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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_1194

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.

IMG_1193 IMG_1196

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.

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.

butternut soup 2 001