Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hearty Vegetable Soup with Ragi Spaetzle and Beer Bread Rolls

A great welcome to new subscribers Krista, Bobby, and Wendy. It’s great to have you as part of the family!

When I put together a meal recipe consisting of an American vegetable soup containing German noodles that were made with an Indian flour and served with rolls leavened by a Dutch beer, I wasn’t going for some kind of international fusion concept. Hearty Vegetable Soup with Ragi Spaetzle and Beer Bread Rolls just turned out that way.

This unusual (but delicious) combination started with Facebook friend Caroline, a fine cook and baker in India, telling me about ragi (pronounced RAH-gee, with a hard g as in “go”), a flour that not only brings a deep, earthy taste to food, but plenty of nutrition as well: calcium, carbohydrates, proteins, iron, niacin, and more. I had to try it. (Indian food is quite popular in the U.S., so ragi flour wasn’t hard to find.)

Why it occurred to me to use this to make spaetzle (pronounced SHPEHT-sluh or SHPEHT-sehl), a traditional German noodle, and then to use that as the noodle part of a vegetable-noodle soup, is anyone’s guess.

Finally, homemade vegetable-noodle soup demands to be served with warm, fresh bread, so to save time I decided to bake a beer bread and avoid the usual fermenting and proofing processes. In general, when cooking with beer, it’s a good idea to select one that would match well with the meal if you were drinking it. Since the bread was going to be served with a vegetable soup, I wanted a beer with a simple, clean taste. I opted for Heineken.  

The result: a very delicious meal that, in spite of looking like it has a lot of steps, is actually quite easy to make.

A few cook’s notes before we begin:
  • If you can’t get ragi flour, or just choose not to, feel free to make a traditional spaetzle  or to use any other form of noodle, whether homemade or packaged. Remember, it’s your soup.
  • To soften ragi’s natural earthiness for the American palate (and to use ingredients likely to be found in the American pantry), I used a 50/50 mix of ragi flour and all-purpose flour, and went with American seasonings rather than more traditional Indian ones. (Although some traditional ragi-recipe items, such as shredded coconut, were used in the recipe since those are readily available in the U.S.)
  • The soup recipe uses both vegetable stock and chicken stock. If you want to keep the recipe strictly vegetarian, just replace the chicken stock with more vegetable stock. I just like the way a bit of chicken stock rounds out the flavor.
  • Beer bread can be denser than yeast bread, so I lightened the texture of the rolls by using all-purpose flour instead of the usual bread flour.
First, our ragi spaetzle.  This recipe makes about 6 cups of cooked spaetzle. That’s way more than the two cups you’ll need for the soup, but leaves you plenty for spaetzle’s more traditional role as a side dish. (More on that in the recipe.)

Prepare a large pot of salted, boiling water and an ice bath.

In a bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons shredded coconut; 3 egg-substitute eggs; 1 cup skim milk; 2 tablespoons dried parsley; ½ tablespoon dried thyme; 1 teaspoon dried tarragon; ½ teaspoon ground ginger; ½ teaspoon dry mustard; ½ teaspoon dried cayenne pepper; ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg; 1-1/2 teaspoon salt; and ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper.

Combine 1-½ cups ragi flour and 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, and add to the liquid mixture to make a loose dough.

Using a ricer, a food mill on the ricer setting, or using a spatula to press the dough through a colander, press the batter out into the boiling water, working in batches if necessary. Boil until the spaetzle floats to the top of the water, then transfer the cooked pieces to the ice bath to stop cooking.

Drain very well. Two cups of this spaetzle can be used in the soup recipe below.

(To use the remaining spaetzle as a side dish for another meal, melt 2 tablespoons of butter substitute in a sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the spaetzle and ½ teaspoon of white wine vinegar and sauté until lightly browned. Salt and pepper to taste. Top with butter substitute and serve.)

Now let’s make our soup! (This recipe makes about two and a half quarts of soup.)

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot and add 1-1/2 cup diced onion; 1 cup chopped carrots; 1 cup diced green pepper; ½ cup chopped celery; and a ten-ounce package fresh, sliced mushrooms. Cover and sweat over medium heat until soft, about five minutes.

Add 8 cups of vegetable stock; 2 cups of chicken stock, and a 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained but not rinsed. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes. (While the soup is simmering, you can go on to the beer bread recipe below.)
After the soup has finished simmering, add 2 cups of the ragi spaetzle and 1 tablespoon of dried cilantro, and simmer five minutes more.

Prepare a garnish by combining 2 grated carrots and two stalks of celery sliced paper-thin. When the soup has finished cooking, add salt to taste, top with a bit of the garnish, and serve.

And, of course, our beer bread rolls. This recipe makes 8 rolls.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the following  in a bowl until combined: 3 cups all-purpose flour;  3 teaspoons of baking powder; 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt; 3 tablespoons of sugar; and 2 teaspoons of dried parsley or other herb compatible with the main meal.

Add a 12-ounce bottle of room-temperature beer (I used Heineken) and mix until a sticky dough forms.

Divide the dough into 8 equal portions on a baking sheet that is greased or lined with a silicon baking sheet.

Bake for about 12 minutes, then brush the tops of the rolls with melted butter substitute, turning the tray for even baking.

Continue baking until the edges of the rolls are lightly browned. (Total baking time should be about 26 minutes.) Serve warm.

If that doesn’t make your family happy, then I don’t know what will!

That’s it for this week! Please come back next week for another delicious (and kitchen-tested) recipe! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, find an exciting new ingredient to play with, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fruit-Filled Lemon-Ricotta Pancake “Omelets”

If you’ve never had a ricotta pancake, you’ve been missing a real treat. The richness of taste and texture that ricotta adds brings the pancake’s fully goodness to a new level. And in this recipe, we’ll be giving these already delicious pancakes some extra special treatments:
  • We’ll make our own fresh ricotta. (You’ll love how easy it is!) Of course, if you prefer to use packaged ricotta from the supermarket, that’s ok too.)
  • We’ll make each pancake a bit larger than normal – one pancake will be a full portion – and fold it over, omelet-style, with a fruit and bacon filling inside.
  • As always, all of this goodness will be made even better by being reduced fat!
Time to get started! This recipe is in three parts – the ricotta, the fruit filling, and the pancakes – and, when combined, makes four generous servings.

Making the Ricotta
As mentioned above, if you prefer to use store-bought ricotta, just skip this step and go on to the next. If you’re thinking about making your own fresh ricotta, however, and are concerned that you may not have the skills needed, here’s a simple quiz you can do in the privacy of your own home to find out: 

Can you read a thermometer? (     ) Yes   (     ) No
If you answered "Yes",’re a born ricotta maker! (You’ll also need a candy thermometer; that’s something you’ll find useful to have for a wide range of cooking projects.)

This portion of the recipe makes about a cup of ricotta.

Zest a large lemon and set the zest aside. We’ll use it later for the pancakes.

Combine 2 quarts of 2% milk and the juice of the zested lemon in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. (Steel or enameled only.)

Cook over medium-high heat, stirring gently and constantly, until the temperature reaches 170 degrees as measured with a candy thermometer. (By now you’ll see the mixture should be separating into solids (“curds”) and a pale, milky liquid (“whey”).)

Stop stirring but continue to heat the mixture until the temperature reaches 190 degrees.

Remove the pot from the heat, cover and let rest for 20-30 minutes.

Line a colander with fine-mesh cheese cloth and place it on a large bowl. Pour the milk mixture into the colander to strain out the curds while capturing the whey (about quart or a little more) in the bowl. (Don’t discard the whey. More on this later.)

After about five minutes, tie the top of the cheesecloth with twine to form a bag, and hang over the sink or other location to drip for about another 15 minutes.

Transfer the cheese curd to a bowl, and add salt, starting with ½ tsp and adding more to taste. (You’ll probably end up using about 1 teaspoon all together, but judge the amount by the taste.)

Use the cheese right away (warm is good) or store it in an airtight container and refrigerate. Since it has no preservatives, use it within 2 or 3 days. Do not save the cheese longer than that.

With our cheese now made, here’s a word about the whey before we go on to the rest of the recipe. Inexplicably, practically every ricotta recipe out there says to discard the whey after straining the curds. With the guidance of Facebook friend, chef, cheese-maker (and purveyor of fine scarves!) Maya, however, I was enlightened as to the wonderful taste, texture and health benefits whey brings to breads, soups, or other recipes when used as a substitute for water or even milk. (Click here for a very helpful site she suggested.) Thank you, Maya, for showing me the whey! (Ahem...sorry, couldn't resist.)

Making the Fruit Filling (With Just a Bit of Bacon!)
I used apples for the filling, but feel free to use whatever fruit suits your fancy.

Cook 2 – 4 slices of turkey bacon till slightly crisp and set aside.

Combine 1 cup of sugar and the juice of one lemon in a medium saucepan and heat over low heat until the sugar has melted, stirring often.

Add four Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into ¼”- ½” wedges, along with ¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg and 1 tablespoon of butter substitute, to the saucepan and mix well to coat with the melted sugar.  Cook over medium heat until the apples are soft and the liquid is reduced. Turn off heat and let rest to thicken the liquid while you make the pancakes in the next step. Crumble or chop the bacon and add before using.

Making the Pancakes
Now that we've got our fresh ricotta and the filling...

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine 1-1/2 cups of skim milk; ½ cup of low-fat ricotta cheese; 2 tablespoons of melted butter substitute; 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract; zest of one lemon, and one egg-substitute egg.

Sift together 1-1/2 cups of all-purpose flour; 1 tablespoon of baking powder; 3/4 teaspoon of salt; 3 tablespoons of sugar, and ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg. Mix the dry ingredients into the milk mixture until combined.
Combine 2 fresh egg whites and pinch of salt, and beat until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites in parts into the batter, working carefully to keep the fluffiness.

Melt 1 teaspoon of butter substitute on a griddle or crepe pan. Working one pancake at a time, pour ¾ cup of the pancake batter onto the griddle or crepe pan and cook until done, turning half-way. (Tip: Because the pancakes are very large, using a plate makes flipping them a lot easier! Slide the half cooked pancake onto a plate, cooked side down, and drain any excess liquid from the griddle or pan. Turn the pan over on top of the plate, turn them both over together, and remove the plate. Your uber-pancake is now flipped!)

Once all the pancakes are cooked, place them on a baking sheet and place in the oven for about 4 minutes to finish. (I’ve found this oven step gives a nice texture to the pancakes, both inside and outside.)

To plate, place some of the fruit filling on half of the pancake (and, if you like, some of the ricotta for extra richness), and fold the pancake over as with an omelet.

Top the folded pancake "omelet" with butter substitute and syrup or preserves, serve with an appropriate side dish, such as turkey sausage, and you’ve got a breakfast – or lunch, or dinner! – that is as fresh as it is good-tasting.

I hope you enjoy making and serving this special pancake meal, and that you’ll come back again next week for another recipe! Till then stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pecan Pralines with Yogurt Frosting

One of the American south’s most classic treats is the Praline (pronounced “praw-leen”), a confection made from nuts and a sweet coating. Some versions, especially in Europe where they originated, are hard (similar to peanut brittle) and use almonds. When French settlers brought them to Louisiana in the 1800’s, an American praline evolved using pecans and made with cream to give them a texture more like a firm fudge. Once you taste a praline’s crunchy rich sweetness, you’ll know why they’re still made and loved today.

In this version, we’ll reduce the fat content by using fat-free half-and-half in place of cream. Then, just because we can, we’ll top it with a frosting made from fat-free Greek Yogurt. (In general, I’ve found fat free half-and-half and fat free Greek yogurt can be valuable additions to your fat-reducing cooking arsenal.)

Some Cook’s Notes before we begin:
  • In the recipe that follows, you’ll note that making pralines can take several hours. Don’t be put off; almost all of that is inactive time, during which the pralines are cooling and getting firm, and you’re reading e-mails and practicing Zumba. 
  • We'll be heating the sugar mixture to 236 degrees, what candy-makers call "soft ball." Although there’s a way described below to do this that doesn’t require a candy thermometer, the use of a candy thermometer is strongly recommended. It’s easier and a lot more reliable, and something you’ll find to be a valuable item to have on hand for frying, candy making, etc.
  • Use caution when heating the sugar mixture, particularly when stirring. Hot sugar makes for one of the worst kitchen burns there is.

The number of pralines this recipe makes depends, of course, on how big you make them. If you make them about 1-1/2 tablespoons each, you’ll get about 28.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. When hot, place 2 cups of chopped pecans or pecan halves in a single layer on a baking sheet into the oven until toasted, about 10 minutes, turning them once.

In a saucepan, combine 1-1/2 cups of granulated (white) sugar, 1-1/2 cups of brown sugar and 1-1/2 cups of fat-free half-and-half.

Over medium heat, and stirring gently and very often, bring the mixture to 236 degrees (“soft ball”) as measured on a candy thermometer, or until a small amount dropped into a cup of very cold water forms a soft ball. (The thermometer is better to use.) Reaching “soft ball” over medium heat should take about 20 minutes, but cook this by temperature, not by time. As you can see in the photo, expect a good bit of frothing along the way.

Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool for about an hour.

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, and the toasted pecans, and stir till the pecans are well coated and the mixture is creamy and firm.

Spoon the mixture onto a foil-lined baking sheet lightly coated with butter substitute, using about 1 to 1-1/2 Tbsp for each praline. Let rest for another 1 – 2 hours.

While the pralines are cooling, mix 1 cup of fat-free Greek yogurt and 2 cups of confectioners sugar till combined, and refrigerate until ready to use.

When the pralines are ready to be coated, begin preheating the oven to 225 degrees. Using tongs, dip the pralines one by one into the yogurt mix and place on a wire rack on a baking sheet. When the pralines are all coated and on the wire rack, turn off the oven and place the baking sheet into the oven with the door ajar for at least 4 hours to help the frosting firm up. (Cook’s note: In the batch I made for the photo at the top of this article, I decided to frost only half of the pralines and leave the others plain.)

When the coating has dried, place the pralines into an air-tight container. They should keep for at least three days, if no one eats them all before that!

Hope you enjoy making (and, of course, eating!) the sweet goodness of these delicious treats. Stop by again next week for more! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)