Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Art and Science of Vegetarian Chili

Keeping cooked beans in the fridge has turned out to be our best move yet for making weeknights easier and keeping our grocery bill reasonable, and teaching Henry the quick-brining method of soaking beans (read about it here) has turned out to be my best move yet in our cooking lessons - turns out, it appeals to the scientist in my son. I've personally never cared about why onions turn out better when I sauté them with a pinch of salt, I just appreciate that they do, but Henry is 13, he wants to know why, and I can see that including a little science in our cooking lessons will go far in keeping his interest.

This quick vegetarian chili might not look like a science project* but it's a little more sophisticated than meets the eye, with intensified richness from the caramelized tomato paste, improved texture and flavor from using two kinds of beans, boosted umami from the mushrooms (read about umami here - I think the absence of umami is why vegetarian chili is often meh), and of course there's that pinch of salt added in with the onions. (I looked it up: the salt pulls moisture out of the onion so it cooks faster and tastes sweeter. It's because of osmotic pressure. That's right. Osmotic pressure.)

Vegetarian Chili
Serves 6-8

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
pinch salt
2 red bell peppers, diced
1/2 lb mushrooms, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, diced small (optional)
2 stalks celery, diced (optional)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1.5 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne OR, for delicious smokiness, 1-2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, diced
7 cups cooked beans - for best results use a mixture of black beans and white beans- if you don't have cooked beans on hand, use canned, it's fine (4 drained cans)
1 16-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup water
optional garnish: green onions, cilantro, sour cream, cheese, diced tomato, etc.

Warm olive oil in large pot, add onion and small pinch of salt, and cook 5 or so minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently.

Add bell pepper, mushrooms, garlic, and optional carrots and celery. Stir well and cook for 10 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir 3-4 minutes until paste turns dark red. Don't skip this - caramelizing the tomato paste majorly boosts the flavor of this chili.

Stir in chili powder, oregano, cumin, cayenne or chipotle peppers, and stir 1 minute.

Add beans, tomatoes and their juices, salt, pepper, and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 15 minutes. Check and stir frequently, and add more water if it gets too thick.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

*Speaking of what this chili looks like - I want to disclose that this is not our photo, we just haven't had time to take pictures this week and I couldn't stand to do a post without a picture!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Basic Beans and The Joy of Negligence

Lest I give the impression that my teenage sons pop willingly and cheerfully into the kitchen for cooking lessons with their mother, let me be clear: they do not, always.

Last Sunday Henry finished his homework and rewarded himself with a nice long session of Portal 2. He didn't leap to his feet when I interrupted him with,"Guess what? It's time for me to teach you how to quick-soak beans!" There was foot dragging, there was foot stomping, and it wasn't one of our more fun cooking lessons.

But we got through it, and rather than discourage or deter me, it all reminded me of something that periodically plagues me. The thing is this: to my kids, food must seem just to land on the table every night like magic; always enough for everybody, always edible, and utterly taken for granted. When I was a kid, it wasn't always this way, and I think I'm lucky for it.

I grew up with a single mother who worked full-time, and who impressively managed to get dinner on the table most nights, but there were times she worked late and my brother and I learned to fend for ourselves. One of my most distinct and cherished childhood memories is of being ten-years-old, carefully following the recipe in The Joy of Cooking for scrambled eggs down to the tablespoonful of cream. When the eggs turned out delicious, I had an epiphany: cooking was not some big mystery, it was mostly a matter of following instructions. I was hooked, and The Joy of Cooking became one of my favorite books.

I attribute my love of cooking to that classic cookbook, but I owe just as much to those strange, lonely evenings at home without a parent around, trying to scrounge up something to eat. There was a more relaxed approach to parenting in the 70s, a kind of benign negligence that many of my generation experienced, and it came with some fringe benefits. I'm glad my children have had a more stable childhood than I had, but I also wish I'd found more ways to help them learn to improvise on their own.

So I'm willing to take the occasional grumbles and foot stomps, because I blew it on the benign negligence, and I'm determined to not send them out into the world unable to make a pot of beans, and I'm determined to show them that food doesn't appear on the table by magic, sometimes you have to think about it hours or even days ahead, and I'm determined to prove to them that cooking is no mystery, but mostly a matter of following instructions.

Okay then, speaking of instructions, here's my recipe for basic beans. On Sunday I made one pound of white beans and one pound of black beans, and this made for an econo and tasty week of bean burgers, chili, huevos rancheros, tostadas, and white bean soup with kale.

Basic Beans

1 lb (2 1/2 cups) dried beans
2 tablespoons salt (yes, tablespoons)

To soak:

Rinse beans well and pick out any stones. Put beans in a pot with salt, cover with 7 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour.

Drain and rinse very well - your beans are ready to cook.

(Thank you Cooks Illustrated for the quick-brining method! I used to soak my beans overnight in cold water, but they turn out much, much better this way. Apparently it's because sodium ions partially break down the pectin in the bean skins, in case you were wondering).

To cook:

Rinse out the pot, Put beans back in there, and cover with 7 cups fresh water.

Bring to a vigorous boil and cook uncovered, 5 minutes.

Cover, reduce heat to medium, and simmer strongly 45 minutes - 2 hours, depending on the type of bean. My white beans were done in 1 hour, the black beans in 1 hour 15 minutes. You do want to make sure they stay covered in water, so add a little more if you need to. Beans are done when they are completely tender but not mushy, and totally intact (beans, like flip-flops, have been known to blow out, so don't overcook them).

Now you have 6 or 7 cups of cooked beans, do with them what you will. I stored mine and their cooking liquid in 2 airtight containers in the fridge and it meant I was never more than 30 minutes away from a good meal. I highly recommend it.

Recipes for Black Bean Chili and White Bean and Kale Soup coming very soon!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chickpea and Spinach Stew: Tight-Budget Cooking, Part 2

January marches on. So many beans, so little time. We had friends over for dinner midweek and wanted to make something slightly elegant that could be whipped up after work and that also fit into our monthlong mission to eat mostly beans.

Enter Chickpea and Spinach Stew, served with Israeli Couscous; quick, easy, yummy, and - though not exactly elegant - just special enough to serve to company. I'm a little in love with the chunky texture of Israeli Couscous right now, which I only recently discovered in the bulk bins, and I think it makes this dish a bit more interesting (and I've included a basic recipe for it, below), but plain old couscous or rice would be good too.

Chickpea and Spinach Stew 
Serves 8 (I'm making big quantities so we have leftovers for lunch, but this halves perfectly well)

4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika (smoked paprika is best, regular is fine)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
4 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained
1 lb spinach, washed, tough stems removed, chopped (or use baby spinach, no need to chop)
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt or more, to taste
Juice of one lemon or 2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar

Warm olive oil on medium-low heat in a large pot, add garlic and spices, and cook gently for one minute.

Stir in chickpeas, coating them well with oil and spices.

Add spinach a few handfuls at a time. Stir well.

Add water and salt, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You could make your couscous now. Or, better, get your kid or partner to make couscous and stir the stew while you take a quick shower and/or open a bottle of wine.

Stir in lemon juice or vinegar. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot on a bed of something.

Plain Israeli Couscous
Serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Israeli couscous
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Warm olive oil in a large pot, add couscous and stir for two minutes.

Add water, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 10-12 minutes.

And hope that if you have non-vegetarian friends over for dinner and serve them beans they are as sweet and appreciative as our friends were - and take it as a high compliment when they ask for the recipe!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Pasta Fagioli: Tight-Budget Cooking, Part 1

January; the longest, brokest month, when the hit of Christmas is followed by the hit of tuition bills, and we squint into the horizon at a tiny, distant payday.

There isn't much we can cut back on in our household. We have one car and don't drive it often, we never take vacations, there's nothing we can do about our permanent mountain of student loan debt, and you can tell by looking at us that we don't spend any money on clothes.

But food, food we spend on. I'm hopeless when it comes to shopping at Whole Foods, where I can't resist the out-of-season organic berries (that come out to about one dollar per berry), the overpriced loaves of bakery bread, the imported tins of sardines, bottles of pomegranate juice, and pre-made frozen potstickers that could be got for less in an actual restaurant. My grocery bill makes me dizzy, and I can't take it anymore.

Time to eat more beans.

Good timing, actually, as Henry and I are concentrating on making soups and stews, and there are infinite possibilities for inexpensive and tasty bean soups and stews. We'll be exploring these over the next month.

We started with one of my favorites, Pasta Fagioli, and at about 3 bucks per serving (would have been even cheaper had we bought dried beans and cooked them, but we haven't had that cooking lesson yet) we're off to a thrifty January start.

Pasta Fagioli
Serves 8 (I wanted a big batch so we'd have leftovers for lunch - you can halve it)

4 stalks celery, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 15-ounce cans white beans (cannellini or Great Northern), drained
16 ounces small pasta (bow ties, fusili, spaghetti broken into 1-inch pieces, anything)
minced parsley (optional)
grated parmesan (optional)

Warm olive oil in a large pot, add celery and garlic, and stir frequently over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, tomato paste, water, salt, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

OPTIONAL: After it has simmered 10 minutes, blend mixture in a blender or with a hand-held blender. I don't usually bother with this, but Henry has a lifelong aversion to "ucky slimy bits" (cooked garlic, onion, celery, etc) and prefers his sauces smooth. I must admit that blending produces a pretty color and nice texture, but this dish is delicious either way.

Add beans and stir for 5 minutes, mashing some of the beans with the back of a spoon to thicken the sauce.

Add pasta and cook 10 or so minutes, stirring constantly, until pasta is tender. Mixture will be very thick - add a little more water if you need to.

Cover pot and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Serve in big bowls, top with optional grated parmesan and/or minced parsley, and have seconds - you can afford it!