Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pocono Buckwheat from Whole Foods

Thanks to Dania (from The Vegetarian Cookery) and Louise I now found a buckwheat at Whole Foods that doesn't cook into a dusty mush.  Pocono Kasha was indeed excellent -- evenly roasted with pleasant nutty aroma and good texture.  I just found that it requires a little less water than the Russian buckwheat to produce the same level of tenderness.  For 1 cup of Russian buckwheat I use 1 2/3 cups water and for 1 cup of Pocono buckwheat I only needed 1 1/2 cups water.

If it wasn't for you, my dear readers, I'd still be stuck testing buckwheat brands.  But now I can move on to farro.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Braised Parsnip Purée

Spring is not my favorite season, at least not when it comes to cooking.  Maybe if I lived in California, I'd be more excited about spring.  But here in New England, local spring vegetables in March is a beautiful romantic dream that exists only in the imagination.

In spite of my spring apathy, there is one local spring vegetable that I look forward to all year.  It's a parsnip.  It's not green, like you'd imagine things in the spring to be.  If you've never seen a parsnip, it looks like a carrot, only white.  These parsnips are called "spring dug" or "wintered over."  They stay in the ground all winter turning incredibly sweet and are harvested in the spring.

The only ingredients in this dish are parsnips, olive oil, and salt.  But the taste is so complex, you'd hardly believe the humble ingredient list.  There are notes of orange, vanilla, maple syrup, and freshly churned butter. How do you get all that from just parsnips, oil, and salt?  Some of it is the spectacular spring dug parsnips and some of it is the technique.  I use high heat at first to develop color and then low heat to cook the parsnips through.  I've seen this kind of vegetable technique referred to as "braising", but what's peculiar about it is that you don't add any liquid and keep the pot covered the entire time.  In a true braise, the food is usually cooked on high heat in an open pan to help steam escape and promote browning, and liquid is added during the low and slow part.  The reason I keep the pot covered the entire time and don't add any liquid is to concentrate the flavor.  This way, the parsnip juices stay in the pot, eliminating the need for the addition of any foreign liquid.

This is a fabulous technique to use with parsnips, celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnips if you are planning to purée them (or coarsely mash).  Normally, I use butter instead of oil, and add heavy cream during the low heat part of the cooking.  But I was making these parsnips for my 6 month old son and we haven't introduced cream and butter yet.  The fact that I ate half of them while trying to get them into baby food jars speaks for itself.

The topping in the picture is a lingonberry jam thinned with a little Creme de Cassis (black currant liquor).  If you are serving these parsnips with duck, pork, chicken, or game, that sweet berry accompaniment is very harmonious.  A rhubarb jam would be lovely too.

Braised Parsnip Purée

Note: You can substitute parsnips with celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, or turnips.  If using celery root increase the quantity slightly, since you'll discard a lot of it while peeling (it's a very bumpy vegetable).  The vanilla bean is optional, but do not substitute it with vanilla extract.  I tried, it doesn't work.

2 Lb parsnips, peeled, and cut into 2/3 inch cubes
3 Tbsp olive oil or butter
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/2 vanilla bean split lengthwise (optional)
Salt to taste

  1. Set a large heavy pot over high heat.  Add the oil or butter.  When oil is hot, add the parsnips and cover the pot.  Cook covered, stirring occasionally until good number of cubes are browned.  It will take 5-8 minutes.  Try to stir after the first 2 minutes.  If no color developed yet, try stirring less frequently.  If the cubes on the bottom got too dark, stir more frequently.  The browning won't be even.  Some cubes will have 2 brown sides and some none at all.  
  2. Add the cream and vanilla bean (if using).  Sprinkle with salt and mix well.  Cover, turn the heat down to very low and cook until the vegetables are completely tender and can be easily cut with a wooden spoon, 20-35 minutes.  Err on the side of overcooking.  
  3. Remove vanilla bean, scrape out the seed and add back to the pot.  Discard the bean.  
  4. Purée parsnips in a food processor until completely smooth.  For a coarser texture, mash with a potato masher or a wooden spoon.  
This dish can be made in advance and rewarmed in a covered pot over medium low heat stirring frequently (microwave works well too for small quantities).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Confessions of a buckwheat snob

March 29, 2011 update: thanks to the helpful comments from my wonderful readers, I found a good buckwheat option at Whole Foods: Pocono Kasha, so there is no need to go searching for a Russian grocery store as I wrote in this post.

Cooking advice focused on the origin of ingredients makes me skeptical.  Do you have to use tomatoes from Italy for your pizza sauce or French butter for your tart dough?  Absolutely not!  Of course, I am not Italian or French, so it's easy for me to adopt such a casual attitude toward their ingredients (though I do think that American prosciutto sucks).  But would I be able to be as open minded when it comes to buckwheat -- a quintessentially Russian grain that I started eating before I got all my teeth?

I had a bad experience with American buckwheat a few years ago and since then I stuck to the buckwheat from the Russian stores.  But preparing for the Beans and Grains class made me think twice about buying Russian buckwheat.  Did I really want to tell my students that they have to go to a specialty store to buy something as basic as a grain?  Surely there was a way to make buckwheat from the bulk isle of Whole Foods taste good.  

I decided to try the obvious first -- cook it just like I would Russian buckwheat.  The result was a mush covered in something that resembled wet dust.  No wonder most Americans have such a lowly opinion of this grain.  

I noticed that the groats were not as even in color in the Whole Foods buckwheat as they were in the one I was used to cooking.  Some were brown, some beige, and some slightly green.  

Whole Food Buckwheat

Russian Buckwheat

I was guessing that the Whole Foods groats weren't roasted evenly (even the darkest ones were not roasted enough).  I put the buckwheat in a single layer on a cookie sheet and roasted it in 375F oven for 15 minutes.  It turned darker and the green color was gone.  

Now I decided to tackle the wet dust problem.  I noticed that Whole Foods buckwheat groats were covered in a fine brown powder.  I was guessing it was the result of some of the groats getting crushed and was hoping that washing and draining the groats would help.  

Unfortunately, all my efforts didn't amount to much.  Roasting produced a slightly more flavorful buckwheat, but it did not improve the texture.  While some groats were toothsome, many turned to mush.  Washing barely made a dent on the wet dust problem.  I tried reducing the amount of water.  I tried both stove top and oven preparations.  No matter what I did, I couldn't get the groats to cook evenly and keep their shape.  
Cooked Whole Foods Buckwheat
Cooked Russian Buckwheat
Finally, I gave up.  If you want to cook buckwheat, buy it from a Russian store.  In the Boston area, many Armenian stores carry Russian buckwheat as well.  I always try to find groats that are as dark as possible.  But not black!  If they are black, it means they are still in their shell and that doesn't taste good.  I've never seen Russian buckwheat sold this way, but I have seen it in an American specialty store recently, so now I know to warn you that you want your groats to be whole but without the shell.  

Sept 17, 2013 update -- since the original post was published I found an alternative way to cook buckwheat.  Surprisingly, it's almost identical to the way I cook sushi rice.

Basic Buckwheat Recipe  (from Sept 17, 2013)

1 cup whole buckwheat groats
1 3/4 cups water (2 cups for completely tender results)
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (3/4 tsp table salt)
1-2 Tbsp butter

  1. Pour buckwheat in a single layer on a white plate (as much as will fit), remove bad grains and anything that looks suspicious.  Repeat with remaining buckwheat.
  2. Rinse buckwheat in a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl.  Add enough water to fill the bowl.  Swoosh the buckwheat around in the sieve.  Lift buckwheat with the sieve and put in a 2 quart pot.  Add water and salt.  Cover, set over high heat, and bring to a boil watching the pot carefully.  Don’t uncover.  As soon as you see small amount of steam escape from the cover, turn down the heat to very low (for electric stove, have another burner preheated to low and move a pot to that burner).  
  3. Cook 25 minutes.  
  4. Take off heat.  Keep covered.  Wrap the pot in a towel and let it sit 30 minutes.
  5. Stir in butter and serve.  Buckwheat goes extremely well with cooked onions, mushrooms, and duck.

Basic Buckwheat Recipe (originally written in this post)

1.5 Tbsp butter (plus additional for serving)
1 cup whole buckwheat groats (if possible produced in Russia)
1 2/3 cups boiling water (subtract 2 Tbsp from that if you want a more toothsome buckwheat)
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (3/4 tsp table salt)

Note: buckwheat tastes best cooked in the oven, but if your pot can't go in the oven, you can cook it on the stove top.
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Set an oven-proof sauce pan over medium heat.  Add 1.5 Tbsp butter and wait for it to melt.  Cook the butter until it just starts to turn brown, swirling the pan frequently.  It will take a couple of minutes.
  3. Add the buckwheat and cook stirring until it's completely coated in butter and  gives of a nutty aroma, 2-3 minutes.  
  4. Take off heat and add water and salt.  Be carefully as the water will spatter. 
  5. Cover the pot.  Put in the oven for 18 minutes (or cook on the stove top at low heat).  Buckwheat is done when all the water is absorbed.  
  6. Leave covered to rest for 15 minutes.  Serve with additional butter.  Buckwheat goes extremely well with cooked onions, mushrooms, and duck.
Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days and reheated.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to cook quinoa

The "how to ruin your meal" instructions written on every package of beef are understandable.  Say you give a medium-rare burger to your immunocompromised 90 year old grandfather and he dies.  If you ask me, a medium-rare burger with aged cheddar and caramelized onions is as good as it gets for the last meal, but the meat industry doesn't want to be sued over it.  So they instruct you to cook ground beef to 160F.  But I've never heard of anyone being harmed by undercooked quinoa (or any other grain for that matter), so I am puzzled as to why every package of quinoa that I've ever come across gives you "how to end up with complete mush" instructions.

I am currently testing recipes for my Beans and Grains class.  In the last week, I've cooked more quinoa than I had cooked in my entire life.  The problem was that I was starting with a perfect recipe.  I heard about it from one of my students (Liza, in case you are reading this -- a huge thank you!).  She told me about a method of steaming quinoa that makes it fluffy.  After a little googling, I found it on epicurious and gave it a try.  The results were indeed lovely.  The grains held their shape, separated nicely, were perfectly tender, but not at all mushy.  The texture reminded me of good couscous -- not the instant stuff, but the real couscous you get in good Moroccan restaurants.  I believe it's also steamed.  

There was one little problem.  This recipe required very particular equipment and a good bit of hassle.  First you boil quinoa in a lot of water (like pasta).  Then you drain it into a fine sieve and rinse.  Then you bring 1 inch of water back to a boil in the pot, set the sieve with quinoa over it, cover with a towel and a lid and steam.  Luckily my 4 quart pot did fit my fine mesh sieve nicely and was deep enough to hold 1 inch of water without having the sieve touch it.  If your pots are shorter and wider, this might not work.  Another problem was that my fine mesh sieve can only hold 1 cup of uncooked quinoa (it swells up to 3 cups when cooked).  This means that I can't easily double or triple this recipe.

My goal was to produce quinoa that was just as good (or close) without this much hassle.  After trying every grain method I could think of (pasta, absorption, and risotto), the absorption method produced the best results (that's just like cooking rice).  The quinoa wasn't quite as fluffy, but still had a very pleasant texture.  First trick was to reduce the amount of water.  The most common ration recommended for quinoa is 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water.  I found that 1:1 is a much better ratio.  The second trick was to let quinoa rest after cooking covered with a towel (paper towel is fine) to absorb excess moisture.  This makes it fluffier.  I prefer to cook my rice and quinoa in the 375F oven as a replacement for the rice cooker that I don't own.  The indirect heat cooks the grains evenly and  prevents the bottom from burning.  The stove top also works if you can maintain very low heat.

Here are some other interesting things I've learned while cooking 7 batches of quinoa.

Difference between red quinoa and white quinoa 
The red quinoa is chewier and cooks 7-10 minutes longer than white.  I prefer white for hot dishes and red for salads, but they are interchangeable.  

To rinse or not to rinse
There seems to be no consensus on whether or not to rinse quinoa.  Some sources indicate that quinoa is naturally coated with a bitter-tasting substance called saponin and it needs to be rinsed off.  Others say that it depends on which brand of quinoa you buy.  Some of it is already pre-rinsed and can be cooked as is.

I am in the rinse camp and not just because of saponin.  In fact, I think saponin is the least of your problems.  I've never encountered a really bitter batch of quinoa, but I have definitely encountered a really gritty batch.  In fact, I think you should rinse all your beans and grains because you never know how dusty or even gritty they are.  The problem is that beans and grains sink, so getting the grit out of them is tricky business.  Here is a method that works well.

How to rinse quinoa and other grains
Place quinoa in a fine mesh sieve and place the sieve in a bowl of water.  Quinoa should be completely submerged in water.  Stir it around with your hand and wait 30 seconds for it to settle. Lift the sieve and pour out the water.  Repeat until the water you pour out is completely clean.  Drain well, shaking the sieve to remove access moisture.  Set the sieve over an empty bowl and let sit for a couple of minutes to make sure all the water is drained.

If your quinoa is pre-rinsed, rinsing doesn't cause any harm.  If you work with the same brand of quinoa many times and find that it's particularly clean, you can try cooking it without rinsing as an experiment (that bitter taste everyone talks about might not be there after all).  Keep in mind that if you don't rinse you'll need to increase the amount of water.  After rinsing and draining (thoroughly), quinoa absorbs about 50g (slightly less than 1/4 cup) water.  

What to pair with quinoa
Quinoa is all about texture.  It doesn't have much flavor of it's own, which makes it a blank canvas for anything you want to put on it.  The key to success is a generous amount of salt, acidity, and fat.  My favorite combinations are lemon juice and butter for hot quinoa; soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and olive oil for either hot or cold quinoa.  

Basic quinoa recipe

Makes 3 cups 

1 cup white or red quinoa, rinsed and drained according to the above instructions
1 cup water 
1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp table salt)  

Oven method (most even cooking without sticking on the bottom)

  1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375F.
  2. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil.
  3. Place rinsed and drained quinoa in a baking dish (8x8x2 for 1-2 cups of quinoa, 13x9x2 for 3-4 cups).  Have 2 sheets of foil ready.  
  4. Sprinkle quinoa with salt, cover with boiling water, and immediately cover tightly with 2 layers of foil.  
  5. Place in the oven for 20 minutes for white quinoa, 30 minutes for red, or until all the water is absorbed. Remove foil.  
  6. Place a dish or paper towel over the quinoa and replace 1 layer of foil.  Let rest 10 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and serve with desired accompaniments.  
Stove top method
  1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  
  2. Add quinoa and salt.  Cover tightly with foil and a tight fitting lid.  
  3. Cook over very low heat for 20 minutes for white quinoa, 30 minutes for red, or until all the water is absorbed. Remove lid.
  4. Place a dish or paper towel over the quinoa and replace the lid.  Let rest 10 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and serve with desired accompaniments.  
Cooling note
Quinoa can be made in advance, chilled, and served cold in a salad or reheated.  To cool quinoa without drying, cover it with a layer of damp paper towels and cool to room temperature.  Then move to an airtight container and refrigerate.  

Quinoa Pilaf with Lemon and Pistachio Butter
This dish works best with white quinoa

1 Tbsp olive oil or butter
1/4 cup finely minced shallot, white part of scallion, or yellow onion
1/3 cup golden raisins or chopped dried apricots
3 cups cooked quinoa (from 1 cup dry)
1/3 cup finely ground pistachios (use a food processor for this)
3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
2 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Set a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add 1 Tbsp olive oil or butter, minced shallot, and a pinch of salt.  Cook until translucent, tender, and golden, 5-10 minutes.
  2. Cover raisins or apricots with boiling water to plump them up.  Let sit for 5 minutes and drain.
  3. Add cooked quinoa and 1 Tbsp water to the skillet with shallot.  Cover, and cook stirring occasionally until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Uncover as soon as quinoa is hot so that it doesn't turn mushy.
  4. Add the raisins, pistachios, lemon juice, honey, and the remaining 2 Tbsp butter.  Stir well, taste, and season with salt and pepper as desired.
Balsamic Soy Quinoa
2 Tbsp Tamari (Japanese style soy sauce)
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp honey or maple syrup
3 cups cooked quinoa (from 1 cup dry)
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
2 Tbsp olive oil for cold quinoa or 2 Tbsp butter for hot quinoa

Cold Version
Mix all ingredients together and taste.  Add more soy sauce, vinegar, honey, and oil as desired.

Hot Version
Set a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and honey.  Bring to a simmer.  Add cooked quinoa and scallions.  Cover, and cook stirring occasionally until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Uncover as soon as quinoa is hot so that it doesn't turn mushy.  Stir in the butter and serve.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The egg -- as you like it

What are your thoughts on 142F eggs?  Sometimes they are listed on restaurant menus as 61.1C eggs making them look even more scientific thanks to that decimal point.  Sometimes they are referred to as sous-vide eggs and sometimes as just slow poached.  Whatever they are called, they have a very characteristic texture: liquid yolk and opaque, but quivering white that barely holds its shape (no that's not it in the picture, in case you are wondering).  Most people I've met either love them or hate them.  The yolk is the easy part -- what's not to love in that rich golden liquid.  It's the white that is controversial.  One possible reaction is "Wow, this white is so tender, I feel like I am eating a cloud."  The other reaction is "I feel like I am eating barely congealed snot."

Since I was in the "barely congealed snot" camp for a few years, it never occurred to me to cook eggs at a precise temperature water bath at home (I like my yolk at 142F and my white at 150F).  But lately, I've been coming around on them.  Maybe you just need to go through a dozen eggs to gradually change the metaphor from snot to a cloud.  I have recently tried making 142F eggs at home using Kenji's method.  I kept them at 142F for 45 minutes using a beer cooler (a.k.a. ghetto sous-vide set up).  Tapped the dull end with a spoon, carefully peeled to make an opening slightly more than an inch in diameter, and poured out the egg into a bowl.  It was liquid enough to pour out, but solid enough to hold its shape.

While I was trying to decide whether the white bothered me or not, an idea occurred to me -- why don't I poach it?  I brought some water to a simmer and dropped in this quivering snot/cloud egg.  There was no need for vinegar, vortex, or any other trick to keep the white together.  It stayed together in a perfect little oval, and 2 minutes later, I removed a perfect poached egg.

Here are some advantages over traditional poached eggs:

  • Consistent perfection of shape
  • Liquid yolk and solid, but tender white
  • No need for vinegar (I don't like the flavor vinegar gives poached eggs)
  • No need for ice bath or rinsing
  • The 142F water bath can be done days in advance, minimizing the hassle the day of serving
Another idea of finishing these eggs is to turn them into eggs en cocotte (baked eggs in ramekins).  

  • Learn how to create a precise temperature water bath.  
  • Monitor the water to make sure you keep it at 142F for the whole 45 minutes.
  • Carefully place the eggs in the water bath using tongs or a basket so that they don't break.
  • If you are doing the water bath in advance, drain and cool the eggs, refrigerate until ready to use, then poach for 4 minutes (you need this longer poaching time since the eggs are cold).
  • Keep the egg carton -- it's handy for holding the eggs while cracking.
  • When cracking the eggs, pour them out into a shallow bowl before dropping them into the simmering water.  It's fine to put multiple eggs in one bowl.  This way you can remove any loose pieces of white and get them all into the simmering water at the same time.