Monday, January 31, 2011

My Introduction to Farro in "Farro & Tuscan Kale Soup"

One of the things I love about cooking is that there is always more to learn—new ingredients, new/different methods, new equipment.  Of course most of these things are not really "new", but they are new to me as I am continuing to learn. Recently something I have been wanting to learn more about is farro. Farro is an ancient form of wheat from the Mediterranean. For a variety of reasons it is experiencing a surge in popularity on restaurant menus here in the United States. Consequently, it is showing up with increasing frequency in cookbooks and trendy food magazines. After looking for local sources for farro off and on for a couple of years, I finally decided to purchase a bag on-line so that I could cook with it and taste it for myself. If I like everything else I try as well as the soup I made the other night, this will certainly not be the last time I write a post about it.

The farro that I purchased is "semi-pearled". When a grain is "pearled", it is polished to remove the bran. Grains are pearled to speed up their cooking times. A "semi-pearled" grain still has some of the bran left on. This means it retains much of its nutritional value. Since a semi-pearled grain will cook almost as quickly as a pearled grain, this seems like an excellent compromise. Apparently semi-pearled is the form in which farro is most typically sold in Italy, too. From what I have been able to tell, unless a recipe calls for "whole farro", semi-pearled or pearled is probably what is meant.

One other thing I thought I would mention is that many cookbooks (and other resources) state that farro is the same thing as spelt (another ancient form of wheat). This is not true. Farro is Triticum dicoccum and spelt is Triticum spelta. The reason that I mention this is that spelt is widely available.  If you are looking for farro and can't find it, but have been told that spelt is the same thing and you find that, you would have no reason not to purchase the spelt and use it in your recipe. Since in my experience most of the spelt that is available is a true whole grain (unpolished) it will take much longer to cook than pearled or semi-pearled farro. I'm guessing that you can use whole spelt interchangeably with whole farro—but as I mentioned, that's not what most recipes call for.

The soup I made is Farro & Tuscan Kale Soup adapted from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. The soup is well named because the farro and the Tuscan kale (also called Lacinato Kale, Dinosaur Kale, Cavolo Nero, or Tuscan Black Cabbage) are the unabashed stars of the show. After making a flavorful base of pancetta, aromatic vegetables and a hint of tomato, you add the farro and kale, along with water or a light broth, and simmer until both the farro and kale are tender—the two conveniently take about the same amount of time to cook.  It could hardly be easier.

I found many variations on this traditional soup during a quick internet search. You will find variations that use canned tomatoes instead of tomato paste—no doubt creating a richer, more forward tomato presence. There are also recipes that add potatoes and/or cooked white beans with the farro and kale. Excellent additions, I'm sure...but I really loved the simplicity of the soup without these. Finally, Jenkins recipe did not include the pancetta that I did—although she does suggest it as an authentic variation. I can't imagine the soup without it. I love the added depth that just a touch of cured meat adds to a soup.

In the book, they suggest serving the soup topped with a soft poached egg for a complete meal...and next time I will have to try it that way. As I said, we loved this soup. It was even better the next day. I do have one complaint though. With a bowl of soup that is filled with wheat, I found it hard to justify accompanying my bowl of soup with a nice crusty piece of bread.... No matter.  I made up for it by having a second helping of soup.

Farro & Tuscan Kale Soup

2 T. Olive oil
2 oz. pancetta, finely diced
1 leek, white and pale green only, halved and cut in 1/3-inch dice and thoroughly rinsed in several changes of water
1 small onion (4 to 6 oz.), cut in ¼-inch dice
2 medium stalks celery, trimmed and cut in ¼-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in ¼-inch dice
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 to 3 t. double concentrate tomato paste
6 to 8 cups water, or chicken/vegetable stock or a mixture
1 c. farro, preferably semi-pearled, but pearled may also be used—rinsed
2 bunches Tuscan Kale, stems stripped away, leaves cut in 1/2-inch wide ribbons and thoroughly rinsed
Parmesan and Olive oil for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot set over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until fat is mostly rendered—3 minutes or so.

Add the leek, onion, celery and carrot along with some salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook until the vegetables are wilted and beginning to soften—about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Whisk the tomato paste into 1 cup of water and add. Bring to a simmer and cook until all of the liquid has evaporated—about 20 minutes.

Add another 5 cups of water (or stock), the farro and the kale.

Bring to a simmer (the kale will collapse to the level of the liquid within a few minutes) and cook, stirring occasionally, until the farro and kale are both tender and the flavors of the soup are blended—about 25 to 40 minutes. If, at any time after the kale collapses, the soup seems too crowded, add more water and continue to cook. When the farro and kale are tender, taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly shaved or grated Parmesan cheese.

Makes about 2 quarts of soup, serving 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins & Mindy Fox)

Notes & Variations:
• If you have any rinds of Parmesan in your cheese drawer, add them to the soup with the farro and kale. They add wonderful flavor. Remove the rinds before serving the soup.

• If you prefer, you may add some canned tomatoes to the soup instead of the concentrated tomato paste in water. Run the tomatoes through a food mill fitted with a fine disc, or purée them in the food processor. Add, thinning with a bit of water if you like, and cook until reduced and very thick before proceeding with the recipe. For this size batch of soup, use anywhere from half to a full 14-oz. can of Italian plum tomatoes.

• To prepare a vegetarian soup, omit the pancetta and increase the olive oil to 3 to 4 T. Use water for the liquid.

• Some diced, peeled potatoes or cooked white beans (with their cooking liquid) may also be added to the soup. Add with the farro and kale.

• If semi-pearled (or pearled) farro is not available, you may use whole farro, but since it takes much longer to cook, it should be cooked separately and added to the soup when the kale is almost tender. 

Printable Recipe

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chicken Stock

Today's post will be a brief tutorial on making chicken stock in a home kitchen.  The picture below has nothing to do with chicken stock.  It's just that the process of making chicken stock doesn't make for very attractive pictures.  So I thought before I launched into today's post that I would share a picture I took a few mornings ago.  Winter can be a long and difficult season (even if you like the food)--its joys few and far between.  For me, one of the pleasures of this time of year is the early morning sky.  The muted colors of the pre-dawn sky, visible through the silhouettes of the barren trees, is a sight lovely enough to compensate for many of the more dreary aspects of this dark season.

Now, on to chicken stock... 

Whenever I buy chicken, I always try to purchase the whole bird rather than just the parts I might need for a specific dish. If you are not purchasing your chicken this way, you should consider it. It is not difficult to cut up a chicken. If you don't know how, I'm told that most grocery stores will do it for you if you ask them when you purchase a whole bird. But why not learn to do it yourself? (Perhaps this would be a good topic for a future post...) Parts not immediately needed can be individually wrapped and frozen—you will be laying in a supply of meat for future meals.

For me, the main benefit in purchasing whole birds is that it allows me to prepare my own chicken stock. Whenever I cut up a chicken, I place the carcass (cut into 2 or 3 chunks) into a freezer bag. I usually add the wings, or a portion of each of the wings, to the freezer bag as well. Wings have a lot of cartilage which contributes body to the stock. When my frozen stash of chicken bones and trimmings has reached about 4 pounds, I make a batch of stock.

Besides making the very best soup, homemade chicken stock is useful for so many different things. It adds body and depth to certain pasta sauces, and it provides a flavorful cooking medium for braised dishes or a unifying agent for moistening a vegetable medley. It can be used for grain pilafs, risotto or polenta. It is also a handy liquid for deglazing a pan in which you have browned a chicken breast, pork chop or steak—the deglazings then providing the foundation of a nice impromptu sauce. One of the many reasons that homemade chicken stock is good for all of these things is that it typically has no added salt. If you want to reduce it to concentrate the flavor, you don't need to worry that the resulting reduction will be too salty. Homemade chicken stock is also missing a whole host of additives that are found in commercial "broths"—it only contains the things you put into it.

So what should you put in a basic chicken stock? Not surprisingly, mostly chicken. Everything else that goes in is just a supporting player—present to round out and enhance the flavor of the chicken. You shouldn't discern the strong presence of carrots, celery or bay leaf, for example. Just remember when adding other ingredients, you aren't making vegetable or herb are making chicken stock.

The standard background ingredients added to chicken stock are onions, carrots and celery (called mirepoix). Garlic cloves, leeks (just the green, or the whole leek), parsley stems, thyme sprigs, bay leaf and black peppercorns are frequently added to the mix. But all of these have a much lesser role even than the standard mirepoix and should be used sparingly. You should not add old or decaying vegetables, or trimmings and peelings of vegetables that really belong in the compost pile. Just as your stock will taste of the good things you add to it, it will also taste of the bad things you add to it.

At the bottom of this post is the recipe that I give out in my classes, but I don't pull it out when I make stock—and you don't need to either. Making stock is easy. For a medium sized batch, choose a 6 to 8 quart stock pot and fill it about 3/4 full with the chicken carcasses.

Cover with cold water by an inch or two. Bring to a gentle simmer. Use a ladle to carefully skim away all of the foam that rises to the surface. Initially this foam will be an unappetizing brown or beige color. As the production of foam begins to dissipate, the foam will become paler and paler in color. The foam represents blood, fat and other impurities present in the carcasses. If not skimmed away, these impurities will boil back into the stock, making it cloudy and muddying the flavor.

the impurities begin to come to the surface

after a while, they are a lighter color

the bowl of skimmings--if you are tempted not to skim, think of this awful stuff being part of your stock...

While the chicken bones release their impurities, cut a peeled onion, a peeled carrot and a stalk or two of celery (ends trimmed) into largish chunks. When I make stock I strive for a mix of mirepoix that is half onion, a quarter carrot and a quarter celery.

If you do not have any celery, don't run out and buy it just for stock. Many chefs do not add it at all and it should be used sparingly—it has a very strong flavor and if too much is used you will be able to distinctly taste it in the finished stock. To this, add a smashed clove or two of garlic, a sprig or two of fresh thyme, a few peppercorns and a small bay leaf. Be careful with the bay. Like celery, it is strong and can be bitter. If necessary, break a larger leaf in half. If I have parsley or leeks on hand, I add some parsley stems and chopped leeks, or just a portion of the green of the leek.

When there is no longer any foam rising to the surface of the stock,

add the prepared vegetables, herbs and spices. If you have removed a lot of the water while skimming away the foam, add some boiling water to restore the level of liquid in the pot. Return the contents of the pot to a simmer. The vegetables will initially produce foam as they give off their impurities. This too should be skimmed away.

The stock should be cooked at a very gentle simmer—just one or two bubbles, regularly punctuating the surface of the stock is sufficient. If simmered or boiled hard, any fat given off by the chicken will be emulsified back into the stock. Hard simmering will also pound up the vegetables and any meat remaining on the bones into little bits that will cloud the stock. As the stock simmers, keep an eye on it. Occasionally skim away any more foam and any apparent fat. If you are not simmering the stock too hard, don't worry about skimming away all of the fat now, it is easily dealt with when the stock is cold.

How long you simmer the stock is up to you. Chefs are all over the map on this, but I think the general consensus is somewhere in the 2 to 4 hour range. I usually shoot for about 3 hours. This produces a nice flavorful, lightly gelatinous stock.

When the stock is done, carefully pour it through a large, fine meshed strainer into a clean container. If you don't have a large enough strainer, pour the stock first through a colander and after discarding the contents of the colander, strain the stock again through a fine meshed sieve. Whichever way you do it, make sure that you allow the bones and vegetables to drain thoroughly—you shouldn't press on the solids because they will disintegrate or turn to mush and cloud up the stock—but you can jiggle the sieve or colander a bit to make sure there aren't any pockets of trapped stock.

Cool the stock as quickly as possible. It is worth taking the trouble to fill up a sink with ice water to make an ice bath. Setting the container of stock in this bath of icy water and stirring occasionally will help the stock to cool rapidly.

For food safety reasons, you should aim to get the stock cooled below 70° F within 2 hours—something easily within reach if you use an ice bath.

after about 35 minutes in the ice bath

After the stock is as cool as my ice bath will get it, I like to transfer it to the refrigerator where it will continue to cool and where any fat in the stock will rise to the surface and solidify. The next day, this fat is easily lifted away and discarded. At that point you will have a virtually fat free stock.

Package and freeze your stock in containers appropriate for your kitchen. If you tend to use 1/2 cup portions of stock, then freeze it in half cup containers. Some people might only use their stock in large quantities and might want to freeze it in pint- or quart-sized batches. In my home kitchen, it works best to freeze the stock in one cup portions. I use zip lock sandwich bags, pressing out as much air as possible before sealing.  I then lay the bags flat in a half-sheet pan (rimmed baking sheet) to freeze.

When you thaw the stock, bring it to a full rolling boil before using. Once you begin to make and freeze your own stock, you will wonder what you ever did without it.
Basic Chicken Stock

4 lbs. chicken bones or legs, wings and backs
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
1 or 2 stalks celery, cut into chunks
1 clove of garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
4-5 peppercorns
3-4 sprigs of thyme

Rinse the bones or chicken pieces well. Remove any large pieces of fat. Place the chicken in a large pot and add just enough cold water to cover the chicken by an inch or 2. Over medium high heat, bring the water to a simmer, reduce the heat so that the stock is just bubbling gently. Skim the foam and fat that come to the surface, and discard. Add the vegetables and aromatics. Continue to simmer and skim for another 3 or 4 hours. Add hot water as necessary to keep the chicken and vegetables covered.

Strain the finished stock. It will keep in the refrigerator for 4 or 5 days and will keep frozen for about 4 months—boil for a few minutes before using. Makes 3 1/2 to 4 quarts stock.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Hearty Winter Salad—Warm Cabbage with Ham, Goat Cheese & Toasted Pecans

Today I thought I would share a salad recipe that I taught last week in a Winter Salads class. A combination of recipes I discovered in Frank Stitt's Southern Table and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, this salad has become a new favorite of mine. Although at first glance it may not seem to be a typical salad, its slightly crunchy texture and acidic finish keep it solidly in salad territory.

In my last post I touched on our natural craving for the foods that are in season during the winter months. If you are trying to learn to eat more in tune with the seasons, this dish would be a great place to start. It is winter food at its finest—an appealing dish using familiar and flavorful ingredients as supporting players to one of the most overlooked and maligned vegetables of the winter palate. If you think you don't like cooked cabbage, you need to try this salad. I think it would make a fine first course, but we enjoy it as the main event for lunch or a light dinner. The addition of a warm piece of cornbread makes a perfect winter meal.

Warm Cabbage Salad with Smoked Ham & Goat Cheese

5 to 6 oz. smoked ham, cut in a 1/3-inch dice
2 T. olive oil
2 bunches scallions—white plus a few inches of the green, thinly sliced and kept separately
Salt & pepper, to taste
1 T. picked thyme, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 1 1/4 lb. cabbage (green or red)—one small or half a large head—quartered, cored and thinly sliced
1 T. sherry or cider vinegar
1/2 c. (2 oz.) toasted Pecans
3 to 4 oz. goat cheese—preferably a crumbly, semi-aged, like Bûcheron, but a soft Montrachet-type would also work

In a large sauté pan set over moderately high heat, sauté the ham in the olive oil until golden brown in spots—about 2 minutes.

Reduce the heat a bit and add the white part of the scallions along with a pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are softened—about 3 or 4 minutes.

Add the thyme and garlic and cook for another minute, or until fragrant. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the cabbage to the pan.

Season with salt and cook, tossing and stirring until just softened (if using red cabbage, it will have begun to turn from red to pink)—3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vinegar, pecans and the green portion of the scallions.

Season with freshly ground pepper. Toss to combine. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar. Divide the salad among warmed plates and crumble the cheese over all. Serves 4 to 6.

• Substitute thick bacon, cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch "lardons", for the ham. Cook in 1 T. olive oil until beginning to crisp.
• Add an apple—peeled and cut in a 1/3-inch dice—with the cabbage.
• Use Walnuts instead of pecans.
• Add a pinch of hot pepper flakes with the garlic and thyme.
• Substitute a small onion—red, yellow or white—thinly sliced, for the scallions. Cook until softened before adding the garlic and thyme.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chicken Tagine with Butternut Squash & Chickpeas

I love the fact that I live in a place where each of the four seasons makes a proud appearance. It is snowing as I write this...and I love it. I wish we had a higher average annual snowfall. If it's going to be cold, I want it to snow.

This morning after our first big storm of the season

Out for a walk in the snow...we wouldn't miss it!

The one thing I don't love about winter is the darkness. And keeping a blog has given me yet another reason to lament the loss of the light. As I looked back over my Panzanella post from last summer while I worked on my Winter Panzanella post last week, I was once again amazed at the difference natural light makes in the quality of the photos I take. Looking at the beautiful evening light splashed across my photos from September and comparing it to the harsh indoor light that fills my pictures now is disheartening.

It is interesting to me that it was the light that I missed as I looked at the pictures...not the food. A fresh tomato salad doesn't appeal to me in the slightest right now—particularly with the cold blustery weather we have had for the past few days. I love the braises, stews, soups, hearty pastas, etc. that feature the ingredients particular to this moment of the year. I will be tired of them soon, but for now, they are naturally just what I crave.

A few nights ago I made a Moroccan chicken stew (a tagine) that has caught my eye every time I have looked through A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis. It is so often the case that I make a mental note to try an interesting recipe when the season is right and then I forget about it when the season comes around. Not this time. As I flipped past the picture, I went back to look again. And sure enough, I had most of the necessary ingredients on hand. Featuring butternut squash—one of my favorite Autumn and Winter vegetables—and chickpeas, the picture of this dish in the cookbook is a study in oranges and yellows and exudes warmth. A perfect meal for a bone chilling day.

As always, I made a few adjustments to the original recipe. The biggest change I made was that I browned my chicken to crisp the skin and render some of the fat. I think flabby chicken skin is an atrocity—responsible, I am sure, for the fact that so many people refuse to eat chicken skin. The original recipe simply tells you to season the chicken and then layer it into the baking dish with the squash without browning it first.

I also made a few changes to the spices and flavorings. I added ground coriander and lemon—after a chicken tagine in Claudia Roden's Arabesque—and used ground ginger instead of fresh. I don't keep fresh ginger on hand, and ground ginger is an authentic substitute for this dish. Finally, I used canned chickpeas instead of dried. Even if I had had dried in my pantry, I didn't have time to cook them on the day that I made the stew. If you have dried chickpeas and you plan ahead, I'm sure they would be wonderful in this dish. If you do cook dried chickpeas, use their cooking liquid in the stew instead of water.

One final note. The original recipe was for a crowd—calling for twelve leg-thigh joints. I only cooked two leg-thigh joints and adjusted the rest of the recipe accordingly. I am posting the quantities for the smaller version that I made. Obviously it can be expanded to meet your needs.

We loved this rustic and warming stew. The recipe is definitely a keeper. I served it with couscous with almonds, green olives and dried apricots. This complimented the sweetness and mild heat and spice of the stew quite well. But the stew is pretty fine all by itself, too. The next day I pulled the leftover chicken off of the bone and warmed it in the remaining broth and vegetables. This made a whole different kind of stew—and a really nice lunch. I'm not sure which way I liked it best. Either way, it was satisfying and sustaining and one more reason to enjoy the Winter months.

Chicken Tagine with Butternut Squash & Chickpeas

2 chicken leg-thigh joints
salt & pepper
olive oil
1/2 to 1 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion (8 to 10 oz.), cut in a 1/4-inch dice
1/8 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. (heaped) ground cumin
1/4 t. (scant) ground coriander
1 clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
a small pinch of saffron
hot pepper flakes, to taste
10 to 12 oz. butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded and sliced 1/2– to 3/4-inch thick cross-wise
water (or chickpea cooking liquid)
juice of half a lemon
3/4 to 1 cup chickpeas (drained and rinsed if using canned)
1 to 2 T. minced Italian Flat Leaf Parsley

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a medium-sized, deep sauté pan (I use a 3-quart sauteuse that is nine inches across and three inches deep—see note) over moderately high heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown all over. Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle. Browning the chicken will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 T. of fat from the pan.

Add the butter to the pan and melt. Add the onions to the pan and cook until the onion is soft and beginning to turn golden—about 10 minutes. If the pan seems dry, add more oil or butter.  Add the ginger, coriander, cumin and garlic to the pan and cook until fragrant.

Remove from the heat and crumble the saffron into the pan. Scatter a pinch of hot pepper flakes over all. Add the squash in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Add the chicken, skin-side up, to the pan—nestling the chicken down among the squash as much as possible.

Add enough water to just cover the squash (this will depend on the size of the pan—I needed 1 1/3 cups). The chicken should not be fully covered with liquid. Bring to a simmer, cover and transfer to a 375° oven. Bake until the chicken is cooked through and tender—about 35 to 45 minutes. Uncover the pan and cook for 10 minutes more to allow the skin to re-crisp.

Place the pan over medium heat. Remove the chicken to a plate and keep warm. Scatter the chickpeas over the squash and gently shake and swirl the pan to submerge the chickpeas. It is important not to stir the chickpeas into the stew. The squash will be very tender and will break up into a purée if the stew is stirred. Continue to cook gently until the broth is slightly thickened and the chickpeas are hot through. Swirl in a squeeze of lemon juice and taste the stew. Correct the seasoning with more lemon juice and/or salt & pepper. Swirl in the parsley.

Place the chicken on individual plates (with couscous or rice) or a serving platter and spoon the broth and vegetables over.  Alternatively, return the chicken to the cooking vessel and serve directly from the pan with along with a large bowl of couscous or rice.  Serves 2 to 3.

Note: If you don't have an oven-proof, deep sauté pan that is the right size, simply brown the chicken and cook the onions and spices in a heavy sauté pan, building the stew in an appropriate-sized covered casserole dish by layering in the onions, followed by the squash and browned chicken. Bring the water to a boil before adding it to the casserole.  The tagine can be finished in the oven—remove the chicken, add the chickpeas and continue to bake (uncovered) until the chickpeas are hot through and the broth is slightly thickened.)

(Recipe adapted from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis)

Couscous with Apricots, Almonds & Olives

1 c. quick-cooking couscous
1/3 c. dried apricots, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/4 c. coarsely chopped green olives (about 8 large olives)
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
2 shallots, peeled and minced
1 t. kosher salt
1 1/4 c. water
4 T. toasted sliced almonds (or substitute coarsely chopped pistachios)

Place the couscous in a medium sized bowl along with the apricots and olives; set aside.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until shallots are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the water and salt. Bring to a boil and pour over the couscous, swirling to make sure all of the ingredients are submerged. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand until the couscous has absorbed the liquid—about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the plastic and add the almonds; fluff with a fork and serve immediately. Serves 4

(Couscous recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living, February 2009)