Thursday, June 30, 2011

Panang Napa Slaw

A friend of mine very kindly sent me a couple of tubs of Panang curry paste (my favorite!), which arrived a couple of days ago. I just had to use some right away. It's been hot and dry the last few days, and what I was really craving was a salad, so instead of making a Thai-style curry, I decided to use the paste in the dressing.

I'd had a large head of Napa cabbage for a few days, so rather than let it age to the point of self-composting, the way vegetables lost in the back of the refrigerator are known to do, I decided on a slaw, with this as the star protagonist. In supporting roles, I cast celery, carrots, scallions, Japanese cucumbers, and fresh mint. I cut everything thinly, on a sharp diagonal, as I often like to do, especially for dishes that lean in an Asian direction.

The dressing took mere seconds to make. Well, more like a couple of minutes (a mere 120 seconds). I simply threw lime peel, lime juice, the Panang curry paste, some Udo's DHA Oil, hemp seeds, mellow white miso, and a little water into the Vitamix and whipped it to a smooth, pale cream--surprisingly pale, considering the rich dark color of the curry paste. I poured it over the vegetables in a large bowl and tossed it with my fingers, to ensure thorough blending. Yes, I washed my hands first.

I served the salad in bowls, garnished generously with sesame seeds. The curry paste's signature heat, oddly enough, presented more of a backnote than its usual in-your-face posture, which was fine because all of its subtle aromatics came through beautifully. It was just spicy enough to qualify for a curry-based dressing, and creamy enough to hold a slaw together. Perfect, really.

A few fun fact about spicy food in hot weather: because it raises your body temperature slightly, spicy foods make you sweat. As the sweat dries, it cools you down. Somewhat counter-intuitive that chiles would do that, but scientifically logical. Also, the oils in chiles are hostile to microbes, which proliferate in hot climates, making chiles an ideal anti-bacterial food. And did you know that chiles are the most anti-inflammatory thing you can eat? Weird, but true!

And now, as I prepare to hit "Publish Post," it's starting to rain! Am I lucky or what?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Roasted Red Pepper Soup with Grilled Corn

Ah, a day without some kind of pepper would be so...well, spiceless! I hadn't really thought about this before, but I'm pretty sure it's true--at least for me. I could have a meal without it, but, a whole day? Maybe it's because where I grew up, it was everywhere-- that ubiquitous aroma of roasting peppers in the air, that fierce bite in all the salsas. 

When I was three or four years old, the maids used to punish me for my various forms of mischief by rubbing a cut green serrano chile on my tongue. If I had been especially naughty, they would rub it on the rim of a glass of water, and hand it to me when I screamed for relief. I really hated chile then, and it's a wonder I ever came to love it, but love it I do.

Not long ago, I discovered two chiles I hadn't seen or tasted before: ají amarillo and ají panca, from South America. What may be difficult for people who don't like spicy food to grasp is the wide variety of flavors among different chiles. Some dried ones are dark, like chocolate; others are smoky, or sweet; nearly all the fresh ones are vibrant, piercingly pungent, with a long-lasting burn. 

This soup I made last night had a roasted sweet red pepper base, with no heat to it at all--which would have been fine (a pepper is a pepper). But I tend to look for ways to broaden the flavor profile in dishes, so I added a healthy dose of these two newly discovered chiles, in ground form. I also put in a bit of Spanish smoked paprika, with which I've become especially enamored over the last few years, for the amazing dimension it adds to just about anything it's permitted to touch.

It all began innocently enough. I sautéed some onion and garlic in a little EVOO until soft, and then added quite a bit of roasted red peppers, coarsely chopped. As soon as the peppers began to bleed their luscious juices into the pot, I added the chiles, smoked paprika, Celtic salt, and freshly ground Balinese shade-grown Lampung black pepper (not trying to show off, really, I had just run out of the nondescript peppercorns I normally fill the mill with, and these were all I had).

When the liquid was nearly all absorbed, I added vegetable broth and a couple of bay leaves. I simmered the soup for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables were tender. While this was happening, I grilled a few ears of white corn. I cheated, actually, by placing them directly over the gas flame on my stove. This method works brilliantly, charring just the tips of the kernels and heating the rest. When they were nicely blackened, I took them off and wrapped them in foil to finish cooking in their own heat.

Once the soup was done, I let it cool a bit and then puréed it all (minus the bay leaves, of course) in the Vitamix, and returned it to the pot. As it reheated, I cut the corn kernels off the cobs, directly into the pot. I didn't have any cilantro, which would have been ideal for this, so I went out onto the deck and cut a few chives. When the soup was hot, I took it off the heat and stirred in a splash of lime juice. Then I ladled it into bowls, set a few avocado dice in the center, and snipped the chives around.

It was pretty spicy, I'll admit--a little too spicy for my wife (she's from central Illinois, after all). She didn't miss a beat. I had some water boiling at the time, so she quickly cooked up a few brown rice ziti and put these into her soup, spreading the spice around and making it just right for her. She even did this with the leftovers and took it to work today, for lunch. 

I was already thinking about the next spicy thing I would make.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Beyond Bathtub Gardening

In an earlier post, I described a project we initiated at my house in which a bathtub we never used became an indoor garden for the cold months. It worked very well, too. Now it's summer, and another project we had dreamed about has finally taken shape. We get some fierce winds up on the mountain, and every time my wife has tried to grow tomatoes or herbs, they've gotten whipped to smithereens. Then there are the sudden hailstorms, like the one last summer, that left a dozen flourishing basil plants looking like someone had blasted them with a shotgun.

We have what might pass for a side yard, if you ignore the steepness of the slope--which could be a dangerous mistake. It has been a bit of an eyesore since we bought the house, although greatly improved by some valiant efforts on my wife's part to plant some things at the sunniest end. The one redeeming feature of that yard is a fence surrounding it with excellent wind protection. It was decided that we would build a few terraces and convert this wasted space into a garden. Here is how that unfolded:

One Saturday morning, I heard the unmistakable sound of a pick kachunking and thwacking outside. I went out onto the deck and looked down into the scruffy yard, and there was my lovely wife, flailing away at the roots of a dry bush. This was just days before she was due to have surgery, so...

I went around to the back of the house, entered the yard and said, "Hey, baby! Let me do that!" She was good enough to let me take over. So many projects begin this way--which is a good thing, because if she didn't start them, they'd never happen. And that's the truth.

It's amazing how extensive a little shrub's root system can be. I had figured this would be a matter of a few solid blows, but it ended up taking the better part of an hour.

Gertie really wanted to help.

After a while, I took a break to go out and buy a pile of cinder blocks and 3-foot lengths of rebar. Marcia had already made a run to the rockyard for about 35 pots of premium topsoil.

After excavating and flattening out a section of the slope, I began to build the retaining wall. I think Gertie had realized her skill set wasn't required, but she insisted on providing moral support.

Once the blocks were in place, I hammered the rebar stakes into the holes to anchor them and provide extra stability (well, any stability, actually).

My gorgeous farmer wasted no time. As soon as the soil was in place, she planted seedlings of zucchini, burgess, delicata, and yellow squashes.

We have plans to add two more terraces next year, but Marcia didn't want to wait. So she embedded a bunch of plastic pots to form a makeshift cascading terrace. Very organic-looking, it reminded me of Mexico--the way people make creative use of whatever materials they can get their hands on. These pots got cucumbers and peppers.

A couple of weeks later, I built a second bed, where three tiny kabocha squash plants went in right away. There are shallots rooting under that pile of protective hay, and marigolds surround the bed, as a deterrent to aphids (I hear they don't get along).

Not finished by any means, but there it is: our new wind-protected terraced garden!

After I took over the pick action, Marcia (no slacker, she) set about creating a wind-shielding greenhouse for tomato plants, herbs and other fragile items. We used to have a 15-foot peace sign on the front of our house, made out of PVC, with rope lights on it. It lasted about three years before it finally fell and broke. This new structure was 100% recycled from that peace sign.

This is a lot of work, but she made a fun project out of it...

...sort of a Frank Gehry greenhouse.

A little heavy duty plastic and white duct tape made a more than adequate wind shield, and steel mesh on top will keep hail from laying waste to the tender greens.

I can't wait until the heirloom tomatoes start popping out!

Next to the door to the greenhouse, the tarragon is already going wild.

The Swiss chard, parsley and mint like it better in the shade of the table.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Marinated Portobello Mushrooms

Marinated mushrooms, properly made, are among the most satisfying condiments, and among condiments, they are one of very few that also stand on their own as a side dish, a snack, or a quick salad. Unfortunately, most often they are made half-heartedly, or perhaps following some flaccid, anemic recipe. Certainly the ones I've tried that came from a jar have fallen short of even the lowest expectations. All of which serves to make my oft-repeated point: "Learn to cook and eat at home."

I came across a very good deal on some unusually fresh Portobello mushrooms yesterday, and this inspired me to invent a marinating formula that would bring out their wild-woodsy, meaty character, based on an Italian method I've used before. I deviated considerably, because I was shooting for a richer, more full-bodied effect than might work with "funghi marinati" made with button mushrooms.

I began by slicing the mushrooms roughly a half-inch thick, so they would retain their fleshy individuality, and not disappear into the dish. I heated some EVOO in a large pot with minced garlic, Celtic salt, freshly ground black, red, white, and green peppercorns, several bay leaves, smoked paprika, and porcini mushroom powder. As soon as the fragrances began to waft up from the pot, I figured the oil was infused enough, so I added the mushrooms, a little vegetable broth, and a splash of 18-year-old balsamic. I brought the mixture to a simmer and covered the pot. After about a minute or two, I uncovered the pot and began to gently turn the mushrooms with a silicone spatula, allowing the pieces at the top to take a turn in the liquid. Once all the mushrooms had thoroughly wilted but were still chewy, I added my secret ingredient (a tiny knob of spicy dark chocolate), and shook the pot back and forth until it was thoroughly incorporated.

I took the pot off the heat, let it cool to room temperature, and then stirred in more EVOO, some finely diced red onion, and chopped rosemary and parsley. This I let sit for at least ten minutes, until the flavors had begun to meld and mellow. The taste was deep, dark, and delicious, with pungent notes and a texture somewhere between raw and cooked. Sweet success. The best part is that I had started with three pounds of mushrooms, so now I've got enough to last several days.

It's a major step toward conscious eating when you have a few ready-snacking dishes in the refrigerator. This way there is always a good choice when you open the door, so your mind won't immediately write off the entire contents of the fridge, and start suggesting you gorge on a bag of chips or nuked popcorn. In case you haven't noticed, your mind is not your friend. It's wise to take a few carefully considered creative steps to preempt those idiotic ideas that inevitably come up when a sane alternative is not present!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Vital Importance of Flavor

 As a cook, I'm expected to delight the palate first, and deliver healthy nutrition second. This has presented a conflict of interests at times, since most people would rather have their food be delicious than particularly healthful. 

Because human nature is to want it all, my job as a private chef has very often entailed adapting to my employers' notions of an ideal diet for weight loss and radiant health, while simultaneously gratifying their palates. A tall order, for sure, but accomplishing this has been the secret of my success.
I've always maintained that in order for food to be truly healthy, it must pass the first three tests: look good, smell good and taste good. I haven’t been pushing a hedonist agenda; this is simply common sense. Follow me on this. There are two basic schools of thought:
             1) There is a wise and kind Creator, and we have been given the senses for a reason, to assist us in fulfilling our purpose in being alive. This purpose (in case you didn't already know) is joy. I'm not making this up—you can verify it for yourself. Everything we do, we do in order to secure the greatest good for ourselves, in order to eventually attain the highest possible state of bliss. The passion driving our all endeavors has this one end, period.
            So, on this premise, and understanding our nature, our senses provide both the avenue to experience physical pleasure (one sort of joy) and the means to feel our way through the trial-and-error jungle to optimum health, including physical health. Before we eat something, we look to see if it's appealing. Perhaps even before seeing the food, we smell it, and find it either appetizing or repellent. If the food passes both of these joy-tests, we may proceed to taste it. By this time, we're fairly committed, both in our mind (yum, this is good) and our body (digestive juices flowing). If everything checks out, we go ahead and eat, enjoying every bite and—very important—digesting well

2) There was no Creator; the universe simply and randomly big-banged into existence for no particular reason, after which the fundamental forces of nature began to drive all living organisms to continuously evolve and produce increasingly effective forms. Because evolution has not stopped, but is currently under way, what we do as humans is to more and more efficiently survive, prosper and propagate. 
In this view, our taste buds and olfactory senses serve only to indicate—via pleasure—which foods are good to eat, and to encourage us to eat, in much the same way that sexual pleasure encourages us to procreate. In other words, there is no kindness inherent to our design, but merely a set of functions, an evolutionary system that assures the survival of the species by gratifying the senses as a reward for effective choices.     
There is a third possibility also, which is that a wise and kind Creator is not separate from the universe we live in, but is in fact the stuff of which the universe is made, as well as the engine that drives it, intimately involved in the laws of physics, in the motion and evolution of all matter, living and inanimate.

I don’t know which theory is easiest to swallow, but I rather favor the third, which is by far the most mind-blowing, because wisdom and kindness do exist, they had to come from somewhere, and they're way too cool to be a human invention. However, it doesn’t really matter which belief system we may subscribe to, because however we got here, and whatever has made us the way we are, we definitely favor pleasure. We are set up by both form and function to seek the optimum. In terms of food, this means that in addition to an enjoyable eating experience, we also want to feel good after we eat, and to benefit in the long term from our food choices.

I’ve never liked the term “health food,” which I believe is marketing code for “stuff that tastes pretty awful, but is supposed to be good for you, although there’s scant evidence that suffering through it will benefit you at all.” To me, if it doesn’t taste good, it isn’t food; if it isn’t food, it can’t be a healthy thing to eat. 

Unfortunately, the reverse isn’t always true. In this epoch of our evolution, if something tastes good, there is no guarantee it’s even food, let alone healthy. We have food science and the industrial revolution to thank for that—as well as for the often misleading, weirdly redundant term “health food.”

Let’s face it, most of us eat because we’re hungry, and we prefer food that tastes good because it’s more fun to eat than food that doesn’t. Health is almost always an afterthought, if we think about it at all.  But we have taste buds and a highly refined olfactory sense for good reason. Two reasons, actually: one, to help us identify what’s good to eat (and in the old days to help us track it down and kill it), and two, so we can enjoy eating it.

Sadly, we’ve become disconnected from the hunting and gathering of our food, so we rely heavily on corporations to do all this for us. And we don’t pay them only for that. We also pay them for processing our food—for the “value added” that distinguishes one corporation’s product from another’s. This wouldn’t be a problem, especially considering the great convenience it affords us, if it weren’t for what it costs us, the loss—both in nutrients and genuine flavor—which is the unspoken “value subtracted” associated with processed food.
Food science has enabled modern food producers to use artificial flavors, fillers, and various techniques, to create the illusion of something good to eat—what we’ve evolved to recognize as good to eat—and apply it in the design of their vaguely foodlike products. You can’t really blame them on one level--the low level of financial success—they’re just doing their best to generate a highly addictive, expendable product from the cheapest ingredients possible. On every other level, however, they are the mortal enemies of health, decency, and civilization itself. Sounds pretty awful, perhaps hyperbolic, but it’s true.         

I submit that as human beings we need to wake up, recognize that we’re being sold fake food, with manufactured flavors, and to choose real food, with naturally occurring flavors.

It would be too much to ask of anyone to resist the addiction to unhealthful food while maintaining the habit of eating it. We need to break the habit, stop indulging in unnatural food, and demand natural, fresh, whole, organic food. We need to support genuine farmers who grow according to the systems and biodiversity of nature, because they are our sole source of real food.

Flavor is paramount in our survival, because it both guides us in our food choices, and rewards our effort with pleasure, without which we would surely lose interest. But this “wise-and-kind-Creator-given” talent of selecting healthful foods based on the joy we get from them only works when we place natural food before it. Only then can this uncanny ability truly compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, and select the best for us.

Imitations can fool our senses, trick our brain, and addict us to substances that do us harm even as we get pleasure from eating them. And the supermarket aisles are jammed with bar-coded items far removed from nature, made with deceptive, degraded materials.  Consuming many of these products, especially consuming them exclusively, is demonstrably harmful to human health, environmental health, and the future of food itself. 

This is crucial information for us to have, because only when we understand that we’re being deceived in ways that directly harm us, can we begin to make conscious choices that benefit us.