Thursday, July 28, 2011

Magenta Lentil Salad OR A Love Note to Slow Absorption Cooking

I have a beet problem. I have trouble resisting the urge to sneak them into all sorts of dishes for the sheer glee of turning them magenta. As far as childish impulses go, you could really do much worse. I love their sweet, earthy flavor, and, in addition to a crazy magenta hue, beets are loaded with nutrients: all kinds of antioxidants, detoxifiers, and anti-inflammatory compounds, not to mention sizeable helpings of folate, potassium and fiber (see here for more on beet nutrition). Also, many of them break down in heat or are in the skin, so my silly, lazy addition of raw, unpeeled, crazy purple beet looks like a solid decision rather than a fun one. You still get crazy fun magenta salad, though.

I've been making it with honey and topping it with chevre, but that's easily changed to make it vegan.

Magenta Lentil Salad
Grain/Gluten-Free, Optionally Vegan

  • 1 c. brown lentils
  • 1 c. urad dal (whole) ← you can sub green/French lentils for either or both of these
  • 1 small/med. beet, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5-6 leaves kale, stemmed and cut into thin ribbons
  • 1 smallish cucumber (5-6"), seeded and cut into ½” cubes
  • 1 scallion, sliced
  • 3-4 sprigs mint (10-15 leaves), minced
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-2 Tblsp. honey/agave syrup
  • 2 Tblsp. olive oil
  • zest & juice of one lemon
  • ½ jalapeƱo pepper, seeded & minced (optional)
  • 2-3 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
Cook lentils in separate pots: for each, rinse and add water to cover plus enough to reach to the first knuckle on your index finger for brown, to second knuckle for urad. Cover and bring to a boil. Let the brown lentils boil for about 5 minutes, add ½ tsp salt, then remove from heat. Let the urad dal boil about 15 minutes, add ½ tsp salt then remove from heat. Let sit for at least 45 min. to an hour (you can do this overnight!). You can cook them however you like, but this cooking method helps keep the lentils from over-cooking. In winter dishes, I like cooking my lentils to mush (and usually prefer mushier red lentil or split mung bean), but in summer dishes I like a toothier bean.

Prep veggies and herbs and mix together in a 3 qt or larger bowl. Mix together dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Add dressing and lentils to bowl and toss.

Crumbling in some plain chevre takes it up another level, but it's pretty good without, too.

A little more about Slow Absorption Cooking

I don't know if there's a more official appellation for this cooking method, but "slow absorption" seems to cover it pretty well. The basic principle of it is that you bring a grain or legume to a boil in a covered pot of water, let it boil for a short while, then remove it from the heat and let it coast. It's a fabulous strategy when you're trying to minimize the amount of time the stove is on, but it does require a little more forethought. On the other hand, it requires direct attention for less time. I often set up a pot of lentils or rice right before I go to bed. It's great: I bring it to a boil, turn it off, go to bed and wake up to it perfectly cooked. Sometimes I don't quite know what I'm going to do with it when I start, but there's roughly 210 things to do with a pot of cooked rice, so I don't worry about finding a use for it. You can even make a whole meal this way, but that's a story for another day.

Friday, July 22, 2011

(Almost) Instant Gratification Lettuce Wrap Burrito

At Amundsen-Scott Station in Antarctica, it's -80°F. They expect a high of -53° today. Almost sounds nice; it's 98° in the shade today, here. This means a lot more when you live in a second-floor apartment and are too stubborn to get an AC unit. I realize the price of my stubbornness is that I don't get to whine about it, so here's a short list of what I'm doing instead:
  1. Flauting common modesty conventions
  2. Drinking electric blue lemonade
  3. Star-shaped ice cubes: they make every cold thing better
  4. Wading with the dog (I have yet to resort to her strategy of digging up some cool dirt in a shady spot)
  5. Going to visit air-conditioning
  6. Breaking out the ice-cream maker
  7. Eating food that requires the stove being on as little as possible
It's on this last point that we dwell for now. Summer food for me rotates around my half of CSA share at Mountainview Farm, exactly a mile from my house. Not only am I supporting a local farm and visiting my growing food, but makes really good economical sense. I teach, so I don't get paid in the summer. Paying a nominal amount up front means I don't have to hang around the grocery store or farmers market in August deciding I can't afford fresh vegetables, much less fresh, local ones. The fee amounts to roughly $12/week for the 22 weeks from the beginning of June through the beginning of October, for a crazy quantity of tasty veggies, responsibly grown locally. It does behoove me to get creative in order to make the most of what's there, though.
The good news is that vegetables like this like to speak for themselves. Lightly sauteed summer squash and sweet onion mixed with black beans, rice and umami-rich yeast spread wrapped in fresh lettuce leaves.

(Almost) Instant Gratification Lettuce Wrap Burrito
(vegan, gluten-free)

Serves 2 hungry people or 3-4 not so hungry folks
  • 1 med. or 1/2 large zucchini (normal large, not New England large)
  • 1 med. or 1/2 large fresh onion
  • 1-2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 Tblsp Magical Spice Blend
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed

  • 1½ c. cooked rice (1/2 c. dry), cold, leftover rice is fine, if not better

  • 10-15 lettuce leaves
Slice onion into moderate julienne (¼" thick). Cut zucchini into sticks about ¼" thick and 2" long. Heat a heavy skillet on high almost to smoking. Add olive oil, then onion. Keep it moving for 5-10 sec. then stir/toss occasionally over the next minute or so. Add about half the garlic and the zucchini. Sprinkle with salt and spice blend. Stir/toss occasionally for the next minute or two. Add the rinsed beans and the rest of the garlic. Stir it up, then turn it off. I mixed up about ¾ c. each of rice and the veggies & beans and a big spoonful (maybe a tablespoon) of tasty yeasty goo (see below), and sat down with that and a head of lettuce. I ripped the leaves right off, spooned a generous helping of filling on and wrapped it like a burrito: folded up the top of the leaf, then the sides and ate it stem first without dumping its cargo all over the plate. So simple, so summery and so satisfying. And the damn stove didn't have to be on for more than five minutes. I also made a version of this with leftover rotisserie chicken in place of the beans which I can also heartily recommend.

Tasty Yeasty Goo

The savory flavor of nutritional yeast, believe it or not, reminds me of being a little kid and dumping it on all sorts of things: popcorn, broccoli, pasta. To this day, a plate of spaghetti with nutritional yeast, butter and soy sauce is enough to send my inner 8 year old into joyous rapture and popcorn isn't popcorn without it. Later on, I found I wasn't the only person who flipped out over the stuff that way. A sauce similar to this one forms the basis of many good vegan mac n' cheese recipes, and like many good alternatives to something else, it's disappointing if you expect it to taste exactly the same, but pretty damn tasty in its own right. Also, it'll keep well in the fridge for at least a week, maybe more. A batch has yet to last long enough to find out.
    Mix together until smooth:
  • 1/4 c. nutritional yeast
  • 1 Tblsp soy sauce
  • 1½ tsp. Mustard (I used Trader Joe's yellow mustard - you may want to adjust this if you're using a stronger-tasting mustard)
  • 1 Tblsp tahini
  • 1 Tblsp water

Magical Spice Blend

I decided this needed its own post, as it will come up over and over again. It has its origins in a "Cajun" blend I ground up at one point to use with some catfish. I had leftover and found myself throwing it onto damn near everything**, partially because I liked it, but also because it conveniently contained many of the spices I find myself reaching for all the time. So when I ran out, I made more. It's evolved somewhat since then, and changes occasionally due to lack of ingredient, but it continues to have a combination of cumin, fennel, thyme, and black and red pepper at its core, with some kind of smoky-flavored element.

As I mentioned, I use it all over the place, but it's particularly good on anything that would go in a burrito, though that may not be very descriptive coming from me: I'll stick just about anything in a burrito.
    Grind together in a spice grinder***:
  • 1 Tblsp whole cumin seed
  • 1 Tblsp whole fennel seed
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp whole black pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flake OR 1 dry chipotle (not the kind that comes in sauce)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika*
  • 1 large or 2 small dried shiitake mushroom*
*I know not everyone keeps these around, and I've put this together without them, but each adds a lot, and are worth digging up. Smoked paprika, which adds a richly smoky, lightly sweet flavor that I'm in love with, can be found at reasonable prices online if you can't find it locally. Dried shiitake mushrooms are a stellar source of natural glutamates, bringing out the savory flavors in even the simplest ingredients. If you have an Asian grocery nearby, you can pick them up there, but otherwise, check online.

**I once had a student who decided to sprinkle some on each and every element of his lunch one day. He declared it particularly good on the apple.

***We keep two separate coffee grinders: one for coffee and one for spices. When I was living on my own, I used the same grinder for coffee and spices, rarely minding a little bleed-over between the two. For those who want their coffee to taste like coffee and their spices to taste like spices, though, you can try a quick wipe with a dry towel or grinding a small amount of something cheap and neutral-flavored (I use a tablespoon or two of oats when I need to do this) to clear the grinder's palette.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Extra Happy Theory

Once upon a time there was a bowl of noodles. The bowl of noodles was as sad as noodles could be, because it was very plain. Two giants (at least, giants by a noodle's standard) came and decided to lift the noodles out of their sad, plain existence. The two giants promised to transform the noodles into richly dressed sesame noodles. However, the giants could not agree upon how the sauce should be made. The mountains vibrated with their ongoing discourse, the noodles jiggled with the vibration. Eventually the two giants, who were sisters, agreed that each should make her own version of the dish and that they would compare afterwards to decide whose version was better. Each set to work, collecting a little bit of this and a little bit of that (and some of that other thing). They mixed their sauces. They ran out to the garden to get a little more of this herb or that. And then, each had her own bowl of fragrant, glistening noodles. They each tried some of their own bowl, then some of the other's. In the other's version, each found it lacking in some flavor, but also containing some note their own had missed. Eventually, they gave up and mixed the two separately-conceived versions together. There was a flash of opalescent aquamarine light and a sound of chimes and squishy noodle-mixing. Both found this combined version to be greater than the sum of its parts.

And so was born the Extra Happy Theory.

The Extra Happy Theory: We balance each other pretty well. In fact, whatever we make, chances are it'll be better if you mix our two ideas together, before or after it's made.


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