31 January 2008

Pressure cooker follow up; other ramblings

To clarify: when I said that I'm prejudiced against pressure cookers, I really meant it. Just like any prejudice, it's completely irrational, and based on spotty information at best. Also, I got it from my mother, who also hates them with a fiery passion. Having learned to cook in her kitchen, I inherit a lot of things the way she does them. For example, there's a wonderful little innovation that Indians use in their kitchens called a masala dabba. Go google it, and check it out. In it, you keep your most frequently used spices, like cumin, coriander, and mustard seeds, urad daal, dried chilies, possibly chunks of asafoetida for you to pound down (because traditionally, the stuff came as a hard chunk of the dried resin, rather than the powdered stuff you get nowadays; the flavour is superior, in my opinion). Now, my mother, like many women in the South of India, would only keep whole spices in her masala dabba, and powdered spices in tightly covered containers.

The reasoning is twofold. For one, if you spill some seeds on the counter, a quick sweeping will clear the mess. If you spill a powder, like turmeric on the counter, you're going to most likely end up with some fairly raunchy stains that aren't going anywhere. Also, powdered spices lose their punch a fair bit more quickly than whole spices. Frankly, why chance it? Also, it's how my mother and her mother, and her mother's mother did things, so I'm not about to switch that up!

My sister, on the other hand, is a rebel. I went to visit her house, and I was shocked to see her masala dabba with powdered spices in it! I was horrified and asked my mother what happened. Apparently, my sister insisted that she likes it that way.


So basically, the pressure cooker hate isn't so much because I'm scared of the thing exploding. I just really hate them for no reason more than my mother does.

The lovely Eric Prescott gave me a buzz the other day to ask about the Jimmy Crack Corn Crack. He wanted to know how to adjust when using a coarse ground cornmeal. Let me just let y'all know for future reference: just add some flour or breadcrumbs. The thing is, with the larger grind cornmeal, you're going to have a fair bit less packing of the patties. They won't stay together as well, because the granules will not snuggle up as cozily as the finely ground cornmeal. The addition of an extra bit of binder will keep everything together. However, since you are adding flour (and/or binder), you will want to make the patties thinner than I state in the cookbook. This is to compensate for the cooking time, and for crispness.

We move out of Brooklyn on Friday. It's been fun living here, but the commute is getting to me. I guess I'm looking forward to having taxi services know where I live! I'll keep you guys posted about the results.

27 January 2008

Prejudiced on Pressure

I'll let it be known in public: I have a prejudice against pressure cookers. For whatever reason, I seem to default to my crock pot instead, because I don't have to babysit it. I can dump my ingredients into the pot, set it, run out the door to work, and come home to a lovely smelling house and a hearty meal. If I set it earlier in the day, Steve can come home to a piping hot dinner without having to stop and think about anything. I don't see myself ever needing dried beans cooked in 20 minutes or whatever. For that, I can use the tinned. And if it's a bean like lentils or split peas, it doesn't take that long to cook to begin with. Anyone else with me?

16 January 2008

Everything is Illuminated

I finally saw this film, and I must say that while it's a very poignant story, it still manages to retain those little flashes of humanity and humour that is such a hallmark of living in this world. The film follows the journey of Jonathan to the Ukraine in search of a woman who helped his grandparents during the Holocaust. It also follows the journeys of the translator (Alex), and Alex's grandfather (plus "seeing eye bitch" for good measure) as they evolve as people and unfold more of their own selves to each other (and to themselves). For anyone who's ever reached out and made a connection with someone you'd ordinarily never get an opportunity to connect with, the Alex character will resonate with you strongly, as he's just this happy-go-lucky man of the world, who's never left the country he grew up in.

And, of course, there is that wonderful scene where Jonathan, Alex, grandfather, and dog are at a drive-by motel, and are about to order dinner. Jonathan explains that as a vegetarian, he doesn't eat meat. Alex and grandfather are highly confused, and wonder what's wrong with him. Finally, Alex convinces the cook to bring Jonathan a boiled potato. With nothing on it. Which Jonathan accidentally knocks to the ground. Anyone who's been travelling out to the beyond the beyonds will definitely feel that one!

All in all, excellently done film.

11 January 2008

Free Hugs

This video always gets me tearing up, but it really is life-affirming, and positive, so I had to share it, in case any of you haven't seen it yet. I'd definitely avail myself of a hug were I to see someone handing 'em out like that; there is just something about that quick moment of contact between people that erases any amount of worries for just that short breath of time. If you haven't done so, go out and hug someone today. :)

04 January 2008

Faking it

There are times when I'm stuck in less than ideal situations. There are times when I don't have the time to fully get into the from-scratch methods that I'd often prefer to. There are other times when a friend of mine is asking me for "Something Indian," and hasn't bought the book, but would like to know how to guesstimate the flavours. I'm going to hear Indians the world over groan loudly, because this isn't how one is supposed to do it. But, there are times when you just want the experience of something, and frankly don't care about authentic. This, my friends, is when you fake it.

With Indian food in general, you're talking two major regions. The North, where there tends to be a lot of emphasis on dairy, and fairly heavy, fried dishes, and the South, where the emphasis is on steamed legumes and rice (in all its different forms). I'm going to briefly get into how to fake both. If you're from India, this could get ugly, so put on a rain coat or something.

For South Indian food, you're looking to strike a balance between salty, hot and sour, with a hint of creamy. Your essential spices are mustard seed, turmeric, and red chilies. If you have asafetida and curry leaves, so much the better. If you can find fresh grated (not sweetened!) cocoanut, even better still. If you can't find all that fancy stuff, remember: you're faking it. Now, how you attack this will depend on what you have. Say you have a big, heavy vegetable, like a potato, squash, or wintermelon or something. Say you want the taste of the South, but can't be bothered to spend hours prepping.

In one pot, boil your whole vegetables. Just lob 'em in whole (carrots, potatoes, yams, wintermelon, and other long cooking veggies first, and squash, peppers, onions [if you're using onions, peel them first] and others at the end). You're shooting for a total of about 2 - 5 lbs of vegetables, including everything. If you have dark green leafies lying around, this is the time to use them! Throw on a pot of rice. When it's done boiling (about an hour or so total), drain off the liquid, and save it. This is your stock. Peel the vegetables if you feel like. If you don't chop them roughly. We're not looking for fancy, persnickety cuts here. Just get them loosely cut up so that they'll fit on a spoon somewhat. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter, because they're going to be soft anyway.

In a large stock pot, heat about a scant teaspoon or so of oil. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon mustard seeds. Cover the lid, and remove the pot from the heat as soon as you hear the first burst of explosion. They'll continue to pop and explode for a bit longer. Leave the lid on. Why make a mess? If you have asafetida, sneak in about 1/8 of a teaspoon while the mustard seeds still pop. When the popping subsides, add back in the cooking stock you made. If you threw it out, just use water. We all make mistakes. Add back in the veggies.

Sprinkle in just enough turmeric (about a scant 1/2 teaspoon to 3/4 of a teaspoon; wait for it to boil in before adding more; if you want more, add more, but remember that this is about light). If you have them, tear in some curry leaves. If not, it's OK. Add chopped red chilies. Remove the stems, of course. Yes, you can use chili flakes. If you want less heat, use cracked black pepper instead. It's still an Indian spice! Wait for everything to come into a full, rolling boil. If you're able to find freshly grated (not sweet!) cocoanut, add it in now. If you can't find it, throw in a tin of cocoanut milk (about 400 mL or 13.5 oz). Let it boil for about five minutes or so. Finish with a squeeze of lemon to taste, and salt to taste.

Serve it over your piping hot rice. In about an hour of cooking (and like 10 minutes of work!) you've got a very hearty, filling South Indian tasting meal. Do the same exact thing for split yellow peas. If you have green beans, skip the boiling step, and jump straight to the spices. The point is, that you're looking to go for very little fat, and fairly gentle flavour.

For North Indian food, you want a blend of salty, sour, sweet, and hot. I personally don't care for the sweet part of it, because that's how I was raised, but others may enjoy it. This one's going to be a bit easier, because we're seriously cheating for this one. At any major supermarket you go to, pita bread is cheap, and easy to find. Buy a pack. Don't even bother with rice.

In a large stock pot, heat just enough oil to completely cover the bottom of your pot and then some. Start with some cumin seeds. The seeds are absolutely imperative, and everything else is more or less negotiable. I'll let you know where you have wiggle room. Have some onions cut up finely. Have some garlic, sliced thin. Grate up some fresh (not sweetened; it's not the same) ginger. This is the North Indian holy trinity of flavour for aromatics. When the oil gets hot enough to get your cumin seeds to pop (they don't pop as high as mustard, but do make a mess, so please put the lid on), add your onions, and stir around until they brown. If you notice them drying out a bit, add a little bit of extra oil. When they get brown, add in your garlic and fresh grated ginger. Stir for a few seconds, and add your vegetables.

Dark leafy greens are fine. Spinach is even better. Cauliflower, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, or what have you, just get the vegetables in. Just make sure everything is chopped in roughly the same size before you add it. After combining the spices with the vegetables, drop down the heat to as low as it'll go, and sprinkle in some cinnamon and clove. If you don't have it (and I have yet to find a kitchen without them), go with allspice. If you don't have that, go with a TINY sprinkle of nutmeg and your favourite bottled chili powder (the kind with lots of other spices in it, not the ground chilies). Toss the spices and vegetables around to combine thoroughly. Leave the heat on low, and cover the lid. Let it sit that way for about ten minutes or so. If it's spinach, it'll be completely cooked in around five minutes.

Otherwise, come back in ten minutes, and give everything a stir. If you notice things getting dry, tip in a bit of water, and stir everything around to combine. Let it sit another 20 minutes or so (the Indians in general like their vegetables cooked through), and give it a final stir. Complete with a squeeze or three of lime, a healthy dose of salt and pepper, and serve. If you want something sweet, get one of those jarred mango chutney things, and go wild! Serve it stuffed into, or as an accompaniment to the pita. Have some hot pickles on the side to enhance the heat.

Of course, these recipes aren't exact. They're not supposed to be. You're not looking to capture an exact flavour, you're looking to approximate a taste experience. Let me know if it works, and I'll post the results.

OH RIGHT! If either of these turns out a bit bland to your liking (and I sincerely hope it does), feel free to add some extra ground, toasted spices of your choice (to either one, either cumin or coriander will work in copious doses), as well as to peak up the amount of sour with some more lemon, and amp up the salt and chilies. Both will also do well with lots of fresh grated garlic added at the end to give it a taste that punches back. And if you're like me, you'll also like to add in a bit of grated ginger, and let it cook for a few more minutes, so that the ginger gets infused. Stir through, and you're good.

02 January 2008

Obligatory New Years post

Of course, that time of year is upon us again, and I'm supposed to talk about resolutions that I've made for the following year. However, seeing as how I haven't quite completed the ones from the previous year, why don't I continue on to those, and then see what the new one brings?

- Move to New York (DONE!)
- Get a job at a NYC restaurant (DONE!)
- Put together a proposal for a compelling TV programme
- Specifically, for a vegan cooking show that goes into lifestyle and technique
- Shoot a pilot for it
- Move into Manhattan proper, rather than the boroughs
- Seriously watch that I get enough calories per day in a healthy manner, rather than relying on steamed vegetables with a bit of oil to sit in for the fat and boost the calorie count.
- Walk as much as possible (GOOD SO FAR!)
- Avoid cigarettes whenever possible, if not cut them out completely (GOOD SO FAR!)
- Keep my room clean
- For that matter, get my room clean
- Expand my horizons of grains that I'll try. I've more or less been content with whole wheat, oats, and rice for too long. I need to branch out to more of the Quinoa and Amaranth and barley, and Teff, and spelt and stuff more.
- Call my mother once a week (at least) to touch base

I've worked towards getting myself to where I'm in a better place now than I used to be, but I can't really start a fresh set of resolutions until I've completed the ones I'm working on. I did add in a couple there after talking to a friend of mine who gave me a free health consultation. I've never been one to get *too* worked up about health, as the doctor visits always told me I was doing fine, but as my dad always says, "There's always room for improvement."

My big thing now is working myself out of patterns that I've built for myself. I'm perfectly content to eat rice and beans for lunch, steamed veggies with some sesame oil and lime as a snack, raw salad with a bit of dressing for later snack, some whole wheat sandwich or another for dinner, and some raw tomato for breakfast the next day. I don't do it, but I've fallen into that trap so many times before, because it's so easy to do. Mind, it's not unhealthy, and I'm definitely getting many of the requirements for my day, but it's not what I should be doing as a cook. I need to get out there and explore a wider variety of grains, and start using them in my regular life.

Meanwhile, those things that I don't need, like cigarettes, alcohol, and processed foods, need not be so featured. I can also make the switch from taking juice to having the whole fruit itself. They're all little baby steps, but I certainly hope that I can stick with them, because I like where this is going!

Happy new year to you all!