Friday, June 22, 2012

It took me by surprise

Chickpea sauté with yogurt
Since having moved to Chicago--that was almost two years ago now--I've somehow gotten out of the habit of making weekly trips to a farmers' market. Last summer, I found myself at the Logan's Square market only once, and that was by accident--I was in the neighbourhood for brunch with a friend from out of town, and it happened to be in full swing right around the corner. I've been really busy since last spring, but have I really been that busy? Probably not. Tomorrow, I will make it to the market in my neighbourhood bright and early. Cross my heart.
A few weeks ago, I was really desperate for a trip to the market. It was stiflingly hot in the apartment, and I was tired of the rich, heavy, stewy things that had been my winter staples. I wanted something fresh, something that tasted like the season. But I was still scrambling to meet a deadline and couldn't tear myself away from my work for too long. So, for dinner that night, I settled on something that looked practical, something that I could shop for just down the street.
Rinsing chard Yogurt-dolloped
Yotam Ottolenghi calls this dish a chickpea sauté with greek yogurt. On paper, honestly, it looked pretty unremarkable to me, a warm salad of Swiss chard, carrots, chickpeas, lemon, and herbs. I wasn't expecting anything spectacular. So it took me by surprise. It was everything that I'd been wanting. It was refreshing and bright, evocative of early summer. The chard stems and carrots still had some of their crunch and initial sweetness, as though just pulled from someone's garden. The yogurt, mint, and cilantro, I'm sure, helped with that, cooling and fresh on the palate. I could almost forget that I hadn't been anywhere near a farmers' market that day. And even though I will get myself to the market tomorrow, I might just look for more chard and carrots there with this dish in mind.

Update 2013-05-22: Having made this recently again, I have to say that I actually prefer using regular full-fat yogurt to Greek here. Greek is just a little too dry. Regular yogurt gives the chickpeas and vegetables a welcome bit of sauce.

Chickpea Sauté with Yogurt
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty

1 large bunch Swiss chard (about 8 cups)
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to finish
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 1/2 to 2 cups freshly cooked chickpeas (canned are fine too)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup Greek or other full-fat yogurt
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Separate the chard stalks from the leaves. Blanch the stalks in plenty of boiling salted water for 3 minutes. Add the leaves and continue cooking for 2 minutes, then drain everything. Refresh under cold running water and squeeze dry, then chop roughly.
Heat up 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add the carrots and caraway seeds and sauté for 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the chard and chickpeas and continue cooking for 6 minutes. Now add the garlic, herbs, and lemon juice and some salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool down a little. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
To serve, mix together the yogurt, olive oil, and some salt and pepper. Pile the vegetables on serving dishes and spoon the yogurt on top. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and drizzle over more olive oil.
Serves 4.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Falling into place

Coconut flan
Everything has to be up in the air for anything to fall into place. I read that a little while ago in an Ed Roberson poem, when everything really did feel up in the air for me. I was struggling to write and distracted by questions. What am I doing here, anyway? Where am I going from here? How am I going to get any of this done? It all had to do with these being the very last few weeks of my second year here. You see, when you're a graduate student, you can't just go on taking classes, writing suggestive twenty-page papers at the end of each, and then moving on. Eventually, you have to find something to commit to, something that you can't get out of your head, something that keeps you up at night. A dissertation certainly isn't the best or last thing a graduate student hopes to write, but like people say, it's work that defines you for some time to come. So, for a while, I was doing a lot of writing, a lot of handwringing, a lot of searching, and didn't have time for much else.
And our meals definitely suffered for it. The both of us were too busy, too tired, to cook with much thought, much excitement. We ate lots of hurried, uninspired dinners together after which we went straight back to work. Cooking and cleaning up were toilsome tasks. Our hearts and minds were elsewhere.
But just recently, things began to feel as though they were finally falling into place. Passages that I had been struggling with for a while suddenly made sense. I was able to write steadily and with satisfaction. And I made some progress with deciding on what I want to do next. I stumbled on a philosopher's work not much appreciated, not widely read, that struck me in a way that little philosophy tends to these days. I was thrilled. And I had a meeting with one of my advisors that was so reassuring. I was so relieved. I almost wanted to hug him, but that would have been weird.
Around the same time, Octavian and I invited a couple of friends over, and we had one of those deeply satisfying, memorable meals that just sticks with you. The day before, we'd just come home with Ferran Adrià's The Family Meal, so we decided to take our chances and cook the whole meal out of it: saffron risotto, a sharp salad of ribboned carrots and mint, sausages fried with thyme and garlic, and coconut flan. We were a little disorganized, and we didn't get food on the table until pretty late, but all of us, I think, were happy and full at the end of the night.
If you've heard anything about Ferran Adrià before, you might not think that he'd put out a cookbook that was of any serious interest to most home cooks. He was the man behind the Spanish restaurant El Bulli for nearly twenty years and, while there, more or less revolutionized fine dining with new techniques and playful presentations. He's probably best known for his foams,  which involve familiar liquids combined with a stabilizing agent and shot through a siphon (like you'd use for whipped cream)--not really the stuff of home cooking.
Baked flan
But The Family Meal is definitely a book that home cooks should embrace. It is practical, well thought-out, accessible, and beautiful. A "family meal" in the restaurant world is the daily meal that all a restaurant's staff members sit down to and have together. And even at El Bulli, that meant simple and nourishing food. The book is organized into 31 three-course meals that were made for the staff at the restaurant. For each meal in the book, there's an ingredient list, a timeline that shows you when to start preparing what, and step-by-step directions for the dishes, each step accompanied by a photograph. There are even multiple scalings of each recipe--for serving 2, 6, 20, or 75 people. Everything is beautifully laid out and very well organized.  And the dishes themselves are pretty down to earth for the most part--lots of familiar, comforting things, like pork ribs with barbecue sauce and roast chicken, as well as restaurant classics, like Waldorf salad and pasta bolognese. (There are also a good number of more upscale and unusual dishes, including a caramel foam and a potato-chip omelet.) What makes them stand out, at least as we've found so far, are the sometimes unorthodox methods with which they're prepared. Take the risotto we made--Adrià has you add white wine to the pan before the rice goes in. In part, it's just for deglazing, but it also helped along the rice, getting it to that chalky stage at which you add the stock. It was just one little thing among others, but it made for an incredible risotto.
That said, the dish that I want to share with you today isn't Adrià's saffron risotto but his coconut flan. This dessert is one that I think every home cook should have in his or her arsenal. It's simple to prepare and can be made a few days in advance. It calls for a short list of inexpensive ingredients and can be scaled for as many people as will fit around your table. And it also happens to be marvellous.
A few bites later
My favourite moment in making it is preparing it for the table. When you tip the flan out of its ramekin, some of the dark caramel that had been at the bottom seeps out onto the plate, creating an impromptu sauce. It, like the flan's caramel crown, has a bitter edge to it and complements the coconut custard perfectly.
Like I said, things have begun to feel as though they're falling into place.

Coconut Flan
Adapted from Ferran Adrià's The Family Meal
Note: Cooking the caramel. Typically, for cooking caramel, you'd want to boil the sugar at a higher temperature, but because of just how little caramel is required for this recipe, you won't be able to control the heat of the sugar if you cook it at a higher temperature. It may be perfect when you take it off heat but burnt by the time it hits the ramekins. If you're new to cooking caramel, consider looking over these tips from David Lebovitz. Cooking times. Adrià actually instructs you to cook individual flans for 15-20 minutes, but I found that mine were still completely liquid at the 20-minute mark. I recommend checking on your flans every 5 or 10 minutes after 20 minutes have passed. In the meantime, I should really check the accuracy of my oven. Serving. In the book, Adrià bakes his flan in a long loaf pan and then serves the flan in slices. If you're cooking for a large enough crowd--I'd say, at least 15 people--you too could do away with individual ramekins and make your life easier. A round cake pan, if your crowd is a little smaller, would probably also do nicely.

18 g / 4 teaspoons water
65 g / 5 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs
145 g / 1 cup coconut milk plus more for serving
20 g / 3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes
25 g / 2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lay out four 3-inch ramekins. Put the water and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to medium. In a few minutes, the sugar will boil and start to take on colour. Adjust the heat as necessary to prevent it from burning. The caramel is ready when it is a dark, coppery colour and starts to smoke. Working quickly, divide the caramel between the ramekins--it's easiest just to pour from the saucepan directly into each--and give each ramekin a swirl so that the caramel coats its bottom evenly. Set aside to cool.
Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk until frothy. Put the coconut milk, coconut flakes, and sugar into another bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Add the eggs and whisk until incorporated. Ladle the mixture into the caramel-coated ramekins.
Cover the top of each ramekin with a square of tin foil and transfer all of them to a roasting pan. Pour enough cold water into the pan to come up halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 35-45 minutes (see note above), making sure the water does not boil. Once the flan is cooked (it will be just firm to the touch), let cool in the water. Remove from the water and chill in the fridge. It will keep there covered for up to 3 days.
When ready to serve, run a small, sharp knife around the edges of each flan to loosen it from the ramekin. Gently invert onto a plate for serving. Serve each with a spoon or two of the remaining coconut milk.
Serves 4.