Monday, March 28, 2016

DIY Condiments: Harissa

One of the things I love the most about my Spice group is that it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and encourages me to be creative with new ingredients.  It also helps me add to my increasing repertoire of things that I make myself rather than buy pre-made.

Harissa is no exception.  It has been floating in and out of my radar for the past ten years or so.  But whenever I looked at the tubes or cans of it that I saw for sale at the Middle Eastern stores where I found it, all I could see were the HOT PEPPERS at the top of the ingredients list.  I like spicy foods, but I fall on the wimpy side of the tolerance range.  I like to add a little heat to my flavors more than I like adding a little flavor to the heat.

I also discovered years ago that I am not a fan of jarred and canned prepared salsas and sauces.  There is something about the changes that canning brings to food that I do not like.  It takes away the freshness, and everything has a musky aftertaste that diminishes the natural flavors of the other ingredients.  So just from looking at the pictures on the outsides of the jars and tubes of harissa I was pretty sure I would find that they had too much heat and the wrong kind of flavor for me.  In the end, harissa became another one of those flavors that stayed on my "someday I will try this" list, and I was quite happy to let it continue to float somewhere down near the bottom of that list. Until last month, when the coordinator of our Spice Group announced that harissa would be the spice for our March potluck. 

I knew pretty much from the get-go that I was going to make my own, so while I was not particularly thrilled at the choice of spices it always makes me happy when I make something new.  I rolled up my figurative sleeves and pulled out my favorite spice books and  looked at several recipes online so I could compare them to see which ingredients are required, which are preferred, and which would be best avoided.

All of the recipes I found contained at least two different kinds of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil.  Many of the recipes contained caraway seeds and some called for lemon juice.  One or two had mint.  Some included roasted red peppers and onions.

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer some heat to my flavor rather than flavor to my heat, so I decided to use all of those spices.  I was not sure about the mint, but I figured if I used just enough to add to the flavor without being in any way obvious it would be a good thing.  The additional roasted red pepper and onion seemed more Eastern European than Northern African to me so I decided not to use those.

The next question was which chilies to use.  I was somewhat limited to the chilies that were available to me and finally decided on guajillo chilies, which were in many of the recipes that I saw, and something called Chilies Japones with which I was not at all familiar but they were small and red and the only non-Mexican chilies they had at the store that day and the package said they were hot so I figured they should work.

It turned out to be quite easy to make the harissa, and the end result was quite delicious.  It is as hot as I imagined it would be, but it is also full of flavor.  For the potluck, I made bread with the harissa swirled throughout it.  It was quite pretty and surprisingly good.  For myself, I am already finding many uses for it.  It is delicious on just about anything and the heat dissipates throughout the whole dish and enhances it the way a good hot sauce should.  I already find that I cannot imagine life without it.

If you decide to make your own, and I strongly recommend that you do, the main piece of advice I would give is to make sure that you process it until it is completely smooth.  The first batch I made looked good in the bowl but as soon as I started using it I found myself spitting out large pieces of the chilies.  When I made the second batch I threw the first batch in with it and made sure to process everything until all of the chilies were well and truly blended in with the other ingredients.  It made all of the difference.
Home Cookin Chapter: Spices Spreads Dips Sauces

8 dried guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded (about 2 oz)
16 to 20 chilies japones, or other small hot chilies (about 1 oz)
1 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp dried mint leaves (optional)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
5 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lemon

Put chilies in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover and let sit until softened, at least 20 minutes.

Heat the caraway, coriander and cumin in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about four minutes. Keep the seeds moving in the skilllet the whole time. Place the spices in a grinder with the mint and grind to a fine powder.

Drain the chlies and place them in a food processor. Add the spices, salt, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and puree until the mixture is smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. This will take 4 to 5 minutes as you want to make sure there are no large flakes of the dried chilies in the mixture.

Store the harissa in a glass jar covered with a layer of olive oil. Refrigerate, and replace the oil after every use. Makes approximately 1 cup.

adapted from recipe found at

Exported from Home Cooking v.8.66 (

Monday, March 21, 2016

Nutmeg Cake with Cognac and Walnut Glaze

Things have been so crazy the past year that I have not been baking much other than bread, so on the rare occasions when I have baked I have tended to rely on old favorites with which I am comfortable and can whip out in a short amount of time.  However, I was invited to a birthday party and one of the two birthday celebrants was the woman who usually brings one of the cakes (yes, cakes - we take dessert very seriously) to our celebrations, so I volunteered to make one of the cakes this time.

Her cakes are always quite extraordinary, so I wanted to find a recipe that would do her justice.  It did not take me long to settle on this nutmeg cake, as I had been eyeing the recipe for a while and deeply regretted that I had missed the opportunity to make it for my spice group's nutmeg potluck.

While nutmeg is used to enhance many dishes, most recipes call for just a pinch.  This nutmeg cake uses four and a half teaspoons, which is one teaspoon more than a tablespoon. That is a lot of nutmeg, let me tell you.

But not too much.  The sour cream balances out the flavor and gives the cake a rich, moist texture.  The original recipe just has a stenciled powdered-sugar design on the top but I wanted something a little fancier for the occasion but I did not want to overpower the more subtle tones of the nutmeg, which I was afraid would be the case with frosting.  I thought a simple glaze would hit just the right note, and from there it was an easy step to add cognac and garnish with chopped walnuts to mirror the walnuts in the cake.

The end result was beautiful and delicious.  The cake was moist and rich and the glaze was the perfect topping for it.

If you are looking for something different  from the usual repertoire of cakes this one does the trick and is much easier to make than the end result would indicate, if you are looking to impress.  But the taste alone will accomplish that.

The one thing upon which I will insist is that you buy your nutmeg whole and grate it yourself.  There is no comparison in flavor between buying it already ground and grinding your own.  And no excuse for not doing so either, if you ask me.
Home Cookin Chapter: Baked Goods (Sweet/Savory)
Makes 8 to 10 servings

12 Tbsp unsalted butter, cubed, plus more for pan
3 cups flour, plus more for pan
4-1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1-1/2 cups sour cream
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

For the glaze:
1-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp cognac
2 Tbsp chopped walnuts, for garnish

Heat oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 10-inch springform pan and set aside.

In a food processor combine flour, nutmeg, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add butter and pulse until pea-size crumbs form.

Add brown sugar, sour cream, milk, and eggs and process until smooth. Add the walnuts and stir them into the batter.

Pour the batter into the springform pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool.

Combine the sugar, water and cognac and mix well.  Add more sugar or water as needed to reach the desired consistency, which should be thick but should run smoothly from a spoon.  Drizzle the glaze over the cake and top with the chopped walnuts while the glaze is still warm.

from a Saveur recipe found at

exported from Home Cookin v.8.66 (

Monday, March 14, 2016

Coconut Lemongrass Rice

One of the themed spices for a recent Spiced-up group potluck was coconut and/or lemongrass.  I was crazy busy in a year of crazy busy so I had time to neither find a recipe nor shop for ingredients.  So I looked at what I had in my pantry and searched for something I could make from what I already had on hand.

What I had was rice, almonds, golden raisins, coconut flakes, brandy, and spices.  I work near what is sometimes referred to as "New Chinatown" at Broadway and Argyle Street in Chicago's uptown neighborhood, so it was not too much of an inconvenience to stop there on the way home the night before the potluck to pick up the lemongrass.  The recipe called for jasmine rice but I knew I could substitute long-grain rice if I could not find jasmine rice.  But wonder of wonders, my neighborhood Treasure Island actually had brown jasmine rice on their shelves.  Of course it cost an arm and a leg, but I was curious to try it and I wanted the dish to be as accurate as possible so I splurged.

As is usually the case, the original recipe uses white rice, but I have gotten quite adept over the years at converting the cooking times to account for brown rice, which I prefer as much these days for flavor as for the health benefits.  The brown jasmine rice provided a layer of nuttiness that stood up well to the robust flavors of the almond, coconut and lemongrass.

The brandy takes this dish pretty much as far away from traditional as one can get, but it added a nice overtone that I can highly recommend.  I mainly used it because I had the end of a bottle hanging around and had been looking for a use for it.  The dish can easily be made without it, but if you happen to have some hanging around I recommend that you give it a try.

I did not really have time to make anything to go with the rice, but given the lemongrass and coconut theme I was pretty sure that folks would bring quite a few dishes that my rice would complement, and I was correct.  By the end of the evening it had disappeared.

Luckily, this recipe makes a double batch so I was able to keep some of the rice for myself.  It was delicious when I paired it with the above version of my Masoor Dal, which is something I make quite frequently for work lunches.
Home Cookin Chapter: Grains Pasta and Potatoes

2 cups brown jasmine rice, washed 3 times and drained
3-1/3 cup water
1 cup coconut flakes
1-1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp cardamom
3 kaffir lime leaves
2 6-inch pieces lemongrass, bruised until pliable and tied into a knot
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup brandy

Cover the raisins with brandy and set aside. Combine the rice, coconut, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, salt, lime leaves, lemon-grass, and water in a 4-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover tightly with lid and reduce heat to lowand cook for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let set for five minutes, then remove the cover and fluff the rice.

Add the almonds and raisins with the brandy and stir them in with the rice. Remove the lemongrass and lime leaves before serving.

adapted from receipe found at

exported from Home Cookin v.8.66 (

Monday, March 07, 2016

Vegetables with Apricot Sauce

The idea of eating whole foods has been on the periphery of my life ever since my older sister convinced me briefly to become a vegetarian back when I was in junior high school.  She also introduced me to whole wheat bread, granola, and yogurt, and she was the first person I knew to bring tofu to the table back in the '80s.  Of course, she also replaced all of the fats in her diet with sugar and consumed diet cola by the liter, but nobody's perfect.

While my vegetarian phase lasted about three months, my inclination toward whole grains and non-processed foods remained.  Even though I never again gave up meat entirely, it gradually became more of an accent to my cuisine rather than the basis of it.

Having grown up in a time where a meal was not considered a meal if it did not contain meat, I had a hard time coming up with vegetable-centered main dishes.  (I find that so hard to believe now, but there it was.)  For most of my weeknight dinners I would saute some onion and zucchini or other squash in butter and add an egg beaten with curry sauce at the end for a quick scramble.  It tasted good, but it quickly got old and I would find myself cooking the chicken or meatloaf or pork chops with rice that had been the staples around our table when I had lived at home.

It did not particularly bother me at the time and I don't know that I even thought about it that clearly or consciously.  But what I notice most looking back is how often I was drawn to vegetarian cookbooks, and that many of the recipes that I clipped out of magazines and the paper and copied out of cookbooks were bean or vegetable centered.

These days I usually cook meat maybe once a week, which means I eat it three or four times a week counting leftovers.  That seems to be the proper ratio for me.  If I have meat more often than that I start to feel sluggish; less often and I feel a loss of energy.  This is anecdotal, of course, but I know I feel better when I eat some meat, but not all the time.

So the challenge is finding enough vegetarian dishes that offer enough variety that I do not feel like I am eating the same thing all the time.  I think one reason that folks do not like beans is that it is too easy to get stuck in a rut in terms of how they are prepared.  That is why I am always happy when I find a recipe that uses different ingredients than I usually use, or uses familiar ingredients in a different way.

And that is why I decided to try this recipe I found in American Wholefoods Cuisine, written by Nikki and David Goldbeck back in the '80s.  I have had this book forever and have several recipes marked, but for some reason I had never made any of them.  But I had recently purchased dried apricots and was looking for recipes and ran across this one.

It was easy to make and quite delicious.  The cinnamon and apricots combine to complement the chickpeas and zucchini.  I cooked the couscous in the rest of the chickpea liquid and it was the perfect companion.  You can't really tell from the photo up there, but there was a nice amount of lovely sauce that added flavor to the couscous.  This recipe is definitely a keeper.

And as with most other bean dishes, it travels well for work lunches.

Home Cookin Chapter: Beans and Vegetables

6 servings

1/2 cup quartered dried apricots
2 Tbsp raisins
2 Tbsp oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 pound eggplant, patty pan, zucchini, or winter squash
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup water from soaking fruit combined with bean cooking liquid or plain water
cooked pasta or grain
chopped toasted pistachio, for garnish

Soak dried fruit in hot water to cover while preparing remaining ingredients.

Heat oil in a 2- to 3-quart pot and cook onion over medium heat until lightly colored, about 10 minutes. While onion cooks, cut the vegetables into bite-size cubes. Add the vegetables to the onion and stir to coat.

Drain the fruit, reserving the liquid, and add it to the pot along with the chickpeas, salt, and cinnamon.  Add enough water or liquid from the beans to measure one cup. Add the liquid to the pot and bring it to a boil, then cover the pot and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are just tender.

Serve over couscous or brown rice.

adapted from American Wholefoods Cuisine, by Nikki and David Goldbeck (Plume, 1984)

exported from Home Cookin v.8.66 (

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

How to Build a Sourdough Starter

If you have been curious about making sourdough starter and have done any searching on the internet, no doubt you have run across all kinds of conflicting information about the best way to create and maintain a starter of your own.  If you are anything like me, it was enough to stop you dead in your tracks.  It wasn't until a bread group I joined a few years ago chose sourdough for one of their monthly themes that I took the plunge and got started. What I learned is that creating and maintaining a sourdough starter is much more simple and easy to do than I had thought it would be.  Of all the rules, articles and comments I read online, only these turned out to be true:

  1. Use equal amounts (by weight) of flour and water.  (If you are using volume, use half as much water as flour.)
  2. You do not need large amounts of flour and water to create a starter. It works just as well with a few tablespoons of each as it does a cup of each, and is much less wasteful.
  3. You do not need to add pineapple, grape, or any other kind of juice to your starter.
  4. Feed your starter regularly if it is not in the refrigerator.
  5. It can be stored in the refrigerator for quite a while without feeding.
  6. That is all you need to know.
Anything else you need to know comes from the experience you will gain from maintaining the starter and using it.  It may take a while for you to get the hang of it, but unless you manage to do something drastically wrong your mistakes should be edible and people will still want to be your friend in hopes that you will share your efforts with them.

In case you have been thinking at all about dipping your toe in the water, I thought it might be helpful of me to present a brief tutorial with pictures on creating a starter.  Once it is up and going, you can either leave it out and feed it regularly or put it in the refrigerator and bring it out a few days before you plan to use it.  Either way, once you have done it for a while it will not be so scary and you will wonder why you ever feared it in the first place.

Since I started playing with sourdough I have only used commercial yeast a few times, and that was in order to make enriched breads where the added ingredients retard the sourdough's rising ability.  Otherwise, I  have gotten adept at converting recipes that use commercial yeast to sourdough thanks to this post from Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini.  I have even found some recipes to help use up excess starter.

Ready to jump down the rabbit hole?  Follow me.
Note:  I measure my ingredients by weight (and I highly recommend that you do the same).  For those who use volume I have done my best to give conversions but fair warning:  I may have gotten some wrong.  The best rule of thumb when measuring by volume is that you want to use half as much water as you use flour.
Day One - Sunday Night
20g water / 10g flour
On the first day I combined 20g of water with 10g of flour (that's about a tablespoon of flour and a tablespoon of water if you're working by volume).  This is actually twice as wet as I keep my starter, but I think it helps the bacteria get started if the initial environment is on the wet side.  Stir the two together in a small bowl or jar (I covered mine with cheesecloth so it could breathe but if you use a jar and set the lid on loosely that would work just as well) and let it sit out until you start to see some bubble action on the surface of the mixture, which could take a day or so.  This picture was taken right after I got started so there has been no action yet.

Day Two - Monday Night
Nothing added
About twenty-four hours later I could see a few tiny bubbles, but overall the mixture looked about the same as it did when it was started so I just stirred it but did not add anything to it.

Day Three - Tuesday Night
Before Feeding 30g starter / 10g water / 20g flour
The third night I could see lots of tiny bubbles so I decided to feed it.  At the same time, I wanted to bring the ratio of flour to water where I wanted it to be, which was equal parts of flour to water. This is the only time that I add to the starter without removing anything, as I wanted to bring it to 60g (half a cup) total.  To the existing starter I added 10g (about half a tablespoon) of water to 20g (about one sixth of a cup) of flour.  I stirred it together, covered it with the cheesecloth, and let it sit.  Moving forward from here, I started checking the starter every twelve hours.

If you do not see any noticeable activity by day three and you are getting worried, you can try using whole wheat or rye flour (whole wheat flour is available in bulk if you do not use it regularly and don't have some around) instead of the all-purpose flour for one or two feedings.  That worked for me the first time I made a starter.  After it takes off you will be able to go back to all-purpose or bread flour.

Day Four - Wednesday Morning
No feeding
On the morning of day four I could see that some activity had occurred, but no bubbles had broken through the surface so I just stirred it and left it alone.

Day Four - Wednesday Night
Before Feeding 25g starter / 20g water / 20g flour
When I came back to check on it that night the bubbles had broken through the surface, so it was feeding time!  For this feeding on, you want to remove about two-thirds of your starter so that you are only adding amounts to bring it to its current level.  Because the starter wants its weight in flour and starter, if you don't remove two-thirds of it before feeding it you will be drowning in starter in no time at all.  You can either store the excess starter in a loosely-capped jar in the fridge to make pancakes or biscuits or banana bread (future posts), or you can just toss it.  I had a hard time tossing it at first but I keep my starter small so I am more comfortable just getting rid of it if I already have excess starter in the refrigerator.  That is something you will get a feel for as you get more comfortable working with it.

Back to the feeding.  The ratio of flour to water was now where I wanted it so I discarded two-thirds (40g/a little less than half a cup) of the starter and added 20g (about a tablespoon) of water and 20g (about one-sixth of a cup) of flour.  You may notice there was actually a little more starter than the water and flour I added; that is just something that I do.  I figure the stuff that has dried onto the sides of the jar shouldn't count as the total weight so I always keep the ratio just a tad high on the starter side.  I stirred everything together and let it sit for another twelve hours.

Day 5 - Thursday Morning
No Feeding
On the morning of day five, I could see that there had been more activity than in the previous 24-hour period, but it had not gone crazy with the bubbles so I decided to leave it for another twelve hours before feeding it again.  At this stage I wanted it to be good and hungry!  So I stirred it again and left it alone.

Day 5 - Thursday Night
Before Feeding 25g starter / 20g water / 20g flour
That night, as you can see, there was much more activity.  For the first time my starter looked the way starter should look.  It had doubled in size and was full of bubbles.  I was very excited as I removed two thirds of it and fed it another 20g (about a tablespoon) of flour and 20g (about one-sixth of a cup) of flour.  I stirred it and left it to work its magic yet again.

I just realized that I did not take pictures of the starter right after I fed it so you could see the difference in size.  See the photos at the bottom of the post to get an idea of how your starter will look just after feeding and then twelve hours after that.

Day 6 - Friday Morning
Before Feeding 25g starter / 20g water / 20g flour
As you can see, it was quite bubbly the next morning and ready for its first twelve-hour feeding.  That meant it was almost ready for use.  I have read that you should let a starter go through three rounds of active feeding before you use it, so I gave this one more feeding on Friday night, and then on Saturday I was ready to make my bread.

And that is really all there is to it.  Actually, there are a few more guidelines I can give you that you may discard after you have more experience and have settled into your own routine, but here is what I have learned:
  1. Depending on the makeup of your tap water, there may be chemicals (such as chlorine) that will interfere with the development of the bacteria (or even kill it).  I use filtered water that I keep in a jar at room temperature for my feeding and for my breadmaking.
  2. You will hear that you should NEVER use metal with sourdough.  I use metal spoons to feed my starter and have never had any problems.  I have seen folks who use metal bowls to mix their dough and let it rise and they do not seem to have any problems with it either.  I do agree that you should not keep your starter in a metal bowl, as that does give the metal time to interact negatively with the starter.
  3. You can use either plastic or glass containers for your starter.  I like to use glass because I am not sure what, if any, chemicals from the plastic leach into the starter given the constant contact between it and the container.  So I am more comfortable with glass, given my better safe than sorry approach to life.
  4. Sometimes you will feed your starter in preparation for baking and something will come up that will prevent you from using it.  When that happens to me I cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.  If I am baking the next day I just bring it out and up to room temperature and make my bread.  If it is two days, I bring it up to room temperature and feed it once before I use it.  Any longer than that and I use the general rule of feeding it until it doubles successfully three times before using it.
  5. If you store your starter in the refrigerator, I have found that in order to get it up to speed as soon as possible it likes to be fed once a week (give or take a day on either side of that).  It can go much longer than that without being fed, but it will require more time and attention to get it back up to full strength.
  6. I was not happy about how much flour I was wasting feeding my starter twice a day, so after a while I cut it in half.  My starter now consists of about 15g (about a scant tablespoon) of starter, 10g (about half a tablespoon) of water, and 10g (about a tablespoon) of flour.  When I am ready to bake my bread, I will build it up to the amount that I need.
  7. I started and fed my starter with all-purpose flour and used that for the first year or so, and then it made more sense to me to use bread flour.  Both work, but I think the additional gluten in the bread flour makes the starter stronger and helps my dough to rise faster.

These are photos I took more recently of that same starter in the pictorial above.  The photo at the top of this post shows what it looked like twelve hours later.

And this photo shows what it looks like when you start to stir it.   I took this picture to show how strong the starter is - you can see the gluten strands that formed as I pulled the spoon across the surface.  This baby is ready to make some bread!

Ok, I think that's enough for this first post.  I have a lot of recipes to share, but I wanted to get the basics posted first, just in case someone is feeling brave and inspired by my successes to create a starter of their own.  I hope this gives enough information to help you get started!

And if not, here are links to some sites that I found when I was just getting started that were extremely helpful:
  1. Sourdough Home, especially the FAQ page.
  2. Some great information on sourdough basics can be found hereThe recipe on this page is the first recipe I made.  I found it extremely user friendly and nonchallenging.
  3. In the extremely unlikely case that my little tutorial was not enough to encourage you, you can find another day-by-day guide at Serious Eats.
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