Risi Bisi

Thursday, April 27, 2006
The combination of rice and some type of legume is universal enough to seem almost chemical. India and Indian influenced cuisines have rice with dals; Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, and Southern US all have distinctive rice and bean dishes; there are Lebanese rice and lentil dishes; and on and on. Risi bisi, or rice with peas, is an Italian dish of rice and peas cooked in a broth. It often contains bits of Italian ham or bacon as well, though the meat is optional. The quick way to do it is to stir leftover rice, frozen peas, and chopped ham into chicken broth seasoned to taste with thyme, salt, and pepper.

You need a good broth for risi bisi, and can either use the chicken stock recipe or make it yourself by simmering a ham hock in a couple litres of water with a bay leaf for around two hours. If you are using the ham hock, you can use a bit of the meat from the hock to add to the dish and if you are adding meat separately try to find some good quality deli ends (I get them locally from the Italian Centre shop). Once your stock is ready, saute half a small onion in a saucepan til soft; then add 1/4 cup of rice and a pinch of thyme. (Fresh is best, but this is only frugal if you grow your own.) Saute this mixture til the rice is coated; then pour in one and a half cups of stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer til the rice is cooked, which should take about fifteen minutes. Add a couple handfuls of frozen peas, a chopped green onion, and a handful of diced meat if desired; when dish is heated through taste for seasoning. Good with cheese on top, and worth the extravagance for meatless versions. This is quantity for one person. For more people, you would multiply the onion and rice exactly but careful with the liquid, just aim for a thick but soupy mixture. Don't add more than a half teaspoon of dried thyme, even if you are making the dish for eight people, and add as many of the other ingredients as people are hungry for.

The Basics III: Stock

Wednesday, April 19, 2006
A good full bodied chicken stock is one of the best things to have in your freezer. It gives character and savour to dishes made with beans and vegetables and can be used to turn a couple handfuls of rice or noodles into a quick meal.

The hardest part of making chicken stock is figuring out where the 'chicken' part is going to come from. One of my first jobs after moving away from home was at KFC and we used to debone the leftover chicken to make salad. I would take the bones home and brown them and make the best stock of my life. If you have splurged on a roast chicken and have a leftover carcass, you are all set. Locally, the price of 'necks and backs' chicken packages at grocery stores is ridiculously high (and besides, this is the part of the chicken that almost always has bits of raw lung clinging to it, which I don't enjoy cleaning off). I often can find reasonably priced stewing chickens - sometimes labeled 'old chicken' - either at Lucky 97 downtown or in the freezer at Jia Hua, aka Chinese Superstore. I am also going to try my luck at pestering some local meat departments for bones.

You should brown the bones or stewing chickens in the oven for maximum flavour. An enamel roaster is ideal for getting good brown drippings. (This is the main reason I only roast chicken or pork in enamel; it gives the best colored gravy.) This should be done in a medium oven, about 350 deg Fahrenheit, and uncovered. Once they are brown and fragrant, turn the oven down, fill the roaster with water and add a few stalks of inner leaves of celery, onions, peppercorns, and some salt. A few clean onion skins are great for adding colour. Leftover carrots or parsley or other vegetables can also go in, but be cautioned that strong flavoured vegetables like cabbage or garlic will change the character of the stock. Also keep in mind that the stock should be about the chicken and not the seasonings; you want to salt and season the dishes you make with it more than the stock. Leave the stock to simmer in the oven, which you have turned down to about 300 degress, for at least 3 hours. You can make extra in the crock pot or stove top if you have a lot of bones. The stock should not boil, just simmer. When stock is ready, cool slightly and strain into ziplock bags or yogourt containers.

The freezer on top of your fridge and its contents are not happy to deal with a large quantity of hot liquid all at once. If you don't want ice crystals in your ice cream it is best to store the stock in the fridge until it is cold and then put it in the freezer. If you have a big freezer this is less of a problem.

Update....chicken feet work great for this and make a stock that turns to jelly when chilled.

The Basics II: Granola

Tuesday, April 18, 2006
This is based loosely on my mother's recipe - 1 cup honey melted and mixed with 1 cup oil, poured over 7 cups flaked cereal (can be oats, rye, wheat, triticale, or any combination thereof). I usually use up to ten cups cereal 'cause I think it's healthier. Possible addtions before it goes into the oven for the toasting stage: any kind of shelled nuts, sunflower seeds, coconut, wheat germ; anything at all that likes to be toasted and will not clash with each other. You can add 3-4 cups of additions. In the frugal kitchen, 'clean out the cupboards' granola takes an honoured place beside 'clean out the fridge' soup and 'clean out the freezer' smoothies. You also want to add any spices before the toasting stage. Powdered are best. Cinnamon is very good with most granolas, and cardamom goes really well if the fruit is raisins, dried apples, or dried pears.

The toasting stage takes place in a 300-350 degree oven. You give it a stir every ten minutes or so until it looks and smells like granola - usually this takes me half an hour to forty minutes. If parts of it burn, the rest of it is usually still OK. This stage fills the kitchen with comforting spicy toasty smells. You add dried fruit only after toasting, since dried fruit that gets toasted often ends up hard as rocks. You can also add spices after the toasting stage, if you forgot earlier. If you forgot nuts, definitely toast them separately before adding them for maximum flavour. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

The Basics I : Biscuit Mix

Homemade biscuit mix is one of my favourite things to have on hand due to its low cost and versatility. I use it a lot for dumplings because I love the economy of making them using the same pot and burner as the main course.

Measure 9 cups flour into a big bowl. Add 1/3 cup baking powder and 1 tbs salt and mix well. Work 1 lb of shortening, margarine, or butter into the mixture with your hands. Keep in canister or ziplock bag. If you use shortening or margarine this mix can be stored at room temperature but if made with butter it is best stored in the fridge or freezer. This is very fun to make when you have combined different flours and can sense their mixed textures and fragrances while working the fat into the mix, unless you are one of those dough-in-the-food-processor types.

Mix with milk to form a stiff dough for biscuits (start with a ratio of about 1/3 cup milk to 1 cup mix) and cook at about 375 degrees til they are raised and browned, about 12 minutes depending on how you have shaped them. For dumplings, make a slightly softer dough and add a seasoning that complements your main course, like thyme or tarragon for chicken soup or grated cheese for tomato based soups. Drop into pot where main course is cooking and close lid tightly; lift lid only after dumplings are puffed up and you think they are cooked. The time varies with heat and with amount dumplings/size pot ratio; check the centre of one to make sure they are cooked through. The mix makes excellent pancakes if you mix in sugar and milk to a pouring consistency; an egg is good too and optional. If your cooking liquid is sour milk or buttermilk, add a pinch of baking soda as well to cut the acid.