Thursday, February 13, 2014

Quinoa Cakes with Red Cabbage and Cherries

Rare is a food blog these days that hasn't written about quinoa cakes.  But these are a little different.  Not only are they the tastiest quinoa cakes that I've tried so far, but they don't use eggs, which has a number of benefits: my egg-allergic 3 year old and my vegan students can eat them.  I got this idea from Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York times.  Does anyone else love Bittman as much as I do?  How many times has food media made you feel that your food will never be this pretty, or this tasty, or this rustic, or this modern, or this complex?  But in comes Mark Bittman, and our confidence is restored.  He takes a failure, overcooked and mushy quinoa in this case, and turns it to his advantage.  When quinoa gets mushy, it holds together without eggs, but has the capacity to turn delightfully crispy on the outside when seared in a pan.  In his signature minimalist manner, Bittman keeps these cakes simple.  The only additions are cilantro, scallions, and hot sauce.  Not only does this recipe produce lovely cakes, but it also leaves you plenty of room for creativity.  I have successfully mixed different veggie leftovers into them with great results.  Here is an example made with red cabbage that I wrote about recently.

Quinoa Cakes with Red Cabbage, Sour Cherries, and Nuts

The recipe below is adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times.  After making these cakes a few times, I added a few tips that make them sturdier and easier to work with.  This makes the process a bit longer, but not harder.  All the additional time is passive, so I suggest you make these the day before serving.

Serves 4

1 cup quinoa
1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp table salt)
1 cup red braised cabbage (or cooked veggies of your choice*)
Oil for frying (grapeseed and safflower smoke the least, but you can use canola or olive oil too)
Sour-cream (or thick yogurt) 
Pomegranate seeds (optional)

The day before serving (or at least 3 hours ahead)
Put the quinoa, salt, and 2 1/4 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook on low heat, until no water remains and the grains are very mushy, about 30 minutes.  Stir thoroughly to release the starch.  This will make the grains come together in a cohesive mass and will make the cakes a lot sturdier. Cover with a damp towel and wait until quinoa is cool enough to handle.  If quinoa got too cold and hard, warm it up with a splash of water, stirring occasionally to return it to a sticky and soft state.

Fold the braised red cabbage into quinoa.  Taste and correct salt and pepper. With your hands, form the mixture into patties that are around 2.5 inches in diameter and 3/4 inch thick.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

To serve
Put 2 Tbsp oil into a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cakes and cook until the bottom is nicely browned and crispy, about 4 minutes. Flip, and brown on the other side, another 4 minutes. Serve immediately with sour-cream (or thick yogurt) and pomegranate seeds.

* If using a vegetable that oozes out water, like spinach, swiss chard, etc, squeeze it out after cooking it before you fold it into quinoa.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Octopus inspired by the trip to Spain (Video)

YouTube Link: Octopus (poached and broiled)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

When Igor and Diana (my very well traveled students) asked me if I knew how to reproduce an octopus salad they had in Italy, I took this cooking challenge a tad too seriously. First order of business was to taste the octopus worth reproducing. The problem was that I've never been crazy about octopus. It always seemed a tad rubbery and sometimes stringy, but that was in the US. I was sure that somewhere in this world there was great octopus worth eating and after doing a bit of research, I decided that Spain was the place to go. Italy, Portugal, and Greece would work too, but I had other culinary interests in Spain, so that's where I went. Oh, octopus! Where have you been all my life. If I ever step again on the Spanish soil, the first thing I'll eat will be my eight-legged friend.

As soon as I got back to the States, I got to work and am now cooking octopus successfully.  The bad thing is that I got my 3 year old addicted to it and it turns out to be more expensive than getting your kid addicted to raw tuna.

Buying Octopus
Octopus turned out to be quite simple to cook well, but very difficult to buy well. Let's start with the fact that all octopus sold in Boston is previously frozen. In theory that should tenderize it, but I've had some excellent frozen octopus and some terrible one too. The terrible one (bought at a really good fish market, by the way) refused to get tender no matter how long I'd cook it. I have a feeling that freezing alone is not enough. Most Mediterranean cooks know that in order to be tender, octopus has to be beaten into submission. I have a feeling that some of the octopus that I've tried was not beaten enough. That's just my hypothesis. By the time the octopus was in my hands, it was too late to ask it, and the fishmongers would often shrug their shoulders when asked about the provenance of their octopus.

The one place that consistently sells me excellent octopus is the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge.  Their octopus cooks to perfect tenderness every time.  They are also very helpful with cleaning.  The head is usually already empty on a frozen octopus, but you still need to remove the beak that's located between all the legs underneath the head.  If you haven't cooked much octopus before, ask your fishmonger to do this for you.  If your fishmonger doesn't know how to clean an octopus, it's not a good sign.

Mar 7, 2014 update:  Just got an excellent octopus from A&J Seabra in Framingham.  It was from Portugal and sold frozen.  They can't take the beak out for you since it's frozen, but it's easy if you cut between 2 legs to help you get access to it.  Defrost in the fridge for a day or two depending on the size.  At $7/Lb, it's the cheapest octopus I've seen in Boston.

The Shrinkage Factor
When I bought my first octopus, I thought it was one of the cheapest seafood ingredients at $9/Lb.  But after cooking it, I realized it's one of the most expensive.  I can't think of any animal that shrinks more than an octopus during cooking.  A 5 Lb octopus yielded 1.25 Lb of usable meat after cooking and scraping off the gelatinous skin, so plan on at least 1 Lb of raw octopus per person.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Braised Red Cabbage, Sour Cherries, Nuts

With the Sochi Olympics upon us, I wonder if Russian dishes will be popping up all over the blogosphere?  The media seems to have mentioned borscht hundreds of times in the last week, so I thought I'll write about something completely different.

When I came to the US in 1991, many of the vegetables we thought of as main stream in Moscow seemed exotic to our American friends.  Beets, for example.  In 1991, few Americans realized beets were edible.  Fast forward to 2014 and few restaurant in the US don't have a beet salad with walnuts and goat cheese on their menu.  Sadly cabbage didn't fair as well.  Few vegetables are more near and dear to a Russian cook than cabbage.  But getting Americans excited about cabbage is not easy.  Not that it's exotic.  It's just kind of blah.  The first dish that comes to mind is cole slaw.  But as soon as you mention cooked cabbage, most people think of the Irish boiled dinner.  No offence to Irish cooking, but I doubt that boiled dinner will make anyone fall in love with cabbage.

So if you are not a cabbage fan yet, I think I have just the dish for you.  No Russian will accept this as an authentic dish, yet underneath all the flavorings it's just a braised cabbage -- a classic Russian technique that shows of cabbage like no other.  It's kind of like caramelized onions, only with cabbage.  I replace white cabbage with red here and add some sweet and sour components: port, pomegranate molasses, and sour cherries.  This makes a lovely accompaniment to duck, pork, beans, pasta, or a grain.

Cut a medium red cabbage head in half.   See that white core.  It's tough.  We'll be using all of the head except for the core.
Position the cabbage half with the core to your left. Make a few slits without going through the core end and cut into 1/4 inch thick slice perpendicular to those slits.  If you are left handed, flip the whole process.
When you get to the core, stand the cabbage up on the other flat side and keep shredding around the core.  Discard the core. Repeat with the other half.
Set a 12 inch stainless steel pan with straight sides over high heat (an enamel coated dutch oven works too).  Add 1/4 cup olive oil and heat it up on high heat.  Add the cabbage and a generous sprinkle of salt.  Stir to distribute the salt.
Cook without stirring until the bottom browns.  Stir and cook again until the bottom browns.  Repeat this process 3-4 times until you get lots of brown spots.  Watch out, cabbage can easily burn, but don't chicken out and stir it too soon or you won't develop much flavor.
Add 1/2 cup port (or red wine) and 1/2 cup dry tart cherries (or raisins, prunes, dry apricots, etc). Cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes or until cabbage is tender.
Set a separate 8-10 inch skillet (ideally stainless steel) with 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium-heat.  Add 1 large yellow onion, diced, and a generous pinch of salt.
 Cook stirring occasionally until golden brown.
 Add the onions and 1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses (available at Whole Foods and Middle Eastern stores) to the cabbage.  You can replace pomegranate molasses with 2 tsp red wine vinegar and 2 tsp maple syrup.  I like to add 1/3 cup toasted and chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, or whatever you have on hand).  But nuts are optional.
Stir everything together and taste for salt.  Chances are you'll need some to balance the acidity.  Can be served right away or reheated later.