Saturday, August 25, 2012

Spicy Tomato Peach Jam: Convergent Evolution?

One of my favorite writers, magical realist godfather Jorge Luis Borges, has a short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (in Spanish; in English), which describes the efforts of a writer to rewrite the classic Don Quixote. Menard wishes not simply to reinterpret the story in his own words, but to cause himself to produce Cervantes' exact text, even if only a few pages thereof. He rejects his initial approach, "[to] know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes," as too simple, and decides instead, "to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard." For additional absurdity, the story is presented as an obituary of sorts for Menard, who never actually existed.

I was put in mind of this yesterday when I spontaneously recreated a recipe I had merely skimmed during initial research for a tomato jam I decided to make after coming home from the farm with an entire flat of tomatoes. Given, this is a much less onerous task than recreating Quixote; there's a reason you can't copyright a list of ingredients. And, in truth, a list of ingredients is not a recipe.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Russian Eggplant "Caviar"

I recently lost my main Russian grocery hookup when the last of my stepmother's family pulled up roots from their largely Russian Northeast Philly neighborhood. Our shared background in Russian Studies has been a major bonding point for us. I first met her shortly before I started studying Russian towards the end of high school and she was a big part of my reassuring my parents that it was perfectly fine to send me off to Central Asian parts of the former USSR back in 2002, based on her own experiences in the USSR in the late 70s/early 80s (my parents have never leaned towards being overprotectively alarmist, but anywhere ending in -stan raised a high eyebrow that close to 9/11 and the beginning of US involvement in Afghanistan). A couple times a year, she'd call to say, "Hey, I'm going to visit my mom for a few days. You want anything from Bell's?" (referring Bell's Market, the go-to Russian store in Philly). We'd go on for a few minutes about all the different kinds of frozen dumplings, smoked fish, cold salads and baked goods available there, which inevitably turned into reminiscences of particular meals and dishes from our travels. Every culture has its notable culinary adventures, but Russian culture in particular seems to keep the kitchen table at its heart. I'm reminded of a toast in honor of the kitchen table from Dennis Danvers's novel, The Watch:
"The Kitchen the site of all that's best in Man—his sociability, his intellect, his good humor, and his generosity—not a monument to death but a celebration of living, not the theft of life but its sharing, not the jingoistic cant that generally passes for history but here and now, together in solidarity, this very moment! I give you: The Kitchen Table!"
This toast is delivered by none less than Peter Kropotkin, or at least a fictional, time-traveling version of him, though I could imagine a similar proclamation coming from the man himself.

In any event, one of the Russian specialties that we always lingered over was баклажанная икра (bak⋅la⋅zhan'na⋅ya i⋅kra'), which literally translates as, "eggplant caviar." For all that it's called "caviar," baklazhannaya ikra is a totally vegan "salad" (Russian salads rarely involve leaves) made of eggplant, tomato, pepper, onion and carrot slow-cooked together to savory perfection and seasoned with the only two herbs that really matter in Russian cuisine, dill and parsley

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quick Hits: Lentil, Herb & Feta Stuffed Tomatoes

The months of drooling, rhapsodic fantasies about perfectly-ripened field tomatoes have finally given way to a flood of them. It's not an overabundance; that would imply too much. The simple joy of slicing a tomato, sprinkling it with salt and maybe drizzling a little olive oil over it hasn't gotten old yet, but there's so much more to do with tomatoes before you even get to cooking them. I tossed together this fresh-stuffed tomato using some left over odds and ends recently and was so excited about it that I had to recreate it and write it down to share.

The dish is built around a protein-rich lentil and grain stuffing, simply flavored with a healthy handful of fresh herbs, a little feta, and the guts of the scooped-out tomato. It may look like a salad, but it eats like a meal.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quick Hits: Pickled Radishes

When I teach square roots and other math involving radicals, I take great pleasure in putting little radishes on all of my handouts. It's a place where my odd sense of humor can bring together my nerdy loves of language, math and food. The point of connection is this: both radish and radical derive from the same Latin word, radix, meaning "root."

For all of my love of the linguistic spin-out of radishes, though, I'm a little lukewarm on eating them, at least the red European varieties. It's a little puzzling to me, because all of the words I put together to describe the flavor of such radishes are usually words common to foods I really like: spicy, peppery, mustardy, crisp. I like daikon radish fairly well, but it's almost more of a texture than a taste. What would the Fraggles think?

Earlier in the summer, I ended up with several bunches of radishes from my farm share and while dragging my feet and feeling bad about not using them, decided to look up pickled radish recipes. After reading a number of recipes, I put together a radish refrigerator pickle and hoped for the best. After letting them sit for a few days, I pulled them out. The bright color of the radish skin had leached out into the brine, giving it the vivid red tone of generic fruit punch. I tasted them and was initially disappointed: the radishy taste was still there, thinly veiled with salty vinegar. I put them back in the fridge, hoping, as with the fresh radishes, that they would magically transform into something I liked.

About a week later I was making some tuna salad and, on a whim, pulled out the radish pickles again, chopped some up, and added them to the salad, where they ended up being the star. Suddenly, I was looking for things to include them in. That was really the key: they go in things, not on their own. Since then, they have improved burritos, falafel, and a variety of cold salads. I'm almost out, and I may even go out and buy more radishes to make more pickles.

    Refrigerator Radish Pickles

    raw, vegan, gluten/grain-free
  • 1½-2 c. sliced red radishes (8-12 radishes, depending on size)
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced or smashed
  • 1 c. cider vinegar
  • ½ tsp whole black peppercorns
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
Put the vinegar, salt and sugar in a pint jar, put the lid on and shake vigorously until salt and sugar are dissolved. Add sliced radishes, garlic and peppercorns. Replace the lid and put the jar in the fridge. Allow pickles to sit for at least 5 days before using.

Serve in a sandwich, falafel, or burrito or add to tuna salad.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Can I Call it Kimchi? vol. 2

Do you ever get the impression that the contents of your fridge are judging you? That the longer an item has been there, the harsher its critique? Or is that just me?

A surprisingly high proportion of my cooking and eating habits are based around trying to make it up to that half cabbage languishing in the vegetable drawer or that barely-scooped pint of rice that came with the take-out food and has outlasted its compatriots, or whatever else is languishing forlornly in there, in the cold and the dark. Okay, so maybe I'm overdramatizing things, but I'm also making myself feel guilty digging into that overanalysis of why I hate wasting food.

But I digress. Pickling is a great solution to this important moral dilemma on just about every front. Not only is a great direction for leftovers, namely those tragic survivors of the vegetable drawer, but, once pickled they stay good for far longer, meaning you can take them off the fridge worry list. You might even be more inclined to use them.

My first adventure with kimchi late last summer really opened it up as a flexible, accessible, exciting framework, both in research and in practice.


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