Monday, September 24, 2012

Nearly Palak Paneer

I love Indian food.

With it's rich, spicy flavors and warm, inviting aromas, Indian food is one of my favorite comfort foods.  Whenever I eat it, I feel as if I am wrapped in a soothing sari of love. 

But I have never attempted to make it at home.  I think having an Indian buffet right around the corner for eight years was the main reason, although having the tiniest kitchen known to man didn't help, either.  So, now that I have moved and have some elbow room, I thought I should give it a whirl.

Indian cuisine varies from region to region, however, there are several ingredients common to most Indian food.  Chick peas, lentils, and potatoes seasoned with warm spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and chilies tend to cross over into all of the regions resulting in a beautifully fragrant array of deliciousness.

One of my favorite dishes is palak paneer, a wonderfully smooth combination of spinach and paneer, or Indian farmer's cheese.  As you know, I'm a true midwesterner with a passion for the cheese.  But for some folks, dairy is a no-no.  I look at this as an opportunity to play in the kitchen.  Since Indian food is primarily vegetarian, why not make it vegan as well.

Here is what I like to call Nearly Palak Paneer, a spicy (and dairy free) riff on that traditional spinach and cheese dish.

Nearly Palak Paneer

While this is not necessarily a traditional saag, it sure hits the spot!  Baking the tofu not only adds texture to an otherwise creamy dish but a pop of additional flavor as well.  If you aren't in the mood for tofu, try adding chick peas to the mix for that extra bit of protein.

1 16oz package frozen chopped spinach (thawed and mostly drained)
2 red peppers
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
3 cloves garlic
2" fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp galangal
2 Tbl garam masala
2 Tbl olive oil
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup soy milk

For the tofu

16 oz firm tofu
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350.  Slice tofu in half through the middle and place between several sheet of paper towel.  Press to release as much liquid as possible.  While the tofu drains, whisk together soy sauce, turmeric, and cinnamon.  After about ten minutes, remove tofu from paper towels and cut into 1 inch cubes.  Toss in soy mixture and place on a baking sheet.  Pop in the oven for 35 minutes, turning about half way through.  Tofu should be firm to the touch, but not browned.

In a food processor, place thawed spinach, garlic, and one red pepper coarsely chopped.  Blend until smooth.  You may need to add a bit of water to help encourage things.  Set aside.

In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium heat and cook onions until translucent (about ten minutes).  Dice the remaining pepper and add to onions.  REMEMBER TO SEASON AS YOU GO WITH SALT!  Once the peppers start to soften, add ginger and jalapeños.  Cook for two minutes.  Add turmeric, galagal, curry powder, and cinnamon, and stir well to combine.  Cook for two minutes until spices are fragrant and fully incorporated.  Add pureed spinach mixture and 1/4 cup water.  Bring to a boil and reduced to a simmer for about five minutes.  Stir in soy milk.  Add tofu and garam masala.  Stir well to combine spices, and cook for two more minutes.

Serve with naan or over rice.

*Tofu can be prepared up to three days in advance.  Simply cool, wrap in plastic, and store in your refrigerator.  Bring to room temperature before using.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Veggie Quickie

Stanislavski writes that an actor prepares.

And I would like to state that a healthy eater must prepare as well.  "Ugh!" you may think, "I've already given up meat and dairy, now I have to do work?!"

"Nay," I say, fellow healthy eater.  Think of it as preparing yourself for the weekly battle towards health.  When I was a teacher, I would set aside a couple of hours each Sunday to prepare for the week.  I would make a couple of soups, vinaigrettes, and whatever else suited my fancy so all I had to do when I walked in the door at 9:00 (yes, teachers pull very long hours) was combine a couple of ingredients, reheat a few things, and dinner was served (and, quite often, the next day's lunch was ready to go in the fridge).

When you are making some quinoa, or any other grain, double the batch.  It will keep for a couple of days in your refrigerator.  Same holds true for beans, vinaigrettes, and soups.  Just add some fresh veggies and a little creativity and dinner is ready in no time!

Remember the Six Ps:  Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance!

Culinary term of the week:  chiffonade - a cooking technique in which herbs and leafy green veggies are cut into long thin slices.

Sauteed Swiss Chard with Leeks and Golden Raisins

The slightly bitter and earthy greens are balanced nicely by the sweetness of the raisins.  Serve on top of quinoa or whole wheat Israeli couscous for a flavorful and filling meal!

1 large bunch of Swiss Chard (about 3 cups)
1 leek, white and light green parts
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1/3 cup golden raisins
1 Tbl cider vinegar
1 Tbl warm water
1 Tbl honey (optional) 
2 Tbl stone ground mustard
2 Tbl olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (for garnish)

In a small bowl, thoroughly combine water, vinegar, and honey. Soak raisins in the mixture while you prepare the other ingredients.

Remove dark green leaves from the leeks and slice down the center without cutting all the way through.  Rinse under cold water to remove any grit.  Cut leek into thin, circular slices.  Saute leeks over medium heat in the olive oil until just beginning to brown (about the time it takes to prepare the chard).  Be sure to season with salt and pepper.  Add garlic to leeks and cook for one minute.

Rinse chard and pat dry.  Holding on to the stems, fold leaves over, and remove leaves, reserving stems.  Lay leaves one on top of the other.  Roll into a cigar shape, and slice into 1/2" wide pieces.  You have just made a chiffonade.  Cut stems into 1/2" pieces, discarding any super thick pieces.  Add leaves and stems to the leeks and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and toss to wilt the greens.  Cook for three to four minutes.  Once greens have begun to wilt, add carrots, mustard, and raisins along with their liquid.  Toss to combine and cook until liquid has evaporated and stems are tender (about three minutes).

Serve immediately.  Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cookbook Inspiration

I love a cookbook.

Not only do they provide you with tasty morsels to satisfy your belly, but they are snap shots of a particular time in culinary history.  You have your classics; Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking comes to mind, in which time honored techniques and traditions are carefully laid out for the reader.

Who doesn't love cooking over an open flame in your living room?
You have little gems from particular eras that highlight, thankfully, times gone by.  A favorite of mine is Life's 1958 Picture Cook Book with chapters titled "Man's Job: Steak," "French Lesson in Innards," and "Luxury with Leftovers,"filled with such delicious ideas as Fried Celery with Chicken Livers and Flaming Fruitcake.  I swear one day, I'm going to cook my way through that thing.

As cooking trends change and develop, nothing is better for information and inspiration.  A fabulous cookbook is Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi.  Nothing but veggies in this one and the photographs qualify as food pornography.  It was the photo of Black Pepper Tofu that enticed me, but the recipe is far from what you would call healthy.  Fried tofu in a rich sauce that calls for 12 tablespoons of butter...oy.  Of course I had to make it.  And then I had to figure out how to make it a bit healthier.  Here's what I came up with.

Healthier substitutions:  coconut oil instead of butter, tofu noodles instead of fried tofu, added veggies.

Black Pepper Tofu Noodles with Shiitake and Crimini Mushrooms

The sauce is the star here: warm, bold, and spicy without too much heat!  And it's basically a chop and drop kind of dish!  If substituting rice noodles, slightly under cook them and don't let them linger too long in the pan, otherwise they might disappear on you!

tofu noodles (16 oz package)
1 1/2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps sliced
1 1/2 cups crimini mushrooms, sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 shallots, sliced into rings
2 red jalapeños, sliced into rings (remove seeds if you want to take the spice level down)
2 Tbl fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
3 Tbl whole black peppercorns
2 Tbl coconut oil
3 Tbl soy sauce
1 Tbl honey
1 Tbl cider vinegar
1/4 tsp sesame oil (optional)
2 green onions, thinly sliced lengthwise
cilantro for garnish

In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium heat and saute mushrooms, browning them slightly. About five to seven minutes.  Add garlic, shallots, jalapeños, and ginger and continue to cook until the shallots are translucent.

In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, honey, vinegar, and sesame oil until honey is fully dissolved.  In a spice grinder (or, if you want to be old school, you can bust out your mortar and pestle), coarsely grind the peppercorns.  You don't want whole chunks, but you don't want finely ground pepper either.

Once the onions have cooked, add sauce to pan and scrape the bottom with a wooden spoon.  Add peppercorns and stir.  Add tofu noodles and toss to combine.  Allow to cook for about three minutes so noodles can absorb the sauce.  If sauce is too thin, add 1/4 cup vegetable stock.

Garnish with thinly sliced green onions and cilantro.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Pucker Up for Some Vinegar

Are you looking for a way to liven up your food without adding any fat?

Play around with vinegar!

Whenever you are cooking, you are trying to present a variety of well balanced flavors.  These days, you can find a myriad of flavored vinegars at your local grocery store.  And, the best part is you don't have to spend a fortune to find some tasty ones, too. Unless you want really good balsamic...then you're gonna shell out the big bucks.  The acidity in vinegars and citrus can add delightful brightness and zing to any dish...even cocktails!  I found a lychee vinegar that is fabulous with cucumber gin and soda.

Use vinegars to deglaze roasted vegetables, add a bit into the cooking liquid when preparing grains, zing up sauces, and, of course, make a host of different vinaigrettes.

To prove vinegars brightening power, I've decided to tackle that notoriously feared (and greatly under appreciated) vegetable:  the Brussels sprout.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Red Pearl Onions and Grapes

Roasted grapes?!  "How odd," you might think.  Roasting intensifies their sweet flavor and its a fabulous foil to the tart vinegar.  I bust this bright and colorful dish out for almost every holiday. If you can't find red onions, white works just fine.

2 lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1 lb red pearl onions
2 cups red seedless grapes
2 cloves garlic, whole
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 Tbl tarragon vinegar
thyme bundle
2 Tbl chopped tarragon
2 Tbl olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400.

To prepare the onions, bring a medium bot of water to a boil and blanch the onions for about 2 minutes.  Drain and set aside to cool.  Once they are cool enough to handle, remove the skins using a sharp paring knife. 

Trim off a little bit of the nubs of the sprouts and slice in half.  This will keep them intact.  In a large oven proof skillet or rimmed baking sheet, combine onions, sprouts, and garlic.  It's important that the veggies have room otherwise they will steam instead of roast...we don't want that.  Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Toss to coat and add thyme and bay leaves.

Pop those babies in the oven.  After 15 minutes, remove from oven and give them a good stir.  Drizzle with 1 Tbl of the vinegar.  Return to oven for another 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and add grapes, remaining 1/2 Tbl vinegar, and 1 Tbl chopped tarragon.  Give it a little stir and return to oven.  Roast until grapes begin to split, about seven more minutes.

Remove bay, thyme, and garlic.  Sprinkle with reserved tarragon.

This is great as a side or over farro or quinoa for a main dish!