Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Red Quinoa Salad

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Quinoa is a type of small grain-like seed, with a faintly nutty taste and a grainy texture which lends itself well to salads. It is native to the Andes. I have been known to mispronounce it (which I tend to do with my linguistic background) as kee-noah, but it's actually pronounced as kin-wah. I really like the red quinoa for its color, but it can also be wheat-colored or black. It is a great alternative if you're looking for something that's gluten-free, or some variety to or a break from regular side dishes like pasta or rice.

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We fell into the pasta or rice trap a while ago, which is only too easy to do during a busy week when neither I nor Tony have the time or energy to be terribly imaginative cooks. Pasta and rice are accessible. Our local supermarket has a whole aisle devoted to pasta, a whole section (about 1/4 of an aisle) devoted to rice and, imagine, a whole shelf devoted to grains, pseudocereals and legumes such as barley, quinoa, buckwheat, and lentils. Pasta and rice are also familiar and easy. But so is quinoa. It is cooked in a similar way to rice: simply simmer it in water for twenty minutes or so and wait for the water to evaporate, then fluff and serve as a side with a bit of salt and a crackle of pepper. You can also add some olive oil, or let it cool and make a salad.

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This recipe is for an easy and quick quinoa salad, with bell peppers, tomato, onion and parsley. I added yellow bell peppers for an appealing color contrast. I also added some alfalfa sprouts, which blend well with the texture of quinoa.

Red Quinoa Salad
Serves 4-6

You will need:
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1 1/2 cup water
1/8 tsp salt
1 plum tomato, finely chopped
1/4 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 small yellow or orange bell pepper, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1/3 cup alfalfa sprouts
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp white vinegar
1/2 tsp stone-ground mustard
Salt, pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Rinse quinoa and drain. Combine quinoa and 1 1/2 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a boil on medium heat. Add 1/8 tsp salt and reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, until all of the water has evaporated, 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat, fluff with a wooden spoon and let cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, combine the cooled quinoa, tomato, red onion, bell pepper, parsley and alfalfa sprouts. In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine olive oil, vinegar and mustard, and add to the salad. Toss well and season with salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Green Chutney

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Though we usually prefer eating in, on occasion I do like going to restaurants which challenge me to be a better cook, which inspire me, and which awake my senses with interesting dishes. One of my favorite things to do whenever I eat food that someone else has prepared is to discern individual ingredients. Some ingredients immediately stand out because of their potency (such as garlic), some linger in the background, familiar yet elusive, like a face that you know you've seen before but you can't instantly recall where. For this task, I especially like Indian cooking, because of the way different spices and flavors blend together but at the same time are quite strong to stand out individually. One of my favorites is the green chutney, because of its strong cilantro base and gentle heat of the chilies, as well as the harmonious blend of the other ingredients: mint, onion, lime juice and (sometimes) yogurt.

When I first tried it at our old neighborhood Indian restaurant, I was overwhelmed by the fresh aroma of the cilantro and mint, and by the chutney's sweet tanginess, slightly grainy texture and vivid green color. It went so well together with warm naan. When the main dishes were brought out I was still too absorbed in it to pay any attention to the curries. And I knew I would not be satisfied until I made one of my own.

I have tried several different versions in my kitchen, and came up which best suited my palate and recreated that first taste.

Adapted from: Camellia Panjabi, 50 Great Curries of India

Green Chutney
(Makes about 1/3 cup)

You will need:
2 cups loosely packed fresh cilantro, big stems removed
1 cup loosely packed mint leaves
1 scallion, sliced
1 serrano pepper, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lime (about 1 tbsp)
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp ground ginger

Directions:
Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor, and purée until smooth and well blended. Serve in a small bowl with naan or pita bread.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How to Make Bubble Tea

There is something slightly childish about bubble tea. It seems like a rather purposeless drink, designed neither to awake, nor calm, nor nourish, nor give a requisite afternoon burst of energy, nor intoxicate. It is, quite simply, fun. It involves a sweet milk (or soy) tea or a fruit-based drink, a really big straw, and sweet, chewy, gummy tapioca balls which are consumed using the big straw (the “pearls”). The problem is, that it’s extremely addictive.

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There was a Thai and Japanese takeout place near where I lived catering primarily to college students and professors, which also had a bubble tea bar. And it all went downhill from there. There was something about the soothing, aromatic flavor of jasmine tea, creamy and lightly sweetened, together with the expectancy of the irresistible treat of the tapioca pearls, which, having been soaked in syrup, were like candy. It opened up a need I didn’t know I had, and which could only be satisfied with more bubble tea.

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During the day, when the bubble tea bar was out of reach, I found a bubble tea shop near my school. There I'd get one to last me through a long lecture surrounded by students, heads down absorbed into their laptop screens, their key strokes recording the lecture with a stenographer’s precision (or, more frequently, using g-chat) which filled the room with an insect-like buzz. And the place where I worked being too close to Chinatown to pass up the opportunity, I inevitably sought out a shop, marked with Chinese characters, with only a small parenthetical in English that said "(Bubble-tea)". There, I unabashedly accosted a shopkeeper who tried to speak to me in Chinese, getting my message across that I must absolutely have bubble tea. I think I got charged extra, but it made a long afternoon of research much more rewarding.

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And now to my absolute delight I have found a place nearby that not only has a café which serves bubble tea, but has an adjacent Asian foods supermarket (which has become my source of, inter alia, Sriracha sauce, soba noodles, kimchi, various teas, and the occasional durian).

Trying to cut out the retail cost of the drink, we went out looking for the black tapioca pearls to make our own bubble tea. Navigating our way around people quickly zipping between the aisles and grabbing products they can’t get anywhere else, and stumbling on an occasional wide-eyed and bewildered face (the regulars versus curiosity seekers), we found ourselves in a spice aisle looking at small round white spheres labeled “tapioca” next to some clear bags with hairy mushrooms. But that wasn’t it. We looked in the tea section, but all we found besides tea was seaweed soup.

Tony saw a man checking off items off a clipboard who was wearing denim-on-denim, and asked him where we might find tapioca pearls for bubble tea, pointing to the bag with the white ones that we found. He mumbled something, then shook his head. Then he said, “This you have to cook for a long time. Eleven.” And he resumed looking at his list. We remained there, inspecting the package, puzzled. Eleven minutes to cook it, eleven hours? It took us a minute, and for him to repeat it, to realize that he meant what we were looking for was in aisle eleven. "Aisle eleven, eleven," he said impatiently as we scattered off. And there it was, in the refrigerated section, the only place we hadn't looked, because the tapioca pearls made specifically for bubble tea aren’t fully dehydrated.

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There were black, green and multi-colored pearls. We grabbed several packets and went home. We made the tea, and realized we didn’t have any straws to consume the pearls with (we used teaspoons).

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Next weekend, we came back to the shop, and lurking from aisle to aisle, looking for bubble tea straws (with a package of the pearls already in our basket) ran into the same guy. Tony showed him the package of the pearls and asked about the straw. The man looked at the package, and said, “you have to cook a long time.” Tony shook his head and held an imaginary straw to his lips. The man understood and made a gesture to follow him. He brought us to a section for kitchen supplies. There were, among chopsticks and teacups, regular straws, but not bubble tea ones. He looked through the shelves frantically then shook his head saying, “We are out.” When we were about to thank him and go on our way, he had an idea. He made a gesture again to follow us and brought us to the adjacent café. He spoke with the woman behind the counter in Chinese, who looked skeptically at him and then at us. After a few moments of persuasion on his part, she showed us a bag with the straws they would have used to serve with the tea, and said, “Okay, this is five dollars. There are a lot of straws.” Although we knew we could have gotten them online, both she and we understood the value of having something versus having it now. So we bought the straws from her and thanked the man.

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We checked out the rest of our items, which consisted in no particular order of Chinese sausages, a package full of tiny hot red peppers, seaweed, pickled radish, oolong, jasmine, and horny goat teas (a story for another day), to the slightly intrigued look of the cashier with a trendy pixie-cut at the check-out counter.

Jasmine Bubble Tea
Serves 2

You will need:
1/2 cup black tapioca pearls (available at Asian markets)
1-2 tbsp agave (or other) syrup, more if desired
24 oz brewed jasmine green tea, cooled
1/4 cup soy milk
Ice

Directions:
1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add tapioca pearls and stir to prevent them from sticking (they will sink to the bottom before floating up to the surface). Reduce to a simmer and cook until desired chewiness, 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to cool. Place in a small bowl and add the agave syrup. Mix and let stand for about 10 minutes to let the pearls absorb the sweetness.
2. Spoon the pearls into two tall glasses, dividing evenly, followed by the tea and soy milk. Add more syrup for desired sweetness. Add the ice and stir well. Serve with a bubble tea straw or a spoon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kale Chips with Yogurt Dip

Consistent with the recent cabbage and kale recipe recurrence on this blog, this is a recipe for baked kale chips. They are very quick to make, requiring just salt and olive oil. I love munching on kale chips as a snack by themselves. However, I was serving them before dinner and wanted more of a substantial appetizer, so I decided to pair them with a yogurt based dip.

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I find the kale chips are best baked until they turn a dark forest-green and the edges are just starting to turn brown, when most of the flavor (but not the bitterness) is still retained. When they turn brown all over, they become too papery and brittle.

You can put any left-over kale chips in a resealable bag, and take them with you for a snack.

Kale Chips
(Serves 4-6)

You will need:
5-6 large kale leaves
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Remove the middle stem from each kale leaf. Cut or tear the leaves into large edible pieces (pieces will shrink as they bake). Make sure that the leaves are thoroughly dry. Place in a bowl, and toss with salt. Add olive oil and with your fingers, massage each piece to distribute the oil until the pieces are covered and glistening with it.
2. Place the kale pieces in a single layer a baking sheet lined with foil, working in batches. Bake for 10 minutes, until the pieces are fully crisp, and just starting to brown. Take care not to overbake. Once they are done, quickly remove the chips from the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining kale. Serve as a snack, or as an appetizer with the yogurt dip (recipe below).

Yogurt Dip
(Serves 4-6)

You will need:
1/2 cup Greek yogurt (plain)
1/2 tbsp chives, finely chopped
1/2 tbsp fresh dill, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp lemon juice

Directions:
Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Pour into a small serving dish and serve with kale chips.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Thyme and Garlic

Is it unusual to fixate on the shape of a particular food rather than its taste? A case in point for me is Brussels sprouts, because they remind me of miniature cabbage. And for something that looks like a tiny cabbage, the taste is quite potent, even for someone who enjoys raw kale and cabbage, which are in the same family.

Like kale, Brussels sprouts have anti-cancerous qualities because they contain sulforaphane. What is interesting about this chemical is that, similar to a chemical released by onions that makes you cry, it is not released until the cells are damaged (which can be caused by cutting or chewing). As a result, to get the maximum benefit of these vegetables, they should be chopped. Another interesting thing, which you may have noticed about the name of the chemical, is that it contains sulfur, and sulfur-containing compounds can be quite stinky, hence the potent taste and smell of these vegetables. (Thanks to Tony for explaining these nuances to me.)

Studies have been done which found boiling Brussels sprouts made them lose much of their anti-cancerous quality, but not steaming or stir-frying them (nothing has been said with regard to roasting). I found that steaming Brussels sprouts left them still quite strong in their cabbage-ness in terms of taste. I prefer to roast them for several reasons. They retain their firmness on the outside while becoming quite soft in the center, providing a contrasting texture. The flavor of the seasonings is absorbed more readily and together with the char resulting from the roast makes them filling enough for a meal.

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Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Thyme and Garlic
(Serves 2-4)

You will need:
1 lb Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp lemon juice

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Remove any wilted or browned top leaves from the Brussels sprouts, and slice each in half, length-wise. Place in a bowl and toss with olive oil, crushed garlic, thyme, and salt and pepper. Then place on a baking sheet lined with foil. Roast Brussels sprouts until browned and tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and place in a bowl, toss with lemon juice and reseason with salt if needed. Serve and enjoy.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beet, Potato and Leek Soup

Today I saw snow for the first time this winter. I went out running, hoping to beat forecasted rain/snow in time. On my way back a faint drizzle turned into frozen rain which started bouncing off my shoulders. The wind picked up, and it started snowing. There was something so majestic about bare gray-greenish trees in the dim winter sunlight, surrounded by snow flakes. The roads were completely empty. I enjoy running in the cold because I find it to be a great motivator - if you stop running, you freeze.

Being out in cold weather makes me want to have something really warm afterwards, to heat up from inside. After a run I like to have a warm cup of chai. In the evening, I seek comfort in soup. A hearty, creamy, filling soup. One of my favorite soups for such occasions is potato and leek soup. Potatoes and leeks, however, can end up looking much like porridge when pureed (sometimes I add the green leek parts which people usually discard, sauteed until very soft, and a large bunch of green herbs to achieve a greener hue for the soup). This time I wanted to experiment with a different color, so I added beets.

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The base for this soup is my mom's vichyssoise recipe, but I omitted the cream and used vegetable instead of chicken stock. I roasted the beets before adding them to the potatoes and leeks at the very last minute. Once everything was pureed, the color turned a rich dark burgundy. The taste was interesting, complex, and delicious. If you take a spoonful with your eyes closed, it begins just like the taste of the potato and leek soup, creamy and slightly grainy with a rich aroma of sautéed leeks, and gradually turns into the earthy taste of the beets. 

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I prefer the soup plain. However, you can add buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt, which would go well with it.

Beet, Potato and Leek Soup
(Serves 4)

You will need:
3 small beets
1 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
3-4 leeks, dark green parts removed, chopped
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 medium gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cups vegetable gluten-free stock
1 tbsp parsley leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Remove any stems and root ends from the beets, leaving them unpeeled. Drizzle the beets with the olive oil and wrap in foil, leaving a small opening at the top, and place in a baking dish. Roast the beets for 1 hour or until done (test with a knife, you should not feel much resistance). Remove from foil and let cool.
2. Melt butter in a medium pot on medium-low heat, sauté leeks and onion until soft and tender but not browned, about 5-7 minutes. Add potatoes and vegetable stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes (or until potatoes are done).
3. Peel and chop the beets and add them to pot. Simmer for about two minutes more, letting beets run their color. Turn off the heat, strain the vegetables, reserving the stock. Purée the vegetables, together with parsley, in a food processor. Pour the purée back into the pot, and add the reserved stock in portions for desired consistency. Bring back to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Egg Salad

We usually make our own lunches instead of getting them elsewhere (bagels on the weekend is a long-standing exception). Tony likes a filling meal to last him through a long day, so he usually has the previous night's leftovers for lunch. As a result, the dinner is cooked for three: him, me, and him (for the next day). I prefer lighter lunches, so I usually scrounge around the fridge to find something suitable. Sometimes it happens that there is nothing seemingly suitable: a jar of olives, a scallion bunch, pickles, soy milk, sour cream (always), bread, eggs, various sauces and jars. On a second, more discriminate look, there are some viable lunch possibilities. So I boil the eggs, and make an egg salad sandwich.

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Though among "various sauces and jars" there is usually a small jar of low-fat mayonnaise, I rarely use it. In fact, whenever I can, I substitute mayo with sour cream (potato salad, deviled eggs, tuna salad, egg salad). For the sour cream skeptic, the two are similar in consistency, and though the taste is different, in salads the difference is less perceptible. Particularly so in egg salads (one of the main ingredients in mayonnaise is egg yolk).

In this salad I also like to use pickles instead of celery. Kosher dills are my favorite.

Egg Salad
(Serves 4)

You will need:
4 eggs
1 small dill pickle, finely chopped
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 tsp chopped fresh dill
2 tbsp sour cream
Salt, pepper to taste
Optional: lightly toasted rye bread

Directions:
1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Carefully place the eggs, one by one, into the boiling water. Boil the eggs for 10 minutes. Drain and fill the pot with cold water to cool the eggs. Once they are cool, peel and finely chop them.
2. Place the chopped eggs into a medium bowl. Add the pickle, green onions, dill, and sour cream. Mix to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy, or serve on bread for a sandwich.


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