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Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

And one more…

Butternut squash salad with tehina

Butternut, kabocha, red kuri, Hubbard, turban, pumpkin (and acorn, and delicata, and all the rest)–if you’re microwaving a large red squash, you may as well have another easy recipe in your back pocket.

This is one from my gourmet cousin up north, something she served us as a Friday-after lunch a couple of Thanksgivings ago, and it’s both beautiful and surprising with almost no effort.

Red Squash Slices on Arugula with Tehina

I know, I know. I’ll never get that chichi cookbook deal giving it away that fast. You wanted suspense. Obviously.

But really. If you have a couple of big chunks of leftover roast or preferably microwaved butternut squash, peel and slice it up–cold or hot, either is fine. Put down a bed of arugula or other salad greens, fan out the slices of butternut, mix up a little tehina (sesame paste) with lemon juice, a small clove of garlic and an optional pinch of salt, add just enough water to get it pourable and drizzle it over the squash.

[Note: if you’re making tehina sauce yourself, put a large dollop of the sesame paste in the bowl first, then add the juice of a lemon and stir slowly with a fork, then the garlic and salt, then water by spoonfuls. If you try to add tehina paste to water, you get murky, milky thin stuff that never really emulsifies and you waste your expensive ingredients. I learned this the hard way in a kibbutz kitchen while the two crazy ladies I worked for cackled at me and smoked inches of ash over the food, so take my advice to heart. I’d never want to put you through that humiliation.]

If you want color and glamour, go for the Trader Joe’s or similar smoked paprika and sprinkle it lightly over the platter. Roasted sunflower seeds (shelled, obviously) are nice too. As are hot pepper flakes if you like heat. Sumac (the purplish red sour spice, not the irritating weed) is also pretty if you can get it where you are, but smoked paprika really hits the spot.

If you’re being impressive at short notice and you have an organic kabocha squash, scrub it well, cut off the cap carefully with a very sharp knife and dig out all the seeds, put the cap back on, then stick it on a microwaveable plate (Corelle is probably the best) or in a microwave-safe casserole dish, with either Saran wrap or a big microwaveable bowl as a cover. Drizzle a quarter-inch or so of water around it on the plate, hit it for 8 minutes and see if it’s cooked through (depends on the size of the squash). Give it another 3-4 minutes if it’s not quite there, until you can poke a sharp knife through it easily at a thick point. Let it sit 10-15 more to steam further and/or cool a bit. The kabocha is thin-skinned enough to slice through and eat the skin if you want, and it’s a pretty contrast between the dryish, nutty orange flesh and the thin green skin. Drain and bring the whole thing to slice at the table if you feel like it, and pass the tehina sauce.

Microwave Tricks: Black Beans

microwaved black beans

Cooking seasonally is a tricky thing–especially if your season currently includes hurricanes or extreme heat. Pasadena has finally cooled down to 80s/90s with a bit of cloud cover, but last week’s 105-degree afternoons were a serious challenge. It was so bad the only time to go out for a walk was about 5:30 in the morning. Hard to think school has been in session for a month, it’s already September, and Rosh Hashanah is a week and a half away. Running the oven is, to put it bluntly, not an option, and the stove top isn’t much better in my small and easily overheated galley kitchen.

Microwaving is a powerful way to cut the time and pain (and airconditioning bills) for bulk cooking of things like vegetables, rice, pasta…and dried beans, which are much cheaper and more versatile (and much lower in sodium) than canned. Make a bean stew or chili and you can zap a portion of it at will later in the week. Plus bean salads can be served cold–a plus for weeks like the ones we’ve had recently.

But for microwaving, you usually have to adjust whatever method is spelled out in a recipe to your oven, your containers, your food quantities. Microwave times are sensitive to all of those factors, plus how much water you have (water’s the main molecule microwave radiation acts on) and whether or not you’ve got a lid.

Most people don’t try to make changes based on their first-run results and most cookbooks never really explain how to make useful adjustments. Predictably, most microwave cookbooks end up in the Last Chance bin at your local Friends of the Library booksale.

It’s a shame, because once you’ve got your timing and so on down, you can repeat it with reliable results.

Over the years I’ve posted basic heat-to-simmer-and-let-sit-to-absorb microwave methods for cooking split peas, chickpeas, lentils and other bulk dried beans. Lentils and split peas always did work out well without needing to soak them first–they tend to be easier to cook quickly by standard stovetop boiling too. Chickpeas work okay if you presoak them or hot-soak in the microwave (heat briefly in water just to cover, let stand 15 minutes or so and let them swell up) before the main cooking, and adding a dash of baking soda to the soak water really helps. Same with gigantes (giant favas)–which I’ve now decided cook better with the skins left on, same as if you were boiling them, and they’re certainly a lot quicker and easier to peel afterward–also more fun.

But some beans just seem to toughen if you don’t presoak overnight or if you microwave them too long. Black beans and kidney beans have given me more trouble than they seem to be worth–and I’m a bit reluctant to post this because it’s fussier than I like to admit even after adjusting the method successfully. Microwaving isn’t supposed to take more time and fuss than straight boiling on a stove, or working with a pressure cooker, if you have and trust yourself with one.

But this is a good illustration of how to use a microwave as a workaround when you don’t, and it shows you how you might think about making adjustments based on what the food is doing or not doing.

I microwave because I want something relatively safe, that doesn’t heat up the kitchen, and that turns itself off when done because, let’s face it, I’d rather be reading or writing than waiting for a pot of water to boil or jumping up at the whistle to avert an explosion. And I want the beans properly cooked and tender in less total microwave time at the least and without having to boil them afterward on the stove. I’ve done that before and I’ll probably do again if it ever cools down enough, but I’d rather not have to. The prior microwaving steps still shorten the stovetop time to maybe half an hour, but really, I’d rather it were all microwave, no fuss (I can dream, can’t I?)

So after a rethink of my previous methods, I’ve made some changes to the way I cook black beans from scratch by microwave. It also works for things like brown rice, steelcut oats, and other tough, uncut, unpeeled whole grains like farro or pearl barley when you’ve forgotten to put them up for soaking overnight, and at least for the rice it’s quicker than the 45 minutes or so of my previous brown rice method–maybe 20-30 minutes for a pound or two of brown rice. For the beans, maybe an hour of time total, with sitting and rechecking. Maybe less if your beans are fresh enough and/or you remembered to soak them overnight first.

Cracking the method

It starts with the water. I had been covering a pound of dried beans (or brown rice) with more than an inch of water and heating it all, or else heating that much water by itself (more than a quart) and then tipping in the rinsed beans to soak for a bit. But since the water molecules are what the microwave heats up first for preference, the more water you have, the longer it takes for the Continue reading

Microwave Tricks: 10-Minute Tofu

Microwaved platter of low-sodium tofu with snow peas

Microwaved tofu platter in minutes, minus the big oil and salt overload of takeout. I’ve used snow peas and shiitake mushrooms this time, but you could use any greens you like and mix them up–bok choy, broccoli, green beans. Frozen snow or sugar snap peas work too.

This is the recipe I meant to put in the last post about reducing sodium in Chinese food.

Tofu is, as everyone knows by now, extremely versatile. It’s vegetarian, it’s shapeable, it’s mild but satisfying in flavor, it comes in a variety of textures and thicknesses, and it’s quick to cook–fried, steamed, stuffed, crumbled–or to eat cold. It’s also low-fat, low-sodium, nearly carb-free, and relatively high in protein, with some iron and calcium too. And it’s very inexpensive–less than $2 for a 14-oz. pad of tofu at the supermarket, about three or four servings’ worth.

When it’s hideously hot out, as it was much of September here in Pasadena, you can marinate a sliced cold block of silken tofu by pouring a jao tze-style dipping sauce over it maybe half an hour, garnish with scallion shreds or crushed toasted nuts, and serve it as an appetizer. Or eat firm tofu plain and cold, if you like it. Or throw some tofu cubes into a salad with cabbage, lightly-steamed (or microwaved) fresh brussels sprouts, scallions and halved hard-boiled eggs, and drizzle peanut sauce over it.

Or you can decide there’s no way you’re going to stand over a stove with a frying pan, but you’d like a proper cooked dinner that resembles kung pao or ma po tofu with some greens, just not doused in heavy greasy oversalted sauce or requiring a run to your local takeout, and it would be nice if it were very quick. Very quick. Like five minutes tops. And that it didn’t involve the stove at all.

When my daughter decided she wanted to be vegetarian a couple of years ago, I discovered that you can “quick-press” tofu for Hunan tofu in about 4-5 minutes for a standard 14-19 oz. pad by cutting it up, standing the pieces on a microwaveable dinner plate, and microwaving, then draining off the liquid. Then it’s ready to stir-fry and it’ll brown decently. But I’ve done it so often in the past two years that my daughter’s kind of tired of it now (and has also gone back to eating fish and chicken once in a while). But we still like tofu. And with 100-degree days filling so much of September, there was just no way I was going to stand at the stove. So….

The entirely microwaveable tofu dish below is my daughter’s current preference, because the tofu cubes are softer, steamed in the microwave in a thin sauce rather than browned, and the scallions never scorch. And it’s not bad at all, and it takes, if not a literal 5 minutes, maybe about 10, start to finish.

This is more of a technique than a recipe, really, because you can use whatever cookable greens you have and like–fresh broccoli with the stalks, green beans, bok choy, etc. are pretty classic and generally not expensive per pound, but I’m not against using frozen unsalted (store brand; I’m cheap) sugar snap peas or green beans if the fresh ones are out of season. You’re microwaving; it’ll work out, and you won’t overcook the tofu. Continue reading

Stuffed cabbage in the microwave

stuffed Nappa cabbage rolls-unsauced

I was originally going to call this post “Nappa 9-1-1” because it’s about salvaging a cabbage quickly and semi-artfully from the back of my fridge, but realized how bad that would be once I read the recent earthquake damage assessments up in the real city of Napa from the 6.0 earthquake a couple of weeks ago. Things are still kind of rough up there. The Napa Valley Vintners association have donated an impressive amount–$10M–and have instructions on how to donate to the local community disaster relief fund. You can find a number of local funds to donate to online at norcalwine.com.

I love bringing home a bag (or more) of produce from my local greengrocer each week–especially in the summer, when Fresno tomatoes are in and brilliant red, green beans are green and snappy, apricots and plums and pluots are spilling ripely out of the bins at under a dollar a pound, and herbs like purple basil and tarragon and mint and za’atar are 75 cents a bunch. You can’t help but feel like you’re going to be a great cook that day, just by cutting up a few vegetables and sprinkling on some oil and vinegar and strewing herbs (and feta or Alfonso olives) on top.

I always mean to use up all my vegetables before they start showing their age, but occasionally I get caught with something unintended at the back of the fridge. This week it was a Nappa cabbage, which is longer and less sulfurous (when lightly cooked) than the more traditional green and Savoy cabbages. A little closer to bok choy. So I peeled back the rusted layers, hoping that some of the inner leaves could be salvaged, at least, and I got fairly lucky.

But what to do with them? Chop and eat raw as a salad? Always an option. But I’d bought the cabbage in the first place to try out a quick microwave version of stuffed cabbage that would fulfill a couple of challenges I’d posed myself:

1. Vegetarian (not a big beef fan, personally)–I’m using the lentil/rice stuffing I developed for stuffed eggplants and onions  three years ago (has it already been that long???), because I actually made stuffed onions again last week and had some leftover stuffing in the fridge.

2. Microwaveable in a few minutes (to combat cooked cabbage stench and do it as more fresh-tasting than long-cooked)

3. Non-stinky, and not drowning in cloying sweet-and-sour tomato sauce (my two overwhelming childhood objections to holishkes)

4. Bridges the cultural/culinary gap between European and Syrian Jewish versions of stuffed cabbage by spicing the filling AND adding garlic and onions. It can be done, and should. And yet, I’m not stewing it to death (actually, that means overturning both Euro and Syrian traditional cooking methods in equal measures).

5. Fulfills the Prunes and Lentils Challenge, or at least hints at what’s possible, since today I had (gasp) no prunes left and had to resort to leftover tamarind sauce from the aforementioned batch of stuffed onions… close enough for folk music.

Stuffed cabbage rolls, as I’ve noted before, are popular throughout at least eastern Europe and Syria. Most versions contain meat–beef for Jews, beef or lamb for Arabs, some mixture of pork and beef for European Christians. But I’ve also seen some really beautiful-looking vegetarian ones in Nur Ilkin’s The Turkish Cookbook, and those were stuffed–of all things–with whole cooked chestnuts.

Cabbage lends itself to enveloping stuffings almost as well as grape leaves, and it’s easier to work with, cheaper, and (big bonus) unbrined.

In addition to meat or lentil fillings, you could try something like curry-spiced or Mexican-style beans and/or vegetables, a mu shu or samosa filling, whole cooked grains like brown rice or bulgur with or without dried cranberries or raisins and sunflower seeds or chopped nuts, maybe even fish (though I’m shying away from Joan Nathan’s recommendation for wrapping up gefilte fish and giving them the stuffed cabbage treatment). Perhaps for fish I’d want smoked (fake or real) whitefish salad. Or sausage–real or vegetarian, smoky and spicy.

It seems to me for sauces you could go well beyond sweet-and-sour traditional: a garlicky tomato sauce, a mustard vinaigrette, a smoky salsa with or without tamarind sauce, a chili-paste or z’khug-laden soy/molasses/vinegar/sesame oil dipping sauce with ginger and scallions, a polished herb and wine-type tomato sauce with prunes or mushrooms and onions, even (maybe definitely?) Korean or Thai peanut dipping sauce, especially if you stuffed your Nappa cabbage leaves with a combination of pressed tofu and/or omelet strips, spinach leaves, maybe some sprouts and shiitake mushrooms.

Whatever version you do, this can either be a quick path to dinner (use the big leaves and more filling per leaf) or to a platter of appetizers (using the small inner leaves).

Microwaving doesn’t develop every possible flavor (in the case of cabbage, I’m childish enough to say that’s a good thing), but it’s a quick way to play around with a classic at least on a trial basis. You could always do the huge foil-covered pan in the oven thing if you decide to scale up and go old-school.

Stuffed Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls

  • 1 head Nappa cabbage, washed and with the core cut out
  • 1 lb (2 cups, more or less) of (in this case) allspice/cinnamon-spiced lentil hashu (made w/cooked rice or bulgur, not uncooked) OR peppery lentil mititei-style sausage filling (substituting 1/3 c. cooked rice for the wheat gluten), or your choice of savory/spicy filling, preferably one that includes some garlic….
  • 1/2 c. sauce–in this case, 1/4 c. tamarind sauce plus a tablespoon of chipotle salsa and a few tablespoons of water. OR–just tamarind sauce, or just smoky salsa, or tamarind with a bit of tomato paste and a spoonful of sugar, or peanut dipping sauce, or dim sum dipping sauce, or Asian-type prune sauce, or prune and wine sauce with some tomato paste mixed in. Or mustard/garlic vinaigrette (as a dipping sauce, not necessarily to cook with)…YEESH! too many choices…

 

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

Microwaved cabbage leaves, ready for rolling

1. Separate the cabbage leaves, put in a microwave container, drizzle on a quarter-inch of water and put on a lid. Microwave 2-3 minutes until the leaves are just tender enough to roll without snapping the center.

rolling stuffed cabbage

Start the cabbage roll with the filling at the stem end

2. Drain the leaves and lay them out on a plate for stuffing and rolling. Put a tablespoon of fairly stiff filling an inch or so from the stem end of the leaf and pack it into a little sausage shape. Roll the stem end over the filling gently but as tightly as you can manage, then tuck the side frills of the leaf over the ends and continue rolling toward the top of the leaf. Place seam-side down in a microwave container or casserole. Roll up all the leaves and pack them into the container fairly tightly.

stuffed cabbage rolls with tamarind sauce

3. If the filling is completely cooked already (the rice in the lentil stuffing is not raw or par-cooked), just drizzle a bit of your sauce of choice over the stuffed cabbage rolls, maybe with a tiny drizzle of water in the bottom of the container. Put a lid on and microwave another 2-3 minutes or until just cooked through and steaming hot. If the flavor is still too raw or radishy for you, obviously you can cook it further, going a minute or so at a time, until it smells and tastes right to you.

Drain and serve with a little more sauce on the side.

Instant Pickles, Hold the Salt

Fast-marinated cucumbers, half-sour kosher dill style

One of the things that kept me motivated for blogging SlowFoodFast after the first fine careless rapture was my indignation at how popular over-the-top salting was becoming in popular food magazines, cookbooks, blogs and TV shows as chefs became celebrities, and how dangerous I knew it was for most people to eat that way regularly. A large part of my career a couple of decades ago was exploring the history of dietary sodium in cardiovascular research and writing about the DASH Diet.

What I’ve missed the past few years is just how many people, particularly younger ones, are starting to take up the challenge of cooking low-sodium and blog about their trials and successes. There’s a whole community out there, and they’re cooking pretty well. It is definitely possible, and generally easy once you get past the “how do I read a label and cook from scratch” aspect.

I just ran into Sodium Girl (aka Jessica Goldman Foung)’s blog-based cookbook, “Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook”. Diagnosed with lupus and kidney failure in her early 20s, she turned around her diet by dropping her sodium intake drastically to give her kidneys a rest in the hope they’d regenerate, and it worked. She’s been innovating with low- and near-to-no-sodium versions of favorite foods ever since, working with the National Kidney Foundation and other organizations. Her book, like her blog, is attractively photographed, full of cheerful writing and surprise takes on favorite foods.

One of the substitutions she makes that I have to approve of is a molasses-and-vinegar-based “faux soy sauce”. So I wasn’t the only one!

Another of her successful experiments is pickles. She goes for sugar-and-vinegar-style pickles, which makes sense, since they have no added salt in them, but I can’t help it–I have always cringed at sweet pickled anything. If it’s supposed to be a pickle, for my money, it’s gotta be a half-sour kosher dill and nothing but (or else an Indian lime or mango achaar pickle, or Moroccan preserved lemons, but that’s another story and still pretty high-salt at this writing. I’m working on it, but not yet holding out a lot of hope…)

Anyway, looking through Foung’s book reminded me of a simple, hearty and low-to-very low sodium version of my favorite pickles in the world. Continue reading

Celebration Update: “Mashup” Does Not Mean “More Potatoes”

Two or three Thanksgivings ago I railed (as I often do) at the lack of imaginative and good-looking (both aesthetically and nutritionally)  vegetarian offerings for Thanksgiving main dishes. I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck being impressed by what I saw in the newsstand food glam magazines, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, food blogs, my local newspaper food section, or even the freezer section of my local Whole Foods. So I came up with a list of suggestions for vegetarian centerpiece dishes.

This year, we had the double-double challenge: Thanksgiving fell on the first day (though only the second evening) of Chanukah for the first time in over 100 years (1860s was the last time?) and won’t again for another 77,000 or so (well, some sources say there’ll be another Thanksgivukkah moment in about another 100 years and then the big schlep out to 77K. Either way, for most of us, this is “that moment”).

For me, mashing up Thanksgiving and Chanukah just this once gives us some ideas for rethinking the kneejerk popular way of celebrating the big important holidays in general. Maybe even exploring what’s so vital about holidays and family and clearing away some of the thoughtless excesses.

Chanukah came so early this year that we had nearly no chance at buying or making tons of presents before having to schlep ourselves up the I5 to my in-laws’, so none of us was expecting anything but silly socks, a paperback or so, and maybe a stop in Solvang for Danish marzipan-based sweets on the way back home. That’s all to the good–Chanukah was never really meant to be a “more presents all the time” kind of holiday, it’s about freedom of religion, freedom from outside oppression, and gratitude for the miracle of having enough resources to go around. Thanksgiving is about those things too.

Unlike most years, I didn’t find a two-page checklist that Martin Luther would be jealous of, listing all the acceptable giftees our daughter wanted, posted on the fridge. Partly that’s because we wouldn’t be home to see it, and partly because she already had her bat mitzvah in June and she’s old enough now to feel like it’s more than plenty in the way of gifts. Plus by now she knows me–I have a strong tendency to roll my eyes and cross most of the stuff off the list with the familiar yearly litany of:

“Library…library…library…library…not wearable at school or synagogue, so what’s left, the mirror?…we have an unusually skilled cat and I don’t really want to think about hamsters in that context, do you?…library…library…not until you practice piano…I know I promised you could get your ears pierced eventually…maybe next month…”

It’s just a matter of practice. And a willingness to channel Sylvia (one of my favorite cartoon characters,  by the great Nicole Hollander).

Anyway, I have no idea if any of my ideas the last time I riffed on vegetarian centerpiece dishes gave someone else ideas–I hope so–but recently I ran across a vegan cookbook with dishes that look like they’d be just right for a celebration. It’s too late to recommend for Thanksgiving or Chanukah, but maybe for Christmas and onward? Continue reading

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