Ok, so it wasn’t really a challenge, but when posed with the question “Soup or Mac & Cheese?” the unanimous (ha, from two votes) response was “Both!” In my head it seemed like a challenge–why do you have to choose? Aren’t you good enough to make two meals in a day?? I decided that yes, yes I was, and so began my cooking spree.
First up: a sweet potato coconut soup that I invented back in my second year of college when I was, for a very short period of time, a serious vegetarian. I worked at the farmer’s market and ate robust amounts of the freshest organic produce, and this soup arose out of a need to dispense with a fair amount of my compensation. I use butter here to sauté my veggies, but replace that with olive oil and you’ve got a really filling vegan soup. When was the last time you had a filling vegan soup? That’s what I thought. This recipe makes quite a bit of soup, with the point being that you can share with your friends and still have soup for days. It’s also pretty nutritionally well-rounded, with protein from the brown rice, fiber and vitamins from the veggies, and sweet satisfying saturated fat from the coconut milk.
Coconuts are one of the few plants on earth that produce saturated fats–this is because the sterols responsible for sound cell structure must be able to withstand the high heat of the tropics where these plants grow. In other words, the fat in these plants must be stable at high temperatures. The practical benefit is that coconut oil is very good for high heat cooking (like refined, unsaturated vegetable oils) and very shelf-stable (very unlike aforementioned vegetable oils) without refrigeration. Palm is another source of vegetable-based saturated fat. Pure expeller-pressed coconut oil is sold as a nutritional supplement as a result of its vast health benefits: a fantastic source of long-lasting energy (gotta love medium chain fatty acids), great for the skin, great for the heart, great for the mind, and anti-microbial. It can even act as a powerful laxative in large doses (trust me). Pure coconut oil can be rather expensive, but whole coconut milk is relatively cheap, delicious, and versatile in recipes.
Enough of that; the recipe:
1 very large sweet potato
1 can of whole coconut milk
1 robust bunch of kale
many cloves of garlic (4-8)
1 medium onion -or- 2 large leeks -or- 2 large spring onions
1 cup short grain brown rice
1 quart vegetable stock
1 tablespoon butter, coconut or olive oil
1 fresh chili pepper or a healthy pinch of cayenne (if you want)
salt and/or soy sauce, to taste (though the coconut milk and sweet potato can take quite a bit of salt, so don’t be shy)
Cook the rice by adding to it two cups of water in a small pot, bring the water to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, then cover and let cook until all the water is gone from the pot (it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’ll cook more in the soup later). While the rice is cooking, peel the sweet potato, cube, and steam until very tender. Reserve the steaming liquid. Blend together the coconut milk and steamed sweet potato. De-stem and chop the kale, garlic, and onions. In a large stock pot on medium heat, add the oil and onions, cooking until they are softened and starting to caramelize, then adding the garlic, and finally, for just a few minutes, the kale (and hot pepper if you’re using it). As soon as the kale has turned bright green, add the rice and sweet potato coconut mixture, the reserved steaming liquid, and the vegetable broth. Cover and let it come to a simmer for a few minutes, then serve, share, enjoy, store, and repeat until supplies are exhausted and bellies are satisfied.
I’ll try to be more succinct in the other two entries. Next was macaroni & cheese, cooked in a friend’s kitchen and happily shared at the dining table of same (I was reminded again how nice it is to sit around a table enjoying a meal with people). My first time making mac & cheese, I predictably followed the sage advice of Alton Brown and watched that seminal episode, “For Whom the Cheese Melts II.” Of course I changed some things–fancy-pants handmade pasta from the co-op, raw sharp cheddar cheese, crispy fried shallots (added later) instead of onion in the bechamel, no paprika or bay leaf, two cups of cream plus 1 cup of milk, and sourdough instead of panko bread crumbs. Wow, when I have to write it all out like that, it seems like quite a lot. This is also making me hungry. Anyway, it came out really well, though I’d like to play around more with the texture (it wasn’t as creamy as I had hoped), and using different kinds or mixtures of cheese. Now that I’m familiar with the method, this could yield many promising experiments.
Finally, as a sort of high-five to myself for mastering the challenge, I decided to end the night by baking blueberry muffins at my house. I’ve used this recipe before, but to refresh I referenced, again, Alton Brown. The changes I made to the linked recipe: buttermilk in place of yogurt, rapadura in place of white sugar, melted butter in place of vegetable oil, frozen blueberries in place of fresh. I like how the rapadura makes everything brown–when it’s brown I feel like I’m eating something good for me. Is that weird? I think it would be appropriate to rescind my previous statement that I have failed to develop any baking skills. These muffins were nearly wet-dream inducing when fresh out of the oven: slightly crisp around the edges, warm, soft, moist, light, with pockets of luscious molten blueberry. If my roommate was annoyed with me for baking at 1 in the morning, I’m almost positive it was absolved when I had these to offer. Perhaps the best way to make friends is to make muffins.