Sunday, April 22, 2012

Herbivoracious, it's better than Cats!

I can't actually say the word "Herbivoracious" without spraining my tongue, but that hasn't stopped me from talking about it.  And by 'it' I mean the blog by Michael Natkin and now his first book of the same name.  I was tempted to refer to his blog as a "vegetarian" blog but I feel that diminishes it somehow.  Not that there's anything wrong with vegetarians mind you (some of my best friends eat vegetables) but qualifying a blog by its focus might steer people away just because someone might label themselves differently.  It would seem a shame that an omnivore like myself might pass by Herbivoracious, thinking it wasn't for them.  To beat a dead horse (sorry vegetarians) my point made a different way:  when I think about Rachel Maddow I think, "she's really smart." I don't think, "she's really lesbian smart."

Herbivoracious is a really good cookbook. Period.

But let's back up. First, for full disclosure, I should tell you that I know Michael. Not too well, but just well enough that we share a mutual respect for each other's work as well as membership cards from the same tribe - no, not lesbians, JEWS! We recently met for a drink to talk about writing and publishing and after one look at his new book, I told him I'd be happy to review it. The thing is, my blog, besides being the most terribly neglected thing on the interwebs, is not really in the review business. However, when I see something I like, I can't help but pass it on (and having been a reader of his blog, my instinct was that his recipes would be solid).  Testing still had to be done, though, because if a cookbook's recipes don't work, it's worth bubkus to me. I'm so glad they did or I wouldn't be here typing anything right now, I'd be busily trying to figure out how to tell Michael my blog is permanently down due to technical difficulties and it would never be working again, ever, until the end of days or a vampire-human war or a combination of both.  But here I am writing about these paella cakes - which can mean only one thing -- that's right, Fatty McCarbloader (points to self) can't stop eating them.

The photo of paella cakes in Herbivoracious is way better than mine, you'll just have to buy it to see what I mean.
There's something about Michael's blog that I've always liked. He has an artistic sensibility and a gentle confidence with food that you typically only see with experienced professionals. He's staged in some solid restaurants but his career has largely been in technology. This fact makes his quiet comfort producing good food, enticing food photography, and approachable writing all the more remarkable.

The best cookbooks teach me new techniques or explanations with bonus bits of nerdy science I didn't already know.   Herbivoracious does not disappoint. A recipe for brown butter cornbread, pg. 273 : "Browning the butter before making this cornbread contributes a deep, warm taste. For bonus points, you can add a tablespoon of nonfat milk powder to the butter as it is browning. The extra protein increases the Maillard reactions that are responsible for so many of the flavors we love."  A book that throws down the 'Maillard reaction' is a book that is comfortable talking about food on multiple levels, and while some of the recipes seem highly approachable for a busy home cook, there is enough of interest for the seasoned professional (read: old, bitter line cook).

Within 5 minutes of flipping through his book, I spotted 5 of what I consider to be among my most favorite dishes of the world: Banh xeo (Vietnam), Khao soi (Thailand), Fattoush (Lebanon), Mujadara (Middle East) and Chirashi Sushi (Japan). Many of these dishes were already vegetarian to begin with or if they contained meat, it was really as a garnish and not the focus.  While I love Khao soi with chicken or duck, the bedrock of the dish is really the curry paste, the noodles (both boiled and fried) and the pickled mustard greens. A vegetarian version is just a laser-focus on the central components.

With all the recent hubbub about eating more meatless meals (meatless Monday anyone?) I've been seriously considering cutting way back on my meat consumption. I can't think of a better day than Earth Day to write about a meatless cookbook that celebrates so many flavors so passionately that this meatlover did not feel one bit deprived of flavor or texture.  In fact, I felt clean and clear and might I say, somewhat lighter in my earth-loafers. (And while we're on the subject, check out Kim O'Donnel's fabulous Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook).

But back to those paella cakes -- what I most loved about this recipe was that I've been making and eating paella since the mid-80's and never have I thought about a twist on them the way Michael has done here. I'm a sucker for a recipe that combines savory and sweet, with a touch of sour. That little bit of orange marmalade with the smoky, crispy rice cakes and the richness and nuttiness of the Manchego was a little flashcake of brilliance.

Where to next in Herbivoracious? On my "to-make" list there are currently 4 words, taken from pg. 147.

Indian Fry Bread Tacos. 

Paella cakes with Manchego and marmalade
used with permission from Herbivoracious (Harvard Common Press, 2012)

Makes 12, serving 6 to12 as an appetizer or 4 to 6 as a main course 
45 minutes

Everyone agrees that the best part of paella is the soccarat, the crispy crust where the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan. Frying the rice as a patty creates even more surface area for that deliciously toasted flavor.  I learned about the combination of smoked paprika (pimentón) and cinnamon from an Amsterdam-based blogger named Mem, who writes Vegetarian Duck. The pairing sounded surprising to me, but when I tried it, I was blown away. Rather than tasting like two spices, it comes across as a married, individual flavor. The marmalade provides an interesting sweet/tart counterpoint to the rice and manchego cheese. My favorite brand, June Taylor, has large pieces of orange peel, but if you can’t find that, just use a small amount of any brand of Seville orange marmalade that you prefer. Another option would be a little bit of minced preserved lemon.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 cups short-grained Spanish rice (a type sold for paella; in a pinch you could use an Italian variety like Arborio)
3 1/2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 big pinch saffron
Kosher salt
2 large eggs
2 cups homemade breadcrumbs (page 000) or panko breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil for pan frying
12 slices manchego cheese

To serve
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimentón) mixed with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 1/4 cup Seville orange marmalade
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan with a tight fitting lid, heat the olive oil over high heat. Cook the onion and bell pepper for 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until slightly translucent, about 2 more minutes.

Add the vegetable broth, smoked paprika (taste it first; if yours is hot, adjust down unless you like that sort of thing), and the saffron. If the broth isn't salty, add 2 teaspoons of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce to bare simmer.

Cook until all of the water is absorbed. Taste a few grains. If they aren't fully cooked, add a bit more water. They should be just slightly al dente, not mushy.

Allow the rice to cool. If you are in a hurry, spread it on a sheet pan and refrigerate.

Taste the rice and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Beat the eggs and mix them in. You should have a mixture that you can just barely squeeze into a patty in your hands. Put the breadcrumbs in a flat dish.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add about 1/8 inch of oil to the pan. Working quickly, grab a handful of rice, form it into a rough patty, press it into the breadcrumbs on each side and add to the skillet. Use a spatula to gently shape into a nice cake, not too thick - we want the eggs to set inside.

 Fry until quite crispy and brown on one side, about 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and top immediately with a piece of manchego. Fry until the other side is also crispy and browned; transfer to paper towels. Continue making and frying patties, adding more oil to the skillet as needed.

To serve: Lightly dust your plates with the paprika/cinnamon, add the patty(s), and top each with about 1 teaspoon of the marmalade, some sea salt, and a few grinds of pepper.

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