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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One weird trick to make pumpkin death-defyingly delicious

IMG_7296Just think—what is pumpkin, but a combination of excrutiatingly delicious orange pumpkin matter, and water. Water is water. It’s great. Stuff of life, 90% of the body, et cetera, et cetera. But it isn’t where the deliciousness lives. In fact, it mingles with the deliciousness of pumpkin flesh and—waters it down.

Who wants something that is watered down? No—one seeks the emphatic, the bold, the pure. Right?

So the trick to making delicious pumpkin and other winter squash is to remove the water. How to do that. Let’s see…there’s this thing that water does…I know, don’t tell me…it requires heat, but not center-of-the-sun heat…just normal, household-appliance-level heat…starts with ‘e’, ends with ‘e’…yes! It evaporates. Water evaporates when applied heat. Pumpkin flesh, on the other hand, does not.

Therein lies the secret. You’re welcome. Water just ups and leaves when things get hot enough. Pumpkin stays for the long haul.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. Imagine you roast a pumpkin (or other winter squash) so the flesh is easy to scoop off the peel. Then, you cook the pumpkin flesh in a pan for a good long time, stirring, stirring; till the steam rises and keeps rising and rising and eventually most of the water becomes the steam and leaves; and what you are left with is an increasingly pasty, gummy, reduced, deeply orange mass.

This takes only a couple ingredients to become one of India’s famed concoctions, to be had as dessert, or as a side with roti, or snuck in between meals from the fridge. Midnight snack? You wouldn’t dare? Done. Pumpkin halwa is great in all these ways.

Pumpkin halwa

Halwa is a general name for Indian desserts that are pastes. Sorry. What that description lacks in glamour it makes up in accuracy. It can be made of a number of widely disparate foods; wheat farina, whole wheat flour, carrot; and pumpkin. When I say ‘pumpkin’ of course I’m using it as a term of endearment for all winter squashes, those with the hard shell and sweet orange flesh. I used kabocha, which is known by foodies to out-pumpkin even the standard autumn pumpkins in terms of taste.

Made sweeter, it is a nice finish to a meal, served in tiny confection bowls; made a little less sweet, goes great as a side with deep-fried puffed breads, i.e. pooris.

Pumpkin halwa

Ingredients:
  • One medium sized kabocha squash or sugar pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
  • Seeds of 6 green cardamoms
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
  • Pinch of salt
Method:

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Slice the kabocha/pumpkin through the equator and scoop out the seeds with a sharp-sided spoon. I have found it really helps to pick a spoon that matches the curve of the hollow where the seeds are.

Lay the halves cut side down on a foil-lined cookie sheet along with 2 tablespoons water. Bake in oven for 45 minutes.

At that point the squash should be completely soft and easy to prick through with a knife. Bring them out and scoop out all the flesh.

Heat the ghee or butter in a non-stick, thick-bottomed pan. When melted, add the squash and cook on medium-high, mashing it down into the fat and stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, grind the black inner seeds of the cardamom in a mortar and pestle.

In about 30 to 45 minutes, the flesh should be much drier and also look smoother, as the rough grain disappears with the water content. At this point, add a pinch of salt, the sugar, and the cardamom. Add more sugar after tasting if it is not sweet enough.

Garnish with ground pistachios, slivered almonds, roasted cashews, raisins or any combination.


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The parable of food preservation; an Indian carrot pickle

IMG_7128Once upon a time, the dark cold months were months of deprivation. No green shoots appeared in the ground, no fruit swelled on the trees. The young ones went without, or raided the underground cellars for the grains and husks that they shared with their rodents. But the old ones said no, look, here’s what you do. You collect your bounty in the sunlit months; then you preserve it to feast on in the dark months.

“Preserve?” said the young ones, reflecting that perhaps dementia had claimed the old ones. “We have no fridges, nor vacuum packs. Surely, microbes will feast on our bounty before our clumsy hands are able to tear off a single chunk of it to place at the hungry lips of our babes. Surely a week, perhaps two, is how much one can hope to prolong the lives of these frilly delicate vegetables, whose very fronds seem infused with the light of Solis. But all season long? Respectfully, winter is long and harsh.”

“You fools,” said the old ones then, “have we taught you nothing?” They might have cuffed them with an open hand, I’m not sure. Then they drew out jars and jars of fruits and shoots they had taken the trouble to preserve many moons ago. The glass shone with the still preserved colors of the sun’s bounty.

IMG_7143But at first, the young ones shrank from the taste. “Pooh!” they said. “We see that this is imbued with the deep orange of a carrot, but the saltiness scours our tongue. And the mango—did you have to preserve it when green and sour? Could you not have waited for its velvety sweetness to emerge? Ah, we would give our firstborn for the taste of a sweet mango now! That clay jar under the ground—could that be cabbage? But heed the fumes—did a dog die in there?”

“Your trouble,” said the old ones, snatching the kimchee from their hands, “is that your noses are underdeveloped. Look. All of creation loves a good vegetable. You do, and so do the microbes. Food preservation is a race—who shall get to eat the bounty first? The microbes, or the apes known as humans?”

“We are not apes,” the young ones said, with dignity.

“You certainly are,” the old ones returned, “but moving on. Now not all microbes are created alike. Some sicken and extinguish us; others concoct healthful compounds in our foods. Let us call them (because thou hast simple minds, and thy understanding is shallow) the good microbes and the bad microbes. Some of food preservation is nothing but allowing the good microbes to build their colonies in our foods; by their own mysterious devices, the good microbes then form barricades to prevent the bad microbes from entering. Not only that; the guts of these little ones start to break down the foods, thus do our guts get a head start.”

“Shall we then eat microbe-infested foods?” the young ones queried. “Your brains are going soft, perhaps the good microbes have fomented trouble in them.”

“The word is ‘fermented’,” the old ones said, “and you need to understand, your bodies are suffused with microbes at all times. Be not childishly fearful. In fact, in the age of our descendants, fermentation will be thought of with glamour and books and websites shall celebrate the advent of the good microbes in our food, and our partnership with them.”

The old ones then explained how salting the food created a happy place for the good microbes, but instilled fear in the hearts of the bad ones. And how sourness also chased away the bad ones, so one could add to the food an acid-making elixir, such as lemon or vinegar; but if one wanted to be specially tricky, one could have the good microbes produce their own sourness from the depths of their bowels, as they feasted on sugars. Such sourness, the old ones further explained, went by the name of lactic acid, but had little to do with the food of the mammal babes.

IMG_7131“But heed,” the old ones intoned, “while fermentation is hip, do not forget, it is not the only way. Remember, water is needed for all of creation, and all of creation harbors it; the bad microbes desire it with a thirst so deep that it might be a thirst for life itself. What if one were to draw the water out of our foods, and leave it shrunken and dry; the microbes would find it as bare as a moonscape and would not deign to enter. Then: what if one were to cover the whole thing in oil, perhaps an oil such as from the mustard plant, that is practically a warrior against microbes itself, what then?”

What one has, then, is an Indian pickle.

Indian pickles (achar)

It has been a persistent mystery in the minds of some interested parties as to whether Indian pickles are fermented, or not. Among these, I count myself, and also my dear blogger friend Annie Levy from Kitchen Counter Culture. Well, by applying the powers of my mind deeply to the question in a Holmesian sort of way, I think I have my answer. Indian pickles—the typical kind, that are preserved in mustard oil—are not.

Now there are certainly Indian pickles that are fermented, but those are not the norm and the ones that I am familiar with do not use oil at all. But we will talk about those another time.

The typical pickles use a pretty standard method. First, salt the food: salt wants to reach equilibrium, and if the food isn’t salty already, it wants to enter the food from its surroundings. As it enters, it draws out the moisture and takes its place inside the food.

Next, allow the moisture to dry out by placing it in the sun. Once the pieces are much shrunken, jar it up and pour mustard oil over.

IMG_7127This is the basic method I have used with such disparate ingredients as cranberries and sour mango. This time, we have carrots and some green garlic.

The spices tend to be a similar set. Fennel seed is congenial, and so is the use of nigella seed. Turmeric powder has antiseptic properties so that is always used, and the heat comes from red chilies. Usually, the spices are left whole, this time, I chose to pulverize them a bit. They went from looking like this to this:

Of course, a lot of salt is used, and the carrots and green garlic are thoroughly mixed with the spices and salt and laid out on a wide, flat surface. Cover with cheesecloth, place in the sun, and allow the salt and the sun to perform their magic. Watch the slow shriveling of the carrots over the period of a week:

Once the pieces look pretty dry, it is time to mix in some lemon juice, jar it up and pour mustard oil over. Some like to heat the oil to smoking point and then cool it before using, but I don’t see the point because I want the oil to be at peak pungency.

Carrot pickle

  • Servings: 1 pint jar
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • About 10 carrots, washed, scraped, and dried completely
  • About 5 full stalks of green garlic, washed, trimmed and dried completely
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • 1.5 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (methi)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 0.5 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 0.5 tablespoons turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • About half a cup of mustard oil

Method:

Once the vegetables are completely dry, slice them up in smallish segments, the exact shape does not matter. You could do longish sticks or smallish dice, as I did.

Pulverize the whole spices (fennel, fenugreek, nigella and mustard) slightly using a mortar and pestle. You can skip this step if you like.

Place the vegetables in a wide platter and cover with the pulverized spices, the salt, turmeric and red chili powder. Give it a thorough mixing so all the pieces are evenly covered with the salt and spices.

Cover the platter with cheesecloth and place at a sunny window. My window only gets sun for about an hour in the mornings and that seemed to be enough. Every couple days, give it another mixing with a scrupulously clean spoon.

In about a week the vegetable pieces will look much shriveled, darker and more leathery. Stir in the lemon juice.

Transfer to a scrupulously clean glass jar (you can sterilize it in boiling water first if you like, I didn’t). Pack it down. Pour some of the mustard oil over it and wait for it to settle; pour more. Do this in a few stages, until a thin film of oil shines over the very top of the jar. For me, it took about half a cup. Cover and store in the pantry.

Your pickle (achar) is done. It is great as a side in minuscule portions (since it is highly spiced). It should last for a good long time, even up to a year.


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Green tomato chutney, and the Talented Mr. Late Blight

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

If you read my last post, you know that I am trying to rescue my harvest of green tomatoes. I made salsa verde out of some of them, but the question naturally arises—how much salsa verde can one family reasonably eat? The answer is—not much. So on we go to other ideas.

Late Blight

But first, I threw out in my last post that my crop was threatening to be swallowed up by late blight. I did not know this at the time, but my tomatoes were brushing up against history. This is the same disease that once struck potatoes in Ireland, in 1845 precisely, and loosed famine upon the land. The cause of the disease is a pathogen known as water mold. An unassuming name, but it hides some points of interest, as Sherlock Holmes might say. You know the game that kids play where the first question asked is: “animal, vegetable or mineral?” Well, a similar first question to ask about lifeforms is: is it an animal, or a plant? Or a fungus (like mushrooms and yeast), or perhaps a bacteria? So which of these is the water mold?

Neither, it turns out. It is not an animal, nor a plant, nor a bacteria, and not, also, a fungus, though it superficially resembles one. Its is in fact from a separate kingdom of life entirely, known as the oomycetes.

Regardless of its pedigree, it has killer intent when it is found on tomatoes. First brown spots appear on leaves, and they dry and fall. The fruit remains relatively untouched pretty late in the game, which is why I was able to rescue most of them. But eventually greasy dark spots appear on the stem side first, and soon the entire tomato is covered with it. San Francisco’s coolness and fog is quite congenial to Late Blight, so much to my regret, this foe might always be dogging my heels.

Tomato chutney

You know that a foreign vegetable has been completely accepted into Indian cuisine when it undergoes chutneyfication. By this metric, the tomato has become a quintessential Indian vegetable since the Portuguese brought it over in the 16th century. The number of recipes for tomato chutney is immense. Here, though, is one that draws from Bengali cuisine.

Garlic and chili

Garlic and chili

Pulverised

Pulverised

Spice seeds

Spice seeds

In oil

In oil

Frying spice paste

Frying spice paste

Green tomatoes enter

Green tomatoes enter

Tossed with oil and spices

Tossed with oil and spices

After a while

After a while

Done

Done

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

Bengali green tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 4 green serrano chilies
  • 4 cups of sliced green tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup olive or other oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
  • 1 teaspoon asafetida
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 2 teaspoon salt
Method:

Pulverize the garlic and chili in a mortar and pestle until it is a paste. Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on a medium-high flame. When it shimmers put in the five types of seeds (cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel, nigella). When they sizzle and pop, the asafetida and red chili powders. When they foam up, the garlic chili paste. The paste will cook in a few minutes, but make sure it does not burn. Now the rough-chopped tomatoes go in along with the salt. Toss to combine with oil and spice.

Cook on medium-low for a whole hour, turning occasionally and mashing with the back of the spoon. In an hour, it will have dried quite a bit, and the oil will be gleaming through. Mash once again, let it cool, and empty into a jar.


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Unpopular ideas collide in Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

My love affair with eggplant continues. Any confirmed eggplant haters would be wise to click away now. This blog has become nothing but a vehicle for eggplant worship — maybe I should rename it ‘The Odd purple vegetable in your Pantry’.

In any case. The other love affair I have is with mashing things. Now the very word ‘mash’ arouses deeply unfashionable images in the foodie mind. Perhaps images of an eater who has lost their teeth or not yet grown any; or of overcooked and limp strands; or perhaps images of hospital trays with their scanty TV dinners.

But it is time for mashes, and their French cousins, the purées, to get some respect. There is no other method that combines flavors as well; and if some fat is added, as it is in this recipe, the mash gets a sheen and a nice mouth feel. If the ingredients that go into a mash marry well, there is no reason to scorn it. Plus, there is the thrill of pulverizing ingredients together — many adults have attested that their early love for cooking came from the thrill of mixing things up just to see what would happen.

Or, you can call it a ‘dip’ and feel fashionable again.

Pampered Father

Now for the pampered father, or, ‘Baba Ganoush‘ in Arabic. Apparently a sultan in some ancient royal harem in the middle east came up with this particular eggplant mash…or perhaps he just enjoyed it very much, the OED is not clear on this point. Somehow, this pampered, coy father achieved culinary fame that reached across the centuries and empires, all the way to food trucks in contemporary San Francisco.

What is this pampered father? Roasted, pureed eggplant, flavored with ground sesame seeds (tahini), olive oil, lemon, and other flavorings. It can be eaten as a snack with pita points, or as a dressing in a felafel sandwich.

There is a certain amount of freedom on what other flavorings to add; and here I have chosen a rather unusual addition — that of roasted red pepper. Not only does it add a subtle sweetness, but also little flecks of red. Plus — eggplant and pepper being nightshade cousins, it is a bit of a family reunion.

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Peeling eggplant

Peeling eggplant

Peeled flesh

Peeled flesh

Pureeing

Pureeing

Done

Done

Baba Ganoush with red bell pepper

Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 large globe eggplant
  • 1 red bell pepper (optional)
  • Quarter cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of half to one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Parsley for garnish
Method:

Heat the oven to 450ºF. Rub a bit of oil all over the eggplant and bell pepper and place them on a tray and into the oven. Bake them for half hour to forty-five minutes, turning once or twice during that time. At this point, the vegetables will have completely collapsed and be soft inside.

Meanwhile, heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. Roast the sesame seeds on it, keeping them moving once in a while. Soon an aroma will arise and the color will darken one shade. Turn off the heat. After cooling them for a few minutes, grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

When the eggplant and bell pepper are cool enough to handle, peel them. The skin should come off quite easily due to the baking. Put the flesh, along with the sesame seed powder, salt, olive oil and lemon juice into a food processor and pulse till smooth.

Taste for salt and lemon juice, add parsley for garnish.


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The sweet potato’s diamond-shaped leaves

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

The next time you would like greens for dinner, look beyond spinach (the old stand-by) but also look beyond kale (the flashy rising star). You may not find these at a big grocery store, but the farmer’s markets and Asian stores are usually packed with leaves of all shapes and sizes bundled together with a trifling rubber band. Among them, here is what I found the other day — sweet potato greens. Sadly, I have never seen these for sale in any of the big stores, even ones that have piles of sweet potatoes all through the year. If one has any kind of relationship with the growers, one could ask vendors of the sweet potato to occasionally bring in some greens too; or if one has a garden one could try growing them. If all else fails, take a trip to lovely San Francisco for the Alemany farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

Like its more famous root brother, the leaves are packed with nutrition. Each diamond-shaped leaf is about a few inches long, and the stems are green and look like hollow reeds. They take very little cooking. Once wilted, they are pretty much done, and the tender stems can be eaten too. Only the tougher ends (you can feel them resist as you try to snap them, much like one trims asparagus) must be thrown away. Once cooked this way, their taste is extremely unobjectionable; a slight sliminess is about the only thing that sets it apart.

You know what that means — it is all about the seasoning! A simple sauté will wilt them nicely. We needed a side for an Asian meal that centered around rice. Here is what I did.

Sweet potato greens with ginger, garlic and fish sauce

The ingredients here are so few that the details matter. The ginger and garlic are minced fine and cooked in oil in a slow sizzle. Fish sauce adds a wonderful aroma so I would suggest you don’t substitute with soy (though in pinch, I have).  The leaves and tender stems are cut in two-inch segments, which is large enough to have body and small enough to be bite-sized. And the sesame oil topping is just the thing.

A tip! There are other mild-flavored greens that would do just as well: pea shoots and chard come to mind. This goes very well with some plain white jasmine rice.

Diamond-shaped leaves of sweet potato

Diamond-shaped leaves of sweet potato

Trimmed

Trimmed

Ginger and garlic and greens

Ginger and garlic and greens

Gently saute

Gently saute

Sizzling

Sizzling

Piling greens in

Piling greens in

Wilted

Wilted

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

Ingredients:
  • 1 bunch sweet potato vines
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 inch piece of ginger root, minced
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • Few squirts of roasted sesame oil (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • Red chili flakes or sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
Method:

Wash and trim the greens. Only remove the tough stems; this can be discovered by snapping them at the point where the tender stem ends and the tough stem begins, much like snapping asparagus spears. Mince ginger and garlic.

Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, put the ginger and garlic in. Turn the heat to medium-low and allow them to cook slowly. This will ensure that all the aroma is released, but also that they do not brown. When they start to seem shriveled, pile in the leaves along with whatever drops of water cling to them.

Turning carefully with tongs, allow all the greens to be covered with oil. This will take a few minutes; as soon as the bottom ones wilt, turn it over, and shortly all the greens will have wilted. Add the small amount of salt and the fish sauce. If you are adding sugar, now is the time.

This barely needs covering in order to cook; once all the greens have wilted, remove to the serving dish. There will be some flavorful liquid left over, carefully pour that over the greens. Add a few squirts of sesame oil, and the cracked pepper and sesame seeds.


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A thousand names for eggplant

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Eggplant display (source: via Wikimedia Commons, user Phoebe (Own work))

Writing the eggplant post last week left me in a quandary. Since I live in the US, calling it eggplant seems natural. But then all through my childhood I called it baingan in Hindi and brinjal in English. Some of my readers from the UK will probably want to call it aubergine, while Australians, I hear, prefer the term egg fruit. [Update, 3/22: no, from comments, turns out they call it eggplant too.]

United by a common language indeed!

Well it turns out that the names of this humble vegetable have come about through a global game of Telephone (Chinese Whispers in India) involving empires and migrations of peoples. Sometimes the names have gone around the world and even come back to the source, changed, to go another round.

Intriguing.

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

Wight, R., Illustrations of Indian botany, or figures illustrative of each of the natural orders of Indian plants, vol. 2: t. 166 (1850) [Goovindo] (Source: http://plantillustrations.org)

The story begins somewhere in India near Burma. Before the Sanskrit speakers and even the Dravidian speakers migrated to India, it was largely occupied by the Munda people. Remnants of the Munda people survive today as tribes in pockets. They were already eating a small, spiny, yellowish fruit that tended to be bitter. Being from the nightshade family, it was also toxic. Over the years they cultivated it to be edible, larger, less spiny, less bitter, and to grow in a season. Once in a while, you still feel super sharp spines on the green tops of eggplants — a reminder of how difficult this vegetable once was to harvest.

The later arrivals to India, the Dravidian-speakers and the Sanskrit speakers, based their words for local vegetables on the original Munda words. The Munda word for eggplant survives as echoes in the Sanskrit vrintaka. In fact, they must have known that the tomato and the eggplant are both from the nightshade family, because the eggplant was known as ‘kanta vrintaka‘ while tomatoes were known as ‘rakta vrintaka‘ — presumably, spiny nightshade and blood nightshade respectively.

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Farmworker in Sejwat, Gujarat, India (source: Wikimedia commons, user Arne Hückelheim)

Another Sanskrit name that eggplant was given was ‘vatingan‘ which comes from its abilities to remove gas (=wind gone, or, more pointedly, fart gone). This word became the ancestor of a number of words used all over India:

  • Hindi: baingan
  • Kannada: badne kai (‘kai’ = vegetable)
  • Telugu: vankaya
  • Bengali: begun
  • Marathi: vangi
  • Sindhi: vangan

Interesting. I love eggplant, but I’ve never thought of it as a substitute for Gas-X. Perhaps I should.

Meanwhile, still in the cloudy ancient past, Persian cooks caught wind of it also. There the Sanskrit word vatingan became transformed into badenjan. Iranian dialects still have a range of similar words for eggplant, showing its ancestry: from the Encyclopedia Iranica, we have badengan, patlejan, vangun (similar to Sindhi) and vayemjun. In Afghanistan, smack in the middle, the word is bademjan.

Now remember that eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, famed producer of toxins (for instance tobacco with nicotine, chilies with capsaicin). And by this point eggplant hadn’t had the track record in cultivation to have the toxins bred out of it. So some of the writings on this vegetable from those ancient days are filled with warnings. Persian writers from the Middle Ages blame eggplant for all kinds of ills from leprosy to the mysterious black bile.

But then, they went on to say, salting it removed those toxins, turning it beneficial, and neutralizing the bile. Could that advice be the reason that we in the modern age of the cultivated, toxin-free eggplant, continue to salt it like dolts? Sorry, I meant to say, the Persian scholars have been hugely influential in our current cuisine.

A dish made from eggplant and tomato -- two nightshades

A dish made from eggplant and tomato — two nightshades

By getting the Persian cooks interested, eggplant hit the big time. The Persian lands were conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century. As food historian Rachel Laudan recounts in this essay, from the eighth century on, as the Islamic empire flourished in Baghdad, their chefs adapted Persian cuisine and spread it to their newly conquered capitals. They conquered Spain across the Mediterranean, and took the eggplant with them. The Arabs called it al-badinjan from the Persian, prefixing it with the Arabic definite article ‘al’. The Spanish dropped the ‘al’, and called it berenjena, as did the Portuguese, with their beringela. But Catalan kept the ‘al’, so eggplant became alberginia.

Now the French, nestled close to the Catalan lands, picked up this vegetable and also this word, but they had difficulty with the ‘al-‘ prefix, and rendered the word as aubergine. This word continues to be used today in France as well as England.

Interestingly, the Persian word for eggplant spread to Europe through two independent routes. West of the Mediterranean, it went to Spain and eventually France as aubergine. But east of the Mediterranean, the Arab conquest of Iran took it to Turkey, then to Greece, Italy and Eastern Europe. From the Encyclopedia Iranica again, “the spread of the word bādenjān can be traced in the Eastern Turkish patingen, Turkish and Russian patinjan, Georgian badnjan, Astrakhan Tatar badarjan or badijan.”

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer's market haul

Yes, these are eggplants too. A farmer’s market haul

From that to Greek melitzana, and Latin melongena. Latin being a mother language in its own right, its word for eggplant became another fount of creativity. Linnaes picked it up to give its botanical name: Solanum melongena. Italian still uses the melanzana from the Latin. In fact just the other night I had some delicious melanzane alla Parmigiana. The English picked this up, briefly, as melongene, eventually to drop it in favor of aubergine. But they used that word long enough to bequeath it to Caribbean English as meloongen, as it is still used today.

Still with me? The insanity is not over yet, in fact, it is just beginning. Some in England heard the Latin melongena and took it to be mala insana — mad apple.

Mad Apple? We are a long way from Fart Gone. Are we still talking about Egg Plant? Yes.

As a matter of fact, the Old Foodie website quotes what seems to be the source of this mistranslation to ‘mad apple’ — a treatise known as Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (1710) by William Salmon. The English didn’t just mishear and corrupt melongena as mad apple. They also corrupted Badenjan to Brevun Jains, and the Portuguese beringela to Brown Jolly. It is still known as brown jolly today in the West Indies.

Four kinds of eggplants (source: Thai food blog on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Four kinds of eggplants (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thai-food-blog/ on Flickr under Creative Commons License)

Now by this point the English were quite peripatetic themselves; rather than sitting in place waiting for fruits to land on their shores, they were out colonizing and bringing back botanical curiosities to grow at home. They had already become acquainted with eggplant through this route, and grew it as an ornamental. In the sixteenth century, it got described by an English herbalist known as John Gerard as ‘having the bignesse of a Swans egge’. This is probably the source of its current name, eggplant.

However, at this point the English did not consider it food, being from the nightshade family; just like Persian scholars from a thousand years ago, they warned of its propensity to cause disease, everything from cancer to piles to bad breath. ‘Doubtlesse these Apples have a mischevous qualitie,” John Gerard wrote, “It is therefore better to esteem this plant and have it in the garden for your pleasure and the rarenesse thereof, than for any virtue or good qualities yet knowne.’

This name, eggplant, is the one that the English took with them to America and Australia. It must be that they finally learned to enjoy it as food from the French, hence their word for it came from the French also — the elegant aubergine. (There are other examples of this Frenchification of food words: for instance, the English have a perfectly decent word that means ‘cow’ — it is, ‘cow’. But when they used the cow as food, they called it ‘beef’ from the French ‘boeuf’.)

Now, we are ready to come full circle, where I began, and where we began, back to India. The Portuguese colonized India in the sixteenth century, and brought their beringela back home. Either the Indians, or the later colonizers, the English, turned this into brinjal. This is the word that still survives today, as an English word, in India, Malaysia, and elsewhere. We think of this as an English word, but none of the English-speaking countries actually use it.

Notes: Eggplant was actually domesticated in China very early as well, in 500 BC; but I did not cover its trajectory through those lands, mostly because I lack familiarity with the languages. Also, I linked to my sources throughout, and my information is only as good as theirs is. 

Hungry for more eggplant names? Here you go. Not satisfied? What’s it going to take? Here you go.

Tl;dr? Here you go.

Eggplant words

Eggplant words

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How to make eggplant delicious

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Call it eggplant, call it aubergine, or call it brinjal. Many will tell you that this is their most hated vegetable. I’m not sure what it is — is it that the flesh turns mushy and dark when cooked? Or that it is studded with seeds throughout? Or is it the sharp and yet bland flavor?

Whatever it is, while most people are cowering in fright from the onslaught of the dreaded eggplant, a vast swath of Asia from Iran to northern India is shoveling great mouthfuls of it down the hatch and passing the dish around for seconds. Why? What have they discovered?

One, that eggplant must be cooked through. Completely soft on the inside, almost charred on the outside. None of this fashionable light grill-marks with the al dente bite remaining. (What is the deal with that anyway? Why can’t we cook each vegetable the way the vegetable itself demands it, instead of applying one fashionable cooking method to all?)

Two, use oil. Enough oil. Be not afraid of the fat — haven’t you heard? Fat is good for you again! Eggplant soaks in oil like a sponge, they say, in faintly disapproving tones; not mentioning the crucial fact — that the oil, once it hits the inside at heat, is turning a rubbery sponge into sheer lusciousness.

The other trick? That eggplant goes well with the aromatic trio — onion, garlic and ginger, used in creative ways; and goes specially well layered with plain, thick, slightly-sour-and-slightly-creamy yogurt.

Eggplant peel — a fraught subject. And pre-salting?

One of the first disputes we had in our marriage was over eggplant peel. I love how it crisps up and adds a nice dimension to each bite of pan-grilled slices. While for my husband the peel sliding off the flesh in long strands causes psychic distress. In order to ever be able to have eggplant for dinner, I had to get him to partake; and in order to get him to eat it, I had to peel it.

So I do. But if you do not have a problem with the peel, you should leave it on, because the purple hues of the peel contain the same purple nutrient that blueberries do.

Also, I read in a lot of cooking advice that one must salt the eggplant for 30 minutes, and drain the resulting liquid, in order to remove the bitterness. I’m not sure what I am missing but I don’t find eggplant bitter in the first place. I never pre-salt it, and the result is not in the slightest bit objectionable. Is it possible that the eggplant of yore was indeed bitter and we have bred it out over the centuries? Yes, it is possible. So, skip the salting.

Baingan ki Boorani

A dish very similar to this was made in our home to be eaten with rotis. It is a classic all over Afghanistan and other parts of North India. Madhur Jaffrey has covered it in several of her books as well. But my recent inspiration came from the Feeding the Sonis blog, where Sanjana has made a dish with the same ingredients but different presentation. Check it out!

It involves pan-fried eggplant slices covered with flavored yogurt. Here, let your imagination be your guide. I did not add any green herbs, but anything from mint to scallions or cilantro would work; I did not make a tomato gravy, but that could be used  to cover the eggplant slices as well.

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Pan-fry

Pan-fry

Flipped

Flipped

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Salt and mash garlic

Salt and mash garlic

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Fried onion

Fried onion

Topped with onion

Topped with onion

Topped with yogurt and spices

Topped with yogurt and spices

baingan ki boorani

Ingredients:
  • One large globe eggplant
  • Up to a quarter cup of oil
  • Half to one cup yogurt
  • Half of a medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, less if you prefer
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala, substitute with roasted and ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder, substitute with paprika for no heat
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Slice the eggplant into half inch wide rounds. Keep the peel on (see notes above). Make slashes across one surface of the slice, in a vaguely tic-tac-toe pattern. The slashes do not have to penetrate to the other side.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a large non-stick pan and when shimmering, lay the eggplant slices out in a single layer, slashed side down. They will start to sizzle and slowly brown. It will take about five minutes. Salt the tops with a light hand. Flip each slice, adding more drops of oil if needed and if it looks too dry. Salt the other side too.

Meanwhile prepare the flavorings. Whisk about half to one cup of plain yogurt to make it smooth. Thinly slice the onion. Mince the garlic, and salt it for about five minutes, then mash with a fork or in a mortar and pestle. Also grate the ginger. For this, I prefer my Japanese ceramic ginger grater, that does the job beautifully. But another means of grating it would work as well.

The garlic and ginger, once mashed, simply get mixed into the yogurt. Fry the onion slices in another tablespoon of oil until browned. Take care to salt the onions lightly as they cook, and add a small pinch of salt to the yogurt as well.

At this point, all ingredients are individually salted and can simply be assembled. Before serving, place some slices of onion on each slice, then a dollop of yogurt. Lastly, sprinkle with some chaat masala and some red chili powder, for color and heat. Or if you prefer, and if your onions are crisply fried, place some on top of the yogurt as well.

Enjoy!

Burmese broth with bitter greens

Burmese broth with bitter greens

Burmese broth with bitter greens

Two things that I’m having a lot of fun discovering — one is Burmese cuisine with its fishy umami and floral flavors . The other is the leaves of the bitter melon. I can’t decide which to be more excited about; but when you combine them? An explosion of flavors!

So let me tell you what I know about both. I have always loved the bitter melon (karela). This is a cousin of your garden-variety cucumbers and cantaloupes, but its seeds are large and hard, its skin is bumpy, and its flesh is scanty and bitter. Certainly for special tastes; but once your tongue has learned to love it, you really love it.

Bitter melon grrens

Bitter melon greens

But then, I recently discovered that its leaves are edible too. One finds them at the farmer’s markets in San Francisco that serve an ethnic clientele. They are sold in giant bunches for a dollar. I leave with my wallet almost intact, and my shopping bag full to bursting with greens, the tendrils spilling over the top.

One of the most enchanting things about buying a bunch of bitter melon greens is the baby gourds one finds attached to some shoots. Normally the gourds are at least six inches long, but with every purchase you also get some baby gourds, some no bigger than your finger tip. These can be thrown into the pot along with the greens, they do not need much cooking.

A baby bitter melon compared to an onion

A baby bitter melon (karela) compared to an onion

Those of you who want to like dandelion leaves, but find that they are just a little too bitter to enjoy, might love the bitter melon leaves. They only have to be cooked long enough to wilt, and have a complex, grassy bitter-tinged flavor.

Now about Burmese cuisine. I admit I don’t know much about it but I’m starting to learn. I recently got a Burmese recipe book; but rather than make any recipe from it, I tried to understand the techniques and flavors and tried to imbue this particular broth with the Burmese gestalt. At the risk of causing derisive laughter among any Burmese readers, I made what I like to think of as a Burmese broth. Unlike Indian food, it only gently cooks onions; it uses lemongrass infusion; and it uses fish sauce instead of the more Chinese soy.

We loved it with some white rice. please let me know in comments if you did too.

Soften vegetables

Soften vegetables

Vegetables in pot

Vegetables in pot

Softened

Softened

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Add greens

Add greens

Serve

Serve

Burmese broth with bitter melon greens

Ingredients:
  • Leaves and baby gourds from 1 bunch of bitter melon greens (about 4 cups)
  • 4 big cloves garlic finely minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes sliced
  • 1 chili sliced
  • half onion diced or sliced
  • 1 cleaned stalk of lemongrass (optional)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1.5 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • salt to taste
Method:

Put oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili all together in a thick-bottomed pot and cook gently until softened (about ten minutes). The tomatoes should have liquefied and somewhat dried by now, if not cook a few minutes longer. Now add the broth, the fish sauce, and the lemongrass. Bring to a boil and simmer for ten minutes or so. Add the greens, and allow them to wilt. Turn off the heat.

Serve in soup bowls, with soup spoons and chopsticks for lifting the greens, and some white rice on the side.

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Roasting corn the sticky way

Roasting corn

Roasting corn

There was a time when corn was a delicious starchy snack. You had to cook it to enjoy it, and sometimes for quite long. But when you did, the kernels had this indescribable corny flavor that you could enjoy with butter, or chilies, or lime, or a number of other ways.

Wait. Rewind. Start over.

There was a time when corn was nothing but a big grass called teosinte, and the cob was basically a stick, and there were maybe five kernels on it. And they were covered with a hard shell. This corn was, shall we say, inedible.

So various talented ancient breeders who saw the possibilities in corn bred it to grow bigger.  And bigger. And made the kernels edible. Then, tasty. Richly colored with purple and red hues, the cobs would make as good a decoration as the kernels would a nutritious tortilla, if you ground them up and slaked it with lime.

Fine. Then came people (closer to modern times) who didn’t care much for these splashy colors and wanted food to be pure white (picky eaters) possibly to better match their bone china. So they bred corn white.

Great. Unknowingly, they also said goodbye to the wonderful nutrients carried in the purple and red hues. Then they realized that if you pick corn and eat it right away it is sweet. If you wait even a few hours, it is starchy. So they got into a sort of fever to eat corn as soon as it came off the farm like one, two, three, ready…pick…eat!

Then came test-tube-wielding lab-coated people who found a teeny-tiny-leetle thing you could change in corn to make it stay sweet longer, so they did. This corn was not really a very good organism, since it could not reproduce on its own. But it was a very desirable crop.

Sweet corn. A sensation. The lab-coats had nowhere left to go but down. They made corn sweeter. And super-sweeter. Closer and closer to candy. Until there wasn’t much difference left between this and this.

Corn Candy corn

Stop! Just stop already. We recently bought corn at the grocery store and ate it eagerly for dinner…such a disappointment. Sweet it was, very much so; but none of that wonderful corn flavor that comes with the starch. We felt like we had eaten dessert early. Where does one go if one misses the savory flavor of corn that goes with a bit of chili, a bit of lime; perhaps some charring? Where does one go for corn of such arrested development?

To the farmer’s market!

Sticky corn

The other day at the farmer’s market I found mounds of corn that went by the name of sticky corn. Some were purple, some not. They were quite a bit smaller than the regular cobs. What they exactly were was a mystery to me, but judging from the people crowding around the piles I guessed that sticky corn is an Asian specialty.

It turns out that way back in the 1500’s almost right after the Portuguese found corn in America, they brought it to China, where it became quite popular. Now once in a while corn will develop waxy grains. Normally this is a defect and the waxy grains don’t bode well for corn itself. But the Chinese, already used to sticky rice, treasured and tended to the defective sticky corn. It became a delicacy.

Breeding away in backwaters of China, sticky corn escaped this drive to turn everything sweet and easy.

From the 1500’s to present-day farmer’s markets in the Bay Area where certain Indian immigrants (me) are sick and tired of candy-sweet corn and are craving the roasted starchy flavor. Of course I swooped in and grabbed some.

Roasted corn

Now I was trying to recreate a specific thing. All over Mumbai there are food stalls that serve but one dish — roasted corn. There are coals and there is fire, and a simple red chili and salt combination with some lime. It turned out that sticky corn needed pre-cooking to achieve this dish but it turned out delicious.

Sticky corn with pencil for scale

Sticky corn with pencil for scale

Sticky corn in pot for boiling

Sticky corn in pot for boiling

Boiled

Boiled

The kernels when boiled

The kernels when boiled

Roasting

Roasting

Served

Served

Roasted sticky corn

  • Servings: 2 cobs per person
  • Print

Ingredients:
  • Sticky corn in their ears
  • Red chili powder
  • Salt
  • Lime or lemon
  • Butter or ghee (optional)
Method:

Pressure cook the ears of corn for 15 minutes with some salt added to the water. If you don’t have a pressure cooker you can boil them for 45 minutes instead.

Take the leaves off the cobs. Hold them with tongs and roast them over an open flame, turning slowly, for about seven minutes each until evenly charred. If you like, rub some ghee or butter over. Serve with quarters of lime and a small bowl with a mix of red chili and salt, so that by dipping the lime in the powdered mix, and rubbing the lime over the entire cob, all the flavorings can be added at once.