February 26, 2010

Spleen Qi Xu Rice Pudding

One of the more interesting Chinese cuisines is medicinal foods, foods that are designed specifically to aid in the correction of health problems while providing a nutritious and tasty meal. If you'd like an excellent introduction, I suggest Henry C. Lu, Chinese System Of Food Cures: Prevention & Remedies. Unlike the dietary "cures" often touted by people selling books here in the West (particularly on television), the food cures of China are used to support other medical treatments, like Qi Gong, and may be prescribed by a physician.

My friend Jennifer, who is attending Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, asked me to come up with a recipe that she could use to help with Spleen Qi Xu, or Spleen Qi Deficiency, and suggested a pudding. Her goal was to create a reasonably simple dish for herself and her fellow students that would help relieve some of the problems caused by overusing their brains (yes, you really can cause health problems by thinking too much; no, it isn't a valid excuse for failing to complete homework on time).

I'm certainly no doctor, but as I understand it, in Traditional Chinese Medicine the spleen aids in digestion, and when the spleen suffers a deficiency (Xu) of qi, you might feel fatigue, reduced memory function, weakness of the limbs, or general lassitude. After eating you might feel bloated and sleepy, or have acid reflux. Even if you don't feel any of those symptoms, it's a good idea to tonify your spleen qi, particularly if you live in a wet or humid climate like the Pacific Northwest or the American South. High humidity can lead to dampness in the internal organs, and the spleen prefers dryness.

[caption id="attachment_1657" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Chen Pi, Da Zao, Sha Ren"][/caption]

Jennifer gave me three herbal ingredients to use; they might be a bit difficult to locate unless you have a reputable Chinese pharmacy near you. Da Zao (Fructus jujubae) is a date. Da Zao tonifies the spleen and stomach, benefits qi, tonifies the blood, and calms the spirit, but too much of it can lead to dampness and phlegm. Chen Pi (Pericarpium citri reticulatae) is aged dried tangerine peel. It regulates spleen and stomach qi, dries dampness, and dissolves phlegm, balancing the Da Zao. Sha Ren (Fructus amomi) is more familiarly known as cardamom. Sha Ren regulates qi, dissolves dampness, and strengthens the spleen. The cardamom you can buy in a grocery store isn't what you need, however; the medicinal cardamom is a different but related species.

These three medicinal herbs would usually be prepared in a decoction or tea. I chose to approximate that by using the herbs to infuse coconut milk. The cardamom needs to be added last to the infusion because overcooking it reduces efficacy. The rest of the ingredients were chosen because they are among the foods that aid the spleen and help to balance spleen qi.

The most interesting part of this challenge was to make a delicious pudding without using ingredients that counteract its medicinal benefits. That means no processed sugars or dairy, and I decided it also means the pudding should be vegan and should avoid as much as possible common allergens like soy. Furthermore, for no good reason except that it felt right, I also decided that I wouldn't use any machines or knives to process things, so everything was done by hand, tearing or crushing as appropriate. It may not have added medicinal value, but it certainly was therapeutic.

Spleen Qi Xu Rice Pudding
2 cups rice (I used 1½ cups brown and wild rice mix and ½ cup sweet brown rice)
4 cups water
1 sweet potato (about ¾ lb.) or chinese yam, baked
5 grams Da Zao, cracked or split open
4 grams Chen Pi
5 grams Sha Ren tied into a cheesecloth bag, seeds crushed
2-13.66 ounce cans coconut milk
1 cup golden raisins
1½ cup (5 ounces) crushed toasted walnuts
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons brown rice syrup

Put the rice and water in a saucepan over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover. For brown and sweet rices, wait 45 minutes, then remove from the heat and fluff the rice. The rice must be thoroughly cooked, even slightly overcooked for medicinal purposes. Apparently undercooked grains deplete qi, the opposite of what is intended. Cover and set aside.

Bake the sweet potato or yam in a 350°F oven until done. While the potato is in the oven, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and put them into the oven as well, for about 10 minutes, until just toasted. Remember not to walk away from the oven while the nuts are in it because they can go from perfectly toasted to burnt in less than 30 seconds. Remove the walnuts from the oven and let them cool. When they are cool enough to handle, crush them in a towel to the consistency you prefer.

Place the Da Zao and Chen Pi in a small saucepan and tie the Sha Ren into a small piece of cheesecloth or butter muslin. Add one can of coconut milk to the pan and place over medium-low heat. Stir frequently until the coconut milk just begins to simmer, then add the bag of Sha Ren, remove from the heat, cover, and let sit to infuse for at least 30 minutes, until the milk has cooled to room temperature.

Strain the milk into a mixing bowl. Add the second can of coconut milk, the cinnamon, salt, and brown rice syrup. Peel the sweet potato and add the flesh to the bowl, using a spoon or spatula to mash the sweet potato until it mixes with the coconut milk, then use a whisk to make as smooth a liquid as possible. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.

Add the crushed walnuts, golden raisins, and milk mixture to the rice and mix well. Refrigerate until well chilled, or overnight. Serve at room temperature, or even slightly warmed.

If you don't have the medicinal herbs to make this pudding, substitute cardamom and a bit of orange zest. It certainly won't be as helpful, but since all the ingredients were chosen to support spleen qi it should still have some beneficial effect. If you can't or don't want to use walnuts, either use pine nuts or just leave nuts out completely.

February 24, 2010

Blue Plate Special

Meatloaf with garlic smashers and mushroom gravy
 Meatloaf, mashed root vegetables, and mushroom gravy

When it comes to comfort food it's hard to top meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. But I did my best. Turned out rather well, and it only took two weeks to make!

What? Two weeks? Well, yes. I had to cure the bacon. While the bacon was curing I had to make the ketchup. And of course I needed to bake some bread for the bread crumbs. So it took two weeks. What can I say? Good things take time.

With the amount of effort put into it so far, I couldn't just use beef. Instead, I chose buffalo top round with some lamb and pork to round out the flavor, and I caramelized the onions instead of chopping them.

Plain mashed potatoes weren't up to the task of sitting next to the meatloaf, so instead they're garlic smashers, using roast garlic purée, ¼ pound of unsalted butter, potatoes, turnip, rutabaga, and parsnips (3 pounds of potatoes, 1 pound each of the other veggies). And there's a bit of watercress on the plate as a side salad. Oh, and mushroom pan gravy. Made with veal stock.

Okay, maybe I went a bit overboard. But it was really, really good, and I had a lot of fun doing it. The looks on the faces of some of my first-time students as I told them what I'd done was priceless. And it was really, really good.


1 lb. buffalo
½ lb. lamb
½ lb. pork
Grind the meats, or get your butcher to grind them. I suppose, in a pinch, you could buy ground meats, but that's really not much fun and buying factory-ground meat can be risky. If you can't or won't use buffalo, lamb, or pork, just make sure it's two pounds of meat in total. If you grind them yourself, make sure to cube everything about the same size, then put the meats into the grinder alternately. Your butcher won't be able to do that because most places have a requirement that the machinery be cleaned between species. If your butcher doesn't have that requirement you might want to find a new butcher. Put all the ground meats into a bowl, then add the rest of the ingredients.
Meatloaf mise en place
½ cup ketchup
1 cup bread crumbs
¼ chopped parsley (or at least pulled off the stem, see below)
3 cloves garlic, minced (or not, see below)
1 large egg
1 onion, chopped (or caramelized and chopped)
I can understand if you don't want to make ketchup, but please don't buy bread crumbs. Use some old bread. You know, the stuff you baked two or three days ago that you really want to replace anyway. Don't toast it, just let it get a bit stale, cube it, and toss it into your food processor. Make some crumbs, then save yourself some work and add the garlic and what you estimate will end up being ¼ cup of chopped parsley to the food processor work bowl. Chop until everything is nicely blended. Makes it easier to mix into the meats evenly.

Shmoosh all the ingredients together with your hands and fingers, making sure everything is fairly evenly distributed. Then pinch off a bite and cook it quickly in a frying pan so you can taste. Add as much salt as you think it needs, maybe some freshly ground black pepper if you want. If you aren't confident that you added enough salt, fry another bite and find out. If you have any I suggest a smoked salt, maybe applewood smoked salt.

If you have a meatloaf pan, one of those nice large loaf pans with an insert, fill it with the mixture. Otherwise, make a nice free-form loaf on a sheet pan. Top with strips of bacon if you wish. Of course you do. Who wouldn't want bacon on top of their meatloaf?

Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375°F for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, then continue to bake 15 minutes or so until the center of the meatloaf reaches 160°F. Remove from the oven and let rest at least 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Toward the end of cooking, sauté some sliced mushrooms in butter, olive oil, or bacon fat if you're lucky enough to have some handy; remember to salt the mushrooms. When the mushrooms have given up their water and the pan is mostly dry, remove them from the pan. Add two tablespoons of drippings from the meatloaf and two tablespoons of flour to the pan to make a roux. Stir until it just starts to darken, then add 2 cups or so of hot stock, whisking constantly. Cook until the gravy coats the back of a spoon, add the reserved mushrooms back in, and season to taste. If it looks like you've got lumpy gravy, strain it before adding the mushrooms. Then don't tell anyone. They'll think you did a wonderful job of making lump-free gravy so long as you never admit anything. I learned that from Julia Child.

How in the world would you have bacon fat handy? Well, you'd take a nice large slab of bacon, put it into a bag of foil with some water, and bake it for 4 or 5 hours at 200°F, then let the package cool in the refrigerator overnight. When you lift the bacon out the next day to slice it and put it on the meatloaf, you'll find there's a large quantity of beautiful, creamy bacon fat just sitting there begging to be used for something. As a reward--as if bacon fat isn't reward enough--you'll find that the thick slices of bacon you use to top the meatloaf aren't tough and chewy, but instead are soft and crispy at the same time. It's a tip I learned last summer from Michael Ruhlman.

If you get nothing else out of this post, let me suggest that next time you make mashed potatoes, add turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips. The combination is rich and sweet and utterly delightful with a more extensive nutrient set than potatoes alone.

Remember, if you have leftovers, meatloaf makes a great sandwich. But you'd better make two of these if you want leftovers.
Meatloaf with mushroom gravy

February 21, 2010

Why I Cook

[caption id="attachment_1580" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Prunus Mume, the plum used to make Plum Sauce and Umeboshi"][/caption]

Michael Ruhlman, as he so often does, got me thinking with his recent post, Why I Cook; he encouraged those of us who blog to write about why we cook. After thinking for awhile, I realized that I cook for some rather specific reasons.

I cook because I am fascinated by the seemingly-magical transformation of simple things; for example how flour, water, salt, and yeast mixed and heated produces bread.

I cook because I love to eat, and I prefer to eat well. By cooking I have control over the quality of what I eat.

I cook because I respect the food I eat and the people who work with Nature to produce it. Thank you, farmers. I have tried my best to grow things, and I've often come reasonably close to minor success. It astounds me that farmers can be successful with regularity. They work harder than anyone I know of, usually for ridiculously insignificant returns, and I can not survive without them. To honor their labor, I need to pay attention to what I am doing, and cook with as much skill as I can.

I cook because I derive great pleasure and satisfaction from carefully selecting ingredients, then combining them to produce the most delicious, nourishing meal I can. Is there anything more nurturing than to provide another person with the sustenance they need to live, and to make it a pleasure for them to enjoy? Is there anything more loving than to use all your skills and senses in the preparation of that meal? For me, the answer is no, which is why I can honestly say that I cook because I love.

February 17, 2010

Chipotle Ketchup

Catsup spiced with chipotles in adobo
Ketchup spiced with Chipotles makes a better burger

I want to make meatloaf, and for me a meatloaf has a bacon wrapping and a ketchup glaze. I could buy the bacon and ketchup, I suppose, but really, where's the fun in that?

February 13, 2010

Marinara Sauce

Sitting under all that cheese is a simple marinara sauce. By itself it's an excellent sauce for pasta, polenta, and that Italian-American standby Chicken Parmigiana (or it's vegetarian/vegan version, Eggplant Parmigiana). It makes a great pizza sauce. I even used some as part of a seafood stew whipped up in just a few minutes. As a base, it can easily be made into another sauce with the addition of a few ingredients (anchovies and olives make a puttanesca, for example). And if you make a large batch you can put some aside to use for later, saving both time and money.

Marinara Sauce
The process here is pretty simple. First we're going to perfume some oil with onion and garlic, then remove the onion from the sauce--remove the garlic as well if you wish. Next there will be some quick seasoning followed by a slow simmer of the tomatoes. Finally, the sauce gets adjusted to your taste.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion
3 large cloves garlic

Cut the onion in half through the root and peel it. Cut each half in thirds through the root, remove the root, then separate the layers. Lightly smash the garlic and remove the paper, root end, and any green endosperm that might be present. Add the oil to a saucepan and heat over medium until the oil begins to shimmer. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions.
1 anchovy fillet (optional)
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2-28 ounce cans of San Marzano tomatoes (purée them)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or other fine sea salt

Add the anchovy if you're using it, then mash with the garlic into a paste. Add the parsley and stir for about 30 seconds, then add the tomatoes, paste, and salt. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring frequently, until thickened.
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano

Add oregano and let the sauce simmer a minute or so to absorb the flavor. Some adjustments will need to be made here. If the tomatoes you used are more acidic than sweet, add 1 teaspoon of sugar. You might also need a bit more salt, particularly if you didn't use the anchovy. Some people might opt to add ½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes at this point.

If you want to set some sauce aside for another use, have a sterilized canning jar (or two) of 2-cup (0.5L) capacity handy. Ladle sauce into the jar, leaving some headroom, then seal the jar. Keep it in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, sealed. Use within a week to 10 days after opening.

Now if you want to make Chicken or Eggplant Parmigiana, all you have to do is drizzle the chicken or eggplant with some nice extra-virgin olive oil, salt it, and put it into the oven to bake until mostly done. Then spoon on some marinara sauce, grate on the cheese of your choice (parmigiano-reggiano is always my choice), then bake until done. Plate it with some starch and add more grated cheese, maybe put some salad on the side.

February 10, 2010

Focaccia alla Genovese

Focaccia alla Genovese
Garlic Focaccia

There's a first time for everything, and this time was my first making focaccia. I've made various other breads, but never once had I made a flatbread of any sort. Somehow I'm not surprised that it's easy. The process takes about 5½ hours, so have something else to do if you want to make this all in one day. This recipe makes 3-4 focacce.

Focaccia alla Genovese

1 packet active dry yeast (2½-3 teaspoons) or 18g fresh yeast
¼ cup warm water

Stir together in a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer and let sit for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is creamy.
2¼ cups room temperature water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
7 cups flour (bread flour works best, all-purpose flour will be just fine)
1 tablespoon fine sea salt (fleur de sel works nicely)

Add these ingredients to the yeast mixture and mix until the dough comes together. If it's a bit dry or doesn't want to form a dough, add 1-2 tablespoons of room temperature water. If you're using a stand mixture, switch to the dough hook and knead for 4-5 minutes. Otherwise, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for about 6-7 minutes.

Now you're ready for the 1st rise. Put the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise about 1½-2 hours, until doubled in size.

Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a floured work surface. Divide the dough into three or four equal portions. If you're making the whole batch right away, continue below. If you're making all or part of the recipe ahead of time, put the portions you're setting aside into sealable plastic bags and refrigerate up to 3 days or freeze up to one month. If freezing, remove from the freezer and thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Let the chilled dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so to get the chill off and reawaken the yeast before continuing.

Focaccia Proofing
Shape the dough by pulling and stretching or with a roller, then transfer to a piece of lightly-oiled parchment paper on a pizza peel or the back of a sheet pan if you'll be baking it on a stone. If you'll be baking it on a pan, transfer it to a lightly floured sheet pan or cookie sheet. Cover with a dry towel and let it rise for 30 minutes, then dimple it deeply with your fingers. Cover with a moist towel and let it rise for about 2 more hours until it has doubled in depth.

About half an hour or so before the rising is finished, put a baking stone into your oven and preheat the oven to a good high heat, at least 400°F (200°C) but as high as 500°F (260°C) will be just fine. If you're baking on a sheet, preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.

Now it's time to finish the focaccia. At a minimum, brush on some extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle coarse sea salt over the top. Bake until done, about 20-25 minutes at 400°F. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Focaccia Crumb
Focaccia should be eaten the day it's baked, and it's best while it's still warm and there are still little pools of olive oil in the dimples. You can cut it if you must, but focaccia is a bread that tastes best torn. Add a nice glass of red wine and some simple meats and cheeses, invite some friends, and have a feast!

My favorite variation (so far) is to use oil from my ever-present jar of garlic confit as the oil in the dough as well as on top. I'll also add several cloves of garlic confit to the dough while mixing, along with a generous portion of minced fresh rosemary. When I top the bread, I mash a few cloves of garlic confit with my fingers and gently press it into the dough. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

I'm having a blast trying new variations. Maybe next time I'll add sun-dried tomatoes, minced fresh basil, and pecorino-romano cheese. Or perhaps I'll knead some diced proscuitto into the dough. What's your favorite?