Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tofu Stir Fry

When I came up with this meatless Lent venture, I mentally vowed not to depend on soy protein.

I worry about the isoflavones that mimic estrogen in women and don’t want my five-year-old daughter developing at age six. Seriously. When my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004, the first thing her doctor asked her was, “Do you eat a lot of soy?” The answer was “No, not any, really.” [Mom made it through fine.] One of my daughter’s and husband’s favorite snacks is edamame, in or out of the pod. Toasted, salted soy nuts are another favorite for both, although I don’t buy them very often. She asks for edamame constantly, so I monitor soy intake – hers and mine.

At any rate, when I came across a huge bin of fresh snow peas at the farmer’s market this Sunday, at just 99-cents/pound, I knew exactly what I’d be making. I ended up purchasing about two pounds – which you may or may not realize is a huge bagful. A small mountain of snow peas makes up a single pound. But they are so crisp and refreshing and taste just like Spring to me. Eaten plain or dipped in homemade hummus, the household has already gone through half of the remaining snow peas.

The white pillows of tofu, which Mike loves, were fresh at the market as well. I changed the water at home that day, then on Monday morning before using it that night.

As for the stir-fry, you can’t go wrong with a ginger-garlic-soy sauce treatment cooked in a slick of sesame oil. I also blend those four ingredients along with rice wine vinegar for an in-pod edamame dip. I cooked some chicken for my daughter, which she blended into the stir-fry. She cleaned her plate, emptied her rice bowl, but was not crazy about the tofu. She picked it out and left it on the side. Whew.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday, Red Lentils

So it begins.

I served our first meatless meal of Lent and the family has survived.

I made a red lentil dal that I adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe in a recent edition of The New York Times. The actual recipe is below. I served it with white rice, a green vegetable, small salad and onion nan spread with garlic confit. My daughter kept all components separate, Mike put the dal over his rice, and I tried it both ways.

Considering all the snow we’ve had in the past ten days, the hearty bowl of steaming dal was a soothing and warming choice.

For now, it looks like fish on Friday.

Spiced Red Lentil Dal
The New York Times, January 6, 2010

2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup dried red lentils, washed and picked over
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons cold butter (optional)
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish.

1. Put oil in a skillet over medium high heat; when it is hot, add onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes; set aside.
2. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients except the salt, butter and cilantro in a saucepan. Add water to cover by about 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper and keep cooking to desired tenderness. Lentils should be saucy but not soupy.
3. Remove cloves from pan and add reserved sautéed onion. Stir in butter if you are using it. Taste and adjust seasoning, then garnish with cilantro and serve.

** Note: If you know how to develop flavors, you won’t follow this recipe to a T. Sauté your ginger and garlic in desired quantities, add lentils and coat, then liquid to deglaze. I respect Mark Bittman to some extent, but never fully follow his recipes. Vegetable oil is fine. And nix the cilantro, unless you're into it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine’s Dinner for Two

We will drink no wine before its time.

Well, it was time for the Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien, 1995, this Valentine’s Day. I prepared a special dinner for two at home planned both around the wine and some quiet time together.

I’ve written in the past about our Bordeauxs aging in the basement, so I checked CellarTracker once again and honed in on the Leoville Barton for this meal.

With schools closed Monday for President’s Day, my daughter wanted a Sunday sleepover at my mother’s – who was glad to oblige. Mike and I also are off from work on Monday, so I proposed a Valentine’s Day dinner in. It is always good to reconnect as adults, so while Mike was at work Sunday, I dropped my girl off in the afternoon and hit the ground running. The first thing I did was uncork the wine and aerate it so it could open up for the night.

Now, Mike and I have been together for so long that at this point, you’d think I’d greet him with his slippers, a plaid robe, pipe and a double Dewars. Instead, I opt for the cheese of Bourgogne and a bubbling bowl of snails. But that’s just me.

While the menu may look ambitious, even impressive, it’s the flavors that are both: the ingredients do all the work. The preparation of each element is fairly straightforward – which is good. I had a lot to accomplish before Mike arrived home, including setting the table with our good china, crystal and wedding silver.

Warm duxelles over toast points with Chevre
Brillat-Savarin cheese
Champagne grapes


Baby lamb chops, seared pink, with a Montmorency cherry and red wine reduction glaze
Mashed potatoes
Friseé salad in a fig balsamic vinaigrette

Dark chocolate truffles and a heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake for two for dessert

I love duxelles and don’t make them often enough. They’re great as served above, but also quite versatile in both appetizers and main courses. I came into some simply GORGEOUS chanterelles at Fairway on Saturday. I couldn’t believe my luck. Plus, my thyme plant on the patio is still producing leaves. Don’t let the price per pound for exotic mushrooms scare you off – you barely need six ounces.

2 C chopped mushrooms, mixed if desired.
1 T. minced shallot
2-3 T. Butter
Fresh thyme leaves, chopped
White wine or Amontillado sherry (what I prefer this time of year)
Salt & black pepper to taste
Flat-edged wooden spoon or spatula

Gently clean, trim, then chop your mushrooms into a medium to fine dice, as desired. Heat a very wide skillet over medium high heat until it’s about to smoke. Seriously, this is where people go wrong. The pan has to be hot.
Toss in the butter, swirl to melt, then add the mushrooms and shallot. Toss gently, then leave them alone and let them cook. Agitate them if they’re sticking; add more butter if necessary until they brown. They will give up their juices (mushrooms are mostly water). Let the juices steam off. Add your thyme and a scant splash of your wine or sherry, deglaze, and let it steam off.
Season w/S & P, more thyme if desired, and serve warm. If my chive pot weren’t dormant, I would garnish this with fresh-snipped chives.

Fruit & Wine Reduction Glaze
This is a good thing to know how to make. The principals behind it are useful and can be translated to many dishes. It can also be made ahead of time. The glaze can be varied in the ingredients and herbs. I make it with fresh figs and fresh tarragon when figs are available in late summer, with dried apricots and thyme in the winter, or with apples and fresh sage in the fall with pork. The dried Montmorency cherries have a sweet and sour bite to them, and are usually stocked at Trader Joe’s, where I got mine. Soak dried fruit in a bit of warm water, then drain before using. I used thyme with the cherries, which I plumped with red wine in a warm pan.

1/2 stick unsalted butter
8 oz. fresh fruit or somewhat less for dried fruit
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1 cup red wine
1 1/3 cups chicken broth; veal demi-glace if you have it for the lamb or other red(dish) meat
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
2 T balsamic vinegar. I’ve also used good Sherry vinegar, though slightly less, depending on the fruit and meat.
1 T chopped herbs: tarragon for figs, thyme for apricots or prunes; if using rosemary, it’s pungent. Cut quantity in half.
Salt & black pepper

Heat half your butter in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat, then brown your fruit without stirring. Transfer to a bowl. Add shallot to now-empty skillet and sauté until golden and soft. Add wine and about 2/3 of your fruit and boil, stirring and mashing the fruit, until wine is reduced to a syrup. This takes about 5 minutes. Stir in broth or demi-glace and boil. Stir cornstarch and sugar into vinegar until dissolved to make a slurry, then whisk into your pan. Boil for at least 2 minutes. It will thicken. Work the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a small pot or saucepan. Press every last bit of liquid out of it. Discard solids. Stir in your fresh herbs, S & P to taste.

If serving immediately, whisk in the remaining 2 T. butter.
As I said, this can be made a day ahead, or ahead of time. If so, bring to a simmer, add any pan juices from the meat, and whisk in your final bit of butter just before serving. It will be as glossy and smooth as silk.

Scatter reserved sautéed fruit artfully on the meat platter.

Because I was serving just two tonight, I cut the above in half. Make it once, and the recipe is yours. After the second translation, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.

Monday, February 8, 2010


First in the arsenal for Lent: Lentils.

Alliteration aside, lentils are chock full of protein, plus fiber and complex carbohydrates, and have been a part of the human diet since Neolithic times. They remain an important source of nutrition around the world. My father-in-law always said, “I love a woman who can cook lentils.” Over the years, as Mike and I have been together for 17 and married for 11 this year, I’ve come to learn what that means. To George, it’s his mother. She made lentil soup every Friday during Lent. Keep in mind that she had four children, plus a husband to feed, and extended family in Depression-era Pittsburgh. Everyone worked in the mills, sometimes just alternate weeks. Lentils are a poor man’s protein. I’m always honored to serve them to George, in any form.

Now, you know I always have French green Puy lentils on hand, year round, for warm dishes in winter and salads in the summer. They hold their shape and are infinitely useful (and delicious). I haven’t needed to bolster my supplies of those. The last time I hit Whole Foods, I purchased quite a quantity from the bulk foods section. I go there only a few times a year, mainly for grains and the like. I am the only person I know who can get out of there for under $20 and still have a full bag of groceries, including an esoteric cheese that might strike my fancy.

Next, I laid in supplies of brown lentils. You know the ones: a one-pound bag of little gray-green discs. Fortunately, my supermarket ran a special last week on Jack Rabbit lentils, my usual brand: 77-cents per bag, limit four. Yes, I bought four packages. They are a household staple, with lentil soup being a default lunch item for the week, made on a Sunday afternoon, or at night after the dishes are done. My five-year-old daughter has been helping me make lentil soup since she could toddle up to the kitchen counter while pushing a chair to stand on. If only her knife skills were at the adult stage – I’m honestly sure she could do it with her eyes closed at this point. My best friend adds ribbons of chopped spinach to hers, an Italian touch – and delicious. I can't believe I hadn’t thought of that. For other dishes, watch your cooking time. They can turn to mush easily. Make a pilaf with equal (or 2:1) parts white rice and lentils. Or toss them simply with a little red wine vinegar, garlic, S, P and Italian parsley.

Third, red lentils. They’re tiny, little things that don’t really hold their shape, but they can make a great Indian dal (warm, hearty), or be stewed with a cumin-cilantro-lime treatment then served over rice. The last time I used red lentils, they accompanied this sort of Cubano-pork dinner that I winged, geez, just too long ago. They were really good, to my recollection. I don’t always keep these on hand, but thought perhaps I should. I picked up a bag of Goya brand along with the Jack Rabbits, for good measure.

Finally, black Beluga lentils. I had completely forgotten about these! Over the weekend, I was at the Fairway that opened recently in our county, going in for one thing and coming out with much more. These shiny little black pearls jumped off the shelf and into my hand basket, seemingly out of nowhere. They weren’t on my list. They were tucked away near some organic chard and turnips (which were not on my list, nor did I buy them) – I was merely trying to find a clear path around and away from a crowd mobbing the bakery samples. It’s a great store, but it’s impossible to just zip in and zip out, much less stick to your list.

At any rate, they’re added to the lentil larder. They also reminded me of a curried black lentil soup that I make, which I haven’t served since I can remember. It is delicious and hearty – and will be one of the first meatless meals I make, guaranteed.

Try it – but start it in the morning:

One onion, diced
A good knob of ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. cumin
salt & pepper
1 cup black lentils (1 ½ if you like it really thick)
4to 6 cups water and/or chicken broth combined
1 small chili pepper, chopped, if desired
A few tsps oil for your pot

Heat the oil and add the onion and ginger, cooking until soft, golden and fragrant. Add the garlic and the chili pepper if using. Stir and soften. Add the dried spices, salt and some pepper. Keep stirring; it gets a little sticky.

Add the lentils. Toss to coat. Add the broth and/or water. Deglaze and scrape up all the good bits. Cover and bring to a simmer for 2 hours. Black lentils really take their time. Check, taste, adjust seasonings. There are times you want more curry flavor – now is the time to be bold. Cook for at least ½ hour more, depending on the doneness of the lentils.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meatless Meals

I’m giving up meat for Lent.

I’ve done that once before, but with less than perfect results. A few years ago, I realized that I was eating an inordinate amount of meat. It wasn’t on purpose, but it just grew into a habit. Every time I made a sandwich for my husband, Mike, I’d have a few slices of turkey, ham or whatever I was using. I would give my daughter a ham roll as part of a snack, and I’d end up eating two, three or more, loathe as I am to admit it. My default nibble at night seemed to always come out of the deli drawer of the fridge, or sliced off a leftover dinner roast, and a single slice or chunk of chicken would never do.

So I quit, cold turkey.

However, I didn’t “do it” right. After about two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly in the beef department of the supermarket – and I never buy beef – in a fugue state: I didn’t know how I got there or what I was doing, but I could not feel my arms, legs or head, much less stagger out of there and into the checkout line. I was starving and seeing double, standing still, staring at the blood-soaked packages, not even knowing how much time had elapsed. I ate meat two days later, lapsed Catholic that I am. That, and I gulped down a massive quantity of iron supplements.

But I want to try it again this year and announced as much last week, after scoring a ton of sardines in various sauces that were on sale at the supermarket.

Well, after a stellar dinner of a gorgeous filet of wild Sockeye salmon last night, served with sweet vinegared rice, edamame and salad, Mike proclaimed he wanted to give up meat for Lent as well. “Let’s all give up meat this year!” He was really into it.

“I can’t do that with her,” I told Mike, motioning my head toward our 5-year-old daughter, who was scraping up the last flakes of fish from her plate, then negotiating the skin.

She knows where meat comes from, and last night she asked why we had to kill the fish. She often asks why the chicken died. I tell her “We make our choices,” and don’t have to eat it. She will agree, then think, then completely renege and say she wants the meat, then repeats and repeats that she wants the meat, psyching herself up for dinner. And that’s fine. I wouldn’t expect anything different. I’m glad she’s a good eater.

I further explained to Mike that I don’t really know the bean-rice-lentil combinations and quantities to create that elusive “complete protein” I always hear vegetarians talk about. I don’t eat pasta, but they do, so maybe this could work. I then recalled to him the fugue state I entered each time I went to the store starving and practically cross-eyed three years ago.

“I have confidence in you. We can do it,” he said [i.e. I can do it, prepare the food in balance, and keep the Lenten promise going …]

Maybe we can. We go meatless probably more often than most American families, with an ever-evolving repertoire of grains, beans and any invented combination thereof. It’s definitely easier in the summer, when our garden produces all the produce we need to feed the neighborhood.

I’ve also had my run-ins with supermarket meat. And until a lapse last year for which I received 113 lashes, I hadn’t purchased industrial beef since I can remember.

But I obviously purchase meat and fish. I like it to an extent, and my daughter, since starting solid food, almost always eats her meat first. She (and I) also love organ meats, from hearts to livers. Although I exceed her age by a high 30+ [ahem] years, she’ll out consume me, hands down, when it comes to the innards. I will be preparing protein in various forms for her during the Lenten season. I’ll enjoy making a little something special and different for her, and she’ll feel like a big deal.

In the end, Mike also pulled back a bit, requesting only meatless dinners. The lunches I make for him to take to work usually involve a turkey, ham or other type of sandwich [Italian hero is a favorite, loaded with Coppa], although not always.

But for now, I need to do more than lay in extra supplies of tinned fish for myself: research, recipes, shopping (I’m out of both polenta and wheat berries) and planning are on the menu before Ash Wednesday arrives on the 17th. Fresh fish is costly, and I can’t shoulder that as a nightly expense.

I also hope this will bring a new spark of creativity to my kitchen. I’ll keep you posted.