26 July 2016

Mark Bittman's "simplest dal", revisited.

Every time I want to make dal, I look at all of the other recipes online, and then I come back to Mark Bittman's. It is simple, as the name promises, and delicious.  But I do miss the richness of tomato in it, and I do wish it had a bit more variety from bite to bite.  Sometimes I will stir in some chopped greens, as recorded below, other times I'll add roasted cauliflower and mushrooms, or steamed chunks of potato and peas, or even steamed green beans, to give it some substance. Bittman's original recipe works best as a room-temperature dip with pita wedges, but this way, it is a hearty meal. 

A variation on Mark Bittman's Simplest Dal

Serves 4

1 cup dried red lentils, washed and picked over [Other beans you can use: brown lentils, yellow split peas, split mung beans without skins]
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 serrano pepper, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups (packed) spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped or torn
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves
lemon wedges, hot sauce, and cooked rice, for serving

Combine all the ingredients except the tomato paste, spinach, and cilantro in a saucepan, add water to cover by about 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles gently, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until the lentils are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and keep cooking to the desired tenderness.

The lentils should be saucy but not soupy. Remove the cloves and maybe the cardamom pods (they're edible, though). Stir in the tomato paste and spinach and leave until the spinach is wilted  Taste and adjust the seasoning, then garnish with cilantro and serve.

22 July 2016

Weekending it in the Redneck Riviera

The Gulf of Mexico is beautiful--fine white sand, moderate waves, warm ocean water--but prices vary depending on where you choose to dwell while you are visiting.  Traveling to Mexico is disproportionately dangerous, at least until they figure out how to wrestle political control away from the drug cartels. Louisiana's beaches basically don't exist, Central and South Florida is where everybody goes, and Texas and Mississippi are, well, Texas and Mississippi.  Your best bet for a luxurious vacation on the cheap is to visit the magical land affectionately known as the "Redneck Riviera" on the north end of the Gulf.  Pensacola, Florida is the nearest airport, and from there you can drive West into Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama along scenic Highway 292 and enjoy the views on either side--the Gulf to the South and Perdido Key to the North.

There are only so many days of digging sand out of everywhere and avoiding the careening traffic coming out of Surf Style shops a person can stand, but a weekend is a perfect amount of time to soak up the sun, do some swimming, and eat super-fresh seafood.

Lodging: In both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores you will find more vacation rentals than you can shake the proverbial stick at, but we stayed at the ridiculously luxurious Turquoise Place, where every bedroom had its own private bath and balcony access to great views, the kitchen was appropriate for filming a cooking show (like, fancier than PBS), and you were on the beach as soon as you rolled your lazy ass out of the lobby.  If you don't like salt water, however, you could take advantage of a number of pools, hot tubs, saunas, and this magical creation called a "lazy river" (see above) right in the complex.

There are also cabin rentals further West at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores (referenced below in "activities").

Activities: Besides being a beach bum, there's paragliding, dolphin watching, chartered fishing, and water ski rentals at your disposal.  There are planes flying overhead advertising all of the touristy services on banners all day (tacky, yes, but no worse than anywhere else in the aforementioned states), so just pull over and get out your cell phone.

There are also some great water activities as well as hiking and nature observations to be made at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. Cabin rentals are available but in short supply, so plan ahead if you want to experience a simpler living style on your trip.

Dining: You'll find a whole lot of fried food shacks along Hwy 292 near the beach, Sea N Suds being a local favorite, but if you want fresh oysters, crawfish, and shrimp, may I suggest:

Shux in Pensacola, which serves plenty of fried as well as fresh seafood. I loved both the raw and grilled oysters and the seafood stuffed potato skins. The grits with crawfish remoulade were also delicious.

City Donut: They do not serve seafood here (at least I hope not), but you have to have donuts, right?

Rouses: Rouses is merely a popular grocery store chain down here, but the incredibly fresh, and affordable, raw oysters and cooked crawfish were at least as good as any restaurant, but maybe even tastier eaten in our fancy kitchen at Turquoise Place.

19 July 2016

This is a way of making Mapo Tofu, and you can find the ingredients at Safeway.

Look, how to make the "correct" mapo tofu is a sticky subject, but from my research, I have found that many different subsets of Chinese culture have their own idea about what it's supposed to taste like.  Then there's the Japanese version, which is its own thing and also the only correct recipe if you ask them.  It's kind of like organized religion.  

I am polyamorous when it comes to anything involving tofu and ground pork, so I'm not limited by your preconceptions. But I am cheap and too lazy to drive all over Denver looking for esoteric ingredients; I guess I really worship at the church of The Closest Grocery Store to My House.  So, I'm sorry if you don't like this, or maybe you want to call it something else, like Golden Delicious Ground Pork and Tofu.  But when you try my recipe, you'll be sold.  (PS--vegetarians can use shiitakes instead of pork and it's still really, really good!)

Mapo Tofu

Serves 4

1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced ginger
4 green onions, sliced
1 tablespoon black bean paste will also work
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
6 ounces ground pork
1 block of silken tofu, drained and cut into 3/4” cubes
Hot rice for serving

Add the water, cornstarch, soy sauce and sugar to a small bowl and stir to combine.

Heat a large frying pan until hot. Add the pork, ginger and green onions and stir-fry with a spatula, to breaking it the pork into small grains, until pork is cooked through. Add the black beans paste and chili garlic sauce and continue stir-frying. Add the tofu, and toss to mix.

Give the cornstarch mixture a good stir to incorporate anything that may have settled, and then pour it over the pork and tofu. Toss to coat, then boil until the sauce thickens.

Serve with hot rice.

15 July 2016

Traveling meals

As a freelance musician, I spend a lot of time traveling when I should be sitting at the dining room table with a healthy meal. I have attempted to eat cold leftover spaghetti while driving through a snow storm (super, duper bad idea), I have been mid-swig of coffee while getting rear-ended by a teenage boy who can't drive and sneeze at the same time (still have the stain on my ceiling), and I have certainly succumbed many times to the gut bombs that are fast joints and, worse yet, gas station "delis".  I've decided that, upholstery and clothing stains not withstanding, packing my own food is best because a) classical music doesn't pay well and b) I often feel like I'm truly about to die for at least eight hours after eating a Whopper Jr. Oh, c) something about being healthy. But really, it's a) and b).

Normal people can also get friendlier with packing meals for the same reasons. Whether you want to stop eating out of vending machines at work, wish to avoid the outrageous prices for tasteless food at the airport, or are just looking for some new ideas for picnics (my favorite part of hiking), it's really easy to pack something delicious to reward you for putting on grown-up clothes and leaving the house. And this stuff will all keep unrefrigerated for a respectable amount of time.

The insipid "healthy choice" of the 90s really is a great idea for travel. I never liked them much, maybe because the only wheat wraps I could find at the store tasted like cardboard. But now I use sheets of nori (you know that stuff you bought when you were going to get all fancy and make sushi, then you realized making sushi sucks? That stuff.), rice paper wrappers (the stuff you make spring rolls out of), or big leaves of collards, Swiss chard, or whatever else is growing in the garden.  I actually love them.

I'll start by sharing this adorable video of a very capable but unenthusiastic young Brit making a wrap (Sweet Jesus, that's a lot of butter).

You don't even have to close the ends if your nori or greens won't cooperate. In fact, here's a nice little blog post on using nori. The only trick with rice paper is soaking it briefly--follow package directions. Now,  let's use some more interesting ingredients.

Spreads: Tuscan white bean dip, walnut-feta spread, and North African party dip all work great as a tasty glue in your wrap. So does guacamole, for that matter.  NOT BUTTER.

Grains: Use something sticky, like short-grain white or brown rice. Stir a little bit of vinegar into it if you want a flavor evocative of sushi.

Protein: Chopped hard boiled egg, mashed up beans (in place of a spread, above), cheese of any kind, or any leftover cooked meat will do. Try to stay away from those deli meats, though--they're nasty, and I care about you.

Vegetables: I try to avoid veggies with high water content if the wrap is going to sit around for obvious reasons, but otherwise, anything works.  Cut into spears for maximum efficiency when eating. 

Some favorite combinations: 
rice paper-sushi rice-finely chopped boiled egg, carrot sticks,gojuchang; 
collared green leaf-Tuscan white bean dip, chopped black olives, sun dried tomatoes, walnuts; 
nori-guacamole, brown rice, black beans, red onion, spinach

A leafy salad with a couple of cherry tomatoes is not going to get you through much of the day, so you need to get a little heavier. These are awkward to eat while driving, but I have always gotten them through airport security, and it's perfect for picnics.

Grains: farro, barley, bulgar, quinoa, short-grain rices (long grain gets too dry)

Pastas: any shape works great, but go for something whole wheat, multi grain, or otherwise fortified for extra nutritional oomph.

Veggies: consider roasting a big pan of mixed veg to toss into salads or eat as sides throughout the week.  They'll really keep things form getting boring. Then when you mix in some fresh chopped vegetables, you've got a lot more variety in textures and flavors going on.

Fresh Herbs: Seriously.  If you have any growing in your window or garden (or the neighbor's garden, which you harvest at 2am--I'm not here to judge), chop and stir some of that stuff in here. It's going to be delicious.

Dressing: Any salad dressing you have already made (here are some ideas if you're stuck) will be great here, too. Don't make it complicated.

Some favorites: 
Farro with Vinegar-Glazed Sweet Potato and Apples
Barley Bowl with Miso Dressing
Tomato and Garbanzo Salad
Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad
Quinoa and Roasted Vegetable Salad
Mediterranean Lentil Salad