Thursday, March 23, 2006

A little curry goes a long way

So, in reading of my newly found Zuni Cafe Cookbook (linked below) with a little help from the Joy of Cooking (also linked below) I have started to play with couscous. A little internet reading showed me that couscous is often not cooked in the way I had always thought it to be; there are other methods than treating it like rice. Apparently. I decided to give this other method a shot.

Following the instructions of those who know better than I, my method involved adding a little water and olive oil to the dried pasta, and raking it with my fingers until it was semi-hydrated. After a quick nibble I would describe the couscous as 'slightly harder than al dente'. Which is kind of neat really, considering that a grain of couscous is no larger than a piece of coarse sand (Israeli couscous not included in this description). Now that I had my couscous, equivocally parboiled, the next step was to steam it over a broth, soup, or stew until done and then pair it with the cooking substance.

Of course, I had the soup planned out in advance. The product I would be using to serve with my couscous would be a soup made of braised beef and curried onions. Now, Judy Rogers of the Zuni Cafe stresses the importance of the braising liquid, as it is the product which imparts the flavors in the meat itself, as well as being the key component of whatever sauce is used on/in the dish. Since I knew I would be using couscous (fairly bland) and garbanzo beans (not exactly chocked full of flavor) I needed an intensely flavored broth. I decided I would strain the braising liquid and add it directly to the soup. So, Ms. Rogers, I did my best to develop a clean, yet intense, braising liquid. And with this clean flavorful liquid I would make a clean, flavorful soup. Here is an approximate recipe, completely from memory, from early this week, so take it with a grain of salt. Kosher salt.

Basic Braised Beef:
2 lb. braisable beef product. (I used an eye of round, not my first choice but since I didn't do the shopping I am not complaining)
1 quart beef stock (pulled from my freezer, out of ziploc baggies, so I'm guessing a quart or so)
1.5 C of red wine (a good, long pour)
Handful of peppercorns
3 Bay Leaves
4 cloves of garlic, smashed (you can leave the skins on if you wish)
2 large carrots (or if you have baby carrots in your fridge, they work too)
1 Onion

Salt the meat up to 1 day ahead to bring out flavors. Again, advice from Ms. Rogers.

Combine the wine and the stock in a sauce pan. Bring to a light boil and reduce down by approximately 1/3. This should concentrate the flavors and also help concentrate the gelatin in the stock to make it a little 'fuller'. Taste it. Depending on the stock and the wine, don't be afraid to season this. Remember, this is what flavors a large hunk of cow.

Slice the carrots, I usually go about julienne size x 2. These guys are going to be roasting in an oven for a couple hours, so no need to make them too small.

Slice the onions with the same methodology as the carrots.

Now, technically, there should be celery in this mix. That being said, a chef that knows a hell of a lot more than me once told me celery really doesn't lend much to stocks and sauces, and because of this he often leaves it out completely. So, if you have celery, slice that too. If you don't, no need to worry about it.

I like to have a little layer of the vegetable mix underneath the meat in a braise, if I can. Perhaps it adds more flavor, perhaps I am superstitious. Regardless, the vegetables (and the smashed garlic) and the meat go in a roasting container not much larger than the meat. Then add the reduced wine/stock mixture, the bay leaves, and the peppercorns. The liquid should cover about 2/3 of the meat. Mine was a little lacking...so I improvised and added *gasp* water. Stock or raw wine would probably be a better move, but I survived. This mixture gets covered tightly and placed in an oven (mine was 300 degrees F) until it is tender. To ensure the container is tightly sealed, I wrapped a layer of aluminum foil over the dish and then put the lid over that. If you have time, pull the meat when cooked and let it cool in it's own juices.

The Soup:

3 quarts (?) beef broth
2 Onions
1 clove garlic (or more depending on your palette...I used more)
Dash of cayenne pepper
a few pods of: allspice, coriander
curry powder (4 TB?)
1 can garbonzo beans (if you can find a little can use it, this had a too many beans for my liking)
I also added some fresh paper thin ginger but I didn't like it, and I would leave it out the next time I made this soup.

Feel free to experiment.

Knowing ahead of time that I will have the beefy rich sauce from the braise to add to my soup, I still needed a solid base that could stand on its own if I wanted to do other things with it (such as keep it vegetarian). Curried onions sounded good to me at the time. I like curry powder and the spices associated with it because it keeps things simple. Curry tastes good. You could probably just add curry powder to an eggplant and throw it on a barbecue grill with ketchup and it would taste ok.

Since the soup is focused on onions and couscous, slice the onions with more care than needed for the braise. They are the feature of the soup, so treat them well. I halved them and then cut julienne widths across the onion to get small half curls that were uniform in size for even cooking.

Toast up the coriander and allspice, let them cool, and grind them or pestle and mortar to your favorite consistency.

Heat up a large saute, approximately medium+, add the fat of your choice (I added canola oil for simplicities sake) and once it's shimmering add the onions. I wanted a little color on the onions so I took them a touch past translucent. Season with salt and pepper, add the spice mixture and the curry powder. I added a fair amount of curry, because it is what I wanted the onions to taste like, so don't be shy. Once I mixed this into the onions, and let it cook for a minute or two, I deglazed the pan with a little white wine (because...that's just what I do). I then stirred it up to release the fond, and added it to a soup kettle with the broth in it.

I maintained this over low heat without a lid to reduce a little more, about thirty minutes. I then added the strained sauce from the braised beef. I also took a minute to scoop out any fat that had collected to the top of the liquid; there wasn't much. Adjust the soup mixture with salt and pepper if need be.

I then improvised a couscous steamer with a sieve and some aluminum foil, and cooked the couscous over the pot (in the soup steam, in the sieve, covered with the aluminum foil) I occasionally removing the foil and broke the couscous apart with a fork to avoid clumps. Once the couscous was cooked, I added the garbonzo beans, and pieces of the thinly sliced beef. (I had about a quarter to half the roast left over, but braising a 1 pound cut of meet is silly)

Assembly was simple. I put as much couscous as I thought looked good in a bowl, covered it with the onion soup, and sprinkled parsley on top. My goal was to have a rich soup with flecks of couscous intermingling with all the parts for texture and a little bite. The soup was loaded with flavor, and as I ate more and more a little touch of heat built in my mouth. The best part is, this made plenty of soup for two people to eat on for a few days, and it got better after day 1 (as soup often does). Hence the title of the post.

This is a very long winded explanation of my process but I'm hoping by talking through my thoughts and steps that maybe someone will see something new and say "hmm, that sounds like a good way to do it." Even better, maybe someone will see something and say "this is a different/better way to do it" or "try these flavors next time" or "you have no idea what you are talking about." Besides, if you wanted a list of ingredients, there are plenty of cookbooks out there. This is me really cooking, learning, and experimenting.

If I were to do this soup again I think a small sprinkling of super fine diced shallots/onions as a garnish on top would be tasty. I would also use less couscous in the bowls, and get a roast with bone-in qualities. I was also thinking that adding some fennel bulb to the braise might add another layer of tastiness to it, and I would add turmeric to the onions if I (or the store I tried to buy it from!) had any in stock.

Off to the restaurant in two hours, really looking forward to it.

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