Dino's Mac & Cheese

I mostly eyeball it, but I can share the rough outline of how I put it together, because people have asked, and I don't really mind sharing. Some of the amounts are approximated, but there you are.

1 lb pasta (I like the large, fat, ziti noodles, but elbow macaroni works too)
1/4 cup flour
3 TB oil
2 cups coconut milk thinned with 2 cups water
1/2 cup water, reserved
1 TB miso paste (sweet white miso)
1 TB dijon mustard
1 TB nutritional yeast
2 tsp tahini
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
3/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
Breadcrumbs, tossed in oil

Set a pot of water on the boil, and cover the lid. It'll boil faster this way. You'll want about 1/2 gallon of water per pound of pasta, so that the noodles don't stick together. While the water comes to a boil, we'll make the sauce.

Start off with a roux (fat + flour, over heat). Over medium high heat, set down a large skillet (larger than you think you’ll need). Add the 3 TB of oil, and ¼ cup of flour. Whisk the two over heat, until the flour smells slightly nutty, and the oil and flour are bubbling slightly. When you’ve reached this light light blond stage (called a blond roux), pour in your room temperature water and coconut milk. Many recipes say to have your liquid hot, but I don’t care to mess up another pan. So nuts to them.

When the sauce (now a b├ęchamel) comes up to a boil, drop down the heat to low (as low as it’ll go), before adding the next set of ingredients. Add the miso, mustard, nutritional yeast, tahini, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, paprika, salt, and pepper, and whisk vigorously, until all the ingredients are in a smooth creamy sauce. If it’s thickening up too much, add a few tablespoons of water from the reserved water. I often find that I do need to add water, but your mileage may vary.

Once the water has come up to a full rushing boil, dump in your pasta, and generously salt the water. I’ve been told that it should be salty, like the sea. I grew up in Florida, near the sea, and I know what that means. For those of us who have never been in the ocean, think of it to be as salty as your tears of disappointment at never having been to the sea. This is so that the pasta gets good and salty early on.

Once you have the pasta in the pot, slam on the pot’s lid, so that the water comes up to the boil faster. The sooner your water comes to the boil, the easier it is to prevent it from sticking to itself. As soon as you hear the water in the pasta put bubbling away, and making a boiling noise (it sounds like when you blow bubbles in your juice in the morning to annoy your sister), remove the lid to prevent the pasta from overboiling and making a mess on your stove. Set the timer for 7 minutes. Yes, this means that the pasta will be under-done, but that’s the point. Stick with me.

Now that your pasta is merrily bubbling away in its hot bath, the sauce has had a chance to simmer over low heat for a few minutes. See what we did there? Rather than fussing at the sauce, we let it just relax, and the flavours combine properly. This is important. At this point, you may taste the sauce (but just a little—you want to save some for your pasta, right?) for seasoning. If you feel like it could use a bit more salt, go ahead and add it. If you feel like it has too much salt, panic. No, don’t panic. Just add a bit of sugar until the salt seems to be neutralised. Whisk, whisk, whisk. Right then. Once it’s seasoned to your liking, turn off the heat under the sauce, put on the lid, and let it chill out while your pasta finishes cooking.

Generally, by the time I’ve finished fiddling around with the sauce’s flavours, the pasta would have finished cooking. Drain the pasta once the timer beeps, and put it into casserole dishes. Why? Because this way, the pasta pot is only dirty with water, which is easily cleaned, versus being dirty with sauce too. This way, you can also gauge how many casserole dishes you need without making a big huge mess. My pasta pot’s opening is much narrower than the top of the casserole dish. I make less of a mess when I transfer from colander to casserole dish.

Make sure that the casserole dish is only filled up ¾ of the way. Now pour the sauce over the pasta in the pot. If you do end up having to split the pasta up into two or three dishes, it will have been fairly easy to do if you did it when the pasta is unsauced. Now, toss the pasta in the casserole dish until it’s combined with the sauce. If you have extra sauce, this is very good. Dump that over the pasta in the dish too. It won’t hurt anything.

Finally, sprinkle the tops liberally with breadcrumbs that you have tossed with oil. This is not an optional step. The crispy breadcrumb crust makes it all the more worthwhile. If you don’t have breadcrumbs, run down to the bodega and grab a few packets of soda crackers, and crush them with a rolling pin (while they’re still in the package). That’ll do the same thing.

Bake the casserole dishes (covered for the 1st 15 minutes, then uncovered) at 350°F (180°C) for 20 minutes. If the breadcrumbs on top aren’t browned to your liking, slide the casserole under the broiler for 30 or so seconds. Serve in generous slices, with a side salad of something healthy, so that everyone can pretend that they’re not eating pure indulgence on a plate. Enjoy!


Chips & Salsa a no go.

It was a couple years back, but I recall Mini Preefer requesting (tortilla) chips and salsa, which would have been quite a lovely treat to have at the restaurant. Heck, we could even do our own cheese sauces, guacamole, and hundreds of other lovely garnishes (cilantro, black beans, olives, chopped onions, scallions, coconut creme fraiche [which is like a sour cream], diced tomato), hot sauce, and all kinds of things that would make it a pretty smashing dish. Unfortunately, I hit a snag.

Tortilla chips are fried.


A long time back, Boss Man made the committment to ensure that the food at the restaurant be healthy, and low carbon, which meant automatically that deep fried was not the way to go. Not only is it unhealthy overall, it's also fairly high carbon. The oil needs to come up to a fairly high temperature for it to be effective, and you tend to use a fair bit of the stuff.

So I tried the baked tortilla chips stuff. Gag. That did not go over well. It tasted like cardboard, and cost a fortune. No thanks! Is there anything out there that's close enough to corn tortilla chips, but doesn't taste like paper?


What to do with fennel

Fennel, both the seed and the bulbs, tend to have a licorice-y taste. If used alone, it can be a little full on, and overpower whatever it is you're making. Instead of letting fennel fly solo, I tend to use it in conjunction with its best friend: cumin. Both fennel and cumin have positive effects on digestion, and both flavours complement each other nicely. The smoky cumin adds a lovely counterpoint to the brash anise-y fennel. When eaten together, the combination is lovely, especially when combined with the bulbs of fennel plants.

I made a fennel bisque (with fennel bulbs, a bit of onion, potatoes, yucca, and fennel seeds and cumin seeds), cooked gently in coconut milk and a bit of salt and pepper. All the vegetables simmered together gently in their soup, after which I pureed everything finely. As I'm posting this, I'm sauteing off some more fennel bulb in oil, along with more cumin and fennel seeds, salt, and pepper.

The aroma is quite heady and the whole kitchen smells delicious. Once it's cooked through, I'll stir it into the bisque, so as to give textural variety to the soup. Other flavours that play well with fennel are rosemary, thyme, and sage; basically any flavour that's earthy and solid.


What do the chefs eat?

I get asked all the time about what I eat at Chow. I work here, and am surrounded by delights of every kind. Between the proteins and the vegetables and the baked goods, it's a fantasy land of food. I'm sure that when vegans dream of heaven, they see our walk-in fridge and our dessert fridge (yes, there's a whole entire fridge dedicated to our baked goods). So what do I eat regularly?

In the winter, it's soup. In the summer, it's a cucumber and onion sandwich. Every day. I'm serious. Before that, it was hummus with cucumbers. Every day. Before that, it was the Sacred Caesar. Every single day. I've been caught! I'm a boring eater. Oh! And I have it with a few glasses of water. When I first started working here, it was the meatball hero. When I'd make cute faces at the other cooks in the kitchen to ask them to make me something (because I was in the middle of something major that needed my attention for the immediate future), they'd often know what I was going to ask for before I said a word.

I don't know why, but for some reason, I tend to get into food fixations and repeat the same pattern over and over again for months at a time. Poor Cliff has to put up with my monotony day in and day out. Fortunately, he's too polite to comment. Mind you, when there's specials being made, I have to "quality control" (taste), and frequently. I'll ladle some food out into a bowl, and check for spices, salt, and doneness throughout the cooking process. Also, whenever there's a large tray of freshly roasted home fries, I can't resist but to quality control a few of those as well.

Boss Man's favourite is and always has been the seitan, be it BBQ, olive, or otherwise. Unfortunately, gluten started making his joints creak, so he cut that out. Mind you, he still sneaks a few pieces when he thinks I'm not looking, so there goes that. He also adores the Grilled Western Tofu. Watch him grilling one day, and marvel at the fact that any of it ends up in the fridge! I'm kidding. He's quality testing too. We all do. Either way, it's that, or tempeh. He likes to snack on the tempeh when it's cold. Mind you, he's fairly happy eating anything cold. It doesn't bother him in the least.

Chef Laura's a huge fan of salad, especially in the summer months. It'll generally be a quick mixed greens and tofu salad with a bit of Caesar dressing. Which, by the by, is so good that it ought to be illegal. Also, any time I whip up something Indian, she's fairly happy to quality test it for me. She used to like to taste the cakes and cookies and stuff, but she cut out gluten and sugar, so there goes that. Instead, she'll munch on fruit from time to time.

All three of us absolutely adore having steamed vegetables with just a bit of salt. Whatever veg it is, be it green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, or anything along those lines, just a quick steam bath and a dash of salt, and we're in heaven. All three of us also adore eating the fresh tomatoes that come to us from Jersey. We've only got them for a short time, so trust me when I say that tomatoes are fairly high on the list of snacking foods around here. That goes triple for strawberries. Of course, it's all in the name of ensuring that only the finest quality food is put forward, which means that we selflessly taste test the strawberries all day long.

There are times when I'll walk into the office with a plate of steamed veg (like green beans), and Cliff helps himself. Quite generous that man is. Cliff's also got a lot of love for a cup of freshly brewed coffee, which he can have throughout the day without issues. During the winter, Laura likes this tea that I do with thinly sliced ginger, lemon rind, lemon juice, and hot water. It kept us both from feeling cold.

What about Mini Preefer? As the son of a chef, you'd think he would have fairly exotic tastes, and you'd be spot on. That kid craves risotto. If there's no risotto, the next option is the Korean Tofu Cutlets. Also, at random, he likes broccoli sandwiches. Hear him out! It's steamed broccoli, chopped up small, with a sprinkle of salt and garlic powder, on toasted bread. It's actually quite nice. Barring that, it's BBQ Seitan. Like father like son, I guess!


What I've learned from Beans & Rice @ Chow

When we first developed the Beans & Rice menu item (listed as one of the protein plates on the Tapas menu), we figured that it would be a pretty neat way to open up our own and other people's ideas of how such a simple food (eaten as a staple the world over) could become something special with a little extra love and attention to detail. Over time, however, it became the "go to" dish for people who have Issues with everything: gluten, soy, nuts, garlic, onions, sugar, black pepper, etc. Trust me, those folk do exist, and I think it's equally important to reach out to them as to those who can/do eat everything. Why? Because how nice is it to know that when you go out with your friends, you can go to a place where at least one thing on the menu is specifically for you, and that you won't have to think twice about ordering it.

Every beans and rice special we run at Chow has no soy, gluten, wheat, sugar, pepper/chiles, garlic, or onions. While this may seem restrictive to some, for us, it's set us free. Why? Because let's face it: many of us tend to steer towards old standbys, because of convenience or lack of incentive to try anything else. I'm equally (if not supremely) guilty of this, so I totally understand how it goes. How does pretty close to every savoury recipe begin? Start with oil in a pot, and sautee garlic/onions/leeks/shallots/scallions/other member of the allium family, and then add anything else to that. It's almost as if the allium plants have to be there to make a dish happen, which is kind of silly, when you really stop to think about it.

There are entire chunks of the population on the earth who don't eat onions or garlic. South Indian Brahmins are one such group. There are some groups of Buddhists who follow the same restriction. I've eaten food from both groups with quite delicious results. Why can't we try something different?

So onwards we went onto the journey of finding a couple of dishes that would work well with the restrictions. One of them is what Boss Man calls Italian White Beans, wherein you cook white beans (cannellini beans, in fact) until they're tender. Then, you toss them with on- (see? I almost typed onions) erm ... nutritional yeast, olive oil, basil, and salt. They're absolutely scrumptious. Then there's the traditional South Indian daals, where they just use mustard seeds, cumin seeds, oni-- (damn, almost did it again!) tomatoes, turmeric, and a bit of salt to make a hearty stew that's served over steaming hot rice. From the daals come the Mexican style beans, where you'd use copious amounts of Mexican Oregano leaves, along with a hit of toasted cumin, and a bit of salt to taste.

As I started to experiment, I grew bolder, taking new chances with various beans, such as a pinto bean in mole sauce (which has more flavour components than I care to list), or black beans with yucca and spices. I love doing Louisiana style beans and greens, where I simmer kidney beans until they're tender, then stir through celery, carrots, and bell peppers, along with a bit of hickory salt and regular salt to taste. Heaven! Once we started mixing up various vegetables with the beans, along with different spices, the skies opened up, and it started raining pure inspiration for new dishes. What about potatoes? What about pumpkins? Squashes? Dark leafy green veggies? Sweet potatoes? And while we're there, what about using different methods of cooking said veg? There are times when I'll toss the veggies in a spice and oil mixture, and roast them in the oven until they're tender and lovely smelling, then stir them through the cooked beans, so that there's a nice contrast in textures and flavours.

Then there's the times that we're in an absolute rush, and I have to come up with something in a few minutes (to spice the beans). Those times are even more fun, because it shows what you can accomplish while thinking on your feet. I once had some leftover roasted potatoes from another dish that I was cooking (plain roasted, of course), and I simply stirred it through my bean pot along with a generous hit of curry powder, coconut milk and frozen peas to make a creamy bean curry. It was quite nice. Unfortunately, I had only made a small batch, because I didn't have time to cook more than that amount of beans.

What am I getting at? There is no reason why you can't do this at home, especially since you can use garlic powder and onion powder. When you're in a rush for food to happen quickly, pop open a tin of beans, along with the liquid they're packed in, and stir through whatever likely spices you have lying in your pantry. Some good complementary spices for beans include: chili powder (not the ground chiles, but the spice blend), thyme, cumin, rosemary, marjoram, basil, oregano, what have you. Nuke it in the microwave for about five minutes (covered), and you've got a fairly decent meal knocked out in a relatively short time.

Neat, huh?


Fast (sort of) food

My husband is heading home after a long trip to Chicago, and I had to think of something to make for him when he gets home. He's been mostly cooking for himself, and that's all well and good, but sometimes you need that food that only someone else knows how to make just so. I know I harp about it endlessly, but for me, the ultimate comfort food is beans and rice in some form or another. My favourite method for beans and rice, is of course, venn pongal in all its varieties.

Yesterday being the birthday of the USA meant that the thermometer was rising steadily higher, as the noise level outside grew steadily noisier. I live in Inwood, which is a part of Manhattan that's quite removed from the rest of the city. People tend to get away with more, because it's not as densely populated as say, Greenwich Village or Midtown. The buildings don't really go up that high (maybe 10 stories tops), because for the most part, prewar buildings don't have a lift. So although there is a fairly strict fireworks ban in New York, with Bloomberg getting onto the news and sternly warning people that they're engaged in Dangerous And Illegal Activities So Cease Now OR ELSE, people in a less crowded neighbourhood take those warnings as mere suggestions.

I needed to make something that wouldn't test my patience or my nerves. The dish that I turn to in a crisis is Venn Pongal. Traditionally, it's made with split mung beans, white rice, and a few spices, ginger, salt, and black pepper. Copious amounts of black pepper, if you're me or my mother. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any mung beans in the apartment, nor could I find the yellow split peas which one uses to substitute. Instead, I looked to my fridge. There, nestled between a bottle of orange juice and a couple of knobby looking yucca, was a box of lentil daal that I'd made the night before for my dinner.


I also had a full pot of brown rice waiting in the rice cooker. Hmmmmm. I had flavoured the dal simply, because when I cook for myself, I keep things very basic. I used mustard seeds, cumin seeds, sesame seeds, asafoetida, ginger, turmeric, salt, black pepper, a bit of red chile powder, salt, and curry leaves. In other words, the same spices that I'd use to make a venn pongal. In went the daal into the rice cooker, along with water to thin it out. I tend to make daal a bit on the thick side, and I wanted the rice to get thoroughly cooked. And since this is brown rice, it can take a long cooking and not fall apart on you. I hit start, and wandered into the washroom to douse myself in water so I could sit in front of the fan, soaking wet. On hot days, I prefer to cool off this way rather than using the a/c, because I saw the electric bill last month, and was Very Displeased.

Ten minutes later, the apartment filled with the aroma of the ginger and other spices cooking in the pot. While I was waiting, I ground up the soaking rice and urad daal and fenugreek seeds that I'd soaked to make dosa. Yes, I used brown rice for the dosa as well. If you're going to be healthy, might as well go all out, right? By the time I finished grinding my dosa batter (which needs to ferment overnight in any case), the pongal was cooked to perfection.

Oh but it was tasty! I think from now on, I'll use this method to make pongal, because then I can get more than one meal out of it. First night is daal and rice, where the two are cooked separately. I can serve it with a side of cucumber tomato and lime juice salad (garnished with plenty of cilantro or parsley, of course, and a few chopped green chiles for good measure). If I make a double batch of daal and rice, it'll leave me plenty for the next day. Then, when we have both eaten our fill, I can dump the leftover daal into the rice cooker along with the leftover rice, throw in some extra water and grated ginger, and hit start to cook it. When it's done cooking, I can then put it away into the fridge, and defrost some grated coconut in the fridge overnight before I go to bed, satisfied and full.

The next day, I can pull out the pongal and heat it up. While it heats, I can bang up a quick coconut chatni (coconut, green chiles, a small onion, unsalted peanuts, a bit of salt, and some water to get it moving, along with some curry leaves for pretty colour), and whiz it up in the blender. Then we'll eat the venn pongal with the side of coconut chatni, and a side of sour mango pickles. If I have any leftover venn pongal, I'll just shape them into patties, and put them in the fridge, tightly covered with plastic wrap. The next day, I just have to bake them on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes, and I'll have lovely little rice croquettes, that I can serve with a simple salad of shredded carrot, grated cabbage, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. I'll have three lovely meals for the price of one! And it's only the first meal that would take any effort. The other two are super easy, because the bulk of the cooking is done.

Or, I'll be lazy, and just eat daal and rice until I hit another day where I feel like doing something creative again. Wonder what's the next time we go on vacation ...