17 April 2010

Shabbos recipes

So, last night, our Integral Awakening Group celebrated (as mentioned in a previous post), a Shabbos (or Shabbat, or Sabbath) dinner, practicing our mindfulness and presence with the deliciousness and abundance of pot luck dining with friends. We ate a lot of good food, drank plenty good wine, and were encouraged to share recipes with one another. So, I'ma strike while th'iron's hot, while the processes are still fresh in head, and also because this is how I traditionally celebrate my Shabbos--by spending much of the day on the couch writing wordy emails and occasional blog posts. I don't know quite how true to the Shabbos spirit my practice is, but it feels more than a bit like I'm getting things done, without actually working... I guess I'm straining to exert mastery over words, so in that sense, I'm 'failing'...

Whatever. Here, enjoy some good food:


'Kay, besides being plain delicious, I really like how Trader Joe's-friendly this recipe is. It's pretty much all there on the shelves, in most of the TJ's I'm familiar with, and it comes in package sizes that match almost perfectly1:

  • 1 carton of medjool dates (1 lb.)
  • 1 wedge of Castello Blue cheese (whatever roughly typical size they cut it into)
  • 1 bag of pistachio nutmeats halves & pieces
The pistachios are the odd man out here: you'll have lots of this bag left over, that I can't tell you what to do with. Sure, it's fun, on other days (days when you're "working") to pull apart shell after shell of pistachio, and pop them in your mouth, one after another, until you're just bowled over by the size of that pile of spent shells--you may even wax rhapsodic about the joy in the inherent pacing of the activity, but whatever: have you ever popped a whole fucking handful of pistachios in your mouth at one go?!? I'm not promising it'll rock your world or anything. It's just an opportunity, afforded you by this bag, here. You may spend at least a moment wondering, "why did I ever have to deal with the shells? Must be the man, keeping me down". But anyway, whatever happens, leave yourself a few nutmeats for the dates. Now, see, I have this little coffee grinder, the kind with the tiny lawn mower blades at the bottom, that I've repurposed into a spice grinder, and, conveniently enough, one grinder's lid full of pistachio nutmeats equals almost exactly enough ground pistachios to coat all the li'l spoon scoops you can pull from a wedge of cheese, which happen to be almost exactly the right amount to fit into the 25 to 30 dates you'll pull out of that 1 lb. carton.

Let me tell you how!

You just slice each of those dates in half, and pull out the pit. Then (or beforehand) you take the wedge of cheese, drop it in a bowl, and mush it up with the back of a teaspoon. It can help to have your cheese at room temperature. You can use some other kind of blue cheese, but it just has to be kinda soft. Some gorgonzolas work nice. You could even use chevre, but it would... taste different. Vive la difference! I haven't explored all the options. I can just say that, among those I've explored, I'm happiest with Castello Blue.

So, anyway, once you've mushed the cheese up, it should be easy enough to take the same (tea)spoon you've mushed with, and scoop a wee spot of cheese into a half of a date. You can spend as much time as you like, molding the top into a perfectly half-round dome, and/or then you can get on to the next one.

It prob'ly would have been wise, before getting this far, to have ground your pistachio nutmeats into a nice drip coffee ground size with your handy electric spice grinder. I imagine that doing this by hand with one of those manual ka-chunk ka-chunk type nut choppers would make this whole operation a bit more laborious... Anyway, you wanna end up with some couple of ounces of nut grounds. If it ends up not enough, you can easily ka-chunk some more (assuming you haven't eaten the rest already).

I usually dump my nut grounds into a small, flat-bottomed bowl. Then, I get the assembly line going: pick up half a date in my left hand, with spoon in right, scoop a scant teaspoon of cheese, stuff into date, spoon away the excess, cram the date, cheese side down, into the nut grounds, pull it up, make certain all cheese is covered with nuts (unless your aesthetics demand otherwise), then place it on the serving platter. Next.

It took a lot longer to write all that (and maybe longer to read it), than it does to just do it (not counting the shopping--or the chopping, if you don't have a grinder). I've made this in the car on the way to places. I've made it camping (it helps, when camping, to have the nuts chopped in advance, although I've got my grinder rigged to plug into the car lighter socket, for just this purpose).

I got this recipe from an old friend of mine, a gay schismatic Serbian Orthodox priest, of English heritage and accent, born and raised, and since returned to, Hawaii, who I met while he was catering a soirée for another couple of friends, in their lavish apartment atop Telegraph Hill, with a waterfall and koi pond on the back patio and a faux Pompeiian mural on the walls of their piano room. I've stuffed dates in this style so often since then, that I'm too rarely mindful of how the recipe came to me. This friend, who was giddy in anticipation of returning to live in Hawaii, also had a shelf full of tape-bound volumes of X Files slashfic that he'd pulled off the web and had printed at Kinko's. Furthermore, he had a vast library of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes on VHS, which he would bring over, to watch with my girlfriend at the time, who eventually gave her senior thesis presentation at CIIS, on Buffy's representation of feminine empowerment. I don't know if any of that adds valuable context. If it has any bearing for you, on the flavor of these dates, I'd love to hear how.2


Now, 'risotto' is an Italian word that, near as I can figure, means 'rice in some kind of creamy goo'. It includes, but is not limited to, the shouted euphemistic blasphemy, "CHEESE and RICE!"

This is a dish I've made more often than I can count, and which I'm somewhat startled to discover, I haven't cooked in the past half-decade at least. Its origins, to me, are lost in the mists of time. It's not beyond the realm, to guess that it may have been adapted from a copy of Martha Stewart's Living... At any rate, I've lost touch with any written recipe. There are so many opinions about, concerning proper risotto prep, that nothing I write here could be considered 'true'. Or, rather, whatever I write here could be considered 'true'. Someone who 'knows', will disagree, but this is the dirty little secret about risotto, which I learned bits of, piecemeal over time, but whose wisdom was granted me wholesale, the time I made it for my host family, on a home-stay in Agra, India: YOU CAN REPLACE EVERY SINGLE INGREDIENT IN THIS RECIPE WITH SOMETHING VAGUELY SIMILAR, AND YOU WILL STILL END UP WITH SOMETHING DELICIOUS!

There are only two constants that I'm aware of: (1) I use four times as much liquid as rice, and (2) I add the liquid only a little bit at a time.

I'll describe how I made it yesterday (a somewhat larger recipe than I've typically done, as part of a smorgasbord for 18 people), and point out along the way, how it was shaped a little by having perused the Chez Panisse Cooking theory of hoity-toity risotto prep. Whatever the Chez folk had me do different, the dish's flavor was completely reminiscent of previous efforts, and not, to my crude palate, discernibly more or less delicious.

  • ~2 cups of cleaned, sliced wild mushrooms (last night, I used about 1/3 lb. of black trumpets, and a 6 oz. package of mixed exotics from Far West Fungi)
  • 1 sm. pkg. of dried porcinis (this was a Chez Panisse idea, I'll get into, below)
  • 1 stick of butter and a couple tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 med. yellow onion, 1 med. red onion, and 1 large shallot, diced (I usually use 1 large yellow onion and a shallot, but the onion I had didn't look big enough, so we threw in a red we had on hand)
  • 5 cloves of garlic (adjust based on your love of garlic. I do love it so.), sliced razor thin, preferably with a razor, as per Paul Sorvino in prison, in Goodfellas
  • a few pinches of good saffron
  • Salt, freshly ground black pepper (do be sure these are not people)
  • ~1/4 cup or so of pine nuts
  • ~1/4 cup or so of raisins
  • ~1/2 cup of madeira, or some other tasty sweet wine (last night, I used 2005 Grand Tokaji 5 Puttonyos--OMG, so delicious, not meant for cooking!)
  • ~2 tsp. or so of fresh thyme
  • ~2 Tsp. or so of chopped cilantro
  • 2 cups Arborio Superfino rice (this is THE risotto rice--a fat short grain, with a lot of starch on the surface that becomes the creamy goo in which the dish eventually swims. That said, if you add, at the end, some actual cream, and/or some cheese, you get a fine tasty goo, and it turns out you can use Basmati, or jasmine, or any damn rice you please)
  • 8 cups of veggie stock (turkey stock, bouillon cubes, whatever... salty water?)
  • 1/2 cup or more, grated Parmesan cheese

(In India, the substitutions are as follows:
  • wild mushrooms, herbs and veggie stock = Maggi brand mushroom soup mix & water
  • butter = ghee
  • good saffron = larger amounts of not-so-good saffron
  • pine nuts = chopped cashews and/or almonds
  • wine = a mix of vinegar and honey
  • Parmesan = canned cheddar)
A good piece of advice is to do all the chopping and grating and portioning out, in advance. I can vouch from experience that it makes for a much mellower atmosphere during the actual cooking.

Soak your raisins in the wine. They should be in there at least a half hour. Melt a quarter stick of butter, and sauté the mushrooms until the moisture they release has evaporated. Salt and pepper them, stir, then, set aside. Oh, I already forgot--this is a Panisse innovation for me: their idea is that you only add the non-rice stuff to the rice, once the rice is nearly done, and that the non-rice stuff is already cooked separately. But then, they say, to amp up the mushroom flavor in the meantime, it's a good idea to have some dried porcini boiling away in your stock. So, that's what I'm doing. I dumped 2 32oz. boxes of Trader Joe's Hearty Veggie Stock into a pot, and threw in about a half cup of dried porcini. I bring it to a boil, and now it sits simmering on a back burner, and will do so 'til I've used it all.

On my other back burner, I've moved my skillet full of cooked mushrooms off the heat, and on the front burner, now, is the big pot that all the stuff will come together in. I melt my second quarter stick of butter in the big pot, and pour in the olive oil, too, 'cause it just doesn't look like enough grease for this size of recipe. Then, I dump in the onions and shallots. I stir a bit, and let them soften up. Meanwhile, I grind my saffron threads with a mortar and pestle. Maybe not necessary. If they're not completely dry, they tend to mash up and hide in the texture of the mortar, but I can loosen them up with a little hot stock when it's time to add (soon). Now may be a good time to add the pine nuts, if you're using raw pine nuts. It's good to get them a bit browned on the sides, and that's easier to do with less in the pot. Hell, you could've put 'em in before the onions, maybe. No biggie. I'm using TJ's bag of already roasted pine nuts, so I throw 'em in after the onions have softened a bit more. Once the onions are well soft, maybe just slightly caramelized (I should say, the heat is maybe medium low), I add the garlic. It's important to bear in mind that there's no stepping away, from now until I start adding stock (soon), because garlic is a strong flavor, and if it gets browned, or burnt, it becomes a strong bad flavor. So, again, the heat's not too high, and really, this is only gonna go on for, like, 30 seconds. I just wanna see those little slivers get kinda translucent. Then, it's time to throw in the rice. As the risotto pros will tell you, you've got to coat those grains with some hot grease, to start breaking down the starches that are gonna generate your goo. So, it's another half minute or so, of stirring, and getting everything slick and shiny. Then you start adding liquid. The first addition is really s'posed to be a half cup of dry white wine, but I didn't get any, because I've been happy in the past, just throwing in the sweet stuff that my raisins have been soaking in (which wine, as I recall, I'm told to discard). And, seriously, I can not overemphasize how delighted I am with this bottle of Tokaji! I mean, it's super sweet, but it's got all this other stuff going on, a nice acid tang, floral aromas... I can totally, happily, taste it in the end result. But, whatever: I usually use madeira, and I'm happy with that, too. So, where was I... oh yeah: now would be a good time to add the saffron, too, which for me, involves putting a little hot stock in the mortar, loosening it all up with the pestle, and pouring (honestly, I think the whole rest of the world just tosses in the threads, and wins--I've completely lost touch with why I grind them). Stir, 'til it's all evenly yellow, and the wine is evaporated (not long), then it's time to start adding stock.

The way I always remember adding stock in the past was, I'd throw in about a half cup, stir, put a lid on, set a timer for 5 minutes, when it rings, repeat. But this time, flush with Chez advice, containing nary a mention of lid, I choose to watch it a bit more carefully. I pour my stock through a strainer, to catch the porcini slices, 'til about level with the rice. Then, stir the stock in. It takes a few minutes to absorb. The liquid tends to rise to the top, so it looks wetter than it is. Thus, I need to keep stirring it, every minute or so. When it seems pretty evenly absorbed, I pour in another cup or so, and stir. I'm accumulating porcini slices in the strainer, so, deciding that I maybe didn't have quite two cups of wild mushrooms in the back skillet, I chop these up and add them, while the rice is still absorbing stock. Then I stir the rice again, and add some more stock. You want the heat to be just high enough that, throughout this, the rice and stock are gently bubbling, all over.

This goes on for about 15 or 20 minutes, whereupon a couple of things are discovered: the rice is ready to eat, still has a little chew to it, and it is indeed swathed in a creamy mushroom flavored goo, dotted with raisins, onions, garlic and pine nuts. It looks and tastes, to me, like risotto, and I have not (as I have in the past) added any cream or cheese. I taste, pucker and nod. Needs salt. I dump in the skillet full of wild mushrooms, the chopped thyme and cilantro, and my remaining half stick of butter. I grind a bunch of salt and pepper over top. Mmm, it's good, but...

Paul Bertolli, in Chez Panisse Cooking, writes, of Wild Mushroom Risotto, that one should "resist the temptation to use cheese on this risotto; it competes strongly, and unfavorably, with the flavors of the mushrooms". This is news to me. I have never not put Parmesan into my risotto. I mean, the risotto does taste good at this stage. If I were going for vegan, I s'pose replacing the butter with olive oil would have worked. I could just add a bit more salt here, in tepid appeasement to the corner of my tongue pleading for Parmesan. Then, I remember our Shabbos instructions, to make something I've made a lot, something I know how to make well. My risotto doesn't always have wild mushrooms, I admit, but it certainly never lacks parmesan (unless I'm making it in India). I nervously add just a little. It disappears into the mix. A little more. I dump in close to a cup. If it competed strongly and unfavorably, I apologize. No one said anything. I liked it.

Now, with the afternoon frittering away, my growling stomach reminds me that this risotto has always been delicious on day two, shaped into patties, congealed with an egg, and pan fried. It's fritters on my mind.

Shabbat shalom!

1. It may also be worth noting, for SF locals, that Rainbow Grocery typically stocks organic medjools, in bulk and in cartons; Castellos both Blue and Black (?!?), along with countless other soft cheese varieties; and has a bulk bin of pistachio nutmeats.--in case you have a "thing" about Trader Joe's.

2.I guess that paragraph was just intended as a little honorific for my friend, with whom I've lost touch. Were he to read it, I imagine he might be pleased with the mention, if only he weren't so offended by my use of the word "schismatic". It's a much more loaded word for him than it might be for many of us. To me, it means that he has found what is true and beautiful in the traditions and philosophies of an ancient spiritual community, and rather than letting the parts of that community that profess to disallow certain of his congenital characteristics exclude him from the practice thereof, he has found a way for that truth and beauty to flourish and prosper in his life. And in his dates.

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