punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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moroccan roasted vegetables

The markets and orchards of Central New York are swollen with colors more vibrant than a box of Lucky Charms. From procuring ingredients for my first salsa to picking apples with visiting family, all this bounty has kept me busy.

And then there was Saturday night’s excursion to the bedimmed Manlius Theater to see Food, Inc., a new documentary on the evils of the modern food industry. There were the expected appearances by Michael Pollan and his crony EricSchlosser of Fast Food Nation. There were undercover slaughterhouse cameras and dejected farmers. There was an appearance by the grieving mother of a 2-year-old poisoned by contaminated ground beef.

There were as many “corporation X refused to comment for this film” as there were new reasons to eat real food.

Check out this quote by Pollan on the backwardness of the modern food industry:

It’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot … the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters. Watch out for those health claims.

We have a warped system where Coke and Doritos are more affordable than the ingredients for a salad. We sit blindly by while a handful of corporations mess with our kitchens. I watch documentaries like King Corn and Food, Inc., and still it’s hard to say no sometimes to chicken wings. Ignorance may truly be bliss, but for me a daily commitment to  real, raw, unprocessed food brings a more continuous joy.

Take these delicious Moroccan roasted vegetables, an idea lifted from my old standby, the Moosewood New Classics. Plain old yam wrested from the earth, shiny purple eggplant and zucchini from a local farmer, red pepper and onion all tossed with lemon juice and the fire-colored spices of northern Africa. Easy as chopping, seasoning and baking, this saucy mix yields enough to last for a few days.

Better than the lack of additives and sweeteners was the simplicity of flavors. The original Happy Meal was never patented and is not sold along suburban byways. It’s right here, in our fields and on our plates.

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free-form barley salad

A few months ago I stumbled across this quote from Andrew Sullivan, senior editor at The Atlantic. It perfectly captures what I like about blogging, and by extension, cooking. He says

“Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics.

More free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive.

Blogging is writing out lout.”

Though I love to follow an elegantly-written recipe, free-form cooking offers thrills I just can’t resist from time to time. Just like extreme sports, it’s more accident prone (What if I over spice? What if the flavors don’t mix?), less formal (a pinch of this a handful of that), more alive.  It’s not the product of another’s experimentation, but a process—a story—of your very own.

Spontanous cooking is sexy. Watching anyone at home in their trade shows this ease of skill, this compelling deftness. A lemon is juiced over a salad glistening with oil. The heel of hands push into soft dough. A spoon meets a pink mouth for the first taste.

To cook this way is to be attuned to the senses.

I’ve just returned to Syracuse from almost a month at home in Winnipeg. Spending winter break there is always wonderful, but requires it’s share of adjustments. Life, and eating, is so different there than it is ’round here on our own: There is more accountability. There is more time spent in cars. There is a whole lot more food.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. Every eggnog-soaked, shortbreak-cookie stacked second. Waking up to my mom’s pillowy poppyseed buns swirled with sticky black decadence. Eating proper lunches every day (usually I just healthy-snack all day). Drinking wine almost every evening. Multiple-dish dinners followed by trays of sugar and butter, dressed up ten or more different ways. Around every corner, someone else wanting to please. Love shown in material provision, food preparation, with joy laced through like silver threads.

A journey back into that world always makes me thankful to return to my own kitchen, in control of what and how I eat.  Sure, it’s more work. Sure, it’s not as scrumptiously lazy. But my heart did jump last night when Mark accepted a dinner invite and offered to bring a salad. I was on it. I couldn’t wait to get my hands back on my food.

I put that urge together with some barley, a roasted acorn squash, an apple, some chickpeas, toasted walnuts, cilantro, currants, and other random cupboard samplings. The salad morphed and changed at my fingertips as I pinched and dashed, sprinkled and salted.

Then I stepped back. My welcome-back to your health, probably-not-perfect barley salad stared back at me from the bowl. But in a way, around a small table in very snowy Syracuse, it was perfect.

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purple protein salad

Now that reading magazines counts as school work, I’m amassing them more quickly than ever. Despite my rather obsessive collection of food magazines, when I saw this salad splashed across the cover of Vegetarian Times, I had no second thoughts about shelling out the five bucks.

Not usually one drawn to potato salads, this one promised something new. As opposed to the dominantly creamy and heavy versions, this one is fresh and light–perfect for the transition from summer to fall.

Another plug for the salad: it got me through at least a week of on-the-go eating that characterizes grad school. It’s delicious at room temperature too, making it an excellent traveler between classes and interviews. Each time I’d open my plastic container and see those amethyst potatoes glistening in olive oil a wave of comfort in the face of mounting stress would wash over me. Cafeteria food just doesn’t have quite the same effect.

I’m not a huge potato lover, but I do love how in this picture you can almost see the growth, as in an oak tree’s rings. Beneath the russet skin, purple flesh tells of nutrient-rich soil. Speckles and veins are revealed by the swift glide of a knife, leaving little chunks ready to be dressed.

Edamame, or young soy beans, are one of the healthiest ways to get your soy. While there is much debate about the health benefits of soy, most researchers agree that soy in it’s “whole food” form is almost indisputably positive.

Miso, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame are considered “traditional” soy foods. Prominent soy researcher Mark Messina recommends no more than two servings of these forms of soy to maintain safe estrogen and phytic acid levels. With soy as with everything, moderation is key.

One thing I do know about these beans is that they’re delicious. They’re meaty and bright green, while being high in good-quality protein. Tossed together with cabbage, garden tomatoes, chickpeas and a simple dressing, they surpass their destiny as mere appetizer to sushi. You can find them in your grocery’s frozen section, conveniently shelled and rearin’ to go.

If you find yourself feeling grey, try this little rainbow feast. Continue reading

a bowl of spring and olive oil

My shoulders are lightly pink from running a race yesterday in Ithaca, Central New York’s sunniest of towns. (This is the place that collectively banned Wal-Mart from setting up shop — thus holding my cultural allegiance and continued patronship.) With temperatures hovering around 15 Celsius, the past two days have seen their share of rolled down windows, bike rides, hammocks and barbeques. (The latter two sent my way care of friends.)

Though I’ve cooked asparagus already — how unseasonal of me, I know— it’s time to officially welcome it into my repertoire as a spring staple. Woody stalks and blossoming tips, you are hereby declared most esteemed guest of dinners to come.

I’ve been inspired lately by Heidi’s healthy-looking goodies over at 101 Cookbooks, and so chose to indulge my asparagus fancies with one of her rice-bowl recipes. I must say that I wasn’t thrilled with the last two things I made from her blog (this is likely due to my own shortcomings and not her lack of culinary finesse), but was determined to find something in her wholesome foods database that would turn out as earthy and natural looking as her photos proclaimed. The chosen dish seemed like a smooth transition from a rice n’ beans winter to a fresh green spring.

Settling on a dinner that promised to come together in ten minutes (after cooking the rice) I got to work chopping onions, garlic and asparagus, and whisking tahini, garlic and lemon juice. It wasn’t until I was finished that I realized its uncanny similarity to another salad I featured on this here little site. Oh well, guess I’m a sucker for the nutty tartness of tahini- kissed chickpeas staring up at me like a pile of suns shining on my plate. (I might’ve clocked in at 13 or so minutes, a forgivable offense if there ever was one.)

What I wish to share with you tonight is a twofold lesson. One, experiment with rice, my friends. There are some darn good ones out there. For those of you in Syracuse, Wegman’s carries the Lundberg Family Farms’ line of ecologically- and sustainably-farmed rice blends. For this recipe I used their (very affordable) Wehani brown rice. If the following recipe doesn’t convince you, maybe the fact that it smells like pumpkin pie while it cooks will. (Also check out Han’s market for their massive bags of Thai black rice and other pretty shades of the ubiquitous white grain.)

Secondly, I want to talk about oil. Olive, coconut, safflower, sesame, walnut, peanut, flaxseed — it’s like a Romantic poem in the making. And frankly, this ever-expanding list of oils to try is starting to confuse me. Each with its own unique smoke point, health benefits, balance of omega-3s, etcetera etcetera, it’s all left me floundering. I’m going to try to be patient with myself and let my oil knowledge evolve at a natural pace.

But making tonight’s dinner taught me that what I’ve been reading about olive oil at least is correct. And that is that extra virgin olive oil is best consumed raw, in terms of taste and nutrition. I won’t bore you with all the technical talk about free radicals and fatty acids, saving my words instead for the veneration of olive oil as garnish: when a bite of tonight’s dinner proved a little dry, instead of adding more dressing I tried crowning it with a drizzle of olive oil — a technique applauded in cookbooks and on health websites. What followed was what you’d expect if all the flavours of the dish joined hands with a particle of silky butter and proceeded to tango all over my mouth.

When you bring virgin or first (cold)-pressed olive oil to high temperatures, you miss out on the liquid perfume that it truly is. In Alice Waters’ words, “It is simply a waste to expose extra virgin oil to the direct heat of a pan as its fruity character and color are soon lost.” Alternately, olive oil under the name “pure” is made from extracting the oil through other methods and then refining it. Refined oils are actually better to cook with, as they are already “accustomed” to heat. I will probably continue to cook with my liquid gold, given the industrial-sized tin of it we bought last fall (apparently another no-no), but will now consider it a tabletop companion to my salt and pepper shakers. Try it on grilled or steamed veggies, salads and appetizers, grilled meats, and drizzled over soups and pasta.

I keep olive oil, along with balsamic vinegar, in empty wine bottles with pour tops fitted into the necks. I stole this idea from a friend, and love its convenience and stylishness.

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a few small threads

It may not feel much like spring, but eating flowers might be a provisional substitute for smelling them. It will do, for awhile. This flower, or rather its papery crimson stigmas, has been sitting in my cupboard for almost a year now, summoning me to release its captive aromas.

It is the rare and venerable saffron of which I speak. An exquisite and expensive spice that, were it not for a trip to India, might have never wound up in my hands, let alone my dinner.

Finally it was time. I reached behind the basil, cayenne and turmeric into the shadows of my spice shelf where the clear case sat, modest as a box of matches. Almost one year ago now I carried that tiny treasure chest all the way home from a spice stall in a Jodhpur market. The experts say I should’ve used it by now, but sometimes I forget what good things I have and how to best appreciate them.

I knew I had tasted saffron before, but could not recall its particular feel on my tongue or the way it whirled madly between nostrils and tastebuds. I wanted to use it right, and I was afraid. The delicately canvas of rice, or something more complex? Would sweet or savoury best highlight its essence? Would meat overpower? Which vegetable would be most companionable?

And then I stopped worrying and remembered that when a dish is born out of a desire to celebrate and create, it matters not that it’s perfect but that it brims with pleasure. As I tossed a pinch of this valuable spice into a pan of humble chickpeas and tomatoes simmering gaily on the stove, it just seemed right. The noble saffron threads kissed the peasant stew, and I bent over the aroma expectantly. My Kashmiri saffron would taste just fine, while reminding me of the rare things in this world: from love and camaraderie to being able to taste the threads from a crocus that grow only three per flower.

 

Served with basmati rice, it may not have been authentically Spanish, but with some crab cakes leftover from a great party on the weekend, it made a simple and nourishing meal. In the future I might crown it with some grilled prawns or scallops. With my last bite came a wave of anticipation for weaving those frail red threads again and again.

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Spoony Sundays #1: Moroccan Stew

I’ve decided to start fresh cracked pepper’s first ever weekly series. I’m not sure how long this series will last, I’ll have to wait and see what kind of ratings it gets. I’m thinking I’ll keep it around as long as the weather stays wintry though.

And so I present to you, the first episode of Spoony* Sundays. Every Sunday I will post on soup — sippable slurpable, sweet or savory, stew-like or silky. Whether or not they turn out, they’ll be here. The winners and the losers together will parade on Sundays’ pages, and I will offer commentary on their individual merit. I’ll post on as many or as few as I’ve been able to try that week.

*spoony SPOO-nee, adjective:

1. Foolish; silly; excessively sentimental.

2. Foolishly or sentimentally in love.

Soup is easy, versatile, and the perfect leftover, with its flavours mellowing and blending with age. This week I bring you a Morroccan Stew whose name I can’t take credit for, but which I’ve made countless times. It’s always a pleaser, with its West-African inspired groundnut warmth and meaty sweet potato chunks. Its secret ingredient is the perfect protein supplement for vegetarians.

This is the kind of soup I often have all the ingredients for, chilling out in my cupboards and fridge. It’s often come through for me in times of potluck need, and it resembles a soup that’s become a bit of a joke between my hubby and I: We dined on it together years ago at a mutual friend’s, before we were married. The funny part is that it was a double date — he and his girlfriend at the time and me and mine. Boyfriend, that is.

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