Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Arancini di riso

Here is some classic Sicilian snack food--arancini means "little oranges," probably evoking the citrus production of southern Sicily. And also because they look like oranges, if oranges were fried balls of rice. I was at home for the holiday and my mom wanted to make these for Christmas Eve dinner this year. It was sort of experimental because we didn't use risotto as the base but instead used sushi rice, however it will be more flavorful if you use a basic risotto recipe instead. If you've never had them before, arancini are kind of amazing--crunchy and creamy all at the same time. They taste familiar but maybe that's just because croquettes are fairly culturally universal. My father and I have the exact same memories of eating arancini in Sicily, although from different points in time--we both remember buying them on the ferry in little paper sleeves or boats and just completely scarfing them because we were so hungry for whatever reason. My mom pointed out how easy it would be to fill these with anything you would like--they could even be vegetarian, with a mushroom filling--but we made a traditional style with a meat ragu and a small cube of fresh mozzarella in the center of a pocket of rice.

Mom made a small amount of meat sauce, using probably no more than half a pound of ground beef sautéed together with a small amount of minced onion and garlic. To this she adds a scant 3/4 cup of crushed tomatoes, a dash of salt, then allows it to simmer together for about 20 minutes. It should not be wet or saucy--really it is just a cooked meat filling. She adds about 1/2 cup green peas, because that's what is usually inside arancini filling. This isn't a very good picture, but this is about what the meat/pea ragu should look like:As I said before, the rice she prepared was actually Japanese sticky rice, rather than arborio. You can do the same--just cook a cup of sushi rice according to package instructions, mixing in a pinch of saffron as it steams. Otherwise, make a basic risotto by sautéing 1/2 minuced onion in butter until barely soft, then adding 1 cup arborio rice. Sauté the rice and onion for another 3 minutes, then add in 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Continue to stir and add chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time (for about 5 cups worth) until the rice has absorbed all the liquid--this usually takes about 35-40 minutes and a lot of patience. Add a pinch of saffron and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the rice as it cooks. When it is done you shall have a sticky pot of golden rice that can be spread out to cool and used in your arancini. This is a more flavorful approach than is using just plain rice. Additionally you will need one ball of fresh mozzarella, cut into small 1/2" cubes. To assemble your arancini, cup a small amount of rice in your hand. Make a little pocket for the filling that will get stuffed inside. Put a heaping tablespoon of the meat and pea filling into the pocket, then press a piece of the mozzarella on top of that. This is a terrible picture of that process, but you just try keeping up with a speedy, judgemental Sicilian lady and we'll see how good your photos turn out.Then you must seal the arancini up, making an attractive little ball of rice that could be mistaken for an orange. Mom does this by wetting her hands lightly and mushing another scant handful of rice over the top.When I try to do it, she goes, "no, no, no. Like this."Beat two eggs with a tablespoon or so of water and lightly dip the arancini balls in this egg wash.Then roll the dipped rice balls in bread crumbs until nicely covered. Try to get them all about the same size.When you are all done molding, dipping and rolling, it is time to fry. Get a good solid pot and fill it halfway with oil. We used canola, but any good, flavorless frying oil will do fine. Put enough in the pot so that the arancini will be almost covered up. Our dutch oven held about 4 at a time, so this is frying in batches. My mom has to stand on a stepstool in her kitchen when she fries things. I thought it was cute, then I remembered that I stand on one too.Something else my mom does that I do? She drinks sherry out of cute little glasses while cooking and I drink paint thinner and Everclear cocktails, but really it's the same thingYou can see they are starting to get golden, almost orangey in color...As they came out of the oil, we rested them on a baking rack meant for baguettes. They fit perfectly and it justifes the existence of an otherwise overly specialized piece of kitchen equipment (unless you bake french bread constantly, in which case it is perfectly well justified already).Serve them warm to the delight of family and ferry travelers alike. Here's a bonus picture of Paul enjoying his arancini a few hours later that evening.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas cookies with Mel

Over the weekend I went to Melanie's house to make christmas cookies...which really meant I occasionally helped out but mostly just got in her way taking pictures and drinking wine while she did all the work. Baking is just not my strong suit, but it is definitely Melanie's so I am happy to take her direction. She wanted to make pecan snowballs, lemon-glazed shortbreads and ginger chocolate chunk bars, the recipes for which may all be found here.

You can tell Mel is a baker because she has one of these handy.By the way, this is how you roll a snowball in Georgia...I did actually make the logs of dough for the shortbreads. Last night Mel and I discussed the possibility of rolling the dough into an oval-shaped log, slicing them a bit more thick, then dipping in different pastel-colored icings to make Easter egg shortbread cookies. File that idea away for April 2009...Greyhounds felt rather left out, I think.Meanwhile, the snowballs got baked and coated in powder sugar.These ginger bars were really incredible--extremely rich, so Mel eventually cut them into tiny squares.Not bad work for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mashed yuca with lime

I have made this before but I never had a camera to document, so here's another go at it. It's hard to explain how delicious mashed yuca is, especially because yucas in their raw state are really ugly.They are huge brown bruisers and usually waxed which makes them feel gross to the touch. But when you cut them open you can see how thin the exterior is and what potential is inside.I used two big ones and it makes enough for about 6 people. Peel them really well because, like I said, the exterior isn't at all palatable. You will be peeling for ages but it isn't difficult or thick skin and it is totally worth it.Cut the peeled yuca into chunks and boil them for about 15 minutes, or until soft enough to poke through with a fork.Meanwhile, get the zest and juice from two limes. Sometimes I end up also using juice from 1 lemon additionallly.Cut one medium onion into incredibly thin half-moon slices and cook in 3 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat until they are extremely soft but not at all browned. By the way, just go ahead and get the entire stick of butter out because you will use it all before the end here.By now your yuca should be done so drain it off......and add it into your huge skillet with the onions. Mash it up and gradually add in the rest of the stick of butter. It shouldn't be perfectly smooth but eventually will start to look more creamy and even. Eventually you want a texture sort of like lumpy mashed potatoes.Add lots of salt and pepper--taste to make sure you have enough because it is super-starchy and will taste really flat otherwise. Remove from heat and stir in your lime zest and juice, adding lemon juice if you think it needs it. A weird story about these particular yuca--I was at the DeKalb market and walked away from my buggy. When I came back an old Caribbean lady was peering in at the contents and asked me what I was going to do with the yuca. I told her basically what I just wrote here--boil, mash with onions and butter, then lime juice--and she told her friend "oh, OK, she can cook" and they walked off. I wondered if it was a test and if I had answered incorrectly ("it's for decoration!") they would have taken it away.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mole sauce

This was my mole experiment! I made a ton of sauce and ended up freezing about half of it. The rest I used to braise turkey and chicken and it was pretty good although the presentation was decidedly non-authentic. I was going to make enchiladas or have it with rice but got lazy so we all just had it with tortillas and people could do whatever they felt like with it. And it's a gift that keeps on giving--last night I put leftovers into a quesadilla with mizuna and queso fresco, so it's actually pretty awesome to have a huge batch of it sitting around in your fridge. Here's some more of that gastro-linguo-ethnic analysis that I'm so fond of: "mole" really just refers generally to a sauce, kind of like how pesto is a general term for mashing ingredients together into a paste, not necessarily restricted to the Genovese version with basil and pine nuts. So I will say here that I made an Oaxacan-style mole, which often relies on things like chiles, nuts, garlic/onions, or chocolate, depending on the recipe you are following. I didn't really follow a recipe, but my sauce leans more towards a mole rojo rather than a mole negro. I think when I use my frozen stash, I'll put it over roasted wedges of yukon gold potatoes, kind of like a romesco.

There's a lot of individual roasting and blending that goes on in mole preparation so I used my beloved immersion blender quite a bit for this project. I guess a food processor would work pretty well too. Anyway, first off I purée together about 5 peeled tomatoes (I used my usual canned plum tomatoes but fresh would be nice in season) with 8 fresh, chopped poblanos, then set it in a saucepan to cook over medium-low. After about 10 minutes, I added 2 cups chicken stock, turned up the heat and let it keep cooking until slightly reduced, about another 12 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I combined 2 cloves of garlic and one medium onion, both roughly chopped, in a baking dish with 8 chopped tomatillos. I added a little drizzle of olive oil and set them to roast in the oven for about 20 minutes at 400 degrees. In a wee tiny skillet, I toasted some sesame seeds for just a minute or so until light brown, then removed from heat and set aside. I wanted to use a few different dried chilies to give some nuance to the sauce so I picked through the bins at the DeKalb farmers market and ended up with 8 pasilla, 4 ancho and 3 chipotles. I wanted mulatos but couldn't find any. I decided to mostly de-seed the chilies because I wasn't sure how hot they would be. I figured that it was a learning experience and if it was too tame I would know for next time to leave more seeds in.I chopped up the chilies and put them in my large dutch oven over medium low heat with 4 cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ground anise, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon cumin. For the nuts I used a big mixture of about 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (I definitely would have used more of these but sadly that was all I had left), 1/4 cup pine nuts, 1/2 cup almonds and 1/2 cup peanuts. After chopping them up, I added them to the chilies along with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil and sautéed for about 5 minutes. By now the tomatillos, onion and garlic were ready so I hauled them out of the oven, mashed them up and added into the chilie-nut mixture along with the reserved sesame seeds and ground it all up together with the blender. I had to add about 1 cup chicken stock to make it blend smoothly. Added in another 3 cups of stock, and stirred it continually for about 25 minutes while it gradually thickened up over low heat. I then added in the tomato purée from earlier and stirred in about 4 squares of grated bitter chocolate, reheating just to the boiling point to obtain a nice thick sauce.This is about when I realized I had more sauce on my hands than I could possibly use in one evening, so I froze about half of it. I added chopped, cooked turkey to the other half which fell apart beautifully giving a nice heft to the sauce. This is also about the time that I got too lazy to make enchiladas with my sauce so I decided to cook slices of chicken right in the sauce and call it a day.