Friday, September 16, 2005

Casserole Trinity Posted by Picasa

Casserole Construction

You really have to admit it – cooks and food-people are a very religious group! Don’t think so? Aren’t convinced? Well, let’s see, there must be some evidence (even if it IS anecdotal!) out there somewhere …

First of all, there’s the French. Now we all KNOW how into food THEY are! And how do they refer to their three national food products of pride (bread, cheese, wine)? The holy trinity of French gastronomy.

And then, there’s the soup scene. When cooks get out the stockpot and chef’s knife, what do they reach for to get things started and to set those juices flowing? Onions, celery and carrots. And what do they call them? The holy trinity of soup stock.

So, as the weather took a turn for the cool this week – bringing to mind thoughts of Fall and fireplaces and sweaters – what did the Ingredient Sleuth think of? Casseroles (that would be “baked dish” in Minnesotan -- at least that's what the humorous book How to Talk Minnesotan says!), hot and steamy from the oven.

And, being every bit as religious as the French and the soup chefs, what do "cookers of casseroles" select from the larder? Protein, grains and vegetables -- the holy trinity of casserole construction! With those dependable (P-G-V) items on hand, a good casserole is always just around the corner!

After last week’s musings on flatbreads, the Ingredient Sleuth's casserole of choice turned out to be a little number that the I dreamt up a few years ago. In this case, the beans and cheese are the protein, the corn (cream style and tortillas) is the grain and the tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers are the vegetable. Always easy and always tasty, this layered "baked dish" sends warm aromas of comfort wafting through the house in no time.


½ large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup red or green bell pepper, slivered into1-inch lengths
15-ounce can red beans, drained
15-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
15-ounce can cream-style corn
½ teaspoon dried, red chile pepper flakes
½ to 1 teaspoon paprika or chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste

4 corn tortillas (8-inch size)
1 cup shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese

1. Saute the onions in the oil over medium heat, until golden, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the remainder of the “sauce” ingredients in the order listed above.
3. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, to blend flavors and achieve thickness of lasagna sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings.
4. Layer the sauce in an oiled, 8-inch-round casserole dish with the tortillas and cheese, starting and ending with sauce. Cover with ovenproof lid or aluminum foil.
5. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
6. Garnish with your favorite toppings: parsley, onions, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, avocado, if desired.

(4 servings)

Have you noticed how TV chefs are using the "build the dish" terminology more and more? Maybe it's about time to do some serious casserole construction at YOUR house as well! We all need some comfort food every now and then. Time to get some culinary religion and reach for that trinity -- and casserole dish -- once again!

Bon appetit!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Space-Saving (Flat) Bread!

Flatbread selection at Jordan Market in Laguna Hills

Flatbreads of every description always seem to me to be space-saving bread. Or should that be "bread in space"? It makes me wonder if the astronauts ever take this kind of bread along when every tiny bit of space savings is crucial in the tiny cabin of their space vehicle. Maybe an extra square or two, for snacking, folded up in a tiny pocket of that space suit?

Certainly flatbreads are a good idea for backpackers or campers. After all, you wouldn't have to worry about any little slips or stumbles on the trail -- at least crush-wise -- if your bread is flat to begin with! Though, I suppose it wouldn't cushion one's fall quite as well as a puffy variety ....

And another question always come to mind about flatbreads. If they take up less space outside my stomach, do they take up less space INSIDE my stomach as well? I suppose chewing sort of equals things out, space-wise?

If bread is the "staff of life," flatbreads must be the handle! They have been around, nourishing people around the world -- especially nomadic people -- forever!

Some estimates suggest that as long as 15,000 years ago -- that would be 13,000 B.C.! -- wheat grain meal and water were mixed together and baked on heated rocks, thus creating the first flatbreads. Then, more "recently," say 2600 to 4000 B.C. (estimates vary over that 1400-year range, but of course, recordkeeping probably was not all THAT precise during that period!), the Egyptians added yeast-like substances to make bread rise, either a lot or a little, and created the first ovens for baking bread. Most of these breads would still be considered flatbreads, even though they contained small amounts of leavening agent.

The Greeks learned from the Egyptians and then passed on the knowledge to the Romans. And of course, those on-the-move Romans not only took it from there and grew better grains, improved the milling processes with finer sieves and built better ovens, but then transported the know-how all over Europe (undoubtedly carrying space-saving flatbreads with them!) as they conquered not only bread-making but everything else they could get their hands on! By 100 A.D., most of Europe had adopted Roman bread-baking techniques.

The beauty of the whole history of bread, to the Ingredient Sleuth, is the overwhelming variety of bread styles that we have come to enjoy: various grains, various baking styles, various densities, various form factors. A trip around the world, or around a well-stocked supermarket, provides bread choices of many descriptions.

For this week, let's consider only flatbreads -- at least, a FEW of them! As in all bread categories, the variety is inspiring.

TORTILLAS, round and unleavened, are Latin American flatbreads. They may be made from ground corn, masa (corn kernels cooked with unslaked lime and water) or wheat flours. Corn tortillas typically contain only masa and water. Flour tortillas usually include baking powder, salt, shortening and milk. In both cases, tortillas are cooked on an ungreased griddle. The Ingredient Sleuth will never forget the delectable flour tortillas, hot and fresh from the griddle, of Guadalajara , Mexico -- there's just SOMETHING about the flavor of real lard (rather than the vegetable shortenings predominant north of the border) in those little beauties! Supermarket tortillas, have also begun to feature added ingredients, such as avocado and sundried tomato flavors.

PITA BREAD, one of the oldest recipes known to mankind, is round, Arabic flatbread whose basic ingredients are flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast or starter. Sometimes, butter, shortening or dry milk are added. Because pita bread is baked at a very high temperature (500 degrees Fahrenheit), it forms a pocket shape. The dry exterior skin of the dough sets and carbon dioxide from the yeast and steam from the moist ingredients expand until the upper and lower layers separate. Pita bread spread to Italy from its Arabic locations of origin. And voila! Northern Italians topped it (rather than filled it) creating what they pronounced as "pizza!" (Isn't it a small world, after all?)

NAAN BREAD, the famous flatbread from India, is slightly leavened and formed into a roughly-oval shape. Made from white flour, it is sprinkled with pungent nigella seeds and baked at high heat in either a tandoor or regular oven. The picturesque -- dare I say romantic --part of the tandoor (clay) oven, I think, is the idea of slapping those flattened, oval dough disks onto the hot, interior walls. Of course, singed finger tips probably aren't so picturesque or romantic, for the bakers! Today, naan bread is a common restaurant item (sometimes in its garlic-flavored form) and is rarely baked at home, even in India.

LAVASH is Armenian flatbread. It is formed in various shapes and sizes and in textures from soft to crisp. It is unleavend and extremely flat -- sometimes paper-thin. This bread, a staple food not only in Armenia but in parts of neighboring Iran, Lebanon and Georgia, has been prepared the same way for thousands of years: long sheets of dough are stretched thin and baked in a clay oven similar to an Indian tandoor oven. Sheets of lavash, even as packaged in plastic in supermarkets, are large -- about 12 inches by 18 inches. The Ingredient Sleuth always winces when the checkout clerk nonchalantly folds the package in half in order to fit it into the shopping bag -- but the lavash has never broken and always arrives home safely.

These flatbreads (and others!) appear in ethnic markets, international markets, specialty food shops and, increasingly, in supermarkets as well. They are usually reasonably-priced, provide an interesting alternative to other workaday breads and won't take up much room in the shopping cart or in the pantry!

Whatever their shape, flatbreads of all descriptions are just the ticket for wrapping up tasty fillings, scooping up sauces and stews, dunking into dips, or (a personal favorite) slathering with honeys and jams and that wonderful chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella. When it comes to flatbreads, everything old (and space-saving) is new again. You don't even have to be nomadic to enjoy them!

Bon appetit!

Friday, September 02, 2005

New Math Grocery Shopping

It is a beautiful day in southern California. The sky is blue, the birds are singing -- and the palm trees are standing upright and strong!

In much of the southern U.S. right now, this picture could not be farther from the truth. Tens of thousands of people feel the world in upheavel. Many are very, very hungry.

As Labor Day weekend is upon us, filling up a shopping cart with food items is usually part of the Ingredient's Sleuth's ritual. Here is some "new math" to be considered when filling up my Labor Day shopping cart:

One bottle of wine = 150 meals for the hungry
One case of beer = 360 meals for the hungry
One bag of chips = 75 meals for the hungry
One dozen donuts = 105 meals for the hungry

The list, of course, could go on and on. "Where would one find these meals for the hungry at this price," you ask? "It sounds like a tremendous program!"

And it is! America's Second Harvest ( feeds hungry, disadvantaged Americans the year round. It already has food banks and distribution channels established throughout the United States. Today, September 2nd, it already has over 1 million pounds of food enroute to the hurricane survivors. Amazingly, one U.S. dollar contributed to Second Harvest equals 15 meals to the table (about four bags of food) for the hungry.

This weekend, September 1st through September 5th, has been designated as "Blog for Relief" weekend. Today, September 2nd, as of late morning Pacific Daylight Time, 1411 blogs in 20 countries have listed links to 156 charities targeting Hurricane Katrina relief. Over $359,310 has been raised.

The Ingredient Sleuth's blog will continue to list Second Harvest's link in the sidebar (it actually has been there for several months already -- how can a blog focused on food NOT consider feeding the hungry?).

America's Second Harvest:

by phone: 1-800-344-8070.

by mail: 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2000, Chicago IL 60601


May this Labor Day weekend be blessed with safety -- and food -- for ALL of us!