Monday, September 28, 2009

Mujudarra: Rice and Lentils

There is nothing "pretty" or food porny about Mujudarra, a Middle Eastern rice and lentil dish, but I do hope you'll try it anyway.

I've read numerous posts claiming it be one of the easiest, least expensive, common, humble and yet greatest side dishes ever, and you know what? That's not too far off the mark. I can't find anything negative to say about Mujudarra except that it's the ugly stepsister to a beautiful rice pilaf or cous cous dish. It doesn't make for a pretty presentation.

My version was so simple and fast because I took advantage of some staples from Trader Joe's which I'm never without: Frozen rice and Steamed Lentils. Those bags of frozen or jasmine rice are quite convenient, and while cooking lentils is not difficult, I really enjoy the lentils which are vacuum packaged after being steamed, fully cooked, imported from France. Delicious, and a fast protein source.

You will likely read the list of ingredients and wonder what all the fuss is about. I certainly did, but I'm telling you, all the bloggers are right: This dish is really perfect just as written. There is something wonderful which happens to these humble ingredients when you cook them together.


1 large onion (your favorite type)
2 cups of cooked rice (your favorite type)
2 cups of cooked lentils (your favorite type)
Olive Oil
Chicken or Vegetable Stock
Salt and Pepper
Plain Yogurt (optional)

Coat a very deep skillet with a good amount of olive oil. Thinly slice an onion and add to the oil, slowly sweating and caramelizing until it is very soft, and fully browned. Don't rush this step -- the darker and softer it is, the sweeter it will be -- a key component to this dish. To the oily skillet, add 2 cups of cooked lentils and stir together. Add 2 cups of rice and stir together very gently. Add salt and pepper to taste throughout the process. When thoroughly combined, slowly add chicken or vegetable stock (approx 1/4 to 1/2 cup) until the dish is moistened, but not soupy. Heat the dish through. Serve the mujudarra with a dollop of yogurt, which is traditional.

Notes: I used 1 package of Trader Joe's frozen Jasmin rice, and added it to the warm onions and lentils, stirring just until it was no longer frozen, and then added the stock. For the lentils, I used 1 package of Trader Joe's fully cooked imported French Steamed Lentils. The first night I tried it, I skipped the dollop of yogurt because I forgot about it, but I was so taken with just easting this warm and comforting side dish, that I didn't miss it. A few nights later when I was having leftovers, I remembered the yogurt and tried a dollop of Greek Yogurt. It does add a nice tangy sour cream quality, but I found it just as good without. I also thought it was just as good cold as hot, and as good on day 3 as day 1. I'll make this again, absolutely.

I've seen variations on the spelling of this dish, and even some calling for wheat bulgar instead of rice. This is an excellent side dish, and I hope you'll try it in this traditional method first, and then go search for the types with all sorts of add-ins (proteins, nuts, berries) which are probably very good as well.

Here are some related posts:

The post which got me thinking I had to make this dish:

I take it back about not being pretty. Desert Candy makes her look much nicer:

A version by Orangette, where she cooks the lentils and rice from scratch if you want to go that route:

Another version which suggests Mark Bittman has done it before, too!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Braised Pork Shoulder

There was a time I used to keep The Food Channel on my television for most of the weekend, during the day. I loved it so much, I'd also watch a few episodes more than once. Back then, Unwrapped was still fascinating, I wasn't yet sick of "BAM", and Anthony Bourdain was still on the line up.

Over time, I've become disheartened by how much the network has changed from a "Chef Based" cooking network to a "Food as Entertainment" network. The same tired things get shown over and over again, the great chefs are gone, and Unwrapped is a bore.

Little by little, I just stopped watching and it occurred to me, recently, that I bet I've only turned it on perhaps once or twice in the past year. In fact, the last thing I remember turning in to watch was the very first second (thanks Deb!) season of The Next Food TV Star and I remember wanting that sweet guy (Reggie?) from a Los Angeles Bakery to win, but he lost to Guy Fieri (who in retrospect, although I can't abide watching him gorge his face with food [honestly, must he use his mouth as a back-hoe?], was probably the better choice). How long ago was that, a couple of years at least?

So, it was surprising to me that I was channel surfing the other night and stopped to watch a young woman prepare a simple and inexpensive Braised Pork Shoulder, and I didn't turn the channel. That's very rare these days. It really did look very easy and tasty, and I thought to myself, as I watched "First, I'd like to make that this weekend, but Second, someone needs to show her how to properly use a knife. It's as if she's never learned." I had no idea who she was until I went online to download and prepare the recipe.

The coincidence is, that she is Melissa d'Arabian who apparently is the most recent winner of that same show -- The Next Food TV Star -- and she is not a chef, which explains her less than polished performance and lack of knife skills. The Braised Pork recipe has all five star reviews from the new fans of her show, Ten Dollar Dinners, so I made it and pronounce it excellent. So fast and easy, really economical without tasting like it, and it reminded me that having a cast iron dutch oven is such a good thing. I need to use it more often.

The complete recipe is here. I'd add less wine next time -- my red wine had too much personality. My progress photos are shown below:

Rough chopped celery, leeks, onion, carrots, and garlic cloves.

A pork shoulder, which cost only $4.85 for the entire package (several pounds), was cut into hunks, seasoned, and seared in a cast iron dutch iron. Mmmm, seared pork.

Those babies came out to rest after just getting browned on the outside. I picked all the crispy bits off and ate them. So good.

All but a few teaspoons of the pork fat was drained off, and I added the veggies until they were soft, and then added stocks, seasonings, bay leaf, etc., and brought to a boil.

The seared pork shoulder was nestled back down into the vegetable stock.

Three hours later, I had some beautiful braised pork shoulder and lots of stewed vegetables.

It was pull-apart with a fork tender. After we had pork shoulder and veggies, we pulled the rest of the pork into the shreds and kept that for sandwiches and other dishes. Excellent. Congrats, Melissa!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My favorite salad ever: Austrian Lentil Salad

I first tasted a version of this salad in 1990, when my boss's wife, who is from Vienna, Austria, brought a large container of her version to my wedding reception, because she said it's a traditional salad to serve at weddings and promises fertility.

She was pouting when no one ate the salad. I thought "What did she expect, she brought Lentils to my wedding reception!"
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I had a chance to eat her salad again, and my tastes have matured to the point where I thought it was incredibly tasty. I became an instant convert. I updated and significantly improved upon her recipe (she only used 4 ingredients -- lentils boiled with bay leaf, a simple herbal mustard vinaigrette, and minced onion), and now, I am never without a container of this salad in my fridge. I make it every Sunday, and it lasts all week, holds up extremely well in lunches, and fortunately, did not make me fertile, which is a very good thing, because her recipe lasted longer than the marriage.

I don't know what makes a lentil dish "Austrian" but she claims it was a childhood dish she had many times in Vienna. My version is not likely Austrian, but is certainly inspired by hers.  I use Trader Joe's ingredients primarily, which included steamed and cooked lentils, but you can easily cook your own lentils and proceed with those after you've done so.


Base Salad

1 package of Trader Joe's Steamed Lentils (from the refrigerated section)
1 package of Trader Joe's Beluga Lentils (from the pasta section)
1/2 very finely diced red or white onion -or- 1 shaved shallot (shown in this version)
1-2 very finely chopped carrots
Snipped Italian Parsley
The zest of one lemon (use all the juice, below)
Zest an entire lemon into a large bowl. Add both packages of lentils, the diced carrots and onions, and the parsley. Toss all ingredients thoroughly and set aside.


The basic dressing is a lemon vinaigrette, but you should feel free to use your favorite oil & vinegar dressing, being certain to add the mucho lemon zest and lemon juice to it, to create the unique flavor. Here is my tried and true method:

1/2 cup of Trader Joe's Olive Oil
1/4 cup of Trader Joe's Seasoned Rice Vinegar (sometimes I use a bit of rice vinegar, and a bit of cider vinegar, when I want it tarter)
1 dollop of TJ's Dijon Mustard
The juice of 1 whole lemon
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all in a blender cup to emulsify, and pour over the lentil salad. Toss thoroughly, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve chilled. This salad requires no cooking (unless you've cooked your own lentils) keeps in the fridge all week, and makes a wonderful, healthy, high protein, high fiber very satisfying lunch.

In fact, I'd never once thought I'd say this about a salad, especially one with lentils, but I'll stand in front of my open fridge door at night and eat this salad right from the container, with a spoon. If I worked at a TJ's, I would make this easy dish and demonstrate it, to convert people to the wonder of lemony lentils as a salad.

Personal note to my sister, Weezie: Aren't you proud of me?! I finally figured out a use for my obsessive acquisition of vinegar and oil even though I've always hated oil & vinegar dressing!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Does anyone else think the grilled meat ad on Tastespotting looks revolting?

Is it me, or does the advertisement on Tastespotting for El Patron Tequila show the most unappetizing piece of grilled protein -- whatever it is -- maybe ever? I don't think one could drink enough El Patron to make that -- thing -- look tasty.

Dear Tastespotting:

Love the site you guys (even though you've rejected every single entry I've submitted after the site was relaunched, but published lots before the relaunch), but that ad is just HORRID. I can't tell if it's a piece of grilled fat, meat, road kill, a split open rattle snake (or worse, something Bobbitt like ::shudder::).

Tastespotting, please don't make me look at the ugly meat anymore.

If you are honest with yourselves, you know damn well you would have REJECTED that as a photo submission from any one of us, stating "Unflattering Composition; Not Sharp." Don't you even try to deny it.

You should make the sponsor drink some of their product and replace that ad photo with one of a grilled taco or something -- with identifiable meat cooked past 165 degrees to avoid the cooties crawling all over the undercooked meat in that unflattering, unsharp, low contrast, photograph.



Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Great Biscuit Fraud

My Cream Biscuits, still hot from the oven
This post is MUCH too long to be just about biscuits, but, what can I say? I'm a carb queen.

I wish I didn't love McDonald's Buttermilk Biscuits. I shouldn't love them. No one should. Come on, it's a fast food chain -- they shouldn't sell good biscuits, but they do. I like that they are light and tender, and hold up well to a sausage sandwich. I've heard tales from some forums that McDonald's uses a mix and adds water, rolling them out and baking (which seems unlikely); while others claim they come in a pre cooked slab and are heated from frozen with a brush of margarine (which seems more likely). I once knew a woman who -- ahem -- never had to pay for her lunches because she was particularly nice to the married cafe manager. Really nice. I'd like to think I'd never barter myself for a tuna sandwich, but then again, if I confirmed McDonald's uses a water based mix I might shame myself with my efforts to meet a manager and get a big bucket of it, somehow.

Buttermilk Biscuits shouldn't be difficult to make, but I've yet to find the perfect recipe (e.g., one that I can't screw up with too heavy a hand). Don't even suggest Pillsbury Grands -- those are an abomination, and although I'm a Trader Joe's Junkie, I don't like their frozen biscuit dough, either. Heavy, dense and greasy.

I'd like to be able to make my own and keep them frozen so that I can grab one for a portable breakfast sandwich, so I've gone on a quest to find that recipe. This will not only address my portable breakfast agenda, but, will help bring to an end a long running fraud I've been committing for years. YEARS, I tell you.

At least 7-8 years ago, I was invited to a potluck picnic by my boss and his wife. They were serving chicken and ribs and such, and I was asked to bring bread. Ah Ha! I thought. I've got some frozen Schwan's Southern Style Biscuits , those will work just fine. I baked them off, took them to the BBQ, and my boss went nuts, telling me, and his wife, that they were the best biscuits he'd ever had.

This Biscuit Adulation didn't sit well with his wife, who is a great cook and didn't like that someone else was getting all the attention, so she asked me for the recipe over and over again. I never said "Oh they are just frozen Schwan's biscuits, order some." NO, I had to complicate my life and lie, so I said "Oh I don't share that recipe -- it's my family recipe, but I"ll bring you some anytime you want, and you can keep them in your freezer and just bake them off for him whenever he asks for them."

Thus began the Great Biscuit Fraud. I ended up having to buy -- several times -- bags of frozen Schwan's Biscuits and giving them to her in a baggie with written instructions (they come in frozen par baked dough). I've done it probably once or twice a year, for 7 years. She's even said we should have one of those biscuit and tamale making parties around the holidays and put them all up at once. I always decline (of course). Oh what a tangled web we weave, and all that. Fortunately she doesn't read this blog.

I agree they are pretty damn good, but more free form -- a little closer to a drop biscuit -- than the rolled biscuit in the Schwan's product photo, but it's a pain in the ass to order ahead and coordinate delivery every other week, and tell the driver yet again that no, I don't want any of their overpriced frozen steaks. Just the biscuits. Oh, and some of the English fish and chips, those are excellent. And um, those vanilla ice cream sandwiches, too (See? this is why I can't shop at Schwan's anymore, except when I need to lie to my boss about biscuits).

Anyway, I want -- and need -- to master my own biscuit recipe so I've set about finding one that is fluffy, light, golden, and buttery. I've tried Angel Biscuits in the past, which are yeast based, but they didn't quite make it, either. Too much like a roll.

I found a recipe booklet online (and what a hoot it is), which has recipe clones for everything McDonald's sells, and it had the biscuit recipe in it. It seemed simple enough -- basically a doctored Bisquick biscuit recipe, but I was wary of anything which started with Bisquick. I was right to be wary. They were NOT the biscuits they sell in the restaurant, so don't be fooled. I'm not even posting the pic of those I made because they are not worthy. A decent enough biscuit, surely, but nothing to write home about. Oh, sorry, was I droning on? Have you tired of my biscuit drama and you want a link to the McMenu Cookbook instead? See the bottom of this post, if you're still with me.

Anyway, back to the biscuits. The McDonald's clones -- out. Not worthy. The Angel Biscuits -- meh. Not quite worthy. Then I found a "Cream Biscuit" recipe on the King Arthur Flour website and tried those. I recently learned that I really liked cornstarch based bakery recipes due to the wonderful texture. The best cake I've ever made was mostly cornstarch, so this recipe, which calls for more than the average amount of cornstarch, and heavy cream (whoo yeah) which I had on hand, seemed promising.

Also, I read a cookbook by Jane and Michael Stern -- Recipes from The Blue Willow Inn -- and the tip from the cook at this Southern inn said to handle the biscuit dough as little as possible. Literally stir just a bit until the flour is moist, slap the stringy floury wad down on the board and pat it out without kneading, and cut them without really mixing the dough all that well. I used KAF's recipe, but followed the Blue Willow Rule, and I'm really glad I did.

These biscuits were VERY VERY good. Best biscuits I've made to date, that's certain. The texture was wonderful. Very tender, very buttery, very delicate. Loved the crispy almost granular crust and the soft interior. However, they were not high and pillowy -- they didn't rise terribly high, and, when sliced for a sandwich, tended to crumble. So while these are great for a breakfast basket, they are not quite the right biscuit for a portable sausage breakfast sandwich.

KAF calls these Guaranteed Biscuits. I guarantee I'll make them again and eat the batch within 24 hours because they came together really quickly (except for the freezing time in Step 5 but that gave me time to clean up), but the quest for the McDonald's biscuit close, or a proper Buttermilk Biscuit, continues. Got any winning recipes for me?


1 3/4 cups KAF AP Flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1 to 1 1/4 cups heavy cream, enough to make a cohesive dough
1 to 2 tablespoons melted butter

1) Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, salt, baking powder, and sugar. Stir in enough heavy cream to moisten the dough thoroughly. You'll probably use about 1 cup in the summer, 1 1/4 cups in the winter, and 1 cup + 2 tablespoons at the turn of the seasons. You want to be able to gather the dough together, squeeze it, and have it hang together easily, without dry bits falling off.
2) Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and very gently pat it into an 8" circle about 3/4" thick. If you're uncertain about your ability to make a nice free form 8" round, pat the dough into a lightly floured 8" round cake pan, then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface.
3) Use a sharp 2 ¼" biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Place them on a lightly greased (or parchment-lined) baking sheet.
4) Brush the biscuits with butter, if desired, for extra flavor.
5) Place the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. This will improve the biscuits' texture and rise.
6) Preheat the oven to 425°F while the biscuits are in the freezer.
7) Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, till they're golden brown. Remove from the oven. If you have any melted butter left over, brush it on the baked biscuits. Serve immediately.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Vegetable Stock and Shrimp Laksa

I'm officially hopeless. My name is Kate and I can't stop buying cookbooks. Here I am giving them away every week to reduce my collection and bring some sanity to my life, and I stumbled on a cookbook in a Marshall's Department Store, and bought it.

That place is the worst for me.

Problem 1: They tend to have a lot of very inexpensive cookbooks.
Problem 2: They tend to be by Paragon Publishing, which is a problem because
Problem 3: Paragon tends to recycle the same photos and recipes into new volumes and I don't notice until later, like when I'm giving away the cookbooks, how often I buy the same recipe, over and over again.

In my defense, this particular book was one I had not seen before, and even though its by Paragon, it had recipes I'd never seen before, and I loved the concept. It's called "1 Broth, 100 Soups" and in leafing through it, I immediately noted that I'd want to try more than 75% of them. That's a must buy. Plus, I find making stocks really calming and therapeutic, and the stock for each of the 100 recipes is a Vegetable Stock, which I have not made before.

I made the Basic Veggie Stock first (adapted, my own recipe follows) and then chose Shrimp Laksa for my first soup. I didn't have every ingredient on hand, but made some tasty substitutions and turned a very lovely bowl of soup. This time, I'm actually glad I broke my No New Cookbooks Rule.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 container of Trader Joe's Mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery)
1 large potato, diced
1 leek, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1 cup white wine
Fresh Parsley
Sage Leaves
Garlic Clove

In a large stock pot, heat the oil, and add the mirepox, diced potato, and leek. Saute until soft, wilted, and barely beginning to color. Add the bay leaves, 1 crushed garlic clove, fresh parsley (a lot), fresh sage leaves (only a few), and the cup of white wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until liquid has reduced and all alcohol has burned off. Carry vegetables in stock pot to the tap and fill with cool water (I added at least 10 cups-- up to the handles of the pot). Bring stock to a rapid boil, then reduce to a simmer and simmer for 1-2 hours. Let stock cool, and then strain all vegetables out (at this point, my veggies were still recognizable, very soft, but I couldn't stand throwing them away. I fished out the bay leaves, and then threw the rest in a blender with a bit of stock and made a very pretty mustard yellow veggie puree, which I froze in ice cube trays so I can add the puree to soups and stews as a thickener). Portion the stock into baggies or freezer containers, and freeze for up to six months.


I'm really a soup alchemist and my Soup Esteem is well intact -- I make GREAT soup. In fact if I were going to open a restaurant, it would be a Soup Kitchen. Problem is, I use ingredient amounts as a suggestion and treat my kitchen like a laB without writing stuff down as I go along, so I often can't remember how to recreate really spectacular pots of soup I've made. Fortunately, I can always make something else just as good. This time, I took notes:


My Shrimp Laksa, adapted heavily from "1 Stock, 100 Soups":

Veggie Stock
Shrimp with tails on
Coconut Milk
Trader Joe's Yellow Curry Sauce
Curry Powder
Thai Kitchen Fish Sauce
Siracha Chili Sauce
Rice Noodles
Brown Sugar
Salt and Pepper

In a large soup pot, bring veggie stock to a boil. Remove shrimp shells and tails. Set the shrimp meat aside, and first throw the shells and tails in the pot of stock and boil rapidly for several minutes to infuse the stock with shrimp flavor. Fish out and discard the shells and tails. Strain stock to be certain no shells remain. Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup of TJ's yellow curry sauce (if you have curry paste, that's preferable). Add curry powder to taste, and several glugs of Fish Sauce. Stir and simmer, stir and simmer. Add several glugs of Siracha Chili Sauce. Stir and simmer, stir and simmer. Grind up a big handful of cashews into a coarse powder (but don't make a paste). Add ground nuts and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and 1 cup of coconut milk to the stock. Whisk thoroughly to combine and simmer gently. Add the raw shrimp, and with the heat on low, simmer until the shrimp are pink, cooked, but still tender.

Meanwhile, boil water and pour over rice noodles. When saturated and "cooked", drain noodles and portion into bowls. Ladle the soup over each portion of noodles, and dress with slivered carrots, cilantro, and scallions. Dress with more siracha to taste.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rancho La Puerta Spa Spiced Apple Salad

This was an easy and healthy Spa Cuisine salad, courtesy of Rancho La Puerta Spa in Mexico, and the Spa Cuisine collection. You may view the complete recipe here.

I had a couple apples going a bit soft and I remembered I wanted to try a recipe where you shave them thin and make an apple slaw.

This salad has a dressing of yogurt, lime juice, apple juice. It's tossed with raisins or cranberries, coconut, sunflower seeds, vanilla and cinnamon. I made a few adaptations -- cranberries in place of raisins and I omitted sunflower seeds -- because I forgot to add them. It's really tasty, tart, not sweet (although there is a bit of sweet when you bite into a cranberry or piece of coconut), and is both tropical and warm and spicy at the same time. I think it would be great to swap out the coconut with walnuts, for a different taste and crunch.

Since Apple Desserts are my least favorite of all (apple pie, apple muffins, yawwwwn), but I like apples in most savory dishes (sandwiches, salads, curries, stuffings), I was happy to learn a unique and more "savory" way to use my apples. Still, this recipe will appeal to children who will think it's a treat. It's also perfect for those "Ladies Who Lunch" meals.

While the recipe makes six servings. This salad is easily adaptable for one person by just tossing a cut up apple with a handful of the loose ingredients, and then a splash of each wet ingredient, a shake of spice, and you're there, in a few minutes flat.

I have few similar Apple Slaw recipes from other spa resorts, so come this fall, I may need to test each one and see which I like best -- but this one is darn good with that fresh taste of lime.