Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Easy Two-Curry Dinner

There's something about finding a new vegetable or fruit, or one with an unusual size or shape, that activates my right brain and sets creative energy in motion. I can just picture a synaptic lightning storm blasting into action inside my skull, as free-associations and fresh images begin to bloom. This is what keeps cooking fresh and exciting for me, and makes what I do thoroughly engaging.

Last Friday I came across some of the tiniest eggplants I've ever seen--not much bigger than olives. Immediately, several applications came to mind: a sort of mini-ratatouille; vegetable tartlets, with slices of these eggplants alternated with sliced small zucchini, fanned over the surface; a Moroccan-inspired eggplant and chick pea tajine. When the time came to cook, I settled on a panang curry with eggplant and tofu.

The process is ridiculously simple. Heat a spoonful of coconut oil in a large pot. Add a big gob of Thai panang curry paste and stir wildly. Add the eggplants, halved lengthwise, and stir until coated with the curry paste. Add coconut milk, bring to a simmer, and cook until the eggplants are tender, and the liquid has thickened to a sauce. Add an eight-ounce block of firm organic* tofu, cut into half-inch cubes, and warm through. Throw in a handful of coarsely chopped basil and a bunch of scallions, slivered.
Stir, serve and eat.

While the eggplant dish was cooking, I made a quick salad. I had bought a huge green mango at the same time as the eggplants, with this salad in mind, but after a few days in my warm kitchen, it ripened from rock hard green to juicy yellow. No big loss, of course, if you love mangoes--most people would never know I intended this to be a green mango salad.

I cut the mango into thin strips and combined it with mung bean sprouts, hydroponic watercress, long strips of grated carrot, and coarsely chopped cilantro.

Then I put Thai green curry paste, lime juice, garlic, Udo's DHA Oil Blend, and fresh basil in a blender and blasted it to bright green smithereens.
As soon as the eggplant dish was ready, I tossed the salad with the green curry dressing. For a final touch, I sprinkled a generous amount of roasted cashews over each serving.

I brought the two curry dishes to the table together, not as an ideal serving method, but simply to avoid the need to get up in the middle of the meal and bring the second course. My wife has never cared about these things--although she does appreciate my usual observance of proper serving ritual--and it was just the two of us, after all. Common sense dictated we eat the hot dish first, but I knew this wouldn't take long enough for the salad to wilt, so why not? Sometimes I allow just a little laziness to influence the way I serve a meal--at home, that is.

I've heard arguments for and against eating your salad last. Some say you need to eat the raw part of your meal first, to awaken the palate, supply the stomach with live enzymes to aid digestion, and to go from lighter to heavier foods the way you would go from white to red wines, not the other way around. On the other side of the argument, others insist that eating the salad last refreshes and cleanses the palate, and brings the same digestive advantages suggested by advocates for eating salad first. You know what I suggest? Eat whatever you want, in any order you want, and see how you feel. If it works, don't listen to what anyone says. If it doesn't, try something else until you find what works for you. Pundits, by their very nature, are given to spouting whatever opinion will keep them in business; we're on our own to find out what's best for us.


*Note: If you want to avoid eating genetically modified soy as well as soy grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, always select organic tofu. Your call.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Shirataki in Shiitake Broth

Say that five times, real quick. Maybe you've noticed this fairly new product in the tofu/tempeh section of your local natural foods store. Tofu shirataki are Japanese noodles made from a combination of tofu and yam flour--with little to offer nutritionally speaking (1 gram of protein, 2 grams of fiber per serving), but it's fun to eat if you like noodles. They're quite firm to the tooth, almost leaning toward the crunchy side, but they wiggle nicely and offer that slurpable quality with which Japanese noodle aficionados are well-acquainted.

To take them out for my first test-drive, I decided on a very quick, simple route: noodles in broth. I began by preparing a classic kombu dashi (without the shaved bonito flakes), which takes a little time, because the broth must be brought up to just below a simmer very slowly. This prevents the kombu from turning bitter and spoiling the broth, but it also helps leach the flavor and nutrients out of the seaweed--which of course is the whole point of this exercise. While I was waiting, I set a few dried shiitake mushrooms to soak in a little warm water. Once the broth was lightly colored, I removed the kombu (saving it to add to a batch of brown rice later) and added a little tamari, sake, and mirin.

Once the mushrooms had softened, I sliced them about an eighth-inch thick and added them to the broth, along with their woodsy-fragrant soaking water, and brought the mixture to a simmer. Shiitake mushrooms cook up nicely in just a few minutes.

In a separate pot, I par-boiled the noodles to remove the "authentic aroma," as the package directed. I guess authentic shirataki smell a little like four-day-old fish. Good call to get rid of that, package guys! Not everything authentic enjoys universal appeal.

After rinsing the noodles, I added them to the pot with the mushrooms and reheated the broth. I added a few scallions, sliced thinly on a slight diagonal, and that was that. On a sudden whim, as a final touch, I threw in a pinch of pickled shiso powder--a uniquely salty-sour macrobiotic condiment.

If you've never had the pleasure of shoving noodles and mushrooms into your mouth with chopsticks and slurping them up along with a flavorful broth from the lip of the bowl, I highly recommend trying it at least once. You don't have to use tofu shirataki for this; you'll also enjoy buckwheat soba--my favorite--or regular old wheat ramen, if you're not on a gluten-free diet.

Because these noodles are totally carbohydrate-free, this dish makes a light, tasty--and highly entertaining--snack, or an idea appetizer for a multi-course meal. Shiitake mushrooms are highly medicinal, with some research indicating they help lower the "bad" cholesterol, prevent platelet aggregation, protect the liver, fight cancer, and boost the immune system. They taste good too, which is very important--some would say paramount.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Bitter Melon Salsa

It's been hot today, and I've been working in the kitchen. Perhaps it sounds counter-intuitive, but eating spicy food will eventually cool you down. This is known throughout the tropics, where nearly all indigenous cultures eat a lot of very hot food. Chiles, especially fresh green chiles, are the most anti-inflammatory food you can eat. That doesn't necessarily make it a cooling food, but in this particular instance, it does work. First, the chile will raise your body temperature slightly (an endothermic reaction). Then, you begin to sweat, as heat is released (an exothermic reaction). Finally, the sweat begins to evaporate, cooling the surface of your skin. It's magic, really, and you get to enjoy an endorphin rush in the process.

I was at the Indian store yesterday, buying fresh mint, when I saw some unusually fresh bitter melons. On impulse, I bagged over a pound of the beauties, with no particular purpose in mind. I used to make a filipino salad I learned from a coworker in Beverly Hills, that involves grilling the bitter melon (called ampalayá in Tagalog). I haven't made it lately because it needs fish sauce to taste right, and I don't even buy fish sauce anymore. But I was in the mood to bring back that grilling technique, so I came up with a sort of MexicAsian relish. It evolved as I made it, as you'll see.

First I grilled the bitter melon as usual, letting it blacken dramatically. The next step is to wash and scrape off the char (always a good idea), slit the bitter melons lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Then I sliced them crosswise, a little wider than a quarter-inch. So far, it's the same salad. The filipino cuisine apparently doesn't mix bitter with spicy, but I have no problem with that, so I added basic salsa ingredients: fresh green chiles, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice and salt. Then I kept going, bringing in some diced avocado for good measure, and red kidney beans, for substance and protein. Finally, I added a few tablespoons of Simple Garlic Udo's Oil, a grind or two of black pepper, and a little ground chile chimayo, folding gently with a silicone spatula.

You have to like bitter melon to really enjoy this, but I do (very much), so there you have it. I made a lunch out of this little salad/salsa, eating it with some fire-heated tortillas.

For more ideas using bitter melon, check out an earlier post, "Bitter Is Good," and another one called "Bitter Melon Curry."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Take a Leek

Sorry--it was the first title that came to mind. I did spin a few other ideas, but none had any punch, and in the end, I just didn't want to waste any more time coming up with a better one. So it goes.

Everyone seems to appreciate the smell of onions cooking, and so many classic dishes begin this way, but I want to speak up a bit for another prominent member of the allium family--one that really doesn't get the respect it deserves. In Europe, everyone knows what a leek is, and how it participates in gastronomy's grand design. In America, not nearly as much. It's an elegant vegetable, with a specific place in the flavor spectrum, a noble one, at once congenial and understated. If an onion were a trumpet, the leek would be an oboe.

It's important for both human and environmental health to eat as diverse a selection of produce as possible, and to constantly push the envelope that tends to rein in what our choices may be. For the environment, this will be a benefit by supporting local farmers who take the initiative to grow non-mainstream plants, especially heirloom varieties, thus promoting biodiversity and replenishing the soil, which is at the heart of nature itself. In terms of our health, eating diversely ensures that we obtain all the micronutrients we need for optimum nourishment, but it also offers us an organic shield from dietary boredom--and this is no small thing, because it's ennui (a most modern affliction) that leads many of us to eat processed junk.

Back to the leek. I'm still on a roll with my fresh turmeric experiments, trying to stretch into areas where turmeric as a spice is not particularly comfortable--or where the host might not be terribly receptive to its advances. A recent successful meld came about as a last minute flash, where I suddenly decided to include some freshly grated turmeric just before pulling the dish off the heat, and then garnished the plate with a bit more. I'm not sure I would have planned this combination, but it worked.

Leeks and Mushrooms with Fresh Turmeric Root

It all began innocently enough. I had some leek tops--the green part--left over from making a dish that required only the white portion, and was working on a recipe for what I planned to call "leeks and mushrooms." It's a very simple dish. All you do is cook thinly sliced leeks in a little coconut oil (my best choice for obtaining the cooking qualities of butter) until soft and beginning to color, and then add quartered button mushrooms. The secret to mushrooms is to cover them until they begin to release their liquid, then uncover them and cook until they reabsorb the liquid, and they're done. Then you can add salt, pepper, and anything else you may have on your mind. For me, it was shreds of fresh turmeric (don't ask me why). I grated it right into the pan, turned it a few times with a silicone spatula, and that was it. Off the heat, I folded in a little chopped parsley. On the plate, I garnished with more parsley and a few gratings of the turmeric. Loved it.

The same day, I made another new leek dish, which I'm calling "Quinoa with Leeks and White Truffle Oil." Three things I really love in a single item, with nothing else to muck it up. This was pure comfort food, but by no means pedestrian.


Quinoa with Leeks and White Truffle Oil
I put a cup of quinoa on to cook, with Celtic salt and a vegetable bouillon cube. While it was bubbling happily on the back burner, I cut four leeks (white part only) into half-inch dice. I sautéed them in a small amount of EVOO, turning the heat down just enough to keep them from coloring, until they were very tender. By this time, they had cooked down from about four cups to about two, but the flavor and aroma were downright intoxicating. I seasoned them with a little salt and pepper, stirring lightly, and then folded in the quinoa. Just before serving, I drizzled about a tablespoon of white truffle oil over the mixture and fluffed it through. I served it garnished with snipped chives. I think leeks and truffles were meant to be together, cream or no cream. The quinoa took on their collective aura readily, making the entire dish into a veritable siren's song. (Yes, I do think sailors would turn their ships into the rocks, questing for the source of this heavenly scent.)

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Anti-inflammatory Soup

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I've been exploring ways to incorporate fresh turmeric into various dishes, in order to combine the health benefits of this remarkably medicinal vegetable with the pleasure of eating it. Of course there are a few straightforward, simple options, like adding it to blended drinks, or tossing some grated into a salad. But I like to see what new effects can be coaxed out of ingredients--especially ones with such concentrated flavor and color as fresh turmeric has.

Coincidentally, some other considerations came up recently. Last weekend was a busy time, what with my participation in a major sporting event among other things, so no one had been into the garden to check on the produce. After several days of fairly heavy rainfall, the zucchini plants had become a bright green sprawl of bobbing leaves so dense it was hard to see anything underneath. Understandably, one squash was overlooked for a few days, and by the time my wife found it, we had a one hefty cudgel to contend with. This is not by any means ideal for cooking, because at this stage the squash is mostly water, with a very diluted flavor. The only way to deal with it was to cook it right away before the skin had a chance to get dry and tough. So here's how it all came together:

I sautéed about four cups of thinly sliced white onion in a couple tablespoons of coconut oil until just beginning to soften. Then I added about a tablespoon each of minced garlic, finely grated turmeric root and fresh ginger. I set this to cook over very low heat, so that the flavors would flow into one another. As this happened, I grated the monstrous zucchini and added it to the pot. I went about some other tasks while the liquid released from the vegetables reduced down to a few tablespoons, and then added a can of coconut milk. By now the dish had turned a pale yellow with mere flecks of green.

I scooped out about three-quarters of the mixture and puréed it in the Vitamix with a few cups of vegetable bouillon and a few green serrano chiles (green chiles, by the way, are the most anti-inflammatory food there is). Then I returned the puréed soup to the pot, stirred well to combine it with the solids, and reheated it. On a sudden whim, I threw in a pinch of saffron, which turned out to be an excellent call, because this put the considerable heat of fresh green chiles in an elegant context. As soon as the soup was hot, I took it off the stove and stirred in a handful of coarsely chopped basil.

To serve, I ladled the soup into low bowls, strewed a few long strips of basil across the surface, and added dots of paper-thin shaved raw turmeric root. As a finishing touch, I ground black pepper over the soup and sprinkled on a few grains of Haleakala red sea salt.

It's a well-established fact that we absorb and assimilate nutrients much better and more readily when they are in food than we do when they come as supplements in pill form--and even more so in food that we truly enjoy eating. It's common sense, really, if you think about it. The human body is--to risk using a loaded word--designed for enjoyment. We function at our optimum when we're in harmony with our environment, and we digest best when what we eat is appealing to our senses. 

This isn't to say that our senses can't be fooled. We might in fact enjoy eating something that is ultimately harmful--like potatoes crisp-fried in duck fat, for example. That might be delicious to some people, but eating it regularly could have a terrible impact on their arteries. The trick is to find ways of preparing beneficial foods, in ways that protect their healthful properties and bring us joy.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fresh Turmeric Root

Fresh turmeric root, whole and peeled.
When I was shopping for my demo in Chicago weekend before last, I spied some very fresh turmeric root on the produce shelf at Whole Foods. This was too good to pass up, because where I live, no one seems to know what it is, so the produce departments at even the most progressive natural food stores won't order it anymore. It's like a guaranteed loss for them. I picked up as much as I thought I could consume before it spoiled, and brought it home.

Turmeric has been used for over 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine to treat various health problems. Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, apparently has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-arthritic, antifungal, and antiamyloid properties. It has significant potential to fight cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis, candida, liver cirrhosis, gastro-intestinal problems, and many other nasty ills. It may even help with obesity, by altering fat metabolism.

Naturally, once all this became known, curcumin supplements began to appear on the market--which is fine, but I like my food to be my medicine as much as possible. So when I hear that a spice I've been using and eating for years is this good for me, I'm immediately drawn to think of new, creative ways to use it in its raw plant form. Why let someone step on it first, take the fun out of the equation and give me a pill to swallow, when I could be eating it fresh and letting it dance into me across my palate the way nature intended? I read somewhere that curcumin crosses the blood-brain barrier, which means that it can get into the grey matter cells, un-corrode and de-rust things, brighten the synapses. Who knows? Maybe it'll even manage to counteract the depredations of my new friend, the iPhone.

The most common source of curcumin is the well-known dried, ground form of turmeric, which gives curry its characteristic yellow color. The root, a relative of ginger (another powerful anti-inflammatory), has a gorgeous deep orange color when raw, and a flavor I can't quite describe. It's not sharp the way ginger is, or pungent, but rather somewhat astringent, with an earthy quality vaguely reminiscent of burdock root. The orange hue is actually a highly concentrated yellow, which becomes immediately apparent the moment it comes in contact with other foods--or hands, clothing, or any porous surface. I've even had to work hard to scrub the yellow stain off my "stainless" steel microplaner after using it on fresh turmeric root!

How to use it? Easy. Grate it and add it to salads and soups, or add a few slices to your smoothie or green juice.

Speaking of which, my current favorite green juice consists of Tuscan kale, cabbage, celery, green apple, cucumber, medjool dates, banana, fresh ginger, a new coconut water probiotic drink from the makers of Good Belly, and (until I run out) fresh turmeric root . A potent, serious green drink, this one.

In the next couple of days, I'll be using up what's left of my golden stash--trust me, I don't want any of it to go moldy and head for the compost heap--so stay tuned. I feel some interesting turmeric root ideas coming, featuring chocolate, perhaps, saffron, green olives and preserved lemons, maybe. This could be good...

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Big Race Update: A Cautionary Tale

Okay, let me start by offering a bit of advice. If you're going to run the Pikes Peak Ascent (or any race, really), don't let your training lapse for the two or three months leading up to it. I think I may have gotten a bit cocky, assuming I was in such great shape generally, that I could do just about anything--like charge 13.32 miles up a 14,115-foot peak after spending most of my time in a kitchen or at a desk, and the weekend prior at a low elevation. Nutritionally, I'd been doing everything right. I live at 7,800 feet, and I have done some hiking and biking in the last two months. How hard could it be?

Passing the "Garden of the Gods." with the peak in the distance.
I slept four hours the night before, and then lay awake in the dark waiting for the alarm, set for 5:30. I got up, suited up, had my ginseng-astragalus tea, and waited for my brother-in-law to pick me up at 6:00.

The ride to Manitou Springs at sunrise was pretty gorgeous, as usual. I shot a couple of pictures of the peak with my iPhone as we headed in. (You can click on the images to enlarge them.)

Starting line, downtown Manitou, at 6:45 AM.
We were in the "second wave" of runners, starting at 7:30, but we had some friends who were in the "first wave" taking off at 7:00, so we went early enough to watch them go.

As always, some lady sang "America the Beautiful," and then the gun went off. At this point, I downed my "Tarahumara running food" concoction, giving me 30 minutes to digest it before the second wave set off. Confidence was high. (Or was that arrogance?)

Shaking the chia. Peak confidence.
When it was our turn, the start ritual was repeated (song and all) and off we went. About four minutes into it, I got my first inkling of just how profoundly my lack of training was going to impact my performance (what had I been thinking would happen?). Oh well, I thought, so I won't beat my time from last year. Then we left the street and headed up the steep trail.

There are two stations on the route that must be reached by specific times, or they turn you around and send you back down. The first is "Barr Camp," 7.6 miles up, at 10,200 feet. At this point, you've gained just shy of 4,000 feet. Last year, I was ahead of the cutoff time by about an hour; this time I had only about 15 minutes to spare--not a good sign, because that left me scrambling to make the "A-Frame," at 11,800 feet, in time. For reference, last year I pretty much sailed by Barr Camp; this time I was already feeling spent.

I picked up a heart-shaped rock and texted a picture to my wife with the words "@Barr camp," as a proof-of-life/progress report. Then I downed some electrolytes and a packet of chocolate goo, and pushed on.

As an aside, there are two reasons you want to make the cutoffs: 1) most obviously, if you don't, you can't finish the race. 2) if you miss it by a second, you have to walk all the way back down, with tired knees, stopping your entire weight with each step. Hard as it is going up, the prospect of going down is worse. I can't imagine the marathon, run the next day, which is all the way up and all the way down. Runners get to the finish line bruised and bloodied from fatigue-stumbling falls.

The "A-Frame," a campsite at 11,800 feet.
The climb to the A-Frame was grueling. My leg strength was all but gone, although thankfully I had minimal cramping. As I pulled in, mere minutes before the cutoff, I heard a line from the song playing on the loudspeaker: "...but did I crumble, did I lay down and die? Oh no, not I! I will survive!" For some reason, that perked me up, which was good, because they were running low on water and had begun rationing. We only got a couple of cups apiece. The next station was 1.8 miles further up, and we were just crossing treeline, so there would be no more shade to offer respite from the high altitude sun. Oh--and we had less than two hours to reach the top, another 2,315 feet of vertical, or the whole exercise would be without reward.

Passing treeline, 12,000 feet.
At treeline, the landscape is surreal, as vegetation becomes sparse, with lots of gnarled remains of once-living evergreens. I spotted another heart-rock and texted a picture to my wife, waiting at the top, with a terse "@A frame." She didn't get this until about 45 minutes later, which was somewhat alarming. Coverage is spotty up there.

Fortunately, there was plenty of water at the "Cirque," the last station before the final 1.42 mile, 815-foot vertical climb to the finish line. That doesn't sound like very far to go, and I had almost 45 minutes left, but funny things happen to your body at this elevation--after you've pushed and pulled it 11.9 miles up the mountain at a steady clip. I stopped snapping pictures and went as fast as my remaining strength would allow.

Pale and winded, just past the finish line.
About a mile below the top, you can hear the race announcer and the cheers, which makes you think you're almost there--but it seems to take forever to scramble over the that last stretch of big rocks they call "the golden staircase." Then, when you least expect it, finally the finish line appears, not twenty feet away. I gathered everything I had left in me, and ran across. I had finished with four minutes to spare, and actually beat 12 other people (not counting all the ones who came in late). For this, I got a medal and a finisher's T-shirt, and a listing in the race results. That may sound anti-climactic, but you have no idea how validating it is after all you put out to reach the top.



It took me an hour and fifteen minutes longer than last year, but hey--I finished!
Now back to that bit of advice: if you're going to enter a race, especially an uphill one at high elevation, don't neglect your training! In the immortal words of Alexander the Great, "Train hard, fight easy."

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Chlorophyll and Fat Loading for the Big Race

I'm off to the races at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning. I'll be in the "second wave" of runners in the Pikes Peak Ascent (wish me luck). I hear the weather might either be warm with a light cloud cover, or rainy with a high probability of snow above tree line. I really hope the former.

Anyway, the prevailing conventional "wisdom" is to load up with carbohydrates the night before, so you'll have plenty of fuel to carry you through the four or five-plus hour, 13.32 mile, 7,815-foot vertical climb. People get together and eat gobs of spaghetti with this notion in mind. I put wisdom in quotes, because while it may be conventional, it's far from wise if you ask me. Carbs--especially refined carbs--will have been converted to body fat long before you'd get a chance to burn them, after sleeping on a meal like that.

My idea is a little different, so here's what I decided to eat. I had a Mediterranean dinner high in green herbs , vegetables, beans, quinoa, and unsaturated fats (lots of fats). Fats make excellent, readily available, clean-burning fuel. And I wanted a lot of chlorophyll to boost my red blood cells, so I'll have a shot at easy breathing once I hit 12,000 feet. That was my plan. The menu was quick and easy:

I made my quinoa tabouli, some grilled baby eggplants with ras el hanout--brushed liberally with Udo's DHA Oil--"Greta's Cannellini Salad with Mint," from Speed Vegan, and had all this with some mixed olives. Now, an hour later, it's all gone down nicely and I'm getting ready to hit the sack.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to have my "Tarahumara running food" drink and that's it. We'll see how this goes...

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Grilled Portobello Mushroom Salad

As many vegetarians no doubt are aware, Portobello mushrooms are delicious grilled.

Of all the plant-based options I know of, there is not a single one that can hold its own against meats at a barbecue like the Portobello.
It has a succulent chewy texture, a wild-woodsy flavor, and--unlike any meat--it keeps delivering juicy pleasure with every bite. It also feels like it's actually good for you, like it's providing nature's medicinal goodness, which in fact it is. Mushrooms are a good source of potassium, niacin, riboflavin and selenium, for starters. They have anti-estrogenic qualities, which helps prevent breast and prostate cancer. So compared with the slabs of red meat on the grill that get the paleo-people drooling, a Portobello mushroom steak is a life-saver (in more ways than one).

I just finished developing a set of recipes for a "Vegetarian Southwest Barbecue" article that will appear in a 2012 issue of Delicious Living Magazine, and I think the "Grilled Portobello Salad with Cashew-Poblano Crema" is my favorite of them all. It began as a simple grilled mushroom with a cashew-based creamy sauce blended with roasted poblano pepper, which was awfully good when I made it the first time. But on the advice of my editor, I later converted it to a warm salad, which was a good call. (As an aside, I have to say that at least half of good writing is trusting one's editor.)

In the final version, I increased the amount of roasted poblano chiles in the "crema" to give it a more robust flavor, and mixed some of it with lime juice to make the salad dressing. The rest I piped across the mushrooms as a topping. The greens will be baby arugula in the article, but I didn't have any on hand, so I used some of our home-grown baby red Swiss chard for the test. Home run, if you ask me--or ask my wife; she loved it too.

You want the recipe? Keep an eye out for the July 2012 issue of Delicious Living--free at your local natural foods store!

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fast Lentil Salad

I have a new favorite processed food to recommend--WAIT! Did I just say that? Yes, I did, but let me explain. Anyone who knows me will also know that I advocate cooking and eating at home, and avoiding processed foods.

There are, however, a few exceptions that I consider what I call "acceptable compromises," meaning minimally processed foods that have been altered only slightly, with very few ingredients added, if any. An example of this would be Italian "passata di pomodoro," which is nothing more than ripe plum tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded, and passed through a food mill to form a smooth puree--all organic, and sold in bottles or aseptic tetrapaks, not plastic or cans. The reason I favor this exception is that it saves a considerable amount of labor, produces exactly what I would if I did it myself, and--very importantly--removes a barrier that might deter many people from cooking and eating at home.

Other examples include frozen corn or peas, vegetable bouillon cubes, and organic canned beans. I regard all of these as ingredients that I might add to something I'm cooking, not a pre-made dish or (worse yet) an entire meal. Usually the only stowaway item in these is salt, and I prefer minimal salt if at all, so it will not throw the dish I'm adding them to off balance. Now back to what I was saying.

When I was at Whole Foods in Chicago last weekend, shopping for my presentation at the Chicago Veggie Fest, I picked up some subsistence food to have in my hotel room--simple, easy things like fresh fruit, nuts, olives, and a big container of salad I assembled from the salad bar. I had a room with a refrigerator and small kitchen, so why eat out? While I was there, I spied a package of "ready to eat" steamed lentils--similar to one I had bought at Trader Joe's just the weekend before, in California. These are so much better than the canned version, because they have no liquid added, making them perfect for salads.

It's ridiculously easy to build a delicious salad from these lentils. All I did for the one in the picture was add a bunch of diced celery, red onion, one little plum tomato, and the stems from baby red Swiss chard. Then I made a quick, easy vinaigrette by pounding a few garlic cloves and a handful of fresh oregano leaves in a mortar with fine Celtic salt to a smooth paste, and then working in some sherry vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, freshly ground black pepper, and finally, the oil--half Udo's Oil and half EVOO. After folding the vinaigrette into the lentil salad, I let it sit a few minutes for the flavors to meld and develop. I cut the baby chard leaves into wide strips, formed beds on the plates, and mounded the lentils mixture in the center of each.

Maybe you noticed that I didn't dress the greens first. Good catch. But this wasn't necessary, because the dressing that clung to the lentils was ample enough to make for a very moist, flavorful mouthful, greens and all. The salad was just as good the  following day; the lentil component was still perfect, and we had plenty of greens to reproduce the entire experience. My wife took a container of the lentils and a bag of the greens to combine at work, and I had the rest for lunch. Yum.

What about the baby red chard (and their tender stems)? My wife has a steady supply growing in our garden, so I always have them on hand, which perhaps you don't. Don't worry if you don't have access to these; you'll find many other vegetables to add, at your local natural foods market. Fennel, radishes, grated carrot or beet, scallions, and peppers are all prime candidates. For the greens, you also have several options: arugula, baby spinach, watercress--any lettuce, really. The key player in this salad is the lentils, and having them precooked is a major leg-up for the rushed home cook.

So there you have it: some processed foods can be a good thing--if they encourage and empower you to cook and enjoy fresh food at home!

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spicy Radicchio and Kale Salad

When I was in Malaysia several years ago, I had lunch in a genuine Thai restaurant. I say genuine, because unlike the Thai restaurants in the the West (some of which offer brilliant food, don't get me wrong), this one was clearly frequented by actual Thai customers. What led me to conclude this? The food--and I mean all the food--was so spicy that even I, a spicy food lover, could barely tolerate it.

There was quite a large and varied buffet, and every single curry, soup, salad, dumpling and spring roll was blazing hot. It was a trial by fire for a tourist like me, and I struggled to survive it. I do have to admit that I enjoyed the food immensely, once I reached that glorious endorphin plateau, but getting there was pretty challenging. I'm used to approaching chile-samadhi slowly, incrementally, but this was like having my lips, tongue, gullet and guts instantly deep-fried in one shot.

I know this is a strange introduction to the salad in the picture. How many mouths will be watering at the thought of an incinerated palate? Worry not, dear readers--this spicy salad is quite tame by comparison; I just wanted to set up the notion of combining a cool salad with a lash of heat. Maybe I brought it a little too close for comfort, but it's a true story, so there you have it.

The unorthodox inclusion of radicchio in this salad brings a hint of bitter to the mix, which complements the sweet-sour-salty-pungent components nicely. The only other vegetables are Tuscan kale, red onion, and mung bean sprouts, with a hefty amount of cilantro--technically an herb, but featured here as a salad green.

I built the dressing up from spoonfuls of panang curry and white miso, thinning with lime juice and coconut milk, and rounding it out with some roasted peanut butter. The consistency was fairly dense, but after working it into the vegetables, it became more like a thick mayonnaise. I heaped the salad into bowls and drizzled a little coconut milk over the top. I also added some dots of sriracha sauce--just because I still remember the thrills of that fiery lunch in Malaysia, and the spectacular delights of that day...

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gazpacho

Among the pleasures of a hot summer--besides wearing fewer clothes--are cool salads and cold soups. My all-time favorite is an invention of mine, "Mexyssoise," which appears in my first cookbook, Omega 3 Cuisine. It was a takeoff on the French classic, vichyssoise (and that last syllable is "swazz," not "swah," okay?). Pretty much the only similarities between the two are the low, low temperature and the velvety-smooth texture. Although there are potatoes in both, the mexy-version is green, spicy, and has about three times as many ingredients.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, the next great cold summer soup is gazpacho, of Spanish origin, and it has a special place in my heart. I served it to a sexy, beautiful redhead on the patio at my house in Malibu one fateful starry night about twenty-one years ago. Actually, it was "Lobster Gazpacho," although I really don't think that's particularly important. There were two other dinner guests, but all I remember is that afterward I put on some music, we started dancing, and then we were kissing, and we've been together ever since. So you can see why I'm inordinately fond of gazpacho, even if it's not my number one favorite cold soup, yes?

Served in small bowls or cups, gazpacho is a superb starter, because it leaves you eager to keep slurping, and crunching the succulent raw bits. Here is my formula, and all you have to do is mix everything together and chill it several hours:

2 or 3 cups vegetables juice (like V-8, or a more natural version), or tomato juice
2 cups tomato puree (preferably Italian passata di pomodoro)
1 red pepper, roasted, peeled, and finely diced
1 yellow pepper, roasted, peeled, and finely diced
1 green pepper, roasted, peeled, and finely diced
1 hothouse cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 bunch scallions, green parts included, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
EVOO, fresh lemon juice, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper, to taste (you figure it out)

With or without the lobster pieces, this is one delicious soup (I'm advocating without, but I won't be watching, so you're on your own). I recommend some Cuban music afterwards...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lemon Cucumbers

A week ago, I was driving north on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu when I noticed a handpainted sign advertising "Fresh Figs." This was exciting, because as I hinted in an earlier post, figs are right up there in the "sexiest fruits ever category." I left a little tire tread on the pavement as I quickly maneuvered the car off the highway and onto the dirt road, and up a few hundred feet to a little family-run farm store.

Sadly, they had sold out of figs, but they did have some freshly picked ripe peaches that proved to be among the juiciest, most full-flavored peaches in memory. My wife and I each filled a paper sack with them, and then I spied what looked like little yellow gourds. I picked one up and looked at the teenager in charge. "Lemon cucumbers," he said. Of course I had to buy a couple--I simply can't meet a new edible plant and not become acquainted.

The skins were a little tough, but quite chewable--which is a good thing, because sure enough, the insides look just like regular cucumbers, with essentially the same taste, and without the unusual outer appearance, I'd have nothing new to show for the exercise (except for the peaches, that is).

I had bought two, and they are small--about the size of a large lemon, so I was able to try only one application, but it made a pleasant summer dish.

I quartered them lengthwise and then cut thin slices., to which I added some finely diced red onion, fresh lemon juice, EVOO, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley. Not really anything terribly exotic, but perfect for a hot day, and now I've added yet another new vegetable to the ever-growing list. It still amazes me that even after over 30 years of cooking, traveling and eating, I'm still coming across edible plants I've never seen before. It's one of several reasons I love what I do.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Preserved Lime Dirty Martini

I'm off to Chicago this morning, to demo my book, Speed Vegan at the Veggie Fest on Saturday and Sunday. They tell me thirty thousand people are expected!

I'll have no time to blog this weekend, so I thought I'd leave you with that martini I mentioned earlier. I must warn you, it's not for everyone (my wife hated it), but if you've taken the prerequisite step of making preserved lemons or limes (or buying them at a a specialty store), it's worth a try.

Pull a quarter of a preserved lime (or lemon) from the brine and scrape off the pulp. Cut the rind into thin strips and place one in each glass. Drop any remaining strips into a shaker and fill with ice. Pour in a teaspoon or so of the brine and add a teaspoon or so of light agave nectar. Add two shots of very smooth vodka per person (I highly recommend Tito's--the price is very reasonable and it's every bit as good as the premium brands). Cover tightly and shake like you want to seriously bruise the contents. Strain into the glasses. Clink and drink. TGIF, yah?

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kale Salad with Red Radishes

I ran across some very small organic red beets the other day--an heirloom variety with hypnotic red and white concentric rings. I didn't want to cook them, because I suspected this would make the colors run and mute their intriguing design. On the other hand, they had a slightly off-putting aftertaste when raw, somewhere between a radish and a rutabaga. What to do? I had also bought a bunch of Tuscan kale (currently my favorite green) and a bunch of unusually thin scallions, which made me think along the lines of a Japanese-style salad.

I made a marinade-dressing with yuzu juice, microplaned ginger, tamari, a dash of toasted sesame oil, and just a dab of sriracha sauce. After scrubbing the little beets within an inch of their lives, I got out my truffle slicer and cut uniformly thin rounds into the bowl. I let them sit in the marinade, tossing every few minutes, until they softened slightly, and then removed them, swishing each one to rinse off any bits of ginger.

After removing the center ribs from the kale, I stacked the leaves and cut them thinly crosswise into thin strips, a little less than a quarter-inch wide. The scallions I cut thinly on a sharp diagonal. Reserving a few of the scallion slivers for garnish, I tossed the rest, along with the kale, in the marinade. I confess I used my fingers for this (I did wash my hands), because I wanted to work the kale a bit to help the marinade penetrate and soften it.

To serve, I made mounds of the kale-scallion mixture, and laid the rounds of beet all over the surface. Then I garnished with the reserved scallion slivers and a scattering of sesame seeds. The few minutes spent marinating had a profound effect on the beets; they were slightly tenderized, with a pleasant crunch just past the soft, yielding surface. A lively hot-sour-salty-pungent tang had replaced the disagreeable taste I had noticed before.

It's exciting to witness ingredients transforming one another this way, with a minor effort on my part, in a brief period of time. Of course, this wasn't the entire meal, so I had other dishes to make, but this one eye-and-palate alluring plate was the star of the night.
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