October 14, 2010

Freekah Salad

Can I talk to you about freekah? Yes, it is freaky. Freakily good, that is.

Freekah (also spelled freekeh and frikeh) is wheat that's been picked while green and then smoked. Cooked, it tastes like a smokier, nuttier wheat berry. If, like me, you happen to love chewy grains, then I urge you to try it. While it may not be on the shelf at your local supermarket, it shouldn't be terribly hard to find. Middle Eastern stores should carry it. I get mine either at Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or at the local greenmarket. The greenmarket freekah is superior to the boxed kind, and, not surprisingly, twice the price. Compared to other grains, freekah is expensive. But it's worth it.

If you google for freekah recipes, you will come up with a lot of stew-like dishes made with lamb. However, I love chewy whole grains served as room temperature salads, so I decided to make one up. While I cooked the freekah in my pressure cooker (HIMHMILMPC?) I roasted some cauliflower and cut up a leftover artichoke heart I had in my fridge. Then I mixed the warm, cooked freekah with the veggies, some crushed raw garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and chopped fresh herbs. The herbs are key. They take the salad right over the edge into amazing deliciousness.

This salad is best at room temp but can be made a few days ahead and kept in the fridge until you want to serve it. Of course, the Vegetarian loves it and will take it for lunch all week.

I like the combo of the cauliflower and the smoky freekah, but you could use any vegetable you wanted, really. Also, feel free to add in some feta cheese or some olives or anything else you're inspired to. I'm giving the recipe below without the artichoke heart, because I don't think it's worth cooking an artichoke just for this (and I don't think the canned/jarred ones are good for this—too vinegary). But if you happen to have an extra steamed artichoke lying around the fridge (something that's only happened to me about once in my life, and you're looking at the results) by all means, add it.

So the salad recipe is just a guideline. Mainly, I wanted to spread the gospel about freekah. Try it once, and I promise that, like me, you'll be hookah.

Freekah Salad with Roasted Cauliflower

2 cups freekah
1 head cauliflower (small, medium, or large—it doesn't matter)
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
olive oil
juice from one lemon
1-2 cups mixed fresh herbs, some combination of parsley, cilantro, dill, and mint.
salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat the oven to 400.
The freekah is cooked like brown rice. Put the freekah, five cups of water, 1 tsp of salt, and 1tbsp of olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover tightly, lower heat, and simmer for 45 minutes, until water is absorbed and grains are chewy but still tender.
Meanwhile, cut the cauliflower into florets, toss with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and caramelized.
In a bowl, mix cooked freekah with roasted cauliflower, garlic, and lemon juice. (start with the juice of half a lemon, taste, and add more if you like it more acidic.) Add in herbs and toss again. Let sit for at least 1/2 hour before serving, so flavors can mingle.

October 7, 2010

Carolina Seafood Feast

While my family was here this summer and I wasn't blogging, we went to the beach in North Carolina for two weeks. A beach vacation in North Carolina is a family tradition—we've been going since I was a kid. It made more sense then, when we lived in North Carolina, but even now, the beaches are so nice and the whole vibe so relaxing that it's worth making the trek down from Brooklyn.

For me, one of the main attractions of the NC beach is its warm water—no matter how long I live in the Northeast, I never get used to the cold ocean up here. People up here always say that it's refreshing, or that they don't like too warm "bath" water, but I think that's a bunch of rationalizing hogwash. Warm water is better—you can frolic in it all day long, and if these same people are so set on their "refreshing" water, why do they go to Miami, or the Caribbean, or Mexico? Do people spend time in St. Bart's thinking, "I wish the water were cooler?" I don't think so.

Anyway, all of this is just to say: imagine my surprise when we arrived at the NC beach this summer and the water was—cold! Not just cool, but a toe-numbing cold, a less-than-60 degrees F cold.

The culprit was something called a "coastal upwelling" in which winds push the warmer surface water away and deeper, colder water rises up to replace it. Upwelling, upschmelling, all I know is that it almost ruined my beach vacation. I had never spent two weeks at the beach before and was really looking forward to it, but somehow it wasn't the same when I was reluctant to go in the water.

Anyway, the point of all this is that, instead of swimming, a lot of cooking and baking got done (mainly by my mom, but some of it by me). And that's why you're reading this, right? To hear about the food.

The pic above shows my version of a Carolina seafood platter. I love the fresh shrimp that you get down there, and the crabs. And I like them best just boiled up with some Old Bay or other seafood seasoning. (Here we used some house brand that the fish store had.) Peel-and-eat fresh shrimp and some crabs, what could be better? Well, most of my family doesn't like shrimp. Or crab, apparently. Too much work, they all say.

So thank goodness for the fish. My brother was out surfcasting every dawn and dusk, and one pleasant side effect of the cold water was that he caught a lot of fish. And I mean a lot. He had two hooks on each of his poles (In case you haven't figured it out, my brother is one of those fishing-crazy guys. Weird, I know, but it takes all kinds.) and sometimes the Soccer Monster and his cousins would be fishing with him and they would cast their lines and pull in a fish on each hook less than a minute later. My brother threw three quarters of the fish he caught back and we still ate fish almost every morning, noon, and night. My mother usually fried them, which is how you see them on this platter, but towards the end we started to grill them, and I prefer them grilled, I think.

To go with the seafood platter, my mother made this, a classic Hungarian dish and a childhood favorite of mine.

Then, the next day, I made these with the leftovers and everyone raved about them.

Of course they raved, because these were incredibly time-consuming (though not difficult) to make, what with picking the leftover crab out of the shell and all. It's not my favorite ratio, the "time spent preparing food:wow factor" one. I have some quick dishes that really wow, but the world needs more of these, especially for us lazy busy cooks.

I'll leave you with a recipe for the cabbage noodles, because, trust me, you don't want to make the time-consuming seafood cakes and the platter is so simple, it doesn't need a recipe. And besides, these noodles are delicious.

Hungarian Noodles with Cabbage

1 medium head green cabbage
1 pound wide egg noodles
1 stick butter
4 tsp sugar
salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1) Shred cabbage, place in a colander, and sprinkle liberally with salt.  Leave for at least 15 minutes. Then rinse, shaking colander to get rid of excess water.
2) In a heavy saute pan, melt the stick of butter. when foam subsides, add sugar and stir till it begins to caramelize, turning a light brown. Add cabbage and stir for one minute, or until cabbage begins to wilt a little. Then lower heat and cook cabbage, stirring frequently, until it is soft and brown, about 15-20 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook noodles according to package directions. (Or, if you're me, cook them a minute less than the package says.)
4) When cabbage is done, add cooked, drained noodles to it and mix. Grind on lots of black pepper and salt if needed. Mixture will be dry, but if it seems too dry, add in another tablespoon of butter and some pasta cooking water.

Makes a great buffet dish, as it's good at room temperature as well.

October 1, 2010

Rainy Day Meatballs

Okay, so I haven't posted for almost two months. I didn't think I was going to take the summer off, but it just kind of happened. My family was here from Thailand. We went on a bike trip. The Soccer Monster started middle school in Manhattan (and joined his third—count 'em, three—soccer team), which meant adjusting to 6:30 am mornings. (Those of you who know me well will know how hard this was for me.)

But now I'm back. And playing around with my photos. This is the polaroid look. Do you like it?

And cooking. Trying to do lots of cooking, though as the kids get older and their days get busier, it gets harder. But I'm tryin'.

It's rainy and gray here today—has been all week. One of my favorite things to make on a drizzly, wet, stay-at-home-all-day day is meatballs in tomato sauce. This dish is a real example of how my neighborhood has changed me. Before I moved to this Italian-American neighborhood, it would never have occurred to me to make meatballs. It wasn't something I ate when I lived in Italy. I didn't even like them that much.

But then one day I tasted my friend Emma's meatballs. She's an old-school Italian-American gal and a mean cook. Her meatballs hooked me. And besides, the soccer monster likes them and will eat a lot of them. And whatever that scrawny bag of bones will eat a lot of gets made often in this house.

When I first set out to make meatballs, I went for the complex everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Tons of stuff went into them. Parsley. Ricotta Cheese. Fresh Garlic. Diced pancetta or bacon. But I soon gave up that approach because
a) It was too complicated and usually required two trips to the store. (The second trip was to pick up what I forgot the first trip.)
b) The kids didn't like the fancy meatballs so much. (This was back when the Vegetarian wasn't a vegetarian yet.) They didn't like the parsley, or the bite of the fresh garlic, etc, etc.

And while I hate to cater to annoying kids with unsophisticated tastes, this is, of course, exactly what I do most nights. And besides, I am a lazy busy cook, and those complex meatballs were killing me. After mixing up all those ingredients, I fried the meatballs on the stove and then carefully placed them in a pot of made-from-scratch tomato sauce. I'm not saying those meatballs weren't good, but were they worth it, in the time vs. outcome sense? Not to me, anyway.

So behold, my rainy day meatballs. Simple ingredients, simple process. Though they do require several hours in a hot oven, there's very little hands-on time. It will take you longer to read this recipe than it will to make it.

Honestly, they couldn't be easier.

Rainy Day Meatballs

2 pounds ground meat (I like a beef, pork, veal combo best, but you can use anything you like. I've never tried it with turkey or chicken, but they should work, though they might be a little dry. This def works best with meat that has some fat in it, like ground chuck.)
2 slices bread (white or whole wheat, supermarket sliced or artisan—doesn't really matter)
1 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder (optional)
1 tsp fish sauce (optional)
1/2 tsp dried oregano (optional)
1/2 tsp dried basil (optional)
salt and pepper
olive oil 
crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
one 28-oz can crushed tomatoes or one box pomi strained or chopped tomatoes or similar amount of tomato sauce or other tomato product

Preheat oven to 400.
Crumble the bread into a bowl and pour milk over it. Let it sit until bread is completely soaked and can be crumbled into a paste with the milk.
Add the ground meat, egg, cheese, garlic powder, onion powder (if using), fish sauce (if using—I add fish sauce to a lot of tomato-based things; it adds some extra umami punch.), oregano, basil,  and salt and pepper. Season very liberally. Taste mixture and adjust seasonings as necessary. (If you're wimpy about tasting a raw ground meat mixture you can fry a mini meatball up in a pan, but I am too lazy busy to bother with such things. I've been tasting raw ground beef mixtures for years now and I'm still here, but hey, we all make our own choices.)
Liberally oil a shallow saute pan or a casserole pan with a lid. Make golf-ball sized meatballs with the meat mixture (or any size meatballs you want, really) and place in the oiled pan.
Place pan, uncovered, into hot oven and cook until meatballs are fairly brown, about 45 minutes.
Take pan out and carefully pour tomatoes over and around meatballs. Season tomatoes liberally with salt and/or crushed red pepper and/or some fish sauce. Carefully try to mix the seasonings in, but don't worry too much if you don't do a good job of it.
Cover the pan and put back into the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 375 and cook for about an hour. If you want, you can baste meatballs with sauce occasionally during this time, but it's not really necessary.
Take pan out of oven. Mix sauce around and then taste it and adjust seasonings. Uncover pan, put back in the oven, and cook for about a half hour longer, or until sauce is thickened and meatball tops are browned.

Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve with seeded Italian bread. Or over pasta.