Pizza Dough: Playing with Flax

I have a new bag of flax meal that I’ve been tinkering with… it’s my way of boosting my omega-3 fatty acid levels by mixing it into breakfast cereal, smoothies, and such. I’ve learned that a little goes a long way. Flax has a generous amount of fiber that can roar through your system, plowing past anything in its path, so use an amount based on preferential tolerance.

Recently I discovered that flax is a natural in pizza crust and other yeast breads. Its inherent nuttiness and pale tobacco color are a perfect complement to a crust enriched with a touch of whole wheat.  Used in my current go-to pizza dough, a combination of all-purpose and whole wheat flours laced with flax meal yielded a toasted-yeast flavor and a resilient texture that rolled out like a dream.

Even though there a two phases to this dough, the entire rising process still takes only an hour.  The first 15-20 minute proofing period activates the yeast with warm water, a bit of sugar, and flour to give the rising process a kick start.  This is stirred into the flour/flax mix until a well-blended mass forms, then turned out and kneaded until smooth. It’s covered, placed in a warm spot, and left to rise until double, about 40 minutes.

Since I prefer pre-baking my crust to move through the ‘fussing with dough’ phase—and ward off sogginess—I like to punch it down, roll it out as thin as I please, and give it a quick bake to set, 8 to 10 minutes. Then, it’s only a matter of gathering together toppings and baking it all off in a hot oven for 15 or 20 minutes until it’s hot and bubbly.

As often with my pizzas, the topping combination is invariably a matter of what I have on hand. On this day, I had a partial bag of mixed greens: kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.  I envisioned a creamed greens base for my pizza topped with sliced onion, red and pasilla peppers, Kalamata olives and Havarti cheese.

For the creamed greens I sautéed onion, slivered garlic, rosemary, and crushed red pepper in olive oil, then added a couple of cups of the shredded greens to the pan and continued to toss and slowly cook until soft and reduced. A slurry of ½ cup milk and 2 teaspoons cornstarch was stirred in along with a dash of nutmeg, salt, and white pepper.  As it cooked I added a couple of spoonfuls of grated Parmesan and simmered the creamed greens until thick and tender.

All of this was layered onto the crust and baked until bubbly and golden brown. Yes, indeed, an evening with the Tony Awards—and another gourmet delight!

Fast Double-Rise Pizza

Ingredients 
1 envelope quick rise yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup warm water
1-1/4 cup all-purpose flour or a combination of: 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup whole wheat flour, 2 tablespoons flax meal
1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup flour or more for roll out

Directions

  1. In a 2 cup measure or bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, 1/4 cup flour and water; proof in a warm place until bubbly and light, 15-20 minutes.
  2. In mixing bowl place 1-1/4 cup flour (see above for combination with flax), and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the yeast mixture and combine well. Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth.
  3. Cover and let rise in a warm space until doubled, 30-40 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 400-425° F; oil a pizza pan or baking sheet. Roll dough out on floured board into desired size and shape.
  5. To fully bake with toppings:  Roll out, add sauce and toppings of choice and bake 15-20 minutes, until center is bubbly and crust is golden brown.    Yield: 1 large pizza.

Note: To pre-bake for later use:  bake 8-10 minutes @ 400-425°, until firm to touch, but not yet colored. Bake as needed in hot oven for about 15 minutes.

Bowled Over

Grain bowls. Lately I’ve been inspired by the idea of stacking food delicately into a small, fetching bowl. At its heart, a healthy grain or rice forms the base, then a good dose of well-flavored vegetables are arranged atop, with a smaller amount of protein tucked in for a balance meal in a bowl.

The concept hits all the right notes, it’s quick and easy. A bowl holds less food than a plate, and it’s a great way to round up a flavorful meal with odds and ends—or leftovers, in some circles. Of course the creative license to mix and match at will is powerful. There are no rules. Better than that, break the rules!

The key to the grain bowl’s success is to have a supply of pre-cooked rice or a grain such as farro, barley, or quinoa ready to go. For example, spoon a healthy amount of your grain or rice into a small, tall bowl, top with a generous handful of a pre-mixed blend such as spinach, pak choi, and mustard greens, fill in with a poached or fried egg to break up, much in the manner of a sauce.  Finish with some fresh herbs and a big punch of flavor, the likes of harissa or gochujang.

This past weekend I was on fire, filled with the anticipation of throwing together my own grain bowl.  A little low on supplies, I had only millet, but it was a fine start when simmered with a dash of turmeric and a bay leaf. Mostly, I was excited to take advantage of my latest rhubarb chutney, waiting for its own 15-minutes of fame.

At the farmers market I picked up a couple of beautiful zucchini and a few gorgeous carrots, a nice combo for a quick veggie add-on. In the fridge I had a small pork tenderloin. This was coming together more like a banquet that a small meal in a bowl. But, it’s the weekend!

When dinnertime rolled around I was running late, getting very hungry, and certainly glad this was going to be a fast, easy meal.  The pork was quickly rubbed with olive oil, Moroccan spice, salt and pepper.  I gave it fast sear and popped it in a 400° oven for about 25 minutes. While that was happening I deglazed the pan and made a quick sauce flavored with harissa.

The zucchini and carrots were quickly sliced into ribbons, tossed with a few drops of sesame oil and garam masala. Opa! We’ve got big flavors everywhere!  About 5 to 7 minutes before the pork was done, I added the veggies to the roasting pan and tossed them lightly with a little of the pan juices.  Once out of the oven, the tenderloin was tented for a few minutes to rest before slicing.Pork grain bowl

I had just enough time to pull it all together. It was then, that I was faced with the truth. A charming, small bowl would not do justice to the fine collection now waiting to be plated—or bowled, if that is a word.

This was worthy of a pasta bowl, of the first order.  Facing reality, I spread the thinnest possible layer of millet into the bottom of the bowl.  One of the grain bowl rules is to use more vegetables than protein. I smartly swirled a portion of the zucchini and carrots across the millet, allowing for three lovely medallions to arc around the corner, and finished the pork with a drizzle of the harissa sauce.  Rounding out the bowl, a small handful of spicy Asian greens became a mere place holder for the honored rhubarb chutney—and of course, a sprig of cilantro.

Good news!  No heartburn, or negative reaction to the epic grain bowl.  Delicious, all of it!

Epic Grain Bowl with Pork Medallions and Harissa Sauce

Ingredients
For the Pork
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 pork medallion
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Moroccan spice
salt and pepper
For the Harissa Sauce
1 cup beef stock, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon harissa paste
salt and pepper to taste
For the Vegetables
1 zucchini
1 carrot
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon garam masala
For the Millet
1 cup millet
3 cups water
salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 bay leaf
To Finish
1 cup Spicy Asian Greens (spinach, pak choi, mustard greens)
½ cup rhubarb chutney
few sprigs cilantro

Directions

  1. For the millet, combine the millet, the turmeric, bay leaf, salt and water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for approximately 35 minutes, until water is absorbed.  Set aside to cool.
  2. For the pork, rub the pork with olive oil, then with Moroccan spice, salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet with coconut oil over high heat and sear pork on all side, about 5 minutes. Remove to baking pan and roast at 400° for approximately 25 minutes.
  3. For the harissa sauce: deglaze saute pan with ½ cup of the beef stock, let it cook down briefly while scraping the bottom of pan. Add the remaining ½ cup stock combined with 1 teaspoon cornstarch.  Add the harissa sauce and let reduce. Taste for seasoning add salt and pepper as need.  Keep warm.
  4. For the vegetables:  using peeler or spiralizer thinly slice zucchini and carrot into long strands.  Toss with sesame oil and garam masala.  About 5-7 minutes before pork is done, add veggies to the roasting pan. Toss with the pan juices and heat.
  5. Remove the pork and veggies, tent with foil and allow to rest briefly while preparing grain bowl.
  6. To finish: re-heat the millet and spoon into the bottom of bowl. Spread vegetables over half of the top. Slice the pork into ½” or thicker medallions.  Nestle in the pork and drizzle with a little of the harissa sauce.  Add a small handful of greens and top with a dollop of Rhubarb Chutney.  Add a sprig of cilantro and enjoy. Yield: 2 or more servings.

The Ultimate in Slow Cooking:  Meet the Instant Pot

I received a new gadget for my birthday.  Actually, this unit is beyond any gadget previously known to man. For some, the latest Instant Pot could represent a state-of-the-art crockpot. To others it’s a digital pressure cooker, or a reliable rice cooker, a steamer, or a sauté pan.  In fact, it does all of that and much more—with precision and ease.

No, I’m not being paid to review or promote the Instant Pot, I am just another huge advocate of its approach to sustainable and healthy cooking.  My 5-quart pot uses only 900 watts of electricity.  In comparison, if you’ve analyze other appliances in your kitchen, you know that a toaster can easily burn up 1800 watts.

In the Instant Pot’s many digital cooking applications the real turning point for me was the realization that I could brown or sauté vegetables or meats before launching into slow cook or other modes.  I have shared a number of wonderful slow cook recipes here, and my sole reservation to crockpot cooking has been that without the browning of meats and vegetables dishes can become one-dimensional.  The luxury of combining the browning step into the slow cook method opens up all sorts of possibilities previously unavailable in most models.

On the pressure cooking side, I was relieved at the fail-safe measures built into the system.  Following simple directions, even the quick method of releasing steam is safe and near foolproof.  Now, I often use the very fast pressure cooking method as a highly convenient option, without angst or intimidation.

For the tiny kitchen, the Instant Pot is paramount to having an entire stove top and a fleet of pots and pans available for daily cooking needs. It can be used to simply simmer or boil as you would on the stove.  The heavy duty stainless steel liner is easy to clean, and it is of course dishwasher safe.

One of my first attempts at tackling the Instant Pot was to prepare a lovely barley risotto of sorts. In this case the barley was pre-cooked, allowing for an easy 1 hour slow cook. Delicious on its own, it became the backdrop for Stuffed Cabbage Rolls.

Barley Risotto with Bacon, Mushrooms, and Spring Garlic Scapes

Ingredients
2 slices bacon, chop
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 shallot, peel and mince
6 oz. cremini mushrooms, clean, slice
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon fresh sage
1-1/2 cups cooked pearl barley
½ cup tender green garlic scapes/shoots, or green onion, chop
2 cups beef broth, approximate
½ cup baby tomatoes, slice in half
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh parsley, chop
Accompaniment:  ⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese, optional

Directions

  1. Heat the pot to sauté medium, brown the bacon in a drizzle of olive oil and remove.
  2. Add the shallot and cook to soften, then add the herbs and stir until aromatic. Add a portion of the beef broth, stir to deglaze the bottom the pan and loosen any surface bits.
  3. Add the barley and the remaining broth, stir to combine.  Bring to a simmer. Reduce to slow cook medium and cook covered for an hour, until the barley is creamy and thick.
  4. Add the garlic scapes or green onion, baby tomatoes, cook an additional 15 minutes to heat.  Stir in fresh parsley, the reserved bacon, and serve.  Pass the parmesan cheese.  Serves 4

Note: to pre-cook barley, allow 1:3 ratio barley to liquid. Bring to a boil, cover and cook 35 minutes.

Layered Lentil Salad—in a Jar

If you are looking for ways to add more salad to your life here’s a fun, make-ahead solution that even includes its own dressing!

Photo by Danbury Poage

Pull out a wide mouthed Mason jar, pour in a little salad dressing, then pack in ingredients—layering heavier items on bottom and ending with more fragile vegetables and lettuce on top.  While at it, make a few extra to pull out as needed; they will hold several days in the fridge without lettuce becoming soggy.

The star of this salad is the nuanced peppery le Puy lentil, a firm, dark green variety that holds its shape very well.  They can be found in better grocery stores and in most bulk food sections; but if not available substitute garbanzo beans.

Radishes, fennel or celery are all excellent salad companions here, along with contrasting narrow strips of young zucchini.  At the base of the salad dressing, a spicy or grainy mustard not only provides a bright bite, it also acts as an emulsifier to bind the dressing from separation while it stands.

Photo by Danbury Poage

When ready, give the salad a good shake and empty contents into a pasta bowl or other wide bowl.  Toss well to distribute dressing and enjoy.

Layered Lentil Salad in a Jar

Ingredients
2 to 3 tablespoons Mustard Dressing (see below) or favorite salad dressing
¼ cup thinly sliced fennel or celery, or a combination with a few fronds or leaves
¼ cup radishes (about 8), cut lengthwise in eighths
⅓ cup le Puy lentils, cooked, or garbanzo beans
3 tablespoons feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup cherry tomatoes, halved + 3 sliced Kalamata olives
½ baby zucchini, cut into spirals or shaved strips with a potato peeler
1-2 cups mesclun, or other lettuce blend
1 tablespoon toasted sunflower seed
Mustard Dressing (enough for 3- 4 servings)
2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
3 tablespoons Spicy Brown or Grainy mustard
½ teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
salt and pepper
⅓ cup olive oil

3-4 cup wide mouth Mason jar
Pasta bowl or other large wide bowl
 
Directions 

  1. To prepare dressing, combining vinegar, mustard, thyme, salt and pepper, then add the olive oil and whisk or shake until thorough incorporated.
  2. In a mason jar pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons dressing.
  3. Pack ingredients in individual layers in the order listed. Substitute similar items as desired, placing heavier, denser on bottom, followed by beans and proteins, then softer ingredients, and finish with lettuce or sprouts.  Serves 1.

Fair Warning: Addictive Cookies Ahead

Well, that was exciting—but of course, food does that to me!

crisps-plate

Oatmeal crisps, tuiles, wafers. It’s all good.

This time two of my favorite things, oatmeal and caramel, joined together as one, thanks to the magic of the microwave. My tiny kitchen was astir with activity while these beauties danced their way out of the oven, one sweet nutty batch after another.

The crisp golden cookies began as tiny ½ teaspoon droplets of batter then immediately melted and expanded into thin rounds; they were done in less than 2 minutes of rapid baking. The trickiest part here is figuring out how to rotate from one batch to the next without a lot of down time.

When I hit my groove I was filling, turning, or cleaning two oven safe 10” flat plates constantly. Well, that’s not completely true. There was a time when I looked a little like Lucy in the chocolate factory, tasting and sampling the goods as fast as I could.

Fresh out of the oven

Fresh out of the oven

In spite of that, once the assembly line was working and I had my rhythm going, I cranked out four dozen cookies (*less the sample factor) quite efficiently.

It could be remnants of a sugar high, but these are dangerously addictive. Fair warning.

Oatmeal Crisps

Inspired by Barbara Kafta’s Microwave Gourmet (1987)

Ingredients
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons quick oats
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoon butter, melted
cooking oil for baking platter

Directions

  1. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt and combine with the oats.
  2. Beat egg until foamy. Add cinnamon and sugar and beat until well mixed, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla
  3. Add melted butter and dry ingredients and stir well.
  4. Thoroughly coat a 10″ round ovenproof platter with cooking oil. Drop 1/2 teaspoonful rounds of batter onto platter in a ring about 2” apart, around the inside rim (will only make about 6 cookies per batch).
  5. In the microwave, bake first batch approximately 2-1/2 minutes. Every 30 seconds, stop and restart until cookies begin to bubble and centers turn lightly golden. They will firm up as they cool.  Cooking time will shorten with remaining batches: allow about 1 minute 20 seconds depending on oven, restarting every 30 seconds to cook evenly. Watch carefully—they will burn quickly.
  6. Remove with metal spatula to a rack to cool. Store airtight.  Yield about 4 dozen cookies.
  7. Batter can be made a day in advance, chilled and well covered.

Happy Birthday, Oregon!

The state capitol was abuzz with activity yesterday in celebration of Oregon’s 158th birthday.  oregon-flagWe were one happy family: visitors, locals and various groups gathered shoulder to shoulder with our legislators.  Smiles were broadly shared and cake was enjoyed by all; a far cry from the chaos running concurrently on the federal level.

Here’s a little bit of trivia I unearthed, a claim unique to our state. It’s one more reason why this is such a special place to live. Did you know the humongous fungus of eastern Oregon is regarded as the largest single living organism in the world? That’s right, the ancient fungus has tentacles that can spread underground for acres and has been known to weigh well over 20,000 pounds!

Disclaimer: since Culinary Distractions is primarily a place of food topics and interest, there will be no shared photos of this humongous fungus here, just the facts.

buffalo-beanballsOn the food side, I’d rather focus on the prettier more edible mushroom that reside in Oregon. Many have been discussed previously here, so today we will stay with the ubiquitous cremini.

Creminis are great all-purpose mushrooms; they are firm, throw off little liquid when cooked, and have superb flavor. This vegetarian meatball variation was a surprise hit at a recent Super Bowl spread.

The combination of cremini mushrooms and cannellini beans holds together amazingly well, creating a flavorful canvas for other sauces. The tasty balls are bathed in a zippy Buffalo Wing Sauce and the standard chicken element is hardly missed!

Mushroom Buffalo Balls

Inspired by Veggie Burgers at Betty Crocker.com
Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
8 medium fresh cremini mushrooms
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 egg
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
2 teaspoons canola oil for baking pan
Buffalo Wing Sauce
2-3 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup Franks Wing Sauce
1 tablespoon Kikkoman soy or noodle sauce 

 Directions:

  1. In food processor bowl, place beans, sliced mushrooms, garlic, smoked paprika, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. Cover; process with on-and-off pulses about 45 seconds, until coarsely chopped.
  2. In bowl stir bean mixture with egg and panko bread crumbs. Shape into about 24 – 1 inch balls with hands. Can be chilled at this point up to 1 day ahead; pack balls tightly together to hold shape.
  3. Oil a baking sheet and arrange the balls close together; bake at 400° F. 25-30 minutes, turning once or twice until firm and cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile prepare Buffalo Wing Sauce: heat butter until bubbly, add the wing sauce and soy sauce, stirring until bubbly and smooth.
  5. Place the hot balls in a large bowl, pour the sauce over and gently toss to coat well. Serve with blue cheese dressing and fresh vegetables.  Makes about 24 balls.

Slow Cooker Strategies for the Impatient

Slow cookers have had a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the slow food movement and technology.  Once referred to as a crock pot, the new breed can have all manner of shapes from oval, oblong, and round, and a variety of settings from browning to completely programmable.

In my current small space living, I was attracted by its size and the minimal power it demands. My 2-quart cooker uses a maximum of 95 watts—a light bulb can draw more than that!  In this small size, I can plan on 3 to 5 servings, depending on the menu.

Many drop a concoction of odds and ends into their slow cooker, set it on low, and 8 to 10 hours later dinner is served. Give me time, I haven’t reached the dump mode yet.

Admittedly, I’m impatient, and watching the slow cooker perform is up there with watching grass grow.  Nothing seems to be happening—especially if you keep lifting the lid.  Some warn that every time the lid is removed you lose 20 minutes of cooking time. Yes, I have learned that this can set you into a deficit mode where nothing is happening at all.

If I’m home for an afternoon, I love firing up the slow cooker mid-day and let homey aromas waft about as dinner simmers away ‘unattended’. I theorize, I’m up for just about anything that will cook on high in 4 hours or so.  Even tough country pork spare ribs become fork tender in that amount of time!

To make that happen requires a little advance planning. Avoid placing ingredients in the pot that are extremely cold or frozen. Bring them to room temperature in advance.  If working with extremely perishable items like meats, remove from fridge 20-30 minutes ahead.

Begin by preheating the slow cooker while prepping ingredients.  Lead off with items that take the longest to cook and add as they are prepared.  Pre-heat liquids before adding to pot. I keep a microwave-safe measuring container on hand for a quick reheat in the microwave.

One afternoon recently this warming Navy Beans and Kale Soup simmered away on my counter.navy-bean-kale-soupIt is nearly a no-brainer, but not quite in the ready-set-dump genre.  A couple slices of chopped bacon were added to the pot first, just enough flavor to get things going.  Once the bacon softened, the onion, garlic, and fresh dried herbs were ready for the pot. By the time they were aromatic the carrot and green pepper were prepped and dropped in. Then, the rinsed, soaked beans and about 2 cups heated chicken stock were added. This was left to simmer away undisturbed for about 3 hours (except for a quick peek/stir once an hour). Depending on the pot, more hot liquid may be necessary.

About 45 to 60 minutes before serving the cut up kale was added. Thirty minutes ahead the sausage or any pre-cooked meat items was stirred in.  Shredded Parmesan makes a terrific topping.

Navy Beans and Kale Soup, Slow Cooked

Ingredients
2 slices bacon, chop
½ small onion, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
½ teaspoon dried herbs each or your choice: rosemary, thyme, savory
1 bay leaf
1 dried hot red chile pepper, seed and crush
1 small carrot, chop
1 small pasilla, poblano or other pepper, seed, chop
1 cup navy beans, soaked overnight, rinse and drain
2 cups simmering chicken stock or chicken bouillon plus water, more as needed
salt and pepper to taste
½ bunch kale, stem and chop
2 pre-cooked andouille franks, cut into chunks
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese, for topping if desired

Directions

  1. Heat slow cooker to high, adding ingredients as they are cut up.
  2. Add the beans, pour in the boiling stock or bouillon and simmer about 3 hours; half way add salt and pepper.
  3. About 45 to 60 minutes before serving stir in the kale. Thirty minutes out add the andouille, simmer and adjust seasoning. Serve with Parmesan cheese if desired. Yield: about 4 servings.