Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lamb Curry

The first time I had curry was in high school. One of my friends wanted to meet for lunch, and, being a vegetarian as well as a self-professed food snob, he didn't want to meet just anywhere. He suggested one of the Indian restaurants in town. I, not wanting to seem the lame friend, agreed, and showed up, somewhat hesitant but willing to give it a try. I figured if I didn't like it, I could just eat the rice.

There was no need to worry.

I piled my plate with food with exotic names--chicken makhani, rogan josh, pakora. Underneath lay my safety of basmati rice (flavored with saffron) and on top was a small mountain of naan. In the end, both were used to soak up the gravy left behind.

Everything you'll need for the best curry you'll ever eat outside India
Since then, I try to get a curry fix whenever I can. Unfortunately the nearest Indian restaurant is two hours away. So I started making my own. It's become a staple in our house, and I make it at least once a month. The recipe is enough for our family to eat for at least a couple of meals. It can be made on the stove, in the oven, or in a crock pot. It can be made with pork, chicken, lamb, or (even though it seems kind of wrong to me!), beef. You could even do it with chickpeas or potatoes if you wanted to go the vegetarian route--or if you had too many guests and not enough meat, you could add potatoes along with the meat.

It's become a comfort food, in the same category as roasted chicken or beef stew. And, although it might seem like a complex recipe, once you've made it a couple times and have all the ingredients at hand it gets really easy.

The first thing you'll want to do is get your spices ready. You'll need a stick of cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, and a cardamom pod.

In a seperate bowl, get your secondary spices ready (these will go in later, but it's a lot easier to measure stuff out before you've got it all going on the stove. That way there's no panic about things burning!) For your secondary spices, you'll want turmeric, coriander, cayenne, and garam masala. I also like to add in some premade curry powder--I don't know what it is but there's something familiar and comforting about it.

Garam masala is actually a blend of spices. It usually has ground white and/or black pepper, cloves, cumin, coriander, and other flavorful spices. The flavor of your curry will be dependant on what spices are in your particular blend.

I know some of the other spices seem unfamiliar, but whole coriander (which is the seed of the cilantro plant), bay leaves, and cloves came with my spice rack. I grind the coriander myself, either in a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder. Turmeric should be easy to find anywhere. Cardamom pods  may be harder to find--I buy mine at specialty food stores or a food co-op. If you really can't find them anywhere, I have substituted ground cardamom, which can be found at most grocery stores. If I use ground, then I add it with the rest of the ground spices, not the whole ones.

Next you'll want to chop your onion. Chopping onions is really easy and something everyone should know how to do. First, you need to peel the onion and chop off the stem end (leave the root intact or your onion will fall apart.) Cut the onion in half. Then cut the onion toward the root.

Turn the onion 90 degrees and cut again. This will make nice, tidy dices of onion.

See? How easy was that?

Here's what everything will look like when it's all prepped and ready.

The next step will require a large pot. Measure your oil and add your first spices (cinnamon, etc.). Heat everything over medium heat.

While your spices are toasting, you'll want to mince a large garlic clove and a knob of ginger. Be sure to mince them up really, really finely. Biting into a piece of ginger is not the best experience you'll have in your life.

Today when I was at the store I found this jar of ginger and garlic paste. I'm going to give it a try today, instead of doing more chopping--anything to save a couple minutes!

At this point, your spices should be getting nice and toasty. Don't stand too close (for example, with your face over the pot, inhaling), because sometimes the spices can pop.

When the bay leaves start to sizzle and the cinnamon stick starts to uncurl, fish the spices out and wrap them up in a piece of cheesecloth or a metal strainer. You don't have to do this, but then there's the risk of biting into a clove or a whole peppercorn later. They're pretty distinctive-looking so it's not a huge problem, but for me it's just a "because I can" thing. And because we have a toddler who might not know to eat around the whole cloves. 

Anyway, once you've collected all the spices if you're going to, seal whatever you're using to keep them in and toss the spice package back into the pot.

Add your onion to the pot. Saute them until they turn a delicious golden brown. Keep watch over them so nothing burns. It's easy to walk away and forget about them, and that's something you definitely don't want to do.

I know. I've done it before. Nothing is as disheartening as watching part of your dinner go into the trash, even if it is just onions.

Once the onions are caramelized, it's time for the next step.

Add in the garlic and ginger. Also add in some cubed lamb. You can use any cut of lamb you like--this is leg. You'll want to use something tougher though (don't waste chops on this!), since it's going to be braising for a while. Season everything with salt and pepper and cook for another 20 minutes.

After the lamb has cooked a bit, add in your ground of spices (turmeric, coriander, etc.)

Add 2 tablespoons of water to keep your spices from sticking and burning, and cook until everything is combined, about 5 minutes.

Add a can of tomatoes. I'm fond of these fire-roasted tomatoes but really any kind of diced tomato you have on hand will do. Cook for another few minutes, and then lower the heat to medium-low. Add 2 cups of water.

Add a can of coconut milk. I love coconut milk. It smells so yummy and tropical.

Coconut milk is made from the meat of the coconut. The coconut meat is squeezed through cheesecloth or a sieve, and what comes out is canned.

As you can see here, the coconut milk looks kind of watery. Sometimes the coconut mix can solidify. The lighter, more watery substance floats to the top, leaving ...

... a solid substance on the bottom of the can.

You can avoid this by shaking the can vigorously before opening, but in this case it's all going in the pot so it doesn't really matter if it's a solid or a liquid.

It's all coming together...
Cover the pot and cook the curry until the meat is tender, at least 2 hours. Your house will fill up with a spicy, sweet, meaty smell that will make you hungry long before the curry is ready.

I've done this recipe in a crock pot before; it worked fine but it got a little dry. If you go the crock pot route, you'll still want to do everything up until the meat step on the stove, and then pour everything into your crock pot. Add an extra cup or so of water, too. Nothing smells as bad as something burning in a crock pot. If you're around while it's cooking, try to stir it every once in a while.

If you finish this off in an oven, do the same as if you were making it in a crock pot but set the oven temperature to 300F and don't add the extra water.

Either way, this curry is amazing when served with basmati rice. Sometimes I make it with homemade naan (recipe tomorrow!) Other times, if I'm strapped for time, I'll use storebought pita bread, either grilled or drizzled in olive oil and wrapped in foil and warmed in the oven. The bread adds a different texture to your meal, and is a great tool to sop up the extra gravy. Make this lamb curry tonight, you will not be sorry.

Recipe: Lamb Curry
1 1/2 pounds lamb, cubed
1/4 c. vegetable oil

2 bay leaves
1 cardamom pod
1 2" piece of cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
10 peppercorns

1 1/2 c. chopped onion
1 tbsp. minced ginger (or ginger paste)
2 tsp. minced garlic
   *Note: I have also used ginger and garlic paste. In this case, I used around 3 tbsp. instead of the minced ginger and garlic that the recipe calls for.

1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. curry powder
2 tsp. coriander
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp. garam masala

1 16-oz can diced tomatoes

1 16-oz can coconut milk

Heat oil in a large pot; add bay leaf, cardamom pod, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and whole cloves.

When bay leaves start to sizzle and cinnamon stick begins to uncurl, add onions and saute until golden brown, about 12-15 minutes.

Add minced ginger and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook for 20 minutes.

Add ground spice mix. Stir for 5 minutes and add 2 tbsp. of water to keep from burning.

Add tomatoes; cook 5 minutes. Lower heat to medium-low. Add 2 c. water.

Add coconut milk and stir to incorporate.

Cook until meat is tender, 2-3 hours. Serve over basmati rice and with flatbread. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro if desired.

Join a CSA!

This month, we joined a CSA for the first time.

What, you may be asking, is a CSA?

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The idea is that members of the CSA pay the farmers an annual fee. The farmers use that money to raise their goods--whether it be meat, vegetables, or other product. When the product is ready, the members receive a share of the final product. Some CSAs are for vegetables (most require signup by a certain date); the one we joined is for meat.

We joined the CSA at Thompson's Painted Hill Farm in Wells, MN. They offer both a summer and a winter CSA. The summer program runs May-October and gives back 15 pounds of meat per month, as well as a dozen eggs. The winter program is November-April and gives 13 pounds and a dozen eggs, as well as a Thanksgiving turkey and an Easter ham. They allow payment in one lump sum or as monthly payments, and pickup is the first Saturday of the month.

Although I really have no problem in buying meat from the grocery store, I do like to buy local when I can. I've read all the food books--Supersize Me, Food Inc., Fast Food Nation (am currently am working on-and-off through The Omnivore's Dilemma when I have time), which is even more of an encouragement to buy local, sustainable meat.

Another benefit of sustainable meat is that you know it will be good for you. Many farms like Painted Hill are essentially organic (PH cannot claim organic status because, as I understand it, they do not have access to an organic meat processor) and offer home-grown meat that comes more or less from your own backyard. By buying from farmers like this, you know you're not ingesting pesticides, growth hormone, or other unnatural ingredients.

So, like I was saying, this is our first month. I went to the market today to pick up our package. I couldn't wait to get home to see what we received!

I can tell you now that I was not disappointed! Here is what we got:
* 2 packages of chicken thighs
*1 package of chicken wings
*2 New York strip steaks from grass-fed beef
*1 lb. ground beef
*1 lb. ground pork
*1 lb. ground Italian-style chicken
*1 arm roast (presumably from grass-fed beef)
*1 pork roast
*4 large, bone-in pork chops
*1 dozen farm-fresh eggs

I am most excited about the grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is supposed to be high in omega-3 and also better for your heart, as the meat has less fat and saturated fat. It is also supposed to have a very different taste than the corn-fed beef we're probably all used to. I've heard some people have to get used to seeing the yellow fat that grass-fed beef has.

Heidi Thompson, one of the owners of Painted Hill Farm, blogged an interesting story a while back. A member of a Yahoo group they belong to visited the meat counter at his local grocery store and asked about the availability of grass-fed beef. Long story short, the butcher tried to tell him that beef weren't meant to eat grass. Uhh. Another person I know had a total mental disconnect between eggs and chickens (as in, not realizing that chickens come from eggs). If this is the future of food, I can confidently say that I'm afraid. Hopefully the Thompsons and other farmers will be able to educate the public on the benefits of farm-fresh meat.
I have never cooked grass-fed beef before--this shall be a new experience. From my understanding, it's very easy to overcook. When I picked up my meat, I was advised to marinate the steaks with some sort of acid (balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) and allow them to come to room temperature. Hopefully this week I will be able to share my experience with you!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Grilled Corn on the Cob

It's summer, which here in the midwest means that the sweet corn is ready to eat! July through September, you can pass any street corner or gas station and pass a teenager in a pickup selling bags of sweet corn on the cob. There's just nothing like a freshly-picked ear of corn covered in butter and salt and pepper.

My favorite way to experience corn on the cob is straight from the grill. Shucking raw corn is not on my top 10 list of favorite things to do. It's tedious, the silks get everywhere, and once in a while you'll get that one ear that's already being eaten by bugs. Eew.

But buying corn already shucked is the lazy man's way out. Shucking corn causes it to lose both taste and moisture. And it seems nearly impossible to get a set cooking time on how long to boil ears of corn for. Is it 5 minutes? 10? 15?

But grilling corn is a wholenother story. Once the husk is dark and charred, it peels away easily and the silks brush right off. The husks allow the cob to baste deliciously in butter. And you get that tasty grilled flavor that is featured so prominently in cooking magazines throughout the summer.

Grab a stick of butter and leave it out to soften. If you keep your butter in the freezer like I do, you can slowly microwave it in 5-10 second increments until it's softened but not melted.

Select two nicely sized garlic cloves and a bunch of fresh parsley. Chop them up together until the cloves and leaves are finely minced and intermingled into a cream-and-green paste.

Combine the paste and the butter and add large amounts of salt and pepper (it will look like a lot, but keep in mind you're seasoning 5 ears of corn). I also throw in a little smoked paprika sometimes. This time I forgot. Oops. At this point you could add some Parmesan cheese too, if that floats your boat.

Grab the corn and gently pull back the husks (don't pull them all the way off, you'll be replacing them in a second.)

Rub the ears all over with the butter mixture. When your ear is suitably buttery, pull the husks back so they're covering the corn again. You can tie the ends of the husks with string, or, if you've got them, silicone bands.

Things made of silicone are amazing. Dishwasher, microwave, oven, and grill-safe. And completely reusable. I use these when I roast chickens, to tie the legs together.

If you do happen to accidentally rip the husk all the way off, tie it back on as best you can.

Fill a large container or sink with water, and soak the corn husks for at least 20 minutes. This will help keep your corn from catching fire, help the corn steam, and also prevent the kernels of corn from getting too hot and popping. Nothing is as uncool as sporting burn marks from corn.

You can use this time to turn your grill on (or get the charcoal started.) You'll want a medium heat for this.

Once your corn is soaked and your grill is heated, all you've got left is to cook your corn. Toss it on and grill for 20 minutes. Be sure to rotate the ears or you'll end up with a burned side.

After your corn is cooked, pull back the husks and gnaw away. If you want to pretend you're at the state fair, grab some paper towels and wrap it around the pulled back husks. If you really want to pretend you're at the state fair, melt a bucket's worth of butter and dip your corn into it and chase it with some cheese curds and a fried Twinkie. Maybe a beer. I won't tell.

Grilled Corn on the Cob
5 ears of sweet corn, unshucked
1 stick of butter, softened
1 handful of parsley, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste

Combine butter, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper in a bowl.

Pull back the corn husks to reveal kernels. Spread butter mixture over the ear of corn and then replace husks. Tie the husks to keep the ears covered.

Soak husks in water for 20 minutes to prevent burning.

Grill corn for 20 minutes over medium heat, turning frequently.

Pull back husks and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cheese-Stuffed Bacon Burgers

These burgers are the ultimate in decadence. Smokey bacon is mixed into burger meat, stuffed with cheese, and grilled to a medium-rare char. I served these at a party one time and they were a huge hit. They're great for parties--you can make them ahead of time and grill them up as your guests arrive. And even if you've got folks who like their meat well-done, the cheese in the center guarantees they'll still have a somewhat juicy burger.

Start with a pound of ground beef in a glass or metal bowl. For burgers I usually use ground beef that's 80/20 (that is, 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat). It's cheaper and the fat helps flavor the meat. Today I'm using 85/15; it was on sale and the bacon will make up for that 5% difference.

This is half an onion ;)
For this next step, you'll want to get out your trusty food processor. Some days I wish I had a big, fancy food processor--and then I look at my small kitchen and think otherwise. This little guy has served me well for the past three years, and it's the perfect size for our two-adult-one-child family.

Toss in a quarter of an onion that you've roughly chopped. Add a clove of garlic. Give them a couple whirls in the processor. You want them to have a little head's up on the chopping; I don't know many people who like large chunks of onions or garlic in things.

Look how happy they look together.

Make those onions even happier by adding two thick slices of bacon. What I'm using here is bacon ends I bought from our local meat market.

On a related note, I'm not sure if I want to see Steve's Bacon Fronts.

The ends are perfect for things like this--there's really no need to use center cut bacon, and since we'll be grinding it up it's not a big deal if it's evenly sized. Plus the bacon ends taste the same but are cheaper.

Of course, slices of bacon are easier to measure.

Chop the bacon, onion, and garlic in the processor until they're very finely minced--the bacon will be paste-like. For this, the finer the better, because that will help it get evenly distributed in the ground beef. Both the bacon and the onion will help keep the burger moist, and both also add tons of flavor.

Combine the bacon and onion mixture with the ground beef. Add salt and lots of pepper. At this point, I also add a drizzle of olive oil and about a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Mix everything together gently. The point here is to combine all your ingredients but not overwork the meat.

Once your burger mix is finished, it's time to add the cheese. Wash your hands thoroughly and track down some cheese. You can use any kind here--blue, brie, cheddar, mozzarella, Muenster, fontina, Co-Jack, etc. Anything that will melt nicely and that you wouldn't mind eating a chunk of will do.

Usually I use the pr-esliced cheese you can buy for sandwiches and fold it into fourths. Today I'm shredded cheese  because that's what we had. When I use the slices, I use a whole slice of cheese per burger.

I would recommend going the slice (or chunk) route. Shredded is horribly difficult to work with and you end up with a less satisfying cheese-filled center.

Divide your hamburger mixture into fourths. Take one burger's worth of meat and gently shape it into a ball with a well in the center. Take your cheese and place it in the well. Cover the well and shape the ball into a patty slightly larger than the buns you'll be using. Make sure there's no cheese sticking out and try to get rid of any cracks in the burger. Salt and pepper both sides. Allow the patties to rest.

Go preheat your grill to medium and come back.

While your grill is preheating, it's time to toast the buns. Lightly butter the cut sides of your buns and toast on the stovetop or on a griddle.

When they're golden brown, take them off and they're ready for some bacon-y goodness.

Can you believe those pasty white buns turned into these? And they say tanning is bad for you.

Grill your burgers for 4-5 minutes per side until done. If they start oozing cheese, move to more indirect heat. Watch out, the fat from the bacon can cause flare-ups, so make sure you have tongs or a spatula long enough or you'll be missing some arm hair tomorrow. My husband, the resident griller, brings a timer out to the grill with him. It is a little hard to maintain a sense of time standing over a hot grill by yourself.

Or you can just stand there freaking out as your dinner catches on fire.

Let the burgers rest for a few minutes after taking them off the grill. If you dig in now (and I wouldn't blame you if you couldn't wait!), the juices will bleed all over, your nicely toasted buns will disintegrate, and your cheese will ooze out.

Spread the buns with your toppings of choice (homemade mayonnaise and refrigerator pickles, anyone?) and tell your heart you'll eat healthier tomorrow. Life's too short to not eat these burgers!

Psst...that little tail sticking out of my burger is a chunk of bacon. Don't tell me that wouldn't be the first thing you'd nibble off.

Recipe: Cheese-Stuffed Bacon Burgers
1 lb. ground beef
2 thick slices of bacon
1/4 of an onion
2 garlic cloves
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
4 oz. your favorite kind of cheese

Chop bacon, onion, and garlic in a food processor until pastelike mixture forms. Combine with ground beef. Add Worcestershire, olive oil, paprika, and salt and pepper.

Stuff hamburger mixture with 1 oz. of cheese and then form into patty.

Grill burgers over medium heat for 4-5 minutes a side. Allow to rest before eating.

Homemade Mayo and Honey Mustard

This was the first time I'd ever made homemade mayonnaise. Everyone said it was easy, and that it was way better than store-bought (which I definitely didn't doubt.) But I always imagined, no matter how silly I knew it was, that I would end up with a Miracle-Whip jar's worth of something that would only last a few days. Of course, now that I've made it I know that I can make a reasonable amount of mayo for our small family. And also that it is definitely easy and definitely delicious.

Mayonnaise only has 3 ingredients--egg, vinegar, and oil. Add some garlic and you can call it an aioli, which sounds much fancier than "mayo". You can make it by hand, in a food processor, in a blender, or with a mixer. It's foolproof, and how cool will you feel when you can brag that you're bringing homemade mayonnaise to the party?

Crack an egg into your food processor (or blender, or bowl, or mortar and pestle if you so choose. If you've got an active kid who likes to help in the kitchen, I bet you could put it in some kind of plastic container with a lid--without the garlic--and have them shake it up until everything is combined.)

I have been on a big kick of using farm-fresh eggs. I got spoiled this spring; a friend who raises chickens gifted me with as many eggs as I could use, and I got used to seeing the beautiful dark yolks. I've tried using grocery store eggs since then, but the pale, yellow yolks make me feel like something not quite right.

I also learned that you don't need to refrigerate unwashed fresh eggs. They have an enzyme from the hen that coats the outside of the shell, and it keeps the eggs safe at room temperature. The reason you have to refrigerate store-bought eggs is that they've been washed, which means the enzyme has been washed off. Regardless, I still refrigerate my eggs, and if they're from the farm I give them a quick rinse and dry right before I use them, even if they look clean.

To your egg, add a liberal splash (a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half) of white wine vinegar. You could also use cider vinegar or lemon juice.)

I also dropped in a small garlic clove. If you really like garlic, you could add another clove or two.

Replace the lid to the processor and turn it on until everything is combined. My little processor has two settings--chop and grind. I used the grind setting but I don't think it really matters. The liquid helps the processor chop the garlic clove into teeny, tiny invisible bits.

Now, here's the part where recipes will tell you to stream in the oil. My little processor doesn't have the ability to stream in liquids. There's no hole in the lid, and it won't run without the lid. Instead, I just slowly added the oil a bit at a time and ran the processor thoroughly after every addition to make sure it was well incorporated. I think I split the oil into 5 or 6 additions.

After all the oil is added in, you've got yourself some homemade mayo! Add some salt and pepper and you're in business. The mayo may seem a little thin, but once you put it in the fridge it'll thicken up.

You can use the mayo for sandwiches or salads (although never forget that it does have a raw egg in it. Don't bring potato salad with homemade mayo in it if the salad's going to sit in the hot sun for a long time.) can take some of your mayo and use it for  honey mustard.

Recipe: Homemade Mayonnaise
1 egg
1 to 1 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar (or some other acid, such as lemon juice)
1 garlic clove
3/4 c. oil (I used vegetable oil; you can use any kind of oil you like. Just keep in mind that darker oils, like olive or walnut, will have a stronger taste. Lighter oils, like canola, vegetable, or grapeseed, will have a more delicate flavor.)

Combine egg, vinegar, and garlic clove in food processor until garlic is incorporated. If you're using equipment that will allow you to stream in the oil, slowly stream in the oil while mixing. If you're using something that won't allow you to stream the oil, add it slowly in small increments and blend really well after every addition. Salt and pepper for flavor.

Refrigerate right away. Mixture will thicken in the fridge. Makes approximately 1 cup. Use within 3 days.

Now onto the honey mustard!

When I was a kid, there was a restaurant we went to all the time. It was a family restaurant that had a bird theme--stuffed birds and bird decorations were everywhere. My favorite thing to order was chicken fingers. Mostly it was because they served it with this delicious honey mustard. It was mayonnaise-y and thick. They closed a few years ago, but I haven't forgotten that honey mustard.

This will require 1/4 c. of your homemade mayonnaise. I just put 3/4 of it in the fridge and left the rest in the food processor.

Add a healthy dollop (2 tbsp or so) of dijon mustard to the mayo. You could use yellow mustard, too, but using the dijon makes me feel like a grown-up.

Usually at this point I add a liberal dose of horseradish. Unfortunately our horseradish was looking past its prime. So instead I used some wasabi paste that we had on hand.

Wasabi is traditionally made from a Japanese horseradish, but most horseradish people have usually had (including at sushi places) is made from a mix of a more ordinary type of horseradish and  additional ingredients to make it more like its authentic cousin.

My husband likes wasabi. A lot. When we go for sushi he will finish off that mound of wasabi paste they put on every plate. I guess he likes clear sinuses.

I also added in some honey. I like it sweet. If you're not so in to the sweet dips, then I'd start with a little honey and work your way up. No point in wasting perfectly good ingredients because you added too much! I'd guess I put in a couple teaspoons.

Finally, I add in some cayenne pepper. It gives it a nice pink-ish tinge, as well as another layer of spice. The wasabi gives you some biting spice while the cayenne gives you some heat.

Blend everything together and it's ready for you to dip your french fries into!

Recipe: Honey Mustard
1/4 c. homemade mayo
2 tbsp. dijon mustard
1 tsp. wasabi or horseradish
1-3 tsp. honey, to taste
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend. Enjoy!