Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My First Time Sprouting Lentils

Back in the days of hippiedom and the unusually earthy cuisine that grew up around it, sprouting was all the rage. And say what you may about most of said cuisine, a few things not only stuck, but joined the mainstream. Sprouting seeds for food is such an easy process, and if you're paying attention even just a little bit, quite miraculous. All you really do is soak them, drain them, and rinse and drain twice a day, and in a few short days you have a tangle of superfood tendrils. Brilliant, life is.

I had sprouted several seed varieties in my time, but for some reason I never tried lentils until recently. Then I came upon a nearly empty bag of very small tan colored lentils (an heirloom variety whose name unfortunately eludes me now), too few to bother cooking. So I decided to sprout them. They took a total of three days to reach their peak, and I seized the occasion to make a quick salad.

I wanted something that would showcase the lentil sprouts without distracting from them too much, so I picked only two vegetables to pair them with, red onion and beet. I sliced the onion thinly, grated the beet, and combined them with the sprouted lentils. I happened to have a fair amount of leftover balsamic vinaigrette in the refrigerator, so rather than start over and make a new dressing, I went ahead and tossed it into the salad. I had actually had in mind a sort of mustardy vinaigrette, but the beets played quite well with the rich 18-year old balsamic, and the resulting sweetness of the salad made a pleasant foil for the starchy-raw mouthfeel of those young lentil-lifeforms. My only possible complaint would be that I didn't have more of it.

If I manage to recall the name of those lentils, I'll definitely order them again and try a few other applications. Sprouting is fun. It's like gardening for the ADD-afflicted.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Brown Rice Pasta

Brown Rice Ziti with Spicy Tomatoes and Basil
The recipes in the cookbook I'm working on now will not only be vegan, but gluten-free as well. Actually, come to think of it, nearly all of the recipes in Speed Vegan are gluten-free. I didn't set out to do this; it just turned out that way because I was steering clear of refined carbs.

In the process of trying new foods to use in the book, I discovered brown rice pasta, and in spite of a longstanding dislike of whole grain pastas, I decided to give it a shot. Good call. Brown rice pasta is the only kind I've ever tried that comes even vaguely close to the durum wheat pasta everyone loves. It cooks up al dente, it doesn't fall apart, it's not grainy, and it tastes an awful lot like "the real thing." It's absolutely the only one I'll willingly eat.

Last night, I had a hankering for comfort food--the kind that normally brings with it some health compromise, like mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream. I've taken this sort of thing up as a challenge; I shoot for maximum pleasure with virtually no downside. For me, pasta is (or at least can be) a tremendously comforting thing to eat, evoking moments of sublime enjoyment from my past.

Among the top ten iconic pasta sauces is tomato and basil. Spaghetti is the classic shape for this, but I chose ziti, which the manufacturers of brown rice  pasta for some reason call penne (a glaring misnomer, since "penne" means "pens," owing to the quill-shaped tips). Americans.

The sauce is ridiculously easy to make, but it does have one or two potential pitfalls--not the least of which is burning the garlic. The safest way to do it is to put some olive oil in a cold pan and add several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and a few dried red chiles. Turn on the heat and swirl the pan until the garlic is just beginning to turn a tan color. Immediately add chopped Italian tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook just about four minutes; the tomatoes should retain a little fresh taste, and the sauce should not be too thick. Remove from the heat and stir in a hefty handful of coarsely chopped basil. This whole process can be executed while the pasta cooks.

When the pasta is done, drain, but keep a little of the cooking liquid in the pot. Return the pasta to the pot and add the sauce. Swirl and toss to coat the pasta thoroughly. Eat. At this point you'll be in a position to understand why I like tube shapes with tomato sauce. Don't get me wrong, I do like spaghetti, but there is something about air passing through the juicy tubes, lifting and transporting microscopic bits of aromatic flavor across your palate as you slurp and chew that really awakens the Italian in me.

One note about the water pasta is boiled in: according to Frank Sinatra (rest in peace), it should have enough salt to make it taste like sea water. He was right. I know that sounds like an awful lot of salt, but most of it goes down the drain anyway, and it gives the pasta a delicious flavor in its own right, even without a sauce. You never know what you'll learn from people.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Carrot-Cardamom Rice with Saffron

I know, I know--white rice isn't that great for you. And I know this is going to sound like a rationalization (partly because it pretty much is), but I make a fairly rare exception for basmati rice. First, true basmati rice is processed by hand, and unlike polished rice, retains a glimmer of its erstwhile brownness. Second, for some dishes, there truly is no substitute. Third, just the smell of basmati cooking that wafts through the house is freaking heavenly. Fourth, because I eat it about once a month on average, I make it count. So there. Rationalization complete.

As an example of a rice dish for which I contend that there is no comparable grain--at least no whole-grain, "healthy" one--let me explain this simple little dish I came up with the other day:

First, as always, the rice needs to be rinsed several times, until the rinsing water runs clear. This must be done very gently, to avoid breaking the fragile grains. Basmati swells lengthwise as it cooks, into elegant fluffy white fingers, so it's important not to damage them. That's the most laborious task in making this full-flavored rice.

Once the rice was washed, all I did was put it in a small pot and add the remaining ingredients: water, carrot juice, a few lightly crushed cardamom pods, a pinch of saffron, a little salt, and a small gob of  coconut oil. Then I brought it to a boil as usual, turned the heat down to the lowest setting, covered the pot, and cooked the rice for 15 minutes. At a lower elevation--like sea level--I would use a quarter less liquid and cook it for 12 minutes. Once done, I slid a silicone spatula under the rice and fluffed it very lightly. That's it!

The coconut oil helps keep the grains from clinging to one another, producing a lighter, much more appealing result than the same effort would without it. Brown basmati is a wonderful whole grain, and I do use it far more often than white basmati, but it would never absorb the flavors in this dish the same way, nor even close to the same extent. Think of painting with watercolors on a white canvas versus a grey or brown one--and then add the dimensions of texture, flavor and aroma!

I served this alongside a spicy dish of lentils and curried cauliflower and peas. And yes, I know I could have enjoyed the latter two with brown rice, but come on--nowhere near as much! The way I see it, if you eat something that's less than ideal health-wise but way up the charts enjoyment-wise, and you eat it very rarely, it does you much more good than harm. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. No one has ever proven it wrong yet.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oven-dried Tomatoes

It's only logical that drying food would concentrate the flavors--as the water evaporates, they become "un-watered down."  Wild mushrooms are downright fragrant when dried, and even after being reconstituted, they're still more flavorful than fresh ones. The flavor of sundried tomatoes is not only more potent, but radically altered. There are two minor issues with dried food, however. One is the loss of fresh flavors--citrus in particular undergoes a profound change--and the other is that leathery texture food takes on when it has dried a little too much.

Oven-drying tomatoes offers a happy medium, where a lot of the original flavors of a fresh tomato are still palpable, but enhanced, and their juiciness is not entirely expunged. I first encountered this phenomenon in Australia, where they're called "semi-dried tomatoes" (that's tuh-mah-toes) and sold in the deli department at grocery stores. Spectacular.

Making your own version of these beauties is not hard at all. Here's what you do:

Preheat your oven to the lowest possible setting.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (this prevents the acids in the tomatoes from reacting with the aluminum or iron in the pan, and contaminating the product.).

Cut the tomatoes in half and lay them out on the parchment, cut side up.

Stir pressed garlic and chopped parsley into some EVOO and brush a generous amount onto the cut surface of each tomato (don't worry if it spills onto the paper a little).

Season them with salt and pepper and slide the pan into the oven. Leave them several hours, checking on them from time to time, until they reach a "semi-dried" state. Depending on your oven, elevation, and relative humidity in the air, this could take up to 8 or even 10 hours.

First time out, I recommend doing this in the morning, and plan on being around to monitor them. If you have an oven with a very low setting, like 120F/50C, you can put them in at night and they should be perfect early the next morning. However, I tried this when I moved to Colorado and bought a house with an oven that would only light at 185F/85C, and they got too dark (as in burned).  My advice: try it in the daytime once, and see how much time they need. You can take them as far as you like in the drying process, but I recommend pulling them out when they still have a little juice left. They'll continue to lose moisture as they cool, and I think you'll find that a tender, luscious mouthfeel is far superior to a chewy, dry one. Your call.

I'm always on the lookout for "baby roma" tomatoes, which are fabulous oven-dried--they shrink down to a perfect bite-size. You can pop them in your mouth all at once, unlike the larger ones (pictured) that require two somewhat messy bites. You can use any kind of tomato, but the thick, succulent flesh of roma tomatoes is ideal for drying.

Once the tomatoes are sufficiently dried, you can use them to make interesting hos d'ouevres, top salads with them, add a delicious dimension to ordinary sandwiches, or just throw them directly into your mouth. Then I'm sure other uses will come to you, like chopping them and stirring them into salad dressings, sauces and soups. I used to make a sandwich with pesto, oven-dried tomatoes and brie; now, having dropped the dairy products, I'm still looking to match the unctuous sensuality of that one!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Eggplant and Buckwheat Sandwich

I was reworking a recipe for Delicious Living Magazine last month, when an interesting thing happened--one of my favorite things, in fact.

My wife had not really liked the original dish I came up with, primarily because she's not a buckwheat fan.
My editor and her testing/tasting team pretty much agreed with my wife's assessment, which is why I was back at the drawing board with it.

I knew I would need to begin the creative process all over again, so I  threw out the entire first recipe and took off in a new direction.

I decided to keep tomato in the picture, to challenge the buckwheat's firm footing--in effect, to upstage it and let it take a less prominent role. I made an abbreviated form of ratatouille, with onions, peppers, garlic, eggplant, and tomato--not the traditional way, sauteing each vegetable separately, but a much quicker way, sauteing them together, and then adding the tomato at the end. Once the vegetables were tender and the flavors had melded and concentrated, I added the cooked buckwheat and adjusted the seasoning. Then I roasted thin slices of eggplant, cut lengthwise, and used them as "bread" to make "sandwiches." To serve, I placed the hot sandwiches on plates, drizzled some oregano oil on either side, and sprinkled chopped parsley generously about.

This time I didn't even tell my wife what it was, but simply presented her with the finished dish, calling it an "eggplant sandwich." This time she gave my invention high marks, and asked what the filling was. That's the interesting thing I mentioned above, indeed something I've built a career on: a complete reversal of food aversion, by virtue of an unusual context. This is a fun thing, but it also provides tremendous benefit, enabling people to redefine their likes and dislikes--essentially retraining their desires--in order to enjoy eating a wider range of foods. In the case of buckwheat, I found at least one way for my wife--and, I hope, a lot of other people--to appreciate a highly nutritious whole grain.

I consider this a very encouraging sign, because it means that if I can just present plant-based foods in just the right way, I can help unlimited numbers of people to eat more of them with pleasure. I'm not out to convert anyone to anything, but if they're open to expanding their horizons, I love to provide them with an enjoyable landing place.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hogless Hoppin' John

Each culture has its own traditional food eaten for luck on New Year's Day. In Germany and Italy, it's lentils; in Spain, they eat grapes; in Cuba, roast suckling pig, and there are all sorts of cakes and pastries consumed to assure good fortune the world over. In the southern United States, one eats blackeyed peas to "start the year off right." I've been inventing dishes featuring blackeyed peas every January for a few years now, but this year I decided to rework an ethnic southern mainstay known as "Hoppin' John."

For the original Hoppin' John, the peas are first boiled with ham hocks. Separately, chopped ham, onions, peppers, celery, carrots, and garlic are fried in oil or lard before adding water or broth and chopped collard greens. Then the cooked peas are added, ham hocks and all, and the mixture is simmered until everything is tender. The soup (or stew) is served with cooked rice and chopped fresh tomatoes and scallions.

For my hog-free version, I used a little smoked paprika and smoked salt to give it that smokehouse flavor. Some people like to use "liquid smoke" for this sort of thing, but I'm leery of artificial flavorings, especially ones that don't list their ingredients.

Unfortunately, collard greens were not available where I live (I searched at five markets without success), which was a shame for a couple of reasons--one, they're delicious and a favorite of mine at any time of year; and two, because the stacked green leaves are thought to represent money, eating them on New Year's is supposed to bring big bucks (which I could really use right about now). I switched out the collards for kale--a limp substitute, I know, but a healthy one nonetheless. I grew up in Mexico, where improvisation is a way of life, so this bothered me not one bit.

To keep things light, I skipped the rice at serving time, but kept the tomatoes and scallions. I had used both serrano and jalapeño chiles, but I'd seeded them first, in deference to any tender-tongued guests who might otherwise have encountered too much heat for comfort. To compensate, I passed the ol' Sriracha around.

Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy this classic soul food, and I hope it brings us all good luck. Personally, I don't really believe in luck--at least not the capricious kind that comes in the form of good and bad. I don't believe in bad luck at all, because even the so-called "bad" things that have happened to me have all eventually led to good things, not the least of which is the present moment where I live and breathe. I think bad luck is nothing more than a limited perspective--one that excludes the unfathomable good fortune of being alive in a human body, which, if you have your head screwed on right, is the luckiest possible situation that could ever be. So I guess I do believe in good luck--why? Because I've had it every day of my life.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Compassionate Christmas Dinner

It's a good thing, and I'm all for it, but no, I wasn't referring to compassion for animals. I'm working the other side of the street--the human side--where, I believe, compassion needs to begin in order to be ultimately effective. Truly, genuine compassion--like love, forgiveness, kindness, peace, and every other good thing--begins with the self. It's a simple premise: If I can't love myself, I can't love anyone else either.

So, on that premise, I decided to buck the system this year and blow off making a traditional Christmas dinner (along with a salad for myself, as usual). Instead, I went for broke and came up with a four-course all-plant menu that all twelve diners could enjoy, including me. This way, I got to eat the same thing as everyone else, and they got to eat a feast that didn't leave them lying around like beached whales afterwards. Zero cholesterol, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables. Here's how it went:

I began with an "Artichoke Caponata" that included fresh globe artichokes, onion, garlic, capers, preserved lemon, Sicilian olives, parsley, and of course, EVOO, salt and pepper. I served it on individual hors d'oeuvre plates with crostini. Sorry, no photo--I actually shot the plates the next day, using leftovers, and we ate all of the caponata. Moving along...

Following the appetizer, I served a brand new soup I developed recently when I was trying to make a butternut squash soup that doesn't taste like every other butternut squash soup.

I diced a giant yellow onion and sauteed it in coconut oil until soft and just beginning to color. I stirred in a ridiculous amount of minced garlic and four roasted, peeled, and diced red peppers, and continued cooking for several minutes. Then I added a small butternut squash and a couple of garnet yams, diced, along with Celtic salt and a little smoked paprika. Once the vegetables were nicely coated with oil and spices, I added a couple liters of water, a few bay leaves, and vegetable bouillon cubes. I got it boiling, lowered the heat to very low, covered the pot, and let it cook for about an hour. At this point everything was supersoft. I blasted the contents of the pot (minus the bay leaves) in a blender until very smooth and returned it to the pot. Then I added a pinch of saffron threads, a little ground hot red chile, freshly ground black pepper, and a bit more salt.

I reheated the soup on medium-low and stirred until the saffron's aroma began to penetrate. I served the soup in small bowls, garnished with snipped chives. No one knew what kind of soup it was until I told them--at which point there were epiphanous utterances of "oh...yeah...mmm!"

The main course was more complicated. I had decided on using beluga lentils, for two reasons: one. I love their color, taste and texture; and two, because these tiny black lentils are originally from Syria, and I thought a little solidarity with our oppressed Syrian brethren would be a good thing. I sauteed a large amount of diced fennel in EVOO until lightly browned on the edges and then stirred in the lentils, until coated with the oil. Then I added water and vegetable bouillon cubes and simmered until the lentils were tender (at my elevation, this took about an hour). Just before serving, I stirred in an ounce of absinthe, for good measure.

To serve, I browned large Portobello mushroom caps, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then finished them in the oven. I placed a cap in the center of each plate, concave side up, and filled it with the lentils.I surrounded them with four vegetable dishes:

Rapini, coarsely chopped, blanched, and sauteed in EVOO with garlic and Aleppo pepper (spicy and very flavorful, also from Syria).

Carrots and Parsnips, julienned and roasted with coconut oil.

Cauliflower and Beets, roasted with red onion and fresh thyme. I've usually served this as a salad, but of course it worked well served hot.

Sauteed Mushrooms, with a little coconut oil, splashes of aged balsamic and a few chunks of dark chocolate. Most people would never guess there was chocolate in there, but as soon as you tell them, you can see the light bulb coming to life in their heads. I love surprising people's palates that way.

A garnish of fresh thyme sprigs, a drizzle of chive oil, and a sprinkling of snipped chives completed the plate.

For dessert, I warmed pitted bing cherries with a little palm sugar, some crushed cardamom seeds, and a healthy slug of kirsch. I spooned them into bowls and placed a scoop of vanilla "Coconut Bliss" ice cream in the middle. Earlier, I had piped a batch of chocolate peace signs and dusted them with edible gold; I laid one on top of the ice cream for a crowning touch. I served dessert with a homemade spiced-pear brandy liqueur, which one of my nephews described as "like Christmas in your mouth."

When everyone was pleasantly sated--but not overstuffed--I announced that "No animals were harmed in the making of this meal." Compassion, come full-circle.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Has It Really Been A Whole Month?

Rhetorical question. It's been a tumultuous roller coaster of a month, so I know all too well how long it's been since my last post. Anyway, I'm back and I have a lot of catching up to do! To my regular readers, thanks for coming back! To everyone else, welcome!

For today, I'm inviting you to check out my monthly column on One Green Planet--while people are still wishing one another a "Happy New Year," thinking about how they need to shed bad habits and finally get it right. Click the link:

Tomorrow, I'll be backtracking a couple of weeks to show the four-course vegan feast for twelve people that I made for Christmas dinner. The day after, I'll put up a dish I made for New Year's Day. Then I'll launch into the present (my favorite time) and try to keep that up.

Something tells me 2012 is going to be a rocking year...

Thanks again to all, for continuing to read my stuff--especially those of you who were visiting in the last month, reading older posts.