Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Falafel and Pita

There were three lunch trucks outside the library where I worked in college, one of which was affectionately known as the "Greek Truck." I am pretty sure that this had to do with the fact that they had gyros and a big Greek guy, who whenever you would order anything with the works, would yell into the back of the truck to whomever was working the grill, "Give me a gyro all the way!" From this man I had my first pita with hummus, sprouts, and cucumber and I was hooked right away. Soon after I had my first falafel, and all was right with the world. Now anything on a pita always makes me think of that lunch truck and the man who taught me that it's not pronounced "jahy-ro," but "jeer-oh."

I have made a few pita recipes over the past year or so with pretty good results, but I have tried a different recipe pretty much every time. Recently, when I saw a post about pita on the Smitten Kitchen blog, I knew that I had yet another new recipe to test. Now, what to put in the pita once they were baked? Falafel sounded good to me, so I decided to try my hand at frying some up. Except for one somewhat failed attempt many years ago at one of my first all-veggie meals to try and impress my new fiance (she married me anyway so I guess those falafel couldn't have been too bad), I have never made falafel at home. I perused a few recipes and settled on this one from Mark Bittman.

The pita recipe worked beautifully. The dough was very easy to work with and the pita puffed nicely in the oven.

Now I think I'm finally ready to take the plunge, settle down, and commit to a pita recipe.

The falafel were very good as well. I cut down the cayenne in the recipe by half and forgot to add the onion, although I don't think the falafel were any worse for it. I am definitely going to be making this recipe again as well. I prefer a light, tangy yogurt sauce on my falafel rather than a tahini-based sauce. I just combined some yogurt with a bit of lemon juice, some minced garlic, and a dash of salt, pepper, and cumin. Delicious!

All I can say is, "Give me a falafel, all the way!"

Pita Bread Recipe from Smitten Kitchen

Falafel Recipe from Mark Bittman's Bitten Blog

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Brown Rice and Black Bean Soft Tacos

A few weeks ago I inadvertently recreated one of my old favorite fast food items. I had not eaten anything from any fast food restaurant in at least 5 years, probably even longer, but nonetheless I found myself experiencing a bit of food déjà vu. I was pretty sure I had never made a burrito (actually it was more of a taco due to over-stuffing) with this exact combination of ingredients, but I knew I had eaten it before. Then it struck me, the Seven Layer Burrito from Taco Bell - rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato (I looked it up). Of course, my dinner was slightly different as I had mashed avocado rather than guacamole, crumbled goat cheese instead of cheddar, and salsa instead of tomato, but the essence remained the same. Fond fast food memories came flooding back, making me feel all nostalgic, as well as slightly nauseous, for times spent with good friends driving around and...well, eating at fast food restaurants.

The amazing technique for cooking the brown rice used in this recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated Magazine, and it has been a revelation for me. I know it sounds pathetic, but I have never been able to cook brown rice with any type of consistency. This technique has you bake the rice in the oven, which was completely new to me. I have made brown rice this way at least ten times now, and its always come out exactly the same, that is to say, absolutely perfect. I'll never simmer it on the stove top again. The only down side is that you need to start 1 hour and 20 minutes before you want to use the rice, so some planning ahead is definitely required. Alternatively you can make a large batch of rice in advance, and freeze it in smaller portions to defrost and reheat as needed.

Start by preheating your oven to 375 degrees. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of brown rice into an 8-inch, oven safe baking dish. Measure out the spices and bring the water and oil to a boil.

Stir the spices into the boiling water and pour it over the rice. Pouring the water into the dish will move the rice around, so just use a spoon to coax it back into a nice even layer.

Cover tightly with a double layer of foil and place into the oven for 1 hour.

While the rice cooks, open up a can of black beans, rinse them and drain them well. When the rice is done, make sure to uncover it carefully or you can get a pretty nasty steam burn.

Fluff the rice with a fork, and place the foil loosely back over the top for 5 minutes.

While you are waiting for the rice, mash the avocado. You don't want to do this too far in advance because the avocado tends to discolor quickly. Stir the beans into the rice and allow it to sit uncovered for a few more minutes.

To assemble your soft tacos, start with a medium size (about 8 inch) flour tortilla. Spread as much sour cream as you like in the middle (I generally use about 1 tablespoon per taco).

Spoon approximately 1/8 of the rice mixture onto the sour cream and top with some goat cheese. I got the idea for goat cheese in tacos from this great recipe by Rick Bayless, the undisputed king of authentic Mexican cuisine in America. I know goat cheese sounds a little weird for tacos, but I think it adds a really nice tangy flavor and creaminess that you don't get from grated cheddar or jack cheese, but you can use whatever you like of course.

Next comes a little of your favorite salsa spooned over the top and a generous dollop of mashed avocado. If tomatoes are in season, I'm sure some fresh, diced tomato would be great, but if they're not in season, skip the tomato and use the salsa.

Top with some nice crispy romaine lettuce and you're ready to eat.


Brown Rice and Black Bean Soft Tacos
1 hour 30 minutes (about 10 minutes if rice and beans is cooked in advance) Makes 8 to 10 tacos
  • 1 1/2 cups long grain brown rice
  • 2 1/3 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 15 ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained well
  • 8 to 10 flour tortillas
  • sour cream
  • 4 ripe avocados
  • crumbled goat cheese
  • your favorite salsa
  • romaine lettuce, washed, dried, and cut into bite size pieces
To make the rice and beans:
  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven t0 375 degrees
  2. Place rice in 8-inch square, oven safe baking dish
  3. Place water and oil in small saucepan and bring to a boil
  4. Stir spices into boiling water
  5. Pour boiling water over rice, smooth rice into an even layer with a spoon
  6. Cover tightly with a double layer of foil
  7. Place into oven for 1 hour
  8. Remove from oven and carefully uncover
  9. Fluff rice with fork, then place foil loosely over top and allow rice to sit for 5 minutes
  10. Uncover, mix in beans with fork, and allow the rice to sit uncovered for 5 more minutes
To assemble the tacos:
  1. Prepare flour tortillas according to package directions
  2. Place a tortilla on a plate and spread about 1 tablespoon of sour cream evenly over the middle of the tortilla
  3. Place 1/8 to 1/10 of the rice and beans (about 1/2 cup) onto the tortilla
  4. Top the rice and beans with a few crumbles of goat cheese (about 1 to 2 tablespoons)
  5. Place a few spoons of salsa on top of the cheese (about 1 to 2 tablespoons)
  6. Top the salsa with a generous dollop of mashed avocado (about 1/3 cup or more if you like)
  7. Sprinkle a few pieces of lettuce on top
  8. Repeat as many times as you like

Brown rice is much healthier for you than white, but it takes considerably longer to prepare. The cooking method in this recipe makes delicious rice, is very simple, and is hands off for almost all of the cooking time leaving you free to prepare the rest of your meal. Use the brown rice cooking technique above whenever you need brown rice, simply omit the chili powder, cumin, oregano, and beans.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chicken Salad Contessa

Ever since I was a kid I have always loved turning leftover protein into salads, and then sandwiches. Of course, what I mean by this is chopping whatever chicken, beef, pork, lamb, hard boiled egg, etc., remains from dinner into little bits and mixing it with gobs of mayonnaise, then heaping the mixture onto whatever type of bread was available. Not exactly the most elegant preparation, but it always got the job done. It never actually occurred to me at the time that you did not have to wait for leftovers, you could prepare the meat specifically for this purpose, and that the addition of a few other ingredients could turn ho-hum, overly mayonnaised salads into some truly spectacular sandwich fillings. Hence, over the years my love of mixing meat with mayo has not diminished one bit, but has undergone quite an evolution.

My friend and coworker John has been bringing this chicken salad to work for lunch the last few weeks that intrigued me quite a bit. A slightly modified version of a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa (recipe link at the end of post), it starts with roasted, skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts and combines the meat with mayo, sour cream, some toasted nuts, grapes, and tarragon.

I wanted it immediately the first time I saw him take it out of his lunch bag and heard him describe the recipe. When my other friend and coworker Diana came in last week with some chicken salad of her own, the same recipe, I knew I had to make it as soon as possible (which turned out to be last Friday).

The thing I love about making recipes that others have made is that the recipes have already been tested and any possible trouble spots are thus easier to avoid. This recipe is a good example, as it calls for 2 teaspoons of salt (yes, 2 whole teaspoons) to be added to the dressing, hardly any of which is necessary. I knew this going in, and cut down the salt dramatically. I also knew that the dressing amount could be cut as well, and I used seedless red grapes instead of green. All information gleaned from discussions with my friends. If you don't have your own personal recipe testers, a great thing to do is find a recipe website, like Food Network or Recipezaar, that has user comments along with the recipes. You can pick up many great tips from countless others who have tried the recipe before you.

For this particular recipe I doubled the chicken, halved the mayo and sour cream, reduced the salt to 1/4 teaspoon (and I'm not sure it even needed that), and reduced the nuts by half. Although the recipe was intended to produce a salad eaten on a bed of lettuce, I could never eat chicken salad this way knowing I'm just 2 slices of bread away from sandwich heaven. I found this particular recipe to be quite good, the grapes added a nice refreshing burst of sweet flavor that I found to be a nice accent. And tarragon is fast becoming one of my favorite herbs, as I find it pairs extremely well with poultry. The real keeper though from this recipe is the easy and delicious chicken preparation. The meat came out cooked perfectly, and starting with bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts really kicks up the flavor while reducing the price tag (don't be a boneless/skinless chicken snob). I'll definitely be using this particular prep whenever I make chicken salad from now on.

Oh yeah, the recipe(s)...

The recipe described above - Chicken Salad Contessa

My favorite chicken salad - Cranberry-Walnut Chicken Salad

My favorite egg salad - Egg Salad Sandwich

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Spaghetti with Tuna, Arugula, and Hot Pepper

Here's a quick pasta dish that can be made with (mostly) pantry ingredients from another great blog, Simply Recipes. Saute some minced garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, add in some tuna and mix with the spaghetti and arugula, a little salt and pepper and you're done. Once the water boils, this one comes together in about 10 minutes with very little prep.

I'm not always crazy about arugula because I find its bitterness a bit off putting in certain dishes. I was going to swap in baby spinach, but they did not have any at the grocery store when I went shopping, so I ended up using baby arugula. All was well in the end, as I found the slight bitterness added a nice note to the finished dish. When you buy your tuna in oil, make sure it's packed specifically in olive oil (which is what the recipe calls for), not canola or some other oil. I made this mistake and ended up having to make a stop on my way home for the correct product.

Recipe: Spaghetti with Tuna, Arugula, and Hot Pepper