27 July 2010

How to eat hummus

Side update: I'm still having issues with the heat, because when the oven gets turned on at work, the temperatures skyrocket, and no matter how much water I drink, I go into mild heat exhaustion, and I start shaking, and my head gets light and floaty, and my muscles get really weak. Once I'm on the subway in the air conditioning, I'm fine. It's been persisting for about a week and change now, and I don't rightly know what to do about it, save not go into the kitchens, which isn't an option. If anyone's got any suggestions, feel free to weigh in.

Now. Onto how to eat hummus.

With a spoon.

The end.

I'm only teasing. Irma asked in a comment what to do with hummus, and/or different ways of using the stuff, aside from just putting it onto pita bread. I had a couple of suggestions mulling about in my head, so rather than just replying to the comment, I figured I'd just answer it here, in a new post.

First off, here is my little blurb about how to get perfect hummus every time. If you've got any input for that recipe, feel free to weigh in. I went extremely detailed and slow, because a lot of times, the recipe will be vague, or so rushed in its eagerness to show you how simple it is that people aren't going to be able to reproduce your results. That's just not right.

For starters, let's talk about different ways of using the hummus all by itself. I really wasn't joking when I said I could cheerfully eat it with a spoon. I can, and do so regularly (someone has to taste the hummus to make sure it's perfect, right?) at home and at work. Sometimes, it's nice to just appreciate something for what it is.

Vegetables. Vegetables are a perfect excuse to eat more hummus. Break out the carrots, celery, cucumbers, apples, pears, broccoli (steamed or raw), cauliflower (steamed or raw), beets, or anything else that comes to mind, and try it with your hummus. If you're making hummus with nice fresh herbs, like dill, or basil, or oregano, it's especially delicious with apples, pears, or other sweet but firm fruits, so that you get that contrast of the crisp, juicy fruit, and the salty, creamy hummus. Yes, I know that pears and apples are a fruit. Moving on.

Breads. Pita bread is excellent with hummus, but it's not your only option. While I'm here, let me make a sideline note about pita & hummus. You will find that your eating will be ten thousand times more pleasurable if you simply toast the pita bread with a little bit of oil before eating it. If you're doing like 20 or 30 pitas, just brush them with oil, and toast it in the oven, until it's lightly browned (about 10 minutes), and warmed through. Otherwise, heat up a skillet, drizzle in just a tiny bit of oil, and lightly fry the pita on each side until it's toasty and brown. Then, slice it up into triangles, and serve immediately. The pillowy steam that escapes the pita bread will make it so much nicer to eat, and you'll soon find yourself out of pita.

But aside from pita bread, try other breads. Often, when you go to the store, you can get day old bread for cheap. Take it home, and lightly sprinkle on a bit of water onto whichever slice of bread you want to eat. Then, fry as you would the pita bread, but use a touch more oil. Then, slice the slice of bread into strips, and dip away. Pumpernickel, rye, sourdough, baguettes, or any other dense, hearty bread works great.

While we're on the subject of breads, let's talk sandwiches and wraps. What better bread spread can you think of than hummus? It's high in protein, and lower in fat than those margarines and other rich dressings (like vegan mayo, etc.), while still having plenty of taste to boost the sandwiche's prospects. This is also a great spread for when you want to make a wrap of some kind. Think of it. Just a generous dose of hummus, cucumber, spinach, olives, and maybe some red onion and salt, and that's a wrap! Soooo good.

On to more advanced techniques. When my friend Mikeypod came over for Thanksgiving one year, he brought some pita from this place in Brooklyn that makes it fresh every day. They were like eating clouds. I split one open lengthwise, so I had two circles. I smeared both with a thin layer of hummus. I sandwiched them back closed, so that the hummus is on the inside. Then, I sliced them into triangles. I then dipped it into my bajji batter (it's in the book), and deep fried them. You heard me. Mind you, it's not something I'd do nowadays (or if I did, I'd make only a very small batch), but it was a special occasion, so I decided to splurge a little on the calories. What ended up happening was that the batter sealed the traingles well from the oil, so that the triangles started to puff up into fat little pillows. When they were golden brown in both sides, I served them piping hot. It was so much fun to eat those little pockets.

Of course, one must never forget hummus dressing. Essentially, it's just hummus thinned out with water until it's as liquidy as you want. You can do it with the store bought stuff or home made, depending on how much space/time/appliances you have. If you want it to be better still, dump it in the blender, and drizzle in a bit of extra olive oil as well as a bit more garlic and salt, and then add the water, with the blender going on medium speed. This will ensure that it's as smooth as possible. Try it some day over mixed greens, or other vegetable or bean salads, and you won't be disappointed.

My mother likes to stir into hummus some cabbage, carrots, and diced dill pickles, to make a sort of a cole slaw without the mayo. Try it some time, and I'm sure you'll love it as much as we do. She did it the first time, because I had added too much salt for her liking, and she wanted to eat those raw vegetables anyway.

When it's just for me and Steve, I like to make hummus really spicy, by adding a fair bit of chiles to it. When you do such a thing, an excellent way to serve it is as a canape. Just get some cucumber slices, pipe on the hummus, and top it with a little spray of dill. The presentation looks so cute to see all those little slices of cucumber with their hummus hats. The same works with zucchini, summer squash, tomato, or any other vegetable you can get into nice little rounds. If you felt like it, you could also do this with rounds of toast, but the vegetables are already in that adorable shape.

Hummus is excellent on crackers, especially if you do a cracker, a thin layer of hummus, a slice of vegetable, another thin layer of hummus, and then top it with a slice of tomato, a dollop of hummus, and a bit of cilantro or parsley. Again, it's a bit of work, but it looks so fetching. The fat in the hummus will protect the cracker from getting soggy, but it really should be eaten as soon as possible.

I know that others will have plenty of their own ideas, so feel free to weigh in if you wish. Hope this helped, Irma!

24 July 2010

Random Call

I've been feeling sick all this week, so I haven't really been up to posting much of anything. It's those kitchens. In the 90┬║ heat, you start feeling dehydrated and dizzy, and mentally loopy, not matter how much water you get through your system. So I'll leave work, and just come home and pass out from tiredness.

In better news, my friend Denise called me last night (early, so she caught me before my inevitable collapse into sleep), and said "I have some cauliflower and some chickpeas and some tomato, and I'm not sure what to do with it". I told her to use the QUICK Garbanzo Soup (sort of a quick and dirty Chana Masala type thing), and do a shortcut type aloo gobi (pop cumin and coriander in a pan with oil, add garlic, onion, ginger, sautee, add potato, turmeric, salt, cook till tender, add cauliflower and cook till tender, then turn off the heat and stir through garam masala). Apparently, she already had leftover rice, so that was no problem at all. If she did have access to an oven, I'd have asked her to simply toss the cauliflower and potato with the spices, garlic onion, ginger, oil, and what have you, and just throw it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Either way, the food came out great. She graciously took a photo for scientific purposes. Here it is.

16 July 2010

Dino's Mac & Cheese

I mostly eyeball it, but I can share the rough outline of how I put it together, because people have asked, and I don't really mind sharing. Some of the amounts are approximated, but there you are.

1 lb pasta (I like the large, fat, ziti noodles, but elbow macaroni works too; FOR GF: Quinoa pasta tends to be the best pasta substitute)
1/4 cup flour
3 TB oil (TO MAKE GLUTEN FREE: Replace 3 TB of oil with water, and replace flour with potato, tapioca, or corn starch. Best is tapioca. Add AFTER all other ingredients come to a boil, and whisk constantly until thickened.)
2 cups coconut milk thinned with 2 cups water
1/2 cup water, reserved
1 TB miso paste (sweet white miso)
1 TB dijon mustard
1 TB nutritional yeast
2 tsp tahini
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
3/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
Breadcrumbs, tossed in oil (FOR GLUTEN FREE: Substitute crushed almonds or walnuts.)

Set a pot of water on the boil, and cover the lid. It'll boil faster this way. You'll want about 1/2 gallon of water per pound of pasta, so that the noodles don't stick together. While the water comes to a boil, we'll make the sauce.

Start off with a roux (fat + flour, over heat). Over medium high heat, set down a large skillet (larger than you think you’ll need). Add the 3 TB of oil, and ¼ cup of flour. Whisk the two over heat, until the flour smells slightly nutty, and the oil and flour are bubbling slightly. When you’ve reached this light light blond stage (called a blond roux), pour in your room temperature water and coconut milk. Many recipes say to have your liquid hot, but I don’t care to mess up another pan. So nuts to them.

When the sauce (now a b├ęchamel) comes up to a boil, drop down the heat to low (as low as it’ll go), before adding the next set of ingredients. Add the miso, mustard, nutritional yeast, tahini, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika, salt, and pepper, and whisk vigorously, until all the ingredients are in a smooth creamy sauce. If it’s thickening up too much, add a few tablespoons of water from the reserved water. I often find that I do need to add water, but your mileage may vary.

Once the water has come up to a full rushing boil, dump in your pasta, and generously salt the water. I’ve been told that it should be salty, like the sea. I grew up in Florida, near the sea, and I know what that means. For those of us who have never been in the ocean, think of it to be as salty as your tears of disappointment at never having been to the sea. This is so that the pasta gets good and salty early on.

Once you have the pasta in the pot, slam on the pot’s lid, so that the water comes up to the boil faster. The sooner your water comes to the boil, the easier it is to prevent it from sticking to itself. As soon as you hear the water in the pasta put bubbling away, and making a boiling noise (it sounds like when you blow bubbles in your juice in the morning to annoy your sister), remove the lid to prevent the pasta from overboiling and making a mess on your stove. Set the timer for 7 minutes. Yes, this means that the pasta will be under-done, but that’s the point. Stick with me.

Now that your pasta is merrily bubbling away in its hot bath, the sauce has had a chance to simmer over low heat for a few minutes. See what we did there? Rather than fussing at the sauce, we let it just relax, and the flavours combine properly. This is important. At this point, you may taste the sauce (but just a little—you want to save some for your pasta, right?) for seasoning. If you feel like it could use a bit more salt, go ahead and add it. If you feel like it has too much salt, panic. No, don’t panic. Just add a bit of sugar until the salt seems to be neutralised. Whisk, whisk, whisk. Right then. Once it’s seasoned to your liking, turn off the heat under the sauce, put on the lid, and let it chill out while your pasta finishes cooking.

Generally, by the time I’ve finished fiddling around with the sauce’s flavours, the pasta would have finished cooking. Drain the pasta once the timer beeps, and put it into casserole dishes. Why? Because this way, the pasta pot is only dirty with water, which is easily cleaned, versus being dirty with sauce too. This way, you can also gauge how many casserole dishes you need without making a big huge mess. My pasta pot’s opening is much narrower than the top of the casserole dish. I make less of a mess when I transfer from colander to casserole dish.

Make sure that the casserole dish is only filled up ¾ of the way. Now pour the sauce over the pasta in the pot. If you do end up having to split the pasta up into two or three dishes, it will have been fairly easy to do if you did it when the pasta is unsauced. Now, toss the pasta in the casserole dish until it’s combined with the sauce. If you have extra sauce, this is very good. Dump that over the pasta in the dish too. It won’t hurt anything.

Finally, sprinkle the tops liberally with breadcrumbs that you have tossed with oil. This is not an optional step. The crispy breadcrumb crust makes it all the more worthwhile. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, run down to the bodega and grab a few packets of soda crackers, and crush them with a rolling pin (while they’re still in the package). That’ll do the same thing.

Bake the casserole dishes (covered for the 1st 15 minutes, then uncovered) at 350°F (180°C) for 20 minutes. If the breadcrumbs on top aren’t browned to your liking, slide the casserole under the broiler for 30 or so seconds. Serve in generous slices, with a side salad of something healthy, so that everyone can pretend that they’re not eating pure indulgence on a plate. Enjoy!

05 July 2010

More pongal love

My husband is heading home after a long trip to Chicago, and I had to think of something to make for him when he gets home. He's been mostly cooking for himself, and that's all well and good, but sometimes you need that food that only someone else knows how to make just so. I know I harp about it endlessly, but for me, the ultimate comfort food is beans and rice in some form or another. My favourite method for beans and rice, is of course, venn pongal in all its varieties.

Yesterday being the birthday of the USA meant that the thermometer was rising steadily higher, as the noise level outside grew steadily noisier. I live in Inwood, which is a part of Manhattan that's quite removed from the rest of the city. People tend to get away with more, because it's not as densely populated as say, Greenwich Village or Midtown. The buildings don't really go up that high (maybe 10 stories tops), because for the most part, prewar buildings don't have a lift. So although there is a fairly strict fireworks ban in New York, with Bloomberg getting onto the news and sternly warning people that they're engaged in Dangerous And Illegal Activities So Cease Now OR ELSE, people in a less crowded neighbourhood take those warnings as mere suggestions.

I needed to make something that wouldn't test my patience or my nerves. The dish that I turn to in a crisis is Venn Pongal. Traditionally, it's made with split mung beans, white rice, and a few spices, ginger, salt, and black pepper. Copious amounts of black pepper, if you're me or my mother. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any mung beans in the apartment, nor could I find the yellow split peas which one uses to substitute. Instead, I looked to my fridge. There, nestled between a bottle of orange juice and a couple of knobby looking yucca, was a box of lentil daal that I'd made the night before for my dinner.


I also had a full pot of brown rice waiting in the rice cooker. Hmmmmm. I had flavoured the dal simply, because when I cook for myself, I keep things very basic. I used mustard seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, asafoetida, ginger, turmeric, salt, black pepper, a bit of red chile powder, salt, and curry leaves. In other words, the same spices that I'd use to make a venn pongal. In went the daal into the rice cooker, along with water to thin it out. I tend to make daal a bit on the thick side, and I wanted the rice to get thoroughly cooked. And since this is brown rice, it can take a long cooking and not fall apart on you. I hit start, and wandered into the washroom to douse myself in water so I could sit in front of the fan, soaking wet. On hot days, I prefer to cool off this way rather than using the a/c, because I saw the electric bill last month, and was Very Displeased.

Ten minutes later, the apartment filled with the aroma of the ginger and other spices cooking in the pot. While I was waiting, I ground up the soaking rice and urad daal and fenugreek seeds that I'd soaked to make dosa. Yes, I used brown rice for the dosa as well. If you're going to be healthy, might as well go all out, right? By the time I finished grinding my dosa batter (which needs to ferment overnight in any case), the pongal was cooked to perfection.

Oh but it was tasty! I think from now on, I'll use this method to make pongal, because then I can get more than one meal out of it. First night is daal and rice, where the two are cooked separately. I can serve it with a side of cucumber tomato and lime juice salad (garnished with plenty of cilantro or parsley, of course, and a few chopped green chiles for good measure). If I make a double batch of daal and rice, it'll leave me plenty for the next day. Then, when we have both eaten our fill, I can dump the leftover daal into the rice cooker along with the leftover rice, throw in some extra water and grated ginger, and hit start to cook it. When it's done cooking, I can then put it away into the fridge, and defrost some grated coconut in the fridge overnight before I go to bed, satisfied and full.

The next day, I can pull out the pongal and heat it up. While it heats, I can bang up a quick coconut chatni (coconut, green chiles, a small onion, unsalted peanuts, a bit of salt, and some water to get it moving, along with some curry leaves for pretty colour), and whiz it up in the blender. Then we'll eat the venn pongal with the side of coconut chatni, and a side of sour mango pickles. If I have any leftover venn pongal, I'll just shape them into patties, and put them in the fridge, tightly covered with plastic wrap. The next day, I just have to bake them on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes, and I'll have lovely little rice croquettes, that I can serve with a simple salad of shredded carrot, grated cabbage, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. I'll have three lovely meals for the price of one! And it's only the first meal that would take any effort. The other two are super easy, because the bulk of the cooking is done.

Or, I'll be lazy, and just eat daal and rice until I hit another day where I feel like doing something creative again. Wonder what's the next time we go on vacation ...