Accidental Foods

I have heard of how the sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream cones, potato chips, and popsicles (ice lollies, if you’re UK-born) are a mistake, but the nachos one is a new one. I also have heard that the naming for “chimichangas” was a mistake, as it was from a Mexican mom who was trying to cover up her cursing in front of her child. Another culinary mistake that became popular was the chocolate lava cake. According to food legend, a pastry cook took out a batch of mini chocolate cakes too soon, but since he was in a hurry, he just told the customers that they’re a new dessert made by the kitchen.

Creating accidental foods is how I got through some of my culinary classes, like that tomato-flavored cream cheese that I tried to pass for dip (goes great on bagel sandwiches, especially ones with lox or smoked salmon. Not so much the greasy breakfast sandwiches where sausage, ham, a sunny side-up egg, or bacon is your protein). Or that Mexican cheese and chicken dish I did in Chef Wagner’s Bistro class that I made after I successfully made sopas (pictures below).

Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter

This is the sopa platter, decorated with fried plantains, some salsa (homemade, natch), and lime pieces (with kosher salt on them for that bold, sassy virgin margarita flavor).

This below is the chicken and cheese dish I made for fun:

P04-12-12_11.35

Now, if memory serves me correctly, this was made with roasted red peppers, queso fresco, roasted chicken, and refried beans. You can eat it like a cheap casserole or use it in filling for tacos, quesadillas, or homemade Hot Pockets or mini-pizzas.

Thank you, and happy eating!

Rantings of an Amateur Chef

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I think accidents are the father.

When you think along the pantheon of food, there have been more than a few accidental inventions:

  • Sandwich – The Earl of Sandwich was at a gambling table and didn’t want to get up. I’ve been there and know that feeling. He ordered his dinner of meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies – A baker at the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House) was making chocolate cookies one day and ran out of chocolate powder.  Taking a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, she broke it into chunks and put it into the batter, thinking that the chocolate would melt evenly. It didn’t and thank God for that!
  • Ice Cream Cone – At the 1904 World’s Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes. Lucky for him…

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First World Food Problems: Smooth Like Velveeta (or Process Cheesed Off)

As I was searching the Internet for future food topics on this blog, I came across a story that just screams, “First World problems” (or, if you want to get technical “#firstworldproblems”). Apparently, Kraft Foods announced that, because of high demand (especially around this time, where people are making cheesy, fattening snacks for the BCS [college football] and the Super Bowl), Velveeta may be in short supply. As per usual with a lot of news stories in this day and age, it’s been blown out of porportion. How blown out? It’s been dubbed “The Cheesepocalypse” on Twitter (which I use to get fans for this site, whether or not they actually know me). Don’t believe me. Check it out here:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101316810

Now what does this mean to me? Absolutely nothing. I don’t like processed cheese at all. There was a time when I did, but that was because the lunchladies at school only had processed American cheese for their burgers, and I nor my mother thought to bring in provolone or mozzarella or write a note to the school, saying I’m allergic to American cheese. Hey, if they can do it for kids who have allergies to peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, walnuts, pecans, shellfish, eggs, and some of the less common foods a person can be allergic to, like strawberries, bananas, pineapples, chocolate — yes, chocolate allergies are a thing and I feel bad for people who will never know the simple joy of a Godiva truffle on Valentine’s Day (or Singles Appreciation Day, if you’re lonely and/or bitter), chocolate coins on Christmas or Hanukkah, Reese’s egg-shaped cups on Easter, or a Halloween jack-o’-lantern bag filled to bursting with the best Hershey’s has to offer — any artificial dyes or preservatives, or, in the case of one girl I knew at my basic Job Corps center in Kentucky, anything that wasn’t steamed chicken, buttered noodles, and steamed vegetables (I’m not kidding. Her food allergies were so bad that that was all she could eat), then my mother could do it for me. But that’s the past.

So why am I reporting on this? Two reasons: one, I find it a bit melodramatic that they’re treating this like it’s going to be an impending famine. This has NOTHING on Ireland’s potato famine between 1845 and 1852. That famine meant tremendous human suffering (the actual death toll isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say that around a million bit the big one due to disease and not, as you would believe, starvation), forever shaped  the cultural and political landscape of Ireland and the United Kingdom, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish (Gaelic) to English as the language of the majority since the potato famine affected poor Irish districts and led to the formation of the Gaelic League which works to promote Ireland’s mother tongue, added fuel to the fire of tension between the Irish and the British, and drove many Irish people to emigrate to other countries (most of them did end up in the United States. And if you think Mexicans are treated unfairly because of their emigrating to the United States, look up how the Irish were treated. And, yes, it does explain why, in old cartoons, police officers had red hair and/or Irish accents), and two: it gives me an opportunity to dispense options for those who just can’t live without their processed cheese.

I’ll never understand how eat something that’s made of milk, water, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), and cheese culture (which, to me, is more of a relic from my junior year chemistry class rather than food), but “Take Back the Kitchen” isn’t about judging you on the foods you eat; it’s about offering healthier options.

“Healthier options for Velveeta?” you scoff, “That’s just a myth, like The Tooth Fairy or a balanced budget.”

“Well,” I retort, “it’s true. You can make Velveeta by hand and it will taste better and be slightly better for you, as my idol,  American Test Kitchen, will show you with this recipe.”

Homemade Velveeta

1 tablespoon water
1½ teaspoons powdered gelatin
12 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
12 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
12 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon whole milk powder (now, this ingredient is going to be a pain in the butt to find in typical grocery stores. Try a gourmet kitchen store that specializes in rare and bizarre ingredients, or look online)
1 teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

1. Line 5-by 4-inch disposable aluminum loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over sides.

2. Place water in small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over top, and let mixture sit for 5 minutes. Pulse cheese, milk powder, salt, and cream of tartar in food processor until combined, about 3 pulses.

3. Meanwhile, bring milk to boil in small saucepan. Off heat, stir in softened gelatin until dissolved, and transfer mixture to 1-cup liquid measuring cup. With processor running, slowly add hot milk mixture to cheese mixture until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Immediately transfer cheese mixture to prepared pan, pressing to compact. Wrap tightly and chill at least 3 hours, or overnight.

If you want something more homemade, you can just cut cubes of Colby, Cheddar, and Swiss (now, why these three? Because that’s what the ingredients allegedly are of the actual product, according to a 1980s commercial jingle. I’m too young to remember that, since I was born in 1985 and came of age in the 1990s and the 2000s), add some Gruyère, some flour (or cornstarch if you’re going gluten-free), garlic clove, white wine, cherry brandy (called “kirsch” in Swiss German) [or omit both if you don’t want alcohol], lemon juice, nutmeg, and dry mustard in a fondue pot (or, more realistically, a four quart pot that could pass for a fondue pot if it’s fancy enough), cook until melted and creamy (being super careful not to let it boil. Boiling it will cause a mess and burn it), serve with French bread, raw vegetables, ham cubes, and some fruits that taste great with cheese (the mild, autumn fruits, like apples and pears. Apple slices with melted cheddar and ham makes a great sandwich, especially if the apple is anything but a Red Delicious, as Red Deliciouses are better off being eaten raw out of hand, turned into apple juice, used in reenactments of the Adam and Eve story [even though the Bible doesn’t specifically mention that an apple is “the forbidden fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge], or given to teachers in a transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself to them. When cooked, they taste too mushy), et voilà! You have a classy take on melted queso. A little heavy cream and roux turns it into a cheese sauce that can be served over steamed broccoli or loaded nachos or baked potatoes (which can also be served loaded).

It’s always a concern when your favorite food is in short supply or is about to be discontinued or affected in some way, but in an age where you can find alternate ways and substitutes for it, these doom and gloom stories about it shouldn’t impact this many people (unless it’s especially dire, like with water and certain fruits and vegetables).

Thank you, and happy eating!

All About Pom (or Pomegranates 101)

This is Pom.

Pom is a Northern European free spirit — a little wacky, with outré ways that won’t win over everyone, but she does have a lot of friends who want to abandon their toxin-laden, supermarket-shopping, fat American ways and try something…different. Her hourglass figure brings to mind Mae West in her prime or Betty Boop before the Hays Code cracked down on her jazz-era sense of sexual freedom. She comes with a charming tag with diagrams on how many antioxidant properties she has than her Far East sister, Green Tea, which I love both as a drink and as an ice cream flavor.

With the exceptions of grape juice (which, to me, tastes too much like cough syrup with sugar in it), I love fruit juices of all kinds. I am very partial to cranberry juice (which, as a girl, is essential for cleaning out any and all infections in my urinary tract), lime juice (put some sea salt in it and you have a non-alcoholic margarita. Of course, you can add tequila and triple sec along with the salt if you want the real deal, but I’m not much of a drinker), tomato/vegetable blend juice like V8 (which I can always count in if I feel I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables in my diet and is one of the reasons why I feel a blender is essential in the home kitchen), and any kind of exotic fruit juice (mostly from fruits associated with tropic climates, like passion fruit and mango). That’s where Pom comes in.

The concept of pomagranate juice will make those who aren’t used to it a little suspicious. For one thing, the inside of a pomegranate looks like this:

Your pomegranate insides may vary, but that’s typically what it looks like when you break it open, which may seem hard to cut with a kitchen knife because of the thick skin, but if you have a professional-grade kitchen knife, you can slice through it like it’s nothing. As for me, I’d rather summon the ghosts of my primitive, cave-dwelling ancestors and just slam it against something hard until it splits. Unlike my ancestors, however, I’ll be careful not to get any juice or seeds on the floor.

And that’s another thing about the pomegranate and Pom in general. Pomegranates are not like any fruit you’re used to. They don’t  have juicy flesh that can be fit through a juicer. You can’t twist one on a citrus reamer like you do with a lemon, a lime, a grapefruit, a pomelo, a tangelo, or an orange. Its interior looks  like a uterus with a serious ovarian cyst problem (one that needs surgery, not birth control pills, to fix), and, if you do manage to figure out that the seeds are the juicy part of the fruit, then you’ll discover that it’s very bitter and it’s bitterness doesn’t let up. Where’s the sharp, yet safe and refreshing taste of citrus or the mild, familiar autumn taste of apple juice (and its country cousin, apple cider)? You won’t find it here.

The pomegranate was originally from Iran and has been cultivated there and other parts of Europe and Asia, such as the Mediterrenean, the Caucasus region [that’s the area that includes countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the southwestern tip of Russia, and Georgia — not the Southern U.S. state between Florida and South Carolina. This Georgia also goes by the name “Sakartvelo,” has Tbilisi as its capital city instead of Atlanta, and was part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s], the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Southeast Asia, it has religious symbolism (not like the apple as a forbidden fruit, which is actually a myth, as the Garden of Eden story in Genesis doesn’t mention that the forbidden fruit that was on the Tree of Knowledge was an apple. But that’s a blog post for another day) in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and in the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Persia, and China. Pomegranates were brought to California with the early Spanish settlers, the southwest coast and inland valley being ideal for cultivation. It’s juice improves well-being and mood in healthy adults (according to a study from endocrine-abstracts.org). The juice is also extremely high in antioxidants, which is said to be good for you. Since the science behind antioxidants is largely unproven, I’ll let you research and come to your own conclusions.

History and health benefits aside, attaining the tart juice of a pomegranate (not the seeds; the seeds are easy to get) does not come easy — and I’m speaking from experience as a former student cook/chef. It can and will leave a mess. Not in the “Oh, no! I gotta wash this shirt!” mess; more like “I swear, Officer!  I was juicing pomegranates three days ago and just now found this stabbed coed’s corpse!”

Most ways I’ve heard about juicing a pomegranate include breaking the fruit with a kitchen knife and careful hands, then reaming the sections like a lemon, putting the seeds in a plastic Ziploc bag and gently crushing them with a rolling pin (which makes the juice bitter, but this can be prevented if you’re gentle with it), and, of course, letting the juicer/food mill handle the dirty work. The last way is the easiest way if you want to reduce mess in your workspace (whether you cook in a professional kitchen or a home one that looks professional), and yes, if I had a juicer, a food mill, or one of those souped-up blenders they have nowadays that can do anything a professional cook can do, only better, then you’d see me use that to juice pomegranates. So, what’s the best way to juice a pomegranate? Why, the Ziploc bag/rolling pin method, of course (though, if you don’t have a rolling pin, anything heavy will do, like a big soup can, your fist if it’s big enough, the bottom of a tumbler or a measuring cup), as seen in this video:

Pom’s juice are great straight up or diluted with water. For those who don’t like her plain (her tartness won’t win over most) or want something a little more, there’s Pom with tangerine or mango juice. As mentioned before, Pom wants to be friendly and helpful to your body underneath its free, often unconventional ways, and will clash with those who are set in their ways. For those who want to party, Pom tastes better with Crown Russe (or any kind of) vodka than it does with anything else at the bar.

I’d like to close out with some pomegranate (both the juice and the fruit) recipes I have on my culinary bucket list):

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Appetizer:

Pomegranate Bruschetta — a fall/winter season take on a popular Italian appetizer. If you want it simple, just spread some regular cream cheese (or cream cheese made from goat’s milk) on a toasted baguette slice or a slice of Pullman bread (the type of bread people use for toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, any kind of cold-cut sandwiches, the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich [that perennial favorite of most children who haven’t been cursed with a peanut allergy], and paninis) with the crust cut off and sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top. The pomegranate seeds are edible, but if you don’t like seeds, then you can do what I do when I chew gum: spit it out when the flavor’s gone (though that is definitely frowned upon in more polite settings. I suggest either swallowing the seeds, discretely spitting them out in a napkin, or tucking them in between your cheek and gums and excusing yourself to the restroom when you can’t hold any more).

If a bruschetta isn’t your thing, you can do a Turkish dip called muhammara that combines pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and roasted red bell peppers into a delicious, Mediterrenean/Central Eurasian spread that you can put on pita sandwiches or use as a substitute for ranch or blue cheese dressing with your vegetable platter.

Muhammara (Pomegranate, Red Pepper, and Walnut Dip) [Recipe credit goes to localfoods.about.com. The commentary is, however, copyright of me]

3 to 4 red bell peppers
1 pomegranate, split open
1 to 1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 clove garlic
1 to 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp. sea salt

1) Roast the red peppers until the skin is blackened and about to fall off. If you have a gas stovetop or a culinary torch, you can roast them that way (I love this way of roasting red peppers). If you have neither, then lay your red peppers on a parchment-covered baking sheet and set the oven to “broil”. Let the peppers sit, covered in plastic wrap or in a plastic Ziploc bag, for about 15 minutes.

2) Preheat your oven to 350°F for the walnuts.

3) While the oven heats, seed the pomegranate by using a sharp knife to cut through the peel from stem to end (that’s called “scoring”). A medium pomegranate can be scored into six sections, and, depending on the size, you may have more or less. That’s normal. After scoring from stem to end, cut off the top of the pomegranate, being sure to cut off enough of the top to reveal the bright red seeds underneath, then use your bare (or gloved) hands to pull the pomegranate apart. If you want to reduce messiness, do this over a mixing bowl or a small to medium pot or pan. Seeding a pomegranate is very labor-intensive, as there are a lot of seeds to pick off the pith, but if you have fast hands and a lot of patience, it shouldn’t be a problem.

4) Lay the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Cook until lightly toasted. While ten minutes is ideal time for your walnuts to toast, it’s not always the best time to go with, as oven cooking time varies from brand to brand and walnuts go from raw to burnt very quickly. My advice: invest in a cooking timer (or use a timer app on your cell phone if your cell phone has one) or check your walnuts frequently so they don’t burn.

5) While the walnuts cool, remove the skin from the peppers (which, as I mentioned before, will easily slip off). You can rinse them under cool running water, but this step is optional. Why? If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because you might want to keep in some of the roasted flavor or maybe the charred pepper skin didn’t leave any black burn flakes behind.

6) Gently rub the walnuts with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and lift the walnuts off the towels. You won’t remove all the walnut skin, nor do you need to, but it should remove a fair amount of it. You can be how I used to be and be totally anal about making sure every piece of walnut skin is removed, but it’ll take too long, so if you don’t get them all, it’s not the end of the world.

7) Put the peppers, walnuts, pomegranate seeds (if you want, you can save a few for garnish), garlic clove, olive oil, and salt in a blender or food processor and whirl until the mixture is creamy and smooth.

8) Add lemon juice to taste and adjust salt to taste. Serve immediately or cover and chill to serve later. The dip will keep for several days.

9) Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds (optional)

Best ways to eat it: on crackers or toasted baguette slices/mini toast squares with the crust cut off; with raw or lightly steamed vegetables; as a sandwich spread (toasted chicken or vegetarian flatbread or anything on a pita); with pita chips or homemade or storebought Doritos or potato chips.

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Soup:

Ash-e Anar, a Persian (Iranian) dish made from pomegranate juice and seeds, lentils, mint leaves, spices, ground beef meatballs (sometimes, but most recipes I’ve seen don’t call for meat of any kind. The Iraqi take on this dish, called shorbat rumman, is one such version), and rice. It’s more of a stew than a soup, as the broth is thicker and it’s very filling. It’s a very sweet and sour soup, and the pomegranate seeds are not only beautiful, but also acts as the wuji between the yin of sweet and the yang of sour.

3/4 cup lentils
2 tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee [a type of clarified butter commonly used in South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani) cuisine and religious rituals in Hinduism]
1 medium onion, chopped
8 cups water (2 quarts)
1 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 cup pomegranate juice (either storebought or homemade)
1 tablespoon butter, margarine, or ghee
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons crushed dried leaf mint
1 tablespoon raisins
1 lb ground beef, seasoned and shaped into meatballs (optional)

1) Pour the lentils in a colander. Set it in the kitchen sink and run cold water over them to clean them. Rinse them until you are sure that they are clean. Set it aside to drain.
2) Melt two tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute until tender.
3) Add water, drained lentils, rice, turmeric, salt and pepper and meatballs (if using them). Bring to a boil.
4) Reduce heat and cover. Simmer over low heat 40 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.
5) (if making pomegranate juice by hand): Open the pomegranate and extract the juice using a lemon squeezer, or separate the seeds and use juicing method mentioned in this post. Skip this step if you are using storebought pomegranate juice.
6) Add the pomegranate juice along with parsley and green onions and simmer about 15 minutes longer.
7) Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine in a small skillet.
8) Add mint and raisins. Saute until butter or margarine is golden brown. Pour over soup.
9) Garnish with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves and serve.

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Poultry Dish: Roasted Pomegranate Chicken (with credit to Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman)

I never cooked this one before, but I hope to do so soon. If you’re Moroccan Jewish, this is a favorite at a Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year or the Feast of Trumpets; celebrating the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world) table.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) chicken, quartered
1 pomegranate, halved
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2) In a cup, mix oil and garlic. Brush garlic oil over chicken.

3) Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle any remaining oil over chicken. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, basting several times with pan juices, until skin is browned and juices run clear when a thigh is pierced at thickest part with a fork.

4) Remove 1 tablespoon seeds from pomegranates. Set aside for garnish. Squeeze juice form remaining pomegranate through a sieve into a small bowl.

5) In a small, nonreactive saucepan, mix pomegranate juice, wine, lemon juice, and cinnamon sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

6) Transfer roasted chicken to a serving platter and pierce each piece several times. Pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve at room temperature.

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Beef Dish: Beef Filets with Pomegranate-Pinot (or Pomegranate-Burgundy) Sauce [with credit to CookingLight.com]

Pomegranate seeds make a pretty garnish for this dish. Some recommended side dishes: grilled vegetables, potatoes dauphinoise, or a really nice mushroom risotto

4 (4-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks, trimmed
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1/3 cup pinot noir or burgundy wine (use a burgundy cooking wine if you don’t have or don’t want to use real wine)
1/3 cup pomegranate juice (either store-bought or homemade)
1/3 cup fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth (either store-bought or homemade)
1 thyme sprig
1 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces

1) Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
2) Sprinkle steaks evenly with salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
3) Coat pan with cooking spray.
4) Add steaks to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness.
5) Remove steaks from pan; keep warm in an oven at 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit
6) Add shallots to pan and sauté 30 seconds.
7) Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, wine, juice, broth, and thyme sprig; bring to a boil.
8) Cook 7 minutes or until reduced to about 3 tablespoons.
9) Remove from heat; discard thyme sprig.
10) Add butter to sauce, stirring until butter melts. Serve sauce with steaks.
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Side Dish: Pomegranate and Quinoa Pilaf

When you hear “pilaf,” it’s always associated with rice — thanks, in no small part to brands like Rice-A-Roni (I never did find out if Rice-A-Roni really is the San Francisco treat. I know San Francisco has cable cars, so those commercials aren’t that far off) and tradition. I’m here to tell you that a pilaf dish doesn’t always have to be rice-based. Orzo (a rice-like pasta) works, as does bulgur (a cereal food made from the hulled kernels of several different wheat species, most often from durum wheat), but the best rice substitute for pilaf is quinoa (a chenopod that biologically has more in common with tumbleweeds, spinach, and beetroots rather than the Poaceae family [the family that includes corn, wheat, rice, barley, and millet]).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup diagonally sliced scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent and fragrant.
2) Add the quinoa and stir to coat. Add the chicken broth or stock and bring to a boil.
3) Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is tender.
4) In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil, pomegranate seeds, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, zest, and sugar.
5) Add the quinoa and season with salt, and pepper to taste.
6) Garnish with toasted, slivered almonds.

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Dessert:
Pomegranate lends itself better as a sorbet or a water ice than as an ice cream (though it is possible to make a pomegranate ice cream or a gelato), but most dessert cooks will usually play it safe and use pomegranates for either a dessert sauce or use the seeds as a garnish to something like spiced pears, chocolate cookies, or as the base for a syrup or frosting that just lazily gets draped on a cheesecake or a sponge cake like an oversized T-shirt on the shoulders of an ’80s flashdancer.

However, if frozen treats and easy-make sauces on more established desserts aren’t for you, then try a pomegranate meringue, either by itself, on top of a tart or pie, or as part of a Baked Alaska (since the color of a pomegranate meringue is red, this would be ideal for Valentine’s Day or the dessert to any romantic dinner).

For your meringue, you start by whisking egg whites and salt (either by hand or with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is more ideal if you don’t have time or energy to burn) until frothy, keeping the whisk position as horizontal as possible. As you’re mixing, add a mix of cornstarch and sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. In about ten to fiften minutes of mixing, you’ll notice the egg whites are forming stiff peaks. That’s your cue to gently fold in some red food coloring and pomegranate juice for color and mix on low, creating beautiful swirls. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. Twirl each of the meringue mounds so they finish off with a pointed peak. Bake your mounds for about an hour. After an hour, leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes. Serve your meringues with whipped cream or a handful of pomegranate seeds on top.

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Drinks: This is where the pomegranate’s juice really shines. From raw cleanses to cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), you can find pomegranate juice as the star. Here are three favorites:

Homemade Pomegranate Ginger Ale

Back when I was living in San Francisco as part of my Advanced Culinary training, I would (if I had the money) go into the city on the Muni on Saturdays to go to the farmers’ market. The people at Job Corps encouraged the culinary students to go out and see the many restaurants the city had. Since I was broke and did not the city well, it took me a while to get out there and do so. When I did, I began frequenting the farmers’ market. It had a lot of fruits, herbs, and vegetables that weren’t seen much back in my home state of Pennsylvania (blood oranges, pomelos, pluots, especially). It was there I tried out quark cheese, persimmons, bizarre-flavored ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe (you haven’t lived ’til you had Secret Breakfast ice cream [that’s cornflakes and bourbon]) and homemade ginger ale.

Prior to that, I didn’t know soda could be handmade. To me, it was either bought at the store or made with that SodaStream machine. Once that sweet, yet spicy taste of homemade ginger ale (and real ginger ale has that satisfying throat burn of real ginger. You don’t get that with Canada Dry or Schweppes, much as I love those two brands), it just blew my mind and showed that you can make soda from scratch, even cola and root beer, which have a lot of complex flavors that you don’t really taste in brand name soda. I came up with the pomegranate recipe for ginger ale like most foodies do it: by accident. I bought Pom and some Canada Dry and mixed them together. I looked online for a homemade variant, but could only find the recipe for regular ginger ale.

The Recipe:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) coarsely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
3 strips lemon peel (about 4 inches each), yellow part only
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (fresh)
1-1/2 cups (about) sugar
3 quarts chilled club soda

1) Place ginger, lemon peel, and 4 cups of water in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer at a low boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Add sugar, stirring constantly, and continue to boil until reduced to about 3 cups, another 15 minutes.

2) Place a fine wire strainer over a large bowl. Pour in ginger mixture to separate solids from liquid. Discard the lemon peel.

3) Cool the syrup, pour into a glass container, seal tightly, and chill at least 1 hour until cold.

4) For each 16-ounce serving, mix 1/4 cup ginger syrup with 1 cup cold pomegranate juice and club soda. Pour over ice. Additional ginger syrup and/or sugar may be added to taste.

Pomegranate Star Fruit Greek Yogurt Smoothie

Smoothies were part of my daily breakfast when I was in college (when I was living in the dorms with my sister, and when I commuted). That was the only reason my sister and I bought a blender (that and my sister wanted blended coffee drinks and I wanted to make smoothies and mousse from scratch). Back then, my smoothies had no exotic fruits in it (unless you consider cranberries exotic), but when I became an intern for Three Stone Hearth and frequented the Farmers’ Market on the Bay (and became temporarily obsessed with Jamba Juice), I tried out some different smoothie flavor combinations. Jamba Juice had a pomegranate blueberry smoothie that I thought was good, but was nothing compared to its strawberry lime peach smoothie, which tastes like summer if summer had an official flavor.

Don’t get me wrong; pomegranate and blueberry is a good smoothie combo, but it’s a little overexposed (as far as Internet searches are concerned). To counter the tartness of the pomegranate, I used the understated, not-quite-citrus taste of star fruit (carambala) and the smoothness of Greek yogurt.

The Recipe:

2 cup(s) plain Greek yogurt, well chilled
2 cup(s) pure pomegranate juice (fresh squeezed or bottled fresh), well chilled
2 star fruits, cut into pieces

1) In a blender, combine the chilled Greek yogurt with the pomegranate juice.
2) Add the sliced bananas and puree.
3) Pour the smoothie into tall, chilled glasses and serve at once.

Pomegranate Sparkling Sangria

A normal sangria is made of brandy, a sweetener (usually honey, orange juice, flavored drink syrups, and agave nector), red wine (sangria is from the Spanish word for “blood” — perfect for those over-21 Halloween parties), and some kind of chopped fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, apples, peaches, any kind of melon, any kind of berry, pineapples, grapes, kiwis, and mangoes are the most popular). If you don’t drink, are underage, or are a recovering alcoholic, you can switch out the brandy and wine with fruit punch, seltzer, or any of your clear lemon-lime sodas (Sprite and 7 Up).

This sangria is red because of the pomegranate liqueur and the Cabernet Sauvignon (a very popular red wine. It’s like Merlot, only more robust and doesn’t hit you as hard — at least that’s what I’ve been told the two times I volunteered for “A Taste of Mendocino”). Like a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s very heavy on the alcohol, so it’s not for lightweights who think they can handle anything stronger than American beer.

The Recipe (credit goes to www.stirrings.com)

1 oz. BV® Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon
1 oz. Stirrings® Pomegranate Liqueur
0.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum
2.5 oz. apple cider
Garnish: citrus or apple wedges

1) Combine the first 3 ingredients in an ice filled rocks glass and top with sparkling cider.

2) Stir well.

3) Garnish with citrus wedges and or apple slices.

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Thank you, and Happy Eating!

99 Batters of Rings on the Wall (or The Perils of Frying)

While searching for a recipe for mee krob (a deep-fried noodle dish from Thailand) online, I discovered that today is Onion Ring Day. It got me thinking about my past encounters with this staple of the appetizer menu.

beer-battered-onion-rings-9-600

I don’t think I’ve ever had a good experience with onion rings. Most of the onion rings I’ve had were from the freezer section (Ore-Ida) or from greasy spoon restaurants, which puts my experience with them either at the average to “Nothing to write home about” level (and the one time I had “from-scratch” onion rings, it coincided with an adverse reaction to fried shrimp initially thought to be a seafood allergy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t enjoy onion rings while my stomach is trying to reject semi-digested shrimp in response to the rest of my body thinking that it could be poisonous).

I gave onion rings a change years later when I was a Basic Culinary Arts student at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center — and once again, I was disappointed. Not because my stomach objected (far from it. I also found out that fried onion rings are more than just a member of the “Not Ready for the Main Course” players along with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, and jalapeño poppers. Properly-made and seasoned onion rings can go on to substitute for French fries on a delicious hamburger or be enjoyed solo), but because the cooking technique that is frying is very flawed, especially when it comes to frying vegetables (particularly onions and mushrooms).

More often than not, onion rings are a litany of common frying mistakes: they come out soggy, doughy, heavy, and/or  raw, with the “soggy” and “raw” problems a common occurence I’ve experienced in eating amateurly-made onion rings.

How many times have you bitten into an onion ring only for the golden ring and the actual onion split on you like a girlfriend or boyfriend who “needs her/his space” (but is really nailing your sister/brother/best friend/worst enemy behind your back)? It leaves you (the eater) disappointed and, in some cases, burned from the hot oil or gagging from eating a raw or undercooked onion.

“So, how do I turn onion rings around so that I may enjoy them next June 22nd?” you may ask.

Well, it all starts at the core: the onion.
Vidalia onions (sweet onions from Vidalia, Georgia) are your best bet. If you can’t find Vidalias, any sweet onion will do, but make sure they’re sweet. White and yellow onions are actually dry, have a stronger flavor, and are better off for sautéing, roasting, and the occasional use as mirepoix for stock. Why sweet onions? Sweet onions offer a milder flavor, and you want your onion to complement, not upstage, the delicate, fried skin of the onion ring. However, if you can’t find any sweet onions or want a stronger flavor, yellow onions can be used.

Okay, you’ve solved the easy problem (the perfect onion). Now you’re at the hard part of creating the perfect onion ring: the batter.

In the case of onion rings, I do recommend batter, as the old flour + milk or eggwash combo results in the dreaded slippery fried skin that exposes the limp, soggy onion when you go to eat it. For your batter, you’ll need to combine ¾ cup all-purpose flour, ¾ cups cornstarch, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ paprika (not necessary, but if you want a bolder color and some spicy kick, then add it), and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined. If you see some lumps in it, don’t worry; that’s normal. Whisk in remaining beer (the recipe calls for 3 cups of beer, but make it four if you want a quick drink. I won’t tell if you won’t, but make sure you reserve 2 cups of beer) as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter. If you’re serving kids or don’t like beer, you can substitute beer for buttermilk.

Now you have your onions and your batter. Now what? Just a simple cut onion into rings, dip rings in batter, and fry until golden brown, right? Yes, but if you want perfect onion rings, there are some tips and precautions you need to take:

1) Soak your onion rounds in a bath of 2 cups beer or buttermilk (the two you reserved during the batter-making step), 2 teaspoons of either malt or cider vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in a plastic storage bag that can be zipped shut (you know, a Ziplock bag or any off-brand you can find). Refrigerate the bagged bath for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2) Don’t go past the 2-hour mark or your onion rounds will be too soft and and won’t crisp properly. The beer (or buttermilk)/vinegar/salt/pepper bath not only gives more flavor to your onion rings (so the fried skin doesn’t get all the attention. The onion and the cooked batter are in this together to satisfy your taste buds), but it breaks down the exterior cell walls of the onion so you won’t have to worry about chomping down on a raw onion, shortens the soaking time of the onion rounds, and gives a subtle echo to the beer or buttermilk batter, so you just won’t taste the fried batter separately from the onion.

3) Vegetable oil is the best oil to use when frying onion rings (or anything you want fried, like chicken or other vegetables). You can use peanut oil, but only if you’re sure the people you’re serving aren’t allergic to peanuts.

4) Heat the frying oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius or 4 on the gas mark), though the average frying range is between 325 degrees Fahrenheit (165 degrees Celsius) to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius) . Use a fat or candy thermometer to measure your oil temperature. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer, test the oil by sprinkling some flour (or tossing a bread crumb) in the oil. If the flour fizzles (or if the bread crackles and spits), then it’s ready.

5) Be sure your oil temperature is correct. Too cold and you’ll be left with an oily, runny mess. Too hot, and you’re left with near-edible charcoal (of course, if my mom had her way, she would eat onion rings this way. She already does with chicken wings and fish fillets).

6) Shaking the batter off the onions as you dip them in the batter isn’t really a necessary step, but it helps if you want the batter to adhere to the onion properly. Dusting the damp onions with flour before battering them will help the batter stick.

7) If you’re one of those people who has a gadget for everything in the kitchen, then a deep-fryer is your key to perfect onion rings. If you’re a traditional pots and pans type of home cook, then you can either go for the traditional straight-sided sauté pan or do what my mom has done for years and use a Dutch oven or a pasta pot (looks very much like a small sauce pot). You need something with a deep bottom since you will be free floating your battered onion rings as they fry.

8) Fry the onion rings in small batches. Crowding the pan lowers the oil heat and makes cooking last longer than it should. Of all the cooking techniques out there, frying is high and fast (like The Flash on marijuana). Five minutes is all it takes to get the onion rings done. You can leave them in a little longer if you desire a crispier outer shell or if they haven’t turned to golden brown in the five-minute cooking time.

9) One of the problems with frying is that the food comes out too oily. Let the finished rings drain on a paper towel-lined baking rack.

10) To keep onion rings warm (especially if you’re cooking a full meal), transfer drained rings to a baking sheet-lined pan to an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (around 93 degrees Celsius).

Here’s the recipe in full to keep, print out, write down, and pass down to your next of kin if you wish:

Beer-Battered Onion Rings

Serves 4 to 6

2 sweet onions, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds
3 cups beer
2 teaspoons malt vinegar (see note)
Salt and pepper
2 quarts peanut or vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cups cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. SOAK ONIONS: Place onion rounds, 2 cups beer, vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in zipper-lock bag; refrigerate 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2. MAKE BATTER: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. While oil is heating, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined (some lumps will remain). Whisk in remaining beer as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter.

3. FRY RINGS: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. Remove onions from refrigerator and pour off liquid. Pat onion rounds dry with paper towels and separate into rings. Transfer one-third portion of rings to batter. One at a time, carefully transfer battered rings to oil. Fry until rings are golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes, flipping halfway through frying. Drain rings on paper towel-lined baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to oven. Return oil to 350 degrees and repeat with remaining onion rings and batter.

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It’s a lot to do just for onion rings, but it only looks hard, and anything worth having is worth fighting for, especially if your enemy is the kitchen. Good night and good eatin’.