Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Millet and Caramelized Onion Cakes with Mizuna Salad

Whole grains.  We know we're supposed to eat them but we're not exactly sure how.  You see a lot of cereals, breads, and other packaged, grain-based products that have fancy looking labels telling you how wonderful whole grains are, so that looks like a good option.  But the full story is that they are often produced with a raw material that, while it was once a whole grain, ends up getting pulverized and processed until much of it's nutrition is lost.

I like to think about it this way:  If you want to eat healthier, cook at home as much as you can.  If you want to cook healthier, stick to buying ingredients - not food - at the grocery store.  You're probably like, "I do buy ingredients!" and I'll be like "so, did anything you buy come in a package with an ingredients list?" and then you might understand what I mean.  I'm not saying all food from the grocery store is bad.  I still routinely buy pasta, jam, hot sauce and bread, among other things.  I just try to find the best ones I can, preferably made locally, and I know I've made a well-rounded trip to the grocery store when I look down in my basket and see mostly ingredients:  produce, whole grains, oils and vinegars, cheese... you get the idea.

So, with the intent of demonstrating that starting with ingredients and ending with wholesome food doesn't have to be a daunting task, I give you a simple, wholesome, from-scratch dish.  The flavors are simple but compelling - herbaceous, toasty, corn-like millet is toasted, cooked into mush, and mixed with sweet and pungent caramelized onions.  No flours, no fillers, just a little egg and seasoning and they come together just beautifully.  The homemade buttermilk ricotta makes this dish feel really special.  You don't need any fussy equipment, just a fine sieve, some cheesecloth (or cheesecloth-like material, if you happen to be a weirdo like me and have a few spare gauze bags laying around) and a nice, big pot.  The result is creamy, mild, slightly tangy and has almost infinite uses.  If you can't squeeze the extra time in to make ricotta, I would recommend using a good-quality fromage blanc or even ricotta salata, but for heaven's sake don't buy that Miceli's ricotta in a tub.  Every time you do, an elderly Italian man sheds a single tear...

Millet and Caramelized Onion Cakes
makes about 10 cakes

1 cup millet
2 cups water
2 T butter
2 T vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 egg, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
bacon fat (optional)

Place a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add millet.  Toast in the dry pan, stirring constantly, until it becomes fragrant, about 4 minutes.  Add water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to release the starches and soften the millet to a mush.  Allow to cool for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, caramelize your onions.  Add butter and 1 T vegetable oil to a large pan and heat over medium-high.  Reduce heat slightly and add sliced onions and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and deep golden, about 12 minutes.  Add onions and the egg to the millet and mix well until the mixture holds together.  Season with salt and pepper and mix well.  Form mixture into 3-inch balls and flatten into cakes.

In a large frying pan, add remaining vegetable oil and a couple tablespoons of bacon fat and heat over medium-high until the bacon fat melts.  Reduce heat slightly and fry cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side, adding more fat if necessary.  Finish with a little salt and serve atop Mizuna and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette, then top with ricotta.

Mizuna with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
serves 4

about 1/4 lb mizuna
1 meyer lemon, juiced
2 T champagne vinegar
1 tsp honey
1/4 cup olive oil
salt, to taste
1/2 cup homemade buttermilk ricotta (recipe below)
2 T sliced green onions

Wash mizuna well and spin dry.  Add lemon juice, vinegar and honey to a blender and pulse until the honey is blended.  While the blender is running, pour in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Add salt to taste.

Add a splash of the dressing to the buttermilk ricotta then mix in the green onions.  Serve salad with millet cakes topped with the ricotta.

Ian Knauer's Buttermilk Ricotta
makes about 2 cups

1 gallon whole milk
3 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tsp kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a large pot over medium-high heat and slowly bring to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching on the bottom of the pot.  Just before the liquid starts to bubble (the mixture will thicken and curdle) remove from heat.  Pour liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow to drain for at least 15 minutes.  Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Quinoa, Apple and Almond Bars

Eating wholesome food might mean different things to different people, but I think everybody can agree that we could all do with less processed food in our diet.  The difficulty is that we so often find ourselves in situations where we need to eat on the run.  I almost always have a bag of dried apples and raw almonds in my purse so I can stave off hunger between meals, but sometimes you need a snack with a little more protein and substance... Enter, Quinoa Bars!

Now, you should all know that I haven't always ridden on board the quinoa train.  Maybe I had one too many sad, tasteless black bean and quinoa salads before I decided I didn't like it.  But since the humble grain, which isn't actually a grain at all, is not only wholesome but also happens to be something that grows really well in the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I decided to give it another go.

The important thing to know about cooking quinoa is:  rinse it!  The tiny seeds are coated with saponin, which not only gives it a bitter, soapy taste but makes the quinoa less digestible.  Even if you purchase the packaged, pre-rinsed stuff, I would recommend rinsing (because, well, it couldn't hurt!).  These bars are just-sweet, with a nice combination of crunch and chew, and they pretty much just taste like what's in 'em.  Go figure!  No over-processed flours or sugars necessary.  Each bar has about 180 calories, so enjoy them as a light snack between meals.

Quinoa, Apple and Almond Bars
makes 18

1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
1/2 cup butter (or coconut oil)
1/3 cup honey
1 cup plus 1/2 cup almonds
4 oz dried apples (about 2 cups)
1/3 cup honey
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 T salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup Demerara sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  In a small saucepan, cover quinoa with water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, until the liquid has absorbed, about 15 minutes.  Set quinoa aside.

Meanwhile, brown your butter (skip this step if using coconut oil) - Melt in a small saucepan over medium heat until the foamy bubbles start to subside and the fat solids begin to brown and smell toasty, about 7 minutes.  Set butter aside.

In a food processor, add apples and 1 cup of the almonds and pulse until well chopped.  Add honey, cinnamon, both extracts and salt and mix until combined.  Add 1 cup of the cooked quinoa and pulse again until mixture comes together (this helps to absorb all the honey so the mixture will come clean out of the food processor).  In a large bowl, combine the remaining quinoa with the quinoa mixture and the remaining almonds, roughly chopped or slivered.  Add butter and eggs and mix well.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and grease with a little cooking spray or butter.  Press quinoa mixture into the baking sheet and smooth the top with a spatula until even.  Sprinkle liberally with demerara sugar.  Bake until set, about 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and place on a wire rack.  Allow to cool completely before slicing into bars.