Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stuffed Fresh Foraged Grape Leaves

A problem you might have, if you're me, is that as people are barely just tasting whatever it is you've made, you're already saying, "Right? Is that not the best thing you ever ate?" and so when they go on to compliment you, you can never be sure of authenticity. That said, these are the best thing anyone ever ate, and I know because after asked, everyone agreed.
I am a little wild-grape obsessed, it is true. Come fall, I cannot go anywhere without sniffing the air. Do you smell that? The grapes? And then I have to wade into this or that tangle of vines and poison ivy to harvest the giant purple clusters or, more often, the small, shriveled and bug-infested clusters, which make everyone's lips itch raw, so I boil them up into the jam that we eat all year long. 

I love them so much. The dizzyling sweet smell, the color in the pot, even the tingle on my lips if I grab and eat a grape or two as I jog past them on the bike path.
Birdy, harvesting grape leaves. Secure a helper, and you'll fill your bag in no time.
But, while I have eyeballed them somewhat regularly, I have never used the leaves before this year. And that has all changed. Come June, you will never again find me not making dolmas with fresh wild grape leaves, because a) free food, and b) they are simply unbelievably fabulous and fun to make. It turns out that the dolmas taste? That you thought was, maybe, inherent in the can or in your Greek deli? That's the grape leaves themselves! Tangy and green-tasting and just the tiniest bit grapey, unless that was our imagination. And we looked at a million recipes to cobble together the perfect filling: arborio rice, toasted pine nuts, dried fruit, browned onions, dill, mint. A little savory and sweet and herby, a little tart and earthy. We are not snobs: We love the dolmas that come in a can, but these are better.
We made them once with sour cherries and once with golden raisins. I loved them both, but thought the sweetness of the raisins better balanced the finished dolmas, rather than the tart-on-tart of the cherries. Others disagreed. Your call.
We made them twice in three days, and will make them again and again, until the leaves get too tough to use, which will probably be the middle of July, depending on the heat and rain situation. 

Edited to add: this is more of a PROJECT than a recipe, which some readers found out the hard way. Sorry, Cathy!
So, if you live in the northeast or the midwest, now is the time. This is one of the best projects ever--and kind of weirdly not that fussy. (That can't be true, but that really is how it felt. Maybe because we always sit down to do stuffing-and-filling projects, like dumplings or these.) Birdy and I harvested the leaves in the woods behind our house, on the bike path near us, but we have seen them everywhere, including in lots of people's yards! 
Even just within walking distance from our house, we found and picked three completely different shaped grape leaves. I would say the middle shape is the most common around here.
There's great information here about how to identify and harvest them, and there's good information here about how to prepare them. If you aren't sure whether you'd looking at grape leaves or not, you can just wait until the fall, see if grapes grow there, and then make a mental note to look again next June. You want to pick leaves that are large enough the stuff and sturdy enough to not fall apart, but still tender-feeling so that they won't be tough and/or stringy. It's a little bit of trial and error! While you're picking, be sure to pick plenty of too-small, too-tough, too-large, or too-bug-bitten leaves, since you'll need those to line the pan.


Stuffed Fresh Foraged Grape Leaves
If you used jarred grape leaves, these would doubtless still be completely excellent and worth your while, even though you will never find a cheaper thrill than foraging. (Lots of process photos below.)

For the leaves:
20-24 perfect-ish grape leaves (These should be around 5 or 6 inches at their widest point, but smaller or larger is fine too!) plus 12-20 more imperfect ones for lining and sealing the baking dish
4 cups water
1 cup kosher salt

Trim the stems off the grape leaves and pick off any visible bugs. Bring the water and salt to a boil and boil the grape leaves, twelve at a time, just until they all change from green to khaki (5-20 seconds). Pull them out of the water with tongs, and plunge them into a sink filled with cold water and ice. When all the leaves are boiled and cooled, lay them on dish towels to dry off a bit, or gently wring them dry and spread them flat. They will (I think because of the salt?) feel sort of weirdly crisp at this point, and that's fine. I do not know why you blanch them in brine, but that's what some old Greek lady said to do, so that's what I do. I should try blanching them in plain water to see if there's a difference. Prepare the imperfect leaves the same way, but put them in a different spot so you can keep track of them.

For the filling:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped (around 1 ½ cups)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup pine nuts
1 cup arborio rice, rinsed
¼ cup dried sour cherries or golden raisins, finely chopped (or 1/4 cup currants)
½ cup water
¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint (or 1 teaspoon dried, added with the rice)
Black pepper

Heat the oil in a wide pan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and salt and sauté until the onion is tender, translucent, and just starting to brown, around 7 or 8 minutes. Add the pine nuts and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the rice and sauté for another 5 minutes, until the rice looks a little translucent around the edges. Add the cherries and water and cook until the water is absorbed, 5-10 minutes (the rice will not be cooked through). Turn off the heat and stir in the herbs and pepper.

Heat the oven to 325 and grease a 7- by 12-inch (or similar-sized). Line the pan with a layer of prepared grape leaves (your worst ones), which will keep the dolmas from burning.

One at a time, lay a grape leaf on your work surface, dark side down and with the stem end facing you. Lay a heaping tablespoon of filling near the stem end. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, then roll the leaf up tightly, tucking in the sides as you go (this is exactly the same as making a burrito and quite similar to swaddling a baby). Lay the filled leaf, seam-side down, in the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling, fitting the dolmas snugly in the pan. Stop when you run out of room in the pan, which should be around the time you run out of leaves and filling. (In truth, both times I had a little extra filling, which I cooked up with more water until the rice was tender, and which the kids ate like it was risotto and declared delicious.)

Pour over the dolmas a mixture of 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ cup lemon juice, and ¼ cup olive oil, then lay the remaining imperfect grape leaves over the top, tucking in the sides like the dolmas are going to bed. Cover the pan tightly with foil, put it in the heated oven, and bake for 1 hour, at which point most or all of the liquid should be absorbed. Even if it's not, this is probably a good time to check and see if they're done, which they probably are.

Leave the dolmas to rest under all their wrappings for half an hour or so, then serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with lemon slices, if you like.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sublime Chickpea Crackers

I was going to call these Chick-Cracks. But then. 

Because I like to put out a lot of dips and cheese, and because we have a lot of family and friends who, for different reasons, avoid grains and/or gluten, I am always rethinking the cracker situation. 

Sometimes I’m just like, “Fuck it,” and I cave and buy the Mary’s Gone Crackers even though they cost $100 for eleven crackers. And sometimes I make a copycat Mary’s Gone Crackers recipe, which, while totally excellent, requires that you cook both rice and quinoa, and that you then press each little spoonful of dough flat with the bottom of a glass. Plus, you can only bake, like, six crackers at a time. I certainly look forward to making them constantly in retirement, but it’s just not the right recipe for this moment of my life.

Crackers, crackers, blah blah. Birdy graduated from elementary school. More crackers, less feeling feelings! Also, by the way, Reader who doesn't like how my kids look and dress and thinks to comment on it? There is a whole world of blogs out there! Maybe find one that better aesthetically suits you?
I have walked Birdy to school every day for the past 7 years, and I took pictures on our last-ever walk. We spent the walk like we always do, nibbling weeds and talking about how much we love the walk, and how funny it is that that's what we always talk about. She's joining Ben at his fabulous performing-arts charter school, and I'm psyched for her. But it is possible that at the end of my life, I'll look back and decide that this--walking Ben and Birdy, and then just Birdy to school--was the single best part of it. Crackers. 
Thus, these. I am in love with these crackers. In love! 

Wait, are we crackers? I thought we were peppers.
For one thing, they are the easiest—they are ready to go into the oven before the oven is preheated, that’s how easy. For another, I love how they taste. I’ve been seasoning them with cumin and garlic, so that they taste like a cross between falafel and poppadom, and they are crazily good and go perfectly with the middle-eastern dips I’ve been making. I’ve also seasoned them with caraway, which I love, and of course you could go the dried herb route with rosemary and/or you can add more seeds or onion or whatever you like. They are so insanely good that everybody wants the recipe—although, full disclosure, that might be because I keep saying, “Aren’t these so insanely good that you want the recipe?” But they seriously are. I no longer make them because they’re gluten-free.

The crackers are shown here with muhammara, a crazily good red-pepper-walnut-pomegranate dip. I used Heidi Swanson’s recipe, but substituted (gluten-free) almond meal for the breadcrumbs, and added a crushed clove of garlic, a la Ana Sortun in her book Spice. Garnished with walnuts and mint.

Not a great shot, no. But I brought the crackers to a party on a big wooden board, with a trio of dips, and I loved how it all looked. Besides the muhammara, I made the crazy-delicious Beet Tzatziki and the good Warm Buttered Hummus, both from Ana Sortun's book.
Michael doing clean-up crew on the muhammara blender.
Happy summer! Or almost summer.  xo

Sublime Chickpea Crackers
I lifted the bones of this recipe from here via here. Process shots are below. I usually double the recipe and bake two sheets at a time because WE CANNOT GET ENOUGH.
*Edited to add: I have since made these, the exact same way, substituting almond flour for the chickpea flour. They were delicious! More fragile and not as crunchy as the chickpea version, but excellent in their own nutty way. I'm wondering if you could use pretty much any kind of flour. I'm throwing away my rolling pin!

3 tablespoons ground flax seed

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons water

1 cup chickpea flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon each cayenne and black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt for sprinkling

Heat the oven to 350 and line a large baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat. I have only done these with the mat. If you have, or prefer to use, neither of these things, you could try cooking spray, but with straight-up oiling the pan, I feel like they’ll stick.

Stir the flax into the water (I do this right in the measuring cup) and leave it to thicken while you measure the dry ingredients.

Use a fork to mix together the dry ingredients, then add the flax water and olive oil and mix well.

Scrape the batter onto the prepared pan and spread it as thinly and evenly as you can. I use an off-set spatula for this, which makes life easy, but the first time I made them, I used my own wet fingers and it went medium. I think that a plain old butter knife might be a reasonable middle ground. Sprinkle the batter with coarse salt and then put them in the middle of the oven to bake. Or put them in the oven, then remember you forgot to sprinkle them with coarse salt, and pull them out quickly.

Bake the crackers until they are browned at the edges and golden all over and (you will have to surmise) crisp. This will take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. Check them at 15, and then watch them carefully: mine lift the mat up at the corners, and get nice and deeply golden, except where I didn’t spread the batter thin enough.

Leave the crackers to cool on the pan for about twenty minutes or so, then break them into pieces. If some of the crackers break not with the a nice snap but with, instead, an unsatisfying cakey tearing, leave those ones on the pan and pop them back into the (turned-off) oven for a while. I find that the residual heat from the oven is perfect for crisping up the stubborn spongy ones. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Buffalo Beans (Because: Beans for dinner! Again!)

I know, I know. Buffalo and beans: my two favorite things! [Cue Etta James singing "At Last."] If it's not the buffalo wings, it's the buffalo cauliflower. If it's not the classic bean feast, it's the other beans or the other other beans. But for some reason, even though I tend to lavish my beans with hot sauce, I have never thought of thunking in a nice big knob of butter to do its magic Buffalo work.

But let me back up, because this isn't my own recipe, and it's not actually called Buffalo Beans. It's Orangette's, and it's called Creamy Beans, and she writes about them here. (You can trust her, because she is also a serious bean eater.) But let me back up again, because I didn't find the recipe myself; it was given to me, over and over again, by my friend Reyna, whom I've met only once, on a Facebook group I'm part of called What's for Dinner? that's made up of some number of women I don't know who log in at around 4 or 7 every day to say that they're making steak or stirfry or (more often than not) something with canned chickpeas (ahem). Or to say that they couldn't deal and got Chinese take-out or pizza or froyo. Or to say that their kids aren't home, so they're having wine for dinner or Pringles or wine and Pringles and candy and vodka. And sometimes the food they made was great and easy; it was terrible and easy; it was complex and fun; it was crushingly a pain, and they'll never make it again and the kids ran from the table crying and hid under the cellar stairs. I love my Facebook group and Reyna mentioned these beans enough times, and proselytizingly, that I finally made them.

And I'm so glad I did because we unanimously loved them. I think I was supposed to cook them until they were creamier, but I loved them like this: burstingly plump beans, butter-rich and Frank's-tangy, like the punchline of a dirty joke about pintos and Buffalo wings. The recipe is for canned beans, but I pressure-cooked dry beans, because a) that's how I roll, b) they're cheaper, c) they're so, so good. But make them with canned: Orangette herself and everybody on Facebook likes them like that, and what could be easier? Typically, for the Bean Feast, I put out a million bowls of toppings such as diced avocado, cilantro, feta, lime wedges, good olive oil, and chopped onions, but for these I just put out some shredded cheese along with all the odds of pickled beets and pickled broccoli I was looking to be rid of. I wouldn't change a thing. Simple perfection. I will make them again (and, I'm sure, again).

Buffalo Beans
Adapted from Orangette's Creamy Beans. She includes an optional minced garlic clove that you can add with the butter and hot sauce, which I didn't try. She also recommends using pinto or black beans, but I've only made this with pinto. FinallY: she also has a note about the canned bean liquid being gross, and she knows that, but you really need to use it and it is OKAY.

4 (15-ounce) undrained cans of pinto or black beans (or 2 cups dried beans cooked, ideally in a pressure cooker in salted water, until tender)
4 tablespoons butter (I used salted because I gotta be me)
Frank’s Red Hot sauce

Pour the beans and their liquid into a medium saucepan. (If you’re using home-cooked beans, keep them in the pot and just pour off all but an inch or so of the liquid. Salt the beans if you haven’t already.) Stir to mix. Place over medium-high heat, and bring just to a simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened and looks creamy and the beans are very tender, maybe even falling apart, about ½ to 1 hour.