Thursday, March 24, 2005

Rice Selection -- 99 Ranch Market Posted by Hello

Rice Makes the World Go 'Round!

The warm, sweet, nutty fragrance approaches the restaurant table, tickling our waiting noses, arriving ahead of the waiter. He smiles, carefully placing the steaming bowl of rice at the very center of the table. The accompanying meat and fish dishes assume secondary position, around the perimeter.

In your mind’s eye, you may be picturing a multi-course banquet from one of my Far East excursions. Of course, I have enjoyed many sublime meals in Asia and experienced eye-opening rice flavors there. But the dining venue that always springs to the front of my brain when I smell fragrant rice cooking in my own kitchen – and the setting of the wafting fragrance in this essay – is a small Thai restaurant in Regensburg, Germany! I don’t know if the restaurant is even there any longer (but I hope so), yet it has been the definition of fragrant rice to me ever since.

By some counts, there are 40,000 different varieties of rice. That seems as incomprehensible to me as it does you, by the way! Even the Ingredient Sleuth sometimes just shakes her head in amazement that borders on disbelief. There are, however, many remarkable varieties to be savored. Here are some of the kinds that I like to keep in my rice repertoire, from time to time:

Long Grain – kernels are 4 to 5 times longer than wide, light, fluffy; most-commonly served by Chinese restaurants

Medium Grain – kernels are shorter and wider than long grain, more likely to cling together than long grain

Short Grain – kernels are short, plump, almost round, very likely to cling together

Arborio -- kernels are large, creamy when cooked, release their starch during constant stirring with liquids to make Italian risotto; originally from the Po Valley in Italy

Basmati – kernels are long, thin, dry and separate when cooked; aromas similar to toasted nuts or popcorn; native to India and Pakistan, now also grown in the U.S.

Jasmine – kernels are long, thin, moist and clingy when cooked; aromas similar to toasted nuts or popcorn; native to Thailand. Now also grown in the U.S.

Brown – kernels may be any length, clingy, with nutty flavors and aromas; only the hull has been removed, leaving the bran layers in place (maintaining the high levels of minerals and B-complex vitamins) and retaining their brown color

Sweet (Glutinous) – kernels are short, plump, chalky white, opaque, extremely sticky; kernels lose their shape when cooked; used for desserts and sushi

Wild – not technically a rice, but a type of grass that has similar (water-based) growing conditions to rice

Grown and consumed worldwide, rice stands like a unifier of nations. I wonder how many people in the world would not recognize rice upon seeing it. Little wonder that it blends so well with foods of diverse ethnicity and that it unifies multitudes of ingredients in a single dish. Like a wise diplomat comfortable in any setting, it knows how to exist peacefully with its neighbors, adding just enough personality to keep things interesting.

A good assortment of rice has become available at many mainstream grocery stores. Often, supermarkets ‘file’ their specialty rice on the foreign-foods aisle (even though so much of it is now grown domestically) rather than the rice-beans aisle. International grocery stores, especially Asian markets, offer a huge variety. Large Asian grocery chains such as Mitsuwa Markets ( and 99 Ranch Markets ( carry many kinds and specialize in large-sack quantities. In addition, it seems that most college towns have at least one Asian market, many of them charming mom-and-pop operations with friendly and courteous owners; look under ‘Grocers & Markets – Retail’ in the phone listings. And there is always Internet shopping for rice of every description.

It’s fun to sample various types, starting small, with a one-pound bag, and then seeing where it takes you. I never expected to carry home five-, ten- or twenty-pound bags of rice from the grocery – but I do. Very cost-efficient and good for the strength training, too! And, very importantly to a globe-trotting ingredient sleuth, I could never have developed my chopstick ability without short-grain rice for home-based practice -- its clinginess somehow shortens the distance between the plate and the mouth! (Am I the only one who practices chopstick maneuvering at home?)

After all is said and done, love, not rice makes the world go ‘round, just as the song says. Hmmm, we do throw rice at weddings! There has to be a love-rice, world-spinning link there somewhere, doesn’t there?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Organic Swiss Chard from Henry's Market Posted by Hello

I’ll Leaf it to You to Decide!

Leafy greens. Why do they have to languish under that nondescript nomenclature, I wonder. Most other vegetable products thrive on names of their own, after all. We don’t say “rounded reds” to refer to apples, plums and pomegranates. Or “bulbous whites” to categorize turnips, onions and garlic. I’ll ‘leaf’ it to you to decide!

Maybe the terminology stems (no pun intended there – really!) from the wonderful properties that the leafy greens share. Their vibrant green color is, in fact, a clue to their healthful properties. They are full of vitamins and nutrients (an alphabetical wonder of A, C and E, to K, iron, fiber and beyond), have calorie counts so low that they are in danger of disappearing altogether, are easy to grow in most non-arid parts of the world, and have low carbohydrate levels that would send even the most discouraged dieter among us into daydreams of size-smaller jeans!

Swiss chard has been one of my favorites for years. It comes in both white- and red-stemmed varieties – the stalks are sturdy and crisp, similar to celery in shape. I always grin as I remember rushing out to the garden, slicing off some robust stalks with wavy leaves big enough for a bunny to hide behind and imagining that startled bunny shouting out, “Hey, what’s up doc?” with consternation.

In addition to all of its 'leafy green' health benefits, Swiss chard is versatile and may be used raw or cooked. I prefer to use the younger, smaller leaves as a raw ingredient in salads and the larger, mature leaves (and stalks) as a stir-fried side dish, in soups, or as an additional, robust element in a variety of baked casseroles and cooked dishes. A few of my ‘good old comfort-food’ casseroles, from years gone by, seem a bit uninteresting these days; it’s nice to update them with additional ingredients.

The following recipe comes from the delightful biographical book On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town (Broadway Books, New York) by Susan Herrmann Loomis. In it, she describes her cooking studies in France and her subsequent relocation there, from the U.S., with her husband and young son. The account of the growing family’s adaptation to life in Normandy, an hour from Paris, reads as a page-turner, punctuated by great reminiscences of friends and foods discovered. There are many mouth-watering, sensible recipes in the book – and a convenient recipe index at the end.

*Copyright Note: Susan Herrmann Loomis specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by The Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

Swiss Chard Frittata

1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound (500 g) ruby or regular green Swiss chard, stems removed, cut in ½-inch (1.3cm) strips
6 large eggs
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup or 1 ounce (30 g) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Generous pinch of hot paprika

1. Place the garlic and 1 tablespoon of the oil (15ml) in a 9-1/2-inch (24-cm) ovenproof skillet over medium heat and cook until the garlic begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the chard, stir, cover, and cook until it is wilted and has turned a very dark green, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to be sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs with the salt, the cheese, and the paprika just until they are broken up. Preheat the broiler.

3. Add the remaining oil to the chard and stir, making sure that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour the eggs over the chard and let them cook until they are set on the bottom, 4 to 5 minutes. You will detect a somewhat toasty aroma, and the eggs will be set, except for about ¼ inch (.7cm) on the top.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and place it about 5 inches (12.5cm) from the broiler. Cook until the top is just set and there is no uncooked egg, 1 to 2 minutes. Be careful not to overcook.

5. Remove from the broiler and place the serving platter on top of the pan. Reverse the pan and the platter so the frittata falls onto the platter. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.

Yield: 6 appetizer servings; 2 to 4 main-dish servings

Ms. Loomis says that no one, of any age, has ever turned down this frittata when she prepares it. I can certainly understand that! The robust, yet sweet, chard and garlic flavors, blended with the familiar comforts of tender eggs, then set to sparkling with the tangy paprika, is a winning combination for children of all ages. Because it is best served at room temperature, this frittata is particularly convenient for picnics or guests.

For more about Ms. Loomis, her other books and her cooking courses in Normandy, check out She keeps her website up-to-date and filled with interesting things to read. Of course, we would presume nothing less of someone who grows chard in her garden! I wonder if she has a rascal rabbit hiding behind the chard leaves in her vegetable patch?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Herbes de Provence Posted by Hello

Magical Herbal Helpers

As I spooned some Feta with Herbs (see previous post) into a small container for my workday lunch this morning, a light bulb came on in my sleepy brain! I didn’t tell you, last time, about my super timesaver to prepare the herbed feta. My secret ingredient … the piece de resistance!

What else could it be – Herbes de Provence (Herbs of Provence to we English speakers), of course! Rather than pull several containers of herbs from the cupboard, to make my own blend of herbs, I often simply open a trusty container of already-blended Provencal herbs. First “spoonfall” (is that the equivalent, utensil-wise, of footfall?), the multiplicity of pungent herbal scents confirms to me that whatever dish this tasty herbal combo is headed toward, it will be a delicious dish indeed.

I love to get the real thing, imported from France, of course, if possible. Amazingly, and a real money saver, I often find imported herbes de Provence at discount department stores, like Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx, in their specialty foods sections. (I always check the expiration date and I have never had any problem with freshness.) Imported blends are also availabile, of course, at many supermarkets and gourmet grocery stores.

Better yet, some of my herbes de Provence blends have been purchased in France, by the Ingredient Sleuth herself! That is the ultimate. In either case, each time I open the container, visions of France spring to mind. Shopping, eating, touring delights from every corner of that mecca of culinary delight. Can you hear me drooling?

The sunflower-design napkin in this photo, in fact, came from a charming little shopping area in Paris. Called Maison Meunier, it is part of a row of single-storey, stall-like buildings just east of the Conciergerie, St. Chapelle church and the Palace of Justice, along the Quai de la Corse on Ile de la Cite (Metro: Cite) -- and a pleasant stroll from Notre Dame Cathedral. Come to think of it, I also bought some tasty herbes de Provence at Maison Meunier last year. The friendly clerk smiled knowingly as I paid her for my purchases; surely, she could see the "visions of herbal plums" dancing in my head! And the cheshire-cat grin on my face ....

Should you decide to concoct your own batch of Provencal herbs, rather than buy a ready-to-go blend, here is a typical mixture:

Herbes de Provence

1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
½ teaspoon dried lavender
½ teaspoon fennel seed
1 pinch of powdered bay leaf

I consider the blended Provencal herbs to be a little dash of magic and also use them to flavor roasted vegetables, to enliven a quick-supper omelette and as a speedy, ready-to-use rub for roasted chicken and pork. And now, as I leave you to indulge in that tasty lunch that I packed this morning, bon appetit from your friendly Ingredient Sleuth -- always searching for little touches of magic to send your way!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Feta With Herbs Posted by Hello

Fridge-Friendly Feta

As cheeses go, feta seems like a camel – or that innocuous battery-powered bunny from the TV commercials – to me. It just keeps going, and going, and going. Stored in a durable, lidded, plastic container in the refrigerator, feta waits for me patiently day after day after day. No mold, no muss, no fuss. I’m sure that this cannot go on indefinitely, of course. At some point, one day, it simply must spoil. It is fantastic, though, that this phenomenon seems to take weeks, rather than days, to occur. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever had to throw away any spoiled feta.

Feta (occasionally spelled fetta) is a traditional Greek-style cheese that is typically made from goats' milk but may also be made from the milk of sheep or cows. It is crumbly in texture and is typically sold in either a block form, packed in a brine solution, or already crumbled. It may be soft to firm in consistency. Recently, I found some that was labeled French feta and thought that its flavor was milder and slightly less salty than Greek-style feta.

In any case, feta’s rich earthiness seems perfectly suited for combination with the earthy flavor of herbs. Dried herbs, being more intense, seem to best stand up to the intense flavor of the cheese. Here’s how I like to combine them:

Remove some block-style feta from its brine solution, dry it off with paper towels and cut it into half-inch cubes. Place the cubes into a durable, lidded plastic container with a flat bottom. Pour some good extra virgin olive oil over the cheese cubes, using enough so that there is some oil puddled in the bottom of the container. Sprinkle a combination of dried (not fresh) herbs over the oil-coated feta. (Use the herbs that you like best and rub them between your fingers or give them the mortar-and-pestle treatment to release the flavors before putting them on top of the feta.) For a nice Italian flavor, I like to use oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley and maybe a little black pepper or crushed red pepper flakes for extra zing. Use enough herbs to give the cheese a light coating; you can always add more herbs later if you want additional flavor. Put the cover on the plastic container and give the mixture a gentle shake to distribute the oil and herbs. If the feta has already completely absorbed the olive oil at this stage, you may wish to add a bit more, so that there is once again a layer of oil at the bottom of the container.

As a topping for salads, as an addition to pasta dishes or as a quick-bite cracker spread, this herbed feta adds a wonderfully-homemade touch. How can homemade flavor be this easy. And there it sits in the fridge, patiently waiting for me to enjoy it, on a moment’s notice. When it comes to fridge-friendly cheese, what could be “betta” than feta?