March 17, 2010
Here is a great example of how you can make a dish outstanding or mediocre with all the same ingredients. Remember, your end product is the result of your process. If you have a mediocre process for cooking, i.e. throw everything in a pot and come back 45 minutes later, the result will be nowhere as good as it could be. Use some thoughtful techniques, which I will describe here, and you can produce something incredible.
This dish is quite versatile. It can elevate cleaning out your fridge to a high art. Here's what I used but feel free to adapt the ingredients to what vegetables you have on hand.
Mirepoix of green onions, wild garlic*, carrots and fennel bulb. About 2 cups total.
3 zucchini, roughly chopped
3 C white beans
4 C of fresh kale and collards, roughly chopped
4 C mushrooms, sliced
23 oz. jar of tomato puree
1 T fresh thyme, chopped
1T fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Fennel tops, cilantro and lemon zest for garnish
2 C brown rice
4 C water
*Note: Wild garlic grows everywhere around Atlanta and looks like a very thin green onion or a fat chive. You can substitute garlic, garlic chives, chives, or whatever garlicky item you have on hand.
First, boil 4 cups of water. Add 2 cups of brown rice. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
Build your flavors
You should always build the flavors of your dish. There is a spark of hope in most people's cooking as they always begin cooking by frying onions and garlic. Why? By browning onions and garlic, it develops deeper flavors in the food than if you just throw everything together.
So, we do this with each dish and with each ingredient. Does this mean you may have to cook some things separately? Yes. Does this mean it may take longer or be more complex? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
Start by water frying your mirepoix until brown. Now you've got a bunch of brown stuff that I call flavor, some of which has stuck to the pot. So, now you need some liquid to pull that off the pan and incorporate it into the dish while building flavor at the same time. Some people like to deglaze their pan with, say, white wine. That would work fine here if you want. I love the taste of browned mushrooms, so I use that instead.
Mushrooms have a ton a water in them that you want to draw out to deglaze your pan and incorporate all the flavors together. Throw in your mushrooms and cover the pan for two to three minutes. This will allow the mushrooms to begin to steam and release their juices. You can add some salt if you like which will also help release the juices.
Once you see liquid in your pan, remove the cover, stir to incorporate the flavors and continue cooking on high heat until all the liquid is gone and the mushrooms begin to brown. Congratulations, you just added another layer of flavor to your dish!
Now add your tomato puree. You can even cook this down using the same technique if you want to concentrate the flavors more. This is the reason people use tomato paste. It's tomatoes cooked down into a more flavorful paste.
Add your zucchini, white beans, kale, collards, thyme and cilantro. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 - 15 minutes.
Use Fresh and Cooked Elements
The taste of cooked vegetables can be wonderful, however, it can also feel heavy as the vegetables seem "spent." All the life has been cooked out of them. To really improve the flavor and freshness of your dishes, add fresh/raw ingredients after the cooking has finished.
For example, lemon and other citrus will almost vanish in your dish if you cook them. So, once the cooking part of the recipe has finished, turn off the heat, then add the lemon juice just before you serve. It really perks up the flavors in a dish.
I always garnish with fresh tastes as well. Garnish is supposed to look nice AND be eaten. It is supposed to complement the dish. Garnish is not a sprig of parsley next to a dead hunk of meat. This ain't Sizzler.
Garnish with the fresh fennel tops, cilantro and lemon zest.
Part of gourmet cooking is plating your dish so it is interesting and appealing. Even with all the work and effort, this dish is basically vegetable stew with rice. So, how can you make that look interesting?
I packed my rice into a small cup and turned it onto the middle of the plate. I added the vegetable melange around it. I then garnished the rice with the fennel tops, cilantro and lemon zest and added a few sprigs of the wild garlic to stand up straight out of the rice.
If you garnish the vegetables, you might not see it. So, garnish the rice which is like a blank canvas waiting for some color.
When everything is said and done, here's the final product: