Monday, May 30, 2011


I have a lifelong love affair going with peppers of all types. There are many ways I like to enjoy them, but  certain iconic preparations are truly quintessential expressions of pure pepperness. One of these is the Italian dish called peperonata--a genuine comfort food if ever there was one. It was among the very first Italian classics I tackled when I was just embarking on my journey into the exotic kingdom of fine cooking.

I first had to learn how to roast and peel peppers--something I had watched the maids do with poblano peppers at home, as they prepared to make  chiles rellenos (mmmm!). The recipe I was working from at that time had me roasting the peppers over an open flame, turning them as their skins burned, to blacken them evenly. Then I was instructed to put them in a plastic bag and let them steam in their residual heat, which would loosen the skins for easy removal. This worked marginally well, but it took forever and the skins were still pretty hard to get off. I've since figured out a much easier and more effective way to do this, which I'll share with you. What follows is not so much a recipe as a step-by-step guide to making peperonata:

Wash the peppers. Select the fleshiest ones you can find for this, because after roasting them, their flesh will shrink by almost half the original thickness, and if the peppers are too thin, they will virtually cook through at this stage, and then the final result will be way too mushy to properly satisfy the peperonata craving.

Cut them into quarters, remove the seeds and membranes, and trim the cut sides so the pieces will lie flat in the next step.

Lay the quarters, cut side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. You don't have to alternate the colors like this; it's just something I do because it's fun (and in case you didn't know this about me, I'm all about the joy). Set the broiler to high heat and slide them under the flame. Leave the broiler door open to disperse the ambient heat, so they won't cook all the way through. You just want to roast the skins and a little bit underneath.

When the skins have blackened nicely, remove the tray from the oven. Some may need to be turned and roasted a little longer in order to get the whole surface.

Immediately immerse the peppers in cold water. This is a much better way to loosen the skins, because it stops the cooking, so you'll still have a firm, fairly uncooked pepper to start the dish with, instead of a very soft one. The skins will almost all slip right off. Drain them well before proceeding.

Cut the peppers into pieces about an inch and a half square.

Cut some onions into similar-sized pieces. Peel and thinly slice some garlic.

Heat a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large pot and add the onions. Stir until they're turning translucent and the edges begin to brown lightly. Add the garlic, stir a minute or two, and then add the peppers. Stir to combine thoroughly, and cook another few minutes.

Add "passata di pomodoro," an Italian staple, which is plum tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded and passed through a sieve. It may look similar to "tomato puree" sold in American markets, but it's a world apart in flavor and texture. This is rich, delicious, semi-raw tomato of the most luscious order. Stir it in.

Once you've incorporated the tomato, add a splash of red wine vinegar, a good pinch of sugar (I use evaporated cane juice), some sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, red chile powder, and a bay leaf or two. Get the mixture boiling, and then turn the flame way down, cover the pot and let it bubble and stew for an hour or two, stirring from time to time to make sure it isn't sticking.

Consider it done when the juices have reduced down to a thick sauce and the vegetables are very tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed, to suit your palate. That's it.

This is wonderful stuff, with more than a couple of uses. To start you off on a long list I've yet to reach the end of, it makes a fabulous pasta sauce, a rich condiment, something to dip bread into, an accompaniment for polenta, a side dish in its own right as part of an Italian-inspired menu, a thoughtful gift to bring when you're invited to someone's house, and something to eat in the middle of the night if you're still up. I just made some today, and it's past midnight where I am...

I do recommend that when you make this, make a lot of it. It isn't a lot more hassle to do eighteen peppers than it is to do six, and a freshly made peperonata will keep at least a week in the refrigerator (not that it will last that long, trust me). If you want a detailed recipe, stay tuned--it'll be in my next book, due out spring of 2012. Chopped parsley is the ideal garnish for this, by the way.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Luscious Antioxidants

This one surprised even me. I was just going for a quick fresh salad to serve with leftovers (it's always good to have some live food, especially if the rest of the meal is a day old). And to be sure, this dish was on the table fast--about ten minutes--but the succulence and rich flavor of this little thing was totally unexpected.

All I really did was grate some carrot and beet; slice fennel, red onion and red cabbage; and whisk together some white miso, grated fresh ginger, fresh lime juice, garlic, Udo's DHA Oil, and sriracha, to make a light, spicy dressing.

To serve, I tossed the vegetables with the dressing, then added some hydroponic watercress, and tossed again. Simple, easy, and yet a feast for the eye and the palate. What's more, this little salad was packed with antioxidant, antiviral, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory properties--a prime example of Hippocrates' bit of advice, "Let thy food be thy medicine."

Going back to my last post, ever since I read "Your Brain On Food," whenever I eat something truly thrilling (like this salad turned out to be), I tend to find myself picturing dopamine neurotransmitters blasting explosively into the synaptic clefts all throughout my brain, as neurons communicate wildly in brilliant electric arcs like microscopic orgasms. Sometimes food is just that good.

Food is so much more than raw material for building blood and tissue, or fuel for metabolizing into energy. Food is music for the body's internal ecstatic dance. It's the joy of life itself, manifesting for us as we perform our part in the refreshment and nourishing of our body. It's one of the divine's many amorous caresses that reinforce our sense of worth, of being lovable. Food is, quite simply, the answer to that unspoken prayer, hunger. Of course, that's if the food was made right--with love, enthusiasm, a passion for flavor, and, perhaps most important of all, the wish to please someone.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Your Brain on Food

I recently read a fascinating book called "Your Brain on Food," that has changed the way I understand the relationship we all have with what we eat. The author, a neuroscientist, advises the reader to regard anything one ingests (through whatever means) as a drug, because that's how the brain perceives it. Or, more accurately, how the brain responds to it, regardless of whether it's chocolate, nutmeg, coffee, cocaine, or psilocybin. Not that the brain responds identically to all of these agents--they each elicit a unique action--but the brain conducts its business in the same way, whether we've eaten the latest identified superfood, taken prescription drugs, smoked a cigarette, or injected heroin. I found this not only intriguing, but also profoundly instructive.

There was a lot of scientific information to wade through, as much as the author tried to keep it simple--and to be honest, a lot of it went out much more quickly and easily than it went in--but there were a few points that made an impression I'm not likely to forget anytime soon.

For one thing, I'm seeing the brain as a processor, not of data, the way the mind is, but of chemicals. The brain is not an instrument of intelligence (although it functions in a highly organized, brilliantly efficient manner--at unimaginable speed); it's a manager of substances. Everything we eat is made up of a dizzying array of separate compounds, and to the degree that they succeed in crossing the "blood-brain barrier," these compounds impact the way the brain responds (and the way we subsequently feel). The faster a substance can cross this barrier and enter the brain, the greater the impact, because this means that a large dose will be delivered at once.

Whatever substance enters the brain regularly (and especially copiously), the brain comes to recognize and regard as "normal." For example, the brain runs primarily on glucose, so the presence of glucose in the brain is normal. When some time has passed since our last meal, our blood sugar level begins to drop, and glucose starts to become scarce in the brain, so the brain sends us craving messages we recognize as hunger. We respond by hunting down some food--either something sweet, or something that the body can synthesize glucose from. That's all very nice, but the same holds true of other substances that enter the brain in sufficient quantity and frequency--like nicotine, or amphetamine. The brain begins to regard the presence of these substances as "normal," and when they are depleted, the brain will send craving messages that they need replenishing (with no regard, by the way, for our health, safety, finances, relationships, or freedom). This is what addiction is. Once a period of time has passed in the absence of these substances, the brain is fully capable of readjusting to the new "normal," and will no longer send us out to score them.

Here's the main point I came away with: Since everything we ingest acts upon the brain like a drug, we can consider any type of food as one drug or another, with specific effects in the brain. We can become addicted to a food simply by consuming it regularly--to the extent that the compounds in that food cross the blood-brain barrier, these will become "normal," and hence, "needed." Similarly, if we refrain from eating those foods, after a period of withdrawal, their absence will also become normal (and not needed). Essential nutrients are excluded from this formula, because the body actually does need them in order to function properly, and cannot synthesize them, so we must obtain them from our diet, but these are relatively few (9 amino acids, 14 vitamins, 17 minerals, and 2 fats).

Why is this important? Well, think about the implications of having your brain considering the components of certain foods "normal" in exactly the same way as it might, say, cocaine. Those foods might not be all that helpful in maintaining optimum health--they may even be contributing to disease. But the brain is simply reading our continued ingestion of these compounds as just the right thing to do. Freaky, huh? See why I finally understood that the brain is not the seat of intelligence, but rather a processor of chemicals?

This is the good news: We are not our brain, and we don't have to be enslaved to any particular food (as long as we can find those few essential nutrients elsewhere). Just as we can detox from an addictive, destructive drug, we can detox from an addictive, destructive food. All it takes is a little attention to nutritional facts, and the will to live well. And it helps if we're trying to live consciously (the subtler, more fundamental definition of "well").

It may be challenging to switch from destructive food to constructive food, because our mind, which processes data with the same blind indifference as the brain processes chemicals, will be telling us to keep on eating the stuff that's fattening, sickening and killing us. It will be interpreting "tastes good" as "must eat," and "different" as "suspect." But just as the brain becomes accustomed to a new substance that shows up regularly, the mind will get on the bandwagon eventually--if we keep at it. We can, in fact, retrain our desires and our tastes. We don't have to do as we've always done, just because the advertising led us that way. We can uncouple ourselves from all the influences that don't serve us well and decide for ourselves what we want to do (and eat). How cool is that?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kidney Bean and Butternut Squash Curry

I had been away for several days, and those I left at home had eaten up pretty much all the fresh vegetables (except, of course, for the Bathtub Garden's bounty, which just keeps on coming), so this was going to be one of those times when you just have to use what's there.

I did have a small butternut squash, an onion that was close to the end of its days, and a bunch of fairly fresh scallions (and a handful of basil, from the bathtub garden). I always keep plenty of coconut milk, red, green, and panang Thai curry pastes, and at least three varieties of organic canned beans, among other things.

I was in the mood for something spicy. After looking over what I had to work with, I decided to make a curry with the butternut squash and a big can of red kidney beans. This wasn't a combination I had made before, and it's by no means any Thai dish I've ever heard of, but it tasted good in my head, so I figured it was a pretty safe bet.

I cut the onion and squash into roughly half-inch dice. I heated a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in a large pot and added the onion, stirring well. Once it was soft, I added the squash and stirred until the vegetables  began to dry out a bit. Then I added about three tablespoons of Thai red curry paste (I was actually out of panang--my favorite). At this point, I had to stir pretty furiously to keep everything from sticking as I got the paste well distributed. In went two cans of coconut milk. As soon as the mixture came to a boil, I turned the heat down to medium-low and let the squash cook until just tender (about 15 minutes). Then I added the can of kidney beans (drained) and turned the heat up to warm them through.

Just before serving, I sliced the scallions on a sharp diagonal and stirred them into the curry. I had wanted to use a big handful of fresh basil, but my wife had harvested all the big leaves for pesto the week before, so we only had a few smaller leaves available (you can't take them all, or it'll kill the plant--the vegan version of slaying the golden goose). So I just sliced the leaves I had, and instead of stirring them in, I used them as a garnish.

Oddly enough, in spite of the hefty amount of curry paste I used, it still wasn't very spicy. I'd been out of my homemade sriracha sauce for well over a week (see recipe at the bottom of this May 6th post), but there was a bit left in a store-bought bottle. I used this as an additional garnish, with more squirted in at will, as we ate. There was quite a bit left over, and I've reheated and enjoyed it twice since then--which if you know me, should tell you how tasty this thing turned out (I could have put it in a jar and given it away, you know).

It's always fun to see what you can make with just whatever you have lying around. Of course, it helps if you're in the habit of keeping a good supply of non-perishables, providing yourself with a broad range of creative material for your artist's palette. That's why I made such a point of spelling this out in the "Stocking the Vegan Pantry" section of Speed Vegan--it's just stacking the cards in favor of a good time, pure and simple. Having an amazing wife who can make things grow is a boon, too, and one not easily duplicated. Actually, truth be told, having my particular wife is freaking wonderful, period. Born under a lucky star, I was.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Nutty Chocolate Balls

For those who may have noticed that I hadn't posted in nearly a week, I've just returned from New Orleans, where I presented recipes from my cookbooks at the NOLA Veggie Fest--a small but well-attended two-day event celebrating the various aspects of plant-based living. I had a blast--New Orleans is one gorgeous, fun place, with some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet.

The second day's schedule was a little chaotic, and my time slot was bumped twice--which worked out very well for me, because by the time I went on, we had a full house. I demonstrated two recipes from Speed Vegan: "Green Curry Salad" (see recipe on this page) and "Nutty Chocolate Balls." Although the latter is a very easy treat to make, there is one step in the recipe that calls for "1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts," which I admit, can be a bit confusing for anyone who hasn't roasted hazelnuts before. To keep things flowing in the demo, I had done this beforehand. So for those who were there (and anyone who might be interested), here's how it's done:

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking sheet in a single layer. 

Place the pan in the oven and roast for 7 to 10 minutes, until the skins blister and the nuts are lightly browned.  You can also go for a darker roast, but be careful--they can go over the line and burn in less time than you might think. Also, note that the centers will be somewhat darker than the outer surface.

Immediately transfer the nuts to a towel.

Fold the towel over the nuts and wrap tightly.
Let the bundle sit for a few minutes, until just warm, and then rub and knead vigorously with both hands for a couple of minutes. This will dislodge most of the skins.

Open the towel and individually rub off any skins that may remain. Some may be stubborn and refuse to come off--so it goes, no big deal. Don't worry about it, just proceed. 

Lift and shake the nuts to leave the skins behind and place them in a bowl. I used to have a special strainer for this that I made out of chicken wire with a mesh just fine enough to keep the nuts and let the skins fall through. It was perfect, but I left it in Australia when I was working there as a pastry chef. I keep meaning to make a new one, but it's one of those things you don't think of until you need it (and when you do, you're too busy to stop and make one).

Chop the nuts coarsely and sift out the fine powder.

To make the nutty balls (for everyone who wasn't at the demo), combine equal parts roasted hazelnut butter, fine quality Dutch process cocoa powder, and maple syrup. Note that the recipe in the book calls for agave nectar, but as you may have read in another post, I no longer recommend agave as a sweetener.

Once the mixture is thoroughly blended, put it in the refrigerator for an hour or two to firm it up. To speed things up, you can also put it in the freezer for about 15 to 20 minutes. Once it's firm enough to handle, scoop out roughly 1-1/2 teaspoon gobs and roll them into balls. Roll them in the chopped nuts to coat.

That's it. See? I told you it was easy!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mango Love

I walked into India Bazar looking for exotic produce on Monday, knowing full well that they get fresh deliveries on Thursdays, so the pickings would be slim. And slim they were indeed--the bitter melon was battered, pale and a little moldy, the bhindi and mooli both limp and sad, and even the red onions were soft and sprouting. But then (ooh baby) I saw this box of radiant mangoes.

I could tell just by looking at them that they were perfectly ripe at that moment--except for a single very green one--and I had to have them, especially at the ridiculous price of nine dollars for the lot (nine bucks? are they nuts?). That's the other reason I shop there--Indian prices!

Well, I knew I would have to use them up right away because they wouldn't last, so I cut one up and squeezed lime juice on it (that one didn't last two minutes). My wife and son each had one, too. Then I took all but the green one and made sorbet (even that's gone now, just two days later). The lone survivor went into a salad (green mangoes are fantastic that way), and that was that. I love mangoes.

For the salad, I cut thin julienne strips of the green mango, red pepper, fennel and scallions. I made a dressing similar to the one for "Green Curry Salad" from Speed Vegan, featuring Thai green curry paste, garlic, brown rice vinegar, lime juice and peel, and a fistful of fresh basil leaves, blasted in the blender. My wife harvested some of her "a little past micro" baby lettuces, and a few of her micro-broccoli greens.

I tossed the cut vegetables and some hydroponic watercress with most of the dressing, piled it on beds of the baby lettuces, and threw on some halved macadamia nuts and the micro broccoli greens. Then I drizzled the last of the dressing over each serving. The flavors were pretty spectacular, frankly.

The sorbet was a lot quicker to make. I just whipped five mangoes in the Vitamix with a half-cup of fresh lime juice and a quarter-cup of Essencia (a delicious orange muscat dessert wine from California). Then I made a syrup with 3/4 cup each of evaporated cane juice and water and added that.

"Horrors!" you may be thinking, "Sugar?" Well, yes, in fact, and here's why: I've come to realize that unless you have diabetes or hypoglycemia or some other sugar-sensitive condition, you're better off with honest cane sugar than agave (read all about this in my March 9th post). Regular white sugar, as you may know, is processed with bone char, a by-product of the meat industry (just lovely, huh?). My preferred alternatives at the moment are maple syrup and palm sugar--both too strong tasting and with too dark a color for this application. Once in a while a little sugar won't kill you (with the caveats I mentioned).

Back to the mango sorbet. After combining the ingredients, I let it chill in the refrigerator and then froze it in my ice cream maker. Then I served it with some strips of mint.

Sorbet is incomparably silky and ethereal when it's freshly made, and mango sorbet is truly sublime.

As I said earlier, this didn't last any longer than the whole mangoes or the salad. My son is a mango fan just like the rest of us, and he has friends.

I've said this already, but I love mangoes. They are among the sexiest foods imaginable.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lose the Entrée

I've had the discussion several times with certain friends who sincerely would like to promote a plant-based diet, on what might be needed in order to win more people over. Personally, I lack the gene for converting people. No one has ever converted me to anything (although some have certainly tried). I came to eat the way I do as a natural progression, by following my instincts, with information acquired along the way, and ultimately, based on "what works."  I'm perfectly comfortable recommending a plant-based diet--in the same way I might a good book I've read--but I'm fairly certain that no one will make a decision as important as this, based solely on my opinion. However, when asked what ideas I might have, there are two principal thoughts that come to mind every time, and both relate to what I regard as a sort of "phantom limb" craving for meat and dairy.

My view is that if you're giving up something (for whatever reason), the most effective way to both keep your conviction and impress others is to make a clean break. To me, this is just common sense. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I take the position that "if you're going to leave something behind, don't bring it with you." It cuts both ways, because on the one hand, you show the strength of your conviction by leaving past habits behind, and on the other, you set a clear example for others to follow (if that matters to you).

So, my first (and most controversial) suggestion is that if you're going to obtain your protein from a non-animal source, it will serve you best to eat that food in its own natural and cultural format. For example, tofu, a  mainstay for  many vegetarians, can be very enjoyable when prepared within the Asian cuisines, but becomes an unwelcome oddity when forced into American or European dishes. Furthermore, fake meats and imitation cheeses made artificially from soy (or wheat or rice) are a lose/lose proposition, in that they fall miserably short of fooling the palate, while they betray a longing for what one purports to have transcended. That's my opinion, and I realize there are many who do not share it. I do believe this is a subject that will need to be addressed at some point, however, because fooling oneself is both unsatisfying and self-defeating (again, in my opinion).

My second suggestion is much easier to swallow (no pun intended) and to implement: Lose the notion of an "entrée." In the great meat-eating culture, this is a loaded word that primarily signifies  a hunk of some sort of flesh on a plate, with or without accompanying vegetables, which may or may not be eaten along with it. Now there certainly is such a thing as a "vegetarian entrée," but this is typically imitative in some way, such as a serving of meatless lasagne. I propose discarding the word "entrée" altogether and either going with "first, second, and third courses," or taking a radical step into traditional vegetarian cuisines, and implementing their approach.

An obvious candidate would be Indian vegetarian food. Rather than focusing on a "main dish," Indian food considers each preparation as a special dish in its own right, of equal importance along with the others in the meal. Many times you'll see several different dishes presented in individual cups, called "katoris," that keep them separate, and prevent their unique flavors from mixing on the plate. It's a fun way to eat, but it's also instructive, because rather than relegating the role of vegetables to one of mere window dressing alongside "the entrée," (where they may be ignored), it elevates them to equal status with every other item on the plate. For a cook, this is also a challenge, because it requires that all vegetables be treated as star players, meaning they must all be eye-appealing, with alluring fragrances and palate-thrilling flavor-texture combinations.

As an example, here are some vegetables I picked up at my local Indian market, with the intention of creating a meal based on the "no entrée" approach. Clockwise from the upper left are: small eggplants, okra, curry leaves, green chilies, some long, ridged squashes called "turia," and some very small squashes that resemble tiny cucumbers, called "tindora." I had also selected some bitter melon, cauliflower, peas, and chick peas, along with a few spices and herbs. I wasn't sure what exactly would end up in the meal, but I wanted to have a good selection of options to work with.

Click on the image to enlarge.
Now, I wasn't setting out to make a traditional Indian meal, but rather, using the Indian model as an approach for serving the food. An obvious outsider would be the quinoa (in the center), which I inserted because it's my favorite grain, high in protein and fiber, and much more in line with my health preferences than white rice. I did cook it with a handful of curry leaves, which imbued it with a pleasant subcontinental back-note.

I cooked the turia (front right) with Thai red curry paste and coconut milk. The chick peas (front left) were finished with chaat masala (a spice blend with a slightly sweet-sour undertone), onion and tomato. The tindora (back left) I prepared in a straightforward Indian fashion, with ginger, garlic, onion, grated tomato, and spices.

I used ras el hanout (a traditional Moroccan spice mixture) to cook the cauliflower, which was a by-product of an oven-drying experiment. I had first cut thin cross-sections of individual flowerettes, using a "mandoline," which is a very sharp cutting device that produces uniform slices. Then I laid the slices out on an oiled parchment, dusted them with ras el hanout and salt, and baked them for an hour at a very low temperature, producing crisp, shriveled (and flavor-packed) "cauli-flowers." The remaining uncooked pieces of cauliflower were pretty mangled, so I chopped them and sautéed them with onion, garlic and ginger until very fragrant, and then added more ras el hanout and water. When the vegetables were very tender, I blasted them to a smooth puree in the Vitamix, reheated it in a clean pot, and stirred in some cooked peas. Then I served it with the oven-crisped "cauli-flowers" on top.

A meat-lover will still most likely wonder "Where's the beef?" but for someone who no longer relies on dead animals for protein and pleasure, this was one hell of a little feast!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Clay, Wood & Stone

I grew up in a land where natural materials, such as clay and stone, were not only used in the kitchen, but were also constantly being dug up at archaeological sites. From the most ancient and primitive to the most recent of precolumbian finds, the principal artifacts found were shards of clay pots, grinding stones and obsidian knives. I remember walking through freshly plowed fields near my house and plucking bagfuls of obsidian arrowheads and spearptips, fragments of painted pottery and figurines from the furrowed earth. One day I found a spectacular pot, with only a small chip missing, elegantly decorated with glyphs--probably a ceremonial urn of some sort. I still have that pot, although the hundreds of other artifact fragments have long since slipped away.

Today, I have a particular fondness for cookware made of these natural materials, from Thai stone mortars with palmwood pestles, to Mexican and Italian clay pots, to Moroccan tagines, to French and Chinese porcelain bakeware. The reasons are varied--an affinity for ancient cultures, certainly, and an appreciation for the simple aesthetics of handmade items, as well as the sheer pleasure of using them. Also, there are the unusual results obtained from preparing food using these tools.

I feel connected to the fundamentals of cooking when, for example, I pound salt and garlic together in a stone mortar to form a paste, perhaps adding some herbs, lemongrass, or fresh chilies. Of course, I can blast these same ingredients to a pulp with a food processor in a fraction of the time, but without the same pleasure, and--here's the bottom line, for a cook--nowhere even vaguely near the same result. Whereas a machine can quickly reduce ingredients to a puree, that puree will never have the silkiness, the unique flavor and earthy texture of a hand-pounded one. In Mexico, where sauces have been mashed and ground for centuries in volcanic stone mortars called molcajetes, there is a popular notion that an important and irreplaceable ingredient is la tierrita ("the little dirt") that wears off the mortar and pestle and winds up in the food. It's flavor, culture, and what the French call terroir--the taste of place.

Beans and lentils cooked in a clay pot taste different from the exact same ingredients cooked in a metal pot. In fact, I can't think of any dish that does not benefit from being cooked in earthenware pots, whether on the stovetop or in the oven. They have a "je ne sais quoi" that makes the food somehow more tasty. Maybe it's energetic, like prana or something, or maybe it's just my imagination, but I'm not by any means the only one to notice this.

We forget all too often that we're actually alive, breathing, sustained in the moment, and for just a few years, by the power of life--a vibrant, magical phenomenon. Dazzled by the technology and conveniences that surround us, it's so easy to become separated from our roots and lose sight of the genuine miracle we're living in. There are many ways to slow down and reconnect to the moment; some people practice yoga or tai chi, or create works of art. Others take walks in nature, listen to music, or do some form of meditation.

I do as many things as I can to feel present now, and cooking is one of them. Using tools that have been with me for many years, like my clay pots, stone mortar, bamboo spoons, and even wood and metal utensils with which I have a history, I feel I'm in the company of dear old friends. Food prepared with these tools, imbued with my love and intention, surrounded by the intangible aura of everyone who cooked before me, is food that is full of life and unique in all the world. So it is with anyone who cooks, if they put their heart into it.

Here is that pot. I figure it's at least five, maybe six hundred years old.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Roasted Strawberries

Organic strawberries have begun to appear at my local natural food store, and at first sighting a couple of days ago, I couldn't resist the urge to buy more than I could possibly eat. It's probably a character flaw of some kind. The upside of this is that after eating a bunch of them fresh, I still had about a pound of gorgeous ripe beauties to play with. So I decided to try something new.

I vaguely remembered seeing a recipe somewhere that had you roasting strawberries with olive oil and salt, and then adding some port and balsamic vinegar. It sounded  at once a bit odd and potentially quite tasty, so I figured, "Why not?"

After I had washed and hulled them, I cut them in half (and the larger ones into quarters), and tossed them in a bowl with EVOO, fine-ground Celtic salt, and some palm sugar.

Then I spread them out in a single layer on a baking pan lined with unbleached parchment paper, and roasted them at 375F for about 30 minutes. The parchment shields acidic ingredients from reacting with the aluminum pan, but it also made quick, easy work of sliding the whole batch of roasted strawberries, juices and all, into a bowl. While they were still hot, I added a splash of ruby port and another splash of 18-year-old balsamic vinegar, folding gently with a silicone spatula to combine well.

The results were astounding. I don't really like cooked strawberries all that much--it tends to wash out their fresh fruit taste and leave them a bit bland by comparison--however, these strawberries were every bit as luscious in their roasted form as they had been fresh, but with a concentrated flavor. No doubt a lot of the credit goes to the other ingredients, but so what?

The first thing I tried them on was a gob of "Coconut Bliss" dark chocolate ice cream (ooh baby).

My wife was in bed already, reading herself into a sleep-ready state, when I brought this heavenly concoction upstairs for her to try. I fed her a spoonful and then I took one, as she made the appropriate noises. We took turns savoring, and a mere forty-five seconds or so later, the bowl was bone dry. I'm sure there will be other good combinations in the future, but this was one that had to be repeated, over and over, until the entire first batch of roasted strawberries was gone (oh well).

Next time, I think I'll add some sprigs of fresh rosemary during the roasting phase and see what happens...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Love Beluga When It Snows

No, don't get your knickers in a knot--that's beluga lentils, not caviar. To be quite honest, I have a great fondness for both (palate-wise), although slaying an entire (female, endangered) fish just for the roe has ceased to be something I can excuse, so the latter is off my personal menu. The vodka and champagne that customarily accompany caviar, fortunately, are vegan items--although in my ripe middle age, I seem to have lost that youthful penchant for overindulgence, so these I enjoy infrequently. I met my lifetime quota early on, I think.

Looking out my back door as the snow melts.
Yesterday it was a balmy 55 degrees in my neck of the woods; this morning it was barely above 32, with an inch of snow on the ground. By mid-morning it was slowly melting, but the cold was still bone-chilling. This called for some hot, stick-to-the-ribs comfort food, and few things come close to the warming pleasure of a steaming pot of lentils.

I'm inordinately fond of all legumes, but certain forms stand out--and oddly enough, now that I come to think of it, my three favorite ones are black: black beans, black urad dal, and, the protagonists of today's post, beluga lentils. They get their name, obviously, from their resemblance to the aforementioned (and now, alas, abandoned) delicacy. Lucky for me, I prefer the flavor of lentils to that of any living creature, so no big loss.

Cooking lentils of any kind a is pretty straightforward affair, but I like to do them a little more justice than mere boiling. So, for my comfort food du jour, I began by sautéing some finely diced onion, celery, red bell pepper, garlic and Aleppo pepper in a little extra virgin olive oil over a low  to moderate heat until soft and fragrant. Then I added the lentils and stirred to combine and coat them with a light sheen of the oil, before adding water and an unsalted vegetable bouillon cube. I raised the heat until the pot was boiling, then lowered it again to maintain a simmer. I covered the pot and continued cooking until the lentils were tender.  At this point, I added salt and cooked them a little longer, until the liquid was reduced to a creamy sauce.

A nice salad from our bathtub garden is all it'll take to complete this evening's meal--perfect for when my wife and I return from the gym.

Life she is good, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Heroes Who Make All Heroism Possible

One week ago today, a group of very courageous, highly trained individuals successfully undertook a dangerous mission to apprehend a man believed to have caused the deaths of thousands of people. These men have since been regarded as heroes, as perhaps they should be. This is not a political blog, and I will not be remarking on the wisdom of such a mission. However, I would like to take a look at our notion of heroism, and specifically at those individuals who I consider the unsung heroes of civilization.

I remarked some time ago that if there had never been a fertile crescent, there would never have been a cradle of civilization, and I have been reflecting on that statement, off and on, ever since. It was the ability to grow food on a stable spot, as opposed an erstwhile reliance on hunting and gathering, that enabled humans to develop complex civilizations, with laws, property ownership, the division of labor, and specialization of skills. It also made possible the support of armies, which in turn enabled the projection of power and conquest. Everything we have today began with the planting of seeds, the nurturing of plants, and the harvest. Even now, our entire social structure is contingent upon the ability to grow food. Of course, transport, storage and distribution are also crucial, but even these would not have any importance if food itself were not grown first.

Mexican farmers, using ancient techniques in a painting by my late father, Phil Roettinger  

Why am I bringing this up? We're approaching a crossroads unprecedented in our history, at which point we'll need to decide whether we will choose to produce food in a sustainable, healthful manner consistent with ecology and the laws of nature, or continue on the path away from these principles and in the end bring about the destruction of everything our ancestors labored to achieve.

There are many ecologists, environmentalists, and even a few politicians who are working hard to ensure that we make wise decisions regarding our farming methods as well as other factors that influence our future ability to feed ourselves well. At a conference on The Future of Food earlier this week, Prince Charles gave a brilliant keynote speech, in which he noted the distinction between agriculture and agribusiness. He covered several related topics (I recommend watching the "full speech," versus the 4-minute clip), but what struck me more than anything was his appreciation for, and championing of, the fundamentals of natural, organic farming and the protection of both the environment and biodiversity. I've never thought much of royals, but I recognized in his manner the best sort of leadership on this subject, and became an instant fan.

Now I'll get to the point, which is recognizing the real heroes of civilization: farmers. And by farmers, I mean the actual people who dedicate their lives, day in, day out, to the study and practice of everything involved in growing food. These people never get what I would call a vacation, or a full day off, or many of the comforts most of us take for granted. Nor do they get much of a shot at amassing a fortune (to put it mildly). More importantly, however, they are crucial to our survival, as individuals and as a species. Just as armies stand between us and foreign enemies, farmers (real farmers, I mean) are all that stand between us and death by starvation.

In recent times, there have been "advances" in farming that are not based on what Prince Charles referred to as agriculture--that is, the great body of knowledge acquired over the last 10,000 years of what works and what doesn't. This time-tested and time-honored body of knowledge is part intuitive, part empirical, part technological, part social, even part religious/spiritual, whereas the "advances" I refer to are purely technological and profit-driven. That's not to say that farmers shouldn't be well rewarded for their labor (although historically they largely have not), but the glaring flaw in these new farming methods is that they have come about solely for profit, at the willful expense of all other considerations. To put it briefly, modern "factory" farming relies on practices that pollute the environment, deplete the soil, poison the produce, diminish biodiversity, and endanger the future of food itself.

As a cook, my heroes are organic farmers, especially those who grow heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes. These brave souls work very hard, very long hours, and their livelihood is always at risk, subject not only to the whims of weather, but to the encroachment of Big Ag. Many have given up and moved to cities in search of more lucrative, less back-breaking work (and who could blame them?). But those who remain, implementing the methods of their ancestors, adding to the collective knowledge, and persisting in the most natural and noble of basic professions--these are at the vanguard of the battle to maintain a healthful, sustainable  source of food for all humanity. And they are the last line of defense against the greed-driven mechanism that reduces both plants and animals to mere commodities for ruthless exploitation.

So, next time you're at a farmer's market, consider walking up to the organic produce stall with the most unusual fruits and vegetables, and saying, with the utmost sincerity, as one might say to a veteran, "Thank you for your service."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Black Quinoa

After my post on "Ruby Red Jasmine" rice, I sent the folks at Alter Eco the link, so they could read what I said about their product. As I had figured, they were pleased. They responded by sending me samples of some of their other products, including a package of black quinoa. I've been busy lately, but I finally got around to trying it.

If you've already made "regular" white quinoa and red quinoa, you know that the red takes longer and has a chewier texture than the white. Black quinoa takes even longer than red, and has a downright crunchy texture--although a pleasant one. I noticed that the instructions on the package hedge a little by indicating that we should "simmer until all water has evaporated." A bit sneaky, but quite acceptable for a cook like me. I ended up adding a little liquid toward the end, in order to keep cooking it a while longer.

I decided to make a sort of pilaff using chayotes--I don't know if they have these in Bolivia, but I find most Latin American cuisines meld happily with one another. So I boiled two chayotes while the quinoa was cooking. When the chayotes were just tender, I peeled them and cut them into roughly half-inch dice.

I began the "pilaff" by sweating finely diced onion, celery, leekm and garlic in a couple tablespoons EVOO until very soft and fragrant. I turned up the heat and added the diced chayotes, stirring until almost dry and sizzling. Then I grated the zest of a large tangelo, set it aside, and squeezed the juice into the pot. As the juices bubbled, I added the cooked quinoa and turned the mixture until it was heated through. Then I fluffed in the tangelo zest and a bunch of chopped parsley.

The assertive crunchiness of the black quinoa made for a fun contrast against the tender-firm texture of the chayotes, and the rich aromatic background of slow-cooked vegetables, along with citrus and parsley notes, made this a very satisfying dish.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Making It Right So You Won't Hate It

In my career as a private chef, I've had the distinct pleasure many times of changing people's minds about food. Specifically, I've found ways to prepare various foods (mostly in the vegetable category) my clients had always loathed, in ways that made them reassess their tastes. I discovered the potential for this early on, when I had a request for Brussels sprouts--a vegetable I had gagged on many times as a child. I had up until this point enjoyed great success for the most part, pleasing the palates of my employers virtually without fail, so I was determined to develop a recipe that would make this disgusting little vegetable edible.

As it turned out, the whole reason that Brussels sprouts had been such a turnoff was because my mother always cooked them to death, rendering them hopelessly mushy, and stinking like socks worn three days on sweaty, unwashed feet. In fact, they were not half bad if you cooked them just until tender-crisp, and dressed them properly.

I've found that the best method is to first cut the Brussels sprouts in half or quarters--after removing the dry outer leaves and trimming the base in such a way as to keep the little nubs intact--and blanch them in boiling salted water. Once they're just tender but still bright green and slightly crunchy, I drain them, quench them in an ice bath, and then lay them out on a towel to dry.

After that, any number of applications are possible, but my current favorite treatment is very simple. I just heat a little coconut oil in a wok, throw in some finely julienned fresh ginger and then stir just a few seconds before adding the blanched Brussels sprouts. A quick toss to reheat and coat them with the ginger-infused oil, and they're ready to eat. A few nights ago I did exactly this, but on a whim, I added some dots of my homemade sriracha sauce--which is hotter and not as sweet as the commercial stuff (the recipe, from my first cookbook, Omega 3 Cuisine, appears below).

The point I'm leading up to is that given half a chance, there is no vegetable that can't win us over. All it takes is a little inventiveness and experimentation to find the right combination of tastes and textures, and sometimes the right accompaniment (context can often be key). I've had people eating all kinds of foods for which they had maintained a lifelong hatred, and loving them. Mushrooms, spinach, turnips, cabbage--it's amazing how many people live with a profound dislike of perfectly good vegetables, simply because they had never encountered them prepared in a way that brought out their delectable nature.

Now to be sure, some people will never come around to certain vegetables (and some people just won't eat vegetables at all) no matter how beautifully they're prepared. But these are the exception, believe me. My father had an abiding prejudice against all but a select few vegetables, such that it was hard to get him to even try them--and yet I got him to eat even his most despised ones--and praise them! So if you think you hate one food or another, think again. You might change your mind if you try them made even slightly differently than you've been accustomed to having them. My advice is, if you haven't been able to choke down a particular vegetable, don't give up; keep trying new ways until you hit the sweet spot.

Sriracha Sauce

15 dried red chilies, seeds and stems removed
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces palm sugar (about ½ cup)
1 cup water
7 fresh red Jalapeno chilies
1 cup garlic cloves, peeled and root end removed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Place the dried red chilies, salt, palm sugar and water and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle, low simmer, cover and cook about 15 minutes, or until chilies are very tender and the liquid has reduced to a syrup. Remove from the heat and add the remaining ingredients. Let the mixture cool slightly. 

Transfer to a blender and process until smooth. Pour into a clean glass container. Stored in the refrigerator, Sriracha Sauce will keep for at least 4 weeks.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Watch Those Glycoalkaloids!

No one I know has gotten sick--much less died--from eating potatoes that have sprouted or turned green. However, there is a slight risk from eating potatoes in this condition, so I just thought I'd bring it to everyone's attention.

Potatoes belong to the Solanaceae, or "nightshade" family, which all contain varying amounts of glycoalkaloids. These are natural toxins that serve as the plant's defense against fungi and creatures that might want to eat them (including us). Now before we get all freaked out and swear off potatoes, let me add that tomatoes and eggplants are also members of this family, and if they were all that lethal, every Italian would be dead (not to mention the Irish). Apparently, tomatoes and eggplants contain much lower levels of glycoalkaloids than potatoes, so we can go ahead and take them off the terror watch list now.

There are some varieties of potato that tend to have dangerously high levels of glycoalkaloids in any condition, and these have been identified over the years and removed from cultivation and distribution. The potatoes we pick up at the market are only potentially harmful when they're sprouting, and when they begin to turn green.

There are a few factors that stimulate the potato to produce these toxins, including periods of high metabolic activity (such as sprouting), extremely low temperature, exposure to light, and stress conditions (such as rough handling). These are all the plant's defense reaction to "attack."  However, the most common one in potatoes that look fine when we buy them and then turn green a while later is exposure to light. As a precaution, it's a good practice to store potatoes in a dark place.

If you happen to notice a greenish color on or just under the skin (see the picture below, with a section of skin scraped away), the affected area can generally be peeled away. Simply take it down to where the green color is gone. But once the green color has spread well into the interior of the potato, it's best to consider it too toxic to eat.

The most common symptoms resulting from eating potatoes with high concentrations of glycoalkaloids are mainly a mild gastrointestinal discomfort, although some cases have also included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and headaches. In some rare instances where people ate the sprouts and flowers, or very green potatoes, the results were much more serious, with reports of hallucinations, paralysis, and even deaths. Again, these cases are very rare, and the data is anecdotal, so I wouldn't panic and stop eating potatoes altogether.

I know this post may be a little alarming, but consider that we've all been eating a ton of potatoes over the years with none of the more severe symptoms. I'm just putting the information out there so people can be aware and avoid eating green potatoes. Also, cooking potatoes at high temperature (roughly 350F and above) will lower the concentration of glycoalkaloids, so those who enjoy their "freedom fries" and baked potatoes can generally continue doing so without undue worry (beyond the normal concern regarding fried food).

Bon appétit, everyone!