Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Balela Salad

One of the cardinal rules of grocery shopping is not to shop on an empty stomach. Well, last week I fell short of that but as a result I discovered a salad I didn't even know existed.

My marketing was at Trader Joe's. I had just gotten my hair cut at noon and needed to make a quick grocery run so I could get back home to work. But, oh, was I hungry. I had all these crackers left over from Thanksgiving and was looking for some kind of dip to make the most of them before they'd go stale. I picked up some eggplant hummus (disappointing) and then noticed containers of something called balela cozying up next to the tzatziki. I did a quick read of the ingredients--garbanzo beans, black beans, tomatoes, parsley, mint, sumac, garlic--and thought this would be my perfect lunch in front of my desk.

Well, I loved it. The flavors are fresh and bright. And you couldn't find something healthier to eat as we head into the holidays. But why pay three bucks for a small container given that the ingredients were not at all pricey? So I figured I'd make my own.

I'd love to tell you the roots of balela salad but I've been hard pressed to find them. It's supposedly Middle Eastern. But it could also be Mediterranean. One source I found claimed it was Greek but I checked with a Greek-American friend who's a cooking instructor and she said no--but maybe it was Persian. If you know, please share.

The recipe came together pretty easily. The focus is on the garbanzos with less of the black beans. There's heat. There's tang from what I figure is lemon juice--and lots of parsley and mint. For the heat I added a bit of cayenne pepper. I added more tanginess with red wine vinegar. Sumac also adds some tartness and I love its vibrant red color.

You could add feta and/or olives to enrich this salad. I've left it without so far.

Eat balela salad as a side dish, as a condiment for a pita-based sandwich, or serve it as an appetizer with pieces of sangak bread. I've written about sangak before. It's one of my favorite treats--a flat, spongy Persian bread that is perfect to eat with labne or baba ganoush. You can now buy it freshly made in San Diego at Balboa International Market in Clairemont (you can also buy ground sumac there). Yes, it's ginormous for bread--like three feet or so. But I cut it up into sections, wrap them in wax paper, and freeze in a freezer bag. When I want to eat some, I take out a wrapped up stack, let the pieces defrost, and then heat them up just a little so they retain the spongy texture.

Balela Salad
Serves 4 to 6
(printable recipe)

Salad ingredients
1, 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
4 ounces black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/3 cup Italian parsley, minced
2 tablespoons mint, minced

Dressing ingredients
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground sumac
2 cloves garlic, minced
Black pepper and sea salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Mix together salad ingredients in a medium bowl. To make the dressing, which together all ingredients except the olive oil. Whisk in the olive oil. Once blended, pour over the salad ingredients and stir well to fully incorporate. Refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight before serving.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Easiest, Crispiest Skin Roasted Turkey for the Holidays

Yeah, I know. We just got through Thanksgiving and here I am talking turkey? Well, I know many people feature turkey for the Christmas holiday table, too. And maybe you weren't so thrilled with the results you got last Thursday.

I'm going to make it easy for you. Spatchcock your bird and roast it at high heat.

Spatchcocking is a way of breaking down the bird so it will rest flat in a roasting pan and cook evenly. You avoid the age-old problem of having the white meat dry out while the dark meat continues to cook below. Instead, you have moist meat from the drumstick to the breast. And because it roasts at high heat, the turkey cooks quickly and the skin all over the turkey is fully exposed, making it all nice and crisp. But heads up--it really only works well with turkeys 14 pounds and smaller so it will fit in a roasting pan. Think that's not a big enough bird for a crowd? Well, I just had 14 people for Thanksgiving dinner at my house and with all the sides that 14-pound bird was plenty and there were still some leftovers.

Here's how you do it. Place the turkey on a cutting board and pull out whatever may be in the cavity (neck, giblets), trim any excess fat, and drain the bird of any liquid. Pat it down with paper towels so it's as dry as possible. Using a very good pair of kitchen shears, cut the bird from one end to the other along the backbone. Most people cut the backbone out entirely but I like to keep it and roast it too. When you've done that open up the bird skin side up with the breast facing you. Place the heel of one hand over the breast bone and your other hand over the first. Bear down on the breast until you feel and hear a crack. That would be the breast bone. Now your turkey can rest flat on the pan, which is where it should now go.

Pre-heat a conventional oven to 450° F.

I season my bird lightly with garlic salt and paprika. Then I rub in olive oil (you can also use butter) and squeeze fresh lemon juice all over before tucking the remaining lemon halves under the bird. You can also add slices of onion and fresh herbs.

Put the turkey in the oven and let it roast for about an hour and 20 minutes. Don't baste it.

At 1 hour, 20 minutes, pull the turkey out of the oven and measure its temperature with a meat thermometer to test if it's done. The breast should hit 150° and the thigh should be 165°. If you've hit that, turn off the oven and lightly tent the turkey (if not, put the turkey back in the oven and try again in five minutes). Let it rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Yeah, it's that simple. Here's my cheat sheet from year to year:

P.S. This is a great roasting technque for chicken and even Cornish game hens (just shorten the roasting time).

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Autumn Three-Grain Salad

As Thanksgiving creeps up on us--and, hopefully, cooler weather too--it's time to start thinking of hearty and tasty dishes that, hey, are also healthy. I don't know about you but I have family members who are vegetarian so I also need to come up with some sides that they can enjoy along with the rest of us omnivores. Grains are always a favorite of mine and grain salads are a no brainer--but have you thought of combining grains in a salad?

Creating a multi-grain salad means you get a more interesting combination of flavors and textures, not to mention colors. It all depends of what you mix together. I love the chew of red wheat berries. They're perfect with robust vegetables like winter squash and thick-cut portobello mushroom. Quinoa is more delicate and colorful and works well with fruit, red peppers, cheese, beans, and cucumbers. Farro's nuttiness fits somewhere in the middle. I enjoy combining it with roasted cauliflower, tomatoes, and lots of herbs.

I decided to mix these three up together and add fruit in the form of fuyu persimmons and some beans--garbanzo and edamame--for color, texture, and sweetness. I got some crunch from toasted walnuts and pecans. And I added chopped red onions--just because. The Mexican tarragon in my garden is flowering now in bright yellow. Adding them to my salad gave me a slight anise flavor and some bold color. Altogether, coated in a tangy sherry vinaigrette, this salad has been my go-to meal for several days, even with our heatwave. I know it will be a hit for Thanksgiving!

Now a word of advice, here. Combining grains doesn't at all mean cooking them together. It's a little extra work, but you must cook each grain type separately. If you don't, you risk getting mush instead of the individual textures and flavors you're after.

Also feel free to mix together your own combinations of whole grains. Consider barley, brown rice, kamut, and spelt, among others. And all sorts of other seasonal vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, and herbs will work well, too. This recipe should be inspiration to create a dish based on what you enjoy and what you find in the markets.

Three-Grain Salad with Persimmons, Beans, and Nuts
(printable recipe)
Serves 6 to 8

1/2 cup farro
1/2 cup quinoa
1/2 cup wheat berries
3 1/2 cups chicken broth (or water/vegetable broth for vegetarians)
1/ cup red onion, diced
2 Fuyu persimmons, chopped
1 cup cooked edamame beans (available at Trader Joe's)
1/2 cup cooked garbanzo beans
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
1/2 cup pecan halves, toasted
1 tablespoon Mexican tarragon, chopped

Sherry Vinaigrette
Yield: 1 cup

1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
pinch sugar
pinch salt
pinch ground pepper
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Cook each grain according to directions. For the farro and quinoa, the proportions are like rice: 2 to 1 water to grain. Bring the stock or water to the boil, add the grains, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. You're looking for the stock or water to be absorbed and the grains to still have a little chewiness. For wheat berries, it's more like 3 to 1 with a longer cooking time, more like 35 to 40 minutes. It's okay if the water isn't fully absorbed as long as the grains are cooked and are a little al dente.

In a large bowl combine the grains with the rest of the salad ingredients.

To make the vinaigrette, mix together the vinegar, mustard, garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Whisk until the dressing has emulsified. Pour enough into the salad to coat the ingredients, but not so much that in drenches it. Serve at room temperature.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Bake a Challah for Shabbat San Diego

Love a challah? You know, that sweet egg bread that's traditionally baked for Friday night Sabbath, or Shabbat, dinners in Jewish households. I'm passionate about this soft rich bread, whether broken apart at the Sabbath meal, used as sandwich bread for egg salad, or turned into French toast. My mom dries it out and uses it to make our family's beloved chestnut stuffing for Thanksgiving.

This Thursday, Nov. 10 you can take part in one of three Mega Challah Bake events. They're the kick-off events that mark Shabbat San Diego this weekend. San Diego's Jewish community will be one of 1,000 cities in 90 countries sharing a traditional Shabbat day or rest as part of the worldwide "Shabbos Project"--an event that started in 2014. Locally, that includes hosted Shabbat dinners on Friday, Nov. 11, morning services and lunch at various congregations the following day with afternoon study and lectures, and then a free Unity Havdalah Celebration Saturday evening at the San Diego Civic Theatre downtown at 7:30. The havdalah ceremony at sunset on Saturday marks the end of Shabbat.

Want to make your own challah? It's easy. It's the first bread I learned how to bake when I was a child. Traditionally, it's sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds, but you can do a egg wash with cinnamon sugar topping or incorporate raisins or other dried fruit into the dough. The only real challenge is learning how to braid it--and there are different styles for doing it, including a six-strand method. During the year, the bread is shaped into a long loaf. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year just celebrated a month ago, the dough is braided into a round loaf.

Traditional Challah
Makes 1 loaf
(printable recipe)

1 tablespoon dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup lukewarm water
2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil, plus another couple of teaspoons to oil the bowl
2 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten for wash
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds and/or poppy seeds

Dissolve the year and sugar in a bowl with the water. Let stand for 2 minutes until the yeast foams.

Add salt, oil, and eggs. Mix well. Gradually add the flour. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Knead for 7 minutes or until smooth.

Clean and oil the bowl and return the dough to it. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise about an hour or until it's close to doubled in size. Punch it down, cover it, and let it rise again for about half an hour.

Remove the dough from the bowl and braid it by separating the dough into three equal parts. Gently roll each part into a log about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the logs next to each other vertically in front of you. Starting from the top, pinch together the ends of the three logs, then gently braid them until you reach the bottom. Pinch the ends at the bottom together and tuck both ends underneath the loaf.

Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let it rise a second time for half an hour.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Remove the plastic wrap/towel and brush with the egg wash. Sprinkle the seeds. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until nicely brown.

Mega Challah Bakes will take place at:
  • San Diego Jewish Academy 6:30 pm (11860 Carmel Creek Rd) -All Welcome
  • Tifereth Israel Social Hall 6:30 pm (6660 Cowles Mountain Blvd) -All Welcome
  • Beth Jacob Social Hall 5:30 pm (4855 College Ave) -Women and Girl's Only Challah Bake

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Hammer's Pineapple Upside Down Mini Bundt Cakes

Have you heard about Kitchens for Good? I first wrote about them last February in my Close to the Source blog for Edible San Diego. They were just getting underway with their pilot 13-week culinary job training program at the Jacobs Center. The course is designed for adults 18 and older who have had various barriers to employment.

Since then they've held three sessions, with graduates either continuing to work for their catering company at the Jacobs Center or going on to take other jobs.

I thought it would be interesting to have a cook date with one of the graduates and was set up with Lorne "The Hammer" Jones. What a cool guy. Jones is currently holding down three culinary jobs--at Draft Republic, Cueva Bar, and Delaware North, a food vendor for the Chargers. "I love Kitchens for Good," he said. "I love the people. It's so cool to be back here."

Jones got his nickname as an infantry machine gunner and company gunnery sargeant in the Marines. "It's all about leadership. The tag I had was being firm, fair, and constant--like a hammer." It's a nickname that's stuck, even after he got out of service following the Gulf War. But his time as a Marine also included working part-time in restaurants, both in Hawaii and Japan, where life is expensive, especially for someone married and in the service. For Jones those restaurant jobs, particuarly during the six years he was in Japan, were a great experience.

"Everything in Japan is very precise," he recalled. "I liked that their philosophy is to be humble. It's a sign of greatness to always be learning. The moment you meet someone who knows everything, run away from them."

Jones grew up the youngest of five kids. "My way into my mom's heart was through cooking. I just loved spending with her. So, I learned from her and taught myself, eventually making meals for my family. My inspiration was the love in her face. I gained a passion for food through love."

He also was a grandma's boy, spending every weekend with her and going to church with her all day Sunday. "She was an old Baptist lady and you go in the morning, step out for awhile to socialize, then go back in--all day," he laughed. Her cooking, too, for those special Sundays inspired him.

While Jones, who graduated last September in Kitchens for Good's third class, is well trained and well versed in savory cooking, his passion is baking. So for our time together he made his version of his beloved grandmother's Pineapple Upside Down Cake, but instead making individual cakes in molded mini-bundt pans. The cakes are easy for home cooks to make and well worth the effort. They're rich like a donut. The acid and sweetness of the pineapple complement the cake and that sublime caramel. Topped by Chantilly cream and even a maraschino cherry, the cake is a cool, retro dessert that should be in everyone's repertoire.

Pineapple Upside Down Mini Bundt Cakes
From Lorne Jones
(printable recipe)
Yield: 18 mini bundt cakes

For the batter
2/3 cup soft unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups of sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/3 cups of all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/3 cups milk
2, 20-ounce cans of pineapple rings, drained (10 rings per can)

For the caramel topping
1 stick of unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups of brown sugar

For the Chantilly cream
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Maraschino cherries to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 350°.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add butter and brown sugar. Slowly beat until thoroughly blended. Add the first egg and wait until it’s mixed in before adding the second egg. Once it’s incorporated, stop the mixing process and scrape down the bowl. Then add the third and fourth eggs, waiting in between until the third is fully incorporated. Add vanilla. Stop and scrape the bowl again.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Little by little add the flour mixture to the wet mixture. Alternate with adding the milk. When everything is fully blended and the batter slowly slides off a spatula it’s ready.

Fill three gallon-size plastic storage bags with the batter—fill each one about half way. Use twine to tie each off at the top above the batter. Set aside.

To make the caramel, add the stick of butter to a pan and slowly melt over low heat. When it’s almost melted add the brown sugar. Stir and heat low and slow—don’t bring the mixture to a boil. When it just starts to simmer, remove it from the heat and stir.

Pour about a tablespoon of the caramel into each mini bundt pan. Place one pineapple ring on top of the caramel in each pan. Pick up one of the batter bags and cut off the tip, about half an inch. Carefully pipe batter on top of each pineapple ring to about halfway up the mini bundt pan. When that’s empty, use the second and so on until you’ve filled all the pans. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes. Using a toothpick, insert in the center of one or two to make sure they’re fully baked. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

While the cakes are baking, make the Chantilly cream. In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the whipping cream. Turn on the mixer and slowly bring up the speed to whip. Once the cream becomes frothy and soft peaks form, slowly add the powdered sugar. Then add the vanilla. Continue whipping until you have fluffy stiff peaks. Cut the tip off a large plastic storage bag. Insert a star piping tip. Carefully spoon Chantilly cream into the bag. Refrigerate until ready to use.

When the cakes are finished baking, remove them from the oven. Turn the parchment-lined sheet pan over the cakes and quickly flip them so the cakes rest on the parchment right-side up. Let cool. To plate, place a cake on a dessert plate. Pipe the Chantilly cream into the hole in the center of the cake. Top with a maraschino cherry. Serve.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Forget the Candy! Make a Traditional Irish Brambrack!

With Halloween approaching, U.S. adults are filling up on ginormous bags of candy to give out to trick or treaters. If we're having a party, there may be candied apples or popcorn balls to eat. But if you're in Ireland, what you're probably enjoying is brambrack.

Why should we care about Ireland? Well, that nation, with its Celtic history, gave us what is now Halloween. It began centuries ago with Samhain, an end-of-harvest festival celebrated on October 31 with bonfires meant to burn out old spirits. People would wear ugly masks to confuse spirits and make noise to frighten them away from their homes. They might also leave food out to appease them.

Eventually, as Christianity spread through Europe, during the eighth century the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day (All Hallows) to commemorate those saints who did not have a specific day of remembrance. The night before was known as All Hallows Eve. And that, over time, became known as Halloween. 

Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe invited me over to learn how to make one of the most cherished of Irish Halloween traditions, brambrack, a dense bread/cake filled with dried fruit soaked in whiskey. In fact, "bram" comes from the old English word "beorma," or fermented. Brack comes from "brac," or speckled (from the colors of the fruit).

Maeve recently visited O'Hara's Bread Bakery in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. She told me that the bakery makes 2,400 loaves an hour for weeks in anticipation of Halloween. Traditionally, the breads would include little tokens that foretold the future for the person eating it--coins for good fortune, toy rings for marriage, and even death tokens. 

While brambrack is a yeast bread, many, including Maeve's Aunt Margaret, make it without yeast (with eight children, she didn't have time for rising). So that's what Maeve made me. She used baking soda instead and the extra benefit is that you get a stronger crust. This bread is also made with cold black tea.

Now, ideally, you'll bake these bread/cakes in 7-inch cast-iron pans. But you can also make one large one in a Dutch oven. It just may take longer to cook.

While she was making the bread, Maeve also showed me some cool baking tips. First, she likes to refrigerate lemons she's going to zest. That, she said, helps separate the peel from the pith. When mixing the dry ingredients, she uses a spatula and with it folds the ingredients together so that more air gets into the mixture. She keeps an extra bowl of flour around that she dips her blending hand in both to keep the wet mixture from sticking to her hands and to better collect the excess so that there's no waste when she turns the dough into the baking pans.

Once the dough was divided into the pans, Maeve showed me two options for the top of the loaf. One was to just leave it alone (photo above) for a more rustic look. The other was to lightly spread hot water on the top with her fingers for a smooth look (photo below). She also said you could do an egg wash on the top. Just know that with either water or an egg wash, the rise won't be quite as high because of the weight of the liquid.

When the loaves are done, look for a horizontal crack in each. Surprise, that's actually a good thing.

You also don't need to wait for the loaves to cool. When you remove them from the oven, carefully flip the pans to release the brambrack, slice and serve with really good butter and jam. And a cup of Irish tea. That's what I had and, oh, I could have eaten the whole loaf. The bread is dense but not fruit cake dense. Just nice and solid with punches of sweetness from the fruit. Slathered with soft butter and jam, it was the perfect cool weather treat with a cup of Irish breakfast tea.

Tea Brambrack
from Maeve Rochford of Sugar and Scribe
Makes 2, 7-inch loaves or 1 large loaf


2 cups whiskey
2 cups dried fruit (raisins, apricots, figs, cherries)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of half a lemon (refrigerate the lemon the day before to improve zest)
1 1/2 cups cold black tea
1/4 cup melted salted butter, plus another 1/4 cup more to butter the cast iron pans
1/4 cup milk
Extra all-purpose flour 


Mix together the whiskey and dried fruit and let the fruit soak in the whiskey for two days before making the loaves.

To make the loaves, preheat conventional oven to 350°. Put extra all-purpose flour in a bowl just large enough for you to dip a hand in. Coat the cast iron pan/s with butter. Set aside.

In a large bowl, fold together all dry ingredients using a spatula. Smash any lumps of brown sugar. Mix well. Add the lemon zest. Add the tea and melted butter. Mix ingredients.

About three-quarters of the way done mixing, add the milk and stir it in.

Drain the whiskey from the fruit and add the fruit to the mixture.

Put away the spatula and dip your hand into the extra flour. Then use that hand to fold in the fruit and finish blending the dough, turning it into a ball. It will be wet, which is what you want.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. If you're making a large brambrack, it could take up to an hour. Test the loaf at 45 minutes. When baked, remove from oven, flip the pans to release the breads, slice, and serve.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Buttermilk Brined Chicken

Those of you who know me know that I've come to love making my own butter, especially cultured butter. But what to do with the residual buttermilk?

Sure, you can incorporate buttermilk into sweet breads, pies, and cakes, make pancakes with it, dunk chicken into it to make fried chicken. In fact, there are endless things you can do with buttermilk. But with only one cup at a time... well, I thought about it and decided that with the amount of chicken I make for myself for a couple of meals I could use it for brining.

Now I actually don't usually brine chicken--or turkey for that matter. I guess I'm a lazy cook. But the thought of the chicken thighs and wings bathing for 24 hours in that buttermilk, augmented with some salt and pepper, some garlic, and my favorite smoky Aleppo pepper was irresistible.

It's easy enough to pull all these ingredients together and pour them over the chicken. I started out with them in a casserole dish but realized that a gallon zip-lock bag would be much better for full immersion. In the course of the day, I periodically reached into the fridge and flipped the bag around to make sure the pieces were equally saturated.

Once I was ready to cook them, I heated the oven to 400° and drained the brine, and placed the chicken pieces on a rack over a foil-covered tray. I roasted them for close to an hour, ultimately slicking down the chicken  with honey for the last 10 minutes before removing the tray from the oven.

What the buttermilk brine did was sublime. The chicken was beautifully tender. The flavors were subtle--a hint of the garlic and Aleppo pepper remained--and the skin crispy and sweet from the honey.

I'd love to hear how you use buttermilk! Leave me your ideas in the comments below!

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