Saturday, March 13, 2010

food updates

It seems every time I think about doing an update I get stymied by an inability to find my camera to photograph the food prior to consumption, or I write an update in my head and then never transfer it to the screen. I have been cooking up a storm and have some great new cookbooks, and gone on various food obsessions over the past few months, but here are some highlights.

1) Grits. I grew up with grits, which, for non-Southerners, are basically like polenta. In the South they tend to be eaten with cheese. While visiting my parents in SC, at a restaurant I had the most incredible grits ever. I began a quest to figure out why they were so incredible, so toothsome and savory and complex, when most of the grits I've ever had have been basically a gelatinous patty on a plate next to some eggs and bacon. I decided that their deliciousness was due to the fact that they might have come from a place like Anson Mills, which went out of their way to find obscure, antebellum varieties of corn grown by bootleggers, and then grew the stuff organically, then stone-grinding them to perfection. I ordered a whole mess o'grits and experimented with them for a few weeks. Followed the directions on their website for cooking coarsely-ground grits in a slow cooker, which came out weird. Talked to my friend George, owner of Egg, a restaurant in Brooklyn famous for its Southern fare. He recommended cooking separately and then mixing coarse ground and quick grits from Anson Mills (quick=30 minutes), which seemed to do the trick. Voila, the dreamy grits from the restaurant. I ordered a second (pricey) batch from Anson Mills and am now enjoying the best grits ever, though I mostly am just making the quick cooking variety.

I think one reason these Anson Mills grits are so awesome has to do with the generic, genetically modified Frankencorn that apparently now constitutes 90% of our corn supply (and food supply, since the grocery stores are full of packaged products made out of said corn, everything from diapers to Coke to chips).

2) Vegetarian Cooking. Relates to post #1 and the notes about Frankencorn. I just saw Food, Inc, and it freaked me out. I was already not buying hamburgers anymore due to the E. Coli risk after reading this scary article in the NY Times. We only eat beef once a week or so anyway. I would love to have more vegetarian days but not all members of the household would like this. Fish is good, but how do you know whether your fish is OK or not? If it's farmed, it's probably eating corn too. If it's wild, it might be full of PCB and all other sorts of cancer and infertility-inducing endocrine disrupters. But if you're happily moving to a vegetarian diet, you're in trouble with E. Coli there, too - recall the issues of the past few years with Spinach. But this is a disturbing movie. Can't get the images of all those chickens out of my head.

Prior to all this, I already had a decent little library of vegetarian cookbooks. I really like Nava Atlas' "The Vegetarian Family Cookbook." Almost every recipe in there has been good, and I've tried 15-20 of them. A new addition is Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. I had found one of her recipes online for Turkish red lentil soup, and it was pretty good. The cookbook came this week and last night I made Spanish swiss chard and potato soup and French Provencale chickpea pizza. Baby Sofia (now 21 months old), who will still eat pretty much anything, ate the soup and was then sick all night. I don't know whether this is due to the soup or a virus, but probably because of the negative associations and four hours of sleep upon which I'm writing this, I won't be making it again.

I think I did a little vegetarian-vegan overkill because I also made Nava Atlas' blueberry muffins, sans eggs, and a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (also without eggs) from the white, whole wheat organic pastry flour I had just bought. The blueberry muffins were just OK (I like her zucchini muffins MUCH better) and the choco chip cookies kind of pathetic. I had made all of these within a 24 hour time span. Bombarding my family all at once with these multiple experiments was a mistake. Chickpea pizza, however, was yum. Baked in a cast-iron skillet after "setting" on the stove, topped with diced tomatoes, onions, and parmesan cheese. Chickpea flour is an exciting new development in my life. It was like a protein-filled flatbread.

3) Favorite food blog: Smitten Kitchen. I've now made multiple recipes from this site. They are always amazing. Her recipe for chewy granola bars is nothing short of incredible.

4) A most awesome cookbook recommendation - Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon by Claudia Roden. My friend Delia gave it to me a while back. I made one or two side dishes/desserts from it, then, as sometimes happens with cookbooks, I stopped. Dug it out recently and started making Moroccan recipes in earnest. Found that they really and truly live up to the food my Moroccan in-laws make - i.e. they're not some weird adaptation like Pork Loin with Moroccan Spices or couscous with mint, which most Moroccans would find anathema. (Mint is for tea. Period.) So far I've made Roast Cod with Potatoes and Tomatoes, Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives, and Lamb (I used beef) Tagine with Potatoes and Peas. Yum, yum, yum, best Moroccan cookbook I've found so far. Here's the chicken with preserved lemon and olives:

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives (Adapted from Claudia Roden)

3 Tblsp. olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped in food processor
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. crushed saffron threads or saffron powder
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
6-8 pieces of chicken, mix of legs, breasts, whatever
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tblsp. chopped cilantro
2 Tblsp. chopped parsley
peel of 1 large preserved lemon (can get these from a middle eastern grocery store, or make your own, just google it, but this dish would still be good without them)
16-20 kalamata olives

In a large casserole heat oil on low heat and add onions, stirring until they begin to soften, then add garlic, saffron, and ginger. Cook 1 min. Add chicken pieces, season with salt and pepper, and pour in 1.5 cups of water. Simmer, covered, turning from time to time and adding water if they become dry. Remove breasts after 15 minutes, reserve. Keep cooking remaining pieces until done, about 25 min. Return breasts to pan. Once chicken is done, add lemon juice, cilantro & parsley, lemon peel cut into strips, and olives. Simmer 5-10 minutes until sauce is quite thick. If chicken is falling off the bone, take it out and cook down until the sauce is thick.