Mac(abee) and Cheese

I am completely at ease with my age. I am not at all embarrassed to admit I just skipped my 15 year high school reunion. ($30 a ticket when Facebook is free? Pfft!) I’ll admit, it’s weird to remember things from 25 years ago so easily, but as Aleza pointed out last week, it’s pretty neat to remember history and be a part of it at the same time.

My body, however, is a different story. Things creak and crack, weight seems extremely easy to gain and much harder to lose. Last week when I bent down to pick up a boot, I pulled something in my back. I spent the work week Googling words like “lumbar support” and “yogic stretches at a desk.” I rode my bike some days, but didn’t want to push it too hard. Thursday night, after I stood by the stove frying celery root and carrot latkes, and stirring my butter and flour to make a roux for my chipotle mac and cheese, I felt it a few hours later when I was whimpering in pain at 1AM. I needed a heating pad after yesterday’s hard wooden pew at Christmas Mass, and I’m writing this not from my usual perch on the red couch, but in a chair with my own personal heating pad.

I honestly didn’t even know if I’d get up a post this week, but someone wrote me saying that she’d never fried a latke before and was surprised I didn’t have a recipe posted on Cheap Beets. Not one to leave anyone in a food-related lurch, I immediately e-mailed her my favorite go-to potato latke recipe. But I’m so mortified I’d let that important food detail slip, that I’m offering up two holiday-related recipes as penitence.

The first, a latke fried in oil, is to remind us of the miracle of the menorah. Briefly, in the 2nd century BCE, the tyrannical Greek King of Syria, Antiochus, outlawed Judaism and took over the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. A Jewish rebellion ensued, led by the Maccabees, and against all odds, the Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks. The Jews had to repair and purify the Temple, but they only had one night’s supply of oil for lighting their holy menorah. Miraculously, that small amount of oil burned for eight consecutive nights, giving them just enough time to replenish their olive oil supply.

For Eastern European Jews, the potato latke is the most common fried recipe. (Israeli Jews eat sufganiyot, fried jelly doughnuts.) Now, the latke I have for you is made not with potato but with celery root and carrot. My friend Russ, who likes to keep it real and old school for the holiday, always goes potato, but hear me out. First, potatoes are a soggy drag. You have to squeeze and squeeze all the excess water out, and you’re always left with a brown puddle at the bottom of your mixing bowl. Second, how old school is it, really? Potatoes are a New World vegetable, so it looks like the potato latke tradition is only a few hundred years old, at best.

I went with carrot and celery root because my co-worker’s wife gave us another of her CSA celery root rejects on Thursday morning and I thought they’d team well with some of the remaining CSA carrots I still had in the crisper. I paired those with a dollop of cilantro and garlic yogurt, because, well, why not?

The second dish I have is to celebrate a lesser-known, but possibly even more awesome Chanukah food: cheese. The custom of cheese for Chanukah dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Book of Judith played an important role in the Chanukah narrative. Judith was a celebrated Jewish heroine who saved her village from an invading Assyrian army. Judith, a beautiful widow, plied the Assyrian army’s general with wine and salty cheese. When the general passed out drunk, Judith beheaded him with his own sword. The Israelites launched a surprise attack on the leaderless Assyrian army and emerged victorious.

Sure, the tale is hidden in the Apocrypha, but I like celebrating a strong female leader – and cheese. I actually was able to use wine in this dish too, from the same small bottle I used for our stuffed pumpkin in the fall. (What can I say, we’re not big wine drinkers.) I add chipotle to mine, riffing off an episode of Gilmore Girls I once saw where Sookie cooked up a pan of jalapeno mac and cheese for a kid’s birthday party. The kids hated it, but I kind of sat up and went “oh?” And thus, chipotle mac and cheese was born.

Celery Root and Carrot Latkes

Ingredients

1 celery root, washed and peeled

2 medium-sized carrots, peeled

½ red onion

3 eggs

1/3 cup flour

¼ teaspoon cumin

Pinch of salt

Oil to fry

Directions

Shred, with a box grater or food processor, first three ingredients. Place into a large mixing bowl, and add the next four. Heat approximately 1/3 cup oil in a large skillet (I prefer a non-stick skillet, and actually have two going at the same time for this step.) Lower the flame and space out as many tablespoons of batter as you can fit without them touching. Fry on one side for approximately four minutes until golden brown. Turn over and fry on other side for three minutes. (Uncharacteristically, I actually employ a timer for this task.)

Remove from pan and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Continue with remaining batter, adding more oil when necessary.

Serve with the following yogurt.

Cilantro Yogurt

In a small bowl, mix together:

¾ cup Greek yogurt (I used whole-fat, but I know a reduced-fat would work well, considering all the flavor boosters in this sauce.)

½ cup chopped, fresh cilantro

1 small clove garlic, minced

Squeeze of lemon

2 teaspoons olive oil

Pinch of salt

I ended up with leftovers of this dip, and mixed it with some chickpeas I had in the fridge the next day for lunch. It was terrific.

Chipotle Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients

2 ¼ cups macaroni (really, any small pasta will work well for this)

¼ cup butter

½ cup flour

3 cups milk

½ cup dry white wine

10 oz. (1 ¼ cups) shredded cheddar cheese

1 chipotle in its adobe sauce, chopped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350F. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package.

Meanwhile, gently melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the flour and chipotle and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. (This brownish paste is called a roux, by the way.) Add the milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously after each addition. Stir in the white wine. Bring to boil. Cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce thickens, then remove from the heat.

Let's talk about the roux, just for a sec.

Add the ¾ of the cheese to the sauce. Stir well to mix in the cheeses, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Add your well-drained pasta into the sauce, then pour everything into a 13”x9” or 2 quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.

Champagne Wishes and Fish Sauce Dreams

A few weeks ago, I had a quick procedure. Not a big deal, not even worth getting into the details here, but they did need to sedate me. I was a little groggy afterwards, and I was given the instructions not to drive, go to work or operate heavy machinery for the rest of the day. But when Rich brought me home from the hospital, I grabbed a canvas grocery bag from the backseat and started wobbling my way to the market around the corner.

“Um, what are you doing, dear?” Rich asked.

“I have some stuff I need to pick up,” I replied.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, given your condition.”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s 500 yards from our house, and I promise to use the crosswalks. There’s no heavy machinery involved.”

Rich soon realized this was a battle he would not be able to win, even though his opponent could barely stand up. He watched me steady myself to the end of the street, green sweatpants and all, and turn the corner.

I had had Vietnamese noodles on my mind for the past few weeks, and the chalush (an uncontrollable hankering) was one that not even a minor sedative would keep me from. The secret to Vietnamese noodles is fish sauce, which can be found in Asian markets, and more often than not, in the Asian aisle of most decent grocery stores. It’s usually made of anchovies, and is a bit akin to garum, the stinky fish sauce the Romans doused nearly everything they ate with. Hey, I said the blog is “mostly” vegetarian, cut me some slack.

And the noodles were perfect. They were exactly what I had hoped for. Looking back, I probably should have stayed out of the kitchen that afternoon, and not used the stove or a large chef’s knife. When I tasted the sauce, I thought it was too citrusy, so I stumbled around the kitchen adding a splash of mirin and a dash of soy. Of course, after a few minutes of fussing, I realized I hadn’t actually added the fish sauce; it had been measured and waiting next to the bowl. Oops. But I did succeed in the end, and somehow I managed to photograph it as well.

When Rich returned home from work that night, I greeted him with an offer of the noodles spiked with fish sauce. “Oh,” he said, “so you did end up making them.” “Huh?” I asked. “Oh, you don’t remember? When you came to after the anesthesia, you were mumbling noodles with fish sauce.”

Vietnamese Noodles aka Thai Noodles slightly adapted from Myers + Chang Thai Ginger Chicken Salad, minus the chicken salad, from Bon Appetit September 2011

Ingredients

1 Thai chili, sliced thin

Juice of ½ lime

2 Tablespoon mirin

2 Tablespoon rice vinegar

¼ cup fish sauce

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoon. ginger, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

12 oz. rice stick noodles

4 oz. cubed tofu

4 springs cilantro, stems included, chopped

Directions

Put a large pot of salted water onto boil.

Whisk first 8 ingredients in a small bowl until sugar dissolves. Set dressing aside.

When the water boils, cook noodles until tender, but still firm to the bite, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain; put in large bowl.

Add cubed tofu to the noodles, pour the dressing, toss to coat, then sprinkle with the chopped cilantro.

The Georgian Feast

Rich lost his kitchen privileges. The ban was imposed after I came home to a flooded kitchen last Thursday. At first, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but soon enough it became clear that the leak was coming from a broken garbage disposal. I can only assume the culprit was the once-lost pestle (as in mortar and), discovered by Rich when it was chewed up by the garbage disposal the previous week. Good news: I now have a new garbage disposal; thanks, Chief Parr! Bad news: I still have a mortar minus a pestle.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when I attended a Georgian Feast. No, it was not an evening of peaches and pecans, but a dinner and lecture about the Republic of Georgia, which I learned is really a crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It was one of several seminars in food, wine and the arts my school is offering this semester, and for which I used my student discount to its full advantage. The lecturer was Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian at Williams College and author of The Vegetarian Hearth, from which the terrific lentils and leeks recipe comes. But most importantly, Dr. Goldstein is the founder and editor-in-chief of the phenomenal scholarly food magazine Gastronomica, which was recently awarded Best Food Magazine of 2010 at the Gourmand Awards.

According to one Georgian legend, God took a supper break while creating the world. He became so involved with his meal that he inadvertently tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus, spilling his food onto the land below. The land blessed by Heaven’s table scraps was Georgia.

This feast was the second of a two-night event. The previous night was a lecture about sustainable caviar, which, according to one of the women at my table, also involved six separate shots of vodka. Our outstanding dinner, which was prepared by the students in the culinary arts program, also involved alcohol. Keith Johnsen of Daqopa Brands flew in from Washington State to serve us six wines, three white and three red. Actually, I may have enjoyed more than my six. When the slender, young African American man wearing a dark suit and gold bow tie sat down at my table, I leaned over and asked “is it safe to assume you won’t be drinking your wine this evening?” He smiled and confirmed my guess. “I know all about food restrictions, I grew up kosher. I completely understand. I also wrote a 20 page paper last semester analyzing the show Man vs. Food and the perpetuation of food waste in American culture. Religiously speaking, it would be an affront to God to have that wine poured down the drain.” He laughed and passed me his wine.

And the feast itself? We started with khachapuri, a buttery bread full of salty cheese, which we enjoyed while Goldstein demonstrated the preparation of in the front of the room. Tabaka, flattened chicken traditionally eaten with one’s hands to get every bit of meat, was served with niortskali, a garlic sauce, drizzled on top. On the side were mtsvane lobios borani, spiced green beans with a garlicky yogurt dressing, and charkhlis, a beet puree full of coriander and walnuts. For dessert, we had purple pelamushi, grape juice and cornmeal squares, and fresh fruit. All the recipes can be found in Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast, winner of the 1994 Julia Child Book of the Year Award, which all attendees received.

We drank a 2001 Brut Vintage Reserve Bagrationi, a 2007 Mildiani Katstieli, a 2008 Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli, a 2007 Saperavi Kondoli Vineyards, a 2006 Mukazani Teliani Valley and a 2009 Khvanchkara Racha. Were I more sophisticated (and had I been more sober) I would be able to tell you which we had with each course. My favorite was the Pheasant’s Tears, which was very sweet and honey-colored.

The green beans were so splendid that I actually opened the book to page 153 so I could read the recipe at the table. I happened to have both yogurt and green beans in the house this week, so I got very excited. And then I came to the line where I was supposed to use my mortar and pestle to pound my clove of garlic with salt to a paste. “Argh!,” I shrieked, possibly a little too loud for the room. (I blame it on the Pheasant’s Tears. I’m a sympathetic crier.)

I did make these green beans tonight, and tried to create the same effect by mincing my garlic with salt into a paste on a cutting board. It took quite a few minutes to do, and would have been a breeze with a mortar and pestle. This dish was so delicious, I think Rich will be replacing mine sometime this weekend.

Green Beans with Yogurt (Mtsvane Lobios Borani)

From The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein

Goldstein writes, “Borani refers to a dish of boiled vegetables to which yogurt is added; an elaborate version calls for the addition of fried chicken as well. Georgian borani is similar to the Persian borani-e or Indian boorani, all legacies of Mongol influence.”

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

1 pound green beans, trimmed

1 onion, peeled and minced

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of ground cloves

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup ice water

1/2 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, dill, summer savory) — I actually only used tarragon tonight, and it was fantastic. Georgian food is full of cilantro, so if you want to be the most authentic, that’s the way to go.

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (optional)

In a large pot of boiling water, parboil the beans for 4 to 5 minutes, until crisp-tender. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, saute the onion in 4 tablespoons of butter until soft.

Drain the beans and chop coarsely (each bean should be in 2 to 3 pieces). Add the beans to the onion along with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in the cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Cook, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are very soft.

In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with salt to a paste. Whip the yogurt with the ice water and add it to the pounded garlic.

Stir the fresh herbs into the beans and cook for 1 minute more, then turn out onto a plate. Pour the yogurt over the beans and garnish with fresh mint, if desired.

I ended up drizzling the yogurt sauce on everything on my dinner plate tonight, the cabbage and cous cous. I think you’ll be wanting to do the same.

Cold Day, Hot Soup

I love soup — not only warm, thick soups to heat me up in the winter but cold soups like gazpacho and cucumber yogurt to cool me down in the summertime. I keep a spoon and bowl at my desk at work. I eat it for breakfast. I own more than one soup cookbook. So when I read that January is National Soup Month, and the 22nd is National Soup Swap Day, I got excited.

The soup I have here is not for everyone, including my mother and Julia Child. It’s a sweet potato cilantro soup with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. If the thought of putting cilantro into anything makes you cringe, you’re not the only one, and it’s not your fault. As food scientist Harold McGee writes, some people actually have a genetic disposition to hating the herb, but that it can be improved over time.

But I love this soup. It’s got a bit of a kick, so feel free to cut down on the chipotle peppers, or even leave them out. The marriage of sweet potato and cilantro might be enough for some, but if you love a little heat, go for it! I make this soup in a pressure cooker, so it takes about 7 minutes to cook. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, it’ll just take a bit longer. I also have an immersion blender, so I puree it directly in the pot. If you use a regular blender or food processor, do it in small batches and be very careful. Put a towel over the top of the machine to prevent any of the hot soup from spraying out. If you are concerned about processing the hot liquid, allow the soup to cool beforehand.

The potatoes don’t need to be diced perfectly, but make them around the same size so they all cook at the same time. I keep the peppers in their can in the fridge, with a lid of tin foil. As long as the cilantro isn’t super gritty, I use the Rachael Ray method (no judgment!): swirl it around in a bowl with cold water.

Sweet Potato and Cilantro Soup with Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce

4 medium shallots, peeled and chopped

2 chipotle peppers and about a teaspoon of their adobo sauce, chopped

6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered

4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, halved and cut into thirds

1 quart stock (a box of stock works perfectly)

A hearty handful of cilantro

Pinch of salt

Directions

Over medium heat, saute the shallots (with a dash of salt) and the peppers in their sauce in olive oil for about 7 minutes, until the shallots are wilted but have not started to brown. Add the garlic and cook about two minutes longer. Stir in the potatoes and sweet potatoes, and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock and cook in pressure cooker for 7 minutes (double check your pressure cooker instructions for exact times on cooking potatoes), or reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, until the veggies are fork-tender, approximately 25 minutes. Add the cilantro and puree the soup. If the soup is too thick, add some extra stock or water. Check the soup for salt and pepper and serve.