Horchata de Arroz

Horchata de Arroz

For the first nine months of my blog I shot all the pictures on my iPhone. That runs contrary to a lot of professional advice, but I didn’t anticipate any traffic in the beginning. An iPhone was the tool that I had, and I wanted to be able to test things out and get into the habit of blogging before dropping any serious money on this space. I’m not going to claim that I became a brilliant photographer in those nine months. I would say that I improved a lot between my first blog post (eek) and my last one shot with an iPhone (not great by any means, but better). And I think anyone would argue there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Around six months into blogging I decided that I wanted to take it seriously.In order to blog seriously there’s a lot of different ways you can spend a lot of money. It’s not really polite to talk about money, but I’m a line cook. If you have an awareness about restaurants in America you probably know that cooks of any kind, especially line cooks, aren’t exactly in the top 1 percent. And everything in blogging seems to have a cost, from premium subscriptions to owning your own domain to creative licenses. It was enough to make me consider taking on a third job to pay for all the blogging costs. But after thinking over some opportunities and blissfully ignoring others, I decided that before dealing with abstracts I should learn to take pretty pictures. I started putting away a small amount of every paycheck into a designated account, did some research, and went to a camera store and asked an annoying amount of questions. After three months of saving I walked away with a new camera. A Nikon D5300, to be exact.

It was a learning curve, and a fun one, to figure out how to shoot pictures on this new camera. The photos got better quickly, until they weren’t getting better anymore. It took googling “food photography” and “learn to take better pictures” that I figured out I was using this carefully saved for camera as an expensive point and shoot. Oops.

So here’s the first picture for this blog not shot in manual mode. It’s the first with changes to the white balance and exposure, and the first where I staged the photo before bringing in the food. I still have a lot to learn, but luckily it’s a fun thing to study. It’s also fun to try styling different foods, and some are tougher than others. So naturally I’ll start with a drink. Drinks are easy to photograph, right?

Horchata’s a treat that I don’t drink enough. I see it occasionally at the menu at certain Mexican restaurants, but in my experience it’s a revolving menu item. It’s there one week, gone the next, and may pop back up in a month or two. I’ve always loved the creamy sweetness of horchata, and I got tired of waiting to encounter it. It was high time that I made it myself.

We were hit with a heat wave here last week, and our apartment doesn’t have air conditioning. This is usually not a problem- we live in the coldest major city in the US, where the mean temperature is in the 40s. But when the heat index soars above a hundred it’s painful. For a few consecutive days I gulped down this horchata on ice, which was both a special treat and a cooling tonic. If you’re in a heat wave, this is a treat that will help fix what ails you. If you’re not, it’s a tasty not-dessert dessert, a treat with breakfast, and, as per Aaron, an excellent addition to coffee.

It’s an easy drink, but one that requires both time and some equipment. You need a blender to make horchata. You’ll also need a fine mesh strainer, some cheesecloth, and patience. If you have all those things, and you’re willing to plan ahead, you’ll be rewarded with a sweet, creamy drink that reminds me of the milk left behind after eating cinnamon toast crunch in all the best ways.

Horchata de Arroz

adapted from Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas by Fany Gerson

Be patient while the horchata is straining. Strain carefully, otherwise you’ll be left with rice pulp in your glass.

Makes about 6 cups

2/3 cup brown rice
3 cups warm water
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
ground cinnamon for serving

In a blender, food processor, or spice grinder, grind the rice into a fine powder. Transfer to a jar with the warm water and cinnamon stick. Refrigerate overnight.

In a blender combine the rice water with the whole milk, sugar, and salt. Blend on high speed for a minute, until everything is well combined and the cinnamon stick has been completely distributed into the rice milk mixture.

Strain into a clean container, using a strainer lined with cheesecloth. If the horchata has some difficulty straining use a spoon to gently stir the horchata as it strains. Refrigerate again until completely cool.

Serve over ice, dusted with cinnamon.

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Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

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Last year I attempted to grow a garden. I ended up with possibly a pound of cherry tomatoes, a handful of chives, enough kale for regular consumption, and an uncanny amount of zucchini.

This year I attempted to grow a garden again. For about two weeks before summer broke I weeded and watered and planted seeds and cooed over the plants. And I haven’t been back since.  It was empowering to grow my own crops, but I was not good at it. Perhaps I have a black thumb. I recently killed a mint plant. You know, the ones that are so prolific that there are warnings about planting them in any place that they can possibly spread because they can and will grow like a weed? Maybe one day I’ll be good at gardening. For now I’ll  put my money where my mouth is and buy local vegetables in penance for all the plants I’ve killed with my neglect.

In any regard, the recipes I needed most last year were recipes to use up zucchini. I grew ones that reached two feet long, and would have kept growing if I had not decided to save what flavor was left. Zucchini filled my vegetable crisper for months. It got baked into bread, shredded into pancakes, stewed with tomatoes and eggplants, and was the subject of many an experiment. I’m destined to love zucchini. When I lived in England I would routinely walk to the greengrocer to pick out a handful of plump, firm, dark green zucchini. When I brought them to the counter the proprietor would inevitably and deliberately inform me that I was buying courgettes. I always made sure to carefully thank him for the zucchini, and then would head back to the kitchen. At the time I had more free time than I was accustomed to, and I would routinely spend 2 hours making dinner. Perhaps I should have known what my career path was  then. Instead it took me four more years of trying and floundering to figure it out.

One of my first experiments with zucchini was sautéing in olive oil and garlic and tossing it with pasta. I’ve repeated this format using a variety of vegetables with great success. Back then I was still teaching myself to cook and was horrified at not having a dishwasher. I still don’t have a dishwasher, but I have mastered the art of a good zucchini pasta. This beauty is a little less quick-easy-gotta-eat-now meal, and has transitioned into a creamy and elegant way to eat your vegetables that’s still quick and easy.

The secret to this pasta is cheese. Brie, specifically. A moderate amount of mild brie cheese melts into the pasta water and forms a light sauce, creamy enough to feel like a treat but light enough for summer dinner. And please do use something mild and inexpensive- there’s no reason to splurge on something intense or funky. There’s a generous amount of basil stirred into the pasta for a sweet, fresh anise back note, and crushed red pepper flakes for a bit of heat.The whole sauce is has a beautiful bright note from lemon juice and is a satisfying match to sautéd zucchini and onions. It’s quite good on its own, but is even better when accented with fresh basil and slivered almonds.

Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

adapted from The New York Times

Serves 2 generously or 4 moderately

It’s best if the zucchini and the pasta are both ready at the same time. Since that sort of magical timing rarely happens in real life, aim to finish the zucchini before the pasta- it will sit much better than the pasta will.

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 large zucchini, cut into quarters lengthwise and then sliced into 1/4 inch pieces
3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups basil, tightly packed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
4 ounces of mild brie cheese, rind removed and cubed
8 ounces of your short pasta shape of choice
basil, for serving
slivered almonds, for serving

Heat a large skillet (and I do mean large- I used a 12 inch skillet) over medium heat and add three tablespoons of olive oil. Once the olive oil is hot add the onion and garlic. Stir well, and let sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft but hasn’t taken on any color, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a healthy amount of salt, then cook your 8 ounces of pasta until tender. Before draining the pasta save 1 cup of the pasta water.

Add the zucchini, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, crushed red pepper flakes, and black pepper to your large skillet. Stir to coat everything. Let the zucchini cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it gets soft and starts to take on some color. If the zucchini is finished before the pasta you can remove the skillet from heat.

Meanwhile, using a food processor, mortar and pestle, or a sharp knife, bash the basil into a paste. Stir the basil with the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and the lemon zest.

When the pasta and zucchini are both finished add the pasta, the basil paste, the brie, and 1/4 cup of pasta water to the skillet. If you removed the skillet from heat return it to medium high heat now. Stir well, letting the brie dissolve. If you need to add more pasta water add it a 1/4 cup at a time, stirring well between each addition. Add the lemon juice. Taste and adjust for seasonings as necessary.

Serve right away, garnished with torn basil and the slivered almonds.

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Nectarine Pie

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There’s a reason, I think, that the expression is “a piece of cake”, not “a piece of pie”. Cake, while possible to complicate, is not by its nature complicated. There are 5 ingredient cakes, 1 bowl cakes, cakes whose recipes are easy to memorize and even easier to complete. Pie, with the complications of chilling and rolling and cubing and blind baking, can’t touch cake for convenience.

That doesn’t mean that pie can’t be simple. It just means you have to pay a bit of attention. I will happily make a pie over a cake any day, and only part of that is because pie is so much tastier than cake. Pie has an advantage over cake that it’s broken into discreet steps. Pie is one of those glorious treats that’s somehow acceptable for dessert and breakfast. And pie is never the wrong thing to bring when eating with people, no matter if the occasion is a casual cookout or a formal sit down dinner. It is both homey and fussworthy, which is a good thing to aspire to.

I used to think there was one standard pie crust recipe for every occasion. My standard is all butter and cut by hand. But I’ve been exposed to enough pie now to know that’s not true. There’s the shortening pie crust my mom swears by because she says it’s less fussy than butter. There was the pies made with vodka for tenderness by a college roommate. There was the lard crust that didn’t need to be chilled at a restaurant I worked at. And that was all before I had ever encountered the pie crust made in the food processor.

This crust throws a wrench into everything I thought I knew about pie crust. You start with a borderline obscene amount of fat (I used all butter), and use an electric mixer to blend it with cream, then slowly add in the dry ingredients. When rolling the crust out, you roll, then fold and roll again to make layers. What you have in the end is a beautiful crust that’s both tender and sturdy. There are layers of butter distributed in the crust that make it light, but it won’t break or flake apart as you try to eat it.

If you are a novice to pie-making this is the pie you should make. The crust is forgiving.  Making a pie may seem like a big time commitment, and it relies on a bit of planning, but there are discreet steps that make it easy to start and stop as needed. If you are not a novice to pie-making this is a pie you should make. The nectarines are juicy and have a sophisticated, dark sweetness after their turn in the oven, and the filling could be easily adapted as you desire.

Either way, it’s a piece of pie.

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Nectarine Pie

adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark

Yosses’ original recipe for this crust calls for 20 tablespoons of butter, 7 tablespoons of lard, and 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour. I’d encourage you to play around with the fats and flours that you want to use. The technique should remain the same, whatever you use.

Crust

27 tablespoons (13.5 ounces, or 3 and 3/8 sticks) of cold unsalted butter, cubed
7 tablespoons heavy cream
1 3/4 cups (225 grams) whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cups (220 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon salt

Filling

8 nectarines, pitted and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon brandy (I used cherry brandy, but any brandy would be good)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg, beaten, for brushing
Demerara (or other) sugar for sprinkling

To make the crust add the butter and the cream into a large bowl and use an electric mixer to beat until smooth. The butter shouldn’t be creamed, and it may not emulsify with the cream, but it should be a smooth mass. In another bowl combine the whole wheat pastry flour, the all-purpose flour, the sugar, and the salt. Add a third of the dry mixture and continue to beat until the mixture comes together like a wet dough. Add the remaining two-thirds of the dry mixture and beat until the whole thing barely comes together and resembles a shaggy dough. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead it all together until it’s in one mass. Divide the dough into two balls, wrap both balls in plastic wrap, and flatten into disks. Chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours.

Once the dough is sufficiently chilled remove it from the fridge, one disk at a time. Generously flour a clean surface. Roll the dough into a 12 inch square. Fold into quarters, and re-roll the dough. You want it just under a quarter inch thick. Be sure to be gentle, to use a good amount of flour, and to avoid tears. If you tear the dough attempt to patch it up by taking a piece on the end and molding it into the tear. If you can’t patch it up fold the dough again, use more flour, and roll again. Transfer your first piece of dough into a 9-inch pie pan. Pat into the pan and trim the edges so the dough extends only as far as the pie rim. Place the pie pan into the freezer. Repeat with the second piece of dough, but transfer onto a sheet tray. Place the sheet tray in the freezer. Let them chill out for at least an hour.

When you’re ready to start baking the pie preheat the oven to 425. Remove the frozen pie pan from the freezer, and line with aluminum foil. Fill the aluminum foil with dried beans or rice. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely before removing the aluminum foil.

While the pie crust is cooling start the filling. In a medium bowl toss the nectarines with the two sugars and the salt. Mix gently and let sit for 30 minutes. After thirty minutes have elapsed add in the cornstarch, brandy, and vanilla, and mix well.

Preheat the oven to 350. Fill the cool pie shell with the nectarines. Remove the sheet tray of frozen dough from the freezer. Brush the edges of the pie with the beaten egg using a pastry brush. Place over the filled pie, and cut off the edges that hang over the pie pan. Use your fingers to crimp the edges. Using a knife, cut vents for steam. Brush the whole thing with egg, and sprinkle with demerara sugar.

Place on a sheet tray (I used the same one that the dough had been frozen on) and bake for an hour, until the crust is golden and the juices of the pie are thick and bubbly. Let cool. Eat at room temperature.

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Cucumber Salad

Lately it’s been difficult figuring out what exactly to post. In the past when that’s a problem it’s because I’ve been making a string of duds. You know the type- food that’s fine, but not worth being immortalized online. Or even worse, food that’s objectively bad. But in the past few weeks it’s been tough because I’ve made a lot of things that are good. Objectively good. But they don’t feel like they belong here, for a variety of reasons.

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There was this crumble, for example. I made it out of a rabid, borderline primal desire not to waste food, and ended up bringing it to the first trivia night I’ve done in months. (Incidentally, we were  slaughtered. It was brutal.) It was an immensely tasty crumble. But it was so born out of fridge cleaning that I wasn’t sure if I could properly write the recipe. Who wants to read a recipe where the ingredients include “the salvageable parts of four wrinkly peaches”, “about a handful and a half of rye flour”, and “maybe 4 tablespoons of butter? The stuff hanging out in the back of the fridge”. If you’re interested in recreating this, take all the fruit in your fridge that’s close to going bad and cut into similar size pieces. Toss all this fruit in a handful of sugar and a sprinkle of cornstarch. Top with a combination of rye and all-purpose flour, oats, chopped walnuts, brown sugar, and melted butter. Bake at 350ish until the fruit starts to bubble up.

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Then there was Ashely Rodriguez’s kimchi and cheese dip I brought to a 4th of July cookout. It was delicious and decadent and maybe I should have posted it here. But I didn’t, because 1) It doesn’t really fit in with what I try to do here, 2) It’s not the type of food I typically make, and 3) I didn’t adapt the recipe at all and am not comfortable posting recipes that I don’t make changes to. But if the sound of kimchi and cheese dip has you salivating, here’s the recipe. (You may want to make it for a party, because it makes a LOT of dip.)

I made (and did not photograph) Anna Jones’ amazing warm kale and tomato salad for dinner about a week ago. I though about sharing the recipe here, and maybe I would have. I roasted the kale and tomatoes a little too far, but the salad is so good it deserves a permanent spot in my rotation and absolutely earned a do-over to make it more photogenic. I have, however, referenced her cookbook A Modern Way to Eat more than any other cookbook I own, and thought maybe I should lay off it a bit (in eager anticipation for the stateside release of her second book this August). But you, who have no such problem, should absolutely make this salad, and Sam Sifton of the New York Times thinks so too.

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Last week Aaron and I went camping. I, being the wifely person that I am, made granola bars from Sara Copeland’s Feast to supply us with breakfast. We ate them the morning after a dinner of brats cooked on spits and potatoes baked straight in the fire. The bars were very good- sweet but not saccharine, and full of wholesome ingredients perfect for eating next to a tent. But we had a cooler mishap after our breakfast which resulted in soaked granola bars, and after careful consideration I figured out that I was not finished tinkering with the recipe.

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And then there’s this cucumber salad. I’ve been leafing through my cookbooks recently looking for inspiration, and made this one out of curiosity. I can always find a reason not to post something. I hadn’t taken a proper picture, for one, and I’ve posted a lot of salads recently. I brought the salad to a friend’s house because I wanted to try it out. Despite not being quite snack food it was demolished. It was the first thing gone among a sea of various chips and dips. And that’s reason enough to post it- that it is utterly delicious.

Cucumber Salad

adapted from Near and Far by Heidi Swanson

This cucumber salad is light but filling, fragrant and fresh. A variation that Heidi suggests uses cilantro in place of the kale, which would be incredible if you like cilantro.

Serves 4

2 medium cucumbers, sliced in half, seeds removed, and thinly sliced
6 green onions, thinly sliced
1 cup finely chopped kale
12 ounces tofu, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
3 stalks of lemongrass, stiff outer layers removed, minced
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup chopped Brazil nuts, toasted
1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving

In a large bowl combine together the cucumbers, onions, kale, and tofu. Set aside.

In a small pot over medium heat combine the lemongrass, rice vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar, salt, and red pepper. Let the mixture cook, stirring frequently, until the brown sugar dissolves, about a minute or two. Let cool for 5 minutes, then toss over the cucumber mixture. Stir well, and let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings as necessary- mine needed a sprinkle more salt.

To serve, drain off the residual liquid and top with the Brazil nuts. Give the salad a good drizzle of lime juice, and serve with more lime wedges, as desired.

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Marinated Feta

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It was just a block of shrink-wrapped feta that was on sale at a local cafe/bodega. I picked it up on a whim, bought it, and carried it home in my purse. I don’t know what appealed to me about it- maybe that it wasn’t precious. It’s easy to get into a bubble sometimes, where I can get hand pulled mozzarella in bulk and assume everyone can find champaign vinegar. I’ve been spending some time in that bubble recently.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was a tween my parents somehow ended up with a subscription to Food and Wine magazine. My parents are many things, but “foodies” is not one of them. I read that magazine greedily. I wanted to go to the aprés ski parties in rustic modern mountain houses where they ate braised short ribs and hot chocolate affogato. I also wanted to know where in Sam Hill I was supposed to find adobo sauce and drinking chocolate that dotted those recipes. I know where to find both of those now. I’d still like an invite to the aprés ski parties.

It seems like in the past ten or so years our cultural interest and access to food has exploded. But this explosion was not evenly distributed. I get frustrated that it’s hard to find sumac or za’atar here in Minneapolis, and then get a text from my mom where she can find farro. And there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a recipe for, say, baked peaches that has the headline “Don’t even try to make this if your peaches are less than perfect.” Perfect peaches. What makes a peach perfect and where do I find them? And if I do find them is baking them, which is a clever trick to turn much-less-than-perfect fruit into almost-perfect fruit, really the preferable use for those perfect peaches than eating them over the sink with the juices running down your arms?

All of this is to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about food quality and food cost. We spend a slightly embarrassing amount on our grocery bill here, and are trying to cut down. It’s true that if you have top quality ingredients it’s easy to eat well. But it’s false that the only way to eat well is to have those top quality ingredients.  Sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity.

To whit, I made this marinated feta. I used the aforementioned block of shrink-wrapped feta- there was nothing fancy here. I chopped together garlic and mint, stirred with red pepper flakes, lemon zest, and olive oil, and poured over the block, then let it hang out in the fridge for 6 hours. The result is a flavor packed feta that’s far more elegant than its original incarnation. I tossed some pasta with this feta, chopped tomatoes, and the last of some roasted red peppers that had been hiding in the back of the fridge. Aaron made rice and beans, our customary pantry meal, and topped the whole mess with cubes of marinated feta, which brought a flavorful punch. I have plans to use the last bit as an omelette filling, but there’s a whole host of possibilities here. I think it’s fantastic with the first of the tomatoes (I’ve been choosing hydroponically grown tomatoes and feel no shame), and this could be a great component on a bruschetta or replacing the mozzarella in a caprese salad. This would also make a mean pizza topping, and I bet that blended with a bit more olive oil it would make a fantastic spread. And, of course, you could swap out the lemon peel for orange peel, the garlic for shallots, red pepper flake for your dried chili of choice, mint for almost any herb (but I bet oregano would be especially fantastic) or add in spices (saffron would be beautiful if you want to get spend-y) or pantry staples (anchovies or capers would be excellent).

Marinated Feta

one 8 ounce block of feta cheese
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
small bunch of mint, chopped (about 1/4 cup chopped)

Place the feta in a small bowl or container where it can lay flat. In another small bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and mint and whisk together well. Pour over the feta. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. It will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

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