A global stew from my San Francisco kitchen

Global Stew

Global Stew

Once you learn a new method of cooking it can lead to a bit of an explosion of ideas. The new method in this case is the one I wrote about in this post about red kidney beans—it is about cooking beans in a slow cooker or low oven, over six hours. It has all the virtues of crockpot cooking, which is that you set it and forget it; and requires no prep such as soaking, sautéing, except stuffing all ingredients into the pot. Even tough beans that one normally soaks overnight and then pressure-cooks succumb to the slow but steady blandishments of the oven.

Well, there is no reason, obviously, to limit oneself to that one recipe. Here I experimented with a set of ingredients drawn from a variety of regions of the world, that all came together in my Bay Area kitchen.

Global stew with polanta

Global stew with polanta

There is the black-eyed pea, ancestrally African, which itself is a bit of a global traveler, having found its way to Northern India as an occasional character actor, and to the New World on slave ships.

There is the cranberry, that Native Americans first explored the use of and now is a staple of the American Thanksgiving feast.

Pine nuts are a staple of Italian cooking, but the pine is a pretty widespread tree, so their use is known all over the globe. In the Americas, there are treaties that protect the right of Native American tribes to harvest them. In China, a certain species of pine nut has been known to ‘disappear’ your taste (temporarily) and leave a bitter metallic one in its place.

The use of the bay leaf I learned at my mother’s knee; while the use of tomato paste came from my mother-in-law. Butternut squash is my husband’s favorite, and happens to be one of those vegetables that were made by humans by crossing two of nature’s somewhat problematic products—in this case, the gangly gooseneck squash and the ginormous Hubbard.

Spinach on the other hand is just spinach.

On we go. Notice how short the ‘method’ part of the recipe is.

Global Stew

This can be eaten as a hearty soup, or a stew, with some soft rolls or crusty bread on the side. We enjoyed it with polenta. It would also make a very nice all-in-one side for a steak or chicken for a paleo type of meal. None of the beans or the squash turn completely into mush, which is nice; but they are completely tender and cooked through.

butternut squash layer

butternut squash layer

More ingredients

More ingredients

All ingredients layered on

All ingredients layered on

After six hours in the oven

After six hours in the oven

Yum....

Stirred. Yum….

Global stew

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup black-eyed peas (dried beans)
  • 1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups spinach
  • 1/2 onion, diced small
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/4 cup tomato sauce or 1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pinenuts
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups water
Method:

Layer all the ingredients (order not important) in a dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Put it in an oven heated to 250ºF for six hours. Take it out, give it a gentle stir, and serve.


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Is it a wrap? A donkey? No–it’s a superbaby…burrito!

Made-from-scratch burrito

Made-from-scratch burrito

When I was new to California, Indian friends who had arrived before me told me eagerly about the exciting new cuisines they had sampled around the Bay Area. It became a bit of a parlor game to find the cuisine ‘most like Indian food’ — which meant, in practice, the most highly flavored with spices. People mentioned Thai food and Ethiopian food as contenders. One strong contender that kept coming up was the Mexican burrito.

Of course, I was told about it from an Indian point of view. Imagine this, friends told me, rice and dal wrapped inside a roti! What could be better! The ‘dal’ in question was refried beans and the ‘roti’ was a tortilla. My friends were talking about the Mission Burrito (=’little donkey’), a fat wrap invented in San Francisco from Mexican ingredients, a cheap and healthful all-in-one meal.

The Mission Burrito is meant to be customized. You stand at the counter while your food server moves through an assembly line with a tortilla laid flat in front of her. You can choose or decline each ingredient. Rice is in. You choose your meat, or none. You choose your beans. I quickly learned that I preferred black beans to refried or whole pinto beans. Shredded iceberg lettuce and cheese are usually turned down by me, but are a yes for most.

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Then, if you didn’t forget to use the keyword ‘super’ you get the big payoff. The supremacy of the super burrito lies in having all kinds of blandishments added to it — salsa, guacamole, sour cream, hot sauces, heaps of onion and cilantro. For a recent immigrant from India (me, then) — the word ‘super’ meant ‘chutneys’. Fantastic. Then the tortilla is folded into a roll, tucked in at each end, and wrapped in double layers of foil. It can be eaten on the go, with no forks, plates, even napkins around.

People know Silicon Valley for its technical innovations, but its burrito innovations are not far behind. Some places are famous for offering beef brain and beef tongue in the choice of meats. Some offer vegetables grilled on the spot. Many have adopted whole-wheat, spinach or tomato tortillas. One of my favorite taquerías offers cooked cactus (nopales) upon request. A ‘naked’ burrito is served in a bowl, without a tortilla wrapped around it. A ‘baby’ burrito is a smaller sized tortilla, suitable for lunch for a smaller-sized person.

But here’s the other thing about the Bay Area…we must make this at home, from scratch! So here we go.
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Whole-wheat vegan superbaby burrito

For the tortilla I just made an Indian-style whole-wheat roti/chapati that added a nice wheaty complexity to each bite. They were smaller than the regular tortilla size, making this a ‘baby’ burrito. I bought dry black beans and soaked them overnight, then pressure-cooked them for 15 minutes to have the most luscious, earthy, non-metallic tasting black beans ever. The rice was cooked using the liquid drained from the tomatoes. The hot sauce came from this recipe for Mexican hot sauce. For the guacamole I used a nice large Californian Hass avocado. Cilantro and Fresno chilies from my garden. A mix of green zebra and early-girl tomatoes for the salsa. I made it vegan but my husband added some cheddar cheese. You could add sour cream or thick homemade yogurt, whisked.

Yes, it certainly had some Indian flavors….

Black beans soaking

Black beans soaking

Black beans cooked

Black beans cooked

Black beans

Ingredients:
  • 1/4 dry black beans
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Method:

Soak the black beans over night or for about 6 hours. If you are short on time, soak them in near-boiling water for an hour. Drain and pressure-cook for 15 minutes with 1/2 cup water. Add the salt after it is done cooking.

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes draining

Tomatoes draining

Onion, chili, cilantro

Onion, chili, cilantro

Salsa Fresca

Ingredients:
  • 4 small tomatoes or 2 medium
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped hot green chili
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • Lime juice from half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Dice the tomatoes and place them in a strainer with some salt mixed in, and allow to drain for half an hour or so. Collect the drained liquid in a bowl, this will be used later for the rice to add a subtle tomato-ness. Meanwhile finely chopped the onion, chili and cilantro. Once the tomatoes seem to be done draining liquid, mix it in with the onion, chili and cilantro. Add lime juice, mix, taste, and adjust for salt.

Beautiful Hass avocado

Beautiful Hass avocado

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Guacamole

Ingredients:
  • One large avocado
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced chili
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Finely mince the garlic, add some salt to it and leave it mixed with salt for about 10 minutes. In this much time it will have turned pasty and ‘cooked’ a little. Cube the avocado flesh, mix it all together with lime juice. You can mash the avocado if you like but I like to leave little chunks.

Rice in pot

Rice in pot

Done

Done

Mexican rice

Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup rice
  • 2/3 cup water including the liquid drained from tomato
  • 1/4 onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot. When it shimmers put in the minced onion, the cumin and paprika. Let them cook a few minutes on medium heat. Now in goes the rice. Stir to coat with oil. Next put in the water (including tomato liquid) and salt. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer for 7 minutes. Turn off the flame and let it rest, covered, for a few minutes before opening the lid.

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Assembling the burrito

Ingredients:
  • 1 whole-wheat chapati/roti/tortilla
  • Some cheddar cheese, cubed (leave it out if you want it vegan)
  • Some rice
  • Some black beans
  • Some guacamole
  • Some salsa verde
  • Some hot sauce
Method:

I’ve left the amounts vague because you can customize each the way you want to. Layer the ingredients onto the roti laid out flat. Don’t overstuff it if you want a nice roll that you can bind securely. Fold in the two lateral edges to hold the fillings in place, then roll up the entire burrito starting at the bottom. Enjoy.

Found the Vegan Potluck folks who host a wonderful weekly vegan bash! That’s almost poetic. Entering this recipe there. 
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End-of-the-week pasta

End-of-the-week pasta

End-of-the-week pasta

Friday night and the fridge is empty. Dinner needs to be made. The kid is hanging around the kitchen wanting to ‘help’, while the husband wants something simple and non-fussy. But good, of course — it has to be good. What to do? What to do?

Tucked away in a corner of the fridge, there is that radicchio left over from that salad I made, and some green garlic I picked up for a forgotten project. And of course there are some indestructibles hidden in the pantry, the dried mushrooms, the sundried tomatoes. The recipe invents itself! It’s time for the: ‘End-of-the-week Pasta’! Otherwise known as the: ‘Kitchen-sink Pasta’, or perhaps the ‘What-is-that?-throw-it-in Pasta’. Or maybe I want to call it the ‘Fresh Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce’. What do you think?

Fresh Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce

Curtain of linguini

Curtain of linguini

This recipe does not demand fresh homemade pasta, but it does politely ask for it. The delicacy of fresh pasta allows you to individually taste the many — um, disparate ingredients. My daughter loves helping with cranking the pasta machine, and loves the curtain of pasta strands that get extruded, so that’s a plus (no homework on Friday evenings, need to keep her busy). For the fresh pasta look here — It’s nice to be kneaded.

I also used cheddar cubes to finish, which formed nice gooey cheesiness around the strands.

A note about salt. I didn’t add any except to the pasta water, because I had the anchovies. If you leave those out, please do add salt to taste.

Here are some pictures to show the process.

Radicchio gets sliced

Radicchio gets sliced

Porcini reconstituting

Porcini reconstituting

Green garlic sliced

Green garlic sliced

Stuff cooking

Stuff cooking

Stuff cooked

Stuff cooked

Radicchio wilting

Radicchio wilting

Cheddar enters

Cheddar enters

Rapidly disappearing

Rapidly disappearing

Linguini with Radicchio and Slivered Almonds in a Porcini and Green Garlic Sauce

Ingredients:
  • Pasta strands from half a portion of pasta dough from this recipe
  • About a third of a bulb of radicchio
  • Big pinch of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water, or fistful of fresh
  • 3 green garlic stems, green and white parts (substitute with few cloves of garlic)
  • 2 – 3 anchovies
  • Big pinch of sundried tomatoes
  • Big pinch of slivered almonds
  • 2 inch block of great cheddar cheese, cubed
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
Method:

Slice the radicchio, the mushrooms, and the green garlic. Set salted water to boil for cooking the pasta (about 1/2 gallon). While the water is coming to a boil, prepare the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a wide pan on medium. Put in the green garlic and anchovies. The anchovies can be left whole because they will simply merge into the surroundings. When they start to sizzle, put in the sliced porcini, the slivered almonds, and the sundried tomatoes. After a few minutes of cooking these, the radicchio can go in, just to wilt, it doesn’t need to cook long. Cover to keep warm and turn it off to wait for the pasta.

Meanwhile the water will have come to a boil. The pasta will take only a few minutes if you used the fresh ones, otherwise follow directions on the box. Fish the pasta out and put into the prepared sauce with the addition of a few ladles of pasta water. Toss to combine. Put the cubes of cheddar on top and stir that in to melt incompletely. Yes, incompletely.

 

The ? vegetable, roasted

Question

This vegetable taunts and beckons me every time I walk by it at the grocery store. I have earlier compared them to caterpillers or seaweed, but now I’m thinking it looks like nothing but a question mark.

What am I? it seems to say at the grocery store. Don’t you want me? And then when I break down under the emotional blackmail and buy some, the bag sits in the fridge untouched for a couple days while I wonder what on earth to do with it. What will you do with me, huh? they say. Why did you buy me if you have no idea what to do with me? Why? How? What? And more importantly, when?

A permanent rebuke, is what it is. But I’m no slouch. I don’t let a mere vegetable sit there passing judgment on me. I’m a food blogger, is what I am.

Thus fortified, let us try to seek the heart of fiddlehead ferns once again. Here is the first such quest. I think I did better this time.

Here is the thing about fiddleheads. Their flavor is often compared to asparagus, but I feel like it has a sort of medicinal sweetness like that of artichoke, which is enhanced by cooking. The fleshy part is quite scanty compared to that of an artichoke, and comes encased in a stem, the fibrous parts of which would be nice to crisp up. So — it would be nice to fully cook the inside and crisp up the outside. Last time I had tried sautéing it and noted the difficulty of getting it to take on a char that way. So this time I tried a different method.

Blanching for 5 minutes to get the inside to cook. Then roasting in a single layer for the crispness.

Roasted fiddlehead ferns

You can see how it turned out. For me, it was finger food. Next time — add some chili powder and maybe lemon squirted on top.

Ingredients:
  • Half a pound of fiddleheads
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic
  • Olive oil — some
  • Salt — some
  • Coriander powder — some
Method:

IMG_1328 IMG_1333 IMG_1335Wash the fiddleheads by soaking in a tub of water and swirling it around and possibly rubbing the baby ferns gently. Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil and salt it. When it is boiling, put the fiddleheads in, bring to a boil once again, and let them blanch this way for about 5 minutes.

Fish them out. Lay them out on roasting pan. Cover with more salt and olive oil. Rub coriander powder all over. Place the two fat cloves of garlic tucked in in a  couple places, covered with oil also. Roast at 450°F open, for about 8 to 10 minutes. Halfway during cooking, pull it out and stir to turn most of them over.

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The garlic is also fully roasted by this point, and the paste from inside can be squeezed out like from a toothpaste tube. A teeny bit of garlic paste with a fingerful of crisp fiddlehead spindles — it was delicious.

For more information on fiddleheads (they are the immature fronds of ostrich ferns)  read this:

http://umaine.edu/publications/4198e/

and of course, don’t miss Wikipedia on the subject:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matteuccia_struthiopteris

Prickly in pink

I have by now spent an enormous number of years on this planet, more than I care to admit, and about half of that time has been in the United States. But there are still occasional things that pop up to surprise me.

My pink mottled egg

My pink mottled egg

This time it was a pink egg. A giant, pink, mottled egg that sat all by its lonesome in a farmer’s stall in a market. Visions of pretty pink birdlings hatching out of it floating before me, I purchased it. Who could resist?

The man at the stall was nice enough to tell me that this was a cactus fruit. Now cactus plants are a bit of a strange beast for me, in the sense that I can’t easily place them in the plant family. Is that big fleshy thing supposed to be a leaf or a stem? Do they fruit? Why does the fruit appear stuck to the blade of what appears to be a leaf?¹

Clearly there are many, many gaps in my knowledge. But thanks to Mr. Farmers Market, I have filled one small gap.

Prickly pear cactus in Texas, courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Prickly pear cactus in Texas, courtesy of PDPhoto.org

Nopales or ‘prickly pear’ is a type of cactus that is native to Mexico. It has giant green oblong pads covered in spines. The pads are chopped up and eaten as a vegetable (very often by me, in my burrito). These pads produce pink egg-shaped fruit. This prickly pear fruit is what I saw that morning at the market.

The way one eats it is — first, before all else, remove the spines. Now this was already done for me at the market, and if you are lucky this is how you will find the fruit sold. Next, peel off the outer thick peel, which comes off quite easily with a paring knife.

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Inside, you find flesh of a deep magenta, granular and with high water content. The texture resembles kiwi or watermelon. The flesh can be eaten raw. But it has small round seeds studded throughout the flesh. There is actually no way to avoid eating the seeds, which to me were a nice crunchy backdrop to the melony flesh. But I can see that it would bother the squeamish. The seeds do limit it use in things like fruit salads and pies.

How was it to taste? Very unobjectionable. It has a mild flavor and is not terribly sweet. Apparently it is a nutritional powerhouse with high amounts of vitamin C, magnesium and calcium. I do sense that there is some hype surrounding its magical restorative properties on the interwebs though.

Other than eating it as is, here are a couple things you can do with it.

Juice it in a blender, then strain out the seeds. I believe you will want to sweeten the juice and perhaps liven it up with some lime or lemon.

Another trick was suggested to me by Mr. Farmers Market: put some cubes in some clear filtered water; this will quickly take on the deep magenta of the fruit while the flavor is affected in a very mild way. A good way to make a base for fruit punch, or, perhaps drinkable ‘blood’ for Halloween.

My fake blood using prickly pear cubes

My fake blood using prickly pear cubes

¹I have since discovered that in a typical cactus, the leaves have been adapted into the spines, while the stems have adapted to form the green (photosynthetic) part — usually the succulent, squat structure that bears the spines. This is called the areoles. So in the nopales cactus, the vegetable part that one eats is the modified stem. Now it is no mystery that the egg-shaped fruit comes attached to what I believed to be the leaf blade: that is indeed, the stem, and the fruit grow from the stem in the usual way.

King Julienne

King Julien

King Julien

King Julien is a strange character in the Madagascar series of movies. The talented Sacha Baron Cohen does his voice, and gives him an Indian accent, even though he is a native of the Madagascar island. He is a fun-loving narcissist, a ring-tailed lemur who counts bush babies among his subjects.

Odd? Yes, he is very funny, and very odd, which makes him a good mascot for the odd pantry.

This recipe, which basically consists of a number of julienned vegetables (particularly cabbage) is in honor of King Julien. I guess since it features cabbage you could call it a coleslaw which derives from Dutch koolsla and basically means cabbage salad. The dressing here is not mayonnaise-based, which gives it a lot more sharpness than the usual coleslaw.

Oddly sharp coleslaw

Ingredients

  • A scant 4 cups of shredded purple cabbage
  • A scant 4 cups of shredded arugula, loosely packed
  • Half a cup of green beans, microwaved or blanched, and julliened
  • Half a cup of firm apple, julliened
  • 1 tablespoon pinenuts
  • 1 tablespoon julliened ginger (Optional. This makes it really sharp, and if you are into that, you will love it)
  • Salt to taste
  • Half a teaspoon crumbled oregano
  • 3 – 4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Method:

IMG_0692 IMG_0695 IMG_0700 IMG_0698 IMG_0697 IMG_0693

Collect all the vegetable ingredients, nicely julliened. Toss them around in a large salad bowl. Add pinenuts, salt and oregano and toss some more. Now add olive oil and the vinegar and toss yet again.

You can eat it right away but the flavor does develop a little more if you wait fifteen minutes or so.

And you know here is a new idea…try eating it with chopsticks. Failing that, use your fingers.

Oddly sharp coleslaw

Oddly sharp coleslaw

Interestingly encrusted salmon

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Salmon crusted with cracked black pepper is IN. Open a fancy restaurant, add that dish to your menu, and watch your cash register spin. But what is a few cracked peppers? I pooh-pooh it. Wait, I must catch a breath from laughing. I give you — salmon encrusted with the most interesting crust in the world.

Black pepper does make an appearance. Coriander seeds do as well. And also — that paragon of savoriness — urad dal (Vigna mungo), the platinum-blond lentils that turn red when roasted. Throw in some lemon juice and you have a meal. The fame of this recipe has spread far and wide throughout my home since I came up with it.

The most interestingly encrusted salmon in the world

Ingredients for the spice powder:

  • Half a tablespoon whole black pepper
  • One tablespoon whole coriander seeds
  • One tablespoon skinned and split urad dal

Ingredients for the meal:

  • 3/4 lb salmon steak or fillet
  • salt to taste
  • One tablespoon olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon or to taste

Method:

IMG_0591

To make the spice powder we need to first roast the seeds. Heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. Put in the black pepper and coriander seed in one batch. Stir occasionally. In a couple minutes a few will start to pop (stand back). Empty the seeds into a small bowl.

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Next, in the same pan, in goes the lentil. Stir once in a while to ensure even roasting. These will take longer but in a few minutes will redden. Take them off the heat into the same bowl.

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Wait a few minutes for the spices to cool, then grind them up in a clean coffee grinder. The salmon crusting spices are ready. You can save the excess in a clean spice jar, nicely labeled and dated. You will thank yourself later.

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Next let’s prepare the fish. For us, dinner for two consists of a three-quarter-pound fillet or steak of salmon, but feel free to use as much fish as you need. Start the oven at 425 F to preheat.

Place the fish in an oven-safe tray. Make a few deep cuts with a sharp knife. Sprinkle salt to taste. Now spread olive oil over the fish, then lemon juice, taking care to drive some of the salty, oily, lemony mixture into the deep cuts you just made (now you don’t need to wonder why you made them).

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Next comes the spice powder. I use it liberally to coat the fist. Perhaps a tablespoon and a half for a piece this size? The point is really to cover the flesh.

Goes into the oven next. I give it 20 minutes in a 425 F oven, and it comes out medium-well. Your mileage may vary.

This goes very well with patty-pan squash mashed (squashed?) but the recipe for that will come later.

Broiled tomato soup in potato oyster mushroom fond

Broiled tomato soup

Broiled tomato soup

Bright red tomatoes

Bright red tomatoes

So here I am, with bright red tomatoes at the ready, thirsting for some soup. But no chicken broth in the house. Of course one can use water, but I do need to add back in some of that lovely savoriness that a broth would have added.

So I choose a multi-pronged attack.

a) Saute oyster mushrooms into the base. This takes care of the missing umami taste.

b) Brown tiny potato cubes in the base of the pot, to add some of that Maillard goodness.

c) Broil the tomatoes before adding them in to the soup, to add the caramelized flavor of the browned skin.

d) Add some milk/cream at the end to add in the missing protein flavor. Also adds creaminess.

e) Add some Worcestershire sauce, which basically being bottled umami flavor, is a bit of a cheat. The interesting thing here is that one of the ‘natural flavorings’ used in this sauce may be asafetida (heeng), which is used extensively in Indian cooking. And yes, I can vouch for its umami-ness. Among its ingredients is tamarind, also an old stand-by in Indian cooking. I guess those British did pick up a few tidbits about Indian food in the 200-odd years they spent hanging around us.

Oh — and for an aromatic, parsley. Just parsley.

Ingredients:

Handful of chopped parsley

Fistful of chopped oyster mushrooms

One medium potato (new red or purple) chopped into small cubes

Six small tomatoes

Olive oil – some

Salt to taste

Worcestershire sauce – one teaspoon. Substitute with red wine or balsamic vinegar.

Quarter cup milk or cream.

Method:

Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a thick-bottomed pot. Add potato cubes to it and a sprinkle of salt. Saute on medium-high heat for about 10-15 minutes. The potato will start to brown and stick to the bottom of pot for dear life. Let it brown, then dark brown, do not worry. We will deglaze off all that stuck goodness later.

Potatoes browning

Potatoes browning

When it seems that it is on the verge of actually just charring (you do not want that), add in the chopped mushrooms. They will sweat and unstick some of the potato fond. Oh, yes, that is exactly what ‘fond’ means — the foundation or base of a sauce. After a few minutes the mushrooms will have sweated and shrunk. Now add in the minced parsley. Cook, stirring occasionally. You can cover it if you like, to get it to sweat more. Now sprinkle in the Worcestershire sauce, and stir, to deglaze some more.

Minced parsley and chopped oyster mushrooms

Minced parsley and chopped oyster mushrooms

Soup fond nicely browned

Soup fond nicely browned Soup fond nicely browned and water added

Once the mixture looks — I don’t know, kind of soup-base-y, put in a cup and a half of water, bring to a boil, and leave at a very gentle simmer, uncovered.

Halved tomatoes with olive oil

Halved tomatoes with olive oil

Meanwhile, rise and stem the tomatoes. Cut them in half, place face down on an oven-safe dish, and rub olive oil all over them. Broil for 7 minutes or until the skin has wrinkled and charred. Take them out of the oven. You can peel them if you like but I left the peel on. Puree them and toss into the soup.

Broiled tomato halves

Broiled tomato halves

Simmer the soup another ten or twenty minutes, check for salt and blend again if you like it smooth. Add milk and just heat through (do not bring to a boil at this point, because otherwise it will curdle).

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Serve! Possible garnish: shaved parmesan cheese, croutons, parsley, chives. And, I didn’t miss the chicken broth at all.

Efficient butternut-tomato soup

A quick and easy soup that can be done quickly for a weeknight dinner but does not sacrifice flavor at all. This amount of soup was enough for four as a soup course, or for two as dinner.

Step 1: Squash.

butternut squash soup 001

Start with about half a medium butternut squash. Or you could go with pumpkin, but as you can see, I went with butternut. Put some water on the dish and stick it in the microwave for 5 minutes.

Step 2: Deseed and peel.

butternut squash soup 002

The squash comes out softened and partially cooked, as seen above. Cut in half across, it becomes very easy to deseed with a scoop-shaped spoon, as pictured below. As far as the seeds go, I like to chomp on a few of them as they are, the shell and the pith notwithstanding.

butternut squash soup 006

The peel easily pares off with a sharp paring knife. Chop up the flesh into cubes and have it ready to go into the soup.

butternut squash soup 008

Step 3: Aromatics.

I used an inch-long piece of ginger and chopped it into thin strips thusly.

butternut squash soup 004

Now, heat about three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pot and saute the ginger strips, along with one bay leaf, for a few minutes.

Step 4: Broth and everything else

butternut squash soup 009

Throw in the squash, along with one chopped tomato. I used an orange tomato, not in order to match the squash, but just because that’s all I had. Also put in 3 cups of chicken broth, some salt to taste, and bring to a boil.

Keep it at a healthy simmer for about fifteen minutes.

Step 5: Soupify and correct seasoning.

Now, the soup is ready for its journey through the blender. Pull out the bay leaf first of course! Once smooth, you have the choice to strain it. We did, but used a strainer with rather large holes, to make it easier on ourselves. Return the soup to the pot, and check for salt, and also sweetness. I found the squash I used somewhat lacking in sweetness, and added a few squirts of balsamic vinegar to complement it. Heat it through, mix it, and serve.

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Seeking the heart of fiddlehead ferns

If anyone ever asks me why this blog is called the ‘odd’ pantry — it is named so for vegetables like fiddlehead ferns. When one first encounters them on the grocery shelves one isn’t even really sure what kingdom of life they belong to. They could be worms — no, more like caterpillars — or maggots — curled up. They could be giant microbes, like the spirogyra we learned about in school. They might be seaweed. Have a look:

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Are we really supposed to eat that thing?

Fiddlehead ferns are the baby fronds of various types of ferns. They are harvested wild, not cultivated, which explains their rarity on the shelves. But when you happen to see them, grab some, because they are full of fiber, omega-3’s, potassium, and so forth. I believe the fiddleheads one sees in California are the ostrich ferns.

To clean them, soak them in warm water for a few minutes to shake the dirt off, rinse, and do this again. I don’t think you can get all the brown off (at least I wasn’t able to), but not all the brown stuff is dirt. Do snip off the brown tips of the stems.

Having never tried them before, I had to guess about their taste and how to cook them.

First, I tried a method very much like in this recipe. Good, but the fiddleheads don’t seem to char very easily; and, they have a slippery and chunky texture which needed a stronger set of seasonings to stand up to it, I thought.

So second, I tried a different method, which I thought was better.

Step 1:

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Cut them up in about half inch sized lengths.

Step 2: Saute

Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium high. When it shimmers, put in mustard seeds; wait till they pop, then put in the fiddleheads. Stir. They will go from looking like this:

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to looking like this in a few minutes of medium high sauteing.

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At this point, I threw in some onions. This time I cut them in thin strips, by first halving the onion, giving it one cross cut from root end to stem end, and then slicing it as narrowly as I can. Put them into the pan and stir for a minute.

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Then it is time for half a teaspoon turmeric, red chili powder, and the salt.

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Now the problem with the slippery texture of the fiddleheads is that spices don’t stick to it. So, we need glue in the dish, that the spices will combine with, and that will stick to the ferns. What ingredient is a good glue? Hmm…I used sesame seeds,  ground up, about a third of a cup (super useful to keep a coffee grinder around, just for spices; takes just a minute for jobs of this sort).

Step 3: Braise.

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Stir the sesame seed paste with the fiddleheads, add a half a cup of water, and there — we have the glue that we wanted. One teaspoon of tamarind paste goes in. Stir, cover, simmer on low for about ten minutes, and what we have is this:

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How did it turn out? Well, we had it as one of the sides with roti, for dinner. I thought it was yummy.

But I don’t think my quest for the heart of fiddlehead ferns is over yet. This dish was good but didn’t show off their quintessential fiddlehead-ness. I will be trying other ways to cook them…watch this space.