A mortar and pestle

I  have a dedicated spice grinder (one of those little “coffee grinders” that doesn’t work on coffee,) but I’ve decided that I need a good mortar and pestle.  I gave away the wooden ones and the porcelain ones that just don’t work either.

Why do I want a mortar and pestle? Well, the spice grinder does not work well for small quantities like I often used when doing single-serving cooking–I do mean literally single-serving cooking. When all I want to grind is six allspice berries and 1/8 teaspoon of cumin seeds–the grinder is overkill, and they really just bounce around in there, so it’s not really efficient and then add cleaning time and effort. (This is kind of like my feeling about food processors versus my chef’s knife–give me simple and effective, along with easy clean-up for small quantities of stuff!)

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up my spice grinder–it’s great when I’m making a huge pot of chili con carne and need to grind larger quantities. But when all I want is a few spices to put into two servings of mujadara I’ll opt for manual labor. Not giving up the food processor either–love it for making large quantities of mirepoix for the freezer.

Given how unhappy I’ve been with all the previous mortars and pestles I’ve had, I went in search of a review of them. From Fine Cooking I found “Equipment Review: Mortars and Pestles” with a discussion of materials, pros, and cons, and even some specific recommendations.

The top rated one was made of granite with granite pestle from ImportFoods.com was one tested. Part of the utility of a mortar is how rough or smooth the inside is. I don’t want to buy one sight unseen from “that place” because I won’t be able to look inside it and feel the interior.

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Beans & Rice

This was a kitchen happening–not really a recipe with given quantities of anything–just because I wanted rice and beans. Everything is flexible, depending on your taste and how many servings you need. (I wanted to have some extra to put in the freezer for quick side to grilled meat.)

It’s SO hot here that cooking just isn’t very appealing even with air conditioning on. One of my solutions is to eat things can be prepared without turning on the stove. I did this in the Krups multi-function pot that I love and use in so many different ways. (Tomorrow I’ll be using it to make tuna confit since my supermarket had lovely tuna medallions on a really special sale. That will keep me in tuna for my summer salads for a bit.)

Black Beans & Rice with Chorizo

Ingredients

  • rice (about 1 cup)
  • olive oil (healthy dollop)
  • onions, chopped (lots)
  • black beans
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • canned diced tomatoes with green chilis
  • red pepper flakes (dash)
  • pimenton (dash)
  • Mexican oregano (good healthy pinch)
  • pork chorizo (about 1/2- to 3/4-pound fresh)
  • water or extra tomato juice/V8 juice as needed for the rice

Preparation

  • Sauté onions in olive oil until translucent and starting to soften
  • Add red pepper flakes, pimenton, oregano, salt and pepper and sauté until the spices are aromatic
  • Add chorizo and sauté until it starts to turn opaque
  • Add canned tomatoes
  • Add rice and black beans (canned or frozen)
  • cook until rice is tender

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It’s hot and humid here, and I was being particularly lazy, despite my desire for food so I did this in the multifunction pot. I did make this as easy as possible–frozen chopped onions, canned tomatoes, and frozen black beans (these from 13 Foods) but Stahlbush Island Farms also has black beans and brown rice that make a good starting place for this. The result with frozen legumes is much better than with canned, though those will work as well.

A note on the oregano–it was Mexican oregano which is definitely not the same as Greek or Turkish oregano. If you don’t have Mexican oregano, then I would substitute thyme or cilantro. I can’t get my head around the Greek or Italian with this mix of flavors.  The pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) adds a bit of smoky flavor.

I first measured my rice so that I’d know how much liquid needed to be added to have it cook to proper doneness. Everything else was added (as indicated) by the dash, dollop, or pinch.

The chorizo that I used was fresh, made in-store from my Harris-Teeter supermarket, and not in casings so all I had to do was break it up into the pot to sauté.  Couldn’t get any easier. If you can’t find “loose” then just remove from the casing, or put the whole sausages in to make this a meat-centric dish.

Everything was sautéed using the rice cooker setting with the lid open. Quite quick and easy although it does require a little attention. Once the tomatoes (with juice) and beans were added, with just a bit of spicy V8 juice to give enough liquid to cook the rice, the lid was closed, and I went away to do something else–until my meal was done. The caveat here is that you do need to be sure that the amount of liquid is appropriate for cooking the rice–too much and you’ll have “blown out”, mushy rice; too little and it will still be crunchy–you’ll need to add more liquid and continue to cook until tender.

Quantities and totally flexible–maybe you like more rice than beans–or the other way round. I love lots of onions, but if you don’t, then just don’t use many.  The proportion of chorizo depends on how meat hungry you are–it can vary too, from almost a seasoning to a lot. Next time I make this I will add just a bit more than I used this time, although it was quite good this way.

A son gôut!

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Holiday time again….

Like it or not the holiday season approaches. I’ve one Christmas gift to order yet, but then I’m through. I thought I’d pass on a few suggestions for gifts for those of you who still have a cooking person on your list to shop for:

  • Volrath French carbon steel skillet: probably my most-used, it has the advantages of cast iron, without the weight.
  • Romertopf clay cooker: a go-to especially for one-dish meals in cold weather.
  • Home espresso machine: Can’t start the morning without my jolt of caffeine either straight espresso or café latte.
  • Clever Coffee Dripper: If I’m not wanting quite the jolt of espresso this gets something more like French press, with the benefit of a filter to eliminate the sediment.
  • Kunh Rincon garlic press: If garlic is a cooking necessity, a garlic press can be a time-saver, or it can be a total nuisance when you have to clean it, so you don’t use it. This is a good one, recommended by Cook’s Illustrated after testing lots of them.*
  • Max Burton Portable Induction cook unit: Live where it’s hot and humid in the summer? You just hate to turn on the stove? Induction cooking is much cooler–though it does require cookware that is either stainless steel or iron.  If a magnet won’t stick on your cookware, then you need the Hob Heat Diffuser that will allow you to use other cookware with the induction unit.
  • Pressure cooker: The Fissler FSSFIS5859 Vitaquick Pressure Cooker was the winner of the Cook’s Illustrated testing* and is pricey.  The runner-up was the Fagor Duo line, less pricey, highly recommended and noted as “best buy”. (This is the one I’ve used.) This cooker does work with induction cook units–a real plus in hot, humid weather when you still want those dried beans cooked.
  • Fasta Pasta Microwave pasta cooker: This is a real gem to have in the kitchen! So much easier than boiling that big pot of water–again great in hot, humid weather, but once you start using it, you’re hooked. Again this is a kitchen “gadget” that was tested by Cook’s Illustrated.*
  • If the cook you’re shopping for is just getting a kitchen set up, there’s always some of the essentials for good cooking: Penzeys herbs and spices, either basic, for bakers or for the cook starting to branch out, a do-it-yourself box of specialty herbs and spices.  If you have someone on your list who has to watch sodium intake, there are lots of salt-free blends. If you buying for a cook pressed for time, seasoning blends can be real time-savers–in my kitchen I don’t want to be without herbes de Provence for that time when I’m just too rushed to think blending my own.
  • For relaxation and enjoyment,  either alone or with company, a selection off teas to have on a leisurely morning, or relaxing afternoon break.  Harney & Sons Master Tea Blenders have a fantastic selection–black, green, herbal, flavored, and all the accessories necessary to make a special occasion. Teas can be ordered individually, or there are collections ready made.  If you’re unsure what tea would please your “giftee” most, then send a selection of samples–for a modest $2 you can send enough to brew a decent pot of many teas. Some very expensive ones–e.g. Black King which rings up at $240.00/pound–the sample may run $5. What a great way to let someone explore fine teas–treat yourself.
  • Like a liqueur to sip while relaxing? If you’re in North Carolina, there are some lovely liqueurs made in Durham by the Brothers Vilgalys: Krupnikas, a spice honey liqueur would be a real treat, or look at the unusual liqueurs they make: Beatmik, Beebop, Zaphod, and Jabberwok.  All are great in cocktails, for just sipping straight, added to hot chocolate or hot cocoa.  If you’re not in North Carolina you may still be able to get these delightful liqueurs through other distributors.

Wishing you and your favorite cook very happy holidays–lots of good food, friends, conversations, as well as wines and spirits!

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*Cook’s Illustrated equipment testing is done without manufacturers knowledge until after publication, and products tested are chosen for consumer benefit. They do not accept requests for testing from manufacturers.

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Celebrating the autumnal equinox.

I woke up to a lovely fall morning–sunny, breezy, cool–absolutely lovely day, some leisurely time over coffee in the sunny kitchen, and realized that I’ve gradually been shifting into autumn cooking mode–cooking urges that are very different from the hot, humid weather of summer.

I’ve been making meals in the multitasking rice cooker lately: whipped up a great spicy lamb and garbanzo bean stew and another of braised pork and collard greens.  Some of immediate use today, and some of each of those to stash in the freezer for quick meals on a cold winter day when I need serious comfort food.

The lamb and garbanzo “stew” was one that I literally threw together in about 15 minutes while I was finishing an index to send to a client. A good friend who knows how much I like to use chili peppers gave me a wonderful chile powder from Made in New Mexico.  I used lamb shoulder chops, a healthy batch of chile powder, some Mexican oregano,  Goya garbanzo beans, and a can of diced tomatoes. The lamb chops came out of the slow-cooking melt-in-your-mouth tender, with just enough spice to accumulate a bit of burn by the time you’ve eaten a bowl of it, but not enough to rip you taste buds out by the roots.  This chili powder is the best I’ve ever used–I’ll be ordering more of that one.

Another job that just could not be put off any longer was cleaning the gas stove. It is one of my very least favorite things to do so I do tend to procrastinate about it; that does not make the task any easier and I know that but I still procrastinate about it. (I think that a house elf would be a wonderful thing to have around!)

Now the stove has at least had a  lick and a promise as my grandmother would have said. Well, at least the lick, but still needs the promise though that is going to happen today. (Definitely no pictures here!)  So happy that the oven is self-cleaning since it gets lots of use in cool weather for carefree braising while I’m working at home.

Now I’m ready for a plate of braised pork and collard greens!

I do love science….

I’ve always been prone to analyze things, to want to understand the WHY behind what’s going on.  It’s not surprising that I view cooking as an applied science and like data.  That’s one of the reasons my favorite cooking magazines are Cook’s  Illustrated and Cook’s Country. (Nope, no affiliate program or anything like that–just my personal preference.) I particularly like the experimental data about what works and what doesn’t–and the same for kitchen equipment, supermarket products. What’s not to love about realistic data about how that piece of equipment is going to survive if you drop it?  Or how easy it really is to clean and reassemble?

I was just browsing my latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated–yes, the hard copy one, and I found a section titled “Common Cooking Myths, Debunked”.  If you’re not a subscriber, this is still worth reading–check the library or the magazine stand in your local grocery store.  The debunking includes information on which part of the tomato has most flavor (supports my predilection for NOT seeding and peeling tomatoes), where the hottest part of the chili pepper really is, among other myths that seem to float around amongst cooks. Understanding the how and why of cooking makes improvisation so much easier–which in turn makes cooking for one so much easier since you don’t have to depend on recipes nearly so much.

Another feature of these magazines that I like is the equipment review–I’ve just been researching portable induction units, since I’ve decided that is going to be my birthday present from Frankie (the cat) to me this year–seems a great idea for energy-saving–must be cooler than having a gas burner on for the time it takes to cook dried beans–which is something I’m inclined to do in the summertime; they make such good, hearty cool meals. I’ve read the Cook’s Illustrated reviews so now I’m ready to go shopping, with their review in mind–especially since no manufacturer knows about the reviews until after publication of the results.  (OK–I sound like I’m selling something–sorry!  It’s just enthusiasm of an inquiring mind!)

Cauliflower-black olive gratin (for one)

I started with the recipe from The New York Times that I had mentioned in an earlier post–and adapted it for single-serving cooking.

cauliflower, black-olives, garlic, shallot

just a few ingredients

My first “adaptation” was NOT to buy a whole head of cauliflower–I like it but I usually waste some of it, so I purchased 250 grams from the salad bar at my local Harris Teeter store already cut.  This was about 1/4 of what the original recipe called for (900 to 1000 grams).

My second adaptation was to use the rice cooker to blanch the cauliflower!  Put water in, add salt, close the lid and set the “rice cooker” mode.  In just a few minutes when I opened the lid I had boiling water.  I added the cauliflower, close the lid and blanched for about 5 minutes, then proceeded with the recipe–faster than a pan of water on the stove top!

My third adaptation is one I use often in cooking for one–I used shallot instead of onion since I don’t like bits and pieces of cut onion loitering in the fridge–so one medium to large shallot, prepped as for the onion in the above recipe.

gratin dish with cauliflower

oven ready

That recipe called for 16 olives–well four olives just didn’t look like enough, so I used six. Garlic–well, I used two very small cloves. The rest of the ingredients were “measured” by eye: parsley, the Parmigiano-Reggiano were whatever looked like enough for the amount of cauliflower–maybe my adaptation is a bit cheesier than the original, but  that’s okay with me!

The results were fantastic, maybe even awesome! (Please note past tense–well, there was a tiny bit left, but that’s probably because of the rather large cod fillet–a leftover as I define leftovers–re-warmed in sugo alla puttanesca.)   This was one of the best things that I’ve ever done with cauliflower. It’s a keeper with lots of room to improvise: some red pepper flakes added to the shallot-olive mixture, or maybe some roasted red peppers.

browned gratin of cauliflower

ready to eat

I think that I might step down to 150 grams of cauliflower next time, and bake it in a slightly deeper dish–but it will definitely be made again. I do need to add more garlic, though. I can’t believe how easy it was.  This is my kind of recipe–not at all fussy and open to modification to fit my mood, the weather, and what else is served.

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The cod fillet was a “leftover”–meaning planned.  The method of the “rerun” was unplanned.  After several days of intensive course preparation for online courses, I suffered a serious case of cabin fever.  On impulse, I called a friend, and we went out to dinner at one of my favorite causal places, Meelo’s Ristorante, here in Durham, since I had a serious craving for Andre Chabaneix’s spagetti alla puttanesca.  There was a bit of the puttanesca sauce left in the bottom of my plate, so I brought it home with me.  I used it to gently re-warm the cod fillet for supper this evening–now I’m going to have to see if I can match his sauce so that I don’t have to go out every time I want puttanesca sauce.

cod with puttanesca sauce

cod with puttanesca sauce

Macaroni & beef with tomatoes

The sudden arrival of a day that is about 30 degrees cooler that what we’ve been having has sent me scurrying into the kitchen to make a serious, hearty ham and bean soup, maybe some chili, and something quick, warm and cozy for today while the rest of the weekend cooking is in progress.

I love the multiple flavors and textures of a 15-been soup, but one of the frustrations is how differently the various beans cook.  This sent me to Cook’s Illustrated for information on how best to soak my beans.

They recommended a brine for the soak:  3 tablespoons of table salt per gallon per 1 pound of dried beans.  (If you’re using kosher salt see Conversions page for equivalents).  So the beans are soaking!  I’m doing the full pound so that I can stock the freezer with bean soup for the winter since it’s a favorite meal.

Since I did not plan ahead I have wait for the beans to soak, I’ll have to cook something else for today’s cool weather food– mac ‘n’ beef sounds like good cool weather food.

♦♦♦

I found a recipe that looked easy and quick in Cook’s Country–a skillet version.  Only drawback was that I needed to be out running errands and wanted food when I got back.  Since I’d discovered that I can make a decent macaroni and cheese in my rice cooker, I decided to try making it in that.  The other thing I like with my macaroni and beef is chunks of tomatoes, not just some tomato sauce so I did a little modification of the recipe, and enjoyed my comfort food on a chilly day.

Ingredients

  • 10 ounces of elbow macaroni (or any small tubular pasta)
  • 3/4 pound of lean ground beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 14.5-ounce can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes, drained reserving liquid
  • 1 10-ounce can of diced tomatoes and green chilies, drained reserving liquid
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 6 medium cloves of garlic, put through press
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of Hungarian half-sweet paprika or smoked Spanish paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste
  •  2-1/2 cups of liquid (juice of tomatoes brought up to this volume with water)

Assembly

  • Cook onion in the olive oil until just starting to brown in a skillet on the stove-top.
  • Add ground beef and break up, and brown.
  • Add garlic, paprika and oregano, and continue to cook until fragrant.
  • Transfer to bowl of rice cooker and add drained tomatoes and the liquid.
  • Add macaroni and mix well.
  • Set on the rice cooking cycle; it switches to warm/hold when done.
I got back from running errands and there was my mac ‘n’ beef ready to eat.  I have several more servings…a couple are destined to go into the freezer for future use.   Some will get reheated in the oven in the next few days (topped with some cheddar cheese and put under the broiler until it’s nice and brown).

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I don’t have a lot of specialty appliances in my kitchen, but one that has earned a permanent spot on my counter is my Krups rice cooker which also functions as a steamer and a slow cooker–and you can steam and cook rice at the same time.  You can also use it to cook pasta.

One of the things I discovered in the recipe book that came with it was a recipe for macaroni and cheese cooked using the rice cooking mode.  I was pleased with the results with a bit of modification in the ingredients.  The pasta does not overcook–just like rice does not overcook so I was inspired to try the macaroni and beef in it and it  worked well.