Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fragrant Fried Rice

Published in The Sanford Herald on January 16, 2013

Have you ever had the sort of week where you seem two steps behind yourself,
and find your eating routine to be devouring whatever happens to come out of
a fast food bag?  We’ve all been there.  It is so easy to satisfy our need for
                        convenience instead of our need for actual food.  After all, we’re busy people, and taking time to cook can sometimes seem like a luxury.  This lil’ preacher is about to sound a little preachy, y’all (bear with me): cooking isn’t a luxury.  Eating healthy, homemade food is important!  It feeds our bodies and our spirits.  Even on the busiest of weeks, it keeps us grounded and energized.  Which is why I love to cook this delicious, fragrant fried rice, chock full of healthy vegetables and interesting flavor combinations, like crushed red pepper flake and cumin, and high in protein from eggs and beans.  So, next time you tire of seeing the inside of a greasy bag, or are craving something different and unique to throw into your dinner routine, give this light and easy dinner a try! 

Fragrant Fried Rice
Serves 4.

1 cup jasmine or basmati rice
¼ cup vegetable oil (olive oil is too strongly flavored for this)
4 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
½ red bell pepper, thinly sliced (seeing a pattern here?)
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 15.5 oz. can white beans (such as Great Northern), drained and rinsed
½ cup frozen peas
2 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flake
4 T soy sauce
chopped cilantro, for garnish

Add rice and an equal amount of water (1 cup) to a small saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.  Cook, covered, on medium-low heat, about 20 minutes.  Fluff with a fork.  Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 T of the oil over medium-high heat.  Season eggs with salt and pepper and cook, in one sheet if possible, flipping once nearly set, and cooking on other side a couple of more minutes.  If this sounds a bit too involved, feel free to just scramble them as usual.  Roll and slice if in a sheet, and set aside.  Return skillet to the heat with 1 T of oil and crushed red pepper flake and sauté onions and carrots until nearly tender, about 8 minutes.  Add red pepper, green onions and garlic and cook another 5 minutes, stirring often so the garlic doesn’t burn.  Add frozen peas and canned beans and cook until heated through, just a few minutes.  Set aside vegetable mixture and return skillet to the heat a third time.  Heat remaining oil with the cumin, stirring until fragrant, on medium-high heat.  Add rice and cook, pressing down to fit the pan and crisp the bottom, 5 minutes.  Add soy sauce and break up rice.  Add egg and vegetable mixture, tossing well to combine and heat through.  Add green onions and cilantro to garnish, if desired.  If you abhor cilantro, sweet basil works well, too.  You will now have a heaping skillet full of fried rice goodness.  Add more soy sauce to taste, and grab some chopsticks and enjoy.  Who am I kidding?  A fork works just fine.

Swoon-Worthy Spaghetti

Published in The Sanford Herald January 9, 2013

I am Scotch-Irish and English in my heritage, and have the pasty complexion to prove it, but I'm pretty sure that in my former life I was Italian.  A Presbyterian minister speaking about being reincarnated…we’re getting scandalous now, y’all!  I say this because, when I long to be comforted and satisfied, I dream of a heaping plate of homemade spaghetti with lots of fragrant basil and salty Parmesan.  When I go in the grocery store with absolutely no clue about what I might buy to cook for supper, I nearly always wind up with fresh tomatoes if they’re in season, or good Italian canned ones if they’re not, and a crusty still-warm loaf of bread.  After years of habitual spaghetti suppers, I have developed a sauce that is, in my mind, perfection.  I made it for my cousins when they came to visit in chilly Belfast to warm us on a shivery, rainy night; I prepared it with basil leaves as big as my hand in sunny, warm Jamaica; I’ve made it for gatherings with friends and for little ol’ me on a regular weeknight.  Once you taste this sauce – slightly smoky with a hint of bacon, sweet with tomatoes and onions and rich with a reduction of red wine – you’ll never go the way of prosaic Prego or routine Ragu again, my friends.  You’ll believe you might just be Italian, too.  Buon appetito!

Swoon-Worthy Spaghetti
Serves 4 with generous portions.

2 T extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to cook pasta                                     
1 lb lean ground sirloin (I do not always put the beef in; this sauce is delicious without it as well)
¼ lb pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon) or bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes 
1 cup dry red wine (go Italian and choose Chianti)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano Italian tomatoes (If you have a hard time finding crushed ones, use the whole peeled variety and simply break up with a wooden spoon or potato masher as you simmer the sauce)
salt and black pepper
¾ pound spaghetti
½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  While waiting on that pot to boil (without watching, of course), get going on the sauce.  Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat with 2 T of olive oil.  Add pancetta and cook until beginning to crisp, about 5 minutes.  Add ground sirloin and onions and break up with a wooden spoon, cooking an additional 7 minutes, until beef is nearly cooked through and onions are tender.  Add garlic and cook an additional 3 minutes.  Add crushed red pepper flakes, 1 t of salt and 1 t of pepper.  Stir in red wine and simmer until reduced by half, 5 minutes.  Add crushed or whole tomatoes, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes.  While the sauce is in its final simmering stage, cook spaghetti, with a splash of olive oil to keep from sticking, until just shy of al dente (firm to the bite), about 7 minutes.  Drain pasta and put directly into your pasta sauce, cooking an additional minute or two, until al dente.  Add Parmesan cheese and basil, remove from heat and stir well to combine.  If you are so inclined, pour yourself a lovely glass of that robust Chianti, and serve with some good crusty bread, such as ciabatta, letting the golden light and melodious sounds of Italy wash over you.  It’s the cheapest vacation you’ll ever take.

My Grandmother's Biscuits

Published in The Sanford Herald on January 2, 2013

You may remember my first article where I mentioned my penchant for placing biscuits on windowsills for safekeeping as a child.  I did not, at that time, divulge the holy grail of biscuit recipes: my Grandmother’s, but I know y’all better now.  We’ve shared soup and cookies, enchiladas and kebabs together, and so I am now ready to share that blessed biscuit recipe.  (This is an act of trust, my friends!)  Like all of the best recipes, it was never written down.  However, a year or so ago, I sat down with my Grandmother in the kitchen with a camera and a notepad and said, “Okay, those perfect biscuits: go!” 

She walked me through all of the steps, deftly mixing the ingredients together with hands that had held me as a baby, and my mother before me.  Her biscuits are what makes every family gathering complete, when we gather around a table and pass around those floury drops of heaven in the big metal bowl with the lid that never stays on for more than a few seconds.  My Grandmother’s biscuits are slightly flatter than other biscuits; they’re substantial but still tender, flaky but not out-of-the-can sky high.  They are obviously homemade, and when split open and slathered with decadent cream gravy, it is a breakfast better than any other.  Never mind that we might be having a big lunch in a mere few hours; breakfast deserves its time, and these biscuits are the star.  Let me share this beloved recipe with you, in the hope that you will taste in them something of family and a simpler time, and perhaps sit down with a loved one to record a much-beloved but never penned recipe, so that it lasts for generations to come.

Grandmother’s Perfect Biscuits
Makes about 1 dozen generous biscuits

3 heaping cups of flour
½ t salt
½ t baking soda
1 ½ c buttermilk
2 T canola oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Sift together flour, salt and baking soda until well combined.  Grandmother says it “wouldn’t hurt a thing” to sift it twice, just to be sure.  She’s a thorough lady.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture in a large bowl.  Gently pour in buttermilk, keeping it in the center and gradually adding the flour mixture from the edges, stirring with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.  Once the buttermilk and flour are combined, drizzle in the oil.  Stir to combine the dough well in the bowl.  It should not be crumbly, nor should it completely stick to the bowl.  Adjust buttermilk and flour as needed.  Stirring while in the bowl will not cause the dough to get tough, however once it’s rolled out, it will get tough if you work it too much.  Place dough on a well-floured counter and form into a ball.  If it sticks to your fingers, add more flour.  Knead dough from center outwards, rotating in a circle, until smooth, approximately ten kneads.  Using a floured rolling pin, roll out dough until it is about ½ inch thick.  It will spring back a bit, that’s okay.  Using a floured 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds and place them, touching, on a well-greased baking sheet.  Turn them over so both sides get coated in the oil.  Bake for 20 minutes, turning the oven up to 400 degrees for the last five minutes.  Fill with leftover ham and a drizzle of honey or top with decadent gravy to make any breakfast a special occasion.  

Brain Food 101

Published in The Sanford Herald December 26, 2012

Do you ever find yourself standing in the bread aisle of the grocery store with a vacant stare on your face, as you try to remember the one thing you came in to get?  Have you recently run into someone who knows your name, your dog’s name and where you went on your last vacation, while you can’t for the life of you think of their name?  Is it only in the last chapter of a good novel that you realize that you’ve actually read it before?  Then, my friends, it is time for a little brain food.  Allow me to introduce you to that clever, verdant cousin of the cabbage, kale.  I’ve added it to hearty broth and thyme-roasted vegetables until they marry into a big pot of fragrant comfort.  Get out those crossword puzzles, throw away your calculator and prepare to be sharper than ever!  At the very least, you’ll be warmer and well fed.  This is easy comfort food at its healthiest.

Thyme-Roasted Vegetable and Kale Soup
Serves 4.

5 oz. grape tomatoes (about ½ a container; if you know the difference between cherry and grape tomatoes, please enlighten me!), halved
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, halved
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves de-stemmed
2 red potatoes, chopped into 1 inch pieces
bunch of kale, roughly chopped
15.5 oz. can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
32 oz. container of low-sodium chicken broth (you may use vegetable broth to make this recipe vegetarian)
¼  tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 T olive oil
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. pepper

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Combine onion, carrots, garlic, tomatoes and thyme with olive oil, 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper.  Roast in an even layer, tossing every 15 minutes, until tender and beginning to caramelize at the edges, about 30 minutes.  In the meantime, heat stock in a large dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat with 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper, until beginning to boil.  Add potatoes and simmer 10 minutes.  Add kale and nutmeg and simmer 5 minutes.  Nutmeg may seem like an odd addition, but any time you are cooking with a green like kale, spinach or collards, a dash of spicy-sweet nutmeg adds an interesting depth of flavor.  Add cannellini beans and simmer another 5 minutes, until they begin to fall apart.  This will thicken the soup a bit and add a decadent creamy texture.  I use cannellini beans in nearly all of my soups for this reason!  Add roasted vegetables and simmer all together another 5 minutes, adjusting salt and pepper as necessary.  A drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil on top is a great finishing to this soup, and I recommend crusty brown bread to dunk in it.  Can you feel yourself getting smarter yet?  Oh, apologies, hast thou procured a quickening of the mind and savant-like senses?