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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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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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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Global unity through hot sauces

Sambal

Sambal Hebi

The other day I was doing my favorite thing — making a hot sauce, in preparation for doing my other favorite thing — eating a meal with a hot sauce. And I started to think upon the unity of all humanity. While I have been known to have the occasional Deep Thought, I usually need some prodding to produce one. The prodding that produced this particular Deep Thought was the following.

Over the course of the past couple months I had occasion to make a few hot sauces. These were from different cuisines: we made burritos at home, so I made a Mexican hot sauce once; another time, for dosas, I made a tomato chutney; and then the other day, experimenting with Malaysian food, I tried making a chili paste called Sambal Hebi. I seem to be doing the same thing over and over, I thought. With just a couple twists each time to add some local flavor.

Tomato chutney

Tomato chutney

Well, given that they all use dried red chilies for heat, and perhaps some garlic or onions as aromatics, there certainly is commonality. Humans from these three rather disparate regions of the world really do seem to think alike — perhaps we are all the same under the skin?

So here is my global hot sauce template; if you are able to adapt this method to yet another hot sauce from another cuisine I’d love to hear about it.

Step 1: Soak the dried chilies in hot water.

Same for all the hot sauces. Choose a mix of large, not-so-hot dried red chilies, and small, hot dried red chilies, according to your heat tolerance. Bring a cup of water to a boil and soak chilies in it until softened, about 15 minutes. Pull off the stem and remove seeds and ribs if you like. They are ready for the sauce.

Soaking dried red chilies

Soaking dried red chilies

Step 2: Broil the vegetables.

Mexican hot sauce: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. South Indian tomato chutney: I used 2 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. Malaysian sambal: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic.

Leave the garlic, onion, tomato unpeeled. Rub some oil over and broil for about 6 minutes. At this point, the papery skin of garlic/onion will have darkened, and the tomato skin can simply be peeled off.

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Step 3: Blender

Vegetables and softened chilies go into the blender together. Along with salt to taste. If you need liquid to make the blender happy, pour in some of the oil and collected juices from broiling the vegetables; if you need more, add some of the chili soaking liquid.

Step 4: Cook

Empty out the blended hot sauce into a pot and bring to a boil. Then simmer. It only needs to cook for a few minutes. The color will change. Give it a preliminary taste to make sure the salt is right.

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Step 5: Finishing for the Mexican hot sauce:

If you are doing a Mexican hot sauce, add a teeny bit of vinegar or lime; that’s it, you are done. Slather it over some refried beans.

Step 5: Finishing for the South Indian tomato chutney:

You can let this chutney cook longer to dry it somewhat more than the Mexican hot sauce, as it doesn’t have to be of a pouring consistency.

Heat a tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan. When hot, put in a half teaspoon of split and dehusked urad dal (Vigna Mungo), when that reddens, half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, when they pop a few curry leaves. When they shrivel turn off the flame and pour the coconut oil into the tomato chutney. Stir to combine.

Step 5: Finishing for the dried shrimp sambal (Sambal Hebi):

First, a bit about this chili paste, because it was new to me. ‘Sambal oelek’ is a simple chili paste used all over Singapore/Malaysia as a base for many of their dishes; while ‘Sambal Hebi’ has added dried shrimp, garlic and shallots. With the excellent umami additions, this paste can be had as a simple and delicious accompaniment for rice (that’s not how I used it, but the story of what I did with it will have to wait).

Bags of dried shrimp should be available at an Asian grocery store. Here is an online source of it: The Asian Cook Shop. While you are preparing the rest of the sauce, soak about half a cup of dried shrimp in hot simmering water to soften. In 15 minutes, that should be done; take the shrimp out and smash them in a mortar and pestle if you have patience, if not, whirl them in a blender.

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Now remember for the sambal we did not use any tomato, just the garlic, onion and chilies. So the paste will be drier to start with. When you cook the paste, use a bit of oil, and cook it longer than the above two until the oil separates. Also, I did not use any salt at all, preferring to add enough soy sauce to cover the needed saltiness.

Next put the dried shrimp into the pot: stir to have them cook and the entire paste dry up — about 10 minutes. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce, stir to combine, and you are done.

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Sambal Hebi is done, ready for use as a base for noodles, as a sauce for vegetables, or simply with rice. Recipe source: Indochine Kitchen.

Pounded shrimp added

Pounded shrimp added

Soy sauce added

Soy sauce added

Mexican hot sauce

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • Half a medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice or 1 teaspoon vinegar
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop for a few minutes. Add lime juice/vinegar.

South Indian tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon urad dal (split and dehusked black gram)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • Few curry leaves
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop until reduced a bit. Heat coconut oil until shimmering. Add, in this order, the urad dal, when they redden the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Turn off and empty the coconut oil into the chutney and stir well.

Malaysian sambal hebi

Ingredients:
  • Half a medium onion or couple shallots
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend to a paste.

Meanwhile prepare the shrimp: soak in hot water for 15 minutes until softened. Pound with a mortar and pestle.

Heat oil in a small pot. Empty the chili paste from the blender into it and cook until the oil separates. Add the shrimp to the pot, stir well to combine, and cook for 10 minutes until dry. Now add the soy sauce and stir nicely.


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Tomato-garlic gravy or bust

Tomato-garlic gravy with purple potatoes and peas

Tomato-garlic gravy with purple potatoes and peas

So I’m a pretty laid-back person generally but for this recipe I am absolutely a stickler. I am a tyrant. This must be made with these ingredients — no, don’t throw in ginger, don’t throw in cumin. Leave that onion out, you will ruin it. I realize that canned tomatoes will make your life easier but this recipe calls for fresh ones, and what recipe wants, recipe gets.

Don’t leave anything out either. I realize that curry leaves are not easily available everywhere. If you don’t find them, I guess you must leave them out. But please, do so with regret. And don’t go substituting it with something else.

However even though I am so particular about the gravy itself, on the subject of what you put in it — the floaters — my laid-back self reasserts itself. Put anything in it — anything. Potatoes? Yes, diced. Peas? Yes, sure, no need to thaw. Paneer — cube it, pop it in. Cauliflower? Certainly, deflowered. No, I mean, floreted. Green beans, bell peppers, eggplant, name it — use it. Even tofu, why not? Use your imagination, I encourage you every step of the way.

Presenting the:

Tomato-garlic gravy

A very simple way to zest up your basic vegetables for weeknight eating. Potatoes go specially well, diced. This makes enough for a dinner for two. Goes with chapati or other flatbread. Made more liquid, can go with rice.

Ingredients:

  • 3 – 4 large cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 – 3 serrano or other green chilies, depends on your preference
  • 6 – 7 curry leaves
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 2 medium tomatoes (I used roma / plum tomatoes)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 cups of chopped vegetables, see above.

Method:

Chop the garlic, slice the chilies. Dice the tomatoes. Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, throw in the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, the garlic, chili and curry leaves. The will sizzle and start to shrivel. Now is the time to put the tomatoes in. Stir to coat with oil and spices. Now let it cook for ten minutes or more on medium. No need for lid. First they will liquefy, then boil off the liquid, till they become pasty.

IMG_1066 IMG_1068 IMG_1069 IMG_1071

This is how you know when the tomatoes have cooked enough — you see bits of the peel separated from the flesh, rolled up into little sticks. If you look carefully at the completed dish picture you will see them.

Add the dry spices, stir for a minute. Put in about a half cup to a cup of hot water, depending on how wet you want the final result. Let the water come to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes.

The floaters go next…each vegetable must cook for its specific length of time…so this must happen in a choreographed way. Potatoes take about 15 minutes; cauliflowers too; green beans about 10, frozen peas just need to thaw and they are done. So use your judgment on the timing.

This dish is great with chapatis with some moong dal on the side. Cilantro works for garnish.

IMG_1072

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.

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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.

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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.

Exercise your right to choose — the chili

There there, I know what ails you. You love the smoky flavor of dried red chilies, but their heat makes you run for the jug of water. It may also give you the runs. You curse the American continent for inventing these pods of TNT. You wish that you could turn into a bird, not so that you could then fly, oh so free! — but because then you would lack the pain receptors for capsaicin that you share with other mammals.

Don’t worry, I understand! You can cry on the shoulders of Aunt Odd Pantry.

Chili pods drying

Chili pods drying

And still, the flavor of chilies haunts you! How to get one without the other? There is a way! You see, just like some countries invest heavily in defense (like my home, the United States), while others have to expend so much energy to just survive in the desert that they don’t have much left over for defense (like Dubai in the UAE), chilies come in two styles as well. Chilies that grow in wetter climates, where their sworn enemy (the fungus Fusarium semitectum) grows easily, invest a lot in defense and become hotter. While chilies that grow in drought conditions have to be more judicious in how much heat they develop. The arch enemy — the fungus — is less of a problem in drought anyway, because it needs wetness too.

The hottest chilies in the world are the bhoot jholokia from Nagaland, India and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion — both come from very wet climates.

But then there is the panoply of larger, not-hot chili peppers — the pasilla, the Kashmiri, the ancho — that can be added to the mix to add flavor and color but not the heat. They thought of everything.

Anaheim Chilies from About Mexican Food

Anaheim Chilies from About Mexican Food

This dish in particular is based around that smoky flavor of chilies. Tomatoes and garlic play a supporting role. Yogurt is used to moderate the taste further. Like several of my other recipes, this is a gravy that one can throw anything into. It goes very well over rice, or with chapatis, or dosas, for that matter.

The recipe below makes enough for about 6 people.

Chili-tomato gravy

Ingredients:

  • A few big, mild chilies — I used 4 Kashmiri
  • A few small, hot chilies — I used 5 cayenne
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • Quarter cup cilantro — I used some thick stems I had left over
  • 3 medium tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • Half a teaspoon turmeric
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt

Method:

This proportion of mild to hot chilies gave me a pretty hot gravy. Feel free to use a different proportion, from no hot chilies at all to all hot chilies. You better know what you are doing if you choose the latter.

Heat a roasting pan on medium-high and place the dry chilies on it for a few minutes until they darken. Remove them to cool for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, you can destem and deseed them. Grind them to a fine powder in a clean coffee grinder.

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Make a paste of garlic, cilantro and chili powder, adding as little water as you can get away with.

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Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot. When it shimmers put in the paste. Stir and let it cook until it darkens, on medium heat. Soon you will see the oil shimmering and the paste will seem drier and yet shinier. Then you know it is done.

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Now whip up the yogurt and swirl it in. Stir and let that cook as well. In a few minutes, it will have properly merged with the paste and become homogeneous. Now it is time to put in the roughly chopped tomatoes.

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At this point the paste is probably so liquid that you can raise the heat to highish. Let the tomatoes liquefy and boil off mostly. Add the turmeric and the salt. At this point, the basic gravy is done.

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Add anywhere from a half cup to one-and-half cup of water to allow it to boil for a few minutes; also, by controlling the amount of water you are controlling what sort of dish you want it to be. If you plan to add some potatoes to it and have it over rice, for instance, you could make it more liquid, because potatoes will have their own thickening starch. If you plan to add chicken bite-sized pieces, and want a drier sauce around it, you can skip the water entirely — the chicken will let out some of its own liquid.

As you might have guessed, now is the time to make a dish out of it by adding whatever things you want to this sauce. Care must be taken to make sure that whatever you add will have similar cooking times. One trick is to precook the vegetables in a microwave and then add it in to blend.

Here are some ideas:

  • Chicken breast cut up with cilantro garnish
  • The ever-popular paneer blocks with peas
  • A combination of small cut up vegetables: carrots, peas, cauliflower, bell peppers, french beans, potatoes, raisins.
  • Fillet of strong-flavored fish, covered with the sauce, and simmered until done

This is what I did with it — paneer and peas.

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