MINI-ME “POPCORN”: POPPED SORGHUM

Our family loves popcorn as a snack. When I was a child, our family made a big batch every Friday evening. When we had our own family, we often made a huge bowl to snack on while we watched a movie on TV. Now all of our children frequently make a batch of popcorn regularly. Our daughter-in-law adds some nutrition to the mix by sprinkling it with yeast powder.

So I was intrigued when Sarah and Evan introduced me to popped sorghum. I had never seen it before.  Sorghum  is a grass that first came from Africa, but is now cultivated world-wide and used as a grain or forage. It is used for flat breads, syrup/molasses, and the production of ethanol. It comes as pepper-corn-sized grains that pop up into little puffs that look just like miniature popped popcorn kernels but have a nuttier taste than regular popcorn. Otherwise, you prepare the two just the same – in hot oil, in a paper bag in the microwave, or with an air popper. Then you can eat plain, salt, add butter, or flavor to your preference.

Sarah and Evan use popped sorghum in creative ways with fresh tomatoes, roasted pecans, pasta, etc., etc. I am not that creative. Besides, I fall back on my childhood ways and just like to eat it with melted butter out of a big bowl.

If you want to give popped sorghum a try, you can order it on the internet from Mini Pops, Inc., Stoughton, Mass.. (Three pounds for $8.49 plus shipping)

RECIPE

Popped Sorghum

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup sorghum grain
  • (3 tablespoons vegetable oil if popping in a saucepan)
  • salt and oil or melted butter to taste

Method

  1. Place sorghum grains in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag and fasten with two staples three inches apart to prevent arcing.
  2. Place the paper bag in a microwave oven (preferably with turntable) set on high for 3 minutes.(It will probably take 2 minutes or less to complete the popping)
  3. Start the microwave and listen carefully to the sound of popping. As soon as it slows down, remove the bag from the microwave. Don’t hesitate or you will wind up with burned kernels.
  4. Transfer to a serving bowl and season with salt and oil or melted butter as desired.
  5. Alternatively, heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over high heat in a heavy bottomed 4-quart saucepan with tight-fitting lid. Add 5 grains of sorghum.
  6. When the sorghum grains pop, add the remaining sorghum and cover the pan with the lid.
  7. Shake the pan gently over high heat. Listen for popping. When it slows, remove the pan from the burner, and transfer the popped sorghum to a serving bowl and season as desired.

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THE MYSTIQUE OF COMPETITION CHILI

My friend, Reggie, has invited me to cook with him at the upcoming California State Championship Chili Cook-Off. I have accepted the offer. He is fun to be around, and the competition is in California wine country.

Reggie is an excellent chili cook, and he has won many contests over the years. I have previously written about his exploits at the Terlingua International Chili Championship. I, on the other hand, have only entered one other contest, and that was over ten years ago.

Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing (There is nothing new about that!) so I have been reading about chili and practicing my chili cooking. Reggie was very generous in giving me his recipe for competition chili, but I wanted to know a little more about the ingredients and why things got added when they did.  I made a practice run with his recipe, but I still needed more information. This is my report.

First, there is the matter of spelling. If you live in New Mexico, chile is spelled with an “E”, and everybody knows that refers to the plant, the peppers that grow on the plant, and the powder that is made by grinding up the peppers (also called ground chiles or – in Spanish – chile molido). If you live in Texas, chili is spelled with an “I”. Unfortunately, not everybody knows that the word refers to a meat and gravy concoction that includes a seasoning made up of ground-up chiles along with cumin, garlic, and other ingredients that is known as chili powder. To add to the confusion, there is an abandoned railroad line in New Mexico known as the Chili Line. I think it mainly carried forest products.  In the UK, the peppers are called chillis, so there you are.

On top of all this, there are at least 200 different chiles, and new ones are being developed all the time. In the US Southwest, the most common chiles are New Mexicos, Anaheims, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, güeros, Santa Fe grandes, habaneros, and arbols – among others. Then, if you smoke a jalapeño it becomes a chipotle. If you dry a poblano it becomes an ancho. The well-known Southwestern chef, Mark Miller, has put together a beautiful little book, complete with beautiful images, to make this understandable. The book is called, The Great Chile Book, published in 1991 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

It becomes clear that the spice master has a wide palette to choose from when he or she decides to grind up a batch of Texas chili powder. Besides, the chile can be left raw, smoked, dry roasted, etc., etc., giving a myriad of options, never mind the cumin (dry roasted or not) and the ingredients that are top secret. Getting the recipe for commercial chili powders is like asking about instructions for building an atomic bomb.

Then, there is the rivalry of various purveyors. Gebhardt’s and Mexene are two brands that may be available at your local grocery store, and they are still  used in cooking competitions. Pendery’s has been making chili powders for over a ceentury, and Mild Bill’s has a following because champion cooks have used their chili powders.  At both, the choices available to the buyer rival the choices in an upscale wine shop.

Fort Worth Light and the alternative Cow Town Light (Fort Worth is known as Cow Town, get it?), San Antonio Light, San Antonio Red,  RT-Rio Tejas, Spice Mistress, and New Mexico Light are different mixes that have their own characteristics as well as guidelines as to when you add them during the cooking process. Timing is everything, because with cooking, the various powders lose their punch, and it is essential to have just the right balance of flavors at the minute the chili competition entry is turned in to the judges.

Is it any wonder that it takes years of practice and the refinement of a recipe to become a competitive chili cook who is repeatedly among the top entrants? I am clearly in over my head, but competitions are more than winning (REALLY??) There is the chance to have a beer – or more – with old friends. There’s the travel and seeing new places. It’s easy to see why folks can become what they call chili heads. I shall keep you posted on my progress and my success or lack thereof.

 

 

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CHOCOLATE ZUCCHINI CAKE AND MOCHA SEVEN-MINUTE FROSTING

This is my last blogging effort with zucchini, having chopped, grated, boiled, sautéed. and baked our neighbor’s zucchini in virtually every way I can think of. The beauty of this recipe is that it uses up a fair amount of zucchini and produces a moist cake that doesn’t taste like zucchini.

You will see clearly from the images, that I am a rank amateur when it comes to cake baking, but the opposing view is that anyone can bake this cake. Part of my problem may be that I revised a sheet cake recipe from a useful little baking book if you live at a high altitude, High Altitude Baking edited by Patricia Kendall and published by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 2003. If you live at sea level, you will probably need to increase the baking powder.

This post will also have some tips on what cookbooks describe as “that easy, no-fail American classic”, seven-minute frosting. The first time I ever attempted this recipe was when I was about 12 years old. I had decided to surprise my mother with a birthday cake since everyone else in the family got their own birthday cake made by her. After everyone had gone to bed, I moved utensils and ingredients for a cake into the garage. Everything turned out ok except for the seven-minute frosting which the next morning fell off the cake in great blobs. Since then I have tried making the frosting many times without success. Finally, I have learned that my failures can be traced to inadequate instructions. That deficit has been corrected by Ethan Becker in his complete revision of his grandmother’s classic. Check out his instructions in The All New Joy of Cooking, (Scribner, New York), page 1001

Here are Ethan Becker’s tips: 1) Use a stainless steel bowl or double boiler instead of glass as glass heats too slowly, and the top of the cooking frosting (actually a meringue) cools too quickly to cook completely. 2) Immerse the bowl or double boiler pot so that the water level is at the level of the frosting mixture. 3) Make sure the eggs are at room temperature before beginning the process. 4) Do not stop beating the mixture while it is in the hot water bath or the egg whites will overcook. 5) Use an instant read thermometer and be sure the mixture reaches 140° F. 6) Don’t add the vanilla or other flavorings until you have finished beating the frosting.

Chocolate zucchini cake with mocha seven-minute frosting

Chocolate zucchini cake with mocha seven-minute frosting

A piece of cake

A piece of cake

RECIPE

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Ingredients

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder (*NB: at sea level you may need to increase to 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1¾ cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated zucchini (no need to peel)
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Method

  1. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, toss together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar, using an electric mixer. Beat until fluffy.
  4. One at a time, beat in the eggs. Then add the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla, beating after each addition until completely mixed.
  5. By thirds, beat in the dry ingredients. Then beat in the shredded zucchini, making sure it is completely incorporated into the batter.
  6. Stir in the chopped walnuts.
  7. Divide the batter equally between the prepared cake pans. Bake in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 350° F for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  8. Remove the pans to a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Then run a thin metal spatula around the rims of the cake pans and turn out the cakes onto a rack to cool completely before frosting.
  9. When the cake is completely cooled, frost with the following seven-minute frosting.

Mocha Seven-Minute Frosting

Ingredients

  • ¾ cups sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 egg whites
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon instant espresso coffee

Method

  1. In a large stainless steel bowl or in the top of a stainless steel double boiler, whisk together the sugar, cream of tartar, salt, egg whites, and cold water.
  2. Place the bowl in a large pan or the bottom of the double boiler with simmering water adjusted so that the level of the water is at or above the level of the frosting mixture.
  3. With a hand-held electric mixer, beat for 5 to 7 minutes or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 140° F or the frosting stands in peaks.
  4. Remove from the water bath and continue to beat for 2 minutes more until the frosting stands in smooth peaks.
  5. Beat in the vanilla, cocoa, and coffee powder.
  6. Cool slightly and then frost the cake. There should be plenty for two 9-inch layers.
  7. If this “no-fail” does fail, you can “rescue” it by beating in ¼ -½ cup of confectioner’s sugar.

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ZUCCHINI BREAD

Probably everyone who reads this has a favorite zucchini bread recipe. And probably everyone who reads this has worn out that recipe in the last few weeks. “Abundance” is not the right word for our current supply of zucchini. They are in the fridge. They are packed away in the freezer. They are on the kitchen counter. And they just keep coming even though we don’t have a single plant in our garden.

Summer squashes make a light side dish for a summer supper on a hot day. But they shine in sweet breads and cakes. Like carrots, they make a moist tender cake or bread. You don’t need to peel them, just grate them in the big holes of a box grater, and pack them lightly in a two-cup measure without squeezing out any moisture.  Here is a good all-purpose zucchini bread recipe that I found in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984, p. 553) I have substituted buttermilk for milk.

RECIPE

Zucchini Bread

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup vegetable shortening, melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups grated raw zucchini
  • 2 cups walnuts, very coarsely chopped

Method

  1. In a large bowl, toss together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs lightly and then add the buttermilk, shortening, and sugar. Beat until well combined.
  3. Then, by thirds, beat in the flour mixture until completely combined.
  4. Beat in the zucchini and walnuts.
  5. Divide equally between two 8½ x 4½ inch bread pans that have been greased and floured. Bake in the middle of an oven that has been pre-heated to 350° F. Bake for 50 minutes or until a broom straw or skewer inserted straight down in the middle of the loaf comes out clean
  6. Remove from the oven and cool on a baking rack for 5 minutes before turning the loaves out to cool completely.

 

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SAUSAGE-STUFFED ZUCCHINI

Zucchini season, and the bounty keeps rolling in. We do not have any squash plants in our garden patch, but there is an abundance at the farmers market and from our neighbors. It is a common situation. Many folks this time of year are experiencing zucchini burn-out. Squash blossoms are delicious, but they require immediate attention to maintain their freshness. Sautéed squash begins to get a bit boring, and so the search of the web and a shelf of cookbooks begins. Deborah Madison, the Santa Fe-based vegetarian cookbook author has numerous suggestions in her collections. I especially recommend her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, New York) and The Savory Way (Broadway Books, New York) for all sorts of suggestions.

One of my favorite ways to cook zucchini is to grate it with a box grater, sauté it along with some scallions and sliced mushrooms in olive oil, drain any excess oil, stir in some sour cream and fresh lemon juice, and serve. So simple that no recipe is needed

Today, though, I am going to write about stuffed zucchini. The first time I ever had a stuffed squash was years ago at the home of a colleague from Greece who stuffed the tender fruits with feta, Cheddar cheese and bread crumbs. This version is a little more complicated but still not difficult.

RECIPE

Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini

Ingredients

  • 3 firm, medium zucchini (make certain they are not too big)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 medium crimini mushrooms, washed and chopped
  • ½ pound bulk breakfast sausage (mild or hot, your preference)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • ½ cup almond flour (use all-purpose flour if you prefer)
  • 1 egg, beaten slightly
  • 3 medium tomatoes, sliced thinly (or enough to cover the zucchini)
  • ½ pound Swiss cheese, grated
  • cooking spray
  • butter

Method

  1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise. With a grapefruit spoon or sharp paring knife, hollow out the squash with about ¼ inch of a rim remaining. Try not to pierce the skin of the squash.
  2. In a medium sauté  pan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the chopped onions and cook until they are translucent but not browned. Stir in the chopped mushrooms, and cook until they give up their liquid and the liquid has evaporated.
  3. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a cooking spoon so that it is completely crumbled.
  4. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, and while it is still warm, stir in the cream cheese so it is completely incorporated. Stir in the almond flour and egg. Set aside until you are ready to stuff the zucchini.
  6. Choose a baking pan that is large enough to hold all of the squash, or use two dishes, and spray generously with baking spray.
  7. Arrange the zucchini in the pan, and spray them lightly with baking spray.
  8. Fill the hollowed-out zucchini with the sausage mixture.
  9. Top with tomato slices seasoned with more salt and pepper, and cover with the grated Swiss cheese.
  10. Dot with butter, and bake in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 350° F for 30 minutes or until the cheese is completely melted and the zucchini is tender.
  11. Serve immediately.

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BRABANT FINGERLING POTATOES

Some ideas work better than others. This idea turned out not exactly as I had hoped, but it was still pretty tasty.

Brabant potatoes are one of the classics of New Orleans cuisine. They are served in nearly all of the great old-line restaurants like Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, and Broussard’s. Basically the potatoes are little cubed French fries cooked in pure butter. What’s not to like about that? The original recipe is simple: 1) Peel and dice 2 large russet potatoes into ½ inch cubes. Rinse the cubes in cold water and then dry them in a kitchen towel. 2) Melt ½ pound of salted butter over medium-high heat in a cast iron pan. 3) When the butter reaches 350°F  add the potatoes, being careful not to burn yourself with the hot butter. Fry the potatoes until they are golden brown, stirring occasionally to prevent any of them from burning.  4) With a spider or slotted spoon, remove the potatoes to drain on several layers of paper towel. Salt lightly or not at all as the salt in the butter will season the potatoes a bit. 5) Serve immediately while still hot.

Fingerling potatoes have been in abundance at the farmers market, and I have been enjoying them boiled and buttered with parsley or creamed with peas and mushrooms. I wanted to try something different, and it occurred to me that they might take to deep-frying in butter like New Orleans Brabant potatoes. The experiment worked halfway. The potatoes had a wonderful flavor, the centers were tender, and the skins were crispy, but they were a little tough, requiring a sharp knife to cut them. I served them with panko eye-of-round and zucchini with mushrooms and sour cream. (More about that.)

I must say that the flavor of the potatoes was so good, I intend to give this recipe another try after I make a few modifications.

RECIPE

Brabant Fingerling Potatoes

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds fingerling potatoes
  • ½ pound salted butter
  • minced parsley (optional)
  • additional salt (optional)

Method

  1. Wash and dry fingerling potatoes
  2. Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a 10-inch  cast iron frying pan
  3. When the butter has melted, and foaming has subsided, add the potatoes. The pan should be large enough so that the potatoes fit in a single layer, if at all possible.
  4. Stirring occasionally, and adjusting the heat so that the butter continues to bubble, fry the potatoes for about 20 minutes or until a cooking fork pierces the potatoes easily, the skins are crispy and the centers are creamy soft
  5. Drain on layers of paper towels. Salt if necessary, add minced parsley, and serve immediately while still warm.

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INSALATA CAPRESE (NOT QUITE)

Tomatoes and basil. An abundance of both this time of year, so it is time to make that simple classic, sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella slices, basil leaves torn to release their fragrant oils, and a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil – nothing more. Even though the salad is apparently popular in homes all over Italy, it has been claimed that the combination was first served on Capri, and hence the name, Insalata Caprese or the shorthand Caprese. I suspect that that account is apocryphal, but what is not apocryphal is the wonderful combination. Over the years, there has been a lot of messing around with the recipe – adding balsamic vinegar, using vinaigrette, etc., etc.

So why am I messing around even more? Because pesto and burrata are so delicious.

I found some beautiful tomatoes at the farmers market. They are dark purple and pear shaped. They are called Japanese black trifele tomatoes and just beg to be eaten. I have also been taken by burrata lately. It raises the game from fresh mozzarella, with creamy ricotta wrapped in a morsel of freshly-pulled mozzarella. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the hen’s egg size gems that I have seen before, and the only burrata I could find locally was at least ostrich-egg sized. So I had to modify my plans, but I think it turned out ok.

RECIPE

Insalata Caprese (Not Quite)

Ingredients

  • 2 Japanese black trifele tomatoes
  • pesto (see previous post)
  • burrata
  • basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil

Method

  1. Slice tomatoes lengthwise and remove seeds and the flesh with a grapefruit spoon
  2. Place a tablespoon or so of fresh pesto in each tomato half
  3. Place a ball of burrata in each tomato half. If you cannot find small cheeses, cut a larger cheese in quarters.
  4. Top with a few fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil

 

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