Beluga Lentils with Pistou

Williams-Sonoma is a beautiful, dangerous place.  A couple weekends ago, when I was wandering the streets of downtown Chicago, I happened across their store on the Magnificent Mile.  I, of course, needed to go in.  About half-an-hour and several laps around the store later, my lovely, bestest food-studying-shopping-comic-aficionado companion Tor purchased a cake pan with molds of the faces of six Marvel characters (you'll probably witness the christening of this pan in the near future).  I myself left contentedly with a box of Italian 00 flour and a bag of wonderful beluga lentils.

In Europe, flour is classified by the grind, with 00 being the finest, followed by 0, 1, and 2, which is the coarsest.  Additionally, these numbers refer to the ash content of the flour, but I am not as familiar with this subject... All I know is that 00 has the lowest ash content, and 2 has the highest.  In America, we classify our flours by gluten content.  Pastry flour has less gluten than all-purpose, which has less than bread flour, and so on.  This is not the whole story, however.  American flours tend to be derived from red wheat, which has different texture properties than durum wheat, from which most European flours are ground.  Generally, American flour is "chewier" than European flour due to the differences between these wheat varieties.  Thus, the common assertion that all-purpose flour has more gluten than 00 flour, which renders the "chewier" texture of all-purpose, is a food myth.  Yes, gluten level does contribute to "chewiness", and is a useful comparison between American flours, such that products made with bread flour will be "chewier" than those with all-purpose, for example.  But gluten level is not a precise way to compare American and European flours.

Now, let us talk about beluga lentils.  The little guys are just so darn cute!  These small, black spheres look strikingly like caviar... And surprise surprise, they are aptly named after beluga caviar.  I would go on a rant about how good they are for you, but then, you've probably already heard this about lentils in general, and this variety is certainly no exception, so I shall refrain.  What I would like to rant about, however, is the fact that Hyde Park Produce (where I do most of my grocery shopping) is out of pomegranates.  Oh, the humanity.  This salad would have been absolutely perfect adorned with those crimson seeds, crunchy like a nut and sweet like a fruit at the same time.  Alas, it was not to be.  Green grapes provided a lovely substitute, but I was missing the crunch that I craved.  Some toasted almonds would have been excellent on this, to balance the soft textures of the lentils, goat cheese, and smoked salmon and to highlight the flavor of the pistou.  The recipe below will feature pomegranate seeds because that is what I had intended, but if you want to use green grapes and almonds then please do.

What is pistou, you may ask?  Short answer is pesto minus pine nuts (traditional versions also omit the parmigiano reggiano, but this cheese makes appearances in more modern renditions).  Longer answer is that pistou means "pounded" in Provençal; moreover, this notion became most strongly associated with the combination of basil, garlic, and olive oil after contact with the Genoese people and their traditional pesto.  But one could make a pistou of, say, tomatoes, or arugula, so the term doesn't strictly apply to basil.  I am a firm believer that pistou, and pesto for that matter, is absolutely best made by hand, with a mortar and pestle.  There is no other way to extract that same sensation of essential oils bursting from crushed leaves, permeating taste and olfaction with utter basil in its purest, most exquisite form.

Beluga Lentils with Pistou (for two)

2 cups water
1/2 cup beluga lentils
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, divided
3 cloves garlic, peeled and divided 
~2 ounces basil leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 ounces goat cheese
~1 pomegranate's worth of seeds
4 ounces smoked salmon

In a saucepot, bring the water and 2 whole garlic cloves to a boil.  Add 1 teaspoon salt, then the lentils, and cook ~20 minutes until tender.  Meanwhile, with your mortar and pestle, crush the other clove of garlic.  Add the remaining teaspoon of salt (it's very important that it's coarsely ground, because the sharp granules will help the pounding process), then the basil in batches depending on the size of your mortar.  Use the pestle to mash the leaves and garlic together into a paste.  Once this has been achieved, mash the olive oil into the basil-garlic mixture.

Drain the excess liquid from the lentils, remove the garlic cloves, then combine with the pistou.  After this mixture has cooled slightly, crumble in the goat cheese and fold in the pomegranate seeds.  Finish with shards of smoked salmon, and dig in.

Sweet Potato Scones

Every time I pass up a pumpkin scone at Starbucks, I die a little inside.

But once I give in and eat one I'm just like I remember this being better.  Oh it's tasty alright, sweet and a little cinnamon-y... It's also crumbly and barely tastes of pumpkin, and this makes me sad.  I want so desperately for it to be the scone of my [constructed] memory.  So I keep eating it, thinking that impossibly it'll become deliciously tender and sparkling with spice and radiantly, unequivocally pumpkin.  I end up not entirely satisfied, and with crumbs in my lap.

But what does this have to do with sweet potatoes?

Well, for one thing I love the little guys.  Sometimes I'll eat one as a snack (or meal if I've got one leftover and I'm rushing off somewhere), having become caramelized from the roasting process, with tender flesh inside and crisp, earthy skin outside.  It's also because pumpkin recipes can be great applications for sweet potatoes.  When I want to make, say, pumpkin pie, I feel compelled to stay away from canned pumpkin (it's not that canned pumpkin is a bad product, it's just not fresh, which I find always tastes better)... But dealing with a squash like a pumpkin is a much more daunting task than dealing with a lil' old sweet potato.  For one thing, sweet potatoes are easier to find.  For another, you just have to wash them and throw it in the oven for a while to cook - but with a pumpkin, you've gotta cut off the ends, scoop the seeds out, bake it for a long time, and then scrape the flesh off of the skin.  Sweet potato skin practically falls off once you've finished cooking it (and then you've got an extra snack right there).  Also, I find that the flesh of a pumpkin is a little stringier than that of a sweet potato, so if you're using it fresh in a dessert you've gotta put it through a food processor or blender (you can just mash up sweet potato flesh easily enough with a fork).  I do go through the trouble of working with pumpkin when I feel that it is necessary for a certain recipe; however, I find that the wonderful natural sweetness of sweet potatoes, in addition to their ease of preparation, often make what was once a pumpkin recipe into something truly dessert-worthy.  Or in the case of these scones, breakfast-worthy.

Since I wanted to make a better-than-Starbucks-pumpkin-turned-sweet potato-scone, I wanted to start with a Starbucks-inspired pumpkin scone recipe.  I stumbled across one from Inspired Taste which looked promising, so I rolled with it.  I substituted some oat flour, added more squash (well, potato), and adjusted some of the spices, and there you have it, sweet potato scone.  Even two days later, my leftovers are still soft, tender, and flavorful.  PSA: The dough is very soft, so be gentle and use lots of flour.  Also, I recommend popping them in the freezer for a few minutes before baking to make sure they don't go all wonky (this is a technical term, of course).

Sweet Potato Scones

1 c oat flour
1 c all purpose flour
1/3 c brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ginger
3/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
2/3 c mashed sweet potato
1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large mixing bowl, combine flours, sugar, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices.  Using your fingers (I suppose you could use a pastry blender or whatever, but those really annoy me... For one thing, the butter keeps getting all stuck and you have to stop and get it unclumped, and for another, it's another thing to wash), blend the butter chunks into the flour until they're about the size of small peas.  Try to work the butter as little as possible (the butter being cold is what creates a flakey, light texture).  Pop the mixture in the freezer while you work with the wet ingredients.

In a small bowl, combine the mashed sweet potato, molasses, buttermilk, egg, and vanilla.  Fold these wet ingredients into the dry, mixing as little as possible.  Dump onto a well-floured surface and pat down gently into a circle, 1-2" thick (depending on how you like your scones).  Carefully cut the circle into 8 equal triangles (the dough will be sticky), then transfer them onto a parchment-papered or greased cookie sheet.  While the oven is preheating to 400° F, keep the formed scones in the freezer (you could make them a day ahead if you want, and bake them directly from the freezer, you'll just need to add a little bit to the cooking time).  Bake them for 15-20 minutes until firm, then serve warm ane drizzled with honey (or maple syrup would be delicious also).    

Carrot Cake Pancakes

Alas, I have returned.  To school, and to talking to you lovely people on the interwebs.  Hello.  Bonjour.  Здорово (Russian for sup, or if you place the accent differently, then it means cool).

I don't know if you've noticed that I've been absent from here for about two weeks now; if you have, I apologize.  I haven't really done much in the way of cooking recently - well, not interesting cooking anyway.  I've been a busy bee since I got back to Chicago, you know how it is.  And the weather is starting to be... Well... Wintry.  Finally.  Most people don't really view this as a desireable turn of events, but it's just not winter if there aren't snow and blustery winds whirling around.  Since snow-pocalypse occurred the year before I matriculated at UChicago, I feel like I missed out on something wonderful.  I've been waiting for my Chicago winter experiences to live up to such a legendary event, and I shall keep waiting.  In the meantime, awaiting Boreas' wrath, I might as well enjoy the luxury of being able to leave my dorm and go to the grocery store without struggling to surmount ten-foot piles of snow.  

My mom was the first guinea pig for these pancakes, adapted from Ellie Krieger's whole wheat pancakes from The Food You Crave.  I've only attempted a couple recipes from this book, but they've both been successful.  I've made the aforementioned pancakes as well as her apple muffins, which have become a favorite of my dad's... They'll probably appear on this site at some point.  In any case, I don't know what got me thinking about carrot cake that morning when I was home over break, puttering around the kitchen, since I've only eaten it a couple times and it's not my favorite (I'm not a huge fan of regular raisins in my desserts, or in my granola for that matter).  But it occurred to me that this cake's flavor profile would make so much sense as a healthy-ish breakfast (I say -ish, since I can't really overlook the cake part of pancake...). Maybe the amount of carrots in here, in addition to the walnuts, oat flour, molasses, and honey, qualifies these pancakes as wholesome, as far as breakfast treats go.  Maybe.  I hope so, because they're yummy... I mean they're clearly delicious, since I made them again to photograph and tell y'all about them.  

As one of my taste-testers, and future roomies (holler at you, Alexander), pointed out, the batter looks kind of unappetizing, but the pancakes turn out real puuuurdy (I mean, I think they're purdy).  The carrots soften, the batter rises up and caramelizes, and the butter bubbles away pleasantly - then you pour honey or maple syrup all over... *Lips smacking*.  When I made these at home I cooked them in coconut oil, which I really liked with the spices, but you could use canola oil or butter too.  I considered making a sauce using cream cheese, like the traditional cream cheese frosting, but I wanted this recipe to stay in the breakfast realm rather than crossing farther into dessert (but if you want to experiment, please, and let me know).  The batter is barely sweetened, so you'll really want a sweet drizzle-able something to go with it... I just had a if you give a mouse a cookie moment there.  You may also want a glass of milk to go with it...

Okay.  You get it.  Just make these and be happy that you're having healthy cake for breakfast that's got a lotta carrots in it.  Or you can have them for dinner, like I did.

Carrot Cake Pancakes

3/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 c oat flour (basically just ground up oats)
1/2 c all-purpose flour
**you can make this with just 3/4 c whole wheat flour and 3/4 c all-purpose**
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 eggs
1 c lowfat buttermilk
1/4 c freshly squeezed orange juice (one orange)
1/2 c lowfat milk
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 c chopped walnuts
2 medium carrots, peeled and grated (about 1 c, maybe more)

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk and milk, orange juice, molasses, and honey.  Add in the flours, baking powder and soda, salt, and spices, then whisk to combine.  Stir in the carrots and walnuts.

Cook in a small fry pan or on a griddle over medium-low heat.  You know it's ready to flip when, having checked the underside gently, it's lightly browned, and bubbles have formed little pockets on the uncooked side.  Flip, then finish cooking another couple minutes.  If you're making them in batches but you want to serve them all at once, keep the cooked pancakes warm in a 200° F.  I just eat them right out of the pan, dunking them in maple syrup.

Wonton Soup

Happy New Year, kids.

The advent of 2013 came and went quietly for me - quietly, and pleasantly, snuggled up on a couch in Vermont.  It was lovely to escape up there to Stowe, if only for a couple days, so that I could ski for the first time in a couple years.  My family used to go up to Smugglers Notch every February break, but scheduling got more complicated as I entered high school and Daniel (i.e. Brother) was off being all smart and stuff at RPI.  Upon going off to be all smart and stuff myself at UChicago, I didn't really get the opportunity to ski at all.  Chicago is a wee bit flat.  Anyway, skiing = outside in the cold for a long time = cold and hungry = hot and steamy and delicious noms = soup.  But oh, this isn't just any soup.  This is make-your-own-take-out Chinese food, people!

I won't lie, filling and folding all those little wontons takes some time, but it's totally worth it.  And I even cheat by using store-bought wonton wrappers.  Dear readers (whatever little following I have), you probably know by now that I'm someone who values homemade to the extreme, short of milking and butchering my own cows.  Maybe someday I'll have my own little farm and such a wonderful fantasy will become real.  Until then, I tend to make as much of a meal from scratch as I can.  But there are some nights, when I'm feeling particularly lazy, and I don't want to make fresh pasta.  That's really all a wonton wrapper is - it's pasta, and super easy to put together.  It just takes time, and since it takes long enough to fill and fold the wontons themselves, I used this shortcut.  I don't feel as badly about it, however, since store-bought wonton wrappers aren't dried (i.e. they're less processed).

I clipped this recipe from Saveur magazine about five years ago, but hadn't gotten around to cooking it until now.  I have a whole box full of recipes torn from Bon Appetit, Saveur, Whole Living, Food & Wine, La Cucina Italiana, Cook's Illustrated... The product of eight or nine years of collecting.  You can tell which ones I've prepared most often by the amount of splatters and smears on the glossy pages.  The broth of this soup is so bright and crisp, having been infused with ginger, a tonic for the sniffles and cold bones.  I happened to have ground turkey in my fridge for a different recipe, so I used it in place of the traditional ground pork - but by all means, use pork instead if you prefer.  This soup is a panacea for what ails ya' this winter.

Wonton Soup

8 cups chicken stock
4 cups plus 1 tablespoon water
3 inches ginger root, peeled (2 inches sliced into medallions, 1 inch finely chopped)
3 whole scallions plus 1 tablespoon, minced
1 tablespoon mirin
2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 pound ground turkey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 1/4 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
~30 square wonton wrappers
~handful spinach leaves

Bring chicken stock, 4 cups water, sliced ginger, and whole scallions to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover.  Let the broth simmer for ~10 minutes.  Remove from the heat while forming the wontons.

In a medium bowl, whisk the mirin and 1 tablespoon water into the cornstarch.  Combine the remaining scallions, remaining ginger, turkey, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil, handling the mixture as little as possible.  Fill a small bowl or cup with water, and place a damp cloth over the wonton wrappers.  To fill the wontons, dip your finger in the water and moisten the edges of the wrapper.  Place ~1 teaspoon of filling in the center of the wrapper, then fold one corner to its opposite to create a triangle and press firmly to push out the air and seal the wonton.  Then, moisten the left and right corners of the wonton, and press them together firmly.  Keep the formed wontons under a damp towel while filling and folding the others.

Remove the scallions and ginger slices and bring the reserved broth to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, then add the wontons.  Cook, ~5 minutes, until the wonton wrapper is soft and the filling is cooked through.  Turn off the heat, then stir in the spinach.  Let the spinach wilt ~1 minute, then ladel and serve.