Facebook Challenge

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.

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Satiation

I have spent the last few days on a mission: to clear my head and chest of some of the most persistent congestion I’ve ever experienced.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but my tactics have thus been: blowing my nose offensively as often as possible, acupuncture treatment, gross-nasty herbal cough drops, as many cups of lavender/mint/licorice root tea as I can handle, avoiding dairy and sugar, and seeking out brothy, spicy foods.  The only tactic up until now that has not been successful is the last.  I went for Indian food but the medium-hot curry was not enough to really get things burning, and you see, I wanted pain.  Today I sat down for some miso soup and a sushi roll, and while tasty enough and filling, it was distinctly unsatisfying.  I came home feeling rather lazy and had already decided against making dinner, but what started as a quick midnight snack turned out to be just the meal I’ve been craving most.

I think there can be a lot of value in tuning in to your food cravings.  They can help point to the imbalances and needs of our bodies.  My lifelong, unwavering passion for peppermint is probably indicative of the fact that I’ve never had an easy stomach.  My synonymous feelings for red meat might likewise be the offset of a suspected slightly anemic condition.  So I try to listen to my body and satisfy cravings in the most healthy way possible.  Some cravings, like those for sugar or intoxicants, I recognize as being generally unhealthy and try to indulge moderately.  Mostly I just think about what I would most like to eat, and go with that.

Last night I wandered into the kitchen, not sure of what I would find, but knowing that there wasn’t a whole lot to work with.  I discovered, and began to assemble: a medium-sized sweet onion (thinly sliced), butter, one spicy italian sausage (from your local grass-fed ranch, of course), chicken broth leftover from another recipe (about a cup, enough to come halfway up the sausage in a small pan), brut cava leftover from the mimosas I poured for brunch a week ago (two or three tablespoons), a little salt, and a good amount of cracked pepper.  The sausage was frozen solid and I didn’t feel like waiting, so I decided to braise it with some chicken broth and cava, while I slowly browned the onion in another pan.  After about 20 minutes I took the sausage out of the braising liquid, and turned the heat to medium-high, to get it to a simmer.  Another 15 minutes, the braising liquid has reduced quite a bit, the onions are getting pretty brown, and the sausage goes into the pan with the onions to brown.  When that’s done, put it all aside, strain the braising liquid into the onion pan, making sure to scrape up all the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  Let it reduce a few minutes more before pouring it over the onions and sausage.

It was just what I needed: the sausage actually packed a punch, the reduced broth was rich and savory, with enough tartness from the cava to cut through any dullness on the tongue, and sweetness in the caramelized onions to balance it all.  I ate voraciously.  I plan to try to recreate it for lunch today.  I made ginger rose tea to go with it, and enjoyed that so thoroughly that I’ve resolved to buy fresh ginger tomorrow and make super-hot ginger rose tea all day long.  In case you didn’t know, ginger is intensely curative, with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties, and is one of the best known medicines for relieving all sort of gastrointestinal distress.  I was definitely breathing easier after my meal.

Snack for a Regenerative Day

Over the last 5 months, I have learned more about tea that I thought I would ever know.  As with most things, it has merely made me aware of how very little I know about tea.  Tea is truly fascinating, with complexities of type, flavor, and historical reach that are overwhelmingly vast.  Today I’m sipping on Emperor’s Pu-erh 1998, from  a fantastic, no-nonsense teahouse in San Francisco called Aroma.  Most people I talk to have never heard of pu-erh, or else have never tried it.  It is supposedly something of an acquired taste, but I fell in love with it at first sip.  My first pu-erh was purchased without thought at a large heath food chain, just because it looked interesting.  I added milk and maple syrup because it looked like black tea to me, and that’s what you do with black tea, right?  It was rich and fulfilling, and quickly became part of my morning routine.  Now that I am a little more informed, I take my pu-erh black, and rather like it that way.

Now, here’s what I can tell you about pu-erh:  It is produced in China, where it is referred to as “black” tea (what we refer to as black tea in the West is called “red” tea in China).  It is a fermented tea, and can be either raw/”green” or “cooked” depending on whether it was oxidized before fermentation.  Often it is pressed into cakes or bricks of various shapes and sizes (rectangles and bowl “tuo-cha” shapes are very common), but can also come loose leaf (like my pu-erh).  Unlike every other type of tea (and just like every other type of fermented food), pu-erh develops more flavor and becomes more valuable as it ages.  It can get surprisingly expensive–single cakes of pu-erh have been known to sell for thousands of dollars.  Here in the U.S., we’re not that serious about our tea, and it can actually be difficult to find good pu-erh.  I tried a sublime 20-year-old wild pu-erh in the aforementioned tea shop, but at approximately $22 per ounce, I couldn’t justify bringing some home.  The Emperor’s 1998 is a still a very good tea, and about half the price.

Pu-erh is also valued for its unique health benefits, which border on miraculous/all-encompassing.  It has been shown to simultaneously increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol and lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol (I use quotes because I’m not clear on the difference between these types of cholesterol).  The fermentation process imparts digestive benefits.  It is good for detoxification, especially the liver, and has been used to treat hangovers.  It is full of anti-oxidants that fight disease, notably heart disease and cancer.  It can also apparently help keep you looking and feeling young (by nourishing your connective tissues) and perhaps even help those who want to lose weight (by increasing your metabolism and curbing your appetite).

Today I paired my pu-erh with a few pieces of 70% cacao dark chocolate from Theo Chocolate, my favorite local chocolate factory (what, don’t you have a chocolate factory where you live??).  Theo is a really well-rounded company that produces arguably the best chocolate I’ve ever had.  It probably helps that it’s always undeniably fresh and wholesome.  Yes, that’s right, wholesome chocolate.  Theo is the first chocolate producer in the country that is fair-trade and organic from bean to bar, and is intent on staying small enough to carefully guide the entire process with real human eyes and hands.  I’ve been on their factory tour twice so far, and have made many a giddiness-inducing trip to the attached retail store.  Most of what I know about chocolate I learned on this tour.  This is what I can remember: cacao is one of the most anti-oxidant rich foods on the planet; the fat in cacao (coco butter) is exceptionally good for your skin and body, and is usually extracted for sale to the cosmetics industry then replaced with cheap synthetic fats; there are like, special brain chemicals and shit that make us really really happy.  There has been plenty of media coverage about the health benefits of dark chocolate, but not nearly as much about how fair, quality chocolate is by far the healthiest.  Theo does it right.

Pu-erh and dark chocolate may be one of those ethereal, perfect pairs, in the leagues of bacon and maple syrup, or more popularly, peanut butter and jelly.  Some of my favorite pu-erhs have deep chocolately tones, so it was not a particularly difficult leap to make.  The grounded bright fruitiness of the chocolate (slightly cold, slightly sweet) was the perfect balance for the deep moist-earthiness of the tea (warm, unrelentingly savory).  It is yet another example of how foods with very few ingredients and careful, skilled processing can develop such intense complexity of flavor as to boggle the mind and palate.  A true luxury.

Custard Experiment

So, in case you don’t know me at all, I am apparently incapable of following a recipe.  I’m thinking it must be some kind of compulsion, because seriously, it’s like I can’t even help it.  I have very little patience for measuring and ALWAYS replace at least one ingredient.  This problem is certainly why I have never developed as a baker.

Now custards, while simple, can be kind of tricky and require a lot of technique.  I love making custard; it’s really the only dessert I do well.  I’ve made flan with great success many times before, and being rather comfortable with the procedure, I thought it would finally be appropriate to improvise.  Though the changes I made seemed pretty straight forward–switching out different kinds of sweeteners–it resulted in a surprisingly different dessert.  The experimental sweetener was rapadura sugar (which I always say with an hispanic accent in my head), or unrefined evaporated sugar cane.  White sugar is made by removing the molasses from the sugar crystals (usually through processes that creates very high heat, thereby destroying any nutrients), while brown sugar is white sugar with the molasses added back in.  Most other “raw” or “evaporated” cane sugars have gone through a similar process.  I’d never used rapadura before and was surprised by its appearance–it looks very much like dirt.  This may sound weird, but somehow it was reassuring that my sweetener look so much like soil.

The rapadura did not melt like white sugar–at no point did it become smooth and transparent but rather resembled bubbling mud.  Since it started out darker than white sugar it was difficult to tell when it had caramelized sufficiently.  I poured it into the glass dish with a distinct unease about whether my experiment would be edible.  When I turned out the custard the next day to taste test, the rapadura caramel was a decadent-looking dark chocolate brown, and was smooth and glassy just as it should be.  The flavor was incredibly deep and complex, with hints of the chocolate it resembled , and perhaps a bit of coffee.  It was kind of amazing that such flavor could develop from one ingredient.

Another experimental factor was the use of eggs from my mom’s chickens.  These eggs, now mentioned twice in the short life of this blog, have large, rich orange yolks and unusually thick whites.  As a result, the custard was a nice buttery yellow and so thick it was nearly the texture of cheesecake.  Some test subjects declared that they found this texture highly preferable to the jiggly, silky texture of typical flan.  I think it was a bit overcooked, and rather enjoy that jiggly, silky texture.  Next time I plan to use fewer whole eggs and more egg yolks, as well as be more attentive with the time.

Lastly, I used honey in place of sugar to sweeten the custard–I thought the rapadura would make it an unappetizing shade of brown.  I also cut down the amount, which is something I often do in recipes, whether baked or cooked.  I have a sweet tooth to be sure, but it seems to me that sugar is found in way too many recipes in much too high amounts.  I like subtly to moderately sweet, and figure it’s an easy way to reduce the amount of refined sugar in my diet.

The recipe, in case you wanted it:

Sultry Flan

1 cup Rapadura sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 T water
2 cups heavy cream
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 325˚ F.  To make the caramel: have ready a 2-quart flan mold and a large roasting pan.  Combine Rapadura sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pot or pan.  Place over medium-high heat and cook (but do not touch) until the sugar begins to melt.  Swirl the pan over the heat until the syrup darkens to a chocolatey-brown color, about 10 minutes; don’t stir with a spoon.  Remove from the heat and immediately pour into the flan mold.  Be very careful!  This is molten sugar, and they call it napalm in the restaurant business for a good reason.  Tilt the dish or use a silicone spatula to distribute the caramel evenly over the bottom and a bit up the sides of the mold.  Place the mold inside a large roasting pan and set aside.

Combine the cream, cinnamon, and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Bring the cream to a brief simmer, stirring occasionally.  Don’t let the cream come to a full boil.  In a large bowl cream together whole eggs, egg yolks, honey, and salt.  Whisk until the eggs pale and thicken.  Temper the egg mixture by adding a small amount of hot cream to avoid denaturing the egg proteins, then slowly adding the remaining cream.  Strain and pour into the mold.  Pour hot (but not boiling) water into the roasting pan to come half way up the side of the mold.  Bake for 30 to 45 minutes until barely set with a jiggly center.  Cool in the bath and then refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.  To serve, run a knife around the inside edge of the mold, place a large plate with a lip over the top, and flip the whole thing over swiftly.

If you’re not lucky enough to have access to actually free-ranging, farm-fresh eggs, you should probably go by the original recipe, which calls for 3 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks.  Good luck!

Southern-style Goodness

Tonight I hosted a little dinner thing with a Southern theme. The contributions were ribs, twice-baked potatoes, collard greens with ham hocks, and two types of cornbread. I also made (something that could loosely be referred to as) flan for dessert, but it would be a stretch to call it Southern. Overall, a really fantastic, satisfying, makes-you-wanna-take-a-nap meal.

The ribs were slow-cooked with care and lust by my favorite Seattle cooking buddy, to whom I will refer hereafter as the Teacher. Since he had never made ribs before, I suggested a recipe from Alton Brown (oh, how I love A.B.). The episode it was on is called “Who Loves Ya Baby-Back?” and is highly educational for anyone who is interested in slow-cooked meats. The ribs were, in a word, fan-fucking-tastic–succulent, tender, and dripping with explosively flavorful, saucy goodness. A.B. says that what makes ribs so especially delicious is all the collagen, which when cooked over a long period of time at a low temperature, turns into rich, melty gelatin. And lucky for us, gelatin is also really good for you. Keeping your joints and skin young and healthy are just a couple of the many benefits of gelatin in the diet.

The rest of the spread was also impressive, and very filling.  I love it when modest dinner plans turn into rich feasts, just because of the enthusiasm of great home cooks (and because the guest count was lower than expected).  It’s important to eat with people–it’s something we all have to do and is perhaps the most accessible gateway into an unfamiliar culture.  In my experience, people who cook together are or become good friends.  At the very least, you’ll have reliable dining partners. 

As for my dishes, they were both experimental and successful to varying degrees.  I’ve never made cornbread before and I switched up some ingredients in the flan that made it substantially different from custards past.  I was really pleased with the cornbread–I didn’t have the traditional cast iron skillet, and I used rapadura sugar in half the amount called for by the recipe, but it came out moist, crumbly and tasty.  Also, did you know it’s really easy to make?  I’m not much of a baker and I had no trouble at all.  Look out for a separate post on my adventures in flan.

Baked Sweet Potato with Maple-Cayenne Cultured Cream

This is a hearty snack I recently thought up that I think is quite tasty, very easy, and well, pretty nutritionally solid.  First things first: how to make it.  Scrub down a medium-sized sweet potato, give it a few good jabs with a fork, and put it directly on the rack of a 400 degree oven.  Let it bake until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, or just about when you start to smell burnt sugar oozing from the skin.  Carefully (because the steam in this thing is Really hot) slice open the tuber and promptly apply about as much butter as you can stand.  Salt generously and crack a little pepper on top.  While your butter is melting into little rivers of delicious, mix in a small bowl about 2T sour cream, 2t maple syrup, and 1/2t ground cayenne.  I say about because I have never actually measured this, and you’ll want to adjust for your particular tastes (more or less sweet, spicy).  Apply to potato and eat.

Now many people may be skeptical of the nutritional soundness of this snack, what with all the calories and fat and sugar, but allow me to assuage the fearful.  Most people know that sweet potatoes are ridiculously good for you–they contain powerful anti-oxidants, with an especially high vitamin A and C content.  But butter also has a rather impressive array of health benefits, in particular butter that comes from organic and grass-fed cows.  Though you should read the attached article because it is interesting and relatively easy to read, I’ll summarize a few key points here.  Butter contains a number of potent anti-oxidants in very easily assimilated forms (vitamin A and E, selenium) that help prevent heart disease and cancer.  These nutrients are so readily available because the saturated fat in butter is easy for the body to turn into energy.  The “storage” fat on our bodies is mainly long-chain fatty acids which comes from polyunsaturated oils and refined carbohydrates.  Too much jargon?  Vegetable oils and simple carbs make you fat and tired, while butter tastes delicious and is truly nourishing.

With that whole fat thing out of the way, it’s easy to see why gobs of sour cream is also a good thing.  Sour cream is a cultured milk product, which means it’s been fermented by live organisms that do nice things for our digestive systems.  In general, traditionally fermented foods make nutrients more available for our bodies to absorb, while also adding delightful tanginess and flavor.  Convenient, eh?  Again, it is important to get dairy products from cows that are grass-fed if you want to get the most out of your butterfat.  If you can source said dairy products locally, even better.  The Cornucopia Institute has developed this rating system to help you figure out which common organic brands abide by the most wholesome practices.  I usually get Organic Valley (cultured) butter because it’s cheaper and though they’re a national brand they distribute regionally.  They’re also my go-to dairy brand at conventional grocery stores.  The sour cream I get out here is Nancy’s, which is wonderfully thick and tasty, unlike anything else I’ve had from a grocery store.  Both of these companies earned a 4 Cow rating with the Cornucopia Institute.

I’m worried that this may be information overload.  Should I go into the differences between refined and natural sweeteners?  Maybe I’ll save that for another time, but ponder this: The Corn Refiner’s Association wants you to believe that all sugars are molecularly the same and therefore nutritionally equal, but they are just lying.  (Thanks to my dear ex-roomie for posting that article on Facebook recently.)  Anyway, a little maple syrup is just fine, though natural sweeteners should still be consumed only occasionally.

Traveling food

It could be considered highly appropriate that my first post here is composed in and about the airport.  I have mixed feelings about airports–the excitement of traveling and interest of captive people-watching marred by more hassle than really seems necessary and universally terrible food.  My roommate aptly pinpointed the problem with airport food: it’s always soggy.  How is that even possible?  ALWAYS.

I Hate eating at the airport, and yet it is nearly impossible to avoid it.  Now that you have to pay for any baggage you check, it is in everyone’s best interest to try and get as much as possible into your carry-ons, which leaves little room for food.  You can’t bring anything that needs refrigeration, nor can you heat anything up (and I am such a big fan of hot food).  No liquids, which means you either get your drinks on the plane or succumb to bottled beverages, of which you have two basic options: overly-sugared or water.  Basically the only time I ever patronize national chain restaurants is in airports, and somehow they manage to be even worse inside airports.  Again, soggy is a key descriptor of the problem.

So what is a radical foodie to do in an airport environment?  Usually I’m lazy and give in to the convenience of the airport food courts.  The only advantage I’ve yet experienced of this approach is that it prevents me from overeating.  This time, I feel a little more badass, thanks entirely to my mother.  She sent me off with a simple sandwich on a homemade bun, a dozen eggs from her (actually) free-ranging chickens, and a frozen loaf of homemade bread.  The sandwich itself is not particularly rad, but it will help me avoid at least one airport meal.  And when was the last time you went to the airport with a dozen eggs?  In particular, eggs that were raised in someone’s suburban backyard?  Yes, that’s rad.  Also, these eggs are terribly awesome, with deep orange yolks and real flavor.  I’ll post pictures just as soon as I crack one open.

Now my only qualm is this: I am basically shipping groceries across the country.  Groceries that I can easily get at home.  But these are really gifts of love and sustenance.  And since I’m already flying that distance, it doesn’t really count does it?  Thank you, Mom, for sending me off so richly, and for being such a rad foodie yourself.  I’m really looking forward to eating the fruits of your labor in Arkansas.

An example of actually free-ranging chickens, on a farm in Boynton Beach, FL. Sadly, I couldn't find the pictures I KNOW I HAVE SOMEWHERE of my mom's chickens.