Kasper's recommended method of lower heat and a covered pot for a longer period of time (15 minutes as opposed to about 5).  When things started to stick to the bottom of the pan -- an occurrence which I believe to be caused by my preference of using less than the recommended amount of oil for sauteing -- I deglazed with a generous splash of white wine.

Chopped ingredients
Any excuse to add wine, right?  Not that you really need one.  Wine is just as powerful a flavor enhancer as stock if you ask me, and I think that it helps all of the other flavors get along.  I have also discovered that, at least for white wine, the specific variety of wine isn't all that important, as long as it is something you would like to drink.  I have used Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and even flat Champagne (which can be seen in the corner of the ingredients photo), all to excellent effect.

Returning to the lentil soup at hand, while the magical mirepoix was sauteeing, I finished chopping up the rest of the vegetables -- mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini.  Then I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste, paprika and some other herbs to the mirepoix and stirred everything until well mixed.

Sauteeing mirepoix
In went the vegetables, a bag of lentils, more wine, and vegetable broth made from homemade vegetable bouillon which I absolutely adore and is so easy to make (basically blend a bunch of vegetables in a food processor with a bunch of salt to preserve it and then put the lot in mason jars and freeze it).  I brought the whole concoction to a boil, reduced to a simmer and, as the saying goes, cooked until done -- which I have discovered with lentil soup is always longer than you think that it should be.  Trust me on this one -- if you taste the soup and it seems pretty good, tweak the seasoning just a bit more if you want to and the let it simmer another fifteen or twenty minutes before tasting it again.  The result is yummy, hearty, rich, melt in your mouth lentil soup.  Then again, I am not a huge fan of al dente pasta, so if you prefer a bit of toothsomeness to your soup, then you might not be a fan of that extra few minutes which really causes all of the ingredients and flavors to melt together.

So, to sum up: chop up a bunch of ingredients, saute the mirepoix, deglaze with wine, add seasoning, add rest of ingredients and liquid(s) of choice, bring to boil, simmer, sample and season along the way, and voila!  Soup!

P.S.  Just as I did when making the soup, I almost forgot the prosciutto.  I love prosciutto.  It's less fatty and more delicate than bacon.  If I hadn't forgotten it, I would have sauteed it briefly in a pan and then added it toward the end of the mirepoix sauteeing step.  But I did forget it until I was at the bring to boil step, so I tossed it in then, and it worked its salty, savory magic just as well.

If you are a big fan of meat, the piggy, savory sorts work well in this soup -- ham, kielbasa, linguisa, other sausage (though it probably doesn't need to be pork sausage).

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Baked Not Fried

Crab rangoons are one of my favorite not so healthy food vices -- all crispy and crackly and cheesy and salty -- but ever since I learned to make my own fried rice, I don't get Chinese take-out nearly as often as I used to (which, I might add, has the noteworthy side effect that for the first time pretty much ever I have had to purchase a bottle of soy sauce).  While I should certainly be able to learn how to make my own crab rangoons, I am not so good with deep frying.  It's a whole lot of oil, and it seems like so much of it goes to waste if I am only going to make a single batch of something, and having an actual frying appliance is one more thing that either has to be stored or else takes up a bunch of counter space.

I briefly considered the possibilities of an Actifry made by T-fal, but the overabundance of reviews and opinions on the internet offered confusion rather than clarity.  I never know whether to believe internet reviews.  Some people are always going to be ecstatic about a product, and some are always going to think that it is the worst thing ever in the history of everything.  Without knowing any background of the people posting, I can't tell if what they say applies to me.

Besides, while I am not quite willing to cut oil out of my life completely, I do try to be mindful of exactly what I am asking my body to process.  I am looking at food and recipes from different perspectives.  Sometimes the full fat, deep fried, high calorie indulgence is the way to go, but what about people who really have to watch their intake of fat or salt or sugar or have allergies or sensitivities or just plain don't like something?  They have to eat, too, and they should be able to eat tasty food right along with the rest of us.  Given the number of recipes available for almost any dish, there is more than one way to make almost anything, so why not try it?  (And try more than one variation or method, especially if the first attempt didn't turn out quite the way you had hoped it would.)

One of my favorite discoveries of a better way to do something is when I decided to try steaming ravioli rather than boiling them.  I find the pasta in pre-made ravioli to be too thick, and I still haven't gotten quite organized enough to make my own.  Somewhere I came across the recommendation of using wanton wraps instead.  I boiled them the first time.  They turned out pretty well as far as taste and texture, but the ravioli stuck together impressively once they came out of the water and were piled on a plate.  Also, if I punctured one or didn't seal it properly (I have since learned that egg is far more effective than water), all of the filling ended up in the water.

The second time I made them, I decided to try steaming them in my handy dandy double decker bamboo steamer.  Way better.  Punctures and less than perfect seals did not cause any problems, and the ravioli only needed to be steamed for three or four minutes.  An added bonus is that the steamer has two layers, so I could cook more than a few ravioli at once.  The stickiness was still a bit of an issue, but a bit of oil or butter or using a bigger plate or several plates or adding the sauce of choice right away or maybe even a dusting of semolina (though that might interfere with the sauce) helps considerably.

The finished rangoons and egg roll (on a special, snazzy
plate made just for such things)
Returning to the crab rangoons, I recently had a craving for Chinese take-out, but I really wanted to try to do it myself.  It's less expensive that way, and I have far more control over what is in the food, which becomes more important to me the more I cook.  In fact, cooking more of my own food actually means that restaurant food -- especially "junk" food -- doesn't taste nearly as good as it used to.  My brain still occasionally tries to convince me that I want a greasy hamburger, but I just find something else which will taste better and be better for me.

I found this recipe and decided to try it since it called for baking rather than frying.  I improvised heavily -- more cheese, scallions instead of onion powder, no chives -- and ended up with a filling that I probably could have eaten right out of the bowl with a spoon.  I had a little trouble not putting too much filling in each wrap and getting it sealed properly so that the filling didn't ooze out when heated, but I am sure that it is the sort of thing where practice makes better, and even the ruptured rangoons were tasty.

Fried rice in matching snazzy bowl
As an accompaniment, I made these avocado egg rolls, which are probably about as Asian as crab rangoons with all of their cheese, but I am a huge fan of avocados.  Consider these rough chopped guacamole rolled up in egg roll wrappers.  It is one of those great recipes where you just chop everything up and toss it together.  Come to think of it, I probably could have let the fabulous Cuisinart food processor do the chopping, but cleaning one knife and putting one mixing bowl in the dishwasher sound less labor intensive.

The recipe calls for frying, but I brushed them with beaten egg and baked them right along with the rangoons (at four hundred degrees for about 20 minutes), and they were crispy and yummy.  They even reheated nicely the next day for lunch.

P.S. I also tried baking rangoon-shaped ravioli (i.e. using one wrapper per ravioli rather than two), and I think for them, steaming is better.