Homemade Tahini

 Falafel are great to make at home, because they are at their best when fresh and crispy. If I am going to make falafel, I might as well make hummus as well. It’s easy to make, lasts reasonably well, and rounds out a Middle Eastern meal. Homemade hummus is far better than store-bought, but until recently I relied on supermarket tahini. After a little research, I discovered that tahini is shockingly simple to make  at home. The appeal of making a small batch just as needed instead of having a jar sit for months in my refrigerator prompted me to give it a try. 

Tahini is essentially just sesame seeds that have been ground into a paste. All you need is sesame seeds and something that can grind them up. A food processor will likely do a good job, though I have found my mini model doesn’t do as good a job as my full-sized machine (which defeats the purpose, since my goal is to make a small batch.  I recently picked up a Vitamix blender, and this seems tailor-made for the task. I toasted the sesame seeds in a skillet on medium heat for about 5 minutes (until they became fragagrent), stirring frequently. Once cooled, I put them in the Vitamix and quickly cranked up the speed to maximum. Because I was using only 300 g of sesame seeds in a 64-ounce container, I did need to stop and scrape down the sides frequently to ensure contact with the blades; a 32-ounce container might be a better choice for small amounts. Some recipies advocate adding oil, but I have found it unnecessary as long as you grind long enough to release the oil within the seeds. 

Review: Combat Crunch Chocolate Cake Bar

After my disappointment with Combat Crunch’s Birthday Cake bar, I was unsure of what to expect from its companion Chocolate Cake flavor (also a “limited edition”). My concerns were misplaced. This is a far superior product. Instead of the pasty texture of Birthday Cake, Chocolate Cake has the chewy-crispy combination that is more typical of other Combat Crunch bars. 

If fact, on first taste the flavor may come across as indistinguishable from other chocolate-based bars, but on subsequent tastes, the deep chocolate essence comes through. Unlike Birthday Cake, Chocolate Cake really does taste like its namesake, though admittedly a protein bar version with a texture that is not at all cake-like. Still, it is an overall enjoyable snack. 

Review: Combat Crunch Birthday Cake Bar

Confession: while I portray myself as a foodie, I also have a soft spot for protein bars. Yes, they’re not the same as “real” food, but there’s something intriguing about the challenge of trying to make an appealing-tasting packaged food that tries to fit within some nutritional constraints. The common elements of these bars (especially in the context of recent trends) include high protein content, low carbohydrate content, and moderately high fiber. To accomplish this, they generally rely on some sort of artificial sweetener, typically stevia or sucralose, and sugar alcohols.

Some are terrible, but a surprising number are a decent-tasting snack that can be sweet without the feelings I usually associate with sugary foods. Maybe it’s all in my head. Regardless, given the number of different varieties I try, I figured I would systematically review them.

First up is Combat Crunch. This ridiculously-named bar is one of the better-tasting lines I have tried. They tend to run sweet, are generously sized, and have a mix of textures. While many high-protein bars can be tough and chewy, Combat Crunch combines a mildly chewy component with a sweet chocolate or white chocolate coating and a some crunchy elements (hence the name). Birthday Cake flavors have been the latest rage in the protein bar market, though it’s still considered a “limited edition” flavor for Combat Crunch. The size and general appearance is similar to other bars in this line, but the taste is quite different. 

It doesn’t really taste much like birthday cake to me, or any cake. A better comparison might be sugar cookie dough or cake batter – there’s a bit of an unappealing raw flavor. There’s a bit of a crunch from the colored “sprinkles” on top of the bar, but the pasty texture and odd flavoring is a step down from the other flavors in this line. It is a tolerable, but not necessarily enjoyable bar. I prefer the texture to the more taffy-like Quest bars, but the flavor on this one is off. The worst of this line.

Sous Vide Chicken Breasts

For the past several years, I’ve eschewed boneless, skinless chicken breasts (BSCB) for their moister, more flavorful, and probably less-health cousins: boneless, skinless chicken thighs (BSCT). Though some will surely critque the absence of flavor-supplying bones and skin, the reality is that even the….BS variety requires a fair amount of preparation. Though trimmed of the large sections of fat, BSCTs have hidden pockets of chicken fat that can result in an unpleasant surprise for eaters if not removed before cooking. I have become much faster and more effective at locating and excising the culprit yellow-white blobs with kitchen shears, but working with a pile of chicken at a countertop while your hungry family glowers at you from across the kitchen is not an enjoyable way to spend a weeknight.

BSCBs offer the promise of considerably less effort. They are essentially free of internal fat stores, and the small amounts of residual surface fat are typically rendered off during cooking. The problem: chicken breast can easily become dry and stringy during cooking. While brining can help to ameliorate the situation, it detracts from the original promise of reduced prep work and the resulting meet can be a bit waterlogged. Dry brining is superior, but takes more time and, thus, planning.

Inspired by this article, I decided to try a sous vide approach with BSCB and have been amazed by the results. One or two hours at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) results in moist, tender chicken breast that can easily serve as the centerpiece of a main dinner dish with minimal flavoring and preparation. The basic approach involves a simple dusting of kosher salt and pepper (and any other flavors that are desired), sealing in a watertight bag (e.g. with a FoodSaver), and a bath in the water tank. Following the sous vide cooking (which apparently can continue for up to four hours without ill effects, though I have not testing the limits myself), I give the chicken a quick sear in a hot pan with a bit of oil and butter. A roast under a hot broiler works as well. As BSCB tend to be a bit more domed than BSCT, I have found that it helps to pound them in a plastic bag prior to cooking, so they lay more flat in the pan, giving a greater surface area for searing,

The sous vide approach is mind-bogglingly simple. While the flavor will never be identical to BSCT, the saved labor and healthier profile has led to a marked shift in my preferred cut of chicken.

Gingerbread Cookies

I am a heavy user of spices in all my cooking, including baking. Gingerbread, with its mixture of warming spices, is a favorite holiday treat. Gingerbread cookies typically come out hard and dry, serving more as vehicles for decoration rather than something you would want to eat. The exception are the soft, cake-like cookies that I’ve occasionally encountered through my childhood: that’s what I wanted to make.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find the recipe from Cooks’ Illustrated. The original version creates a huge batch, but I’ve modified it for a small family.

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Cinnamon Bread

Formaggio, a high end grocery store in Cambridge, has an amazing cinnamon bread. It forgoes the usual raisins and adds cinnamon sugar on all sides instead of restricting it to the “swirl”.To replicate this at home, I started a dough based on King Arthur Flour’s butterflake bread (buttery, but sub-brioche levels of richness) and added a cinnamon sugar coating inside and out.

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Going Pro

I used the iPad from its first incarnation, and was an early fan of the form factor. Despite this, I am now the only member of my household without one (even my two year old daughter has inherited her own). I simultaneously handed down my old Mini and upgraded my phone to the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone’s screen is nowhere near as expansive as the iPad’s, but it’s big enough to be fairly productive, and eminently more portable. 

I find myself intrigued by the iPad Pro. It’s different enough from the phone’s form factor to serve a different purpose. While it’s tempting to think of the iPad as more limited than a laptop, I can do a surprising amount from my phone, and the iPad is still more capable. 

My inclination is to wait for now. The early reviews seem bullish on the hardware, but my sense is we need another iOS revision before the software catches up to the potential (the keyboard cover also sounds like it could use an upgrade). That said, it’s striking that it’s more powerful than the MacBook, and I could see it become a versitile computer within the next year or two. 

Roasted Cauliflower

I eat a fair amount of broccoli, but I’m also partial to it’s unmodified cousin, cauliflower. I grew up with Indian-style aloo gobi, and still enjoy this, but it’s a bit finicky to prepare at home, particularly during a busy weekday.

To solve this problem, I turned to an approach to vegetables that’s become increasingly popular in my household. It’s dead simple and basically foolproof (and works for broccoli as well). Here are the basic steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Wash one head cauliflower (or broccoli) and cut into bit size pieces, discarding the stems.
  3. In a large bowl, toss florets with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and flavorings of your choice. Some suggestions:
    • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and 1 teaspoon lemon zest
    • 1 teaspoon whole cumin and 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
    • sliced jalepenos and lime zest
  4. Spread the cauliflower on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes, turning cauliflower about halfway through.
  5. Check at 20 minutes if it’s done to your liking and enjoy.

So easy and minimal work. The roasting really brings out the sweetness in the cauliflower.

Shrimp and Grits

With a wife and two kids, all with different tastes, it can be a challenge for me to find a dish that will please the whole family. Sometimes, I luck out and stumble across a crowd-pleaser. I had read about the popularity of the southern favorite shrimp and grits, but had never tried it myself. Though I’m generally a big fan of shrimp, I had never even tried grits before (though we had an unopened box of Quaker 5-minute grits sitting in the pantry, purchased after my wife had some at work).

After scouring the internet, it became apparent that there’s a huge range of recipes out there. Most of the grits recipes are quite rich, with butter, cheese, and/or heavy cream, usually in large quantities.  The shrimp is universally cooked with bacon. I turned to my old standby, Cook’s Illustrated, and found that the companion site Cook’s Country had an interesting recipe. While it made heavy use of butter and included a shirmp-stock based gravy, it was the only recipe I came across that lacked cheese. I’m not a huge fan of overly-rich dishes, but clearly some amount of cheese was de rigueur.

Starting with the Cook’s Country version, I blended in elements from various other recipes online to hit the following goals:

  • use the greater shrimp:grits ratio from the Cook’s Country version
  • create a shrimp stock and gravy using the shrimp shells
  • use bacon
  • use milk in the grits for extra creaminess
  • use cheese in the grits
  • use enough butter and cheese to add richness without making the dish overly heavy

Ingredients

Grits

  • 1 cup grits (I used Quaker 5-minute grits)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2-4 ounces of grated cheddar cheese, to taste (I used 2.5 ounces – 70 g)

Shrimp

  • 1.5 pounds large shrimp with shells
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 strips of bacon (or 2 if using thick-cut bacon), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Instructions

Grits

  • Cook the grits as instructed on the package, using milk/water combination instead of milk alone (I boiled the liquid, added grits, and simmered for 5-7 minutes until thickened. It helps to whisk grits after adding to prevent clumping.
  • Add in cheese and keep warm
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Shrimp

  • Peel and devein shrimp, reserving shells
  • In an nonstick pan, melt one tablespoon butter of medium heat and add shells, cooking for about 7 minutes until shells are toasty and spotted
  • Add tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds, stirring
  • Add about 2.5 cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer covered for another 5 minutes
  • Strain shrimp shells and liquid, saving resulting stock and discarding shells
  • Wipe down pan and add bacon pieces
  • Cook until crispy, then add in garlic and shrimp
  • Cook for a couple minutes until edges of shrimp have are no longer translucent, but shrimp are not cooked through
  • Empty shrimp and bacon into a bowl and wipe out pan
  • Melt another tablespoon of butter
  • Add in flour, whisking into butter and cook for about a minute until fragrant
  • Whisk in shrimp stock and continue whisking until clumps dissolve
  • Cook for 5-10 minutes until thickened, then add in shirmp/bacon mixture and cook for a few more minutes until shrimp are cooked through
  • Add lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste

Serve the grits and ladle some shrimp and gravy on top and enjoy. I added some red pepper flakes and Tobasco for added flavor to my plate. These went great with some simply braised brussel sprouts, which cut the heaviness of the overall dish.

Note the picture above is just the shrimp and gravy. It was so good, I forgot to take a picture of the combo until I was packing up the (few) leftovers.

Sprouted Whole Wheat Bagels

I continue on my whole wheat kick by trying something that seems like a compromise: 100% whole wheat bagels. The source was the same as the inspiration for my traditional bagels: Peter Reinhart. These bagels can be put together a lot faster than traditional bagels, largely because of the distinct characteristics of sprouted whole wheat. According to Reinhart, the sprouted wheat requires less time to develop flavor compared with traditional wheat.

If you look online, you’ll find a vocal group touting the health advantages of sprouted grains. I’m not sure how much truth there is to these claims, but I’m all for convenience. I ended up needing quite a bit more flour than the 510g called for in Reinhart’s recipe. His book Bread Revolution describes sprouted wheat flour as absorbing water much more readily than its unsprouted relatives, but I did not find this to be the case with my batch from Arrowhead Mills. Despite coming straight off the shelves at Whole Foods, the flour was a couple months past its listed expiration date, so this may have been a factor.

Ingredients

  • 560 g sprouted whole wheat flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons salt
  • 1.25 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 397 g lukewarm water
  • 21 g barley malt syrup

Directions

  • Mix flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl.
  • Mix water and malt syrup and pour into flour mixture
  • Mix for 30-60 seconds until no dry flour remains and the dough is shaggy
  • Let rest uncovered for 5 minutes, then kneed for two minutes. The dough should be smooth and only slightly tacky. I needed to add quite a bit of flour above the amount recommended by Reinhart.
  • Form the dough into bagels (I used 99 g of dough per bagel), place on oil-misted parchment on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Take the bagels out of the fridge about 1 hour before baking and preheat oven to 425 °F.
  • Boil bagels for 30 seconds per side in a 0.5% lye solution (25g per 5L water).
  • Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through if using two pans.
  • Cool on a rack. Extra bagels can be frozen after they cool. I like to slice my bagels before freezing, so they can be toasted right out of the freezer.

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The bagels were great, though decidedly different from non-whole wheat bagels. They had a nice sweetness to them, and the everything topping  went particularly well with the whole wheat dough.