Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kale and Cremini Mushroom Greenwheat Freekah Pilaf

We are enjoying a whole grains revolution. Not only is the public becoming enthralled with whole wheat breads, quinoa salads, and brown rice sushi rolls, but we're being introduced to a plethora of flavorful ancient grains whose names still mystify a wide swath of consumers. Cookbook after new cookbook is coming out with recipes for grains like spelt, farro, wheat berries, and amaranth, and vendors are showcasing them on market shelves. But it doesn't take much namedropping to underscore how much education still needs to be done.

Raw greenwheat freekah
A case in point would be greenwheat freekah. I posted a short note on Facebook last weekend that I was making a pilaf with this for dinner with my parents and friends responded with a big virtual, "Huh?"

So, let's talk freekah. This is less a grain than a process which originated in the Middle East centuries ago in which grains are harvested while still green and then slow roasted in the hull. In this case, it's called greenwheat freekah because the freekah is made with young wheat kernels. It's reminiscent of farro and barley, with a nutty, grassy flavor and hearty, toothy texture.

I was sent an eight-ounce package of greenwheat freekah by Indian Harvest. What I love about it, along with the flavor and the fact that it cooks up in all of 20 minutes, is that it's so ridiculously healthy. It's low in fat, low carb with a low-glycemic index, high in fiber (a single serving has seven grams of dietary fiber), and is a prebiotic.

Cooked greenwheat freekah
Greenwheat freekah is as versatile as rice, even if it's more earthy, so it's an easy substitute for many of your favorite rice-based recipes. This time of year, mix it up with winter squash, crispy bacon, sauteed greens, fresh apples and pears, dried fruit, toasted nuts, or mushrooms. In warmer weather, turn it into a salad with fresh herbs, shrimp, berries, or figs.

With a full vegetable bin in the fridge, I decided to make a pilaf using kale, crimini mushrooms, and herbs. It was easy to put together and absolutely delicious.

Kale and Cremini Mushroom Greenwheat Freekah Pilaf
(printable recipe here)
Makes six servings

1 cup greenwheat freekah
1 3/4 cups water or stock
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup onions, chopped
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 bunch kale, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as sage, oregano, or Mexican tarragon
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring water or stock to a boil. Stir in the freekah. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit covered for 10 minutes.

2. While the freekah is simmering, heat a large saute pan or wok. Add oil and let warm up. Reduce the heat and add the garlic and onions. Let them cook slowly until almost caramelized. Add mushrooms and cook until softened. Add kale and herbs. Cook until wilted. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

3. Add the cooked freekah and mix thoroughly. Serve.

Kale and Cremini Mushroom Greenwheat Freekah Pilaf
You can order freekah online from vendors like Indian Harvest, but also try your local Whole Foods, Jimbo's, and even Trader Joe's to see if they stock it. And, there's a wonderful website from The Whole Grains Council that's a great source of information.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kitchenability 101: A Cookbook for College Students

When I was at UCLA and living in a tiny dorm room at Rieber Hall with a roommate, dining revolved around the student meal plan and our illicit popcorn maker. I know we had a mini fridge but I can't remember what we put in it. Probably beer, of course, but I think there was butter for the popcorn and perhaps some fruit. It never occurred to me to try to cook in my room; that's what the meal plan was for. And it showed; I gained that inevitable freshman 15.

I don't have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, three of whom are in college and two who are rapidly approaching it. And Nisa Burns' Kitchenability 101: The College Student's Guide to Easy, Healthy, and Delicious Food ($17.95, Kitchenability Press) would be a worthy gift for any of them.

Burns calls herself the "Chef of a New Generation" and she's not much older than the kids she's writing for. A graduate of the Art Institute of Virginia Beach, she's been cooking since she was five years old--something I can relate to--so she brings a joy and commitment to kitchen independence that translates into easy, mostly healthy, and winning dishes.

The first thing to appreciate in the book--as opposed to a more traditional cookbook--is that the recipes are designed to appeal to and be appropriate for a college audience who may have nothing more than the dorm room mini fridge or a limited kitchen space--and budget. So some recipes are not much more than elevated PB&J sandwiches or yogurt mixed with fruit.

However, Burns does ease her readers into homemade dishes that are the first step to a more sophisticated kitchen experience that includes exposure to ingredients some college kids may not have had or refused at Mom's table. Her Lemon Cilantro Chicken is all of six ingredients: olive oil, garlic, lemons, cilantro, salt, pepper, and chicken breasts. But Burns subtly teaches her readers how to marinate proteins and poach the chicken in the marinade to cook it and create a sauce. Not bad.

There's Asparagus with Balsamic Vinegar, Gnocchi with Pesto, Feta-Spiked Turkey Burgers, and even homemade Chicken Soup for the Tummy. Plus, there are a slew of breakfast dishes, party dishes, snacks, desserts, and drinks. Yes, some come from mixes or packages (think semi-homemade), but you have to start somewhere.

Additionally, Burns coaches her readers on kitchen basics--everything from what equipment, spices, and utensils to have on hand to how to dice an onion. In fact, QR codes scattered through the book lead to short videos accessible via cell phone or tablet to show how to shop a supermarket aisle or chop that onion.

Kitchenability is well conceived and mostly well delivered. I have a few quibbles with some of the cooking directions in the recipes, which could be clearer--especially for kitchen novices. But the recipes are appealing and lean toward the healthy and budget friendly. It's a good start toward independence.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Kokopelli Tacos de Mariscos

Last weekend I attended the Batalla Culinaria that was part of Tijuana Innovadora 2012. Think Iron Chef, Mexican style with two teams of four chefs from both sides of the border participating.

As much fun as it was, the only folks who got to sample the food were the judges and I wasn't one of them. By the time the event ended--close to 2 p.m.--I was famished. The group I was with from San Diego headed out to return home, but our guide, event volunteer Genaro Valladolid, made a brilliant stop--at the street taco vendor Kokopelli.

Run by three graduates of the Culinary Art Institute in Tijuana, the permanent stand with the Baja vibe opened just last December and sells eight types of seafood tacos, plus a vegetarian one made with Portobello mushrooms--all on average for about $2 apiece. They also spice it up with a variety of sauces and other housemade condiments, like pickled onions.

Oso (yes, he goes by just that name, apparently), started us off--or perhaps tested us--with this queso fresco "surprise" taco.

Now, look closely on the right. No, you can't really see what it is. So, here's one that's open:

Look again. Yes, those are fried crickets nestled among the cheese and avocado slices. And, yes, I was that hungry. It looks bizarre but it was a delicious taco. (Actually, it turns out he thought our group was another called Club Tengo Hambre that was also there. No matter; it was fun.)

Now, while none of the rest of the tacos are what we'd think of as traditional, none of the rest had ingredients that most Americans would find particularly, well, off putting. In fact, the cooks of Kokopelli have a wonderfully deft and creative approach to the taco and the flavors are remarkable.

Oso sauteeing shrimp
Take, for example, the chewy octopus marinated in Mexican pesto or the shrimp in adobo. Or the Rasta, shrimp cooked in chimichuri with black olives.

There's a crispy corn tortilla smothered in a sole or flounder ceviche with squid ink and Asian spices that many in our group ravished (believing it was lengua).

My favorite, however, turned out to be the "Poblano," smoked marlin mixed in cream with corn and mushrooms, stuffed in a grilled red poblano chile, and topped with avocado slices. It felt and tasted rich and decadent.

Kokopelli is a pure street experience, including a random street guitarist playing, what else, La Bamba. You can find it open on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Calle Ocampo, between Blvd. Agua Caliente and Calle 11 in downtown Tijuana.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

African Restaurant Week

San Diego has a growing community of Ethiopian, Kenyan, Eritrean, and Somali immigrants. And where there are expats, there is of course, their food. Beginning Oct. 19 and going on through Oct. 28, the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association is holding African Restaurant Week to showcase African restaurants along El Cajon Blvd.-- mostly in City Heights.

Seven restaurants will be participating: Awash, Asmara, Fatuma, Red Sea, Flavors of East Africa, Laylah's Patties & Jerk, and Island Spice. And meals are a huge deal at $15 for a prixe fixe meal of appetizer, main course, and dessert.

The kick-off to the celebration begins on Oct. 19 at the WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park at 2100 Park Blvd. Beginning at 6:30, there will be a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony and drum call, followed by an Ethiopian beer and wine tasting, and "Taste of African Cuisine" from each of the seven participating restaurants. At 8 p.m. the World Beat Center's chef will host a free African vegetarian cooking class. The evening ends with a performance of African music. Admission is $10. Call 619-283-3608 to register for the cooking class.

Finally, various restaurants will host free cooking classes on week nights, as well as African dance and music on the weekends. Check www.africanfoodsd.com for more information.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beautiful Sundara: Indian-Inspired Food Hits the Beach Crowd

Adam Lowe and Nick Leibman, two of the new Indian restaurant Sundara's four partners are a little self-conscious about what they do. After all, as Lowe jokes, "What are two white guys doing starting an Indian restaurant?" But, they--and their partners Chris Geremia and Andrea Horning--have done just that.

Chicken tikka masala
Sundara--which means "beautiful" in Sanskrit--is a pop-up restaurant located evenings at the Pt. Loma Beach Cafe on Sunset Cliffs. Opened since late June, the menu is essentially modeled on British curry houses.

"I can't claim a vast knowledge of regional Indian food," says Lowe, the restaurant's chef, who is trained as an engineer but also has his MBA from USD. "Our menu is very specific and meshes with curry houses found in Britain, New Zealand, and Australia."

Lowe got the idea to open an Indian restaurant several years ago after moving to Ocean Beach. "I had fallen in love with Indian food and couldn't believe there were no Indian restaurants here. I mean this is a hippie, vegetarian community."

Realizing he had no desire for a traditional 9 to 5 gig, he had been searching around for entrepreneurial ideas. When he made the connection with Indian food, he felt he had his calling--but he'd never worked in a restaurant. So, he got a job as a runner at Bombay to learn the business.

"The restaurant had its issues, but it was a great experience. I learned about operations and learned about what's popular on Indian menus." He also spent time working at Pizza Nova, a place he calls "a shining example of how restaurants should be run--smooth, orderly, and clean." And, he worked for Hanis Cavin at Kensington Grill. Cavin, he says, has been hugely supportive of the restaurant idea, even walking him through Pt. Loma Beach Cafe and advising him, "Dude, go for it."

All the while Lowe was working at the restaurants, he says in his off time he was making curries in his tiny apartment kitchen. "My main source for recipes and inspiration was Madjur Jaffrey, he acknowledges. "But I used a lot of cookbooks and adapted recipes. At the end of the day, it's just trial, trial, and trial--redoing, taking bits and pieces from different recipes until you get it right."

He also studied restaurant menus online, learning what the common items were so he could focus his menu. Eventually, he and his partners pulled together the money needed to launch the business, which opened June 27.

Tikka Masala, not surprisingly, is the most popular item on the menu. But while the menu is small, Sundara offers just enough variety for diners to feel they have choices--without being overwhelmed.

There are three curries. The Tikka Masala is a traditional tomato-based curry infused with lemon, ginger, and other herbs and spices. The Vindaloo is a richly spiced red chili and garlic stew.

Chicken vindaloo with sesame naan
And the Saag is a luscious spinach and onion curry, served with paneer, cubes of firm Indian cow's milk cheese. All of the curries have the options of being made with either mixed vegetables, chicken, or paneer.

Saag with chunks of paneer
Sundara also offers two vegetarian curries--Channa Masala, a spiced garbanzo bean stew, and the lentil-based Dal Makhani. And, of course, there is Tandoori chicken, three skinless chicken legs per order that have been marinated for 24 hours in lemon, herbs, and yogurt, then roasted in their clay tandoori oven. Yes, they have one.

You can also enjoy housemade naan--either plain or with garlic and cilantro or sesame. And there are a few appetizers--papadum, crisp toasted lentil crackers, a tart raita with yogurt, cucumber, and spices; and both tamarind and mint chutney (see recipe below).

Crispy papadum with raita and chutneys
The prices are very reasonable. The highest priced menu items are the curries, which top out at $8.50. With these you get a serving of basmati rice.

Of course, what it comes down to are the flavors. This is pure Indian comfort food. Lowe and Horning, who cooks with him, create rich, spicy dishes that have powerful flavor profiles. Most satisfying is that the dishes with chicken--using white meat--are wonderfully tender, thanks to a 24-hour marinade in yogurt that tenderizes the flesh. What also helps is that each dish is plated--even while using solid take-out containers--with visual appeal. Lowe acknowledges that he had given this a lot of thought.

"Most stews look horrible on a plate. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a good presentation and came up with spreading the basmati rice on both sides of the container and settling the curry in between, then adding simple garnishes to the rice."

It works. In fact, the whole operation works. Most of the food is prepped off-site in a rented kitchen space, then brought over nightly and made to order at the restaurant. The clay oven is outside in the back and it's a kick to watch the naan baked in less than a minute and pulled out hot and steaming.

Naan cooking in the clay oven
Pulling the garlic mint naan from the clay oven
Liebman runs the front of the house as well as the business end and Jeremiah, says Lowe, is the glue that holds the operation together, whether it's helping with prep or anything else that needs to get down. The result is a well-run restaurant that attends to customer needs and serves delicious, Indian-inspired food.

Here's Lowe's recipe for his spicy mint chutney.

Spicy Mint Chutney
from Sundara
(printable recipe)

Makes about 24 ounces

1 bunch mint, leaves only
2 bunches cilantro, leaves and stems
3/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 fresh serrano chilies
2 tablespoons fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 cup yogurt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until you get the desired consistency.

Tip: It works best to add the yogurt last, as the weight on top of the leaves makes for easier blending. These quantities fill a large processor bowl, so you may want to cut the recipe in half.

Sundara is located at 1424 Sunset Cliffs Blvd. It's open every evening but Tuesday from 5 to 10 p.m. Eat in, take-out, and delivery available.

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