Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cooking Through the Cold (& Two Blogging Challenges)

Queen Vic's current blossom (#6).
She's had more than 1 per month!
According to Intellicast. com, the low temperature tonight should be twenty-something below zero (with wind chills much lower, of course), and for the first time since the 1990's, the Governor closed the schools statewide because of the cold. So what I am doing with this unexpected long winter weekend? Cooking, of course. 
Pickles!  Check out my favorite blog about pickling.
I made my first-ever batch of refrigerator pickles with asparagus, zucchini, and okra, so I might write a series of posts on pickling, since I'd really like to learn how to make all kinds of pickles.  (My mother makes great pickles, and I'd really like to master her beet pickle recipe!) And I'm still on a lentil kick, so brace yourself for another Middle-Eastern-inspired  recipe. (I'm working my way up to an Indian dish that uses black lentils, so there will probably be one more post in my lentil series!)  

I think most folks crave some comfort food when the temperatures drop, and the dish I'm making today definitely qualifies as comfort food. I predict that when you go off to college, you will miss certain foods that make you think of home or your family. I also predict that you will have the urge to cook some of those foods. Will you be able to?  

Blogging Challenge #1:  Learn to cook one of your favorite foods, and write a blog post about it (complete with pictures of your process). Many of you have already written about your college search, but you haven't written much about how you will prepare yourself to deal with college life. This is one way to do that. The dish you choose should be one you don't already know how to make. Perhaps you can get a friend or family member to help you learn how to make it. You might have relatives who would really love to have this chance to teach you how they make a dish they are famous for. There may not many more opportunities for you to spend this kind of quality-time with your family before you enter the next phase of your life, so take advantage of second semester to do this!  

Today, I'm making Koshary for the first time (also spelled Kushari, Kusherie, Koshari, etc. There seem to be as many spellings as there are recipes!). It's an Egyptian dish, and like all comfort-foods around the world, every family has its own recipe, and people argue about the "right" way to make it. This dish has gained some fame among chefs and foodies in the West since the Egyptian Revolution as various writers/reporters taste it and then pass on recipes.  

All the variations of Koshary include lentils and rice with fried onions and a tomato sauce. (It's very similar to Mujaddara, another Middle Eastern lentils-and-rice dish).  Koshary is a bit complicated, because each element of the dish is made separately, and they're all mixed together (or sometimes layered) in the end.  Here we go!

Nice and brown...
First, I got started on the onions, since they take the longest. I used two and a half large onions (one yellow, two white), and I think I should have used more. I chopped them up and started frying them in butter. Some folks like to have crispy fried onions with this dish; others use softer, carmelized onions. I made the latter.  Carmelizing onions takes a long time--you have to be patient to let them get really brown and sweet. Every now and then, you have to stir them around and mix the brown stuff on the bottom of the pan (there's a fancy French name for that stuff!) into the onions.
Granny's wooden spoon
A wooden spoon is perfect for this--you can scrape up the sludge (I mean, fond) without damaging your pan. I think every cook should have at least one wooden spoon--I have a few, including one that belonged to my maternal grandmother.  I don't really use it, but I like having it in my kitchen... 

While the onions were cooking, I started on the other parts of Koshary. For the rice, I used white Basmati rice because that's my favorite kind. I always cook white rice in the microwave, in an uncovered glass bowl, and it comes out perfect every time. I can no longer remember where I encountered the formula below, but it's never failed me.  

"Perfect" rice formula
Today, I added a couple bay leaves and three cloves to the rice-and-water mix. When the rice was done, I didn't open the microwave:  I left it closed for five more minutes so that any leftover liquid would be soaked up by the hot rice. After that, I removed the seasonings and set the rice aside.
Finished rice

Next, while still keeping an eye on the onions, I cooked the lentils.  I used French green lentils again and cooked them with whole cumin seeds and a number of sweet spices:  star anise, mace, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves.  I added another few bay leaves. (I bought a package of fresh bay leaves recently and popped them in the freezer.  Fresh herbs are supposed to be less powerful than dried ones, so I've been using them liberally lately.)  I also added some fresh chili pepper (not enough, as it turned out).  When the lentils were just getting soft but still holding their shape, I drained them and removed as many of the whole spices as I could find. (I wasn't able to find the cloves and allspice berries, so I'll have to be careful not to bite into them as I eat lunch next week!)
Seasonings for the lentils

When making something like Koshary, you quickly end up with a lot of dirty dishes, if you don't clean as you go. My mother taught me that tip, and indeed, it makes cooking easier, especially in a small space.

Some versions of Koshary include pasta and chick peas, so that was my next step. Often, for this dish, the pasta is browned in butter before it's cooked, and I wanted to try that. 
Browning the pasta
I used ready-cut spaghetti, a pasta shape that's handy for soups and hotdishes, but almost any kind of dried pasta will work. (Note to self: do a post about tater-tot 
hot dish!)  I did the same thing with the drained, canned chick peas, and when they were done I mixed the rice, lentils, onions, pasta, and chick peas all together.  
Brown and white protein and carbs!

The last step was the tomato sauce, which should be spicy-hot, garlicky, and tangy. I started with canned tomatoes and added a number of seasonings:  garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and cinnamon. Then I added golden raisins and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar for sweetness and tang. 
Seasonings going into the sauce.

This simmered for quite some time, but when it was ready, I dished up the lentil-and-rice mix into my leak-proof glass lunch containers, and added a portion of the sauce to each, along with a few cilantro leaves. I thought it looked pretty good!  You'll see me eating it during lunch next week. I tasted it when it was done, and I thought it needed a bit more heat, so I added a splash of hot sauce to each portion before I packed them into the refrigerator.  
I own five containers, just in case we have, you know,
an actual five-day school-week!

I've written thirty-three blog posts now, I think, and yet I always feel like I should do more. Most of you have fewer than ten. I'm not sure I can sustain this level of posting throughout the rest of the year (maybe I can, but I'm not sure).   I've been trying really hard to model for you what I want you to do. There's a way of blogging called "blogging without obligation," and it was invented by a blogger to counteract the guilt many bloggers feel when they haven't been posting much. I'm putting the BWO badge on my blog today (you can see it in my sidebar). I'd like you to earn your chance to do the same!

Blogging Challenge #2: When you've posted ten more times (and that means ten well-written, meaningful, substantial, semi-connected, aesthetically-pleasing, and carefully-proofread posts, complete with titles, links, labels, & captioned photos, dated after January 5, 2014), you, too, can put the BWO badge on your blog, and after that I won't bother you (much) about blogging anymore! Earning your badge will be worth 50 points! From among these ten posts, I will want you to choose, portfolio-style, your three best posts (give them the label "portfolio"), and those three posts will be worth another 45 points.  

For English 12 students, I will schedule some in-class blogging days, though not nearly enough for you to rely solely on class-time for this (& we won't have any class-time for this in AP!). I will continue to give "blog-walking" (reading and commenting) assignments to all students, even after they earn badges. I may also ask badge-earners to help others by giving suggestions/ideas for posts. I may still ask certain students to showcase other good work on their blogs (and those showcase posts won't count toward a badge). Posts in response to Blogging Challenge #1 may count toward your ten.

If you plan to do a Capstone Project, you must earn your badge before Projects begin (otherwise, you'll have until the last day of classes). Some of you will want to document your Project on your blog, and you can do that post-badge! Some pre-Project research may be included in pre-badge posts--see me if you want to do that.

I found these magnetic poetry masterpieces on the metal bookcase in the corner--despair & hope in close proximity!

Hang in there, people!  It's 2014, and the end is (if not yet in sight, then at least) imaginable! 

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