Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Indian Chickpea Crepes Stuffed with Potatoes and Spinach

This is an adaptation of traditional south Indian dosas. I love dosas but they require a little bit of planning since you need to soak the urad dal in water so it can be ground and the batter needs to ferment. So they’re definitely not something you can make on a week night when you get home from work. Instead of using the traditional fermented dosa batter, I use a chickpea flour crepe based on Julie Sahni’s recipe for chilla from her book Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking.

Anyone who knows me well knows I don’t cook from recipes and rarely measure. Granted this makes writing recipes for others a little tough, but I try to give the methods and ballpark amounts for ingredients. If you taste as you go, you should do fine with this type of recipe. Ultimately it will make you a better cook as well since you’ll start to trust your own intuition and sense of taste. If it doesn’t taste right to you, add what you think it needs: more spice, more salt, etc. Like any recipe, read it through before you make it in order to get a feel for how the dish comes together.

The complete dish is three components: the crepes, the stuffing, and the sambar. Sambar is somewhere between a thin soup and sauce. It’s a traditional accompaniment to dosas, and is often used as a topping or sauce for steamed rice. The basis of sambar is toor dal, a lentil like legume that’s readily available at Indian grocers. You could substitute red lentils in a pinch, but toor dal is worth tracking down. You can add pretty much any vegetable to sambar, but for a dish like this, I tend to stick to things that will cook down and work well as a sauce. Tonight’s version used tomatoes and shallots. Add ½ cup of toor dal to about 2 cups of water, some salt, and a teaspoon of turmeric. Bring to a boil, turn it down and cover it. Let it simmer as you prep everything else.

I make the crepes from chickpea flour (called besan in Indian cooking), water, salt, ground cumin and optionally diced red chiles and grated ginger. I generally use 2 cups of chickpea flour mixed with about 1.5 to 2 cups of water. I don’t generally measure the water and judge it by consistency. I look for a consistency that’s between traditional crepes and pancake batter. If it’s too thick the crepes will be thick and doughy. 2 cups of flour will give you about eight 10 inch crepes. I like to let the batter sit for about 30-60 minutes but it will thicken a little as it sits so you may need to add a little water before you cook them.

You can stuff these with pretty much anything, but because I use these as a quick fix for a dosa jones, I normally stick to a potato base. Tonight’s version was potatoes, onions, garlic, chiles, spinach, and fenugreek greens (also called methi greens). The basic method for the stuffing I did is as follows:

Sautee an onion in about 2 teaspoons of oil. Add some salt to pull moisture from the onions. When they begin to brown, add some garlic and diced chiles to taste. Add about 1 tablespoon of ground coriander seed and about 2 teaspoons of ground or whole cumin seeds (or a mix) and some freshly grated ginger. Add about 3-4 waxy potatoes that have been cubed (I parboil mine to save some cooking time). Add about 8-16 oz of blanched chopped spinach. Mash the potatoes a little bit if the cubes seem too big. When it all seems cooked, add some fresh squeezed lemon juice and keep the stuffing warm.

While the stuffing sits, finish the sambar. The toor dal should be completely broken down and it should have the consistency of sauce. If it’s too thick, add some water. If it’s too thin, you can turn the heat up and reduce it or add some chickpea flour and whisk it in. Add two chopped shallots and about 1 – 1 ½ cups of diced tomatoes (canned tomatoes work fine in this). In a small pan, heat some oil (or use a generous coating of spray oil) and add about 1 teaspoon each of whole cumin seeds and black mustard seeds and 1-2 dried red chiles. Cook on medium heat until the seeds begin to pop and then add them to the sambar. If you have curry leaves or asafetida you can add those as well, but they’re not necessary. Keep the sambar warm and make the crepes.

Heat a 10 inch non-stick skillet over medium heat. Spray or wipe it with some oil and add about ½ cup of the crepe batter to the pan. When the edges pull up from the pan (1-2 minutes) flip the crepes and cook for another minute or so. Remove from the pan and add about ¾ - 1 cup of filling and roll it up. Pour sambar over the top and optionally add some chopped cilantro and serve. It will serve 4 as a main course and 8 as an appetizer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Red Lentil and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

 I’ve always loved all kinds of lentils. They have a huge amount going for them: they’re inexpensive, low fat, high protein, high fiber and they cook incredibly quickly, especially for legumes. Brown lentils are more common in the US, but you can also find black, green, and red lentils pretty easily. My local supermarket carries all of these types in their bulk area. The use of brown versus red lentils is largely a geographic one. In Western Europe, the brown, black and green varieties are more common. As you move east towards Turkey and the Middle East, red lentils become predominant. They’re also a staple of Indian cooking where they’re called Masoor Dal. This recipe is Indian influenced, but it’s not a traditional dish. It has a fair amount of ingredients, but it comes together pretty quickly and you can make it all in about an hour. I puree it, but you can keep it chunky if you prefer. If fat is no object and you want to make it richer, you can add some coconut milk just before serving it, but I normally don’t because I think it’s incredibly satisfying as is. Serve it with any type of flatbread.

Red Lentil and Roasted Pepper Soup

1 Onion, finely diced
3 teaspoons of oil, divided (your choice – olive and canola both work well)
2 teaspoons of salt (you can add more or less if you want)
2 cayenne peppers (or more if you want), finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 inch piece of ginger, finely diced (or grated if you prefer)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, toasted and ground
4 sweet red peppers (roasted, peeled, and seeded), diced
2 cups of red lentils (about 1 pound), well rinsed
3 oz. tomato paste (half of a small can)
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
6 curry leaves (optional)
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cups diced cilantro
½ cup of coconut milk (optional)

1. Add the two teaspoons of the oil to a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and salt and sauté for 5-7 minutes until they start to brown.
2. Add the cayenne peppers, garlic, ginger, and roasted red pepper and cook for 1-2 minutes more. Add the ground spices (turmeric, coriander, cumin, and fenugreek). Cook for an additional 30 seconds.
3. Add the red lentils, tomato paste and 6-8 cups of water (depending on how thick you like your soup). Bring to a boil and then turn down to a low simmer. Cook until the lentils are tender and starting to fall apart, about 30 minutes.
4. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot, or transfer in batches to a blender. (You can also skip this step if you want it chunky)
5. In a small pan, heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil and add the whole cumin and black mustard seeds (and curry leaves). Cook until the seeds darken and the start to pop. Add the contents of the pan to the soup.
6. Add the lime juice and coconut milk (if using).  Add the cilantro and server. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Miso Soup

This isn’t a 100% traditional, authentic Japanese recipe, but it makes great soup and takes about 20 minutes. It’s also incredibly adaptable and can be modified into a heartier soup that becomes an entire meal (but those modifications make it even less traditional).

The basis of miso soup, and arguably of Japanese cooking in general, is dashi, a stock made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes. Obviously the vegan version drops the bonito flakes but that makes the recipe easier and doesn’t require two pots or straining the dashi. Unlike traditional European stocks, dashi is a quick stock. You likely will need to find a Japanese grocer for the kombu. Different types of kombu are available and I normally buy flat sheets designated as dashi kombu (sometimes spelled konbu).

Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and grains (usually rice or barley). It’s a living food (like yogurt) and needs to be refrigerated. It’s been widely studied for health benefits in Japan and it’s said to treat everything from radiation sickness to high cholesterol. It’s also high in B vitamins and can be used to add a richness to soups, stews, and dressings. There is a wide variety of miso available and it can be confusing to decide which one to get. The most widely available are shinsu (medium), white, red, and brown. Shinsu is the most like an “all purpose” miso, but I’d encourage you to experiment with them all.

Buy the best miso you can afford because there is a great difference in quality. Here in Portland, we’re lucky to have Jorinji which is a small producer of traditional miso. I don’t believe it’s shipped outside of the immediate area. It is about twice the price of other brands, but worth every penny since they use long fermentation times and non-GMO soybeans, which gives it an incomparable flavor. (Sorry they don’t seem to have a website, but their miso is available at Uwajimaya.)

Miso Soup

Makes 6 cups (4-6 servings)

6 cups of water
4x4 inch piece of kombu
4-6 tablespoons of miso (I use half white and half red, but use whichever kind you like)
6 oz. firm or extra firm silken tofu, cut into cubes
1-3 green onions, finely sliced (try to find smaller, tenderer onions)

1. Wipe the kombu with a damp paper towel but don’t wash it since it will remove much of the flavor. Add the water and kombu to a pot and put over medium high heat. Just before the water comes to a boil, pull the pot from the heat and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. Remove the kombu.
2. Put the pot back over medium low heat. Add the cubed tofu and green onions and heat through.
3. Remove about a cup of the stock in a bowl or measuring cup and mix in the miso. Stir with a fork or whisk until it’s completely smooth and dissolved. Add to the soup and stir the pot.
4. Ladle into bowls and serve.

- Add more vegetables to make it more substantial. Julienned carrots, sliced shitake or other mushrooms (or soy pickled shitakes), wakame seaweed, julienned blanched spinach, or sliced bok choy.
- Cook some noodles (soba, somen, rice noodles, etc.) and place them in the bottom of a bowl, ladle the soup over the noodles. You can also double the amount of tofu to make it a one bowl meal.
- Add sliced ginger to the dashi stock (which is totally untraditional)

Soy Pickled Shitakes

I will admit that I stole these from David Chang’s Momofuko cookbook (which is an incredible book and well worth buying). But they are so incredibly good and packed with flavor that everyone should know about them. These have become a staple for me and can be used in a variety of ways. I use them in soups, stir fires, as a topping for noodles or even as a stuffing for steamed buns. This recipe makes about a quart and they keep for weeks (maybe more) in the fridge. They take about an hour and a half to make, so you might need to plan ahead. But once you have a batch in the fridge, you can combine them with other staples like noodles, sesame seeds, and green onions for a quick dinner.
Soy Pickled Shitakes
About 1 quart
2 oz. dried shitake mushrooms
1 cup brown sugar (or use an less processed sugar like Turbinado)
1 cup of rice wine vinegar
1 cup soy sauce
2-3 inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into coin sized slices
1. Soak the mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes until soft. Remove the mushrooms, squeeze them out a little bit, and cut them into slices about ¼ to ½ inch wide. Remove the stems if they’re tough. Reserve two cups of the soaking liquid (be sure to strain it carefully since you may end up with dirt and debris at the bottom of the soaking bowl).
2. Add the remaining ingredients to a pot and mix until the sugar is completely dissolved.
3. Add the mushrooms to the pot and bring to a boil. Once it reaches a boil turn it down to a very low simmer.
4. Simmer for 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat and let them cool in the liquid. I normally remove the ginger but you can leave it in if removing it seems too difficult.
5. When cool, transfer the mushrooms and pickling liquid to a quart canning jar or other container and place them in the fridge.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Going Vegan

I haven’t been vegan for that long, but here are a couple of tips that I found to be helpful.

1. You have to cook. If you don’t cook now, you’ll need to learn – even if you just learn to make a few things. If you don’t, you’ll either starve, or you’ll spend a small fortune eating expensive pre-made vegan foods. Seriously. If you live in the US, you live in a vegan unfriendly culture. Even restaurants in liberal cities like Portland can be tough. So learn to cook. It’s an awesome hobby and will save you a lot of money.
2. Give it time. It took me 10 months of eating mostly vegetarian to move to vegan. If you try to go from a hardcore meat diet to complete veganism overnight, you’ll have a difficult time because it’s a big change. You need to give a vegan diet at least a month. Your cravings for meat and fat will gradually diminish, but you need to give it all time.
3. Eat a wide variety of food. You can get all the nutrients you need on a vegan diet, but you may need to eat a wide variety of food in order to do it. If nothing else, it also keeps your food life interesting.
4. Find some foods you can make quickly when you’re starving. You always need something you can make when you’re blind with hunger. I can make miso soup in 20 minutes, but I can also make hash browns from frozen potatoes in 10 minutes. Hardcore foodies would claim that the miso soup is superior because it’s from scratch and it’s “real food” but sometimes I’m so hungry that I can’t wait the extra 10 minutes – and who said that hash browns aren’t real food?
5. Similarly, find snack foods, particularly portable ones, which you can eat. Fresh fruit (bananas are incredibly portable), fruit cups, chocolate soy milk, crackers, whatever. Most fast food places and convenience stores aren’t vegan friendly, so plan ahead and bring a snack.
6. Go ethnic. A lot of ethnic food is either vegan or can be adapted easily. Asian and Indian are pretty good choices (although watch for meat stock in Chinese, fish sauce in Thai and Vietnamese, and dairy in Indian). German? Not quite as easy, but there’s still spaetzle. Ethnic restaurants are also a good choice if you go out with friends. Ethnic grocers are often great places for cheap spices, beans, grains, etc. Got questions? Ask - most of places are happy to explain things to people who are genuinely interested.
7. It’s OK to feel a little smug in the grocery store because it keeps you on track. I hesitated to add this, but I think it’s true. Look at the crap that other people are buying and feel good that you no longer eat that way. But keep your smugness to yourself and keep your mouth shut, because the world hates self-righteous vegans. Plus it is obnoxious and not a very nice thing to do.
8. Some people will never understand and will think you’re completely crazy. You can list a dozen health and environmental benefits but they won’t care. For a lot of people veganism is akin to new age mysticism and is practiced only by unwashed hippies and nothing will ever change their minds. And while there are some vegans who fit that description closely (and who annoy me as well), most of us aren’t like that. There’s nothing you can do about this except to take solace in the fact that their end of the spectrum includes Weston Price, Ted Nugent, and climate change deniers. No one has a monopoly on lunacy.