Saturday, February 25, 2006

Back to the Herb

While out and about in my wanderings today, I stopped at one of my favorite markets for a spot of grocery shopping.

That's always a dangerous decision, because Mustard Seed always has such tasty looking foods and such a variety that I can't find at my still-beloved local natural foods store. But I'm getting better at resisting temptation.

Of course, when Temptation greets me at the door of the market in the form of small pots of fresh herbs from a local herb farm, I succumb rather easily. After all, I haven't yet gotten any new herbs or vegetables started in my kitchen, and I really am starting to crave fresh green yummy things.

Soooo.... into my basket jumped a little pot of cilantro and a companion pot of thyme, both begging to go home with me and sit on a sunny windowsill:


I also found the display of organic seeds and picked up packets for carrots, cantaloupe, and Tuscan kale for planting in a little garden with my adorable Nephews. (Hmmm. I mean to say that my Nephews will help me plant the garden... I do not mean to say that I will stick my Nephews in the dirt along with the seeds, much though they may enjoy that.)

I'm ready for beautiful growing things surrounding me, with their lush greenness bringing freshness to my world. I'm ready for Spring.

And I'm ready for fresh new herbs to brighten my day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Perfect Pair

Perhaps there's something in the air, but I feel as though the universe is conspiring to make some inspiring matches lately.

And when I see a number of student friends bowed down by their senior projects.... and other friendly faces will be seen this weekend.... well, you know me, I get the urge to bake. And if what I bake results in another of those fabulous pairings... let's just say, I don't think I'm going to hear any complaints.

After gathering all the ingredients, I headed into the kitchen tonight to revisit my peanut butter brownie bar recipe... because, after all, chocolate and peanut butter is a winning combination that can relieve stress, put a smile on people's faces, or simply say, "Thank you for being you."

A moderately thick shortbread layer with local butter, organic peanut butter, Sucanat, and whole wheat flour adorned the bottom of the pan, followed by a fudgy filling of unsweetened chocolate, more local butter, local eggs, fragrant vanilla, more Sucanat, and more whole wheat flour. A scattering of crushed roasted peanuts added the final touch before I slid the pan into the oven and waited for the heavenly aroma to emerge.

What bliss!


Probably the majority of these delectable morsels will be given away, starting with a tin to share with the students in the morning. But I'm sure I'll keep a few for myself.

Wouldn't you?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Time to Turnover

I spent last Friday evening out on the town with my Opera-Loving Friends, enjoying good Ethiopian food and, of course, opera.

As we enjoyed our savory appetizers, one Friend commented on the tasty lentil turnovers in crisp dough known as sambussas. She noted that many cultures around the world have these little "pockets" of dough-wrapped savory foods, and while there are some with names such as "pasties" or "calzones," many of the names have similar sounds and origins.

For instance, at the Indian restauarant the night before, Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy and I shared an order of vegetable samosas.

And this evening for dinner, I assembled filling and dough for an Uzbek recipe for spicy squash turnovers found in The Vegetarian Hearth. The name of these turnovers? Somsas.

Since I had one last butternut squash remaining from the farmers' market, I decided to try this recipe but lacked the motivation to get it all made yesterday, settling instead for making and refrigerating the dough, and then shredding the squash and sauteing it with onions, salt, pepper, cumin, and cayenne.

When I got home from work today, I checked on the curry in the slow cooker and then prepared the somsas, pretty much exactly as I normally make samosas, and baked them while the rice started to cook with the vegetables.

A short while later, I had eight beautiful golden turnovers, bursting with flavor.


Though the curry had a little longer to cook, I simply couldn't resist sampling the first somsa:


Savory, a little salty, full of squash flavor and just the right hint of spice... oh so good! And so irresistible...

So that when dinner was ready, I simply had to have another one with my beet and green pea curry:


Color, flavor, texture... all the perfect ingredients of a meal.

So if my Friend does indeed decide to make a more extensive survey of the intersections between different ethnic cuisines, I stand ready to help her sample all the possibilities.

And we'll turn over every ethnic kitchen and cookbook to find them all.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sub-Lime

Yes, I know it's been a while since I posted. Last week was delightfully busy with many good evenings and meals out with friends, so I didn't do any new cooking until today.

And even today, I didn't cook as much as I had thought I would, opting instead to get through only the prep for something I'll throw into the slow cooker tomorrow.

But I did succumb to a sweet craving... as well as to those last limes left over from my recent round of sore throat soothing, so after a long phone conversation with the fair Titania... who burbled on about the beautiful little Meyer lemons she found at the store and the lemon squares she thought she might make... I decided to bring back one of my favorite creations from last year: lime-ginger squares.

My weekend was full of other activities, too, including a fair amount of cleaning and creative work, so instead of going into the detail of making these light and luscious treats all over again, I will share with you an excerpt of a story in which this dessert appears. Enjoy!

Finishing her coffee, she changed the subject. "What do you have left to bake?"

"I've still got the cookies to make," Helen replied, pulling out the mix. "All the muffins are done and ready to set out, aside from the batch in the oven."

"And what new treat do you plan on making today?" Sarah adored her friend's endless creativity and was always happy to sample new desserts.

"This spring weather has had me craving something lighter, so I thought perhaps lime-ginger squares would be a nice change of pace," Helen responded.

"Mmmmm... those sound good," Sarah nearly drooled. "Where did you get the idea for that?"

"Let's just say I was inspired," she smiled enigmatically.

"Well, wherever you get your inspiration, don't stop!" Sarah caught a glimpse of her friend's lopsided grin as she turned to leave the kitchen and get the place ready to open in half an hour.

*****

By two o'clock, the lunch crowd had departed, and the coffee house was nearly empty when Kendall came in. Sarah greeted him effusively, "Oh, Kendall, the sunshine has come back out again, now that you are here to brighten our day!"

He chuckled at her bright teasing smile and bowed deeply to her. "My lovely Miss Sarah, had I known that you depended on me so, I would have camped out on your doorstep this very morning."

"Well, there's always tomorrow!" She winked playfully at him, then joined in his laughter.

"You two," they heard Helen’s amused voice say as she emerged from the kitchen. "Between the two of you hamming it up, we could probably cancel this week's deli order."

They both burst into further gales of laughter, and Helen herself chuckled merrily as she took a tea press from the shelf. When she could get a word in, she asked, "Kendall, what kind of tea would you like today?"

"Scottish breakfast, please, dear Helen," he replied. "It's time for a potent brew. And what, pray tell, are you planning to tempt me with today?"

She cast an enigmatic smile back at him as she filled the press with boiling water, and she answered, "Lime-ginger squares."

"They melt in your mouth," Sarah confirmed, sighing happily.

"Lime and ginger, eh?" Kendall asked, quirking an eyebrow at Helen. "And what happy thought inspired that combination?" he grinned broadly.

"I just wanted to capture the essence of springtime... and youth," she replied airily, giving him a secret smile.

"I'd better take two, then," he said, delighted.


Lime-Ginger Squares

I've always enjoyed lemon bars, though I don't seem to make them very often. But one day I thought, what if I made lime bars? And what if I combine the lime with ginger to add a bright, sweet but spicy kick? I based this recipe on the basic lemon square recipe, with just a few happy additions.

1/2 c butter
1/4 c maple or confectioners' sugar
1 c flour (sifted)
grated rind from 1 lime
1 tsp ground ginger
2 eggs
1 c sugar (organic cane juice crystals work well)
2 T flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c mini diced crystallized ginger
grated rind from 1 lime
juice from both of the limes used above

Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Blend in 1 c flour, lime rind, and ginger; pat into bottom of greased 8" square baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes. Remove from oven but leave heat on.

While crust is baking, beat eggs until foamy. Add sugar and beat until thick and lemon-colored. Blend in 2 T flour, baking powder, salt, ginger, lime rind, and lime juice. Spread over partially baked crust. Bake 25 minutes longer, or until top is firm and brown. Cool on wire cake rack. Dust with confectioners' sugar if desired. Cut into squares.

Makes 16 2" squares

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Heart of Scone

Valentine's Day is approaching swiftly, and as the Baker's Catalogue likes to remind me each year, this is a baker's dream holiday -- the chance to make lovely, luscious baked goodies for the ones you love!

Uh-huh, says I.

And while the dear ol' BC likes to rhapsodize about baking with chocolate for this holiday, I like to go against the grain (which really shouldn't surprise you at all).

It's not that I have anything at all against chocolate, as I think you well know.

I just like to take the romantic comedy of February 14 in stride and offer up my warped little tribute to the day by baking with a different ingredient: dates.

So instead of cookies, brownies, or a cake, I thought scones might be in order. And as I discussed the idea with my trusty baking assistant, the lovely Phoenix, inspiration struck!

After picking myself up from the floor (Inspiration sometimes packs a wallop), I told Phoenix that since I still had one small pie pumpkin from the farmers' market, perhaps I should make pumpkin-date scones, laced with rich pumpkin pie spices and a sprinkling of my homemade cinnamon orange peel.

Phoenix pondered this idea for a moment, then cheerfully volunteered not only her excellent services as a taste tester but also her willing hands to make the scones.

All fine and dandy -- except then I had to figure out how to work mashed fresh pumpkin into one of my scone recipes without making the dough too soggy to hold together well.

Inspiration struck again! (This time, I ducked.) I opted to replace most of the butter with the pumpkin and to puree the pumpkin with some of the milk to get a smoother consistency.

After that, I followed a basic recipe loosely, adding more spices and tossing the date pieces in oat flour (to keep them from clumping together), and we ended up with scone dough of approximately the same texture and tenderness as the usual variations.

Though we had originally planned to make the scones heart-shaped for the holiday, I completely forgot to pull out the cookie cutter, so we ended up with the usual squares and triangles. Then, after a mere 10 minutes in the oven, we had a tray full of amber-colored, pillowy scones dotted with big chunks of dates.


And with scones warm from the oven, the winter sunshine streaming through the windows, and plenty of conversation still to enjoy, it seemed only right to invite Phoenix to stay for tea as she sampled our baking experiment and gave me her opinion (favorable, of course).

Sure, chocolate makes for a very sweet and romantic Valentine's Day. But for those of us who hope to keep our hearts healthy as well as happy, I offer you these tender pumpkin-date scones to spice up breakfast with your sweetheart.

After all, everyone should have a date for Valentine's Day.


Pumpkin-Date Scones

One of my most trusted scone recipes comes from Morning Glories, and this recipe takes the original recipe for Orange Mint Chip Scones (also fabulous!) as a launching pad and goes the healthy route by reducing most of the fat and replacing it with pumpkin. You might also enjoy adding nuts to this recipe... I know I would!

1 c pumpkin (fresh baked or canned)
1/2 c reduced-fat milk or soymilk
2 T melted butter
1/2 c chopped fresh dates
2 T oat flour (whole wheat pastry flour would also work)
2 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c Sucanat (or maple sugar or brown sugar)
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1 tsp dried orange peel
1/4 c reduced-fat milk or soymilk

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Puree pumpkin, 1/2 c milk, and melted butter until smooth and thick. Set aside.

Toss dates in oat flour until well coated. Set aside.

Whisk together dry ingredients. Mix in the pumpkin puree, and add 1/4 c milk (or more as needed) to form a soft dough. Fold in dates and mix gently. Knead the dough gently in the bowl, adding more flour if needed.

Turn dough onto floured counter and pat it out into a square or circle about 1/4" to 1/2" thick. Cut out scones with a knife or cookie cutters, and place scones on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake scones for 10 minutes at 400 F, until scones are slightly firm to the touch. Remove from baking sheet and allow to cool on wire rack.

Makes 8-12 scones, depending on how big you cut them

Last Impressions

I'm trying to wean myself from coffee (for a number of reasons), and this morning I knew I would brew the last of the coffee still in the house.

And since I think almost any mundane event can be turned into a celebration if you approach it in the right frame of mind, I decided to pull out the last of the croissant dough and have a decadent little French-style breakfast.

What better way to celebrate a brilliant sunrise on the frost-festooned yard than with rich organic coffee and hot, buttery, flaky homemade croissants dotted with homemade organic black raspberry-chocolate mint jam?


No more coffee left. No more croissants.

But oh! they were good while they lasted!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Harvest for Hope

This week I've been working my way through Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall (with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson). After seeing Dr. Jane on campus a year and a half ago and having the privilege to meet her briefly, I was thrilled to see her tackle the question of sustainable agriculture in her latest book.

The book offers a broad overview of the myriad problems with industrial farming, from an excessive reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels, the waste of water and soil health, and the resulting environmental damage... to the economic misery of farm workers and small farm owners as well as the abhorrent conditions forced upon factory-farmed animals. In this sense, Goodall's book brings together a great deal of information from many other sources to present the big picture in a way that (one can hope!) will reach many more people on the basis of the author's fame alone.

Despite a frustrating lack of citations, the authors give a number of compelling facts about the environmental impact of what we eat:

...every calorie of energy we get from our typical high-travel supermarket food has already burned about ten calories of fossil fuel before it even reaches our mouth. (p.154)

The Rodale Institute calculated that America could comply with the Kyoto Treaty's demand for a 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gases simply by making a full switch to organic farming. (p.161)

Very little of what was mentioned in the book came as a surprise to me, since I have read so voraciously on the topic, but I found myself concerned that the lack of citations for such statements might lead critical readers to dismiss many of the claims.

Fortunately, Goodall makes a strong, positive argumen for what people can do to eat better and to make more environmentally conscious food choices. Everyone say it with me now: "Eat local and organic whenever possible!"

For all the reasons I've discussed before -- better land use, fewer chemicals, fewer fossil fuels used for transport, better nutrition, support of local economies and small farm owners, biodiversity, and so on -- local (and organic) is the way to go. And if you're still not convinced, Dr. Jane makes the case personal:

And everyone seems to appreciate the renewed relationship with their food supply that the local food movement offers. When you think about it, the act of eating -- putting something directly into our bodies -- is an intimate process, and it is only natural that we should desire a more intimate or at least traceable knowledge of the people, land, and waters that provide our food. (p.177)

One point this book makes that I don't often see in other places is that the amount of food we in developed nations eat is part of the overall problem with the world's agriculture. Trade of food products has increased greatly because

people in wealthier nations are consuming more and ever more of the food resources of poorer nations. We now have a global corporate structure where less developed nations are struggling with overpopulation, poverty, and hunger while they deplete their land and natural resources to feed people in other, wealthier parts of the world... And the small family farmers in the importing countries cannot compete with cheaper imported produce. (p.209)

(Don't think that's a problem for us? Think again. Recent reports indicate that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a net food importer. If you're concerned about our heavy reliance on foreign oil, this trend should disturb you even more.)

With all the concrete examples in the book of how to make a difference in our food supply, Dr. Jane keeps a hopeful, optimistic view that we can find a better way to feed ourselves that doesn't inflict such damage on the world around us. And as always, her gentle example inspires, as do her closing words:

Remember, every food purchase is a vote. We might be tempted, as individuals, to think that our small actions don't really matter, that one meal can't make a difference. But each meal, each bite of food, has a rich history as to how and where it grew or was raised, how it was harvested. Our purchases, our votes, will determine the way ahead. And thousands upon thousands of votes are needed in favor of the kind of farming practices that will restore health to our planet. (p.285)

There you have it: Eat local. Eat organic. Eat less. And make your voice heard.

Thanks, Dr. Jane. Let's hope your words inspire many other people!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Breaking Out of the Mold

Perhaps it has escaped your notice that I am a devoted fan of Monty Python. (Just because I don't cook with SPAM doesn't mean I don't enjoy a few good laughs.) And I'm pleased to add that the lovely Phoenix, my excellent sous chef and partner in (culinary) crime, is equally delighted by the madcap absurdity of our favorite comedy team.

We've been known to toss quotes and allusions back and forth in the office on many an otherwise dull morning, and certain lines have entered our personal verbal shorthand.

But among Phoenix's favorite sketches we must rank the Whizzo Quality Assortment, otherwise known as "Crunchy Frog." And a couple of years back, I obtained a candy mold with small frog-shaped crevices specifically to make our own crunchy frogs.

This evening Phoenix and Mr. Nice Gut came by to help me finish the vegetable paprikash soup for dinner. Afterward, I pulled out the double boiler and melted a bag of dark chocolate chips before adding the leftover crushed spiced nuts from the Dark Chocolate Seduction Torte.

Once the mixture was ready, we spooned the chocolate into the candy molds...


(and by "we" I mean I put the two of them to work!)


...set the molds in the refrigerator to harden, and then cleaned up.

About half an hour later, we popped the chocolates out of the molds and had a large collection of glossy dark chocolate crunchy frogs.


Certainly our version had to be much more appealing than the "crunchy raw unboned real dead frog" found in the Whizzo Quality Assortment, but then, we're just that good.

Or rather... heap good.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

An Improper Paprikash

Rumor has it that when my Dear Papa married the Chef Mother, he couldn't even boil water.

I'm sure that must be a terrible exaggeration, for I can remember many good meals that he prepared as I was growing up, from a simple meatloaf or savory baked beans to wine-marinated steaks that still cause my devotedly vegetarian soul to heave a wistful sigh.

But if my Dear Papa had one true signature dish, it was chicken paprikash.

How he latched on to this recipe, I don't know, because there's no Hungarian blood in our family (to my knowledge). But I don't remember begging so ardently for any other meal in my childhood. The slow-cooked tender chicken, the plump dumplings, and the rich paprika-laden sour cream sauce -- ahhhh, even now it makes my mouth water.

After I went vegetarian, he made it once for me with tofu, which was acceptable but not quite right. (My Granola Girl, who enjoyed the original chicken version at that dinner, was charmed by my Dear Papa's teasing term of "foo-foo" for the tofu, and she never tired of calling my vegetarian version "foo-foo-kash." But I digress.) I have since made it with cauliflower, an improved but still not wholly satisfactory solution since the chicken fat really does add richness to the sauce's flavor.

I can't give up paprikash, though, no matter how feeble my vegetarian efforts may seem in comparison to the original recipe. And after coming across an intriguing soup a year and a half ago that inspired me, I don't have to give up paprikash. I just have to change my expectations.

After all, the idea of onions sauteed with plenty of paprika, augmented by other vegetables, and eventually coated in a sour-cream-laced liquid still has merit. And if this paprikash is in soup form, well, you'd expect the flavor to be a little thinner.

So it was that I created my own vegetable paprikash soup, loaded with good local and organic vegetables (corn, beans, potato, carrots), thickened with rich local sour cream, and dotted with homemade herb dumplings.


On a cold and snowy day (yes, winter's back!), such a rich, hearty soup warms the stomach and the soul.

No, it's not authentic like my Dear Papa's chicken paprikash.

But it satisfies my craving very nicely, thank you.

Vegetable Paprikash Soup

I don't know where my Dear Papa originally found his recipe, but this soup is derived from that. The dumplings are a slight variation on the herb dumpling recipe found in Local Flavors.

1 onion, finely chopped
1 T olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 T paprika
1/2 tsp pepper
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1 c peas or green beans (in bite size pieces); you can use frozen
1 c corn (again, you can use frozen/thawed)
4-6 c vegetable stock
1 c sour cream (more if needed)

Herb Dumplings
1 potato, peeled, chopped, steamed until tender
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c chopped fresh parsley or 2 T dried
up to 1 c whole wheat pastry flour

In a large pot, saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat until onion begins to soften and brown. Add salt, paprika, and pepper, and continue browning until a darker golden color. (I like my onions to be almost carmelized so that the flavor really sings.) Add carrot, potato, peas/beans, and corn, and saute lightly for less than a minute before adding the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour.

Make dumplings: Mash steamed potatoes with a ricer or pastry blender. Add egg and seasonings and mix well. Add flour until dough is fairly stiff but still a little tacky. Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough a little more in the bowl or on a floured counter. Allow to rest 15-30 minutes, then pat out into a square and cut into small pieces.

Bring pot of water to boil. Add dumplings to the water and simmer gently until they float to the top, from 4 to 7 minutes. Lift dumplings out with a slotted spoon, transfer to a buttered plate, and continue with remaining dumplings. Set aside.

Add the sour cream to the soup, one large dollop at a time, and whisk into soup. (If the soup is too thin for your taste, add more sour cream.) When ready to serve, float dumplings in each bowl as you serve it. (If dumplings are made ahead of time, add to soup first and allow to warm up before serving.)

Serve in beautiful bowls to beautiful people and expect many beautiful compliments!

Serves 6

Is There Muffin I Can Do?

When the heart aches, a baker bakes.

Maybe that little proverb won't make it into Bartlett's Famous Quotations, but I think a couple of my friends would agree that when someone is in need of consolation -- or at least stress relief -- a baker will head into the kitchen and work a little magic.

And given the recent tumult, frustration, and intensity both in the world at large and in my own little circle, I felt that urge to pull out pans and ingredients this weekend, hoping to create a little comfort in one corner of the universe.

My Fabulous Aunt and I have been drooling over the latest issue of The Baker's Catalogue, especially a new recipe for ginger-carrot muffins. Since I had offered to pick up a couple of the more exotic ingredients for her (well, exotic in her kitchen -- I always keep cardamom and flax seeds on hand), I decided I would give the recipe a try, too.

So Saturday morning, I whipped up half a batch of the muffins, following the recipe to the letter save for the addition of a little vanilla extract. I also made a quick little cream cheese frosting with maple syrup and cardamom for an extra treat.

The muffins came out moist and tender, full of good flavor, and it was difficult to stop with just two!


But as I ate, I started thinking about how the combination of organic carrots, crystallized ginger, sweet cardamom, and nuts reminded me of carrot halwa, one of my favorite Indian desserts... and thus was born the idea: why not translate the flavors of halwa into muffin form?

After mulling over the possibilities, I returned to the kitchen this morning to make another half-batch of muffins, but with a few variations (changes in spices, replacing local walnuts with organic pistachios, adding a streusel topping).

When the muffins came out of the overn, naturally I had to do a side-by-side comparison of the recipes:


On the whole, though I'm fond of that cream cheese topping, I prefer the rich depth of spices in my variation, and the streusel adds a nice texture.

And not only did those muffins make a warm, comforting breakfast, but I also saved one particularly large, lusciously frosted one for dessert last night after enjoying some leftover curry.

I may not have control over much in this world. I can't stop fighting, natural disasters, or even some of the day-to-day workings of my own life.

But I can bake.

And I feel much better.


Carrot Halwa Muffins

Based on the Ginger-Carrot Muffins recipe from the Winter 2006 Baker's Catalogue, this spicy treat folds warm Indian spices into tasty carrots, bright bits of ginger, and crunchy nuts. Use all pistachios if you can find them, but almonds, cashews, or any combination of the three should work well, too.

1 3/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c oat flour (or use finely ground oats)
3/4 c Sucanat or maple sugar (Sucanat deepens the spices)
1/4 c nonfat dry milk
1/4 c milled flax seeds
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c mini diced crystallized ginger
1/4 c chopped pistachios (or almonds or cashews)
2 large eggs
1 c water
1/3 c canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional)
2 c grated carrots

Heat oven to 400 F. Grease or line 12 muffin cups. Set aside.

Whisk together all the dry ingredients (including ginger and nuts) in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together eggs, water, oil, and extracts, then add to dry ingredients, mixing well. Fold in carrots.

Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups until cups are almost full. Sprinkle with streusel (below). Bake at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven, cool in pan 5 minutes before removing to cooling rack.

Streusel

1/4 c oats
1/4 c pistachios
2 T maple sugar
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1 T melted butter

Grind together dry ingredients until finely chopped. Add melted butter and toss with fingers to blend. Sprinkle on top of full muffin cups. (Save leftovers for yogurt!)

Makes 12 to 14 muffins

Friday, February 03, 2006

Good Rice, Good Curry

After a week's worth of good Chinese food -- easily a new record for me! -- I came home from work today craving something completely different:

Curry.

Although technically the term "curry" simply refers to sauce in Indian cuisine, like many other people I tend to think of curry as a saucy dish chock full of good vegetables, protein (legumes or tofu for me, perhaps meat for you), and spices.

Usually when I cook Indian food, I pull out one of my trusted recipes and follow it fairly closely. I've been trying my hand sporadically at Indian dishes for under a decade, and I haven't quite had the confidence to date to stray too far from set recipes and spice quantities.

Until tonight.

Too impatient and hungry to hunt for a recipe, I cast caution to the winds and pulled out a handful of vegetables to peel and chop along with half a dozen spices to sprinkle into the dish. Starting with the basics of frying onion and garlic with spices, I just added and stirred and cooked whatever struck my fancy: homegrown tomatoes and cilantro, a handful of coconut and red lentils, local potatoes, and some frozen peas.

I covered the skillet, turned down the heat, and let it simmer for about 20 minutes while I curled up with a book and started to unwind.

When the timer went off, I reheated some cooked brown basmati rice and toasted a handful of cashews while I inhaled a perfectly fragrant vegetable curry on the next burner.

And when at last everything was ready, I pulled out a small plate and dished up


possibly the best curry ever to come from my kitchen, with a savory mix of spices, just the right amount of heat, and plenty of good vegetables.

Oh. So. Good.

After a meal like that, I wanted nothing more than a big mug of spicy, steaming chai for dessert, so I set the pot on to boil while I cleaned up.

I know my cooking skills have improved in the past couple of years, but this leap of culinary faith impressed even me. And I'm ready to try it again, any time.

Let's hurry!

Friday Night Vegetable Curry

Sometimes the best dishes happen by chance. After years of trying recipes from The Indian Vegetarian, I finally tried my own mix of spices and vegetables. Feel free to vary what you use; I would consider cumin, coriander, cayenne, ginger, and turmeric to be the only absolute spices in this dish, but I love how the others all work together to create a slightly sweet but mostly spicy and deep flavor. Live it up!

2 T canola oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1" fresh ginger, minced
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (I like about 1/2 tsp)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 to 1 tsp fenugreek leaves
1/4 c flaked coconut
1 jar or can tomatoes, chopped or crushed (about 16 oz)
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro (I added 2 frozen cubes, about the same amount)
2 potatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 c frozen peas
(other possible vegetables: carrots, cauliflower, beans, mushrooms)
1/4 c dry red lentils (or use canned chickpeas)
water as needed

Heat oil in a large, deep skillet or saucepan. Add the mustard seeds and cover, swirling the pan occasionally to keep the seeds from burning while you wait for them to pop.

Add onions, garlic, and ginger, and saute until lightly browned. Add all dried spices and saute for 1 to 2 minutes longer, until highly fragrant. Add tomatoes and cilantro, and cook for another 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld.

Add vegetables, lentils, and just enough water to cover the lot. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to simmer, cover the pan, and let it cook for about 20 minutes. (Check on it periodically to see if you need to add more water.) When vegetables are tender and the sauce is at the desired consistency, you're done.

Serve over basmati rice and top with toasted cashews, almonds, or pistachios.

Serves 2, maybe more depending on how many veggies you throw in

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Umami, I Don't Feel So Good

When my sore throat appeared earlier this week, not only did I crave my usual teas and honey along with a soothing garlic "tea," but I also found myself craving Chinese food.

More to the point, I wanted a repeat of the sweet potato stir fry I made back in the fall, and I wanted extra ginger-lime potsticker sauce to slurp down. (Yes, I'm just that funny to prefer swallowing spoonfuls of a tamari-based sauce to cough and cold medicine and the like.)

So I made the sweet potato and bok choy dish -- less a stir-fry than a braise, really -- Sunday evening, topped with crumbled nori, and I felt much better.

Since then, I've been craving Chinese food all week, and the spicier, the better. On Monday, I commissioned the lovely Phoenix to pick up broccoli with garlic sauce for me, and on Tuesday, I polished it off for lunch. And last night, I made a repeat of the sweet potato dish for dinner.


Allow me to point out that by now, my sore throat is but a memory.

I have my theories about the sudden "cure" for this illness. First, I think the extra heat (plenty of red pepper flakes and garlic in all the Chinese dishes) played a significant part in healing. According to my copy of The Complete Medicinal Herbal, chile peppers not only have antiseptic and antibacterial functions (good for knocking out the germs), but they also stimulate blood circulation and are especially recommended for throat problems.

But I would also attribute some of the healing to heeding my body's craving for salty and umami tastes. What's umami, you say? If you want a very detailed and fascinating description, Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries has done a series of posts on the topic, beginning with "Do You Know Umami?"

In a nutshell, though, umami is the savory, sometimes meaty taste that you find in soy sauce, some cheeses, fermented foods, and, well, meats. Chinese food -- and other Asian cuisines -- tends to be loaded with umami, whether or not MSG (a flavor enhancer that brings out umami) is used, mainly because of it use of many soy products.

And somehow that combination of pungent peppers and salty, umami tamari made me feel so much better.

I'll round out the cure tonight with a visit to my favorite Chinese restaurant for their vegetarian buffet, and I've got extra potsticker sauce on hand if I suffer a relapse.

And I know now how to treat the next sore throat:

Drink lots of honeyed tea and call for my umami.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: February

The year is well under way now, as is our challenge to increase our own (and others') awareness of local foods.

In January, I built on some of Matt's excellent suggestions for supporting local food growers and producers that started off small: education and sharing ideas with others, along with taking a closer look at the foods we eat.

How'd you do?

I discovered that one grocery store in town is getting much better at labeling the origins of its produce, and though they're not carrying a whole lot of local fruits and vegs at this point, I did have my choice of two varieties of Ohio-grown potatoes last week, one of which ended up in my Saturday breakfast.

Another local grocery store, though not so great on the produce front, does have a good variety of locally processed foods, especially in terms of cheese and other dairy products from the nearby Amish country.

And though I have yet to visit the local grist mill to stock up on cornmeal and flour, they know I'm coming!

On top of all that, I've had the chance to introduce the topic of local foods in conversation with other people to start making them aware of the issue. One such conversation was with my Fabulous Aunt, who immediately lived up to her nickname by sensing my enthusiasm and asking lots of good questions about why local is better.

So what's next?

Since February is a short month, I won't make too many demands on your time. But since we're coming up to Valentine's Day, why not share your love of local foods in small ways?

1. If you've talked with any grocers or local food suppliers or restauranteurs about wanting to buy local foods, and they've been helpful in pointing out or supplying such things, thank them. Express your appreciation, both verbally (to let them know what they're doing right and to encourage them to do more) and financially (money talks!).

2. Think of ways to express your love of local foods at home. If you have a garden, it's not too early to buy your seeds for the year (think heirlooms! think organic!). And if you don't have a garden, why not plant a few seeds or herbs in pots and keep them on your windowsill? You'll be glad you did when you see and smell green things growing.

3. Why not try making just one dish with as many local ingredients as possible -- perhaps for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day? If you do, please share with the rest of us what you made and what local ingredients you used!

I'm finally starting to make a dent in the local produce stashed away in the freezer and the kitchen cupboards, so I hope I'll have lots of tales of good local meals to share with you throughout the month. I'm also going to find some time to sit down and read the Fedco seed catalog from cover to cover, dreaming about what I'll plant this year.

I'll check in with you in a month!