Mortar and Mustard

I’m back in the mortar and pestle game again. I once had a large molcajete from Mexico that yielded a few batches of guacamole and shortly thereafter was relegated to decorator status.

I’m trying again. This time I scaled down and went with a smaller version. Since I am short on storage space, I opted for a 1½ cup rounded granite mortar.

There’s a curing process that most mortar and pestles require before using that removes any lingering grit and debris from manufacturing. It is arduous enough that anyone who has gone through it won’t easily forget. Depending on the material and size, seasoning can vary. For many there’s a tedious grinding of rice into a white powder; mine included garlic, salt, and cumin to form a paste. Once that’s done it’s all rinsed with water and air dried. The mortar and pestle are never washed with soap.

Since then, I’ve been grinding everything in sight and it has gained a spot on my counter for quickly mashing garlic or a spicy blend or paste. My proudest achievement thus far is the Stone-Ground Mustard.

Stone-Ground Mustard

Mustard is fascinating, and the art of producing a condiment from it has been going on for centuries. It makes perfect sense to employ the timeless mortar and pestle—since its basic form is nearly as old as man.

Making your own mustard blend is not complicated. If you think about it, Asian mustard is simply dry mustard and water.

I opted for yellow mustard seeds which yield a mildly hot mustard. For a tangier, hotter mustard, brown seeds are the way to go, or some combination of the two. I cut mine with a small portion of dry mustard for added creaminess and body.

The goal is to break open the seeds to access interior oils and such, while leaving some whole for bursts of flavor. Rather than starting with dry mustard seeds which jump and bounce about, soaking the seeds will soften their hard outer layer. Once you’ve got a rhythm going with the pestle, a gentle bashing motion quickly breaks down the seeds.

Continue to grind all ingredients and blend with enough cool water to reach desired thickness.  Cover and store the mustard at room temperature for 3-4 days to mellow. As it rests, the mustard will thicken and flavors will soften. Give it a taste and adjust seasoning, if harsh add a few drops of honey. Store in a sealed glass jar for a month or longer.

Stone Ground Mustard, Small Batch

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 Tbsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 2 tsp shallot or onion, fine chop
  • 2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ tsp honey (optional)

Instructions

  1. Briefly crush the mustard seeds to slightly break down. Combine them with the dry mustard and 1/3 cup cold water, let soak 1-3 hours.
  2. Add the salt, allspice, and shallot to the soaked mustard and grind in a mortar and pestle, using a bashing motion to partially break down the seeds and create creaminess.  Add remaining water as needed.
  3. Store in clean glass jar and let mellow 2 or 3 days at room temperature. Adjust seasoning, adding a dash of honey if still harsh. Will hold at room temperature a month or longer.  Makes about ¾ cup

Painless Polenta

I just had to stop and pass on this memorable method for cooking polenta.  Finally, the nightmares are over: no more burbling projectiles of searing polenta. With no effort—and no pain—creamy, smooth polenta is ready in 30 minutes.

In cooking your polenta, it’s important to select the right type. There are instant polentas that cook up in a flash, for which this whole episode is likely a waste of your time. Coarser grains, such as authentic polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits require a longer cooking time. That is what we are interested in here, we want the more traditional style for rich flavor and divine mouth-feel.

And, there is no sticking or burning polenta, either…

This may sound like an infomercial, but I have nothing to gain but good food. The secret is in the multi-cooker and the trick is to use a bit more water than usual. Bring it all to a simmer, stir in the salt and polenta, then seal the lid and bring it to pressure. Let it burble away undisturbed for 20 minutes. Once complete, allow the pressure to release naturally (about 10 minutes). In this magical time, the polenta settles down, expands, and blooms. Carefully remove the lid, bring it all together with a wooden spoon and whisk in a little butter and grated cheese.

Now, you are free to do with it what you will. This polenta is good enough to enjoy without a lot of fuss, but the options are endless.

Spoon it loosely mounded into a bowl porridge-style topped with cheese, or with your favorite mushroom topping or tomato sauce.

Polenta thickens as it sits, so you can pour it into a flat pan or dish to firm up and cut into shapes later.

Make crostini type bites or cut into fingers for dipping. Or, form into cakes for a future side. It’s all good!

Creamy Polenta

Ingredients
5 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup coarse polenta
2 Tbsp butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Place salted water in liner of Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Set to Hi Saute or equivalent and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta to dissolve any potential lumps.
  2. Seal lid, set to HI Pressure for 20 minutes.  When complete, turn off unit and disconnect. Let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.  Before opening, tap or shift pot to remove pockets of heat that may have formed in the polenta.  Carefully open and stir down with long wooden spoon.
  3. Whisk the butter and cheese into the polenta to incorporate and make smooth.
  4. Serve in spoonfuls, or pour onto oiled or plastic lined baking sheet, chill and let set. Cut into shapes and reheat in 375°F oven, or in a skillet over medium high with a coating of butter or oil until heated and toasted on each side.  Serves 4 or more.

Spoils of Summer

In my latest Imperfect Produce shipment I ordered nectarines. Maybe it’s their catchy name, but I’m still a little apprehensive prior to opening one of their boxes. But, as usual, everything was in great condition.

The two nectarines smelled sweet, they were big, heavy, and deeply burnished.  What a relief, because I had big plans for them.

A stone fruit galette has been drifting through my mind lately.  I’ve visualized a nicely browned, flaky crust encasing a mound of juicy ripe stone fruit.

In preparation, I had  picked up a few plums to round it out the fruit filling, just in case.  Now, everything was in place.

Actually, it was the pastry crust causing the distraction. For years I have been turned off by the idea of cooking with shortening or lard. Recently, I happened to read the label on a can of Crisco, All Vegetable Shortening—and noticed it has 50% less saturated fat than butter, no trans fats, and less calories than butter. Now, that’s interesting. But, it is still hydrogenated.

Whatever. I was armed with just enough information and incentive to move forward with my mission of making pastry without butter. That’s when the galette appeared.

On the pastry front, I have gone with the most basic possible. It is simply flour, ⅓ cup shortening (only), a pinch of salt, and ice water. It could not be easier, and with the well chilled shortening the pastry rolls out like a dream.

The fruit mixture includes a little brown sugar and spice. It is all tossed together and piled into the center of the free-formed pastry. Just enough pastry border is left to bring up over the fruit and contain it all into an attractive package.

Good news. Once cooled and set, the pasty cut nicely and the fruit set up juicy and delicious. Ah, the spoils of Summer!

Stone Fruit Galette

Ingredients
1 recipe Hand Formed Pastry
1½ pound stone fruit, pit and cut ½” slices: peaches, nectarines, plums (5-6 medium, 4-5 cups)
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp salted butter, cubed
1 egg yolk + 1 tsp water
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Directions

  1. Prepare the pastry and chill at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.
  2. For the filling: Combine cut up fruit with brown sugar. Coat with flour and spices.
  3. Roll out pastry on floured parchment into a 12” free formed round.
  4. Mound filling on pastry with slotted spoon, piling higher in the center leaving a 2” border. Bring the pastry up and fold over the fruit to contain it, but leave the center open.
  5. Dot bits of butter over the fruit. Brush the pastry with egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp water and sprinkle it with granulated sugar.
  6. Bake at 375°F for 35 minutes, until golden and bubbly. Rotate as needed to brown evenly. Cool on rack.

Hand Formed Pastry
(Suitable for 1- 9″ pie crust)
⅓ cup vegetable shortening, spread ½” thick, freeze 15 minutes
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Whisk flour and salt in medium bowl.
Dice the cold shortening into 1/2″ cubes and cut into flour with 2 knives or pastry blender, until pieces are the size of small peas.
Add 3 Tbsp ice water and stir a fork until the flour is moistened and it begins to hold together.  Add a few more drops water to bottom of bowl if needed. Gather up dough and gently shape into 1 ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill up to 2 days.

Bread-and-Breakfast Special

My Friday pizza routine took a turn last night, it became more of a Saturday morning pizza. It was another affirmation that pizza is good anytime, even with an egg on it.

Pizza with Baked Eggs, fresh out of oven

I’m calling this my Bread-and-Breakfast special because it’s ham and cheese on fabulous pizza crust with as many eggs piled on as you wish.

Of course, the saddest part of this was that it was so good, there was none left for breakfast today.  But that can be remedied, since our standby pizza dough recipe (here) makes 2 medium pizzas or 1 large. It also works well because of the prebake process I’ve built into it. With the crust partially baked ahead, it’s a matter of adding toppings and giving it a final bake.

In this case, I wanted a thicker crust rather than the thinner style I usually prefer.  One that would hold a bit of an indentation for each egg to rest in, and soak up some of that eggy goodness. Since this dough is made with instant yeast, it requires little kneading and it rises in a flash. It takes little extra time to roll or pat it into the pan, spread on a little olive oil and let it rise for an extra 15 minutes.

While that was happening, I organized my toppings and began to preheat the oven to 450°F.  For the first bake that sets the dough, I made indentations in it for the eggs, scattered on strips of Canadian bacon tossed with red pepper flakes, and let it bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until it began to color slightly.

For the final bake I spread the cheese blend across the crust, then dropped the eggs in place with a little salt and pepper and more cheese.  I sprinkled herbs across it all and drizzled on a bit more olive oil.  Into the oven it went for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the cheese was bubbly,  egg whites were set, yolks runny, and the crust golden brown.

I learned the eggs continue to cook and set up once out of the oven.  The ham is a nice touch, but can be omitted for a simple cheese pizza. Or, swap it out with mushrooms, prosciutto, peppers, or whatever.

Ham & Cheese Pizza with Baked Eggs

Ingredients
1/2 recipe Pizza Dough
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 thin slices Canadian bacon, sliced into strips (optional)
½ cup shredded mozzarella or Muenster cheese
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2-4 eggs
Sea salt and ground pepper
1/2 tsp herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, or fresh thyme
To finish: 2 green onions, sliced

Instructions

  1. Using fresh dough, roll out to fit a well-oiled medium pizza pan, brush lightly with olive oil. Let it rest 15 minutes while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Preheat oven to 450° F.  Make an indentation in dough for each egg.  Scatter ham on top, and prebake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until set, firm and beginning to color slightly.
  3. If using prebaked crust proceed from here.
  4. Combine and sprinkle all but 1/4 cup cheese over crust. Drop eggs onto crust, sprinkle with salt and pepper and remaining cheese. Season all with herbs and drizzle more oil across the top. Bake 8-10 minutes, until cheese is bubbly, egg whites are set, yolk are set but runny and crust is golden brown.  Let stand briefly, scatter with sliced green onions and slice.  Makes 1 medium pizza.

Grill Time: Salad Time

It’s Memorial Weekend, so it must be barbecue time.

Here’s a versatile little salad with bright summer undertones for just such an occasion. It is affectionately referred to as my Mediterranean salad since it includes a combination of sweet tomatoes and peppers—and quite often cucumbers.

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If you are including cucumbers, add them just prior to serving for best results. I’ve kept the herb contribution fairly minimal in this recipe, but I actually prefer far more whenever possible, and mint is especially good. A lemony dressing is essential to really bringing it all alive.

In an effort to include more whole grain alternatives to meals, here plump wheat berries balance nicely with the garbanzo beans. The berries require some advance cooking time: 60 minutes on the stovetop, and 35 minutes under pressure. Lacking that, replace the wheat berries with quicker alternatives like bulgur wheat or couscous.

The salad can be made a day ahead and it holds nicely.  As with many Mediterranean dishes this one shines at room temperature, making it ideal for a day trip or as a side for relaxed outdoor grilling and dining.

Its colorful composition works well as part of an easy snacking platter with sliced meats, cheeses, condiments and such.

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Or, along-side the salad, add small romaine leaves and pita crisps for scooping up bite sized portions. Happy Memorial Day!

Mediterranean Salad

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups cooked wheat berries, couscous, or bulgur wheat
  • ¾ cup garbanzo beans, drained
  • ½ cup baby tomatoes, half
  • ⅓ cup green, red, or mixed baby peppers, seed, chop
  • ½ cup parsley or more, chop
  • ⅓ cup green onions or 1/2 shallot, small chop

Dressing

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, mash & mince
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  •  1/4 tsp sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: Fresh romaine, Bibb lettuce, or spinach leaves; Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, parsley, lemon slices

Instructions

  1. Combine dressing in a small container and set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl place the wheat berries through green onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss.
  3. Drizzle about ⅓ cup dressing over the salad and toss to lightly coat. Refrigerate a couple of hours or overnight.  Adjust seasoning, add dressing as needed.
  4. Serve chilled or room temperature with a light drizzle of fresh lemon juice over the top.   Serves 4.

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

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