September 23, 2012

Autumn's here: Cabbage Rolls

Cabbage rolls are one of those quintessential comfort foods for anyone with even a passing relationship to the cuisines of northern or eastern Europe, and of course the middle east, central asia, and the eastern mediterranean regions also have stuffed leaf and vegetable dishes with considerable similarities. Did I leave anyone out? Probably. (Sorry.) Stuffing food with other food and wrapping it up, whether you start with dough or a leaf, just seems to be a universal development in almost every cuisine.

If someone tells me that he or she is making cabbage rolls, my first question is "Oooh, what kind?" - closely followed by offers of help eating up any pesky leftovers, of course. In western Canada we tend to favour either the Ukrainian or Polish styles most of all, and the ones I've made here are a sort of unholy hybrid of every cabbage roll that I've ever found to be delicious. These ones are made with meat (beef, specifically) and rice, but there are plenty of options for vegetarian/vegan fillings (I would suggest a rice/walnut/mushroom blend, for starters).

A lot of recipes will suggest that you braise the cabbage rolls in tomato soup. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while already know that I shy away from tinned soup as an ingredient for my casseroles and such, and I am not recommending tins of soup here, either. Rather, I humbly suggest my very own Simple Tomato Soup recipe (expired link removed, please see recipe in the comments section below), made exactly as listed. It comes together really quickly, and you can also make it a day ahead (or stash some in the freezer, and simply thaw it out when you are ready to make cabbage rolls). One recipe of Simple Tomato Soup is perfect for one tray of 12 large cabbage rolls.

I recommend savoy cabbage, which is easier to peel without tearing the leaves.

Cabbage Rolls

Makes 12 rolls
Total Prep & Cooking Time: 3 - 4 hours

1 Savoy cabbage, whole
500 grams lean ground beef
1/2 onion, very finely minced
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon water
100 grams (1/2 cup) long grain rice (uncooked)
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon mushroom base (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (to finish)

1 recipe Simple Tomato Soup, made as directed in the comments section below. You could also use a thin, tomato-based pasta sauce, or even simply use beef, chicken, mushroom, or veggie broth, and serve the rolls "dry" with sour cream. You will need about four cups of soup/braising liquid.

Prepare the soup, or, if defrosting, heat the soup until it is serving temperature.

In a small saucepan, bring water and mushroom base to a boil. Add the rice and stir quickly with a fork. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes, then turn off and leave for another 10 minutes. The rice will be slightly underdone - chalky. That's perfect. Combine with the onions and garlic, and let the mixture cool a bit while you deal with the cabbage.

Cut the cabbage deeply, all the way around the core (about half an inch out from the core knob). Peel the outermost leaves, starting from the base of the cabbage, gently pushing up until the leaves come free. You can do this step a day ahead, and loosely bag and refrigerate the leaves (they will take up a lot of room). You will want 12 good, big, whole leaves, plus a couple of spares.

Trim the leaves by shaving down the thick central spine with a paring knife, and cut a small, thumb-tip sized v-shape at the base of each leaf to remove the toughest bit.

Bring a large saucepan of unsalted water to a boil. Add cabbage leaves and cook for 2 to 4 minutes or until softened, and drain. You can also soften the cabbage leaves by dipping them in water and microwaving them, 2 at a time, for about 60 seconds.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the raw beef (broken into tiny bits), cooked rice mixture, egg, salt and pepper, and parsley, along with 1 tablespoon of tomato paste combined with one tablespoon of water. Mix thoroughly, using your impeccably clean hands, until everything is nicely integrated.

Prepare a 9x13" baking dish by ladling about half a cup of the tomato soup into the bottom of the dish, and swirling it to cover the bottom thinly. Some folks like to chop up the core of the cabbage, along with any leftover leaves, and put that in the bottom, too, as a bed for the cabbage rolls. This is a great way to use up the rest of the cabbage, as well as making sure you get plenty of veggies in your dinner.

Divide the beef mixture into 12 portions, and roll them up: this bit is awesome, but messy: Dip the softened cabbage leaves in the tomato soup/sauce, and microwave them, two at a time, again (unless they are completely floppy) for about 30 seconds. This tomato-dipping of the leaves is optional, but very flavourful.

Lay a limp, tomato-y cabbage leaf on your plate or cutting board, and add a portion of the meat to the lower third of the leaf. Flip the bottom (stem edge) up and over, bringing the points of the "v" closed so that it makes a tight package. Hold that with one hand, while you tuck the sides in (as if you were making a burrito, or an envelope), and then finish rolling up the leaf. A little practice, and this isn't as difficult as it might sound.

Place each roll, seam side down, in the prepared baking dish. You should get two rows of six, filling the pan. Pour the tomato sauce (or any other braising liquid of your choice) gently and evenly over each roll, using all of the soup, cover with tinfoil, and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 325 F, and set the timer for 2 hours. Remove foil, and sprinkle with smoked paprika before serving.

Serve with sour cream (or plain yoghurt), mixed with a little dill. Perogies (pierogies), naturally, make a fantastic side dish, but so do plain boiled potatoes, or roasted carrots. Obviously, if you need to hurry the process up a bit, set the oven to temperature before you start rolling up the cabbage leaves, and bake for 90 minutes.

These freeze excellently, as well. Make your own ready-meals!

For the curious, here's a picture of the cabbage rolls just before they go into the oven (see how perky the cabbage still is!):

September 20, 2012

Meatballs & Polenta

Technically, not new recipes, simply a serving suggestion: the meatballs are my all-beef Italian-seasoned version of these meatballs here, and the polenta is my all-purpose polenta recipe which you previously saw when I was making polenta fries. This is just how easy it can be to get a good dinner on the table, when you have a stash treasures, such as meatballs, in your freezer (I haven't tried freezing polenta, but I imagine the texture would suffer). We had a tossed salad on the side, but you could add any extra vegetable you like to round out the meal (roasted fennel, anyone?)

The meatballs are somewhat smaller than usual, about half the size indicated in the linked recipe, as they were originally made up as part of a big batch designated for meatball subs, and I find slightly smaller meatballs are preferable in that context (so that you can have more of them, of course). I used a two-tablespoon disher (60 mL, or 1/8 cup) per meatball, and baked them in my usual fashion. Leftovers were briefly frozen on a baking sheet, and then tipped into a freezer bag for storage for another day.

The polenta recipe is particularly unchanged, simply necessitating that you pour it into individual serving bowls as soon as it is cooked, and serve it hot. The texture is a little bit like mashed potatoes - the creamy, finely whipped restaurant style, that is. If you have extra polenta (the recipe makes four servings, served in this manner), you can simply pour it into a baking dish or other small container, and let it set up to make fries (or simply re-heat and eat) at a later date. It would work wonderfully in a bento, although I didn't think of that in time to deal with the leftovers in such a way - I simply plunked slab of cooled polenta on top of the remaining meatballs in sauce, in a standard plastic container.

For the tomato sauce, you can use any one you like, of course. This was, again, a "freezer treasure" - the sauce leftover from making the same meatball subs. Essentially, a simple combination of a little onion and garlic sauteed in olive oil, a 398 mL tin of high-quality diced tomatoes (don't you hate opening a tin and finding it full of stem ends?), fresh oregano and basil, and a little simmering time. Your mileage may vary, of course. A few chile flakes wouldn't be amiss, either.

Reheating the meatballs in the tomato sauce saves time and dishes. Adding a little extra fresh basil as you reheat gives a little lift to the sauce, and makes you forget that you're essentially just eating up leftovers. This can happen almost untended while you stir up the polenta.

Parmesan, of course, is the natural finisher. Mozzarella would also be good, or any grating/melting cheese you fancy.

Now, for those of you following the "convertible to vegan" tag, I haven't completely lost my mind! Here's the fix: Instead of meatballs, use roasted cauliflower chunks, and simply toss them in the sauce for a few minutes before ladling onto the polenta. And as for the polenta, with its pesky sour cream and parmesan? Omit those ingredients in favour of a little silken tofu (beaten well until creamy) and a bit of prepared vegan shredded cheese-substitute. You may need to adjust the salt to your taste, depending on the brand you use. Change the chicken broth to vegetable broth (or just use water, as I sometimes do), and presto: converted to vegan.

September 14, 2012

Summer Rolls, While We Still Can

Before I move entirely into my autumnal kitchen habits, here's one more dying-light-of-summer dish that I simply must share with you.

For years, I'd avoided summer rolls (aka salad rolls, aka fresh spring rolls), because the initial ones I'd tried were not really all that good, dry and bland, relying heavily on a giant wodge of unseasoned noodles to make up their bulk, and requiring constant, nay, desperate dipping into peanut sauce simply in order to swallow each bite. When I discovered, years later, that most summer rolls are in fact delightful treats, I felt rather foolish for avoiding them for so long.

Most of the versions you see in my neighbourhood tend to be either vegetarian or, more likely, prawn-centric, with a few veggies, a bit of (seasoned!) noodle, and a smart row of precisely lined up prawns down the centre. The dipping sauces tend to be a peanut affair (spicy if you're lucky), or nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce made primarily of fish sauce, lime juice and rice vinegar, with some chiles and herbs thrown in. You can really use whatever dipping sauce you like - any Asian-style dumpling sauce is probably going to work fine, or plum sauce, or coconut chutney...even just painting a stripe of sriracha down the side before you dig in is going to work.

What made me actually decide to make these myself was the sudden, thunder-struck notion that coconut-lemongrass chicken would be really quite good in these. However, I've never seen such a thing for sale. The only solution was to get some rice paper wrappers, and start rolling my own. After that, I made some more, minus the chicken and coconut, and with double the vegetables (all nicely seasoned with nuoc cham, prior to rolling).

The following, consequently, is more of a general guideline, than a recipe, really. Vary them as much as you like - you're the one who is going to be enjoying them.

Lemongrass Chicken Summer Rolls

Makes 6 rolls

6 Banh trang rice wrappers
125 grams rice vermicelli, cooked
200 grams chicken breast
60 mL coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon lemongrass powder
1 carrot, shredded
8 centimetres English cucumber, matchstick cut
fresh Thai basil, shredded
fresh mint, shredded
2 tablespoons nuoc cham or lime juice with a pinch of salt

Cook the chicken in the coconut milk with the lemongrass powder. Remove the chicken from the coconut milk, and shred finely. Add the noodles into the coconut milk, and toss well to coat. Toss the cucumber and carrot with the nuoc cham, and allow to drain.

Dip one banh trang wrapper in water (or run it briefly under the tap) and immediately lay it flat on a wooden cutting board. In the bottom third of the circle, lay some of the chicken, some of the noodles, and some of the vegetables, as you would for making a burrito. Top with the shredded herbs. Cilantro is also a nice addition here.

Lift the bottom edge of the wrapper (which will now be pliable) and wrap it upward until it just covers the filling, and hold it there with one hand. Using your other hand, fold the sides inward, and then continue to roll from the bottom up until the roll is complete. Put aside on a plate and chill while you make the rest. Wrap tightly, so they hold together while you're eating them, but not so tightly that you tear the wrapper. A little practice will make them just right.

Serve with the dipping sauce of your choice - more nuoc cham, or peanut sauce are classics, but I prefer a nice, spicy, peanut-butter laced vinaigrette. You can always go crazy and have more than one, sauce, of course. Why decide?

For vegetarian/vegan summer rolls, simply omit the chicken, lemongrass, and coconut milk and increase the vegetables - you might want to add thinly sliced daikon or zucchini, or other crisp raw vegetables of your choice, to round it out. You could also add a julienne of spicy tofu. You may want to season your noodles with a little Nuoc cham (a vegetarian version, of course) if you're going all veggie. You can really put whatever you like in them.

These will keep until the next day, assuming you don't get up in the middle of the night and devour them. I'm just sayin'. Two rolls makes a good, light supper.

September 09, 2012

Greek Night: Briam and Gigantes

Briam, or Greek-style roasted vegetables, is another entry into the family of mediterranean mixed vegetable dishes, keeping excellent company with French ratatouille and Italian caponata. Each one has its own flavour profile and different texture, born of both seasoning and cooking technique. Each one is highly flexible in terms of which vegetables you choose to include, but is also just a truly excellent way to put that eggplant on your counter to good use. Briam works when served hot, room temperature, or chilled, depending on your needs. It makes a lovely little sandwich/pita filling, and I bet it would make a pretty good omelette filling, too.

The standard cooking method for briam is roasting, and most traditional recipes that I found use a breathtaking amount of olive oil. Now, I'm a big fan of olive oil, both for its culinary and health-related aspects, but recipes that call for a half (or even a whole) cup for a single pan of vegetables do make me shudder a little. Fortunately, you don't actually need that much; you can enjoy your vegetables without drowning in oil.

Some recipes also include potatoes, but I elected not to use them in light of the fact that I was already planning to serve beans on the side. The combination of briam and gigantes turned out even better than I expected, and I will definitely be turning to this combination again. It takes a whole lot of chopping to make this dish, so clear your cutting board and pre-heat the oven.

Serves 4 - 6

250 grams eggplant
250 grams zucchini (green or yellow)
4 roma tomatoes
1 red onion
6 cloves garlic, whole
100 grams tender green beans
1 red bell pepper (orange or yellow are also good)
1/2 cup minced parsley
1 cup dill weed, minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Dice the eggplant into large-ish chunks, and salt heavily. Let stand for 20 minutes, then rinse well (I actually submerge the chunks in cold water), and drain, and squeeze dry with a nice clean towel. Which will then need washing.

Peel and chop the tomatoes; mince the dill and parsley.

Dice the zucchini and all of the other vegetables into similar size pieces to the squeezed-dry eggplant chunks. Leave the garlic cloves whole (add more if you like).

Combine the vegetables in a large roasting pan (I use my 9x13" rectangular pyrex dish). Sprinkle the vegetables with salt and pepper and the fresh herbs, and drizzle with olive oil. Combine well (use your clean hands) until everything is well coated and evenly distributed. Cover the dish lightly with tinfoil, and bake at 400 F for 30 minutes.

Uncover, stir, and bake for another 30 - 40 minutes uncovered, or until liquid is all evaporated and vegetables are nicely roasted and starting to caramelize. Serve hot or cold.

Quick & Easy Gigantes
Serves 4 - 6

This recipe feels a little like a cheat, because you start with canned beans. Want to start with dry beans? Soak 3/4 cup of butter beans overnight, cook (unsalted) very gently for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender, drain, and proceed as follows:

4 cups cooked butter beans (or other large white beans)
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced dill weed
1/4 teaspoon sugar or honey
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (omit if using salted canned beans).

Drain and rinse the beans.

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion and garlic and salt, and saute over medium heat until translucent and tender. Stir in the tomato paste, and cook and stir for about 30 seconds, and then add about a quarter cup of water, and stir until it becomes a nice little sauce. Add the sugar and the ketchup. Stir again and add the beans. Stir until the beans are all nicely coated, and add a little more water.

Bring to a very gentle simmer and let cook on the lowest setting, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 15-20 minutes. Add the dill. Stir through and taste. Adjust for salt if necessary. Continue to cook very gently for another 10 minutes or so.

At any time the dish starts to look dry instead of gently saucy, add a little more water, and stir it through. If the dish looks too wet, increase the heat slightly, and leave uncovered until it has thickened.

These two dishes also bento very well, as I discovered the following day, probably because they are both good hot or cold. I stuffed my leftovers into pita pockets, topped with a little feta (tzatziki would have been good, also), and had a wonderful, filling lunch.

September 02, 2012

Khoresht e Gheimeh: Persian Lamb & Yellow Split Pea Stew

The first time I had this dish my brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Well, that's what it felt like, at any rate. The rich flavour of the slow-cooked lamb, the thick, savory tomato gravy plus the wonderfully tart notes of lime seemed so very right that I knew I was going to want to eat this again and again and again.

I first tried a version without sourcing the all-important dried limes (lemons, actually, it turns out), using the internet-suggested substitution of lime juice added at the end of the cooking time. It was tasty, but it didn't taste right. I shelved the dish, mentally speaking, until I could find the proper ingredient.

So, when I discovered an unassuming-looking bag of "dried lemons omani" in my local eastern mediterranean deli, a little research showed that this was exactly what I had been waiting for. I set about the internet once more, looking for likely recipes. In the end, I synthesized my own out of several offerings, and was really happy with the result (and thanks to my co-worker Laya, who assured me that putting fried potato on top was important). This recipe is slow food, so it may not be great for weeknights, unless you like to eat a little later (or you do the prep ahead of time), although we made it mid-week and thought it well worth waiting for.

I used a lot less oil than most of the recipes I could find, but the recipe didn't seem to suffer for it. I made up for it by frying the potato in oil, although you could oven-bake them for a healthier option. The stew itself is quite healthy, especially if you use lean, trimmed lamb, and go with six servings.

Khoresht e Gheimah

Serves 4 - 6
Total Prep & Cooking Time: 120-150 minutes

500 grams lamb stew meat
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup dried yellow split peas
2 cups canned diced tomatoes (no salt added)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 dried lemons / black limes / limu omani
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 cups shoestring or thin-cut fried potatoes

In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, and cook the onions (sprinkled lightly with the salt) until softened and just starting to brown. Add the lamb chunks and stir frequently until some of it is browned, and the lamb has lost its raw appearance.

Add the turmeric and tomato paste, and stir through, scraping the bottom of the pot with a spatula or wooden spoon, adding a tablespoon or two of water, if necessary to prevent sticking. Stir for a minute or two, and then add the tomatoes and enough water to cover the surface by an inch or so, stirring well and scraping up the bottom of the pot so that nothing burns. The dish will have turned quite red. Lower the heat to the lowest setting. You can use lamb vegetable broth instead of water, but watch the salt content, if you do.

Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes. Add the yellow split peas (washed and drained), and enough water to cover by an inch (if necessary). Stir well, and add the cinnamon, and the dried lemons. For the lemons, crack them in half with a hammer, and drop them into the stew (the insides of the lemons should be black or dark brown). Simmer, covered, for another 45 minutes, or more, until lamb and peas are both tender. Remove the lemon peels (some of the insides will now be floating in the stew, that's fine). Taste, and adjust for salt and pepper if needed. Garnish with fried potatoes and serve with rice and yoghurt on the side.


I should probably confess that I put the peas in right away, in the picture above, rather than waiting the 45 minutes. However, while the overall dish was excellent, I felt that the peas got softer than they should have, and lost their shape, which is part of the reason that you can't really identify them visually in the photograph. The next time I make this, which will probably be in about a month, I'm going to do the 45 minute delay, because yellow split peas only take about 30 - 40 minutes to become tender, and I'd like to have more of their texture in the dish. If your yellow split peas take longer to cook, add them before you start simmering.

The rice that I served with this was a rice-cooker adapted version of Bhagali Polow - a dill-and-fava rice with a tadig, a recipe that I am still developing. Plain rice is probably more traditional to accompany this khoresht, though.