Saturday, July 30, 2011

Braised Artichokes and Fennel with Preserved Lemon

I've paired artichokes and fennel in a number of different dishes over the years--soups, salads, relishes, fricassees, stews, tajines, and sandwiches--for the simple reason that they go together well. The two compliment one another in the classic sense that chocolate and vanilla do, but in a much more intimate mesh of flavor and texture.

While in the throes of my recent fling with preserved lemons, I came up with this dish that I think joins European and Arabic cuisines as close to seamlessly as any I've seen.

It all began innocently enough. I had bought a couple of artichokes, intending to prepare them in the common manner--for dipping the leaves and scraping the tiny bit of flesh off with one's teeth--because that's my son's favorite. He loves artichokes, but prefers them in the simplest format (his first solid food as a baby was artichoke mousse). But the kitchen gods have a way of leading me in unexpected directions, and I've learned to allow them their whims. It's senseless to resist them, because I can always go back later and make whatever it was that I had in mind, but once spurned, they tend to withhold their miraculous guidance. 
So here you have it:

I've always cut out the core of the fennel bulb, because it's tougher than the rest, and takes longer to cook. This time I was called to include a large portion of the core, slicing lengthwise to create frilly-looking cross-sections. The Artichokes I prepared in the usual manner for sautéing, which is to snap off the tough leaves, pare away the coarse outer layer of skin, and cut into wedges--using lemon juice to prevent discoloration, of course. I also sliced half a red onion and cut half a rind of preserved lemon into roughly quarter-inch dice.

I began by sautéing the onion in a little EVOO, until just wilted and beginning to caramelize. Then I added the artichokes and fennel, stirring to combine well. In the picture, you can see the fennel slices, held together by the core section.

Once the liquid released had been reabsorbed and the vegetables began to take  on a little color, I added the diced preserved lemon and a splash of brine, about a cup of dry white wine, and a pinch of Kashmiri saffron. Then I covered the pot and let the vegetables cook slowly until tender. I removed the cover, cooked the remaining liquid down to a silky sauce, tasted a mouthful, and then added just a touch more salt and a grinding of black pepper. Just before serving, I tossed in about a tablespoon of chopped parsley.

The kitchen gods were right, as usual. Each mouthful carried a gentle explosion of delicate but assertive aromas, rising from a bed of subtly sweet, sour, salty, and the barest hint of bitter. The fennel cores remained fairly firm, but this didn't detract from the overall yielding texture of the braised vegetables. As always, the unique meld of fennel-artichoke flavors and textures was utterly symphonic, only this time with wafting notes of saffron and preserved lemon perking up the piece, like one might imagine oboe and flute, flitting across a cello's rich, warm tone. Comfort food of the gods, pure and simple.


Friday, July 29, 2011

Two Preserved Lime Dishes

I'm on a roll with preserved lemons and limes. As I mentioned in the post describing the process, I had never preserved limes before, so I really had no idea how they would taste, or how I would use them. As with the lemons, I knew I would need to find organic limes for this project, in order to avoid the nasty pesticides and preservative chemicals that are splattered all over (and embedded in) the skins of conventional citrus fruits. I also knew the flavor of preserved limes would be quite different from lemons, but I hadn't anticipated the dramatic loss of green color, nor the difference in texture that resulted. My preserved limes have a much firmer rind than their lemon compadres, and the flesh is much chewier.

The flavor of the limes is actually more interesting than that of the lemons, with a slightly more pronounced pith-bitterness which, oddly enough, is not unpleasant. The brine immediately made me think of a "Preserved Lime Dirty Martini" possibility, which I shall have to explore at my next opportunity. My other impulses all leaned in a "green" direction, so the first ideas that came to mind were a preserved lime-bespeckled tabouli, and something with avocado. 
Here's how it went:

Quinoa Tabouli with Preserved Lime

As anyone who understands tabouli will tell you, the main ingredient is not the grain, but the green. It is a salad, after all, and the mistake most often made is to overwhelm it with bulghur. This may be from a lack of exposure to the real thing, or perhaps a bit of laziness, since there is a lot of picking over, washing, and chopping involved when you do it right. A genuine tabouli should have mere flecks of light tan color peeking out of a massive verdant jungle. 

I've taken to substituting quinoa for the traditional bulghur, both because it supplies a whole protein, and because it's gluten-free. I figure I can still call it a tabouli as long as it's mostly herbs. Maybe my Lebanese friends would disagree.

I made this tabouli with about one part fresh mint to two parts fresh parsley, and one bunch of scallions, with a straight-ahead dressing of garlic, lemon juice, EVOO, salt, and pepper. The only twist to this one (besides the quinoa, which by now is standard for me) was the addition of diced preserved lime. The difference in flavor was subtle, but every now and then a tiny burst would come through as I bit down on a piece of the lime. I might get bolder with it next time, and double the amount to see if it makes a difference without taking over the basic qualities of the tabouli. We'll see.

Avocado Relish with Preserved Lime

I first envisioned this as just a chunky guacamole with some pieces of preserved lime added to it. But as often happens, I began to think of a few adjustments that would make this a uniquely new dish in its own right. I decided to steer away from a dip and more toward a condiment that could be used with a wider range of dishes and cuisines. So I made a few fundamental changes:

For starters, I cut the avocado into smallish dice, rather than mashing it, which in itself changed the overall character of the dish--automatically removing it from the dip category. The clean cut edges were softened considerably during the tossing process because the avocados were quite ripe, but I think this worked to my benefit. I used finely sliced scallions instead of chopped onion, and finely diced habanero chile in place of serranos. I left out the tomato, used only a small amount of lime juice, and added a splash of EVOO. The cilantro stayed, and preserved lime made its starkly unorthodox entrance. 

All of these minor changes added up to a major shift in both overall flavor and functionality. Not only did this take a fairly impressive leap out of Mexican cuisine, but it became a condiment that I could see finding a home anywhere--not as a natural-born citizen, of course, but a welcome immigrant. I could see it showing up as a guest at a North African table right away, and then sliding easily into a forward-thinking Japanese, Thai, Persian, and even Indian menu.

Now, getting back to that "preserved lime dirty martini" idea...


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Two Preserved Lemon Dishes

As I promised in yesterday's post, I've made a couple of dishes that showcase my fresh batch of preserved lemons. I have a few in mind for the preserved limes, so stay tuned. As lemons go, here's the state of the culinary art for now:

Baby Zucchini and Garbanzos with Preserved Lemon

I actually started this as a version of  "Zucchini and Red Beans," from Speed Vegan, which employs ras el hanout, a classic Moroccan spice blend I love to use--even in places it might not have been intended to appear. As things in the kitchen seem to go when no specific goal is set, I deviated early on, switching out the red beans with garbanzos, adding green peppers and diced preserved lemon. I also upped the quantity of ras el hanout, and substituted minced fresh garlic for the roasted garlic puree (didn't have any on hand!). For extra depth, I added diced celery. The zucchini I used was fresh from our garden, no bigger than my ring finger--little powerhouses of flavor with texture to match. 

This is a dish that virtually cries out for the companionship of properly prepared, buttery couscous, and sometimes I do get out the steamer and take the time to go through all the steps required to do it right. But I just didn't think of it in time, and I can't bring myself to make couscous the American way--pouring hot water over it and letting it soak for five minutes. "Simply not done, dear boy," the ever-present mentor I never had (but nevertheless lives in my mind) would say.  Also, truth be told, I'm on a bit of a gluten-free kick these days, and couscous is pretty much nothing but glorified pasta. It was totally acceptable by itself (What am I saying? It was delicious!), and the next day I had the leftovers with quinoa.

The second item I took from "Tagines & Couscous," a fairly small but inspiring cookbook:

Preserved Lemon and Tomato Salad with Capers

What makes this salad so appealing to me--aside from the liberal use of preserved lemon--is the combination of fresh herbs--parsley, cilantro and mint. The tomatoes called for are peeled and seeded, which I most often prepare in the manner of tomates concassés. This is easy enough; all you do is cut a shallow "X" in the tips of the tomatoes, carve out the stem ends, drop them into boiling water, leave them there until the skins begin to split (about a minute, depending on ripeness), and then quench them in an ice bath. The skins slip right off. Normally, I would cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and remove the seeds. But I decided to preserve the fresh, raw taste of the tomato, so I peeled them somewhat laboriously with a paring knife. Then, to enable long, elegant shapes, I cut the tomato lengthwise and remove the seeds that way--a little more trouble, but well worth it in the end. There was no accompanying photo for this recipe, which gave me additional license to play with it and see how it would turn out. I'll tell you, this is one inspired recipe, and there are others in the book to match, so if you like Moroccan food, this is one for the collection.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Moroccan Preserved Lemons (and Limes)

Moroccan food has been a huge favorite of mine ever since I spent a couple of weeks wandering that spectacular country in the spring of 1973.  The dishes I tasted there were so surprising to my palate--somehow managing to be simultaneously subtle and rich with mysterious, unidentifiable flavors. Since that time, I've learned a bit about those unusual flavoring agents, and how they're used in Moroccan cuisine. Among the staples in that flavor pantry, preserved lemons stand out, with a unique sweet-sour-salty-bitter profile that can both punctuate a dish and influence the overall effect.

The process of making preserved lemons is quite simple, quick, and easy. First, select unblemished organic lemons (limes and tangerines will also work) and wash them well. Meyer lemons are ideal for this, but any small lemons with fairly thin rinds will produce good results. Here's the blow-by-blow:

You'll need sterilized jars, coarse salt, a sharp knife, and a wooden spoon. Pretty simple. On this occasion, I decided to make a batch of preserved limes too. I hadn't tried that before, so I figured, why not?

If the tips are blemished, just cut away the browned bit. Cut into the lemons or limes as if to quarter them, leaving about  a half to three-quarters of an inch intact at the stem end.   It helps to stand the lemons up next to a wooden spoon to stop the blade from going too far, and keep the cuts even.

Spread open the fruit and pack with salt. This is what preserves the lemons, so don't skimp on it; use about a tablespoon for each one.

Really jam it in, but don't tear the skin.

Once all the lemons or limes are salted, pack them into the sterilized jars. (Sterilizing is just a matter of washing well, pouring some boiling water into them, and then draining and letting them air-dry. ) Use the wooden spoon to push the lemons down, squishing the juice out. It's important to fill the jar, so make sure you either have enough lemons, or else use a smaller jar. The jar probably won't fill up with juice right away, but don't worry. Just cover and set the jar (or jars, in this case) in a cool, dark place overnight. 

The next day, open the jar and press down on the lemons to encourage more juice to seep out. Again, the jar may not fill up. Return the jar to its cool, dark spot and repeat the third day. At this point, if the lemons aren't covered with juice, add some freshly squeezed lemon juice (or lime juice for the limes) to top it off. The lemons need to be completely submerged. Cap the jar and leave in that cool, dark place for one month. I'm a little fidgety about this process, so I do come back during the first few days and shake the jar to make sure the salt has all dissolved. I also press the lemons down, to make sure they will stay submerged during the entire process. After the first few days, I feel confident to leave them alone. 

I used Celtic salt for this batch, which is slow to dissolve, and turns the juice to a cloudy, fairly unattractive greyish brine. The end result is brilliant, though, and Celtic salt is packed with minerals, so I'm glad I did. I used to use kosher salt, but I've since read some discouraging remarks about it (apparently it's no better than regular manufactured table salt). I'm sold on Celtic salt! 

When the month has passed, you're ready to use your preserved lemons. The picture at the top shows the finished product. They will have softened into amazingly tender, silky delicacies in their own right, and even the salty brine will be irresistibly tasty. Unfortunately for the limes, the acid in the lime juice turns their original bright green to a dull olive color. However, their taste is still terrific, and with the flavor they'll impart to your dishes, you won't be too worried about the color, believe me. Depending on the recipe, you may use the whole piece, or scrape off the pulp and use only the rind. Don't throw any part away, though, because you'll find other uses. The brine itself can be used to add salt and lemon flavor to stews, soups, sauces, and salad dressings. In my next post, I'll showcase my new batch of preserved lemons and limes in a few dishes.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Stop Calling It "Health" Care

I'm not political in the sense that I believe politicians will solve--or even genuinely intend to solve--the problems of our time. I don't believe that. I suppose I am political in the sense that I try to promote my ideas regarding food, diet, health, and living well. It seems inevitable that a person on a path to greater discovery and self-awareness will feel compelled to share his or her discoveries and realizations. When these findings conflict with what is promoted in the marketplace of ideas, practices and policies, only the timid and uncertain would be able to refrain from speaking up. So here I go again...

I just read a piece by Robert Reich, which makes the case for "Medicare for all," as the best way forward in both insuring all Americans, and lowering overall costs of "health care." He claims that Medicare is the solution, not the problem. And he makes a good case, I think, provided his data are accurate. However, I take a different view of the problem--and the solution.

Looking at the overall condition of the developed world's health, it's quite obvious that something is amiss. Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related health problems are on the rise at an unprecedented rate. I've seen estimates indicating that anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of cancers are diet-related. This means that we as individuals have control over the majority of our health issues, but for various reasons have failed to exert it, relying on the medical profession once our health fails.

I submit that if we're serious about finding a solution, the very least we can do is to stop referring to our fall-back strategy as "health" care, and start calling it what it is: medical intervention. I know the implications of this switch in nomenclature are a little intimidating. At minimum, this means we will need to educate ourselves about diet, exercise, and healthy habits. That's just for starters; then we'll need to act consciously to implement what we learn, and develop a health-supporting lifestyle.

This may seem too much to tackle, but if you consider that doctors receive virtually no instruction or training in health and nutrition during their extensive medical education, anything we learn puts us ahead of them. See, what doctors learn about is not so much healthy bodies, as bodies that have sustained damage of various sorts, and how to repair them. Perhaps worse (for us), doctors in large part do not treat illnesses, but symptoms. Most people don't go to the doctor until they have unpleasant symptoms, and their goal is simply to obtain relief. There is a lot more that doctors do--very important and valuable things--but in terms of health itself, we are the primary health care providers.

Good food is more fun than bad food.
This is my proposal for cutting the cost of health care and medical intervention: accept responsibility for our health, and take personal, regular care of it. Diet, exercise, rest, and relationships are not anywhere near as difficult to manage as disease. Most of what constitutes health care (under my definition) is intuitive. Unless we've been ignoring common knowledge fairly stubbornly, we all have a pretty good idea what is required in order to keep our health at an optimum level. But because we've slipped into calling what doctors do "health care," we've given ourselves license to ignore what we know, act irresponsibly, and rely on doctors for something they have no training or expertise to do. They aren't there to live our lives wisely for us; they're there to patch us up when we fail.

A 10-mile bike ride on the trails at sunset with my wife and bro-in-law.
Here's the good news: Once you embark on a path to greater awareness and better health, what seems overwhelmingly difficult and confusing actually becomes easy and enjoyable. There are challenges, sure. When you start doing exercise, it feels hard, a little painful, and very tiring. Soreness and fatigue appear to be the only rewards. But with persistence, as strength and stamina begin to develop, exercise becomes euphoric. You start to feel better making effort than avoiding it. It's the same way with food--when you make a commitment to eat fresh, whole, well-prepared foods, the process of obtaining and preparing good food becomes thoroughly enjoyable. You start to see unhealthy habits for what they are: toxic. Resisting or avoiding healthy habits is inimical to our own best interests, pure and simple.

There are costs associated with health care. We do sometimes need to pay a little more for wholesome food, and we do need to invest some more time to cook and eat at home. We do need to work for our health, and there are challenges to overcome. But if you consider that caring for your health will drastically reduce your need for medical attention, it's really not a bad deal at all.

This is life! Life overcomes what are truly insurmountable odds; life takes inanimate, dead, disorganized elements and creates brilliant operating systems that are alive, aware, and fueled by the possibility of joy. Taking care of our health is to join forces with life--the animating force that created and supports our existence--and participating in the fulfillment of our deepest purpose. When you see that, it's a fantastic bargain at any cost.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A friend came for dinner last night, and I was finally able to use some of our homegrown zucchini--flavorful babies the size of my little finger as well as the blossoms. If you've ever grown your own food, then you know how exciting that is.

I was also testing some new recipes, which made for a slow, fun evening with most of the action taking place in the kitchen (and at the table). I like it when I have company while I cook as much as while we eat. I was so focused on putting dinner on the table, that I forgot to shoot a picture until I had already begun eating. Fortunately, I realized my mistake early on, so I was able to get a fairly representative shot. {As always, you can click on the image to enlarge it.}

In the back is quinoa, which I first cooked in a mixture of vegetable broth and carrot juice. When it was done, I heated a little EVOO and sautéed a generous amount of finely sliced scallions, just until barely wilted. I folded in the quinoa and warmed it through. Then I took it off the heat and stirred in a bit of Udo's DHA Oil.

To the right, partly eaten, is a portobello mushroom, which I brushed with EVOO and chopped fresh oregano (from our garden), seasoned with Celtic salt and freshly ground black pepper (Balinese shade grown), and then grilled. The secret is to grill the stem side first, then flip and grill the top. This way, rich juices will gather in the cap that serve as a delicious sauce--if you remove them from the grill carefully, so as to avoid spilling the precious little puddle that forms. I made a second sauce by blending soaked cashews and roasted, peeled Poblano chiles to a cream consistency. A little lime juice and salt perked it up nicely.

For the zucchini, I cut the smallest ones in half lengthwise, quartered the larger ones, and cut one fairly huge one (small by American standards) into similar size sticks. There was a little of the inner flesh left over, so I diced it finely and sautéed it with some finely diced white onion in a small amount of EVOO until soft. Then I added a red pepper, peeled and diced, and cooked the mixture a few minutes longer before adding the zucchini. As soon as the zucchini began to soften, I added salt, pepper, just a pinch of smoked paprika, about four threads of Kashmiri saffron, and several zucchini blossoms, coarsely chopped. A few minutes later, everything was done, and as I removed it from the heat, I decided to add a couple of drops of white truffle oil. I think this was the star of the plate--although my guest's first comment was that the mushroom "off the charts!"

On the side, I served a garden salad--literally. My wife harvested a bunch of very small, buttery red Swiss chard leaves and baby romaine microgreen lettuce. I sliced the chard about a half-inch wide, combined it with the romaine greens, and added finely diced celery and white onion. The dressing was a very simple vinaigrette made with a summer peach white balsamic, a tiny dab of Dijon mustard, Celtic salt, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, pink and green), and walnut oil. After tossing the salad briefly, I added an avocado, cut into elegant arcs, and tossed again, very gently.

With all the doors open to the evening breeze, a Bach oboe concerto weaving sweetly into the ambient light and air, we ate quite happily. Some bright Spanish red wine certainly helped.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Vegan Is Not Enough!

Zucchini blossoms in our garden, opening to the morning sun.
I'm thoroughly enjoying this plant-based diet I've been on for the last couple of years. I've extolled the virtues and gone over the benefits a number of times on this blog, in articles, and on the radio. But I have to say that a large part of the reason I'm enjoying it is that I don't see this as an end in itself. I haven't "arrived" diet- and health-wise. I'm still learning about health and fitness, still trying new things, and refining my choices.

The key for me is not defining myself as a "vegan." I'm not. I'm a human being. Human beings are by nature omnivorous, meaning that we can eat anything we want (provided it's edible, of course). We aren't compelled to eat a particular food by our nature; we can choose among various options. By contrast, for example, lions are strictly carnivorous. They have no choice; they must eat animals. So to say a human being is vegan is incorrect. We may choose to eat a "vegan" diet, but nothing in our inherent nature changes by making this choice. We may discover, as I have, that there are remarkable benefits to eating a plant-based diet, but there is no full stop there; we're still making choices within the range of an omnivore's options, and we have the possibility of constantly improving those choices.

Why do I make this point? I think it's an important one, for a number of reasons, but I will list just four:

1) On a very basic level of diet, I've come to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for optimum health. What works for one person may not for another, even someone in that person's family. What works at one time in a person's life, may not work a few years later. We are not static beings, but constantly in flux, with new challenges and personal needs arising as we grow and change. So it stands to reason that the specific foods we eat today may not be appropriate in a year, or ten years. Deciding now what I will eat in twenty years, in my view, is about as wise as having the name of my first girlfriend tattooed on my butt--need I elaborate?

2) I have run across more than a few people who describe themselves as "vegan" who are in poor physical condition. Clearly, although these people have decided not to eat any animals (a noble conviction), they have not omitted certain other foods that are having a negative impact on their health. Strictly from a standpoint of compassion for animals, I submit that compassion must begin with the self in order to be full, true and ultimately effective. "Vegan," as the title of this post asserts, is definitely not enough. In order to fulfill our own purpose in being alive, we must keep learning and making increasingly wise choices. In my experience, it's more about leaving things behind and becoming less entrenched, than adding things on. {For latecomers who may not know this, the purpose of life is joy.}

3) As I understand it, the driving principle behind what is called "Veganism" is not one's health or well-being, but a commitment not to participate in cruelty to, and exploitation of, animals--as far as is reasonable and possible. This, again, is a noble motive. However, we cannot deny that we are inherently both omnivorous and creatures in flux, the implications of which mean that whereas we may use a static principle to guide our decisions in a general sense, when it comes to real-time specifics, we're on our own. I'm not suggesting that vegans will go off their plant-based diet on a whim (although some have been known to); rather, I'm saying that simply refraining from hurting animals is no guarantee that we will not hurt ourselves by making poor dietary choices.Vegan is not enough.

4) The more I awaken to my life's purpose, the more obvious it becomes to me that creating divisions between myself and other people is counter-productive. If I decide to call myself a "vegan," then immediately I create a fence, with me and a number of friends called "vegans" on one side, and the rest of the people in the world on the other. As nice as it is to have a support group, I really don't need people backing me up in my food choices--especially those "vegans" I mentioned who aren't doing all that great a job with their own choices. I can do this on my own.

But here's the practical point: If we recognize that a plant-based diet is good for our health, for the environment, and for animals, then the best way to promote this is to exemplify health and happiness, not create divisions. Why do I say this? Because if I have not only decided to avoid eating animal products, but also to personally wear the "vegan" label, then I actually make it much easier for a meat-eater to dismiss--perhaps even despise--me and my plant-based diet. I'm speaking from experience. Before making the switch, I always saw vegans as an extremist group, motivated by what I saw as a dogmatic agenda--and this made it easy for me to marginalize them and what I considered an unnecessarily narrow-minded approach to food. Of course, now I realize that the narrow-minded one was me, but you get my point, right?

So when I'm asked the question, "Are you a vegan?" I give what is a truthful, yet oddly enough, provocative reply: "No, I'm a human being." Or, if I'm in a particularly smartass mood, "No, I'm just a guy who's paying attention." Let me tell you, these responses lead to much more open-minded conversations, with more than a few people willing to consider a plant-based diet, than a comparatively straight-ahead "yes" ever could. I'm certain this is because I've put myself in the same group with them, rather than putting them on the other side of an artificial fence.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Fresh Ginger

Used as a medicine in China for roughly 6000 years, ginger is a delicious and versatile spice, lending itself to enhancing a wide range of cuisines. It's been shown to lower cholesterol, and to relieve arthritis, nausea and morning sickness. It also has powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-fungal properties. More than that, to a cook, ginger has the ability to perk up any number of sauces, dressings, marinades, soups, salads, stews, and of course, curries.

At the first sign of a cold, drinking a fresh ginger tea infusion will often stave off a full-blown illness. A ginger infusion with lemon and honey is known to relieve and even cure a sore throat. For vegans who eschew the use of honey, the same tea can be made without it. A skin-rejuvenating rub can be made by warming a combination of finely chopped or grated ginger, fresh lime juice, and epsom salt. But by far the most pleasurable way to obtain the wonderful health benefits of ginger is to enjoy it in food.

These pictures illustrate a few ways to prepare fresh ginger for various culinary uses. Click on the images to enlarge them, if you wish:

When a recipe calls for grated ginger or ginger juice, there are a few ways to go about this. Pictured here are a Japanese ceramic ginger grater, a small steel grater, and a microplaner, along with a peeled piece of ginger (called a rhizome). Because ginger is very fibrous, rubbing it across a traditional grater will carve away bits of the tender flesh and release some juice, leaving the long fibers behind. For "grated ginger," you would simply gather up the pulp with the juice and add it to your recipe. For juice, you would squeeze the pulp over a small dish and collect the juice that way. I used this technique for many years, until the microplaner was invented.

A microplaner has hundreds of razor-sharp blades that slice super-thin shavings off the ginger, fibers and all, making this the ultimate "grating" tool.

It's been called a "rasp," but this is a terrible misnomer, because whereas a rasp abrades the surface of something, this tool actually cuts with surgical precision, releasing much less juice than the traditional grater does.

As you can see, although some juice does bleed out, the ginger remains remarkably dry compared with the mushy pulp that would result from grating. This is important is many applications that involve subsequent cooking, where it's preferable to have the juices release slowly into a sauce or stew base, rather than boil away quickly.
For other applications, slices of various thicknesses may be called for. This is best accomplished with a very sharp knife--again, to avoid crushing the juices out as you work.

To make julienne strips, stack a few slices and cut into even sticks. Obviously, you can make them any thickness you wish, by first cutting the slices the desired thickness, and then cutting the sticks the same way. You can also vary the thickness, to achieve long, flat strips, like tiny linguine, for a slightly different effect. If you cut the original slices on a sharp diagonal, your julienne strips will have pointed tips.

If your recipe calls for finely chopped ginger, the best way to do this is to stack very thin julienne strips and cut thinly across them, into tiny dice. These will not only have an aesthetically appealing appearance, but as with the other shapes, they will retain most of their juice.

Of course, you can also use a blender to incorporate fresh ginger into a sauce, chutney or other preparation. In order to avoid a stringy result, however, it's best to first cut very thin slices, across the grain as illustrated above. 

For a fun spicy snack or hors d'oeuvre, check out my recipe for "Papadums with Fresh Green Chutney" in Speed Vegan, or watch my YouTube demonstration.

There is also a fast, easy recipe for a gingery salad dressing in my first book, Omega 3 Cuisine:

Quick Ginger Vinaigrette
Makes about 1⁄3 cup

1 piece (2 inches) peeled fresh ginger, grated
1⁄4 cup Udo’s Oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1⁄4 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Squeeze the juice from the grated ginger into a small bowl
and discard the pulp. Add the remaining ingredients and
whisk furiously until emulsified.

Note: This book was written before the advent of the fabulous microplaner, so if you have access to one, you can add the entire pulp, and there won't be any strings in it! This recipe makes a small amount, so if you'd rather make more at one time, you might prefer to use a blender (remember to slice the ginger first!). You can substitute with a different oil, if you prefer, such as almond or walnut. If you'd prefer a lighter color, try "golden," or "white" balsamic, or brown rice vinegar. You might also vary this with other Asian flavors, by throwing in some sliced lemongrass, or sriracha sauce. Walk on the wild side...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fresh Figs

There is something about a fresh fig that sets it apart from all other fruits. There's that elegant teardrop shape, for starters. And its alluring color patterns, the glorious gradient darkening that sweeps up from the bottom as the fruit ripens. And the plump feel in your hand, reminiscent, excuse the reference, of a woman's breast.  And oh, the meaty-succulent-tender-grainy surprise that awaits that first plunge, the exquisite breaking of skin that seems to happen with lips, teeth and tongue all at once, as fruit and mouth envelop one another like enraptured lovers!

What a welcome arrival is the season that brings with it fresh figs. I have made a meal of them on occasion, needing nothing more to stop, stun, and thoroughly satisfy both hunger and imagination. I've also enjoyed them with muesli, in salads, paired with numerous savory ingredients, and in desserts.

Last night I made two light desserts using two main ingredients--figs and mint--with dramatically differing effects.

The first one was only slightly more complicated, although it made a prettier picture. I began by quartering the figs and laying them out in a starburst pattern on the plate. Then I stirred a splash of kirsch and a dab of agave nectar into some very thick cashew cream, and piped this back and forth across their upturned inner flesh. A few slices of fresh mint strewn over the top completed the dish. The combination was light, bright, and very fragrant.

The second was much quicker. I simply tossed some quartered figs with a tablespoon or so of black cherry balsamic vinegar and sliced mint, until thoroughly coated. To serve, I mounded them in small bowls and scattered more mint on top. The complex, almost unctuous semi-sweet fruit was a perfect match for the vinegar's dark, mellow tartness.

I think I'll go back to the market tomorrow and see if there are any left. I have a fig tart taking shape in my mind, and possibly the beginnings of a Napoleon...


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seaweed Salad with Shiitake Mushrooms

On a hot summer evening, any salad is a welcome treat. A Japanese-style seaweed salad is particularly refreshing, with a calming balance of salt and acidity, no added fats, and cooling vegetables like seaweed and cucumber. An excellent source of iodine and trace minerals, seaweed has a pleasant chewy texture, and mildly briny taste.

This salad combines the slick silky texture of seaweed with cucumber's fresh crunch and the unique meaty bite of shiitake mushrooms, in a rich, brothy dressing.

Packages of mixed sea vegetables for salads.
To prepare it, I first soaked seven dried shiitakes and about an ounce of mixed seaweeds I bought at an Asian market in cool water for about twenty minutes. The seaweed swells to roughly fifteen times its dried volume as it absorbs the water, yielding an impressive amount from such a small package. Then I drained them well, collecting the soaking liquid in a small saucepan. I brought the liquid to a simmer over moderate heat to reduce the volume and concentrate the flavors. While it was cooking, I removed the stems from the mushrooms and then sliced the caps thinly, combining them with the seaweed in a bowl. I peeled a Japanese cucumber and cut it on a sharp diagonal into long, thin slices. Separately, I also sliced a couple of scallions.

Once the liquid had reduced to about a cup, I poured it into a small bowl and let it cool. I stirred in a little brown rice vinegar, mirin, and tamari, and poured it over the seaweed and sliced shiitakes. Then I added the cucumbers and tossed the salad lightly.

To serve, I mounded the salad on small plates, poured a generous amount of the dressing over it, and then scattered the sliced scallions on top. This is a succulent dish, making it a perfect light lunch in sweltering weather. In smaller portions, it's also a terrific appetizer to start off an elegant dinner.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Supertonic Miso Soup

"Crab" mushrooms and fresh ginseng root
Now that my lovely wife is officially a cancer survivor, we're shoring up her recovery (and keeping other maladies at bay) with not only fresh, healthy foods, but especially potent disease-fighting and longevity-promoting foods.

Tonight I made a pot of miso soup with fresh ginseng root, arame seaweed, and mushrooms. I began by making a "kombu dashi," which is a seaweed broth base used for a number of Japanese soups, sauces and salad dressings. I omitted the traditional bonito fish flakes, since I'm not eating any animals these days, even thought this does make the broth much stronger and flavorful (oh well...). The secret to making this broth is to prevent it from coming to a boil while the kombu is in it, as this tends to turn it bitter. I had it hovering just below a boil for a good twenty minutes, and then pulled it out. I added thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, very finely julienned fresh ginseng root, pre-soaked arame seaweed, and tamari sauce to the broth, and continued cooking over low heat until all the vegetables were tender. Then I added a few ounces of crab mushrooms and cooked them a few minutes more.

To finish the soup, I stirred some of the broth with a generous amount of mellow white miso in a bowl to form a runny paste. Then I removed the soup from the heat and stirred in the miso, along with a few thinly sliced scallions and generous splashes of mirin and sake. After a taste, I added just a bit more tamari.

All of these ingredients are highly nutritious, supporting the digestive and immune systems. The soup itself is both delicious and richly satisfying.  It's one of those foods you can feel going straight into your blood and bones.

I've been drinking a Chinese ginseng-astragalus combination tea in the morning, instead of coffee, for years. The honest truth is that I don't know if my habits have helped keep me healthy or if it's just my outrageously great good fortune (I think both), but I do believe it can't hurt to give our bodies every bit of help we can.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Middle Eastern Summer Night's Dream

I forgot to mention, in my June 27th post about our new terraced vegetable garden, that three grapevines my wife planted by the back fence several years ago are beginning to flourish. Not only are they showing early signs of sending grapes out at last, but their leaves are spectacular. The time has come to begin pruning and training them. Lately, my wife has been clipping a few leaves to make dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). Eventually, I imagine a pergola of some sort, with bunches of ripe grapes dangling within reach for easy picking.

I just returned last night from Summerfest 2011, a vegan festival near Pittsburgh, where I presented a cooking demo of my some of my recipes. Soon after I got into the house, a monumental thunderstorm surrounded the mountainside, with nonstop lightning the likes of which none of us had ever seen. The two-story front of the house is all windows, and we sat in the dark for about twenty minutes, watching the lightshow unfold as the storm moved eastward. This morning, the garden was lush, emerald green, and very, very happy. So was I, if you want to know the truth. I'm still happy. I've decided to make a habit of it.

Egyptian Eggplant, Hummus, and Dolmades
After a long day in unusually muggy heat for Colorado, we were ready for a light, hot weather meal. I happened to have a couple of eggplants, so I made "Egyptian Eggplant," from Speed Vegan, and some hummus. My wife made her dolmades, and just like that, we had a simple Middle Eastern spread. We sat on the deck and ate, gazing at the verdant summer landscape below us as the light faded. What a beautiful life!

Here is the recipe from the book:

Egyptian Eggplant
Makes 4 servings
I once worked for an Egyptian gentleman who professed a passionate hatred of garlic, but he adored this dish. I learned a number of Egyptian dishes to please his palate, most of them loaded with garlic. He loved them all. Such is the power of delicious food—like love, it can overcome prejudice and hatred.

2 eggplants
4 cloves peeled garlic
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Toast points or flatbread

Preheat a grill (preferably an outdoor charcoal grill). Put the whole eggplants on the hot grill and cook, turning often, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are soft and charred all over.
         While the eggplants are cooking, mash the garlic with the salt in a mortar to form a mushy paste. Add the sesame seeds and mash lightly. Add the olive oil and mash everything together. Stir in the parsley and lemon juice. Set aside until the eggplants are done.
         Transfer the eggplants to a large plate or cutting board and cut them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the flesh, avoiding as much of the charred skin as possible (some will get into the mix, but that’s okay—it will add a nice flavor), and put it in a bowl. Add the reserved garlic mixture. Stir well, mashing any large pieces of eggplant. Serve with toast points or flatbread.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Mexi-Salad with Black Beans and Grilled Corn

On the fourth of July, I like to make ethnic food, specifically food eaten by people upon whose hard-working backs we enjoy this wonderful freedom everyone is so proud of. For several years running, I've had this tradition going, serving Cuban drinks and playing Arabic music. It's my way of keeping it real, purely for fun.

Yesterday, I made Mexican food. We were going to have the iconic Cuban mojitos as usual, but I didn't buy enough limes, so I made a kind of rum punch with pomegranate juice, lemon juice, fresh mint (which is growing prolifically now on our deck), and blood orange soda . The music was a blend of Cuban, Mexican, Arabic, African, and Indian. God only knows what my neighbors were thinking, as they grilled their relatively normal burnt offerings.

This little salad I is a non-traditional, Mexican-inspired dish that I could easily eat some version of, several times a week. It combines my all-time favorite legumes, black beans and white corn, with several other favorites: avocado, jicama, tomato, red onion, and cilantro. I grilled the corn for an extra flavor kick. The dressing was simple: fresh lime juice, garlic, EVOO, Udo's DHA Oil Blend, chipotle chile puree (from the "Jump Starts" section of Speed Vegan), sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Easy. Quick. Anyone can do it.

Now I'm off to catch a flight to Pittsburgh. Back in three.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom Fries

Today is Independence Day in the United States. There will be parades and ceremonies, at least a billion french fries and hot dogs will be consumed (with perhaps as many bottles or cans of soda and beer), and tonight flags will wave under the rockets' red glare all across America.

For some reason, today I was remembering the controversy that arose from France's refusal to participate as an ally in America's invasion of Iraq, and the reaction from some of the more bellicose members of Congress. There was quite a bit of France-bashing at that time. Hilariously, a decision was made to officially rename the french fries served in the Congressional dining halls, "freedom fries." I remember joking that they might want to continue on that theme, with "freedom beans," freedom wines," "freedom accent," and of course, "freedom letter" and "freedom kiss."

Don't worry, I'm not about to launch into a discussion of the rather childish, petulant nature of this or any other of the nation's elected representatives' debates and subsequent decisions. No, what struck me most was the lack of freedom represented by the standard American diet itself, revolving as it does, around a pathetically limited variety of foods. With the vast array of possibilities available to eaters in the most affluent country in the history of the world, most Americans seem to choose hamburgers and french fries (or fried chicken, fried fish fillets, or a deli meat sandwich and fries). Relentlessly, every day. Why?

I suspect that the principal reason is cultural inertia. We tend to eat what we're accustomed to--familiar foods to which we were habituated as children. It's more than an issue of mere comfort. It also has to do with family and tribal identity. Many immigrants from other countries make great effort to obtain the ingredients, and in some cases implements, needed to make their traditional foods when they move to America. I've heard heated discussions between family members around the subject of young people abandoning the diet of their origins and taking up the American diet, perceived by the elders as inferior (a perception with which tend to I agree). The young quite naturally choose whatever helps them blend in and gain acceptance among their peers, leading to a new cultural inertia of their own.

I was fortunate to grow up bi-cultural, an American in Mexico, eating a very limited menu of American food with my family, and a wildly varied assortment of Mexican dishes at my friends' homes and in restaurants. This may have contributed to my unusually adventurous attitude toward food, or it may simply be my nature; I honestly don't know.

What I do know is that in order to obtain all the essential nutrients, phytonutrients, enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants, and other micronutrients that make up a truly health-promoting diet, we need to eat a wide variety of foods, from fresh, whole, organic sources. To get the most out of this diet, and to prevent some diseases, we also need to eat a lot of our food raw; we especially need to sharply limit fried food, especially deep-fried, highly processed food, and foods that have been charred, as these are known to be carcinogenic. Yet somehow, many people remain enslaved to the convenience and manufactured tastes of modern fast food.

There will be a lot of talk today about freedom, and how it's not free, but has been won for us by the sacrifice of brave souls who fought, killed and died to make our way of life possible. On one level, I can't dispute this; my own father gallantly participated in the second World War, the outcome of which would perhaps have been disastrous for Americans had they not prevailed. On the other hand, my experience tells me that freedom is not something that is won for me by someone else, but a feeling I must awaken to and claim for myself. I must be vigilant and keep that feeling alive within me, moment by moment, lest I fall asleep and lose it. It's the freedom from suffering, from ignorance, fear, anger, hatred, intolerance, and mediocrity. This, even prisoners doing hard time can experience.

As far as the fries go, and sugar, and alcohol, and all the other things known to cause health problems, I realize that a little every now and then won't kill me. The body is marvelously resilient and capable of self-cleansing, given enough time, rest, clean water, and proper nourishment. Sometimes we get an urge to flirt with our own destruction, to test the limits of our mortality, stretch the envelope and enjoy the thrills. You could say that this is one practical way to express our freedom, of contrasting it with timid compliance. There is a scene in the film, "Interview with the Vampire," where one of the vampires runs his fingers slowly across the flame of a lit candle, his face revealing a decadent pleasure as they singe black, and then immediately regenerate. Vampires, the lore has it, can be destroyed by fire, but will heal almost instantly from a small, brief burn like this.

For me, dedicated hedonist that I have always been, this testing of the limits of self-destructive pleasure has been a lifelong experiment. As I grow older, I find that I can no longer get away with the same level of indulgence I could afford as a teenager, or as a twenty-something. My body doesn't regenerate with the same speed and thoroughness. I want to live and live well, so I must be much more discriminating in my diet and activities. My goal is to enjoy ALL of my life, not just the first few years, or a few isolated moments. To accomplish this, I need to be wise and watchful, and careful to choose those things that truly benefit me. In terms of food, this means, as a strict rule, eating as well as I can, and keeping the exceptions I permit myself brief, fairly rare, and of excellent quality.

It might not be a terrible idea for us to consider changing our nomenclature a bit, the better to support wise choices. Instead of "French fries"or "Freedom fries," for example, how about a more honest, realistic name, like "Death fries?" We'd still be free to flirt with death, like Armand the vampire, but at the very least we could be making an informed decision, and choose to do it lightly, allowing our body to recover before assaulting it again.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tung Ho

I know I've said this before, but one of the pleasures of being passionate about food, cooking and eating, is discovering new and unusual ingredients to work with. I came across several such items at the Asian Pacific Market last week, among them a bushy flat-leafed green called tung ho.

A helpful Nepalese employee at the market told me that the flavor is brought out best by a quick stir-frying, as opposed to steaming or boiling. I had picked out several fruits and vegetables, but this particular one elicited from him the most enthusiasm, which I took to be a good sign.

I came back late in the afternoon yesterday, after spending an exhilarating five hours selling my books and chatting with interesting people at the Colorado Vegetarian Festival in Golden (Colorado). I was ravenous, having eaten close to nothing all day. My wife had made a pot of brown rice and a delicious-looking tofu dish with fresh shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini and onions. This was perfect for me; all I needed to add was a salad and a  sautéed leafy green. It was an ideal moment to introduce my new friend, tung ho.

I plucked the tender leaves away from the woody stems and washed them in plenty of water. This was a good move, as it turned out, because a ton of dirt and debris I hadn't seen came away and sank to the bottom of the bowl. After I scooped the leaves off the top and shook them in a wire basket to drain the excess water, they were ready to go.

I favor spicy, pungent food, so I began by slicing whole cloves of garlic. I placed these in a skillet with a fair-sized knob of coconut oil and a generous scattering of red chile flakes. Then I set the skillet over high heat and began stirring. As soon as the garlic began to color lightly and the air was redolent with the combined fragrances of roasted chile and garlic, I threw in the greens and stirred furiously to incorporate any water that still clung to the leaves into the mixture. 

The sudden addition of water created a hissing cloud of the most delicious steam. The greens collapsed and deflated rapidly, from at least eight cups down to a bare cup and a half. At first, this was a bit disappointing, since there were going to be four of us at the table, but because the flavor of the tung ho was so concentrated and unique--and the chile and garlic were quite potent in that small quantity of greens--it took only a few tablespoons per person to thrill everyone. Next time, I think I'll cook the tung ho by itself, just to appreciate its flavor unembellished. This is one unique leafy green, in both form and flavor. Very tasty!