Obi non and news

I always fiddle with ingredients and dishes, but rarely (I hope) to the point that they are unrecognizable by their forebears. This breakfast is one of those rare failures at respectful fusion: a tender Uzbek obi non; an ancient flatbread baked in a clay tandir — so old it was mentioned in the earliest Sumerian texts — this time filled with breakfast proteins instead of honey, onion or chickpeas. Why’d I do it? Uzbek cuisine is interesting enough on its own; Uzbekistan is a largely secular Muslim country with a steady population of Bukhari Jews that was incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century (just as my Volga German ancestors were fleeing). As such, there is a heavy Turkik influence with Russian breadbasket inflections. The Russian word for obi non is lepeshka (лепешка), and before I decided I’d try baking it myself, I did purchase this loaf from a Russian bakery.

The bread was a puffy disc, very flat in the center. That the soft, round loaf resembled a giant bialy (an Azhkenazi specialty) was reason enough for me to fill it with scrambled eggs, cheese and sausages. I carved it into wedges and served it thusly. I don’t think Gilgamesh would even bat an eye.

I also want to announce that I have gotten a book deal! I’m writing Breakfast: A History, to be published by Roman and Littlefield’s AltaMira Press probably sometime in 2013. So for now I’m busy conducting research and organizing my many thoughts on the subject. I have a year to complete my manuscript. This blurb is from my proposal; maybe it’ll be the blurb on the back jacket (if Jared Diamond and Michael Pollan are unavailable to provide accolades):

Whether it’s a bowlful of cloying, artificially fruit-flavored O’s with milk or a stinking pile of fermented soybeans on steamed rice, breakfast fuels our hungry brains. As the old adage says, breakfast is the most important meal of the day; it’s the meal that makes the champion. It “breaks the fast” of nighttime slumber, filling our raging bellies and providing us with the stamina to face the day—or the first few hours of it, at least. We’ve been eating breakfast since the Neolithic, when humans first invented a way to grind cereals, and until the advent of the mimosa, our day’s first meal has changed little.

Stay tuned for updates, and in the meanwhile, I will try to make time to keep the blog floating.

Posted in Baking, Brekkie, Classical and Eurotrashical | 10 Comments

Curried Pumpkin Soup

The best thing about having a compost heap is not the smug satisfaction of reducing your household waste to a mere 10 gallons a month, or seeing healthy organisms thrive in your soil, or the idea that the nutrient cycle may be so poetically expressed in your very own back yard; no, it’s none of those. The best thing about composting is free food volunteering from old scraps and seeds left behind from dinners past. After the worms, squirrels and birds have a go, a few stragglers always manage to make it, and in the fluffy, nutrient-rich nursery of the compost heap, nitrogen hogs like tomatoes and cucurbits spring forth.

This kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin) is just one straggler. It was one of Zephyr’s first solid foods, simmered in warm dashi and sake. The seeds were cast out into the pile, fodder for boisterous soldier fly larvae and lithe red worms, and after they were scraped clean by tiny radula, they germinated and grew, grew, grew; up my arborvitae, across my lawn, over the abandoned grill rusting under the bushes. I got two sturdy kabocha off that vine, a blue Hubbard off another, a dusky Fairy Tale pumpkin off a third.

Unwilling to risk turning my kabocha to a punky parody of a pumpkin, I picked it moderately small. I cut it open fresh, scooped out the filamentous flesh and seeds, peeled the rough, waxy exoderm and cubed it. Into the pressure cooker with a few cups of chicken broth, a can of coconut milk, a few fat spoonfuls of red curry paste, an inch of ginger (grated) and a half an onion (chopped). Ten minutes later, I ran an immersion blender through the pot and after it was all smooth, I added salt and pepper and a little turmeric. Toasted pumpkin seeds, a drizzle of walnut oil and a few slices of grainy bread were all it needed for a satisfying dinner.

The seeds from this kabocha went back into my wild, disheveled compost heap. The nutrient cycle is complete; the loop is closed.

Posted in Fast Food (not that kind), Light Supper, One Pot Wonders, Soup, Uncategorized, Under Pressure, Vegetables, Vegetarian-ish | 7 Comments

Pizza Bolognese

Sorry for the dead air for the past…oh, my. It’s been a month. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now (including some projects for print), and this just fell off my radar.

But it’s summer! And the garden is full! This hot spell we’ve had is granting my nightshades a bit of leeway, and I dare say I’ll have enough ripe tomatoes to can this year. I’ve had about a quart a week of cukes to pickle, and it probably goes without saying that I’ve been up to my ass in summer squash.

One nice thing to do with zukes (or pattypans, or eight-balls) is to just slice them on a mandoline and throw them on some dough with a bit of meat sauce and cheese. In fact, that’s just what I did.

I had a weird craving for the Levant pizza-esque dish sfiha. It’s normally made with beef or lamb, and is usually nowt more than a meat sauce spread on a flat bread and sprinkled with pine nuts. There’s a little pomegranate molasses in the sauce for tanginess, but otherwise it’s not totally dissimilar to a thick Bolognese sauce.

I just happened to have a tub of rich meat sauce from a chuck roast I ground up—making room in the freezer for the next half-cow when it’s not roast season is a bit of a task, but hey, you end up with little tubs of things that are easier to use on a lazy night. I also had a bag of store-bought pizza dough from Trader Joe’s because despite all of my well-meaning DIY tendencies, I still just haven’t gotten around to learning how the hell to bake bread. I spread the Bolognese sauce all over the dough and topped it with shaved pattypan squash, extra oregano, and crumbled cotija cheese. I know, that sounds totally out of left field, but just close your eyes and pretend it’s ricotta salata and it makes perfect sense, right? They’re both salty, sharp, crumbly and white. One is from sheep’s milk; the other, cow’s. Otherwise, not too much different.

When it came out of the oven, I topped it with a handful of baby arugula and a drizzle of olive oil. I was already bastardizing the sfiha by making it Italian-flavored with Mexican cheese, so I figured I may as well go balls to the ball. And I’m glad I did.

Posted in Baking, Beef & Lamb, Fast Food (not that kind), Mediterranean, Vegetables | 4 Comments

Roasted Salsa Verde

I love salsa verde. Throw it into a pot with a pork shoulder and you’ve got chili verde, ready for stuffing peppers or enchiladas. Mix it with crème fraîche and use it as a sauce for grilled fish. Or just eat it in a warm tortilla with cheese and a scrambled egg, like I do. It’s the breakfast of champions, the real deal.

I make enough to can, and this year I’m even growing my own tomatillos (a lovely purple heirloom variety from Territorial). I usually can it in pints, but this is too much to eat before it goes off, so this year I did half pints. Half pints are just so much more manageable, aren’t they?

My roasted salsa verde is pretty special. If you want to can your own, you can use my recipe, but be warned: mine is not from the NCHFP site or the Blue Book. Mine uses way less onion than the NCHFP recipe, but it uses more tomatillos. It has the same amount of lime juice, so I figure it all comes out in the wash. And this handy (peer-reviewed, published) study found that plain tomatillos, after canning, have a pH below 4.1, which is acidic enough to kill Botulism. That study also tested canned tomatillos with onions and with peppers, and they both had a pH below 4.2, which is the cutoff. Anecdotally, I’ve been making it this way for years and haven’t had any illnesses.

Another warning: if you leave a comment saying how unsafe my recipe is, I will tear you a new one in front of everybody.

So about that recipe:

Roasted Salsa Verde

(Makes about ten half pints)
8 cups clean, husked, quartered tomatillos
4 Anaheim chilis
2 small onions (about 2 cups coarsely chopped)
6 cloves garlic
juice and zest from two limes, or one cup bottled juice (no, I don’t think it matters)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano, crushed


Roast the tomatillos, chiles, onions and garlic at 375 for 30 minutes or so (or until they’re browned at the edges and soft). It’s easiest if you do the chiles in a separate pan so you can cover them and let them sit when they’re done. Wait 15 or so minutes and this will help the skins just slip right off, as pictured below. I think it probably goes without saying that you don’t want the seeds or the stems, but there’s always some wiseass who pulls a Simon Says on me.

Chiles, before

Chiles, after

Dump the roasted vegetables and everything else into a large bowl or pot (try to mop out the good browned juices for flavor – you can use the squeezed-out limes for this purpose) and whizz it up with an immersion blender. Ladle into clean half-pint jars, dip a butter knife in to remove air bubbles and wipe the rims with a damp paper towel. Affix the lids and bands and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Technically, this is the processing time for pints, so it might seem a bit long for ha’pints; since everything has already been cooked, it won’t hurt a bit to be in there a few minutes longer. Test the seals the next day, and refrigerate any that don’t seal (plan on eating any unsealed jars within a week or two).

You’ll likely notice that the salsa has firmed up a bit. This is because tomatillos are naturally high in pectin. You can dilute it with a little water when you go to use it, if it bothers you. It doesn’t affect the flavor, though, so don’t worry your pretty little head. Just worry about finding enough ways to enjoy eating the salsa (or just eat it for breakfast).

Posted in Latino, Puttin' Up, Vegetables, Vegetarian-ish | 16 Comments

Homemade Labneh

A month or so ago, I did a cooking demo for Stonyfield yogurt, and ended up with 4 quarts of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, with an aggressively impending expiration date. At first I tried just slipping it into everything: burritos! salad dressing! cornbread! But eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never eat it all fast enough.

Here’s the thing: I cannot waste food. Sure, I can freeze leftovers until they are freezer-burnt beyond edibility, but then I don’t feel bad about throwing them away. I gave it the old college try, I tell myself. Oh, well. It happens to plenty of leftovers. People save them with the best of intentions, and keep them until they are rotten enough that they no longer feel bad about throwing them away.

But not this time. Nope.

I made labneh.

Just take some plain yogurt, mix it with a few pinches of salt and pour it into a cheesecloth or teabag. Hang it up in your refrigerator; you can see my sophisticated rigging system in this photo, using a paperclip and an old twist tie to suspend the bag above the bowl so the whey can drip down. Let this drip for a day or two. Feel free to squeeze it a bit to help, and save the liquid whey for adding protein to other foods like soup or rice.

After two days, you’ll have a ball of what is essentially fromage blanc. You can store this for a couple weeks in a tub in the fridge, and it is wonderful on bagels, or mixed with herbs and stuffed into squash blossoms. Or…

Using a size 30 disher (makes an approximately 1-oz ball) or a spoon and your hands, scoop all of the fresh cheese into little balls and set them a half inch apart on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper or parchment. Put this in the fridge for another day or two so the balls can dry out a bit.

For the short-term, you can store them in tub or jar with a lid, but for long term storage, cover them in olive oil. I’ve seen several sources say that you can store this at room temperature, but I get all wigged out thinking about that, so I just spare the couple inches of shelf space in my fridge and keep it there, where I am told it will last for months. Months.

You can eat this with any mezze, or you can just not make so much that it needs long-term storage in olive oil, and just enjoy it fresh on wasa crisps with the season’s first homemade blueberry-elderflower jam, yü-shan raspberries from the garden, and a crack of black pepper. But do try your hand at it. These leftovers won’t have time to go bad.

Posted in Dairy, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Puttin' Up, Vegetarian-ish | 20 Comments

Smoked Cod Cakes with Napa Cabbage Slaw

I love fish cakes. There’s some casual thing about them, all getting sand in your shoes and an itchy sunburn on your shoulders, needing Noxzema and iced tea. Their beachiness could be as literal as the fact that cod comes from the ocean (our local chilly brine, the Mighty Pacific), but I love being swept up in the meibutsu of it all, and the seasonality of it, too. Summer begs for straps and hats and big umbrellas, and for crispy-edged cod cakes with tangy-sweet slaw. This is living.

This is a few pounds of Pacific cod, kissed with smoke, heated until fork-flaky. This is handfuls of your garden’s tiny pearly potatoes, skin rubbed off between your gritty fingers and rinsed away in the garden hose, then boiled and smashed with the same fork. This is mineral parsley, sweet pickled onions, cracker crumbs and a warm egg, all married with yet the same fork. Salt and pepper, a blob of Dijon, and into small handfuls you pat-a-cake. Into a pan with a little bacon fat, this is a few aproned moments in front of the stove.

This is a head of Napa cabbage, rended to slivers with a hasty blade. This is a dressing of rice vinegar, lime juice, sesame oil and sugar; it is minced shallots, snipped chives and mint, pretty-please with cherry tomatoes on top.

This is dinner.

Posted in Asian, Light Supper, Salad, Seafood, Small Bites, Vegetables, Vegetarian-ish, Viet-Thai | 8 Comments

Salmon with Akajiso (Red Shiso) Pesto

I hate talking about it, but I’ve been sort of counting my calories the past week or so. I should have started a few months ago, but we’ve only just started to have nice weather. Cloudy days were invented for chicken and dumplings, and we’ve had plenty of both around here. But now, alas, I am taking my young son to swimming lessons every day, and there’s nothing as unforgiving as dappled morning light, glinting cruelly off the water onto a pale, soft tummy. My pale, soft tummy.

My belly used to be as taut as the head of a conga, and then it housed a growing boy. Though I think I have bounced back fairly neatly from childbirth, there’s just a slack, lived-in quality to my skin and my body that will only be exacerbated as I continue to grow into myself.  It’s easier to eat less cheese than to accept a softer version of myself.

This is a nice piece of broiled salmon, a perfect Summer Thing. It is a loose pesto of akajiso, also known as red perilla, or red shiso. Normally, akajiso is used to give umeboshi their signature rosy hue, but it makes a wonderful sauce when pureed with sesame oil and black sesame seeds, shallots, and a dribble of ponzu.

Served with a bowl of steamed rice and a warm salad of lightly sauteed radishes and snow peas, it is a perfectly balanced meal; summery and all that, full of antioxidants and those things that let us pat ourselves on the back. I didn’t even miss the cheese.

Posted in Asian, Fast Food (not that kind), Japanese, Light Supper, Seafood, Vegetables, Vegetarian-ish | 8 Comments

Tater Tots Breakfast Casserole

Oh yes I did, and before you give me that look, let me just tell you that tater tots are basically hash browns and are therefore a perfectly acceptable breakfast food. So lower that eyebrow, you.

Besides, this is only one store-bought potato product away from being a perfectly respectable Spanish tortilla. It has all the trappings of a lovely frittata: peppers, mushrooms, onions, eggs; heck, it’s really no different than anything you’d see on a fine brunch menu. I just sauteed the vegetables in a cast iron skillet greased with a little bacon fat, dumped in the cooked tots and three or four beaten eggs, and then whacked the whole thing in the oven for fifteen or so minutes, and then I had the most satisfying brunch, with a slice of toasted rye and some good coffee.

It’s the tater tots, isn’t it. That’s what’s so hard to accept. Well, suit yourself. More for me.

Posted in Brekkie, Downhome, Failure Pile, Vegetarian-ish | 22 Comments

Sweet onion pickles

Just a quickie post this time, because it’s canning season again, and I’m getting busy. My season starts with strawberries and other lovelies from California (mostly just halving and freezing to buy sweet time), but it’s also a great time for pickling the early birds. Since canning season means more al fresco dining, I think a sweet pickled red onion is just the thing.

Farmers’ markets in Portland are purging the last of the vernal goodies, and purple spring onions and sweet brine make swell bedfellows. Rows of rosy pink jars are an instant gratifier on a freshly-dusted pantry shelf.

Here’s what to do: Peel and thinly slice (1/8″ is not too ambitious) two pounds of red onions. While you’re doing all that slicing, get your brine boiling. The brine is two cups apple cider vinegar, a half cup water, one tablespoon kosher salt and 3/4 cup sugar. I add a teaspoon each of white mustard seed, peppercorns and coriander seed, a half teaspoon of celery and caraway seed, plus I add two cloves and a bay leaf to each of the four wide mouth pint jars. Stuff the onion slices in as tightly as possible without crushing them and pour the hot, spiced brine over the top. Wipe the rims and properly and tightly affix the lids, then process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes (starting the timer after the water returns to a boil, natch).

The hot brine takes the edge off the onions, and though the natural sweetness of the onions is enhanced, these pickles do not cloy. I boorishly ate half a jar of these with country pâté on a bagel, I admit it. My new favorite lunch is a cheese and sweet onion pickle sandwich on rye, but these are also wonderful on a hot dog or a steak taco. They pair well with salmon and rosé, and not just aesthetically. They are pretty in pink, and a perfect way to kick off any canning season.

Posted in Downhome, Fast Food (not that kind), Puttin' Up, Vegetables, Vegetarian-ish | 9 Comments

Dutch Baby

Dutch babies are a signature dish of one old Portland institution, the Original Pancake House. When you order one, they bring it out all puffed up on the plate, sprinkled with powdered sugar and with a little carousel of toppings: whipped butter, lemon wedges and more powdered sugar. It’s like getting the sizzling platter of fajitas or the bubbling hotpot: the fanfare is a little embarrassing, but you know it will be worth it.

I was eight years old the first time I made one. It was late on a Saturday morning, and my dad was watching television in the living room, getting a solid start on the day’s drinking. I was left to my own devices, and without my mom home to stop me from endangering myself in the kitchen, I started perusing her cookbooks. I loved flipping through my mom’s tattered old copy of Joy of Cooking, and since I already had a repertoire of recipes for mud pies seasoned with sprinkles of dried morning glory leaves, I knew I was ready to move on to greater tasks than peeling potatoes or opening cans of olives. I found the only breakfast recipe that could be made from our meager food bank ingredients, listed as German pancakes.

I whisked together 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk (made from the powdered stuff in the donation box), 1/4 cup sugar and two eggs. I melted 4 tablespoons of margarine (we didn’t have butter)  in my mom’s old cast iron skillet and poured in the batter, cooking on the stove for one, undisturbed minute and then baking in a 425° oven for 13 minutes.

I watched carefully through the oven’s window as my little creation baked, and when the timer dinged, I put on my mom’s oversized oven mitts and pulled it out. It was a sight —  puffed and golden; immense beyond my wildest dreams. I proudly plated my beauty, sprinkled on a few drops of ReaLemon and some powdered sugar, and presented it to my father.

He didn’t believe that I had cooked it all by myself. I doubt he even realized I’d been in the kitchen. I don’t know if he ever figured out where it came from. I stood and stared at him as he devoured my handiwork in four or five bites, his eyes glued to the television the entire time. When he was finished, he handed me the empty plate without a word. After that, I spared myself the trouble and just ate them myself.

Dutch babies are just the thing when you have a craving for pancakes, but standing at the stove for thirty minutes just isn’t in the stars. They’re tender, sweet and eggy like a more substantial crepe, and are similarly adaptable to savory applications (mushrooms, herbs and cheese come to mind). And they’re fast and easy enough for an unsupervised child to make.

Posted in Baking, Brekkie, Downhome, Fast Food (not that kind), Germanic, Vegetarian-ish | 15 Comments