Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Friendship Restored and a Curry Recreated

I reconnected with an old friend this summer. While we were once inseparable pals, we had grown up and drifted apart. Before this summer, we hadn’t spoken in over three years. The realization of this fact is what prompted me to reestablish a connection with this friend—it was too sad to think that after years of being so close, we could have gotten to the point where we weren’t even talking anymore. We met for coffee, the first of a few meet-ups we had over the course of the summer, occasions for long conversations, catching up on what we had missed in each other’s lives during the preceding years. One of the things that we discovered during our conversations was a mutual appreciation for good food and finding interesting local restaurants. So, for our next get-together, my friend brought me to one of her favorite spots, a wonderful vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres.
 As with a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, the menu was intriguing, varied, and original. Maybe I just don’t eat out at meat-free places all that often, but I am always amazed at the originality I see on the menus of places like these—tempting combination of fruits and vegetables, beans and sprouts, tofu and tempeh, and grains and seeds. That said, a cursory glance at the menu wouldn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary: it contains salads, sandwiches, some chilis, as well as their famous “bowls” (basically, ingredients thrown together in a bowl), and some meat-free burgers. It is the manifestations of these more or less standard categories that are really worth mentioning. I was tempted by sandwiches of grilled eggplant and hummus, bowls of bok choi, pickled carrot and daikon, coriander, Thai peanut sauce, and grilled tofu or tempeh, and burgers stuffed with Portobello, caramelized onions, and chipotle vegan mayo. They have something called veggielox, their vegan version of salmon lox, to be found on a number of salads and sandwiches. They are also famous for their smoked coconut which supposedly tastes like bacon—you can try it on their vegan version of a BLT. Everything looked great, and I hadn’t even gotten to the smoothies and fresh juices.

I finally settled on a mango lassi and the Chana—a chickpea curry wrapped up in chapati, a South Asian flatbread, a lot like a tortilla. Maybe it was the company, or maybe it was the fact that I had accidentally parked four blocks away and had to walk in the rain, so I was wet and cold and hungry, but it was a memorable meal. The sandwich was wonderful—a hot, spiced, flavorful curry, encased in a thin layer of soft bread. The seasoning of the filling was spot-on. I could taste the complexity of the curry without being overwhelmed by too much spice. I could taste the coconut milk it had been simmered in, and I could tell by the bite they still had that the beans had been cooked from their dry state, not drained from a can. I also loved how the curry was studded with sweet, chewy dates, a perfect complement to the savory curry. I was inspired. As my friend and I chatted about life, and love, and food, I knew that I would be attempting to recreate this dish myself.
Of course, that is exactly what I did. It had been almost two months since I was at Aux Vivres, but the memory of the taste of that curry was still with me when I tried my hand at making it a couple of weeks ago. I used what I know about making curries and what I thought I remembered about this particular one to try to bring it back to life.

I admit, I used canned chickpeas rather than dried ones because the can was already perched happily in my pantry, begging to be made into curry. I also thought the dish would taste good in pita bread, and so, in my quest to make more bread, and because I was still on holiday and I had the time, I made the pita myself. Finally, I didn’t have any dates, but I had some golden raisins, so I used those instead.
The trickiest part was the seasoning: it isn’t easy to match the flavor of something as complex as a curry, but enough time had passed and my memory had faded enough so that I knew I wasn’t going to be too picky about matching what I had had in the restaurant exactly. I used what I had and just tried to make it taste good. I used curry powder, turmeric, cardamom, anise, cayenne, cumin, and poppy seeds. For a more authentic curry, the cardamom should have been in the form of pods, the anise, stars, and the cumin, seeds, but I only had the ground version of each, so they made decent substitutes. I cooked my seasoning concoction in hot oil, and then added a paste of ginger and garlic.
Next came diced onion, carrot, and potato. I added the drained chickpeas and the raisins, then deglazed the pan with a little water. Once that had reduced a bit, I added a can of coconut milk, and let it simmer and reduce until there was barely any liquid left in the pan. As it cooked, I tasted, seasoned, and adjusted.

I would say it was a success. Of course, if I could go back to Aux Vivres now and try the original, I’m sure I could find a hundred things that are different about mine, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Andrew and I agreed that it was a delicious meal, and so I’ve shared it below. We had it with green salad.
I have to thank my friend for introducing me to this restaurant, a tiny reason amongst many larger, more meaningful ones for why I am thankful that she is back in my life. She was at my wedding and it felt right—unlike this recipe, like it couldn’t have been any other way.

**Note: If the pictures seem worse to you than usual, it doesn’t mean you need to get glasses: I can’t use my usual camera, and I’m stuck with one that does not photograph food well at all. My other camera should be back soon, though!

Chickpea Curry
Serves 4
2 tbsp. curry powder (preferably madras curry powder)
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground cardamom (or, use 1-2 cardamom pods)
1 tsp. anise (or, use 1 star anise)
½ tsp. cayenne
1 ½ tsp. cumin (or, use 1 tsp. cumin seeds)
½ tsp. poppy seeds
1 tbsp. garlic, minced
1 tbsp. ginger root, peeled and minced
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 medium carrots, small dice
1 medium yellow potato, medium dice
2 15oz. cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup golden raisins
½ cup water
2 14 oz. cans coconut milk
Pita bread, tortillas, or chapati

In a small bowl, combine the spices (the first 7 ingredients). Place the ginger and garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt, and mash together with a pestle to create a coarse paste.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the spice mixture and cook and stir until the spices have darkened and are fragrant, 30 seconds to one minute. Lower heat to medium, add the ginger and garlic, and stir for one more minute. Stir in the onion and carrots, cooking until they have just begun to soften.

Stir in the potato, chickpeas, and raisins. Increase heat to high, and then add the water, scraping the bottom of the pan to pull up the brown bits stuck there. Add the coconut milk and bring the curry to a simmer. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer and reduce until there is only a small amount of liquid left in the pan. Stir frequently, and taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve in warm pita pockets, or wrapped in tortillas or chapati.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Overcoming Skepticism: Fried Squash Blossoms

Whoever decided to pluck the unopened blossoms from a squash plant, stuff them with cheese, and then batter and deep fry them was a wise individual indeed. This is a fact I discovered recently when I purchased and ate squash blossoms for the first time. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first: I couldn’t imagine that fussing with these delicate little flowers would be worth the end result.
Skepticism sometimes needs to be put aside, though, and I was able to overcome mine when recently, I saw a bright basket of yellow squash blossoms perched on a merchant’s table at the farmer’s market. The price tag was not very encouraging: at six for five dollars, the blossoms weren’t exactly cheap. You need about six to eight blossoms per person if they are to be the main course. I was intrigued, though, and I’m always interested in working with an ingredient for the first time.

A few things I discovered in working with these: they need to be used within a day or two, because they brown and wilt quickly. Also, they need to be handled with care, because the delicate petals of the blossoms will, again, brown and wilt if you treat them too roughly, or touch them too much. Holding them mostly from the bottom where there is a more robust stem tends to work, though.

All right, enough of the negatives, what’s good about working with squash blossoms? Well, once you’ve discovered how to handle them, they are actually kind of fun to work with. I chose a recipe from last September’s Gourmet, Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta. The recipe involved stuffing the blossoms with a ricotta, parmesan, and mint mixture, dipping them in a tempura batter, deep frying them, and having them with a fresh, chunky tomato sauce on the side. Stuffing them proved to be easier than I had expected: just pry the petals of the blossom gently apart, then fill the space within with the stuffing. Gently twisting the petals will form a light seal to close the blossom up again.
The filled blossoms are then coated in a basic tempura batter. If you have never worked with tempura batter before, a word of warning: it is much thinner than other batters you may have worked with for deep frying, like a fritter batter. It won’t coat whatever you’re frying the way the thicker batters do, but that’s fine: you only want that delicate coating to stay on food.
The blossoms go into half an inch of hot oil (375 F) to fry until golden brown, about three minutes. You should see lots of bubbling, hear lots of crackling, and the blossoms should crisp up quickly.
If not, your oil is not hot enough and you’re going to end up with a soggy end result. When they’re done, take them out with tongs to drain on paper towels. They should be crispy and golden, but the batter should be thin enough that you can see the yellows and greens colors of the blossoms peeking through underneath.
So after all this, was it actually good? Was it worth all the work? In my opinion, yes and yes. I loved how the fried blossom created a delicate, but definite crisp exterior to encase that creamy, savory ricotta filling. They were easy to eat, and would make a great appetizer or main course. Though the blossoms are delicate, the process wasn’t all that tedious after all. As it turns out, I can produce some decent food when I overcome a little skepticism. I think that’s a lesson worth remembering.

Here's that recipe link once again: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Squash-Blossoms-Stuffed-with-Ricotta-354966

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bake Bread

It’s generally accepted in this part of the world that resolutions—big plans to eat healthier, be more organized, volunteer more, and so on—are made on January 1st. When I was growing up, that never quite felt right to me. I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that September was a more appropriate time to be making changes: after a summer of fun and freedom, September meant back to school, a perfect time to vow to quit procrastinating, do extra credit work this year, and get involved in that drama club I’m always saying I want to join. Even as I grew older and summers meant getting a job and working most of the hot hours away, September was always a time for a new beginning, an opportunity to resolve to do better and to be better. Today, I’m still going to school, and will be starting up again in a week. As I mentioned in my last post, I have had an eventful summer: I planned a wedding, had a wedding, and now I’m married! I do feel a little like a new person, and so the start of this school year seems an especially appropriate time to start making promises to myself (and now, to you) about how I’m going to be a better new me. I won’t bore you with the list, but I do have one that seems relevant enough to share: bake more bread.
By making my own bread, I will know exactly what is going into my bread (you can never really be sure with a lot of the breads you can buy at the grocery store today—most are full of suspicious-sounding preservatives). Also, baking bread is fun—at least, I think it is. I love the multi-step process of making bread, from mixing, to proofing, to forming, to baking. I love learning about the process of feeding starters, building gluten, and fermenting dough. I also love how the bread-making process always holds a certain level of uncertainty, and how one can never learn everything there is to know about bread. Finally, making more bread gives me an excuse to use some of the wonderful wedding gifts Andrew and I received, notably my KitchenAid Professional 5 Plus Series 5-Quart Bowl Stand Mixer.
I am in love.

To kick off my new life as a regular bread baker, I decided to make a loaf of whole wheat French bread. It’s a basic, straight-forward bread, and seemed like a good starting point. One of the keys successful bread is accurate measuring and, whenever possible using weight measurements rather than volume measurements. Weights are far more accurate, whereas volumes can have some variations.
This dough can be mixed using the straight dough method, which essentially means tossing everything into a bowl and mixing it up—sort of. The rest of the process is your basic knead, ferment, make-up, rest, and bake. If you make bread already, you know the drill. If not, I’ve explained the process in detail below, with pictures.

At the end of the process, you have yourself a beautiful, simple loaf of bread, the kitchen smells amazing, and you have (I hope) passed a relaxing bread-baking afternoon.
Some resolutions are easy to keep.

Whole Wheat French Bread
From Professional Baking 5th Edition by Wayne Gisslen
Makes one 1 lb. loaf

0.5 lb. water
0.4 oz fresh yeast, or 0.2 oz active dry yeast
6 oz whole wheat flour
8 oz bread flour or all-purpose flour
0.3 oz salt
0.07 oz malt syrup or honey
0.3 oz sugar
0.3 oz shortening

First, if using fresh or active dry yeast, dissolve the yeast in warm (100 F-105 F) water.
Then, combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of the mixer. Pour the water and yeast mixture over that, and add the remaining ingredients.
To start the mixing process, use the paddle attachment on mixer to form a somewhat uniform dough.
Once the dough starts to come together, switch to the dough hook. With the hook, mix the dough on second speed for about 10 minutes—until the dough is smooth and elastic. Since this is a whole wheat dough, you won’t be able to get a great window, but it should be done once the dough is quite elastic and doesn’t break quickly when stretched.
Ferment (rise) the dough in an oiled bowl, covered lightly in plastic wrap, for about two hours (at room temperature), until it has doubled in size.
On a clean, floured surface, flatten the relaxed dough into an oval about the length that the loaf will be, using hands and/or a rolling pin.
Then, roll the loaf up tightly, and seal the seam is well.
Flip the loaf over so that it lies seam-side down. Tuck in the ends, and then roll the loaf under the palms of your hands to even out the shape. Place the loaf on a cornmeal-dusted baking pan to proof until it has doubled in size again (the loaf should be covered during proofing).
Before going into the oven, brush the loaf with water, then give it diagonal slashes along the top (this will create a more evenly-shaped loaf).
Bake the loaf at 425 F for around 20 minutes, with steam for the first 10 minutes. “With steam” means exactly what it sounds like: there should be steam in the oven during the start of the baking process, moisture in the air to keep the dough from drying out too quickly. There are a couple of ways this can be done. The way I chose is to place a dish with hot water on the bottom tray in the oven, while placing the tray with the bread above it. This way is simple, and works great.
Another option is to spray water into the oven every two or three minutes using a spray bottle. This way involves less dishes and less moving trays around in the oven, but it also involves a lot of opening and closing of the oven door, which means your oven temperature will not stay consistent.

Once the first 10 minutes are up, the water tray should be removed from the oven, and then baking continues until the crust has a rich, deep brown color.