Roasted tomato sauce For the Win

img_9063Nature made tomatoes delicious but She also drenched them in unappealing wateriness. All tomato sauces are based on rescuing the flavor out of the swamp. It is simply a matter of technique.

Some insist that the skin and seeds must be removed. Some put great stock in canned tomatoes as opposed to fresh; others swear by long cooking. These are all fine techniques; but the one that works in my kitchen is one that I haven’t seen other recipe writers talk about much. This is surprising, because there is literally no way to describe how deep and dark is the flavor that results.

It is more of a technique than a single recipe, though I will give you a couple of variations that I often make. It involves long-roasting in the oven instead of long-cooking on the stove-top: four hours is ideal, but three hours can work too, at a slightly higher temperature.

Since it takes no fussing over, you can set it in the oven and leave the house, or putter about your other household duties. Long-cooking is no strain if your appliances do all the work. Yes, it does take a bit of planning and it does take about 5-8 nice plump medium tomatoes.

The basics

As to why this technique results in flavor so much deeper than the traditional method of cooking in a pot, I can offer some educated guesses.

One of the components of the flavor is the deep caramelization of the cut surfaces of the tomatoes as they are exposed to the dry heat of the oven. The juiciness ensures that they do not burn, but you can see the chocolaty color on the edges in the pictures below. This color shows that the Maillard reaction has occurred, imparting a welcome depth.

Nor does the the tomato liquid dry out evenly, as it would on the stove-top. I have often tried long-cooking simply chopped-up fresh tomatoes in a pot; and while the flavor certainly intensifies, the waxiness of the peel and the bitterness of the seeds stand out, diminishing the flavor. Of course one could peel and seed the tomatoes, but if one is to remove all the fiber from a thing, why even bother?

The great advantage of the long-roasted sauce is that the peel and seeds all go in, impart a caramelized edge, and yet, deep pockets of juiciness are left behind; as the oven has not dried out the fruit indiscriminately. The residue one is left with is approximately like a hybrid of sundried tomatoes on the cut-surfaces, and deep juice bombs inside.

The basic steps are these. Cut up the tomatoes either in halves, quarters or eighths. Place them cut-side-up, salted, drenched in olive oil in the oven, in a single layer, at a low temperature for up to 4 hours. At the end, a simple dressing of fresh olive oil, vinegar, garlic or herbs are necessary. Mashing them roughly with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher produces a sauce that will cover long pasta like linguini or spaghetti.

Variation with red wine vinegar and garlic

Roast tomato sauce with garlic and red wine vinegar

Ingredients:
  • 6 medium tomatoes
  • 1 fat clove garlic
  • Few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Spread a bit of oil in a flat ceramic dish and start the oven at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3). Meanwhile halve the tomatoes and remove the stem. Place them cut side up in the dish, as crowded as you can, so they hold each other up. Sprinkle with salt and squirt more oil on the surface. Place them in the oven and set the time for either 4 hours (if set to the lower temperature) or 3 hours (if set to the higher).

Meanwhile crush the garlic and mix in some salt. This will liquefy and cook it, which will take about half hour.

At the end of the roasting time, mash the tomatoes a bit with the back of a wooden spoon. Stir in the garlic and the splash of red wine vinegar.

Cook and drain spaghetti or other long pasta; stir to combine thoroughly with the sauce.

Variation with fresh basil and olive oil

Roast tomato sauce with fresh basil and olive oil

Ingredients:
  • 6 Kumato or other tomatoes
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • about a dozen leaves of fresh basil
Method:

Spread some oil on a flat ceramic dish. Quarter the Kumato tomatoes and halve the cherries. Spread them tightly crowded on the dish, tucking the cherry halves into the gaps between the others. Sprinkle with salt and more olive oil. Reserve about 3 tablespoons of olive oil for later.

Roast at 250ºF  (if you have 4 hours) or 300ºF (if you have 3).

Slice the basil leaves into ribbons.

Once the tomatoes are done, take out of the oven, mash and taste for salt. Add the reserved olive oil and the basil. Toss with pasta.

Variation with infused oregano and black pepper

Roasted tomato sauce with oregano and black pepper

Ingredients:
  • 7 or so medium tomatoes
  • quarter cup of olive oil
  • a few sprigs of fresh oregano
  • several twists of black pepper
  • salt to taste
Method:

Prepare the roasting dish with some olive oil spread on the base.

This time cut the tomatoes into eighths. Spread them tightly in the dish, cut sides up. Since the pieces are smaller, use the higher oven setting (300º F) and the shorter time (3 hours). Cover with salt to taste and olive oil. The sprigs of oregano are to be tucked into the dish and black pepper sprinkled onto the tomatoes. As the roasting proceeds, a savory aroma will filter through the kitchen.

When done, remove the oregano sprigs. Mash gently, add more olive oil and toss with freshly cooked long pasta.


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My Thanksgiving Recap

IMG_3855Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays, because — well, that’s easy. It involves cooking!

It took me a long time to warm to the taste of turkey. But having married into an American family that loves their annual turkey dinner, I didn’t really have a choice. It was a love-it-or-leave-it type of deal…well, maybe never quite that harsh. But I was certainly scared straight. I began to not only enjoy that once bland, inscrutable meat, but also crave it. And on the years that we are away from family (like this one), my husband demands a ‘proper’ American turkey meal. In other words, no garam masala in the pumpkin pie, like the White House chef once did¹. No chilies in the cranberry sauce either!

I’ve had a lot of learning to do, but now I can pull off a decent-sized turkey meal with each item made from scratch (naturally). Here is my cheat sheet for my future self, and perhaps any other Thanksgiving seekers for 2015 onward.

Of course, make-ahead prep is integral to Thanksgiving. Here are the dishes that I made, in order of how early I made them.

pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie

For the crust, I used lard that I had rendered years ago and saved in the freezer. It makes a nice flaky crust with a hint — just a tiny, imperceptible hint — of gaminess. I did add a couple tablespoons of butter for the flavor. Instead of regular old all-purpose flour I used white whole wheat from King Arthur for the added fiber. Just as good and twice as healthy. (Recipe source: Joy of Cooking.)

The filling came from a decent sized pumpkin that I baked for 45 minutes, halved. It gave me enough filling for two pies plus some extra. Of course, evaporated milk and eggs were added to it, plus some spices. Cloves, allspice pulverized in a mortar and pestle. Nutmeg grated. Ginger grated to pulp using one of these handy-dandy doodads dripping with Japanese know-how. Maple syrup and brown sugar, but quite a bit less than the recipes demanded. Topped with additional cloves and brown sugar. I filled it up as high as I dared, almost to the brim, because the filling collapses as it sets. (Recipes adapted from: Alton Brown and from the Pick Your Own website.)

[11/24/16 Update: Used one medium kabocha squash for one pie. One 14 oz can of evaporated milk and 4 eggs. No sugar needed.]

cranberry sauce:

Cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries have that lovely earthly grape-peel flavor that they share with wine…so adding wine to my cranberry sauce seemed appropriate. Three cups of cranberries (whole), half as much red wine. Brown sugar added by the quarter-cup-fulls until I deemed it sweet enough. Boil, simmer for a while, popping the berries if they have not popped already. Turn off, cool, and that’s done. The natural pectin in the cranberries will make it gel as it cools.

stuffing-that-you-don’t-stuff-with

Stuffing baked outside the turkey

Stuffing baked outside the turkey

So one thing that I have learnt is that the mixture that one makes for stuffing the turkey with — which I love, by the way — is better baked separately in a casserole than in the body cavity of the turkey. The reason for this is that it actually takes longer to cook the stuffing all the way inside the turkey than it does to cook the turkey itself. So you either have under-cooked stuffing or overcooked turkey.

So…if you cook the stuffing outside, then…it is not really ‘stuffing’, is it? Of course it is, are we going to think up a new word for it? But…why not call it…bread-cubes-soaked-in-chicken-broth-with-onion-and — wait, are you going to name every single ingredient? Stuffing it is. Stuffing you don’t stuff with.

For this, I used 12 cups of stale, cubed French bread. Sauteed 2 chopped onions and 3 chopped celery ribs and some crimini mushroom stems ribs in a quarter cup of butter. Added parsley and fresh sage from the garden. A cup of slivered almonds and a few raw pumpkin seeds. Toss with the bread cubes, drench the whole thing in warmed chicken broth until it is all nicely moistened — this took more than three cups.

Just before serving, stick it in a 400 oven for about 45 minutes. Covered at first, uncovered later to brown the top. (Recipe source: mother-in-law.)

[11/24/16 Update: Do not add mushrooms, instead add sliced radicchio and sundried tomatoes.]

mashed potatoes

Mashed sweet potatoes

Mashed sweet potatoes

Instead of the regular potatoes my husband requested sweet potatoes because of their richer flavor. Important trick — these can be done ahead of time and saved in the fridge in a baking dish, all ready to go. On the day you want to serve it, they just go into a medium oven (covered) for about 30 minutes. All you have to do is add a little extra milk than you normally would. The texture has to be more runny than you would want; by the time it has reheated in the oven (along with the stuffing above) it will have dried a bit.

To boil the four large sweet potatoes (I refuse to call them yams, because the yam is actually this vegetable), I pressure-cooked them for 20 minutes. Peeled; then added some butter and salt and milk while mashing.

bread rolls

I used my own recipe for laadi pav, but used sourdough starter instead of yeast. This was primarily because I had no room in the fridge, and sourdough takes so long to rise that it could be left outside the entire day. Worked out great! (Recipe forthcoming one of these days.)

giblet gravy

So by the time the turkey comes out of the oven and is carved, people are ready to eat and I get too distracted to make a gravy from the pan sauce. The solution? Pre-make a gravy from the innards of the turkey, that either have too little meat to count (like the neck) or make most Americans cringe (like the gizzard and the liver). So pull those out of the turkey before you set out to dress it, cook them with some onions until they leave a deep, rich fond on the pan surface. Add wine, broth, some flour, and you have yourself a gravy. (Recipe source: Joy of Cooking.)

roasted math broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Here is a vegetable for math geeks. Romanesco broccoli is a variant that was found in Italy. The number of spirals on its head is from the Fibonacci sequence. Each little flower-head has the same shape as the entire head — so it approximates a fractal. Don’t care about the math stories your vegetables are trying to tell you? Well it tasted great and is a particularly festive looking vegetable. I microwaved them to cook them lightly, then stuck them under the broiler for a few minutes to brown them.

vegetables roasted with turkey

Vegetables roasted with turkey

Vegetables roasted with turkey

I roasted the turkey with vegetables strewn around it cut up in big chunks. Not only are they delicious when they are done cooking, but make for a lovely pan drippings gravy. As a matter of fact that was the highlight of the meal. Here are the vegetables I used — turnips quartered; cipollini onions quartered; celery ribs, cut up in stalks; carrots cup up few inch long; crimini mushroom caps; small bunches of parsley.

turkey

Lately wild turkeys have made a comeback in our corner of Northern California. Driving down windy hill roads, one sees small flocks of them along the sides, oblivious to human habitation. I feel a deep satisfied thrill upon seeing them, as though our generation has reclaimed a bit of wildness that had been lost forever. Then, I turn my thoughts to the domesticated turkey that is raised for food, and how lacking a life it has compared to its wild cousins. I did the best purchase I could, finding a turkey that the makers claim has had a decent life. So when it comes to being thankful, I would like to thank the turkey.

Turkey before roasting

Turkey before roasting

Here are the tricks I used for roasting (recipe sources: this Tools and Resources forum on Gardenweb):

  • Take it out of the fridge a few hours early to bring to room temperature.
  • Leave it overturned in the sink to drain the cavity as much as you can. The rest of the liquid must be dried with paper towels.
  • Lately brining has become very popular, where the entire turkey is soaked in a salt water bath overnight. While this makes for moister flesh, we don’t prefer this in our family because the meat then tastes ‘brined’. Hard to explain, but we have never taken to it. Also the pan drippings simply can’t be as rich and caramelized, I’m guessing, because of the salt water that would be dripped out of the turkey.
  • To prep, rub about one and half tablespoons of kosher salt all over the inside and outside of the bird.
  • Rub about a quarter cup of softened butter all over also.
  • Rub some butter in between the skin and flesh of the breast. This skin is really quite easy to slip one’s hand under. I also deposited some fresh sage leaves under the skin in various places. The point of doing this is to keep the breast meat moist and allow the skin to brown.
  • Leave it unstuffed. I didn’t. I did put some big chunks of vegetables into the cavity because I could not resist filling it. But ultimately, it just slowed down the cooking, and it never achieved safe temperatures, and we just discarded it. The vegetables strewn around the sides were much better.
  • Use the ‘convection’ setting in your oven if you have it, and if you have a ‘roast’ versus ‘bake’ use the ‘roast’. Use the meat probe if you have one, and stick it into the deepest part of the thigh. Set it to 165ºF.
  • Pour about half a cup of chicken broth or water in the roasting pan.
  • Choose a wide, sturdy pan with a low brim. This is to allow air to circulate around the turkey. Also set the bird on a rack for the same reason.
  • Start the roasting high — at 425ºF. Turn it down to 325ºF after 15 minutes. This will allow it to brown right away, and come to the correct internal temperature more slowly. Once the meat probe shows about 140ºF, tent the entire turkey under foil, so it does not burn.
  • The vegetables strewn around will deepen in color right away, and soon start frying in the fat that drips from the turkey. If any of the pieces threatens to char, lift it out of the pan.
  • Baste the breast once every half hour or so.
  • It will take about 3 hours for a 15 pound turkey, unstuffed.
Roasted turkey

Roasted turkey

pan drippings gravy

This was the highlight of the meal, and I needed to do almost nothing to make it happen. Have a look at the rich brown drippings on the roasting pan above. All that needed to be done was to lift the turkey out, lift the large chunks of vegetables out to serve with the turkey, and scrape the rest into a little pot. Over time, the fat cooled and rose to the top, so it was easy enough to spoon it off. The rest of the caramel brown liquid made for an excellent rich gravy.

Pan drippings gravy

Pan drippings gravy

¹Of course, since garam masala is not a fixed recipe but uses ‘warm’ spices like cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, you could say that I did indeed use garam masala in my pumpkin pie filling.

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A Russian salad for America’s Independence Day

Russian Salad

Russian Salad

If by reading the title you expected intrigue and a spy-vs-spy story, you came to the right place. The story of Salad Olivier begins in Czarist Russia when wealth and luxuries were not yet verboten. A Belgian chef known as Lucien Olivier came to Moscow in the 1860’s bearing secrets of French cooking. He opened a fancy-shmancy restaurant in Moscow called The Hermitage. This was not a one-room affair, rather an entire building with multiple dining rooms. Here Chef Olivier served a salad with every manner of luxury ingredient and choice meat — caviar, capers, game hen, crayfish tails. He called this the Salad Olivier.

Hermitage restaurant, Moscow (source: http://www.sras.org/russian_olivier_salad)

Hermitage restaurant, Moscow (source: http://www.sras.org/russian_olivier_salad)

Of course, he did not invent this salad out of his sheer imagination but rather based it on a famous dish from Provençe known as Le Grand Aioli. This is essentially a feast of vegetables and meats, laid out separately to serve with aioli, which is basically a mayonnaise with garlic and mustard. He served his salad in layers, the ‘Provençal sauce’ on the side, to be poured over. His Russian customers would dispense with the niceties and simply mix it all up. So he followed their lead and Salad Olivier was served the Russian way, all mixed up with his Provençal sauce.

Salad Olivier made his restaurant famous; although the main ingredients of the salad were obvious for all to see, he never divulged the secret of what went into his mayonnaise. Now remember that mayonnaise at the time was a French import, not ubiquitous on every grocery shelf from Japan to the United States. It had to be made by hand. It is an emulsion, which means the liquids involved in it are so well mixed together that it is impossible to tell what went into it. So as you can see, mayonnaise is inherently mysterious. So is milk, another emulsion.

A lovely graphic showing emulsion by blog.ioanacolor.com

A lovely graphic showing emulsion by blog.ioanacolor.com

Sorry for the bad pun, but Lucien Olivier milked it. The secrets of his mayonnaise remained hidden until his grave. They had to come to his restaurant for the salad, or else go without. But then, a disgruntled local employee called Ivan Mikhailovich Ivanov tricked him into leaving his kitchen momentarily while the famous mayo was being whipped up. He managed to note down the ingredients, left the restaurant, and began selling his facsimile of Salad Olivier at a different restaurant, under the name of Capital Salad (Stolichny Salad).

This stolen salad was never quite as good as the original, but it did mean that the rest of middle-class Russia was able to partake in it. With the revolution came the backlash against all things bourgeois, and this salad was stripped of its more expensive ingredients. A sort of consensus developed around a small set of ingredients — potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, boiled chicken, peas, pickles.

From Russia it spread to the Middle-east and Asia, and to India. Growing up, my introduction to Russian salad happened in a vegetarian restaurant in India that avoided the chicken. Somewhere en route from Russia to India a very important modification was made to it — Russian salad in India always includes chunks of some crunchy fruit — pineapple, apple, etc. In my opinion this is the best part.

In fact that makes it, to my palate, more delicious than the potato salad that is traditional for July 4th barbecues, so that is what I brought to a friend’s. Any hint of treason is purely for taste.

First the mayonnaise. Lucien Olivier’s mayonnaise was an aioli, which includes garlic and mustard. I used this recipe (which used this recipe) and whipped it up in a jar.

Garlic and mustard

Garlic and mustard

Eggs, oil, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a jar

Eggs, oil, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a jar

Improvised double-boiler

Improvised double-boiler

Garlic mustard mayonnaise (aioli)

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup almond oil (you can use any light-tasting oil)
  • 2 medium eggs or 1 large
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Put minced garlic and mustard into  a mortar along with a pinch of salt. Give it ten minutes to sit and then pound it to a paste together. You do not have to powder the mustard seeds completely. Put the oil, eggs, garlic-mustard, lemon juice in a Ball jar or Weck jar or empty jam jar. Using an immersion blender, whir it for just about 30 seconds or a minute. The mayonnaise should come together right away.

Now my salad was going to be sitting out in the sun so I chose to heat it up to to 135ºF in a double boiler while blending away. You do not need to do this, specially if you use pasteurized eggs.

Now for the Russian salad, based on a French salad, made the Indian vegetarian way, for America’s Independence day. These are the ingredients I used, but please be creative and add whatever makes sense to you.

Ingredients for salad

Ingredients for salad

All diced

All diced

Dish lined with lettuce

Dish lined with lettuce

Mixed

Mixed

Vegetarian Russian Salad

Ingredients:
  • About 6 small red potatoes
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 cup of frozen peas, thawed
  • 3/4 large red apple
  • 3 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • 1 small cucumber (substitute with celery)
  • About 8 outer leaves of butter lettuce
  • Half a teaspoon paprika, more for garnish
  • Salt to taste
  • About a cup of mayonnaise from above
Method:

Boil the potatoes and carrots in their skins, in salted water. When done, drain, let them cool, then dice into small pea-sized pieces. Dice the apple and cucumber into similar sized dice as well. Leave the skin on (adds a nice colorful touch). Thaw the peas.

Line your serving dish with the lettuce. Mix the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise, paprika, and salt to taste. Mix together nicely. Serve it out in the bed of lettuce.


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Exploring the vegetarian gumbo

Vegetarian gumbo

Vegetarian gumbo

I met a lady from Louisiana over Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ place. Of course, I asked her about gumbo, it being the only thing I know about Louisiana, other than that Louisianians are sometimes inclined to place their banjos on their knees. Well, I’m glad I asked. In her lovely Louisiana accent, she related the story of a dish amalgamated from three different cultures, that has become one of the touchpoints of Cajun people. One browns the flour in grease for hours and hours, constantly stirring, she told me in a faintly challenging tone of voice; of course this made me want to try making it right away.

(By the way — you know how a couple posts ago I threw out this thing about American food not needing a lot of slaving over the hot stove? I knew not whereof I spoke. Because, well, there’s gumbo.)

What is gumbo? People often call it a soup, but from what I can tell it is more of a stew, and eaten with rice. Sometimes seafood is cooked in it, other times meat — never both. But I’m not a huge fan of meat, and the hubby doesn’t much care for seafood. Lucky for us, there is a long tradition of vegetarian gumbos as well, either from the rustic cuisine of people who could not afford meat, or the six-week period of Lent when meat is to be abstained from.

The most interesting thing about gumbo is that each of the peoples that has lived around the Gulf has left their mark on it.

Filé

The Choctaw people have lived around there since the days of the mastodon, which they hunted. If that sounds rather prehistoric, well, it technically is — the mastodon became extinct 12,000 years ago. The Choctaw were intimately familiar with the native plant and animal life around their region; one of the things they contributed to the gumbo is their use of sassafras leaves. This plant (the root of which is the one that gives ‘root beer’ its name) is distantly related to other aromatics such as bay leaf and cinnamon. Sassafras leaves are ground up to make filé, which is used to flavor and thicken gumbo.

Roux

Ten thousand years of sheer Choctaw-ism and then the Europeans show up. What concerns us here, through all the sturm und drang of the European settlement, is the effect it had on gumbo: the small population of French Canadians that were exiled here brought with them some notions of French cooking. This includes roux — the cooking of flour in fat that many French sauces are based on. French cooking tends to use butter, but then the French roux seems to be mostly left pale; for gumbo the roux is cooked for hours till browned, and in that situation the butter would burn, so for gumbo, oils or lard are used instead.

Interesting tidbit — the word ‘Cajun‘ is a corruption of the word ‘Acadian’ — Acadia, Canada being the place that the French Canadians were exiled from.

The holy trinity

Cooking aromatics into the base of the stew is another common European method. The French call it mirepoix and the Spanish call it sofrito. The standard set used in gumbo is called the holy trinity and is made up of equal amounts of onion, celery and green bell pepper (capsicum). This particular set clearly shows the Spanish influence on the region.

Okra and rice

Another set of cultural influences arrived with the Africans brought over through the slave trade. Now once again, many tears and blood have been spilled over this, but what concerns us for gumbo is that the Africans brought over a couple of my old friends to America — my slimy old pal the okra (bhindi) that I have loved since childhood, and rice. West African stews often cook down okra into it with onions and meat: the okra gives off its glutinous slime (I say that with love) to make the whole stew have integrity. Hello, okra. And rice has become the traditional accompaniment to gumbo; there are other rice-based dishes in Cajun cuisine as well (like jambalaya).

Three types of vegetarian gumbo

Now a lot of veteran gumbo-eaters will probably click away as soon as they hear the word ‘vegetarian’ spoken before gumbo. But for the rest of you, here are three that I made. Since this was my first time making gumbo, I tried to keep it very simple, and not add too many flavorings; at the risk of sacrificing flavor, perhaps, but all the better to learn the basic palate of these few key ingredients. I also used whole wheat instead of white flour, because I am a bit of a fanatic. The only difference it made is that I believe the final result was a bit grittier than it would be with white flour.

The Gumbo base

The amounts specified here can form up to four separate gumbo meals for two.

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup fat (oil or ghee or lard — I used lard)
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 sticks celery
  • 1 medium green bell pepper (capsicum)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Method:

Heat the fat in a thick-bottomed pot and when it melts, put in the flour. Stir to combine into a paste. There, the roux is underway. Now the idea is that it has to go from a blond color to a dark chocolate brown. For me, this took about two hours, because I had the heat on medium to medium-low, which made it so that I could stir it every minute or so. If you are willing to stir it every ten seconds or so, you can have the heat higher and it will be done faster.

So in about two hours I went from this to this. Remember I started with whole wheat flour so it was already brownish from the beginning.

IMG_1034 IMG_1039

Now chop up the vegetables into little dice and put it into the pot along with the salt. Even if the roux had been calmly cooking away, you will notice that upon entry the vegetables will immediately sizzle, showing how hot the fat really is. In about 20 minutes of cooking, the vegetables soften down and the gumbo base is done.

IMG_1035 IMG_1037 IMG_1040 IMG_1041

I divided the gumbo base into 4 quarters to store. Each quarter can be used to make an entire gumbo meal for two people. Each quarter will take about 2-3 cups of additional liquid (water, stock, milk); so using that hint you can make any gumbo dish. The resulting meal, once the base is done, is very quick and can be easily put together on a weeknight.

1. Greens-okra Gumbo

Greens and okra gumbo

Greens and okra gumbo

In this gumbo, okra is cooked into the stew and greens are added later. I love the earthiness that okra adds here. Instead of pureeing the greens as is often done, I left them in ribbons, and enjoyed that textural variation. A little vinegar is added at the end for some brightness.

Ingredients: 

  • 2 quarters of the gumbo base from above
  • 1/2 pound okra, destemmed and sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • half a bunch mix of greens, sliced into ribbons (mustard, kale, spinach, chard, etc.)
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Method:

Heat the gumbo base in a pot. Once it is hot, add about 5 cups of hot water, little at a time, after each time stirring the roux into a paste. This is the classic French method of making béchamel sauce, except that the liquid in that case is milk. Once all the water has been incorporated — this will take a few minutes — bring to a low boil. Add the okra, the paprika, bay leaf and salt. Boil for half hour to one hour on a low boil. Now add the greens. They only need to cook for ten minutes or so. Add the vinegar, taste for salt, and you are done.

IMG_1042 IMG_1044 IMG_1045

2. Cabbage Gumbo

Cabbage is found as an ingredient in some older recipes from the region and has lately gone out of style…why? Because — cabbage! Come on! Well I’m pretty déclassé myself so this recipe definitely attracts me. Milk is used as the liquid this time. Also this time I used filé powder at the time of serving; it thickens and adds a herbal something.

Ingredients:

  • Quarter of the gumbo base recipe from above
  • 1/3 head of cabbage, shredded
  • 1 serrano or jalapeno chili
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon filé powder

Method:

Heat the gumbo base in a pot along with the serrano chili, sliced. Put in the milk in the style of béchamel sauce, stirring to combine into a paste each time, making sure that there are no lumps. Once all the milk has been added, bring to a low boil. Add the cabbage and salt. Let it cook until the cabbage is softened, about 20 minutes. Serve with rice and some filé powder, which is to be stirred in.

Cabbage gumbo

Cabbage gumbo

3. Tomato-okra Gumbo

Most of you won’t care one whit but I guess I am dipping my toe into controversy. Some people don’t consider that tomatoes belong in a gumbo at all, but then I find tons of tomato gumbo recipes on the interwebs. So here it is, for what it is worth. Authentic or not, it was delicious.

Ingredients:

  • Quarter portion of gumbo base from above
  • 1/4 cup dry red kidney beans
  • 3 – 4 cloves garlic (I used several sticks of wild garlic)
  • About a dozen pods okra, sliced
  • 1 pasilla pepper, sliced
  • 1 cup thick tomato purée
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Method:

Soak the red kidney beans overnight, or, in very hot water for an hour. Then put them in a pot with about a cup of water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for half hour or so till softened.

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Put the gumbo base in a pot on medium heat. Once it is hot, sweat the three vegetables in it, one by one: first the garlic for a few minutes, then the pasilla peppers, and then the okra. Now in goes the tomato purée along with a cup and a half of extra water. If you had any water left over from cooking the beans, now is the time to add it. Add the salt. Bring to a boil, leave at a simmer for at least half hour, or as long as you want, until the vegetables are as softened as you like. In the last ten minutes of cooking, put in the kidney beans to meld its flavors together.

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So what did my adventure with vegetarian gumbo teach me? It can be done with excellent results. My husband enjoyed all three gumbo meals; he never once asked ‘where’s the meat?’ But he is so spoiled with Indian food that he did ask — ‘where’s the masala?’ I guess that is a compliment?

Tomato Gumbo

Tomato Gumbo

I referred to several webby recipes for Gumbo. Here are some of them.

http://www.nola.com/food/index.ssf/2010/05/cabbage_gumbo.html

http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/vegetarian-gumbo-recipe.html

http://www.gumbocooking.com/veggie-gumbo.html

Late breaking news:

Of course, the lard makes it not be vegetarian! Please use ghee for a ‘pure’ vegetarian experience. Or a good oil with a high smoke point. I used lard because I had some in the freezer, but then I’m not big on purity (of any sort!) I just like the taste of vegetables and am not keen on the taste of meat.

Salmon in a package

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I admit that nothing sounds less appetizing than salmon cooked in a package. It arouses images of cardboard boxes bound with duct tape, spiders crawling all over it while it is left on the doorstep. Perhaps I should name this recipe Salmon a la Amazon?

But I assure you, no other process is as frugal with flavors as this method. If it makes you feel better think of it the French way:  ‘salmon en papillote’ is what they call it. Whether or not the French make better food, they have certainly cornered the market on making it sound better.

In this method, the salmon or the thing being cooked is wrapped in a package made of foil or parchment paper. Here’s the thing about it:

One, since it is paper, one can wrap the thing being cooked rather tight, and the thing can be very snug indeed. Most vessels are going to have a rather large air space around the thing being cooked — which means, the aromas emanating from it, which one ideally wants to conserve as much as possible of — have a large air space in which to escape to. In contrast when you cook it in a package the aromas stay close to your food, deep inside the package, forming a sort of aroma bomb, waiting to explode when the package is unwrapped at the table. A good sort of bomb, that is.

Two — these are the type of stiff papers than one can crimp into a rough air seal. So not only are the aromas staying close by your food, they aren’t leaking out either. The evidence of that? Most of the time when you have salmon or something baking in the oven, your kitchen gets quite suffused with the smells. Normally one swoons over this, but, as the ‘package’ method of cooking sternly reprimands us — the more suffusing into your kitchen that is going on, the less the aromas are sticking around where they belong — right by your food.

Three — it is not just the aromas, it is the natural steam that leaves the food as it cooks. Normally this creeps out into the aforementioned large air space, drying out the food stuff; but if you cook in a package, the steam is imprisoned inside, and perforce has to suffuse the food, which then remains moist.

Sorry about the analysis but it is nice to know why one does what one does. Or, we could just say ‘en papillote’ and consider the point made.

Cross-section of salmon cooking in a package

Salmon en papillote

In this recipe, I allow the flavors of onion, garlic and basil to combine with that of salmon. These items are tightly wrapped together so they have nowhere to go except into each others’ arms. This recipe makes enough for a dinner for two.

Ingredients:

  • 2 salmon fillets — total about 3/4 lb.
  • half a teaspoon of salt
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced, your preference
  • A few large leaves basil, rolled up and sliced to chiffonade
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Method:

Lay out a piece of aluminium foil 18 inches wide and at least twice that long. Spread a teaspoon of oil on it, then place the fish fillets on, side by side. Spread the rest of the oil on the fillets evenly, then salt them both evenly. Now spread the onion, garlic and basil on the fillets evenly; and then the lemon juice.

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Now make your pouch. I apologize I forgot to take pictures of this process but you basically fold the edges in, then take the long overhang of the foil over, to cover the salmon completely and fold it under to make a sealed package.

Put it in a 400 F oven. In 20 minutes the fish should be done to medium-rare, translucent inside but cooked to a safe 140 F. If you like it cooked more, leave it in for at most 5 more minutes. At this point the fish should be opaque through and through but still flaky.

You will know what I mean by ‘aroma bomb’ when you unwrap the package at the table. Here is our dinner with a side of wild rice and broccoli.

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Feeding the husband’s habit

Husband's habit bread

Husband’s habit bread

Several years ago, poking around google looking for an oat bread recipe, I found that an unknown denizen of the Internet had put up a good-sounding recipe under the name of ‘Habit Bread‘. I made it that very day. My husband, who is a big fan of oat breads (he has his toasted with almond butter), said that I had aced it on the first try.

Since then, this loaf has become a standard in our family. Like with every other recipe I have made modifications — I call my version the Husband’s Habit Bread. It is so much part of my husband’s weekly routine that I try to have a loaf sliced and frozen at all times.

Here is a trick to storing loafs of bread, specially of this dense variety. One thing I have found is that the freezer works great, but unless one wants to thaw the entire loaf at once, it is better to pre-slice it. Then you can pull out one slice at a time.

Go ahead, pull one out. What? You can’t?! You can’t because all the slices stuck together when they froze?

Exactly. That’s why I put sheets of parchment or waxed paper in between each pair of slices before I freeze them. Put all the slices thus separated in a freezer bag, squeeze out as much air as you can from it, bind it tightly and put it in the freezer.

Husband’s Habit Bread

This recipe makes one 9″x5″ loaf.

Wet Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dry rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup corn polenta
  • 1/2 cup dry milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups water

Dry Ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur’s premium whole wheat)

1 cup bread flour

2 teaspoons instant yeast

Method:

Combine all the wet ingredients together into a pot and bring to a gently boil. Stir nicely to get it all to combine, paying special attention to breaking up the dry milk lumps. Once it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and wait for it to cool.

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The unknown denizen of the Internet who is the originator of the Habit Bread recipe mentions that a bowl of cooked oatmeal is notorious for holding onto heat and that is true. It takes a while for this mixture to cool to lukewarm. At the same time, you don’t want to wait too long, because then the mixture will turn into a giant lump and the bread will not mix very well. I have found through trial and error that this time period is about half an hour; but test before using.

Meanwhile combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a mixer; if you choose to knead by hand, just combine in a large bowl. Stir the flours with a fork. Put the (lukewarm) wet ingredients in and stir with the dough hook for about 3 – 4 minutes until the dry ingredients are moistened. You may find you need to add up to 1/4 cup extra water while kneading. Leave it covered with a plastic wrap for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Come back to it; by this point due to the autolyse process the dough will be much easier to knead into a smooth ball.

Turn on the mixer with the dough hook for another few minutes or so; first the dough will come together into a shaggy mass. I like to finish kneading by hand until maximal smoothness.

Cover with oil and let it rise at room temperature in an oiled bowl for about 2 hours. It should double in volume.

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Take it out of the bowl, flatten it gently into a rectangle and roll into a loaf, while taking care to tuck the ends in. Squeeze the seam shut all the way across to seal it. Oil the shaped dough and put into a 9 inch by 5 inch loaf pan, also oiled. Cover with a plastic wrap and let it rise at room temperature for an hour to an hour and a half more.

This is a pretty dense bread, and it is quite a job for the wheat flour gluten to lift up the great heft of the oats and the corn polenta. Plus we are using a large percentage of whole wheat flour, the bran in which tends to counteract the lift of gluten. So this bread is not going to win any light-and-airy contests. By the time it has peeked over the rim of the loaf pan, it is probably done rising.

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Bake in a 350 F oven for 55 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the meat of the loaf should read 200 F. Take it out of the oven and let it cool on a rack for an hour before slicing into it. Thank you, unknown denizen of the Internet.

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What is this ‘sinfully delicious’ you speak of?

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Bear with me please, I certainly understand ‘delicious’ but am struggling to understand why something delicious should be sinful. Yes, even dessert! This rustic pie makes a few healthy choices along the way and ends up with as close to a tonic as you would find in the dessert kingdom. At the risk of chasing away my readers with shear tedium, I will give little sidebars on the healthy choices I made and why.

This recipe makes two tarts.

Rustic Strawberry Tart

Ingredients for pie crust:

  • 2.5 cups stone-ground white whole wheat
    Whole wheat flour includes the germ and the bran and that’s where the nutrients generally hide. “White” whole wheat is made from a softer, albino wheat, that lacks the tannins of the red bran of the regular wheat. That is why it has a milder flavor and is more appropriate for the non-bread uses of flour: what I call the flakey-cakey family. Stone-grinding ensures that the flour does not heat up excessively while grinding and lose nutrients.
  • One and quarter teaspoon salt
  • One cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
    I recently read that — yes, I did a double-take too — there is no evidence that fat is fattening. Also that all those decades of advice telling us to avoid saturated fat were based on very flimsy evidence. So let us rejoice in butter and lard, people. And please do not scorn the wondrous coconut. As a matter of fact the supposedly heart-healthy butter substitutes are way worse for you than butter itself, while also (coincidentally?) needing more processing than good old fashioned butter, and so just happen to line various pockets more.
  • I did not sweeten the crust at all.
    Most pie crust recipes ask for a tablespoon or more of sugar. I desist. I don’t see the point: the filling is sweet, and I like the contrast with the crust. Sugar is metabolized by the liver and this makes it especially bad — worse than an equal amount of any other type of calories — for reasons I only dimly understand. Yes, worse than fat, the bogeyman from the last generation (Us Gen-X’ers would like our own bogeymen, please). But watch this or read this if you want to delve into it more.

Ingredients for filling:

  • 2 – 3 cups stemmed and chopped strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons raw organic demerera sugar
    In general, with sugar, the less refined the better. This kind of sugar has some of the molasses left in it. Clearly this is dessert so it is bound to have some sugar in it, but everything in moderation!
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 teaspoon butter

Method for the pie crust:

First, let us make the crust. A good flaky pie crust uses the following principles: First, you handle the flour as little as possible to avoid gluten from building up. Second, you keep things cold, for a similar reason; so you avoid touching with flour with your hands and their warmth. Third, you ‘cut’ the fat in, rather than knead it in, and leave it in little pea-sized bits till the end, because while cooking those bits will melt and leave holes in the pastry, and your client will go — mmm, flaky!

So bread-making is all about developing the gluten while pie crust is all about NOT developing the gluten. One is spongy and the other is flaky. This is how a single word can hide whole reams of tradition and science.

Start with all the flour and the salt generally mixed in in a large bowl. Get your stick of butter out of the fridge, and unwrap it only partially, so that you are holding it by means of the waxed paper wrapping, and keeping things cool. Using a paring knife, slice off bits of butter into the flour until the entire stick has been sliced off. Stir the butter bits around to coat with the flour. Then start cutting at the butter bits with a knife. This process can take about 10 minutes, but when you are done, the flour should all be touching butter or touching flour that is touching butter. Sorry that is the best way to describe it. It certainly does not look wet nor gathered together at all. The largest butter piece should be about the size of a pea.

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Now add 2 tablespoons of refrigerated water sprinkled over the top. Using a spatula start moistening the flour and pressing it together into a mass. Remember, no touching and no kneading! The flour will readily press together as soon as it is moistened, but will remain rather shaggy. Collect it all in a sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper, and using those flaps, press it together some more, until you can wrap it up into a parcel and put it into the fridge to chill.

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Great. Now the dough is chilled and hard and impossible to roll, now what? Before rolling, leave it out for about half hour. Cleanly slice it into two halves, then start rolling each into a rough circle.

The major, major problem with rolling this type dough is that it is sticky and squelchy with the butter bits. Two techniques come to our rescue: one, try rolling it between two sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap. Two, sprinkle dry flour on the surface where necessary but do this sparingly.

All right, now you have two rough circles. Lay them out on a cookie sheet.

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Method for assembling the pie:

Rinse, de-stem and slice the strawberries.

Since I am doing a strawberry pie I clearly didn’t exactly ‘choose’ strawberries. But strawberries are an incredibly healthy fruit with a number of antioxidants, second only to other berries and walnuts.

Gently mix with the sugar and the flour. Now pile them in the rough center of each of the pie crusts. Fold the edges over the pile of strawberries to partially cover them. Dot each open center with a dab of butter.

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Now bake as they are in a 400 F oven for 25 minutes or until the edges are browned.

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Pallid halibut. Pallibutt.

It has taken me a long time to get used to American food. And I don’t mean those paragons of American cultural invasion — the pizzas and the hamburgers. I mean the food that actual, real-life Americans eat in their homes; the food that mothers, and increasingly, fathers, cook to feed their families. You know, the protein, vegetable and starch trifecta that graces dinner plates across the nation at 6:30pm, with a basket of rolls by the side. The meal that is etched in my mind in a multiplicity of images: a little sandy-haired boy wearing shorts, leaning over the dining table with his elbows, pushing peas around with his fork. The bright, skirted wife/mother carrying a big roasted bird on a tray. The suit-wearing father with his pipe, wearing a frilly apron as a joke, handing rolls around the table.

An American family at the dinner table

An American family at the dinner table

I don’t know where these images come from (probably from America’s giant lifestyle industry), but you catch my drift.

It has taken me a long time to get used to this type of meal. Being Indian, I could not understand how meat could be eaten without a lot of spices, or how starch could be eaten just by itself — without mixing in a lot of spicy gravy. And what kind of a way is it to cook vegetables anyway — just steaming? Meat cooked in a plain way is the most challenging — after a few bites, it feels like rubber. This, for example, is what I was used to for the first 24 years of my life:

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I have had my challenges with the American meal. But since I married an American he has learned about my cuisine and I have learned about his. Now I can appreciate how the simplest of ingredients, unadorned, can please.

Hence this.

Halibut, cooked with a simple poaching. In milk. Turning it paler than pale. Pleasing my American husband immensely. And — can I admit it? Me too.

Pallid Halibut

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound halibut fillet
  • 1 cup milk
  • half an onion, minced
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 10 or so whole black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt to taste

Method:

Collect the whole spices and minced onion in a pan. Pour milk over and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle salt over the fish and lay into the simmering milk; salt some of the surrounding milk as well. Keep ladling some of the milk over the fish along with the spices and onion once in a while. In about 15 to 20 minutes, while you keep the milk at a simmer, it should be done.

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So — about done-ness. This is a concept that was new to me from Western cooking. The simplest way to check is to use a Thermapen thermometer to check the internal temperature of the fish — it should reach around 140 F. Another method is just to use a fork to see if the fish flakes easily and is opaque all the way in. Of course, some people like it more translucent.

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Here is my pallid hallibut, the center of our very American meal that evening.

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The Tahoe gratin

Tahoe Gratin

Tahoe Gratin

We spent labor day in a rented cabin in the Tahoe region. We had a state of the art kitchen at our disposal, a warm cozy evening for dining in, a few vegetables in the fridge, but no spices whatsoever. What’s an Indian cook to do?

Gratin!

I love gratins — the creamy cheesy crusty casseroles. I was first introduced to gratins in an strange fashion — a pure vegetarian Gujarati restaurant in Bombay had a ‘Vegetable Au Gratin’ on the menu and it was delicious. Restaurants in India have this strange quirk where the advertised cuisine hardly matters — a South Indian dosa restaurant will have an entire Indian Chinese menu, and throw in a club sandwich as well. They don’t seem to believe in specialization of cuisine.

Sort of like the proprietor here at The Odd Pantry you say? Hmm.

At any rate, this is a pure vegetarian gratin, and it is built in layers of potato, cauliflower and corn…all vegetables with distinct flavors that nevertheless that have a certain savoriness that unites them.

The Tahoe gratin

Ingredients:

  • 1 large red potato or 2 medium
  • Half a head of cauliflower
  • Half a pound bag of frozen corn kernels
  • One and half cup milk
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour (same amount as butter)
  • salt to taste
  • A 2″ by 2″ by 2″ block of good sharp cheddar cheese

Method:

In this dish I precook all the vegetables to minimize and equalize the gratin baking time. The other principle I follow is to salt each layer on its own.

First, the potatoes. Slice the potato as thin as you can get them (eighth of an inch). Put them in a pyrex container, add salt enough for the potatoes, and submerge them in half a cup milk. Microwave for 2 – 3 minutes and then set aside.

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Next the cauliflower. Slice the florets into quarter inch thick slices, put them in a bowl, add some salt, and once again, microwave for 2 – 3 minutes and set aside.

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Next the corn. Same routine — put in a bowl, add salt enough for the corn, and microwave. With the frozen corn all we are trying to do is thaw them.

Vegetables are ready. Let’s make the bechamel sauce. Heat the butter in a small pot. When it melts, add the flour and stir, stir, stir on gentle heat. It will foam and bubble and perhaps turn a shade darker. Now put in the milk. Stir with your wooden spoon for dear life as you slowly pour the milk in. You may need to resort to a whisk, the idea is we are trying to not have any lumps. Keep the heat gentle. You can also pour in any extra milk from the potato cooking bowl. Once all the milk has gone in, and the mixture is smooth, you can up the heat and bring to a boil. Add salt enough for this sauce.

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Once it comes to a boil, turn it off after a minute. We are ready to compose the layers. In a flat baking dish, first layer in the potato slices, trying to keep even thickness. Next put on the cauliflower florets in a layer. Next the corn. Now pour the bechamel sauce all over the vegetables, pushing and prying with a spatula to get it everywhere.

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Cut the cheese up into tiny cubes. Cover the top of the casserole with cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes at 425 F. In the last 10 minutes, take the foil off to get it to brown. If you want more of a brown crust, stick it under the broiler for 5 extra minutes.

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Here are some other ideas for other vegetables to add to the mix: peas, leeks, roasted zucchini.