Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Decadent and Delicious Mac and Cheese

I like mac n cheese. I always have. My husband, though he loves macaroni salads, never seemed to care for mac n cheese, though tastes change. He told me recently he liked mac n cheese just fine! Over the years, as I became more conscious of additives in pre-packaged foods that can affect health, I began weeding out the use of anything that came in a box, and most canned veggies. I still use canned tomato sauces, tomatoes, tomato paste, corn and most beans. I usually buy things that are either sodium free or 50% sodium where possible. Among the casualties to a more conscious lifestyle was mac n cheese in a box. Not that I ever used it extensively, but once in a while it was just easy.

For all those reasons, and likely a few more, I haven't had mac n cheese for many, many years. Since my husband gave me the OK on the concept, it has been in my mind. Last evening I decided to take the plunge. Mac 'n' cheese is not inherently healthy, even when homemade. The more unctuously cheesy, the more the fat and calorie content rise. But, at least I know what is in it when I make my own, and there are none of those extras; dyes, preservatives and such.
Decadent Mac and Cheese, with Crumb Topping

Cheeses of Choice

I was watching a program on TV a few nights back where someone was touting the richness of a mac n cheese made with cream cheese and Parmesan. That just struck me as a delightful combination. How much, though? I didn't want to go so far over the top. I ended up using about 1 1/2 ounces of Parmesan and 4 ounces of cream cheese. Then I realized I still had a little bit of shredded cheese in the fridge, from the Taco Pizza I made a few days ago. It was a "Mexican Blend" of 4 cheeses, only one of which was a yellow cheese. There wasn't all that much left. I threw it in. At this point the cheesy mixture was mostly white.

Going for the Gold

Turmeric Powder
Depending on the kind of cheese you use, the color of mac n cheese can be completely white or nice, bright yellow. The nice bright yellow in boxed products often comes from food dyes. I prefer something more natural. While I used a little bit of yellow cheese, I also added a little turmeric for color. Turmeric is a very healthy spice. It has some flavor, but it has an amazingly yellow color. It is very easy to include a little in the diet, here and there. The yellow color in a dish that has "cheese" in the very title, just makes the food look more enticing. 

Richness and Flavor

I like flavor in my foods, so I also used caramelized onions, garlic and thyme. I added nutmeg and a little chipotle powder. As far as the macaroni, I used an 8-ounce box of Ancient Harvest Quinoa Elbow Macaroni. It is gluten free. It isn't something I had to use, but I really like the flavor of that pasta and have bought it often for that reason alone. If it came in more shapes, it might be the only macaroni product I would buy. I did use quinoa spaghetti a few times, though it is far more breakable in the long, thin strands; not as ideal. Still, even that would be completely acceptable if being gluten free was a must. 

To Bake? 

Decadent Mac and Cheese, Baked with Crumb Topping
It is not remotely necessary to bake this dish. It is all properly cooked once the macaroni is stirred in. It will all depend on the kind of presentation you want to make. I decided on a pretty presentation and poured it into a casserole. Topping it with Panko crumbs seemed a no-brainer for a crispy top. I was casting about in my head for flavors to spice up the Panko. I could have just mixed in a little melted butter and/or oil to help with the browning. Last minute, I did an about-face, thinking of the pesto in my fridge. If you have never used pesto, it is generally a basil product with garlic and oil at its most basic. Cheese and pine nuts are often added, and I even add a little butter to make it a more spreadable (i.e. less drippy) mixture. Pesto would be an excellent way to flavor the crumbs, plus making a pretty green contrast with the golden-sauced macaroni. If making this for a quick family supper, just serve it as is and forget the crumbs and baking.

Decadent Mac and Cheese

Decadent Mac and Cheese alongside a steak
serves 6 to 8

8 ounces elbow macaroni
6 - 8 ounces bacon, fried, crumbled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, quartered, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 - 3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt, as needed
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder, optional
4 ounces cream cheese (low fat acceptable)
1 - 1 1/2 ounces (1/3 - 1/2 cup) shredded Parmesan (not the green cans)
1/2 - 3/4 cup shredded cheese; chedder, jack, a blend, other

CRUMB TOPPING - optional:
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
2 - 3 teaspoons Pesto
2 teaspoons olive oil

In a skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Drain, crumble and set aside.

In a large, heavy sauce or soup pot (at least 4 to 6 quart), melt the 2 tablespoons of butter and the tablespoon of olive oil. Once hot, add in the onions and keep heat over low to medium low and slowly saute the onions until deep golden, about 30 minutes. 

While the onions are cooking, bring a large pot of water to boil and cook the macaroni according to package directions, or until al dente. Drain and rinse; set aside.

Once onions are deep golden, add in the garlic and thyme and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes. Make the bechamel sauce by sprinkling the flour over the onions and stirring until all the flour is incorporated. Add in the milk. Turn the heat up to medium, and whisk until the mixture bubbles and thickens slightly, about 5 - 10 minutes. Add in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, turmeric and chipotle powder. Toss in all the cheeses and allow them time to melt, stirring occasionally. Once melted, add the drained macaroni and the crumbled bacon. Stir well. The macaroni and cheese is now ready to serve.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; 325 if on Convection. Set the Panko in a bowl. Add in the 2 teaspoons of olive oil and the pesto. With fingers, rub in the oil and pesto until well distributed and the crumbs are nicely green. Pour the macaroni and cheese into a greased, oven safe casserole, either 9 x 9-inches or7 x 11-inches. Pour in the macaroni mixture and sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden and the macaroni is bubbling. 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Remembering my Grandparents

Lately I have been thinking about a dessert Grandma Pramik used to make when I was small; she called it Apple Cake. It was not actually a cake of any kind, but a sort of apple casserole. It was always made in a smaller (11 x 7-inch) casserole, lined with, I believe, pie pastry. Sweetened apples went in. It was baked. I loved it. And that is as far as I can recall.

Grandma Pramik, crocheting in our backyard
My Mom gave me the recipe once a very, very, very long time ago. I recall trying to make it, back then. It didn't come out as I remembered it, and that was the last time I tried. So when recently I started thinking that maybe now, with a whole lot more baking experience under my belt (literally!), I might be able to make it come out better - I decided to hunt for the recipe. And it's not in my file. Oh NO! I looked and looked again. Since it was so very long ago, I have absolutely no recollection of the precise ingredients.

I emailed all my 5 sisters, though I had little hope the three younger ones would know what I was talking about. I described what I remembered and asked if any of them actually had the recipe, or better yet, my Mom's old recipe box, where it would surely have been stashed. The two older of my sisters (all younger than me) remember the dessert, but alas, have no recipe. No one seems to know what may have happened to the recipe box.

ONLINE: where we go when all else fails!

I started looking this morning, first searching using more words than desirable, but I just didn't know how to search. Grandma called it Apple Cake. It is not a cake. It is also not a pie. It was always much drier than a pie would be. It's been too long to know how to describe it accurately. I started out with a search for "vintage apple casserole dessert". I got some ideas, but the only thing even remotely close called for using a store bought cookie dough for the crust. No, definitely not! 

Grandparents Michael and Tina Hromish, ca 1950
After a while, with a recipe for a Dutch Apple Cake seeming to sound similar, I made a search for that. No, not quite. Then I wondered: Grandma was Slovak, maybe look for Slovak Apple Cake? That was my next search and looking through sites, I came to one where the Apple Cake recipe was not like my Grandma's, but the site itself was just fascinating. It is called Pauline's Cookbook, and she talks of her Slovak grandma Pauline. My maternal grandma was Slovak, from the Slovakia side of Czechoslovakia. Yet this blog talks of places near Novi Sad, in what is now Serbia, where my paternal grandparents came from. It seemed to be a mixture of both my heritages. After about 2 hours of wandering through her blog, and then Facebook, doing a lot of reading, both her stories and her Grandma's translated recipes, my head was spinning. She has actually traveled to these areas of Europe and apparently speaks the language. Unfortunately, while I heard all my grandparents speak their native tongues all through childhood, I never learned the languages. I wish now that I had. I have plenty of relatives in Europe that I have no contact with; would not recognize them if I saw them.

So after much reminiscing and reading recipes that were familiar, I am still clueless on the Apple Cake. Maybe Grandma played with a recipe from Pennsylvania or Ohio, where she lived after coming to the US. I may have to try my hand at something similar and see what happens. I have plenty of apples. If anyone reading this has any idea what I am talking about, please post a comment! Thanks!

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Testing Less Sugar Apple Crisp

When I was about 16 years old, a very long time ago, I started thinking ahead to one day getting married, having a family and cooking. At the time, I knew nothing of cooking, really. My sisters and I did on occasion try our hand at making a box cake. Making icing was somewhat less a success. With Mom's supervision, we made cookies for holidays. Though I didn't cook then, and did not until I was actually married and moved to Guatemala, I knew there would come a time for it. I began tearing out pages from some of Mom's magazines that had recipes sounding good to me at the time. 

One of the things I tore out was a little insert of a few pages on things to do with apples. From adding applesauce to meat loaf to desserts, this little flyer had it. The one recipe I took from there was an apple crisp. Ever since first making this recipe, I was totally in love. For me it is even better than apple pie, which is hard to beat. Mom never made an apple crisp, in my recollection. Her Mom made what she called an apple cake - not a cake at all but more like a deep dish sort of drier apple pie. I do not know what ever became of that recipe. I know I had it once. I know I tried making it once. It did not come out at all as I remembered, so I never made it again.
Less Sugar Apple Crisp

So back to the apple crisp. The recipe as it stood was small, filling only an 8 x 8" or 11 x 7" pan. I doubled the recipe later on and kept it that way, though some of the measurements had to be changed slightly to work better. I have made this recipe so often and for so long that I feel it is mine. The topping for this apple crisp is not your usual oatmeal topping, but a sort of streusel-like mixture given the texture by adding eggs. I have never ever seen a recipe like this anywhere else. I love it so much I have called it my Best Apple Crisp, Ever. I get nothing but raves, every time. It is so simple. Far easier and quicker than making a pie.


Lately I have had more difficulty keeping my blood glucose numbers at an acceptable level. I bought that Stevia in the Raw that is used cup for cup like sugar. I used it with less than perfect results in some "Half the Sugar Chocolate Chip Spice Cookies" recently. The cookies were good but with a texture I was less fond of. I am not crazy about the idea of maltodextrin being the main ingredient in that "stevia" either. I have it in the pantry though, so I will use it.

Sugar is a funny thing to try and replace. I am seeing this more now that I am experimenting with less or no sugar in recipes. Sugar creates moisture. Use less sugar, and a recipe is less moist. The cookies turned out somewhat dry and without the chewiness I associate with chocolate chip cookies. They were delicious. Just not what I wanted. The same happened with my apple crisp yesterday. I substituted a fourth of the brown sugar in the apples themselves, and a full half of the sugar in the topping with Stevia in the Raw. 

Another thing different in this recipe was the fact that I used dehydrated apples. I had a glut of apples coming to me last Fall, so when my freezer could hold no more I started slicing and dehydrating apples. I used 2 bags of what would have been 8 cups fresh apples EACH, setting them into a bowl of water to reconstitute. These dehydrated apples do grow, but not to original size. I used all these apples in a 9 x 13 pan, adding in the brown sugar and stevia, lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg as usual for my recipe. The apples were moist all through. Yet they did not make the juicy sauce in the pan that I normally see. The topping is nice, though less moist, but that is fine as I like the topping crisp. The difficulty is that the apples did not compensate for the dry topping with the usual sauce. The flavors are perfect. It's just more dry. A little cream or ice cream would likely make the dryness less noticeable. Obviously this can be made with fresh apples also. Here is what I did:

Less-Sugar Apple Crisp
Less Sugar Apple Crisp

makes one 9 x 13-inch pan

8 cups apples, peeled, cored, sliced
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Stevia in the Raw
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons lemon or lime juice

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup Stevia in the Raw
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 on Convection). Place the first 6 ingredients into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish and mix with spoon or hands to combine. Whisk together in a large bowl the first 5 topping ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs. Pour the eggs into the dry ingredients and quickly mix with a fork until the mixture looks like crumbs. Pour this over top of the apples in the baking dish. Drizzle the melted butter over top of the crumb mixture and sprinkle with the cinnamon and nutmeg. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and the apples are bubbling.

When I had this in the oven I thought , "Drat! I could have tried making it Gluten-Free!" I have never attempted that either, though I cannot imagine why it would not work out. Particularly if made with all real sugar and no Stevia in the Raw. Another day.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Poilane Style Miche - Another New Bread

Book Cover showing a Poilâne Style Miche
I have rarely been so excited about making bread as since I received a copy of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I know if anyone is following my blog, you might be sick of hearing about this book. It opened my eyes to an entirely different world of bread making. I began by making a starter dough from wild yeasts, then following with the "barm" or actual starter dough from which would spring any other bread using this wild yeast type of starter.

My starter grew just exactly as the book described. The starter barm also. I went on to make an Onion Deli Rye which was fantastic. Then I tried a 100% Sourdough Rye. I did add a tiny bit of yeast to help things along, as the weather at the time was awfully cold and the house, though heated, just felt cool. That bread, as well as the Sunflower Seed Rye, just didn't quite grow the way the book indicated. While I have nothing against, and sometimes even prefer a very dense bread, these two didn't quite look like the book's photos.

Challah, Sunflower Seed Rye, Deli Rye, 100% Sourdough Rye
Many times when I have "refreshed" the starter, it would take a very long time to recover and begin bubbling. Now that summer is very much here, and the house, even with air running, is much warmer, the starter has gone totally mad! My little wild yeasts are very happy indeed. The starter is growing amazingly quickly each time it is refreshed, so with that in mind, I decided to try making another bread, using only the wild yeast starter, with no addition of commercial yeast to boost the growth. This time I made the Poilâne-Style Miche. 

Who is Poilâne and What the Heck is a Miche?

Okay, according to Peter Reinhart's book (as well as most any website out there), Lionel Poilâne is a bread baker of such repute that his "miche" (rustic sourdough whole wheat bread) is now just lovingly called "Pan Poilâne" (or Poilâne Bread). His recipe is simple: sourdough starter, whole wheat flour, Fleur de Sel de Guerande and water. Of course, Poilâne uses a wood fired oven for his huge 4-pound miche loaves.

My Poilâne Style Miche
A "miche" as noted, is a rustic style of sourdough whole wheat bread. The size is generally very large at 4 or more pounds, as the loaves keep better this way. In olden days, there would be a communal oven and people would bring their breads to bake in the one oven; it would have to last them the week. 

Reinhart suggests dividing the dough into two or even three smaller loaves for home baking, as trying to manipulate 4 pounds of dough into the oven could be a task. I went farther and just divided the recipe in half. Reinhart gives no poundage weight for this recipe as he does for all his other recipes. Generally it is noted in a recipe that it will "make two 1-pound loaves" or something such. The recipe, cut in half as I made it, weighed 2 pounds. It was a majestic loaf, and I used my "banneton" or bread mold for the first time to give the loaf visual interest. Once the dough has risen, ready to bake, a Bread Lame is used to slash in a pound-sign or "hash-tag" type of pattern. Poilâne slashes his "Pans Poilâne" with a large script "P."  

My Poilâne-Style Miche

Poilânes "Pan Poilâne" or Miche (photo from website)
The first step in making this bread is making a "firm starter." Rather than a refreshed starter as usual, the firm starter requires more flour for a far stiffer dough. It is allowed to ferment at room temperature for a few hours, then placed in the refrigerator to retard (it's growth) overnight. This step brings out more flavors in the final dough. The starter grew amazingly quickly. I put it in the fridge, where it continued to grow, though more slowly. Next day I got out the starter and cut it into smaller pieces, leaving it to warm to room temp on the counter. Because of making half the normal recipe, I did use my Kitchen Aid mixer to do the kneading for me. I kneaded for a full 15 minutes, since it was made with whole wheat, which can make rising more difficult. It passed the "windowpane" test and was just one degree above where it was supposed to be.

After allowing the dough to rise for 4 hours and be shaped into a boule, or round loaf, the book gives the option of allowing the dough to rise in the pan and then turning out and baking, or just putting the shaped dough into the refrigerator once more overnight, to retard growth and add more flavor. Whole wheat bread can be blah, so I was all about more flavor. I formed the boule and set it into my well-floured banneton, covered it and refrigerated.

My Banneton or bread form
Mind you, I had started really early that morning with the initial intent of baking that day, only changing my mind and deciding to retard overnight as I was forming the bread. Later in the afternoon, when preparing for dinner, I opened the fridge to find my loaf fully risen! Yikes! I pulled it out, now at 4:30 in the afternoon. The book says that if it has been refrigerated, to allow 4 hours to come to room temperature and rise before baking. In one hour on the counter, the loaf was far above the edges of my 10-inch banneton. I heated the oven!

The only tricky part was getting the dough out of the banneton. I floured it heavily before placing the dough in. It came out reluctantly. There was a fair amount of deflation caused by this slow release from the mold. Still, after a few minutes it was very obviously recovering. I made the slashes over top of the pretty pattern from the bread mold and slid it onto my new oven stone.
Beautiful Crumb

The bread came out so beautifully. I nearly cried. It is a joy to behold. It tastes wonderful, particularly for a whole wheat loaf. I hope anyone out there who loves bread baking might attempt this recipe. 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

New and Improved No Sugar Peach Ice Cream

Once again I attempted making an ice cream without sugar, yet still creamy. All in all, I am very pleased indeed, at how it came out. As a recap, in case you are just seeing this for the first time: I made an extremely high fat Peach Cheesecake Ice Cream for my sister-in law's birthday dinner. My goal was to have an intensely creamy-smooth mouth feel, and this ice cream had that to the nth degree. However. Not everyone would really want to make something so high fat/calorie, and since this ice cream did nothing good for my diabetic glucose numbers, I decided to try a no-sugar ice cream, also going quite low in the fats category. The flavor of this ice cream was great, but the mouth feel was intensely wrong. It also got hard as a rock in the freezer, making it impossible to scoop out, ice crystals being the main culprit.
No Sugar Peach Ice Creamier, front. Difficult to scoop first attempt behind.

Preventing Ice Crystals in Ice Cream

In the meantime, I had done some research on what prevents the formation of ice crystals in ice creams. Many things are helpful, sugar being high on the list. I wanted to use stevia and still get a relatively good mouth feel. Some of the other things that could help with the prevention of ice crystals forming are gelatin, high fat/oil content (fats don't freeze solid), alcohol, and things like xanthan gum, guar gum or locust bean gum. These last three are found in many products and most ice creams, just because of the ability to keep the ice cream creamy. Purists may not want to add these extras, but guar gum and locust bean gum are natural products after all. Xanthan gum is a culture grown product. I also dislike the flavor of xanthan gum. 

I do have guar gum in my pantry for gluten-free baking, so I didn't need to go searching. It is sold in the local health food store, as there are many people here with gluten intolerance. It is expensive, but little is needed per recipe. I did more research on the amount of guar gum to use in a recipe and I came away cautious. It seems that guar gum can become ropy or stringy in too large amounts, or if it clumps in a mixture. I opted to try the smallest amount recommended: 1/4 teaspoon per quart of mixture.
Much easier to scoop out, No Sugar Peach Ice Creamier shown in front.

I found out in reading that most cream cheese is stabilized with guar gum or one of these gums. The fact that I used an entire 8-ounce block in my Peach Cheesecake Ice Cream most likely contributed to the creaminess with the addition of guar gum in the cream cheese. The fact that egg yolks are higher in fat made me decide to use a larger amount of egg yolks in the custard part of the recipe. Instead of only 2, I upped the amount to 5, while lowering the 2% milk amount. I did also use 1 tablespoon of Cointreau, a lovely orange flavored liqueur. I could have added in more than only one tablespoon, but I wanted the peach flavor to shine through, not the liqueur.

The result was stellar, for a no sugar recipe. After storing the ice cream in the freezer overnight, I could still manage to scoop it out into the dish, whereas with the first no-sugar recipe I could only get chips of the ice cream out (emphasis on ICE). While ice crystals are still apparent in this second attempt, they seem to easily melt into a smooth and creamy product in the mouth, giving that nice mouth feel I so desire. 

No Sugar Peach Ice Creamier

makes 1 quart

2 peaches, approximately
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 ounces cream cheese 
1 tablespoon Cointreau, or alcohol of choice 
1 cup 2% milk
5 egg yolks

8 packets Stevia (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
1/4 teaspoon guar gum
Nearing 170 degrees on my Thermapen, temp rises very quickly.          Right, custard coats a spoon.

Make the custard: pour the milk into a small saucepan and heat to almost scalded; as soon as any little bubbles appear around the edges of the milk. Have the egg yolks in a medium bowl or 2 cup measure. Once milk is hot, pour it slowly at first, whisking constantly into the yolks. Once milk is all whisked in, pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return to the heat on about medium. Whisk constantly, until the mixture will very obviously coat the back of a spoon, about 170 to 175 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Do not heat any longer or the mixture will turn into scrambled eggs. Remove the pan from heat immediately and set the pan into a bowl with ice water, to cool quickly.

Peel the peaches , remove pits and cut into chunks. Place them in a blender with the lemon juice. Blend smooth; you should have about 1 1/2 cups. Add in the cream cheese and Cointreau and puree completely. Once the custard is cooled to no more than tepid, add it into the blender until all the ingredients are homogenous. Pour the mixture into a lidded container and chill completely.

Next day, pour out all the packets of stevia into a small bowl and add the guar gum. Mix well, then place this mixture into a small, fine-holed sieve; set aside. Pour the chilled custard mixture into your ice cream machine and follow manufacturer's directions to churn. While the machine is running, use the sieve to sprinkle the stevia and guar gum mixture over the custard. This is to prevent any clumps forming. 

If your machine prevents you from sprinkling this during churning, this can be done beforehand, but be sure to sprinkle lightly over the whole surface while mixing in. 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Using Zah'tar with Grilled Chicken

Clockwise from top: sumac, sesame, oregano, salt, thyme
Nearly two years ago was the first time I heard of Zah'tar (or Zatar/Zahtar/Zaatar and many more spellings), spice mixture shown right. It is a Mediterranean spice blend that usually includes sumac, sesame seeds, thyme and oregano and generally has salt in the mix. Most authentic recipes use an Asian species of marjoram not available in the US. Some add coriander seed. Use this spice mixture to sprinkle over foods, or mix it in with olive oil for dipping a nice crusty bread. But you might be wondering about the "sumac" part of the equation. 

What is Sumac, and is it related to Poison Sumac?

You might hear the word Sumac and immediately think, "Poison Sumac?" The Mediterranean spice, sumac is not from the same plant as poison sumac, though it is in the same family. The sumac used in Zah'tar and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines grows wild only in those areas, so there is no chance of running afoul of the wrong plant. The poison sumac here in the US is from a plant called Rhus vernix, where the Mediterranean plant sumac is from the plant Rhus coriaria. 


Makes about ¾ cup

¼ cup sumac powder
¼ cup raw, unhulled sesame seeds (may be toasted in a dry pan first)
2 tablespoons dried oregano leaves (not powder)
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves (not powder)
1 teaspoon salt

If toasting sesame seeds, place them in a dry frying pan and stir constantly until they begin to pop and snap. Remove from heat immediately and pour onto a plate to cool. Grind all ingredients together in a mortar and pestle, or briefly pulse together in a spice grinder.

Store Zahtar in a clean glass jar with close fitting lid for up to 3 months.

Lemon Zah'tar Chicken served with Sweet Potato Oven Fries and Green Beans
Sumac closely parallels the use of tamarind or dried green mango powder in Indian and Indonesian cuisines. The dried, crushed fruits yield a reddish brown powder that is preferred over lemons for its fruity sourness and astringency. Sumac is a major component of the spice mixture called Zah'tar. Zah'tar is wonderful when mixed with olive oil to use for dipping bread. It can be sprinkled over most any food that needs a little zip. Sprinkle it over hummus, yogurt, avocado or cheese.

Lemon Zah'tar Chicken on the grill
A Syrian acquaintance once made chicken kebabs, marinating them first in a mixture of yogurt, lemon juice, dill, garlic, salt and pepper. She was lamenting the lack of sumac to make her kebabs more authentic. Since I happened to have some, I brought it for her to use. Thinking back on those very flavorful kebabs, I thought the use of Zah'tar would be a great flavor mixture to add to this sort of recipe. Last evening I put this to the test, with wonderful results.

Lemon Zah'tar Chicken

serves 3 or 4
Kebabs, before and after grilling

3 to 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Zah'tar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
few grinds fresh black pepper

Cut the chicken breasts into about 1 1/2 or 2-inch cubes. Place the cubes of chicken into a zip-top bag or other container with a lid. In a bowl, mix together all the marinade ingredients until well combined, then pour over the chicken cubes and mix well to coat all sides of the meat. Let the chicken marinate for at least 1/2 hour in this mixture, or up to 2 hours, maximum. After this time the chicken starts to break down from the yogurt and becomes slightly mushy.

Slide the cubes of chicken onto shish kebab skewers, anchoring the meat at the ends with slices of carrot or bell pepper.

Light a grill and once hot, either lower the temperature to medium low, or push most of the coals to one side. Grill over lower heat for about 4 minutes per side, or until the internal temperature is at least 160 to 165 degrees.

While thinking about the recipe for the chicken, I was also thinking of what to serve with the kebabs. I bought a couple of sweet potatoes and made oven fries, similar to my regular Oven Steak Fries. Sweet potatoes, despite being somewhat harder to cut through than regular white potatoes, bake faster than white potatoes. When making oven fries, I like to mix melted butter and olive oil together for the great flavor. The butter could be omitted and all oil substituted. For the Sweet Potato Oven Fries I also added some seasonings, as well as first tossing the raw potato in a little cornstarch. This step was a bit of an experiment. I was hoping for a slightly crisper outside texture. My sweet potato slices were not of even thickness, so some got brown and others did not, but all were well cooked. Just not crisped. I will add the cornstarch to the recipe here; whether to use it is up to you.

Sweet Potato Oven Fries

serves 2 to 4

2 pounds sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 400 degrees (375 on Convection Bake). Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into thick lengths, as for "steak fries". Sprinkle the cornstarch over the potato pieces and toss well to coat. Place the sweet potatoes in a zip-top bag or other container with lid and pour on the oil and butter, then add in the salt and garlic powder. Seal the container and toss well to coat completely. The potatoes can be held at this point for up to an hour before baking.

Pour the potatoes onto a rimmed baking sheet large enough to hold all the pieces with space between. Bake them for about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and turn all the pieces over. Return to the oven for another 10 to 12 minutes, or until they are golden and cooked through. Serve immediately.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.