Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Black-Eyed Peas with Okra and Sweet Potatoes

Incredibly, we have reached the end of 2008. Like every year, it's had some good, some bad and some ugly, but as we stand on the precipice of 2009, it's time to look back on what's happened and use what we can to make the future a better place. So I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone peace, love, happiness, prosperity, and lots of beans.

Legumes are a staple of our diet, and at this time of year they even have folkloric street cred: in the southern United States, black-eyed peas are traditionally eaten  to ensure good luck for the coming year. A cursory Google search says the black spot represents a "lucky streak," and notes that "the legumes are typically accompanied by either hog jowls or ham...the hog, and thus its meat, is considered lucky because it symbolizes prosperity" (although not, it must be noted, for the hog), while another site suggest that the black-eyed pea's association with good fortune "dates back to the pharaohs."

Others say it started in Vicksburg, Virginia, during the Civil War when the town ran out of food while under siege and the inhabitants were lucky enough to discover dried black-eyed peas among their stores. Meanwhile, cabbage leaves are thought to bring prosperity to those who eat them on New Year's Day. Of course, the "luck" conferred upon the digestion by the combination of legumes and cabbage may be open to debate, but it still sounds a lot better than hog jowls, unless you're Granny Clampett, in which case you probably don't want to spend New Year's with us, anyway: we have a much smaller fancy-eatin' room, and no cement pond at all.

But whatever the reason, Egyptians or Damn Yankees, eating black-eyed peas is a time-honored way of ushering out the old and ringing in the new, and this is how I do it. Let me say straight up that A. this makes a ton (I like to freeze things for when I'm too lazy/busy to cook), but can be easily halved for a more reasonable quantity, and B. my version is more curry than Cajun, but go ahead and adjust the seasonings to suit your own taste. I've used frozen or canned black-eyed peas when they were on hand, but soaking raw ones is even better, provided you remember to do it. With some rice, garlicky greens, and extra hot sauce, this is a delicious, healthy start to a brave new year: the best one yet!

Black-Eyed Peas with Okra and Sweet Potatoes
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic

~ 4 cups onions, diced

~ 1 cup each: celery; bell pepper, chopped

~ 3 cups vegetable stock
~ 1 28-ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
, including liquid
~ 1 lb. okra, tops removed and sliced 
(4 cups, or a 1 lb, bag if using frozen)
~ 3 sweet potatoes, chopped
~ 1/2 cup white wine or broth
~ 1 tsp. Thai red curry paste
~ 1 tbsp. Jamaican curry powder
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, chili powder, cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, thyme, garam masala
~ ¼ tsp. each: cayenne pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg
~ 1 tbsp. each: molasses, maple syrup
~ 3 cups frozen black-eyed peas, 2 drained and rinsed cans, or 1.5 cup raw, soaked overnight
~ Lots of black pepper, or to taste
~ 4 cups baby spinach (approximately), chopped

~ Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium flame. Add the onions and cook, stirring regularly, until they begin to brown, about 8 minutes.
~ Add the garlic, bell pepper, celery, sweet potatoes and spices. Cook for 5 minutes, and add the wine or broth to deglaze the pan. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another minute or two.
~ Add all remaining ingredients except the spinach, and cook over medium heat until okra is thoroughly cooked and the mixture has thickened, about 45-55 minutes.
~ Add the baby spinach and a little more stock if desired; it should be thicker than a soup but still a bit brothy.
~ Cook another 20 minutes over low heat, then allow to stand awhile; the longer it sits, the better!
~ Serve over rice with sautéed kale, chard or (ideally) collard greens and extra hot sauce.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Curried Winter Squash Soup

First of all, I'd like to wish everyone a happy Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Giftmas, Dance-Naked-Around-the-Back-Garden-Day, and/or whatever combination of these or other holidays you observe at this festive time of year. I'm also wishing all good things for 2009; if it's anything like 2008, we are certain never to be bored. That said, I am filled with a sense of cautious optimism , which is partly due to our incoming new president, and partly to the fact that I'm a shameless Pollyanna sentimentalist around the holidays. But let's face it: it's as easy to be hopeful as pessimistic, besides being much more fun.

So heigh-ho, sing heigh-ho unto the green holly, most friendship [may be] feigning, most loving [possibly] mere folly, but for a few weeks of the year it's fun to bring trees into the house, eat too many cookies, and get in touch with people we love but see far too infrequently.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the subject of this post, which happens to be soup (we like soup, so sue us). Way back in the second millennium, I lived in Rindge, New Hampshire for a year, where I made an awesome friend named Hal, with whom I shared a passion for squandering youthful energy and limited funds chasing the Grateful Dead all over Christendom, having what we called "loads-o-fun." To enumerate our many hijinks would be to squander the gentle reader's time and patience, but one illustrative anecdote involves him returning one of my Indian bedspreadesque hippie skirts, and leaving a message with my bemused roommate that he liked it but wanted a longer one next time (having discovered what everyone ought to know, which is that dancing, twirling, and spinning are more fun in a skirt). Get me started on our food-based adaptations of Dead lyrics - "Walk me out in the honeydew, my melon," "Don't you let that meal go down" - and we'll be here all night. Good times.

So what does any of this have to do with soup, you ask? Well, I'm getting to it. For many years, I've been making this curried squash soup, which my omnivorous, butter-obsessed mom has always loved. Not long ago, she asked where I got the idea for it, which is where Hal comes in. He did his BA at Keene State College, and after I'd fled the Granite State for Massachusetts, I'd go up to see him occasionally. I was a vegetarian in those days, and there was a place called Henry David's (like Thoreau, get it?) in Keene that was a sort of classic college town restaurant, with groovy salads and stuff like hummus that were still vaguely exotic in that time and place. Once upon a time we had a butternut squash bisque there, which was sort of sweet, a little spicy, and vaguely curryish. Even back then, I was tasting stuff in restaurants and thinking how I might reproduce/improve it, so I did some messing around with squashes, vegetable stock, and various spices, and this was the eventual result.

Having made it - or variations on it - for lo, these many years now, I still like it a lot; something about it just says "autumn." Sometimes I use parsnips instead of apples, or even both; like most pureed soups, it's pretty forgiving. Mix and match, use butternut, acorn squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, or some combination: it's all good. I find this soup is best served with dense, crusty bread and a big, groovy salad; in a perfect world, there will be alfalfa sprouts and a nice tahini-based dressing like Annie's, I mean Goddess Dressing. That stuff makes me want to find a good Dead show on the archive and spin around until I'm dizzy (oh, and Hal: you can borrow a skirt whenever you like!).

Curried Winter Squash Soup
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 1 large onion, chopped
~ 1 large stalk celery, diced
~ 2 large apples, chopped (or 3-4 parsnips, or some of each)
~ 1 winter squash, cut into 1/2" cubes (about 8-10 cups)
~ 1 tbsp. good curry powder
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, cumin, fenugreek powder
~ ½ tsp. each: chili powder, dill, smoked paprika
~ ¼  tsp. each: cinnamon, turmeric
~ ½ tsp. cayenne or 1 tbsp hot sauce; more or less to taste
~ A few grinds fresh black pepper
~ Dash nutmeg or mace
~ 2 cups no chicken broth
~ 2 cups apple cider (or more broth if you don't have/like it)
~ 1 15 oz. can lite coconut milk

~ In a large pot, heat the oil and saute the garlic, onions and celery for about 5 minutes over medium heat.
~ Add the apples and/or parsnips and spices; stir to coat and cook another 5 minutes.
~ Add the cubed squash and the apple cider; raise heat to high and bring to a boil.
~ Turn the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30-40 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.
~ Remove from heat, add the coconut milk, and puree with an immersion blender or transfer to a food processor in batches. Return to almost (but not quite!) boiling, and serve hot.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Socca (Provencal Chickpea Flour Pancake)

Chickpea flour is one of those amazing things I discovered relatively late (like olives, which I thought were disgusting until I was in my 30s; now I would mainline them if I could just figure out how to go about it). I'd eaten it in Indian cooking forever, but it never occurred to me to take some home and play around with it. Turns out that you can make a lot more than dosai with this stuff; I've already posted about the wonderfulness that is "fronch" toast, and with this recipe we travel to the sunny south of France, where we get to eat chickpea flour and olives on the same plate! (Can't you just smell that lavender?)

This baked pancake is sort of like a fritatta, sort of like a dosa, and sort of like a pizza. It's a bit fiddly, and after substituting a cast iron pizza pan for the big cast iron skillet we no longer have, I highly recommend using the latter, even if you have to go out and buy one: I know what I want from Santa this year. That said, it's totally worth it, and it made a delicious brunch on a Saturday morning (oh, all right, it was actually 12.30pm, but whatever), and in fact there was so much leftover that we had it again on Sunday; with the addition of a nice green salad, it could be a perfectly acceptable lunch or dinner as well. It's traditionally eaten as is, but since I can never leave well enough alone - and I was cooking as a procrastination tactic to put off writing a paper; gotta spin that action out as long as possible - I made a sort of saucy topping to spoon over the individual slices, for which I include the recipe. As those creepy Campbell's Soup kids used to say: mmm-mmm, good!

The Pancake
~ 2 cups chickpea flour
~ 1/2 tsp. each salt, thyme
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 3 cups warm water
~ 4 tbsp. olive oil

~ Preheat the oven to 500 degrees fahrenheit
~ In a mixing bowl, combine the chickpea flour, salt, spices, water and oil. Mix thoroughly with a whisk and set aside for 0 minutes (during that time you can prepare your topping, below).
~ After 30 minutes have passed, place an oiled cast iron skillet or deep-dish pizza pan in the oven for 5 minutes.
~ Give the batter another good stir, then pour it into the heated cast iron pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until solidified and brown, but not too crisp (don't worry, you'll know, really).
~ Remove from oven, allow to stand about 5 minutes before cutting into slices, and serving at once, covered with the topping below, or anything you like, really (next time I'm going to try it with caramelized onions and mushrooms).

The Topping
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 2 cups chopped onion
~ 1 bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)
~ 1 cup pitted, sliced black olives
~ 1 15. oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, thyme, tarragon, basil
~ Lots of fresh black pepper
~ 1/2 cup white wine

~ In a large skillet or wok, heat the oil over medium heat and saute the garlic and onions 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently.
~ Add the seasonings, peppers, tomatoes and olives and stir to combine. Continue cooking another 10 minutes.
~ Raise the heat to high and add the wine; cook another 5-10 minutes, stirring often until the liquid reduces. Remove from heat and spoon over your slices of socca.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cream of Mushroom Soup

Given the fact that they have featured prominently in my last several posts, you might be getting the idea that we really like mushrooms. And you would be correct in that assumption, because we actually loooove them: as in, we love them so much that we would probably polygamously marry them if that were legal in the state of Massachusetts. (Baby steps, people: we shall overcome!) So get ready, because here comes another fungus-based recipe, this time an attempt to recapture the taste of a favorite childhood comfort food.

It's a sad fact that no matter how well we take care of ourselves, sometimes we get sick, especially at this time of the rolling year. In our house, we've had a recent visitation of generalized fatigue, muscle aches, stuffiness, and an overall stupid-headed feeling that necessitated a day or two of laying low, drinking tea, and - are we lucky or what?! - watching a Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. Ask me about the episode in which Shakespeare is conjured by an aspiring writer via "black magic" to coauthor a cheezy TV pilot circa 1963, featuring Burt Reynolds as a poor man's Marlon Brando. No, seriously, ask me; I thought I was having febrile hallucinations. Worst of all, my lifelong hero came off as a bit of a hack; see gods, clay feet, etc. Sigh. (That said, if he wants to come back and help me with my current writing project, he needs only to ask.)

But I digress. My partner, wracked with malaise, expressed a wistful desire for the canned cream of mushroom soup of our youth: an idea which became a very maggot in my brain, especially after Shakespeare socked Burt Reynolds in the jaw. So once I'd had enough Rod Serling, I went down to the kitchen intending to gratify this wish. Now, it should go without saying that I am incapable of producing an exact copy of that canned elixir. For one thing, I haven't the first idea how to replicate its ribbed, cylindrical splendor - nothing rude about that - but I do know my way around a mushroom, and after nibbling a bit here and drinking a bit there, I came up with something pretty close, but even better. I believe it's the unexpected addition of coconut milk (thanks to the PPK for the tip!) that hits that "cream of" spot we all remember; whatever works, right? So get into your jammies, make a pot of this soup, and eat it in front of the television. Add toast and maybe a couple reruns of Scooby-Doo, and I promise everything will be all better.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
~ 1 cup unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 cup vegan "chicken" broth
~ 1 15 oz. can "lite" coconut milk
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance (or other vegan margarine), divided
~ 1/4 cup diced celery
~ 1/2 cup finely diced onion
~ 1 lb. chopped mushrooms
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, parsley
~ 1/2 tsp. each: sage, rosemary
~ A few grinds fresh black pepper
~ 1/2 cup dry white wine
~ 2 tbsp. flour

~ In a bowl or large beaker, combine the vegetable broth, soy milk and coconut milk, and set aside.
~ In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 1 tbsp. of the margarine and saute the celery and onions for about 5-7 minutes, until softened.
~ Add the mushrooms and seasonings, then cook about 10 minutes more.
~ Add the wine, stir thoroughly and cook another minute or two until some of then alcohol smell dissipates.
~ Cover the pot, bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to low.
~ Continue cooking over low heat for another 10 minutes, checking occasionally to be sure it doesn't stick; add a splash of water if necessary.
~ In a saucepan, heat the remaining tbsp. of margarine over low heat and add the flour gradually to make a roux. Stirring constantly, add 1 cup of the broth/milk mixture until it begins to thicken. Set aside.
~ Pour the remaining broth/milk mixture into the vegetable mixture and simmer 15 minutes over low heat.
~ Add the thickened roux to the soup, and stir thoroughly to combine.
~ Adjust seasonings and puree the soup with an immersion blender (or transfer in batches to food processor or regular blender) until it reaches your desired degree of smoothness.
~ Serve with generously "buttered" (we recommend Earth Balance) toast for the perfect lunch or dinner when it's cold outside and you're feeling poorly.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mashed Potato Pancakes

The weather around here has been really cold and grey lately, and the result has been a fair amount of podgy, wintry food...pasta, potatoes, savory pies, etc. (Hey, they say it's going to snow on Sunday, and aren't bulky sweaters a wonderful thing?) Anyway, everyone in my house has a deep, burning passion for mashed potatoes, so we make them pretty often; in fact, we always manage to make too much. Which is actually a good thing, because these pancakes are the best use for leftover mashed potatoes. Period. They are loosely based on the ones my dad used to whip up when he was in a mood to be especially nice ("Food As Love" was big in our family; don't even get me started on his fettuccine alfredo). I've made some important adaptations to his method, leaving out the eggs and adding a few sauteed veggies, but mixed with a little flour and fried in olive oil, they hit exactly the same spot. They're especially good for an indulgent weekend breakfast; we actually had ours with leftover mushroom gravy from the previous night's dinner, for which I'll include the recipe if you're inclined to do the same.

Mashed Potato Pancakes

~ 2 cups leftover mashed potatoes
~ 1/2 cup plain unsweetened soy or other non-dairy milk
~ 1/3 cup flour (I use whole wheat pastry for everything, but all purpose is fine)
~ Salt and pepper to taste
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 4 thinly sliced scallions (or 1/2 cup chopped onion)
~ 1 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 1 cup chopped mushrooms
~ Olive oil or cooking spray for frying

~ Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray and place in a preheated, 400 degree oven..
~ Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat; add the garlic, scallions and mushrooms and saute about 5 minutes. Set aside.
~ In a mixing bowl, combine the potatoes, soy milk and flour together to make a thick batter; add a bit more flour if it seems too wet.
~ Add the sauteed vegetables and mix thoroughly.
~ Wipe out your skillet and coat with cooking spray or a thin layer of oil, then place over medium-high heat.
~ Drop the batter into the hot pan with a large serving spoon, one spoonful at a time, and flatten slightly to form a patty about 3" across; 3 at a time is about as many as you want to fry at once.
~ Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side until golden brown, then transfer to the baking sheet until they are all cooked.
~ Serve with applesauce, non-dairy sour cream or...

Mushroom Gravy

~ 2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
~ 1 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms
~ 2-3 tbsp. flour
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy or other non-dairy milk
~ 1 cup vegetable broth
~ 1 tsp. each salt, thyme, sage, dried parsley
~ Lots of fresh black pepper
~ 1/4-1/2 tsp. hot sauce, to taste

~ Combine the soy milk and vegetable broth and heat to almost boiling, either on the stove or in the microwave.
~ In a skillet, saute the garlic, mushrooms and seasonings over medium heat until softened, about 5-10 minutes.
~ In a saucepan, warm the oil over medium-low heat and add the flour and the spices, stirring to make a roux.
~ As it begins to thicken, add about 1/2 cup of the broth/soy milk mixture, stirring until smooth.
~ Add the sauteed vegetables and then, gradually, the remaining liquid, stirring constantly as it begins to thicken.
~ Raise the heat to medium and continue cooking 5-10 minutes, until you get the consistency you like (you can always add more liquid if it's too thick, or turn the heat up to reduce it if it's not thick enough).
~ Serve over mashed potatoes, mashed potato pancakes, biscuits, or whatever else you like.