Saturday, August 30, 2014

Grill 'Em All! A Vegetarian Labor Day Grilling Guide

We have one trick, but luckily, it's a pretty good one: we treat vegetables like a piece of meat. From butternut squash to carrots to Japanese eggplant, we try to find the methods that yield the absolute best textures and flavors for each vegetable or fruit. Almost without fail, grilling wins! This method adds that subtle smoke flavor and, if done right, yields a sweet and tasty treat that's surprisingly possible with regular old produce.

There are so many options this time of the year. Summer crops are still available, and fall crops are starting to appear in the stores as well. So fire up the grill, invite some friends over, and have a great time cooking together. Here are some simple grilling recipes to get things started. Hope y'all have a beautiful Labor Day weekend!

Spaghetti Squash Ribs

Sweet Potato Almondine

Charred Carrot Hot Dogs

Butternut Squash Steak with Smoked Garlic Chimichurri

BBQ Eggplant Sliders

Grilled Peach Ice Cream

Grilled Watermelon and Tomato Salad

Italian-Style Eggplant Sausages

BBQ Portobello Mushroom 

BBQ Artichoke Heart Tacos

Grilled Vegetable Sandwich with Smoked Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli

Berbere-Spiced Grilled Okra

Grilled Andouille Eggplant Po Boy

Grilled Anaheim Peppers with Cotija Cheese

Friday, August 29, 2014

Foil-Pouch Brussels Sprouts and Apples

Cooking simply yields such a great reward when it's done right. You've spent little time in the kitchen or manning the grill, but you've prepared something from scratch that's delicious and good for you. This is a great example of a dish that requires little hands-on time, but rewards you and your family with the amazing aroma of butter-roasted Brussels sprouts and apples.

I love this combination because it really hits those sweet, sour, rich, and spicy notes that we all love. We are already fans of Brussels sprouts, but if you or someone you know is a sprout-doubter, try this recipe to see how great they can be. 

Foil-Pouch Brussels Sprouts and Apples

1 pound Brussels sprouts (halved)

1 apple (like a pink lady or jazz, diced)

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 small white onion (diced)

1 1/2  tablespoons unsalted butter (small dice)

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper (to taste)

Preheat your outdoor grill to high. Toss Brussels sprouts, diced apple, onion, vinegar, butter, salt and pepper together in a large bowl. On a long piece of aluminum foil, place the mixed ingredients in a single layer, fold another layer of foil over the top, and then fold all sides to seal. Add one more layer of foil to make sure everything stays in the pouch.

Grill foil pouch for 10 minutes per side and allow to rest for at least another 5 minutes before serving. Cut the pouch open with a knife being careful not to steam your hand as you open it. Transfer to a serving platter or just eat it right out of the pouch. (Makes 4 servings.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sweet Potato Almondine

My buddy Kelly English just won Esquire TV's chef competition, Knife Fight. I watched as he cooked simply and from the heart and presented updated, modern takes on Southern classics that won over the judges. The one thing that caught my eye was his first dish, an almondine of heirloom carrots. Yes! He recently shared that recipe in The Local Palate.

With spring past and summer (we can hope) almost gone, I wanted to take this dish with me into the   fall -- and possibly all the way to the Thanksgiving table. I decided to substitute in grilled sweet potatoes to see what would happen. Turns out that if you put buttery almonds on anything even kinda good, this last step instantly makes it delicious. So, this one's for you, Kelly! Thanks for the inspiration and congrats on your well-deserved Knife Fight win.

Sweet Potato Almondine

2 medium sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper (to taste)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sliced almonds
1 peeled shallot (thinly sliced)
1/4 cup torn parsley leaves (to garnish)
1/2 lemon

Preheat your outdoor grill to high. Using a sharp knife or a mandolin, slice sweet potatoes into 1/4-inch slices. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potato slices with the olive oil and the vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Grill slices of sweet potato for 5 minutes per side or until well-marked by the grill grates. Remove and cover.

In a large frying pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the almonds. Cook until nutty and fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.

Assemble the dish by shingling the sweet potatoes on a large platter and topping with the buttery almonds. Garnish with shallot and parsley. Squeeze lemon over the whole dish and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main dish.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Young Coconut Meat Crudo with Lemon, Olive Oil, and Basil

So there I was cracking open a young coconut -- you know, the kind that are all white and are carved into a point at the top, for a post-bike-ride smoothie. I had poured the coconut water off and was scraping out the inside of the coconut with a spoon when all of the sudden it dawned on me: this meat is really meaty. I know it sounds silly, but it really was a moment. I immediately started to imagine other uses for it.

There's no cooking here and no real measuring involved, so it's almost a farce to call this thing a recipe. What it is is an idea, and I think it's a dang good one at that. I'm not attempting to be self-congratulatory; I'm just saying that it tasted good, really good, on the first try. That almost never happens.

I arranged one layer of the coconut meat on a plate and squeezed a lemon on it, drizzled it with really good olive oil, garnished it with aleppo pepper, Maldon salt, basil, and thinly sliced hot peppers. The wife and I shared the plate. She called it "freaky" and eerily similar to an Italian raw fish dish, crudo.

This is something we'll do again. It's so simple and stunning that you have to try it. There are a million variations that you could do, but give this lemon and basil one a shot first. We think you'll love it!

Young Coconut Meat Crudo with Lemon, Olive Oil, and Basil

1 large young coconut
Juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon of good olive oil
1 small hot pepper, like a Serrano or Thai bird (very thinly sliced)
8-10 small African basil leaves (or 2 large leaves chiffonade)
Maldon sea salt (to taste)
Aleppo pepper (to taste)

Watch this video I made on how to crack into a young coconut. Pour the coconut water off and reserve for another use (i.e., drink it). Using a large spoon, gently scrape the coconut meat out of the coconut. Lay it out on a plate; be careful not to leave any dark bits of shell! Drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil. Garnish with hot pepper, basil, salt, and pepper. Enjoy immediately. (Makes 2 servings.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ginger and Cashew Stir Fry

(Reprinted from Edible MemphisSpring '14)

I still remember how the shiny, enameled red lid of the electric wok would catch my eye as I sat on the kitchen counter and talked to my mom as she cooked. Those of us who lived through it recall the wok craze of the 70’s and 80’s. Everybody had one; our family was no exception. Us three vegetarians in the house grew up on soggy, salty stir-fry, and I carried this questionable tradition into my young adulthood. As a thrifty college student trying to start my own photography business, I’d budget $20 a week for groceries: fresh vegetables, rice, plus tempeh, eggs, or nuts for protein. So, what was (always) for dinner? Stir-fry! Sometimes I had it over rice and sometimes over noodles, but if we weren’t having spaghetti, we were having stir-frya pretty soggy stir-fry.

My version was so bad that my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, secretly hated it but covered by saying that she just wasn’t in the mood for stir-fry. She secretly hoped that I wouldn’t catch on. What I didn’t realize at the time is that my version of stir fry lacked that signature wok flavor that comes from this ancient cooking vessel when it’s in the hands of a true professional. So, I always started with a great assortment of fresh vegetables. That’s good! What was I doing wrong? I was missing that crisp vegetable snap with plenty of intense flavor from the Malliard Reaction that happens when the vegetables brown from contact with the hot pan. And, for goodness sake, why was my stir-fry soggy? The answer, it turns out, is simple. 

I asked James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and stir-fry guru Grace Young what the single most important thing one needs in order to make a successful stir-fry meal at home. She told me, “I would say it starts with choosing the right pan. There are many people using nonstick woks or skillets, and that is guaranteed to produce a soggy, lackluster stir-fry.” I could see myself in her words; I’m truly the Goldilocks of woks. I’ve had the plug-in electric kind, which didn’t get any hotter than warm. I’ve had the round-bottomed kind with a wok ring for a conventional stovetop. I’ve had the nonstick variety, a true waste of money. I’ll tell you from firsthand experience: don’t buy any of these. Grace says, “I recommend a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel wok. It costs less than $25, and it will last you more than a lifetime.” I agree -- the 14-inch flat-bottom wok I’ve had for 3 years now has been the best option for me, for sure. It’ll work on a gas or electric stove, and it offers the stability and control we all need in order to stir-fry correctly. 

Season your new purchase (or your old wok if you’ve never done so before) by following these simple steps. First, wash the new wok with liquid detergent and dry it thoroughly. Next, rub the inside of the wok with canola oil (or any oil with a high smoke point) and set it over a high flame until the whole pan darkens; this will take about six to eight minutes, depending on how hot the flame is. I’m going to recommend that you do this outside on your outdoor grill’s side burner since it makes lots of smoke! Repeat the process after simply rinsing the cooled wok with water and drying it. This will ensure a good, slick coat. What is really happening when you season your wok is a chain reaction of chemical changes. According to Modernist Cuisine, “New kinds of molecules will form, oxidize the iron, then polymerize into a waterproof film bound to the metal.”  In other words, it’ll make your wok slippery where it needs to be, easier to use, and it won’t rust. You want that! The result is that your brand-new wok will look ancient but work great...and that’s the whole point.

Now let’s head to the market. The wok makes it simple to eat seasonally, so pick up a few things that are at their best right now. Aim to stock your basket with a variety of colors and textures from the produce section. In spring, choose hearty greens like kale, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, an abundance of mushrooms like shiitake, fresh carrots, and because this is a stir-fry, we can’t forget traditional Chinese vegetables like bok choy that grow well in the Southern climate. Add garlic, fresh ginger, and spring onions. I usually throw in a few sweet bell peppers, too, for color, no matter what the season. 

The next step is to wash everything and thoroughly dry it. I like to shake the excess water off in the sink and then air-dry my vegetables on a clean dish towel to ensure that they’re completely dry. This not only helps them to last longer in storage, but I’ve found it to be crucial to the stir-frying process. Next, cut everything up into same-sized pieces so they cook quickly and evenly. There’s no need to be too fussy about this -- just eyeball it. Make sure to cut denser vegetables like carrots or the stem of the broccoli thin; a mandoline is a great tool for this, but you could just use a chef’s knife. Toss the vegetables together and store them in a large lidded container in the fridge until you’re ready to use them. 

Before I got to cooking, I paid a visit to Wally Joe, Chef, partner, and general manager at Acre Restaurant in East Memphis. He was born in Hong Kong and raised in Cleveland, Mississippi, where his family’s restaurant KC’s had a real-deal wok station. “Don’t be afraid of the wok,” he told me after I’d let him in on my years of failure with it. “It’s just like any other pan, but it’s just a different shape.” He laughed, “I break it out at home mostly to make a simple and easy noodle dish or stir-fry or a curry.”  While it’s just a pan of a different shape, I figured that there has to be a trick to it, so I asked for a hint. “Just remember to use high heat,” he advised. “That’s the best way to get the brown and crispy edges on the vegetables and noodles that are the hallmark of wok cooking.” 

“The wok is an easy pan to work with, but until recently, there hasn't been enough information to guide novice cooks,” Grace reassured me. After years of learning what not to do, and after my conversations with Wally and Grace, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it now. There’s nothing left to it but to do it, so here’s my new way with the wok. 

The first thing to remember is to have everything ready to go: vegetables cut, sauce made, and rice or noodles should be prepared and set aside. It moves way faster than you’d think, though nowhere near as fast as a professional chef cooking over a real 200,000-btu wok station. Put your seasoned wok over the highest heat on the stovetop and let it heat up until you see little wisps of smoke rise up off of the hot metal. Pour in the oil and wait for it to start to smoke, which is very important! If you put vegetables (or really anything) in a cold wok with cold oil, you simply won’t get the results you desire -- and your significant other will only eat it to be nice. Now, put your vegetable mixture into the wok and give a little shake. Never, ever use more than 4 cups of anything total in a wok; overcrowding the pan will result in the dreaded soggy stir-fry. Let the mixture rest in the hot pan for 45 seconds before tossing everything to redistribute it by pushing the pan forward and then jerking it back just like you’d do to flip an omelette or by using a spatula (maybe even stir-fry spatula!). You’ll notice the browned edges of the vegetables that were touching the hottest part of the pan. That’s flavor! Allow the vegetables to rest for another 45 seconds to 1 minute before flipping them again. Flip the vegetables one last time and allow them to cook for 1 minute. At this point, add your sauce and cook for one more minute. Once you notice the sauce starting to thicken, remove the stir-fry from the wok and place it in a serving bowl. The whole cooking process take less than 4 minutes, and it can feel a little reckless, but you’ll gain more control as you practice. 

There is so much more to wok cooking, such as learning about the Bao and Chao techniques, but this will set you on the right path. I appreciated that Grace shared this last bit of wisdom with me: “When you cook with a wok, you become a part of a cooking tradition that is over 2,000 years old. It's true that it takes a little time to learn how to work with it and care for it, but unlike most cookware, you'll develop a relationship with your wok. It is a pan to cherish.” 

Let’s do a quick review of our simple stir-fry method: the right wok that’s seasoned correctly, seasonal vegetables that are dry and cut to a uniform size, hot wok with hot oil, and slow it down just a little to attain that coveted wok flavor that comes from the browned edges of the vegetables. Avoid all the pitfalls I’ve experienced in the past by following these few simple steps! You, too, can have a beautiful, quick, and delicious meal of seasonal vegetables. Oh, and now after 20 years of avoiding my soggy stir-fry at all costs, my wife requests my new-and-improved, seasonal stir-fry on a twice-weekly basis. That, may friends, is a long-fought victory.

Ginger and Cashew Stir Fry

2 cups prepared rice
4 cups Spring Vegetable Mix (recipe follows)
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sambal (more to taste)
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1-inch piece fresh ginger (minced)
1 teaspoon cornstarch 
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 spring onion (sliced)
1/2 cup roasted and salted cashews

Prepare rice according to package instructions. Prepare Spring Vegetable mix according to the recipe. In a pint-sized jar with a lid, add the broth, soy sauce, sesame oil, sambal, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and cornstarch. Screw on the lid and shake vigorously. Set sauce aside until ready to use.

 Put your seasoned wok over the highest heat on the stovetop and let it heat up until you see little wisps of smoke rise up off of the hot metal. Pour in the canola oil and wait for it to start to smoke, which is very important! Now, put your vegetable mixture into the wok and give a little shake. Let the mixture rest in the hot pan for 45 seconds before tossing everything to redistribute it by pushing the pan forward and then jerking it back just like you’d do to flip an omelette or by using a spatula. Allow the vegetables to rest for another 45 seconds to 1 minute before flipping them again. Flip the vegetables one last time and allow them to cook for 1 minute. At this point, add your sauce and cook for one more minute. Once you notice the sauce starting to thicken, remove the stir-fry from the wok and place it in a serving bowl. The whole cooking process take less than 4 minutes.

Spring Vegetable Mix

2 crowns broccoli
1 pound shiitake
2 small or 1 large bok choy
1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale
2 large or 4 small carrots
2 cups snow peas 

Wash and dry everything thoroughly. Cut everything up into 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch slices. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Banana Muffins

We love banana muffins, banana bread, smoothies with bananas, banana pancakes, updated banana pudding (and this traditional version), banana ice cream cake, a plain old banana plus peanut butter for a snack. So is it really true that banana crops are having a hard time these days? If so, we're not going to make it in this world. It's going to be bad! We just love them that much. 

So this week, bananas on the brain, we took an old favorite muffin recipe and did a few things differently to make it over. Instead of sugar, sour cream, and all-purpose flour, we used honey, yogurt, and sprouted wheat flour. We've found that sprouted wheat is easier on a lot of folks' stomachs (and as you can read here: it acts more like a vegetable than a grain!) We added walnuts because they're good for everything including your hair and skin. And there's rum added, well, just because. 

(Just as soon as we made over this old recipe, we got MSL in the mail, and on the cover? 'Bake it Better: Healthier Takes on Cookies, Cakes, Bars, and More'. This month, there are recipes for granola cookies, lemon-yogurt cupcakes, no-bake chocolate almond bars, graham flour and jam pastry squares -- all with some great substitutions that add some nutrition to dessert. Love it!)

Banana Muffins 

3 ripe bananas (mashed well)
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 large egg
1/4 cup coconut oil (melted)
1/2 cup honey
2 teaspoons vanilla 

1 tablespoon rum
1 cup sprouted wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder 

Topping (optional):

1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter (diced)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the wet ingredients well. Separately, whisk the dry ingredients. Fold wet into dry carefully so the batter is just mixed. Pour batter into a muffin tin lined with something like these If You Care unbleached baking cups. Mix topping ingredients together and press on top of muffins. Bake muffins for 30-40 minutes until tops are crisp and lightly browned. Be sure to let them cool for at least 15 minutes before you eat them because they're actually better that way. 
(Makes 9 muffins.)