Friday, February 27, 2015

Cauliflower Con Queso Soup

Cauliflower Con Queso soup was a naturally evolved creation from a spicy cheese sauce for broccoli and cauliflower, which in its turn, evolved from dipping fresh vegetable crudites into a Mexican queso dip back in the 1980's  And though our hairstyles have changed since then, the appeal of this particular taste combination has not.  A recipe for potage, a creamy French soup, provides a silky foundation and the ensuing pas de deux or tango of tastes created by combining French and Mexican dishes was an easy step and a personal favorite.  But I didn't know that it would become my mother's favorite; in fact it became one of her table staples and at each subsequent visit to Mom's I filled up her freezer with  plastic containers of "cauliflower soup".   I am a fan of this vegetable immigrant from the Middle East and like me, you may be attracted to anything "cauliflower".   That would include my daughter....since her name means cauliflower in Arabic she was a star at the produce stands in Jordan!  The vendors were delighted to learn her name, flattered that Americans would give their child an Arab name, and would often present her with a free head of cauliflower - she was too young to be offended.  I can't imagine any of them suggesting that she resembled her name for she was a beautiful child.  Luckily, her name also means rose, but I don't remember anyone ever offering her a flower. And although she does like to eat it, I'm not sure she would be flattered by a comparison to it. The addition of crunchy fried flour tortilla strips as a garnish to the soup and a sprinkle of fresh cheddar on top might help to ease the sting of such an insult! 

Cauliflower Con Queso Soup:
5 tab. butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head of cauliflower, cored and broken into florettes
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
3 cups rich chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup salsa, mild or medium, to taste
1 1/2 cup milk or half and half
3 tab. flour
6 ounces American processed cheese
1  cup shredded colby jack cheese
4 flour tortillas, cut into 1 inch strips

-Melt butter in large soup pot. Saute onions, carrots and cauliflower in butter until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pour chicken stock over vegetables, cover pot and simmer until cauliflower is very soft, about 30 minutes.  Let soup cool for about 15 minutes.  Remove about 1 cup of cauliflower florettes and place the rest of the vegetables and broth in a blender and puree until very smooth.

-Melt another 2 tablespoons butter in bottom of soup pot.  Stir in flour with whisk until smooth and cook over medium high heat until roux is smooth and bubbly, about 1 minute.  Stir in milk and bring to a boil until thickened, stirring frequently over medium high heat. Remove from heat, add cheese and stir in until melted.

-Return pureed soup to pot with milk/cheese sauce and stir in salsa.  Heat soup through stirring frequently.  Stir in reserved cauliflower.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

-Heat 1/3 cup canola oil in small saute pan and fry tortilla strips in batches until crisp and golden.

-Serve soup in individual serving bowls and garnish with a sprinkle of grated colby jack cheddar cheese and tortilla strips.

Persnickety P.S.
**Freezes well.
**A soup is only as rich as its base, so take the time to make sure the base, the chicken broth, is flavorful.  In a hierarchy of best flavored bases, the bottom spot goes to the lowly bouillon cube which is often bland and relies on salt for the weak flavor it imparts and at top of the list is a rich homemade stock.  But our lives are often governed by practicality so take what you have on hand and the next time you make soup, try one of the other options and compare the tasty results!

             Flavor Hierarchy of Chicken Bases for Soup:

                   1st Place:    Homemade Stock
                   2nd Place:  "Better than Bouillon" paste
                   3rd Place:   Boxed Chicken Stock
                   4th Place:   Boxed Chicken Broth
                   5th Place:   Chicken Bouillon Cubes
                                        (Magi Cubes recommended)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Poor man's dish?  Any man would be lucky, a fortunate poor man in fact, to feast on this hearty  Lebanese dish of rice and lentils.  "Mujadara" translates as "poor man's dish" and was at one time, considered a standard meal for those that couldn't afford meat. At least one might subsist on it.  But once you've tasted it you might agree with me that it is better to insist than subsist.  This is a dish worth insisting on! With several onions in the mix, the legumes and rice are infused with the rich, silky sweetness of caramelized onions, and "Arab-ized" with the addition of spices such as allspice and cinnamon - just a pinch.  I am careful to add "just a pinch", especially for those that are not acclimated to cinnamon in non-sweet dishes.  Though I am acclimated, cinnamon isn't really my first choice of seasonings for some dishes - including pizza.  When the first Pizza Hut in Amman opened down the street from where we lived at the time, we were thrilled to have a taste of home nearby.  But as the months passed and the local chefs couldn't resist, the ground meat on the pizza began to taste more and more like kefta, an Arab spiced ground meat mixture.  They had a hard time leaving hamburgers alone too and Fuddruckers completely lost their franchise for straying too far from the American recipe). But in the Levant cuisine, cinnamon is an absolute must and so we will happily defer to their spices for their native dishes.  The version of mujadara I was taught to prepare, is topped with a middle-eastern salsa of tomatoes and cucumbers which tweeks the earthy grains in the dish to freshness;the accompanying yogurt sauce does its part to tang it up. My children loved it for a quick weekday dinner - if you train them up on beans and rice, they will learn to love this healthy, hearty combination! One of my early experiences serving mujadara to some unsuspecting Americans was wrought with disaster, when one of my guests stood up abruptly at the table and rushed into the kitchen to spit out a bite full of gravel.  A lesson indelibly learned - clean the lentils of stray bits of chaff and gravel, before cooking.  Who'd have thought!!  A more polite guest would just have swallowed them down and discreetly declined seconds!

Mujadara (Lebanese Lentils and Rice)
1 1/3 cups brown lentils, cleaned of gravel or chaff and rinsed
1 cup olive oil
1/2 - 1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium yellow onions, thinly slivered
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups water or vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, cumin and allspice
salt to taste
1 tsp. sugar
dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup basmati rice, (soaked for 15 minutes in cold water and 
                 then rinsed until water runs clear)

Yogurt Sauce
1 1/3 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tab. chopped fresh mint (optional)
2 tab. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt

Tomato-Cucumber Salsa
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 English cucumber, finely chopped, with skin on
½ red or yellow onion, finely chopped
4 tab. chopped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste

-Place the slivered onions into a microwave proof mixing bowl and toss with 2 tsp. salt.  Microwave the onions for 5 minutes on high and then rinse in a colander.  Spread the onions out on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and blot out as much moisture as you can.  Set aside.

-Place the cleaned lentils into a medium saucepan. Fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about one inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

-Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, place a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm for a minute, then add the cracked peppercorns and cook, stirring briefly for about 1 minute.  

-Add the chopped onions, sprinkle with a dash of salt and cook stirring often for 25-30 minutes until onions are a dark caramel brown with a slight crispiness developing on some of the onions. Using a slotted spoon, remove about half of the onions to a paper towel-lined plate; these are for garnish later. Leave the other half in the pot. Pour off the onion oil until you have about 4 tab. left in the pot.  (Reserve any remaining onion oil for later use.)

-Add the ground spices, cayenne pepper, sugar and garlic to the oil and onions in the pot and cook about 1 minute over medium-high heat.  Add the rinsed rice and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often but gently until some rice grains turn wheat-colored (2 minutes). Add the cooked lentils to the pot, 3 1/2 cups of water (or chicken broth)  and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt; bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low to simmer; cover then cook 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, place a towel over the pot and return the lid.  Let rest for 10 minutes then fluff rice with a fork.  (The towel absorbs extra moisture so that the rice will be fluffier.)

-While rice is cooking, combine tomatoes, cucumber, diced onion, parsley, garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.  

-Prepare the yogurt sauce by combining yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, (mint), salt and pepper.  Chill until ready to serve.

-Taste the rice for seasoning. Place lentil-rice mixture in a large or individual serving dishes, top with yogurt sauce, then the Tomato-Cucumber salsa and garnish with reserved caramelized onions.  A squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sumac add an extra level of flavor!

Persnickety P.S.:

Sumac:  Not be confused with poison sumac, this spice comes from the flowers of the sumac bush known as Rhus which are ground into an elegant crimson-purple powder with a bit of a glittery quality to it.  It is my favorite spice discovery in all my time in the Middle East and adds a truly stunning lemony pop as a garnish to salads, soups and meat in Jordan.  In fact one dish, musakkhan, composed of chicken postitively swimming in oil and sumac, makes you smack your lips in satisfaction!  Sumac is available in Middle Eastern and global grocery markets or via Amazon online.

Lentils:  You''ll be glad to know that the best, most autehntic lentils for this dish are the common brown ones we find easily in U.S. grocery stores in the dried bean section.  They tend to cook faster than other color lentils and hold their shape well.  Easily done!

Leftovers:  Mujadara makes excellent leftovers.  Heat a bit of butter or oil in a frying pan and cook until heated through or popping and crispy.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Yogurt - Paprika Chicken

This thoroughly satisfying and beautiful chicken dish was introduced to me through sharing "What I know how to cook" with a Jordanian friend who really knew "how" herself but usually had her full time cooks make dinner.  This cultural cooking exchange, in which I eagerly participated in the various countries we lived in, transcends all political borders, and cooks with appreciative palettes grow in all climes of the world.  Once you've searched them out, sharing cooking techniques and sampling different taste combinations is satisfying to both parties.  Food afterall, is the universal obsession, the equalizer of men, the piece de resistance of humanity or should we say "Peace" to resistance!   My gracious Jordanian friend enjoyed the fun of inventing and creating and her cook, the effecting. I however, could "effect" for myself and could happily wield a knife and pot.  As the years change, so do our tastes and the recipe is easily adapted to a less fatty base, more tangy taste, as you like.  Adding 2 cups of sour cream never bothered me...taste and texture in foods have always been my number one priority!   We couldn't find sour cream in Jordan...dairy cows were few and far between...Ghada's solution was to take a cup of cream, stir in a couple of tablespoons of leban (yogurt) and let the mixture ferment a bit on the counter until cooking time - it also thickens as it sits. This result provides just a bit of tang but lends the creaminess and inherent sweetness of the cream to the chicken.  At times I simply used lebaneh instead, a thickened yogurt, very similar to what we know today as Greek yogurt, but the taste was definitely tangier and slightly bitter.  But those of you who have grown accustomed to that taste, go for the tang!  Paprika is predominant in the name of the dish so don't skimp on it.  We use about 3 tab. in the recipe but you can opt for more, depending on taste and whether you use the hot Hungarian paprika or the sweet or smoked.  (The version we find generally in our U.S. stores is a somewhat bland sweet paprika)  The toasted whole almonds and the garnish of raw pepper strips on top offer a nice balanced crunch that contrasts with the meltingly tender chicken.  I prefer rice as the chicken bed, though noodles would go nicely to create this delicious party dish!

Chicken Paprika
6 boned and skinned chicken breasts 
1 slivered onion
1 red pepper, julienned
1/2 cup diced bacon, cooked and drained
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup white wine
2 cups chicken stock
freshly ground black pepper
garlic salt or garlic powder
½ cup flour
2 cups sour cream (or ½ plain Greek yogurt and ½ sour cream)
¾ cup whole, skinned almonds, fried in butter till golden

      - Trim the chicken breasts of fat, then slice each one into 5 pieces, following the grain of the chicken, about 1 inch thick.   Place flour, paprika, pepper and garlic salt in a large plastic bag. Add chicken breast pieces and shake until well coated.

       -Fry slivered onion and red pepper in ¼ cup butter until soft and caramelized – about 30 minutes over low heat.  Remove from pan with slotted spoon, leaving butter in pan.  Add chicken pieces in single layer and brown on both sides adding a tablespoon of butter and oil between batches. 

      -Layer all chicken pieces back in pan and pour chicken stock and wine over chicken till just covered.  Cover and cook chicken until tender, about 12 minutes. Remove lid and reduce liquid until almost gone.

      -Heat 2 cups sour cream for 40 seconds in microwave and stir in 2 tab.  paprika, 1 tsp. garlic salt and pepper.  Add bacon bits.  Pour over chicken and stir, heating slowly.  Add slivered onions and red pepper.

      - Serve over rice or noodles and garnish with some reserved almonds and thinly sliced raw red pepper ribbons.   Serves 6.

Persnickety P.S.
 **To easily skin almonds, place in small pot of boiling water and let blanch for 1 minute.  Poor almonds into cold water and let sit 5 minutes.  Drain and pat almonds dry.  In a large bowl, grasp almonds by the fatter end and squeeze - the almond will slide easily out of it's skin.  Be careful, they can become missles and fly about the room - one of my childrens' favorite games! That and parsley picking!

**When adding dairy products - sour cream - to warm liquids, slightly heat the dairy so it won't curdle when added to the warm liquid.  (rule of thumb for adding cream, milk and cheeses)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Orange Rolls

Mom's favorite orange rolls were made by Dick's Bakery and they were (and hopefully still are) fan tan shaped, buttery and flaky rolls, with a bright, orange, citrus glaze.  Anything orange flavor made the cut on her list of top favorite treats, including almond chicken with orange sauce, jelly-candy orange slices and when the scales allowed, Sweet's Candy chocolate covered orange sticks fact, all things orange, except when it came to Halloween Jelly Beans....she ate all the black ones.  Go figure!  But when dinner was in fifteen minutes and Dick's bakery was a drive away, and there was a can of biscuits in the refrigerator, this quick and easy recipe fit the ticket and nudged all other orange treats out of top spot. This quick and easy recipe will unfailingly satisfy an orange sweet tooth in a hurry. 

Orange Rolls
1 can refrigerator buttermilk biscuits
   (or homemade biscuit dough, cut into 3/4 inch rounds)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 tab. grated orange rind

-Preheat oven to 380 degrees.

-In medium saucepan, melt butter then stir in sugar and orange rind over medium-high heat until mixture is smooth.  (Do not bring to a boil.)

-Spray bottom of 10 inch glass pie plate with vegetable oil spray.  Dip each biscuit dough round on both sides, in orange-sugar mixture.  Place in prepared pie plate.  Cover the bottom of the pie plate with orange rolls.  Bake in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until biscuits are slightly golden around the edges.

-Serve warm.  Makes 8 orange rolls.