Thursday, December 30, 2010

Burger with bulgur

I started the new Weight Watchers PointsPlus program a few weeks ago and am working hard to rethink my approach to high-fat, low-fiber, carb-clogged and generally points-heavy foods. So far, it's been a creative and mostly satisfying experience, but not everything can be made points friendly. Or can it?

I've been craving a juicy grilled burger but was appalled by the points value of how I prepared them. Tonight, eager to take our new Cusinart Griddler for a spin, I decided to dial down the fat while boosting the volume, fiber and flavor. I did it with some coarse bulgur (the real deal, imported from Turkey) and fresh ground beef from a local halal butcher.

I started with just 3/4 lb ground beef for two generously sized burgers and one, mine, a little smaller; I used to make three big boys out of a full pound. Then I boosted them with nutty bulgur. In a small ramekin covered with plastic wrap, I bloomed 2 tablespoons of the golden grain in hot water for about 10 minutes. After draining thoroughly, I added this to the meat, along with about half of a small onion (grated), and 1 teaspoon each Worchestershire sauce, herbs in duxelle and Mexican oregano. Just before grilling, I added a generous surface sprinkle of hearty hickory-smoked sea salt.

The bulgur did not affect the meaty flavor; in fact, you could barely detect the secret ingredient. Graham had no idea and practically inhaled his. Even tucked into an onion knot bun from Fresh Market, it was so much leaner and tastier than my old standard that I felt no guilt topping it with a melty (if thin) slab of blue cheese.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Roasted butternut squash, al orange

It sat on the counter for nearly two weeks like a giant scold daring me to make soup. No, I thought. Not this time.

I have an arsenal of cookbooks to help me with such tasks, but I had a vision -- not of sugarplumbs, mind you, but of a slightly sweet and savory glaze that would transform a hulking 5-pound-plus butternut squash into proper size chunks of glistening beauty. And, I'm happy to report, it worked.

The key ingredient was blood orange-infused olive oil, a vacation souvenir that has surprised me with its extraordinary shelf life. A light drizzle proved to be just the thing that turned common roasted squash into something geninely special.

If you're not so lucky as to have blood orange-infused olive oil in your pantry, add the freshly grated zest of an orange -- then eat the orange. They've been really, really good this year, and you deserve it.

If you opt to try this with a small squash, which makes sense unless you want to eat leftovers for lunch for several days (I did, and it was great), adjust ingredients accordingly. Likewise, if you go ginormous, you could add some broth, pull out the stick blender and turn the balance into terrific soup.

1 5 lb. butternut squash
2-3 tbsp blood orange-infused olive oil (or olive oil and orange zest)
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim ends, scoop out seeds and cut squash into manageable 3-inch chunks. Arrange, skin-side down, on baking sheet covered with foil and coated with vegetable spray.

Blend seasonings together and distribute evenly over squash, then drizzle with oil. Roast about an hour or until tender, nicely browned and glistening. If you're like me, grab the best-looking piece for a taste test, then arrange the rest on a serving dish. Devour.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stuffed cabbage, but not from grandma

My grandmother lived in an apartment across the street from my high school. It was a great pleasure for me to slip off campus now and then to meet her for lunch. I have a particularly strong memory of her calling one night to invite me to join her the next day for stuffed cabbage, one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.

I instantly said yes; not only because I adored her, but also I was astounded that this woman -- who rarely cooked anything that required more than a toaster oven or a single pot -- was willing to go to such effort to please me. The only recipe I knew she relied upon was one I still view as an ideal  party snack: equal parts dry-roasted peanuts, chocolate chips and golden raisins, served in a classic Stangl bowl that is now mine.

I never said a word when, after she served the already-plated dish, and I praised and devoured every last bite, I noticed the tell-tale Stouffer's box in her trash can.

I've always wanted to make stuffed cabbage myself, but I imaged it to be one of those highly complicated affairs best left to employees of Jewish delis, or perhaps Mrs. Stouffer. But now that I've seen how easy it is, I'm disappointed that I denied myself this pleasure for so long.

Chef Ricky Moore, a North Carolina native who honed his skills in kitchens around the world and once battled Michael Symon on Iron Chef,  last week lead the first in a promising series of classes at Bickett Market, a rustic little shop in Five Points that sells seasonal produce and a variety of artisan foodstuffs. It's a natural progression for owner Jason Stegall, a proponent of all things local and good.

Moore's recipe -- unfortunately, scaled for the group class and not the home cook -- was simple and flavorful. The cabbage bundles were braised in an almost translucent and tangy tomato au jus and served atop a creamy blob of smoked grits. I don't mind admitting that I had seconds.

The grits contained the fun culinary trick of the evening. Moore guaranteed success if cooked in a ratio of one part grits to four parts liquid -- in this case, one cup of Carolina Grits & Co. stone-ground grits to 2 cups water and 2 cups of 2% milk. I was surprised to see his assistant quickly dump the grits into the mix. The last time I tried that it turned into one great gluey grit.

Moore explained that, if added while the liquids are at a rolling boil, the grits will join the party and stay reasonably separate. It took a fair amount of stirring, and a little more water was added to ensure creamy results, but they came out as perfect as promised.

The fun twist of the recipe was the smoked part, which came from smoked, whole heads of garlic. Moore said he smoked them indoors in a jerry-rigged contraption made from a cast iron skillet and a lot of singed foil, but I suspect it would be easier (and more smoke-alarm friendly) to try his alternate method of smoking them outdoors on a grill. Either way, plan on 15-20 minutes on the heat, then another 15-20 minutes off heat but still snugly cocooned in foil. When squeezed, the smoked cloves oozed forth like browned butter, just as if they had been slow-roasted more traditionally in the oven.

There are a few kinks to be worked out in the Bickett Market cooking series -- a modest overhead video set-up, designed to slide from work station to cooktop -- was tempermental, making it difficult to observe technique for more than a few minutes at a time. But those attending were more amused by the fickle camera than annoyed, and Moore was gracious about demonstrating steps and making sure all questions were answered.

This debut class was informative and fun, the dish was delicious and I'm confident I can recreate it. Additionally, the foodies I dined with were great company, and the upcoming roster is full of tempting classes. To borrow a phrase, how bad is that?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs

One page from the stack of new recipes I intended to make for our Thanksgiving feast last week got set aside when the reality of how much I'd already cooked for three diners eventually dawned on me. I finally made the last side dish tonight, and I won't wait until the next holiday to make it again.

I wish I could take credit for the idea, but Roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs was first posted on Food52. I made a half-batch with a deep purple variety -- found at Kroger,  not usually my first choice for fresh produce -- and it looked glorious when speckled with roasted brown spots.

Suffice it to say, I haven't been to the store today and still have no panko crumbs. In their place I tore up a potato sandwich bun and tossed it into the processor, which converted it into appealingly feathery bits.

The recipe is self-explanatory and the gremolata bread crumbs come together quickly. Since it was served with another vegetable side Graham dislikes, he assumed it was all for him, leaving us just a sampling. By the end  of the meal, all that was left was some flavorful crumbs, which Graham used to jazz up the kibble in the pups' bowls. Glad to report they, too, are content members of the clean plate club.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Latke night!

As a child, I'm not entirely sure I associated latkes with potatoes. All I knew for certain is they appeared, along with the electric menorah, each year at Hanukkah. The arrival of that familiar little box from Manischewitz -- or Streit's, depending on what side of town my mother shopped that day -- was a happy sight. Just add an egg and water, let the oil shimmer in an electric skillet and, l'chaim, latkes.

As recently as a few years ago, I used boxed latke mix for our annual Hannukkah soiree, during which Tim regaled neighbors with his coloful version of noble Judith tempting wicked Halofrenes with salty cheese and jug wine. I'm a bit embarassed by that now -- not just because I used a mix for guests, but because the real deal not only is easy to make but also takes scarcely more effort.

This year I decided to try Golden Panko Latkes, one of the recommended picks on Food52. Just before dinner, though, I realized I had no potatoes. Or applesauce. Or sour cream.

After returning from the store, I wished I'd taken another look at the recipe before I left, as I only had a handful of the key namesake ingredient. While it's generally smarter, not to mention better culinary etiquette, to make a recipe as directed the first time, I decided I'd rather punt than return to the store.

So after adding a pouch of cheddar mashed potato mix to the panko -- don't snicker; I've done it before and it works -- I decided I might as well change it up some more. I added about half of a small onion, shredded, and a handful of minced parsley.

The mix yielded a generous batch of latkes, which hardly absorbed any oil. That was a good thing because -- must I say it? -- I was almost out of canola, too. Not sure if I should credit the miracle of the everlasting Hannukkah oil or the seemingly oil-repellent coating, but about a cup of oil was plenty for the entire recipe.

Serve with sour cream and applesauce, of course, and crank up Hanukkah Rocks by The LeeVees.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Browned-butter sage pesto with pepitas

Last week I splurged on two small bags of handmade pumpkin pasta, which I intended to use in some sort of post-Thanksgiving feast. It got lost, however, in my overstuffed refrigerator. When rediscovered, it was no longer the pale tender curls admired on day of purchase, but I was pretty confident it would improve if coated in a shiny glaze of brown-butter sage pesto with pepitas.

I was right. And it could not have been easier.

1 stick unsalted butter
3-4 tbsp fresh sage, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted; reserve 1 tbsp for garnish and chop the rest
1 lb fresh pumpkin pasta (or whatever you've got)

Cook pasta according to directions. Save about a cup of pasta water and set aside before draining.

While pasta cooks, melt butter in pan with heavy base on medium-low heat. Stir in sage and red pepper; simmer until it begins to turn amber. Add chopped pepitas and stir to combine. When the sauce turns an irresitible brown, add the drained pasta and a splash of reserved pasta water; blend thoroughly. Tongs are the perfect tool for this task. Add more pasta water if needed.

Transfer to serving bowl and top with a sprinkling of pepitas.

If you have leftovers, add a little reserved pasta water for improve reheating.