A question of quinoa

I hope we have gotten past quinoa’s trendy phase and can settle down and fully accept it for how great it really is—stellar nutritional virtues and all.  Judging from most market shelves, quinoa has definitely secured a presence and has moved from novelty to staple status.

We know quinoa is incredibly versatile; its slight nuttiness blends well with just about anything. I’ve gotten in the habit of cooking up a batch and incorporating it in meals during the week.  It works in a salad, maybe a grain bowl, part of a dinner, and even for breakfast.

Another personal motive is to hold back enough for my precious Quinoa Bars, an old favorite. I’m always glad to have them in the fridge. There will be times in the course of a week that I’ll be in a wild rush, and know I can reach in and grab one without missing a  beat.

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Quinoa Fruit Bars

The moisture from the pre-cooked quinoa seems to keep these bars moist but not soggy—they hold very well without drying out after a few days, and the slight nuttiness blends well with the oat flakes and dried fruits. This last time, I went for a combo of dates and dried cranberries then topped them with bits of sliced candied oranges stashed away from a Trader Joe’s offering.

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There’s still a lot of discussion about rinsing quinoa to remove a natural bitter coating from the seeds. I buy mine in bulk and have no idea whether this has been done. I usually forget to rinse, but as or yet have not noticed any pervasive off taste.

So here is the latest “new and improved” version of Quinoa Fruit Bars. They are even easier to make and enjoy!

Quinoa Fruit Bars  

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, or half whole wheat or other flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp each allspice and dried ginger
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup quick oats flakes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup agave or honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup cooked white quinoa
  • 3/4 cup dried fruit: chopped dates, dried cranberries, raisins, apricots or candied ginger

Garnish: 1 Tbsp Demerara or other coarse sugar or candied fruit garnish

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 8”x8″ pan with non-stick foil or spray with non-stick oil.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flour, baking soda, spices and salt.  Mix in the oats. Add the dried fruit.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, then stir in yogurt, agave, vanilla, and cooked quinoa.
  4. With spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet just to incorporate.  Spread evenly into pan and sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top.
  5. Bake 30-35 minutes, until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top begins to brown.  Cool on rack and slice. Yield: 16-18 bars

About the birds and the bees

This wouldn’t be much of a food blog if I didn’t give a mention to the UN’s stark IPBES report released today linking human behavior to nature’s crisis threatening extinction of 1 million plants and animal species—within the next few decades.

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Most of this activity has ramped up within the last 50 years with the doubling of the world’s population since 1970.  Food supply and unbridled consumption seem to be driving this impact on nature.

This is not new, but the totality of it all looming large within our children’s lifetimes’ forecasts crises of staggering proportions. When I was studying sustainability in college ten years ago there were those advocating a shift away from an economic model based on a country’s GDP, consumption, and wealth, to one based on a quality of life index.  They theorized it to be a more holistic indicator of livability for of an entire population, not just a few.

That was a highly unrealistic notion. We are valued as consumers and as such, we seem incapable of reigning in our appetites or addressing real issues like soil degradation, waste accumulation, plastic pollution, water pollution and land use geared toward the elimination of forests.  It’s not our problem, let someone else deal with it.  Until you come face-to-face with it.

It’s complicated, but the report urges that we all do what we can and begin by demanding responsible political action. Climate change is mentioned; it’s woven throughout their findings. But it’s the sum consequences ahead that we are not prepared for. This crisis is happening so rapidly that nature has not been able to adapt. Once our fragile food web is sufficiently disrupted there goes the food supply.  When bees are unable to pollinate and plants are barren, there is no fruit.

Our natural environment is undergoing unprecedented stress. The report recommends that we begin to recognize the severity of this crisis (not dismiss it as fake news) and make conscious changes and choices. To make a difference they say, it will require a “transformative change”—a collective reality check if you like. What’s the likelihood of that happening?

On a roll with Naan

Lately I’ve been eating more than my share of naan bread—as I “perfect” my flatbread skills.  Even though it originated in India and Pakistan, naan’s popularity is definitely not limited to Southeast Asia. It is delicious with just about anything looking for bread.

Because naan typically includes yeast and yogurt it tends to be chewy and light, with a slightly tart flavor. It’s not as fast to make as unleavened breads like tortillas or roti, but when you get your rhythm going you’ll be rolling out naan like Lucy at the chocolate factory!

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Lacking a tandoor oven, the next best cooking alternative is a heavy cast iron skillet (I can’t wait to give it a whirl on the outdoor grill!). For now a large, very flat crepe pan is working just fine.

Although the dough is not complicated and is easily mixed by hand, allow adequate time for the kneading and rising. I often make the dough and refrigerate it overnight.  Once the dough is ready, the cooking time is next to nothing. It’s merely a matter of rolling out one flatbread at a time and laying it down onto the very hot surface.

Naan part 2

The naan begins to puff and blister almost immediately, requiring a quick flip from one side to the other. This rapid succession ensures that both the yeast and yogurt deliver the bread’s addictive chewiness. I like to sprinkle a dusting of Lebanese za’atar over the top while still moist.

Enjoy the naan warm with or without butter dipped in soup or stew. Serve it as a snack with seasoned olive oil, hummus, pate or cheese.

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Naan Bread 

  • 2-1/2 cup AP flour, approximate
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • ½ cup hot water
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoon oil and/or butter for pan

In a medium bowl combine 1 cup of the flour, sugar, salt and instant yeast.  Make a well in center and add the water and oil. With a spoon incorporate the flour a little at a time into the liquid.  When combined, mix in the yogurt.

Continue to stir in enough flour to form a loose dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and continue to knead in additional flour as needed to form a smooth light dough, about 10 minutes. A bench scraper may be helpful to move the dough about.

Return the soft dough to a clean oiled bowl, loosely cover, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 1 hour.

Divide dough into 8 portions. On floured surface, roll out one portion at a time to about ¼” thick and 8” in diameter.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium/high heat.  Lightly brush the skillet surface with oil and/or butter.  Lay the naan into the pan, let it puff, bubble, brown and cook on each side, with blistered pockets—about 3 minutes per side. If too hot, lower heat. A lid may be useful to hold in heat if necessary. Remove bread, wipe out pan and repeat. Yield: 8 flatbread

Spatchcock Maneuvers

What’s in a name? What about a blog called Culinary Distractions?  Well, as the blog’s primary writer and producer of content, I am fascinated by just about anything edible and nothing makes me happier than playing with food.

What could be better than gathering up the earth’s magnificent bounty and transforming it into a creation worthy of sharing with others?  That can be a lofty statement, especially when food doesn’t turn out as planned. To paraphrase Julia, ‘There are no mistakes. When you are alone in the kitchen no one knows what you intend—but you’.

That was my attitude the first time I attempted to spatchcock a chicken.  I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of a flattened chicken, even the name makes it sound like vicarious fun.  Besides, no round surfaces means it will cook easier and faster—especially on the grill.

On the weekend of the planned spatchcocking event,  the weather did not cooperate. Forecasted rain shifted the cooking indoors and I would use a small oven suitable for a bird no larger than three pounds. For two days I searched, only to be told that today’s chickens run four pounds or larger. When did that happen?  In the end, I opted for a fat frozen Cornish game hen, which was exactly what I needed.

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Halved Spatchcock

The plump little game hen was the perfect prop for testing my spatchcocking skills.  First, I readied a lemony marinade and set it aside.  With a good sharp chef’s knife in hand and the game hen presented breast side down on a cutting board, I quickly cut along one side of the backbone where the ribs are attached, and detached it. With the cavity opened up, I cut along the backbone’s second edge and removed it.

For the final spatchcock maneuver, to fully flatten it, I flipped the bird breast side up and pressed down on the curved breast plate with palms, then twisted the wings inward to align them down each side. The hen’s soft bones made it effortless—far easier than butchering a whole chicken.  My apologies for not having step-by-step photos, but my hands were full!

The flattened hen marinated overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I brought it to room temperature and spread it onto a pizza pan, a perfect fit for the oven and the bird. As it roasted, I basted and turned it a couple of times until golden brown. Rather than the usual one hour or longer, it took about 45 minutes.

Hen on pan

Turns out it was a success: succulent, flavorful, absolutely delicious, and couldn’t have been easier!

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Spatchcock Lemon-Rosemary Game Hen

  • 1 Cornish game hen, rinse, trim, and pat dry

Marinade

  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (1/2 lemon)
  • 1 clove garlic, crush
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary or 1/2 tsp dried, light chop
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil

For marinade, place the lemon juice through salt in a small bowl and combine.  Whisk in the olive oil and set aside.

To spatchcock: place the game hen breast side down on a cutting board.  With a large sharp knife or shears carefully cut along the length of the backbone where the ribs are attached, and detach on one side. Cut along the second edge of the backbone and remove it. Turn the hen breast side up and flatten by pressing down on the curved breast plate with palms. Twist the wings inward to align down each side.

Place the flattened game hen in a zip lock bag. Pour half the marinade evenly over its interior and then pour the remainder over the skin side.  Shift the marinade about to completely cover all surfaces and close the bag.  Store in refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight. Turn over twice.

Let the game hen sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before cooking. Preheat oven to 425°F.  Line a suitable baking sheet with non-stick foil and lay the flat bird breast side up with wings down each side.  Roast the hen, turning and basting twice with pan juices until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes (internal temperature 160°F).  Serves 2

Berries, as in Wheat

Lately I’ve been reading up on wheat berries and have learned I need and want these powerhouses in my morning muesli and more…

According to Livestrong.com, “Wheat berries are rich in vitamins B1 and B3; and the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese and selenium.” What that means is they are valuable to overall body care, i.e., nervous system metabolism, blood pressure, cardiovascular and blood formation, bones, you name it.

wheat berries grain

There are different types of wheat berries, too: hard and soft berries, which grow at different times of the year and serve different purposes. Lest we get too far into the weeds, suffice to say, I settled on hard or red wheat berries.

Since wheat berries can take 60 minutes or longer on the stove top, I knew this was a job for the Instant Pot. With the pot loaded and ready to go, I’ve learned it’s much faster to bring it all to a boil before proceeding. It’s then a simple matter of setting the timer to 35 minutes with a 10 minute natural release and walking away. It’s sooo nice to let the pressure cooker work its magic and return to a generous 3 cups of plump chewy kernels.

Med wheat berry plate

In that amount of time I was able to establish a plan for my Mediterranean wheat berry salad. I channeled my pending tiny summer garden, still on the horizon—one with the usual crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green onions, plenty of flowers and herbs. Ahhh, I can’t wait!

Altogether the vegetables’ earthy flavors harmonize and blend well with the hearty wheat berry kernels while accents of Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, and lemon do their part to brighten and shine. The salad holds incredibly well and is equally good chilled or at room temperature. It’s an ideal side for grilling and outdoor dining.

Mediterranean Wheat Berry Salad

  • 1½ cups cooked wheat berries
  • ¾ cup garbanzo beans, rinse & drain
  • ½ cup baby tomatoes, halve
  • ½ cucumber, seed, chop
  • ⅓ cup mixed baby peppers, seed, chop
  • ½ cup parsley, chop
  • ⅓ cup green onions, chop
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, crush, mince
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: Fresh spinach leaves, Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, parsley, lemon slices

For dressing, combine lemon juice, evoo, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl, adjust seasoning it should be lemony.

For salad, place the wheat berries through green onions in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and toss to lightly coat, add more as needed.

Refrigerate several hours or overnight. Adjust seasoning, add dressing as needed. Serve chilled or room temperature. To serve, pile on a spinach lined plate, garnish with olives, parsley and squeeze lemon juice over the top. Serves 4 or more.

Variations: substitute 1-1/2 cup prepared couscous or bulgur wheat. Add 2 Tbsp or more mint, finely chopped and/or 1 tsp grated lemon. To the dressing add 1/8 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes.

Stock-free Soup: Whey to Go

In today’s culinary world it’s all about building layers of flavor—and for further clarification we use terms like big, bold, and complex.

In Lois Anne Rothert’s well researched book, The Soups of France, she points out that for centuries thrifty French housewives have created delicious, nourishing soups without the benefit of heavy hitting stocks. Rather, they often use water and rely on local products like olive oil, herbs, spices, garlic, and garden vegetables to flavor and take center stage.

In the same mode, I am getting serious about a particular item in my fridge that is mushrooming out of control.  I have way too much whey.  Since I have been making yogurt and tinkering with fresh cheeses whey is multiplying in my refrigerator.

Several years ago I recall reading countless recipes using whey in Nancy Fallon’s ground breaking book, Nourishing Traditions.  At the time, it was interesting, but I wasn’t ready. Yes, whey is loaded with food value and I’m doing what I can to not waste it. I add it to my morning muesli, use it for pasta water, pour it on plants, and feed it to stray cats…

I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with spiced Paneer cheese and I continue to revise and refine it, further adding to the whey backlog. Out of curiosity, I recently tasted this deeper colored whey and discovered it has a nuanced, delicate flavor, layered with coriander, fennel, and nigella seeds and a whisper of lemon tartness. What’s not to love?

One batch of seeded whey ended up in a Red Pepper Soup from The Soups of France. Or more accurately, in the Basque soup made with water, flavored with red peppers, garlic and sausage–plus a couple or red potatoes added for good measure.  It receives bonus points for the suggested inclusion of poached eggs!

Red Pepper Soup

If I can break away from the whey glut, I still intend to try this soup made with water.  If it is good with whey, it will likely be as delicious on its own merit.  Also, note that a simple dash of red wine vinegar at the table adds to its intrinsic earthiness. Since the soup relies on the best quality sausage, I opted for plump sage breakfast sausage, which goes well with a perfectly poached egg.

Basque Garlic, Sausage, and Red Pepper Soup

Inspired by Lois Anne Rothert’s The Soups of France

  •  ½ lb spicy sausage, bulk pork breakfast sausage is good
  • 2 red potatoes, cube
  • 3 red peppers, seed, slice into strips
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, mince
  • Pinch cayenne or Piment d’Espelette
  • 2 quarts water, chicken stock, whey, or a combination
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Accompaniments:  Red wine vinegar, Poached eggs, Toasted French bread

In a large soup pot heat the olive oil over low heat.  Add the garlic, sausage, and pepper strips, potato, and sauté to break up and brown the sausage, about 10 minutes. Drain excess fat.

Add the cayenne, water, and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to low and simmer uncovered 15-20 minutes.  Adjust seasoning.

Ladle into soup bowls, top each with a poached egg, pass the vinegar to drizzle onto soup and serve with toasted French bread.  Serves 6

Mollet World

What is the difference between a poached and a soft boiled egg?

A poached egg is cracked into simmering water and cooked until the white is firm and yolk is runny.  A soft boiled—or rather a soft-cooked egg—is not boiled, but simmered in the shell and cooked until white begins to set and yolk is runny—or according to preference.  My clan is picky about this: we err on the side of runny.

This gets confusing.  As with the soft-boiled or soft-cooked egg, a mollet is an egg  that is simmered in the shell until white is firm enough to hold its shape and the yolk is runny.  It is cracked and released from its shell whole, or chilled and then peeled whole.

Jacques Pepin agrees. “The mollet, which means ‘soft’ in French, refers to eggs [likely refrigerated] that are cooked in water in their shells for a longer period of time than soft-cooked eggs, but not as long as hard-cooked eggs — about 6 minutes total.  The yolk is creamy and the white less watery than in soft-cooked eggs. Then the eggs are shelled, leaving their shape intact.”

In sous vide world,  poached egg is the term loosely used to refer to an egg cooked in its shell.  Whatever your choice, the process comes down to temperature of the water bath and cooking time.  Many contend 145°F is the way to go, and to cook the eggs for an hour. Right, and yet this can result in a barely set egg. America’s Test Kitchen steps up with a good compromise.

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At ATK’s recommended 167°F for 12 to 13 minutes, the white holds its round shape, and the yolk is runny.  Even better, it is not necessary to peel the mollet. To everyone’s amazement, simply give the warm egg a good crack and the round mollet will fall gracefully from its shell, leaving behind any of its watery residue.

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Mollet egg, sous vide

Final results also have a lot to do with the temperature of the pre-cooked eggs.  If cold, a longer cooking time is required. For consistency, I like to hold my eggs in warm water while readying the water bath, rather than start with cold eggs.  This is also insurance against cold eggs cracking from the sudden heat change and expansion during the cooking process.  Same goes when using the mollet as part of a cooked dish.  When using refrigerated mollets, let the eggs sit in warm tap water for 5 minutes to take the chill off.

Red Pepper Soup

You will have mollet perfection.

Eggs: Mollets, Soft-Cooked & Poached

 Mollet Eggs
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups water, or enough to cover eggs

Bring the eggs and water to a boil in a small pot, reduce heat and simmer 4 minutes.  Drain.

Rinse eggs with cold water and set in ice water bath to stop the cooking.  Let rest 5 minutes. Crack the eggs and release or and gently peel under cold tap water. Hold in warm water bath.

 Sous Vide Mollet Eggs
  • 4 eggs or more, room temperature
  • 4” water in sous vide water bath

Using sous vide circulator, bring 4 inches water to 167°F in water bath container.  Gently lower eggs into water with a slotten spoon, cover and cook for 12-13 minutes.

Transfer eggs to an ice bath and cool for 1 minute or cool enough to handle.  To serve crack egg into individual bowls.

 Soft-Cooked or Soft-Boiled Eggs
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 cups water, or enough to cover eggs

Bring the water to the boiling point in a small pot. Reduce heat to a simmer

Lower eggs in their shells into the water. For soft cooked: simmer 2-3 minutes. For medium cooked about 4 minutes and hard booked 10-15 minutes.

Poached Eggs
  • 5 cups of water
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vinegar

Bring a 2-quart pot with 3” of water to a boil and add the vinegar.

Lower the heat to a simmer and break egg into a cup and slip it into the water, repeat with the other eggs.  Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the white are firm, the yolks are barely set and have turned color.  Remove with a slotted spoon onto toweling and neatly trim any ragged edges.