Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Emperor and the Nightingale

There is a children's story about an emperor who loved to hear the song of a nightingale that perched every night in a tree outside his bedroom window. The nightingale, seeing how much the emperor appreciated her song, eagerly returned every night to sing for him.

One day, the emperor received a gift from a courtier seeking his favor: a mechanical nightingale that played a sweet song both night and day. This pleased the emperor very much. He no longer needed to rely on the whims of a wild bird; he could hear that song any time he wished. Seeing that the emperor was now taken with his artificial bird, the nightingale flew sadly away. Then, one day, the mechanical nightingale broke, and wouldn't play anymore. Only then did the emperor realize his mistake in choosing a fake bird over the real one. In some versions of the story, that was it; tough luck. In others, the real nightingale came back, and once again sang nightly for the doting emperor, and they both lived happily ever after.

Why am I bringing this up?

For millennia, humans needed to hunt, gather, and grow their food. Then commerce brought the option of bartering and trading for food. Much later, a commercial food industry developed, offering processed food products that made eating much easier, more convenient and enjoyable. Eventually, food science came along, enabling the creation of brand new foodlike products with unusual, intense flavors made from artificial ingredients. Food got a lot cheaper, too, because science also made it possible for both plants and animals to be grown closer together, in greater and greater numbers, using petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically altered seeds. Monoculture began to replace biodiversity, favoring volume over variety. At long last, people could eat as much as they wanted, whenever and wherever they wished--and with very little effort. The crowd went wild.

After some time, as a result of eating all this unnatural, highly processed foodlike stuff, people got fatter, and they began to develop health problems they never had before. Cardiovascular disease,  fatty liver, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. Animals began to develop their own diseases from the cheap, unnatural feed they were given, and from their filthy, overcrowded living conditions. Eventually, certain animal diseases began to jump from their imprisoned hosts to the human population, sparking fears of worldwide epidemics. The waste from animal farms began to invade the waterways, infecting even the plant food, sickening and killing more people. The wonderful new food system that had been so much fun for so many people had begun to backfire on them. Cashing in bigtime on the very human wish for secure, convenient, reliable comfort and pleasure, the food industry had hijacked the modern population's taste buds, and now it was all going terribly wrong.

In one version of this story, that was it. People continued to eat degraded, adulterated, genetically altered, artificial food, stubbornly addicted to their self-destructive choices. They had come to believe that their way of eating had always been part of their culture and heritage--that there was nothing wrong with it. They explained their unhealthy diet away to themselves, repeating the hopeless falsehood that if they could just eat a little less of it and exercise a little more, everything would be fine. Mass delusion. In this version, the great lumbering system that supplied the world's food became unsustainable, destroying fragile ecosystems like a voracious parasite that kills its host. Blights that in the past might have taken only one or two varieties of plants made quick work of wiping out entire swaths of the world's uniform food supply. Famine, hoarding and barbarism inevitably followed. The End.

I prefer the other ending, in which the people began to wake up and miss the days--not so long ago--when natural food tasted good all by itself; when it took a little effort to cook and eat at home, but the effort was rewarding, the food was more satisfying, and dining was a pleasurable, shared experience. Slowly, a few people began to revive the noble art of organic gardening, saving heirloom seeds, promoting biodiversity, and replenishing the soil. Small farms began to revive, supported by people everywhere who had come to understand the value of real food, grown by genuine farmers. Highly refined food became a thing of the past, abandoned by the marketplace in favor of nutrient-dense, natural foods. Finally, people came to understand that there was no need to have animals process plants into protein for them; that they could process their own food, spare the animal suffering, and avoid the diseases caused by over-consumption of animal products. In short, the nightingale returns. The emperor finally understands the value of what is genuine, and willingly submits to the natural rhythm, enjoying the nightingale's song on her terms.
I know this is over-simplistic, but that's the nature of fables. The point is not to hammer out all the details. The point of any fable is merely to spark a glimmer of understanding, to turn the human course just a fraction, so that down the line--hopefully--this might lead to a happier destiny for all living things.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Herb-infused Oils

The only sad thing about having a summer herb garden is that summer eventually ends, and there is no way you can use up the profusion of fresh herbs that are doomed, but still growing. We managed to stave off the ravages of high elevation fall weather--like the six-inch snowfall in late September this year--by moving our tomato, pepper, and some herb plants into our living room. This allows us to keep harvesting tomatoes and peppers for a little longer, but the herbs are another matter.

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We could dry the herbs, but the result would really be not very different from store-bought herbs. The creative solution is to infuse oil with the herbs, preserving the fresh flavor and color.

Restaurant chefs use grapeseed oil for this, because it has virtually no flavor to muddy the background. I'm skeptical of the process used to produce grapeseed oil, and until I get some clarity on it, I'm sticking with oils I trust. I happen to know that the oils produced by Flora (the same company that makes Udo's Oil) are unrefined and undergo a gentle process that protects their molecular integrity. I chose Flora Almond Oil for our herb infusions, because it's very mild-tasting, so its impact on the flavor of the herbs would be minimal.

The infusion process is very simple. Roughly, for one cup of oil, use two (packed) cups of herbs. Blanch the herbs in boiling water and then immediately drain, quench in ice water, and drain again. Squeeze the herbs in a strainer to extract every last bit of water. Drop into a blender and add the oil, plus about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process on high speed for about 2 minutes, until the oil turns a bright green color. Pour into a glass jar and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain the oil through the finest sieve you have. Return to the refrigerator and leave overnight again. On the following day, decant, discarding the sediment. Pour into a glass bottle--preferably dark glass--and cover tightly. Refrigerate until ready to use.

I used extra virgin olive oil for the rosemary, because first of all, the flavor of rosemary is strong enough to override the flavor of olive oil, but also because I've been using this combination of flavors for decades, with excellent results in the food. It makes a delicious dip for bread, with or without the addition of balsamic vinegar. You can also add garlic to this infusion, or use the rosemary oil to saute potatoes (for example), and add garlic while cooking. Great stuff, seriously!

If you plan to use the oil up within a week, refrigerate. If you're not sure, keep a little in the refrigerator and freeze the rest, which will extend its life for at least two or three months. Later, warm the bottle in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water and pour out the quantity you want to use. Return the unused oil to the freezer.

So what do you do with these infused oils, you might ask? For the most part, I use them only for color and flavor when plating dishes.

A good example is on the cover of my first cookbook, Omega 3 Cuisine. After positioning the serving of "Vegetable Lasagne" (which by the way, is all-vegetable, with sliced of butternut squash for the "pasta" layers), I placed a gob of roasted garlic puree on top and surrounded it with diced roasted red pepper and little pieces of zucchini and yellow squash, gouged out with a teeny-weeny melon baller. Then I drizzled red pepper oil and basil oil for the final touch (along with a light sprinkling of chopped parsley).

Another way to use infused oils just before serving is to add them to a soup, as I did for my "Corn Soup with Roasted Peppers."

To get this effect, I used a squeeze bottle to pipe two concentric circles of scallion-infused oil. Then I used the point of a knife to "pull" the oil back and forth, forming the decorative pattern. For this one, I also added some diced roasted pepper. You have to work fast when you do this, to keep the soup from getting cold, but the effect is pretty impressive. People always make a kind remark when you set it down in front of them.

It takes some work to make infused oils, but the payoff is well worth the effort. If you keep your unused oils in the freezer as I suggested, you should have enough to do a lot of fancy plating--with delicious results--well into the holidays and beyond.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kelp Noodles

I was at Whole Foods recently, searching in vain for Ohana House Buckwheat Soba--apparently the company has been bought out and its product scrapped, in favor of an inferior version. The new soba are not 100% buckwheat, but mostly wheat, with other undesirable ingredients. Just like when you finally get a pair of shoes that work for you and they stop making them!

Anyway, as I scanned the shelves in dismay and disbelief, I came across a rather intriguing new item in the noodle world: kelp noodles, made with green tea. Always a silver lining. These noodles have have nothing  in common with the ones I was looking for (beyond their shape), but of course I had to try them.

The ingredients listed are simple enough: water, sodium, alginate, kelp, green tea. The "sodium" sounds a little suspect, but everything else seems straightforward--the kelp and green tea supply the good stuff (nutrients, antioxidants) and the alginate (a natural extract of brown algae) holds the product together. It's possible that this is in fact sodium alginate (the comma in the list being a typo), with the same properties, used in molecular gastronomy to produce "spherification" of liquids. 

The noodles themselves are a bit on the crunchy side and nearly flavorless, but they do make an interesting ingredient in salads. I threw a quick salad together for my first flirtation with this odd noodle, and it worked much better than I initially figured it would.

After rinsing the noodles (as directed), I cut them into manageable lengths and combined them with grated carrot, thinly sliced celery, celery leaves, and sliced scallions. I used a classic Japanese oil-free dressing, made with kombu dashi, tamari, brown rice vinegar and mirin. A scattering of sesame seeds completed the dish. Believe it or not, it was hugely successful!

I do have a call in to the corporate pirates who raided Ohana House, to see if they still produce and market the original 100% buckwheat soba I had fallen in love with (and where I might find them).  I'll put up a post about this if good news comes back...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anti-Cancer Snack

As is so often the case, I get some of my best ideas when I'm hungry and want something quick. Maybe it shortcuts the thinking machine--the over-analytical, "that'll-never-work" side of my brain and hooks me up with the creative, intuitive, non-technical side.

I do come up with good stuff when I think about it for a while, too. Years ago, when I was making jewelry, a friend told me that traditional Navajo master silversmiths would design their creations this way--dreaming the whole piece over a period of days, process and all--and then they'd knock it out all in one go. I don't know if that's true, but I can totally relate, because this has happened to me. I find it profoundly satisfying when successful dishes come about this way. But magic is no one's possession, so we just have to take it however it comes.

Anyway, I was hungry and wanted something quick, but for me it has to be thoroughly gratifying--and nourishing--or it just isn't really food. I had recently tried an intriguingly simple spread recipe from "Clean Start," a gorgeously photographed cookbook by Terry Walters, that combined carrots boiled in vegetable stock, cashews, and light miso. It seemed to lack something for me (and my wife), but I liked the idea a lot, so I decided to revisit it and see if I could make it work for us.

I kept the original recipe intact, but while the carrots were cooking, I added some Vadouvan curry powder, Indian red chile powder, and grated fresh ginger and turmeric root to the broth. I also let the broth cook down to just the quarter-cup needed to thin the mixture. After the cooking was done, I added a few mashed cloves of garlic and a little freshly ground cardamom. With the utmost respect to Ms. Walters--I know she was trying to keep things clean and simple--this worked much better for my wife and me. I had it with gluten-free wholegrain toast and slices of very ripe avocado. Just before serving, I drizzled just a bit of Udo's DHA Oil Blend, and sprinkled a little dash of Haleakala red and Kilauea black finishing salts over everything.

Of course, this whole production was simply a response to that unexpected hunger I sometimes get when I eat dinner too early and then stay up too late. However, because I want my food to gratify not only my superficial, immediate craving, but my innate craving for beauty and my long-term health interests as well, I made sure all these bases were covered.

I got fed; good. I also thoroughly enjoyed what I ate; better. And from this quick dish, I got a blast of antioxidants, probiotics, phytonutrients, healthy fats, minerals, vitamins, and antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer compounds; freaking brilliant. Okay, I admit, I didn't need the carbs (especially late at night), but I rarely eat bread, and what's a spread without something to smear it on?

Note: I don't know if I recommended that cookbook highly enough, but it's an exquisite work. I almost always vary a recipe to suit my tastes--even my own recipes--so the fact that I monkeyed with one of the author's recipes should in no way be taken as anything but a compliment. Just thought I should say that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Minted Chocolate Dream

I had a chocolate-loving friend over for dinner recently, so of course I had to make something with chocolate for dessert. I had been busy all day, and had very little time to get this done, so I pulled out an old quick and easy item that I hadn't made since I finished writing Speed Vegan--something I had called "Minted Chocolate Dream."

This is very rich, but because it has no cream or butter in it, it doesn't leave you nauseous (really--let's face it, some of our favorite "treats" are not kind to us). And considering the immensely gratifying effect, making this is so easy it's almost like cheating.

The first thing you have to do--if you're accustomed to working with chocolate--is overcome the terror of having water get into your melted chocolate. I say this because it's one of the big no-nos that get drilled into you, via books and bitter experience. They tell you that if even a microdroplet of steam should find its way into your melted chocolate, it will be ruined and you'll just have to throw it out and start over. Seriously. That's what the conventional "wisdom" is on the subject. This dogma was so strong in the lore and literature that even as an autodidact (or perhaps especially), I swallowed it whole, utterly forgetting that in Mexico they've been mixing water and chocolate for millennia--with great success. The Aztecs and Mayans used to enjoy chocolate drinks made with water long before the Spaniards invaded, ripped them off, and took chocolate back to Europe. That's when people started adding milk and cream and a ton of sugar, in an attempt to improve on the food of the gods.

As it turns out, it's not water that makes melted chocolate seize up, break, and cease to work as it should; it's the wrong proportion of water to chocolate. Sure, at first it will look ruined, and if you've been educated to believe that this first sign of ruination is in fact the end of the line, you will quite naturally (as I have done) simply chuck the whole mess out and start over. But if you don't lose heart at the sight, and continue adding water (and if it's hot water), eventually it will begin to flow again, and you'll have a "water ganache." It will lack the richness of a cream-based ganache, and it might, depending on a few minor variables, have a slight graininess as a result, but it will survive. Learn something every day, right? There's more.

As most chocolate lovers who read are now gleefully aware, there are compounds (antioxidants and such) in cacao that are extremely good for health. Dark chocolate--not milk chocolate--with a high concentration of cacao solids (70 percent or higher), is a bona fide superfood. So the only thing now lacking in my water ganache would be richness (purely for pleasure, of course). My solution: add a decent amount of essential fats, namely, Udo's DHA Oil Blend. That way, you restore richness and silky texture while adding nutritional value. In the book, I say "flax oil," but between you and me, what I always use is Udo's, because it's the best I know of, and provides both omega-3 and omega-6 (apparently it's important to get them both and at the same time).

Here's the Recipe, ripped right from the book:

Minted Chocolate Dream
Makes 4 servings
This ridiculously quick-and-easy yet elegant and delightful dessert is made without cream, although the result is very rich and creamy. Impossible, you say? Try it. You can get a small bottle of peppermint schnapps so you don’t have to buy a full-sized one (although it’s great to have around for sipping in cold weather).

8 ounces vegan dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup flax oil
1 tablespoon peppermint schnapps (optional)
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
4 perfect fresh mint sprigs, for garnish

Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl set over hot (but not boiling) water, stirring occasionally. Once it is melted, whisk in the boiling water, 1 tablespoon at a time. The chocolate will seize up at first, but keep whisking and adding the water until it becomes smooth and creamy. Whisk in the flax oil, peppermint schnapps, if using, and peppermint extract. Pour into 4 dessert goblets. Refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours.
            Remove from the refrigerator about 20 minutes before serving. Garnish with the mint sprigs at the last moment. After your guests have begun their spasmodic utterances of blissful approval, you can go ahead and tell them what’s in it. Show them the recipe if they don’t believe you.

Per serving, this provides 14.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids!

Note: In making the dessert in the picture, I also dusted the tops with a high-quality cacao powder, to give it an extra-attractive look. To do this, I made a paper shield so the cacao wouldn't get on the rim. The mint sprig I added last.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Scenes From a Bullfight

I was trolling for interesting news when I came upon a piece about a bullfighter who was gored in the face by a bull (and survived). I don't think I've ever read an article before in which every single line, if read carefully, was in itself disturbing. A sleeper in that bunch was one line mentioning the name and weight of the bull, the fact that it was the second "fighting beast" the bullfighter had dealt with that afternoon, and that the nasty business took place during the "Virgen del Pilar festivities." I'm assuming that the latter were religious observances.

I admit that my attention is--perhaps perversely--attracted by this sort of thing. It's not that I like to see anyone injured; it's more a fascination with things rarely seen--the unusual, especially grisly things which, I'm glad to say, I've seen very little of in my life. So for me they are a real-life oddity.

In Iraq, Chechnya, Sudan, and other war-torn areas, I imagine this story might not make the news at all. In the safety of my warm office, I have the luxury of not only reading it, but thinking philosophically about it.

I began wondering how bullfighting as a spectacle could be tolerated to such a degree that the particulars of this story, while gruesome, can be discussed with such unaffected distance. A goring is not an unheard of outcome for bullfights, in fact. When I was around eight years old, my mother took me to the bullfights in Mexico City, along with some friends who were visiting from the United States. I'll never forget the sight of a man being whirled around like a little floppy propeller on the tip of a bull's horn.

For those of my readers who may be unfamiliar with the protocol at these events, here it is in a nutshell:

First a trumpet announces the beginning of the games, and all the human players parade into the bullring to triumphant music. In come a squad of nameless guys with capes whose job it is to taunt, irritate, confuse and distract the bull. They are to bullfights what rodeo clowns are to rodeos. Of all the players involved, these are the ones most often seen running from the bull and jumping behind barriers to save their lives.

Behind them come the banderilleros, who will each tag the bull on the neck with two short decorative spears--called banderillas, or "flaglets," sporting the colors associated with the ranch proudly supplying the bull. The banderillas have barbed tips that help them stick in the bull's flesh and remain for the duration, flailing wildly as the bull moves. 

Next the picadores, the fat, mounted pike-wielders, ride out on stout horses wearing blinders and thick protective padding. These guys are always booed--and understandably so, considering their role is to approach the bull from a superior position and jab a long blunt spear into his neck, precisely at the spine, in order to dull his wits and weaken him.

Finally the matadores (literally, "killers") march proudly into the ring, to roaring applause and cheers. They're followed and flanked by their own personal circle of guys with capes--the last resort and only recourse for a bullfighter who's lost control of the bull. If and when the goring starts, they will rush in to distract the bull so the injured matador can be rescued.

Then everyone exits the ring and a door opens to release one of the most spirited, powerful embodiments of masculine energy and fearless spirit on earth. The bull explodes into the ring, stopping and turning, spraying sand and charging in all directions. The guys with capes start their work, and the games begin. In ritual order, the players make their appearance, each taking a little of the bull's spirit and energy. Finally, the matador faces the bull directly (something none dare attempt when the bull first comes into the ring).

There is both skill and danger involved in the final act of slaying the bull, and both are in direct proportion to the condition of the bull at the time. Some bulls are quite exhausted and disoriented; others are keen and furious. The fight in this report ended badly for the human player. With very rare exceptions, it always ends badly for the animal players (even the picadores' horses may get bruised and injured).

One can't help assuming this bull was summarily dispatched with an efficiency and sangfroid that in literature are the central attributes ascribed to a serial killer. I wonder again, how such a spectacle could possibly be considered not only tolerable, but culturally normal. Unlike the spectators of dogfights or cockfights, most of the people attending bullfights are average, churchgoing, respected members of their communities. When I was a kid, bullfights were televised, like regular sporting events.

I see this phenomenon as a vestige of a more barbaric time--hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago--when humans were put into a similar ring, to fight each other to the death for a crowd's amusement. That became unacceptable at some point, so the organizers removed one human and inserted a fierce animal. For now this remains acceptable in some places, but we're evolving as a species. We're starting to find cruelty and suffering intolerable at deeper and deeper levels, and in wider and wider circles. Humans and animals have both begun to enjoy some rights--among humans.

Who knows how far our evolutionary trend of slowly awakening, becoming more conscious, less brutal, and more kind, will go. But it's definitely afoot. We're on our way upward as a species. Ascent is in our genes.

That's the good part of all this.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tajine-roasted Garlic

When I make roasted garlic puree, I start with at least three or four cups of peeled garlic cloves. I toss them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, wrap them in parchment and several layers of aluminum foil, and then pop the package in a moderate-to-hot oven for about an hour. This is the wholesale method, which is ideal for making puree.

But sometimes it's fun to roast whole heads of garlic in a covered crock (I use a small tagine, which is a traditional north African baking dish with a gracefully curved, cone-like lid). This method affords a fundamentally more refined experience. An entire head of garlic presented fresh from the oven permits individual lightly caramelized cloves to be plucked still warm, with a knife tip or tiny fork, and eaten whole or smeared on bread--the diner, all the while, surrounded by a rich roasted allium redolence. This is a far more elegant serving option than pureed roasted garlic, and unless you're buying garlic already peeled, in the end it's a much easier way to go.

The prep time is brief and the method is simple. Just cut the top quarter off each bulb. Save the tops, which should slip fairly easily out of their skins, for another use*.
Place the bulbs, cut side up, in a baking dish. Drizzle a generous amount of EVOO over them and season with lightly ground Celtic salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover the dish and place it in an oven preheated to 400F. Bake for about 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375. Bake another 40 minutes and then check to see how they look. If they aren't lightly browned, replace the lid and bake for another 15 minutes.

Ideally, serve the dish at once, lifting the lid at the table to suddenly release the roasted aroma, billowing up in a dramatic swirl of steam, and engulfing the guests.

*Make a quick garlic broth with the cut tops: Add them, skins and all, to a pot with a quart of water and two vegetable bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes. Strain out the skins and bits. Use as a base for a soup or sauce, to thin purees, or for cooking rice or quinoa.