Friday, February 23, 2007

Broccoli with easy Mock Hollandaise over Kasha: a Lenten Treat

On this first Friday in Lent, I was doing the good Catholic thing of not eating meat. Arriving home after work and our Dekalb Farmers Market with some pickled herring (delicious, but a story for another time) and some broccoli, I set out to make dinner for two. The fastest cooking grain in our cupboard was one I have not used in a long time, kasha. So that's what the broccoli was to go with, topped with my own substitute for the notoriously difficult, and cholesterol intense, hollandaise sauce. Aside from eating the herring as an appetizer on crisp rye crackers (yum), the dinner took about 20 relaxed minutes to prepare.

Kasha is a Russian "grain" -- not a true grain like wheat or rye or rice, which come from the grass family. In the US it is eaten primarily in the Eastern European Jewish community, and even there it's a grandmother's sort of dish. Also known (and more correctly so since "kasha" in Russian actually means porridge) as buckwheat groats, kasha is easy to cook, has a delightful nutty flavor, and allegedly is quite nutritious. "Groats" are roasted (or "parched") grains. Kasha can be found in the Jewish section of the supermarket or in many health and whole foods stores. My recipe below is as low-tech as you can do.

Hollandaise is one of the classic French sauces, named for it's possible origins in Holland or at least for mimicking a Dutch sauce. It is haute cuisine when served over asparagus, or high Creole on Eggs Benedict. It is in fact a sort of hot mayonnaise whipped in a double boiler over simmering water and consists of eggs, clarified butter, and lemon juice. It easily shatters into an irretrievable oily mess filled with rubbery little shards of cooked egg. My "version", which I call mock hollandaise, is easily made from ingredients other than the classics and is both healthier and faster. As shown in the recipe below, it is a mixture of good (i.e., whole milk) yogurt, such as Green Field or Stonybrook or that fabulous imported Greek "Fage", with a little mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Plus fresh lemon juice if you want. It takes 20 to 30 seconds to make.

The broccoli should be steamed just until nicely tender, but still bright green. The steamed broccoli goes on a bed of hot, cooked kasha on an attractive platter, and the mock hollandaise is spooned on top for a healthy, lucious, and (if you are observing Lent) virtuous -- if hardly sacrificial -- supper. Brussels sprouts boiled in lightly salted water until just tender would also do well here.

Kasha and Mock Hollandaise with Broccoli Tim

(serves 2-3 for lunch or supper)

2 tablespoons (or more, to taste) olive oil
1 cup buckwheat groats (kasha)
3/8 teaspoon salt

Heat a heavy pan to medium hot and add the olive oil. Quickly add the buckwheat groats, and stir until smelling a little toasted, 1 to 1-1/2 minutes. Add about a cup of water, and stir while this comes to a boil. Lower the temperature, cover the pan, and simmer, stirring from time to time and adding a little water as it is absorbed, until the mixture is tender but not disintegrating, 15 to 20 minutes. Check the salt, and add a little if needed. Remove from the heat and keep covered until served.

Mock Hollandaise:
3/4 cup whole milk yogurt (Green Field or Stonybrook or imported Greek Fage)
2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise (I prefer Hellmann's or other "real" mayonaise for cooking)
A sprinkle of black pepper
Salt to taste
A little fresh lemon juice, to taste (optional)

Mix all together.

Broccoli (or Brussels Sprouts):
3 stalks broccoli, half of stem cut off and the rest of stem peeled
1/2 pound (or more) Brussels sprouts, end of stem sliced off and any yellowed leaves pulled off

For broccoli, set up steaming pan or use a large covered cooking pot with an inch of water at the bottom. Place broccoli in steamer or in the pan (putting stems down in the water and the flower part above water to steam). Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cover and let steam about 5 minutes. Test stem for tenderness by piercing with a two-pronged fork or a narrow skewer. Remove from heat and uncover so it stays bright green.

For Brussels sprouts, boil 4-6 minutes in lightly salted water until just tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork or narrow skewer. Drain and do not cover.

To Serve:
Make a bed of the cooked kasha on a serving platter. Arrange the vegetable on top of this. (Sprinkle brussels sprouts, if used, with a little salt.) Spoon mock hollandaise over the vegetable.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Peanut Sauce Chicken: A West African Gift

The wonderful African dish "chicken in groundnut sauce" is served in various forms throughout West Africa. It may have originated in Senegal, as some Senegalese have claimed to me. But the Senegalese, great itinerant merchants, are all over West Africa (as well as France and even New York), and conceivably their way of fixing chicken has followed them and become indigenous. In any case, I learned to cook this when we lived in Cameroon, but have tasted almost the same dish in a number of countries.

Peanut sauce chicken is a family favorite and has been extremely popular with American friends. It was the first thing to run out at my daughter Lisa’s wedding reception buffet. A larger volume version sells well at Donderos' Kitchen, our family restaurant and deli in Athens, Georgia. It was also specifically requested by the bride at a wedding we are catering this spring.

Peanuts, "arachides" in francophone countries and "ground nuts" in English-speaking areas, are virtually universal in West Africa, as are chickens and guinea fowl plus the little cans of tomato paste which are sold by market ladies everywhere. Originally from Peru, peanuts were brought to Africa by the Portugese and Spanish, then reimported to the New World, especially the American South, during the time of slavery. The word "goober", Southern dialect for peanut, derives from "nguba", meaning peanut in several tribal languages in Angola and Congo.

Traditionally, the chicken for this dish is cut into pieces with the bones and skin, and the sauce is seasoned with a little smoked fish plus red palm oil and can be quite hot with chilies. Here is fancier version (like I had from a fine chef in Sierra Leone) with boneless skinless chicken breast. I use Asian fish sauce plus chipotle peppers in place of the smoked fish and habanero peppers of West Africa for the mildly smoky, pungent flavor, and I usually leave out the palm oil. The dish goes with white or brown rice.

Chicken in Peanut Sauce Tim

The recipe easily serves six.

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 inch fresh ginger, minced
3 tablespoons oil such as peanut or canola
1 teaspoon paprika
1-1/2 cups water
2-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (available at Asian groceries) or 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1 medium bay leaf
1 to 2 dry chipotle peppers (available with Mexican groceries; handle carefully), stem and
seeds removed, or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper or cayenne
1/3 cup “natural” (unsweetened and unsalted) peanut butter plus 1/2 cup water

Trim away any tough or fatty parts from the chicken and cut the flesh in 1 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside. Prepare the onions, garlic, and ginger.

Heat the oil in a pot. Fry the onions, stirring frequently, until pale golden. Fry in the garlic and ginger for a minute. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the paprika. Add the water and bring to a boil. Add tomato paste, fish sauce or salt, oregano, black pepper, thyme, bay leaf, and chipotle or hot pepper. Simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the chicken, bring to a boil, and simmer 3 minutes (it cooks quickly). Add water, if needed, to keep the liquid level just below the top of the chicken. Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk the peanut butter with the 1/2 cup of water (it thickens at first). When the chicken has simmered, stir in the peanut butter mixture, and bring back to a simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer about 4 minutes. Taste for salt, and add some if needed.

Serve with lightly salted white or brown rice or a seasoned rice dish.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Thai Comfort: Rice Noodles with Chicken and Green Vegetable

One of the favorite meals at our house, especially with sons-in-law and my student friends, is fast and easy rice noodles stir-fried in the Thai-Chinese manner with meat or shrimp and vegetables. Pronounced in Thailand "guoey tio" (and in Malaysia, where we once lived, more like "kwei teow") the quickly fixed and satisfying noodle dishes are typically cooked fresh to order by street vendors and in small shops, each cook with his (or more typically her) own special touches. The most recognized example to Americans is probably "pad thai" (literally "fried in the Thai manner"), but there are many ways of fixing these delightful noodles.

The noodles are assumed by many to be Thai (and I've even heard "Pad Thai", a creation several generations ago, referred to -- not by Thai people of course -- as the Thai national dish). But, in fact the soft rice noodles are of southern Chinese origin, and were popularized in Thailand by Chinese and Chinese-descended sidewalk vendors and restaurant cooks. And many of the preparations seem Chinese, most particularly "pad sie yu" ("fried with soy sauce") and "rad na" which is sort of a soft noodle counterpart to Cantonese fried noodles with the meat and vegetable and thickened sauce served on top of the noodles. Inevitably some preparations have incorporated more typically Thai ingredients -- like palm sugar and tamarind juice in pad thai, and Thai and even Indian curry spices and coconut milk.

The basic method is to cook together in a wok the additions to the noodles, then add the noodles, which are dry rice "sticks" soaked until softened or if you are lucky (as we are in Atlanta) fresh, soft rice noodles from the market. The noodles then cook in the juices and seasonings, get plattered out and garnished, and the noodles consumed hot. This is one of the rare situations where Thai people actually may eat with chop sticks (other than when they go to a Chinese restaurant), but then rice noodles are derived from Chinese cooking.

The recipe below is the most common one I fix at home and is quick and easy. It shows the basic method, which is usable for many variants, but it also makes a very tasty lunch or supper. Either choy sum (Chinese mustard greens) or broccoli (nappa is less flavorful and colorful, but acceptable, as well) can be used as the vegetable. This recipe serves six for a snack or light meal. Accompany it with lime wedges and an Asian chili-garlic sauce.

Thai-Chinese Rice Noodles Tim

1/2 pound (1/4-inch-wide) dry Thai rice noodles (available at Asian groceries)
1 chicken breast (2 halves), boneless and skinless (or 1 pound ground chicken or pork)
1/2 pound choy sum (Chinese mustard greens) or broccoli
1 large clove garlic
1/4-inch piece fresh ginger
2 scallions (green onions)
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus extra as needed
2 tablespoons Asian oyster sauce (available at Asian groceries)
2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce (available at Asian groceries)
Dash of white (or black) pepper
1/4 cup plucked cilantro (coriander) leaves
2 red chili peppers, seeded and sliced thinly on the diagonal
2 limes, cut in wedges

Soak the noodles in hot water 20 minutes, or until softened. Drain before cooking.

Trim any fat or tough parts off the chicken and slice the meat 1/8-inch thick. Rinse the choy sum well, drain, and slice stems and leaves 1-inch wide on the diagonal. Or if using broccoli, rinse and drain it, peel the tough skin off the stem, and cut into thin flowerets of similar size, each having a long strip of stem. Finely mince the garlic. Slice the ginger paper-thin (it’s not necessary to peel the ginger unless the skin is tough). Then stack the slices and shred finely. Cut the scallions, green parts and all, into 1/4-inch lengths.

Ten minutes before serving, heat a large frying pan or wok. Add the oil, garlic, and ginger. Stir and fry a few seconds, just until fragrant, then add the sliced chicken (or the ground chicken or pork). Stir-fry until the meat has lost most of its raw color. Add a little more oil to the pan and stir-fry the vegetable 30 seconds. Add several tablespoons water and continue to stir-fry until the color has turned dark green, 1-2 minutes. Add the oyster and fish sauces and 1/2 cup of water, and stir. Add the drained noodles and stir with a spatula, scraping the bottom of the pan so they do not stick. Add water little by little as it is absorbed by the noodles. (The mixture should look slightly soupy, since the noodles will absorb more by the time they are eaten.) Bite a noodle to test for tenderness and salt. Add a little salt, if necessary. When noodles are tender, stir in the scallions for 10 to 15 seconds, and spoon the noodles onto a serving platter. Sprinkle with white (or black) pepper. Garnish generously with cilantro leaves and sliced red chilies.

Accompany with lime wedges to squeeze onto the noodles. If desired, offer a small dish of Asian chili or chili-garlic sauce as a condiment.