February 05, 2016

South Indian cooking class

A few weeks ago we took a South Indian cooking class at Spice Route, a restaurant we like located not far from Seattle, in Bellevue.  The class was described as including a tomato chutney, a sambar-lentil soup, and dosa. And a full meal. We sometimes cook Indian food at home, and enjoy eating in Indian restaurants, but have never had a close-up look at the food preparation via a class. I'm especially attracted to the unique flavors of South Indian cooking so this seemed like a good opportunity to enhance our knowledge and skills.

The class began with each of us briefly explaining why we became vegan — or for the one non-vegan — why she was taking the class. (Her family roots were in South India but she grew up in the Pacific Northwest and knew little about how to cook the traditional foods of her heritage.) Then the instructor began describing the cuisine(s) of South India, and the diverse, heavily vegan/vegetarian population living in the region. He talked about the ingredients and spices he was using, some of which you can see in the above photo. Someone asked if we should be taking notes or if we would be receiving information and recipe sheets, and we were told we didn't need to take notes as the recipes and such would be emailed to us. I prefer to have handouts at the beginning of class so I can add my own notes, which is what we usually encounter in cooking classes we've taken.

As the teacher spoke, he prepared the tomato chutney. I wish I could tell you what was in it but alas, we never received any post-class information.

He also cooked the sambar. Watching him cook, I realized I was missing a key ingredient in my spice collection — hing. He added quite a bit of hing to the food. He also seemed to be adding a large amount of salt, which he said was necessary to develop the flavor. Salt, like sugar, has addictive qualities, and the more you use, the more you want. Since I tend to limit my salt intake, the food in the class, delicious as it was, tasted very salty to me, and I was extremely thirsty after eating it. I don't like having to get past the salt taste to be able to experience the flavors of my food.

When I first read the class description, and saw dosa on the list, I was pretty excited, but once at the actual class, I realized it was a bit misleading. I LOVE masala dosa, and have always wanted to know how to make my own. I've read about making them but I thought a first-hand lesson would be helpful. Our teacher told us less than I already knew about the subject, and we got to watch someone cook dosa on the grill, not learn how to make them. Eating masala dosa is pretty great, but it's not the same as learning to make them.

On my plate you can see the foods cooked in class, along with idli, a wonderful thick, spongy pancake made from rice and Urad Daal, and a couple of bonus chutneys — the beige one is coconut chutney.  Like dosa batter, idli requires fermentation, and our teacher told us it was too hard for us to make it in class. I guess that means I'll have to teach myself.

In the above photo, you can see a cook making dosa on the grill.

The demonstration was great, the food was delicious, and I was stuffed, but I'm still a little miffed that we weren't given recipes and ingredient lists. I understand that traditional cooks don't measure ingredients, but even approximate amounts and recipe techniques and steps would would be helpful. I have no idea how to make any of the things we theoretically 'learned' to make in class. I guess it's back to my cookbooks, the Internet and blogs to find out what I want to know about South Indian cooking! The cookbooks I currently have are Dakshin Vegetarian Cuisine From South India by Chandra Padmanabhan, and a really oldie but goodie called The Yogi Cookbook by Yogi Vithaldas. Do you have a favorite Indian cookbook?

January 27, 2016

Banana split smoothie

I love recipes. They are a source of inspiration — new ideas, new ingredients, new techniques. Sometimes the hardest thing about cooking is figuring out what to make, and having a good collection of recipes to turn to can eliminate the mind-wracking search for a lunch, brunch or dinner idea. As much as I admire creative recipes, though, I often cook on the fly, inventing as I go. Or fall into a rut. The rut is especially apparent when it comes to breakfast. I can find an interesting recipe or create my own at dinner, but breakfast usually finds me in a muddle.

I'm not a morning person, and never have been. As a child, I could never bring myself to eat breakfast before leaving for school — it was just too early. Even, more recently, when I used to rise at 6 a.m. to get ready for work, it was only so I could leave the office earlier in the afternoon, not because I was at my best in the morning, or because I wanted time to make a good breakfast. Breakfast? Hardly. I'm all in favor of brunch recipes, but breakfast ideas are usually lost on me. If I can drink it from a mug or spread it on a cracker, it might get consumed. Most of the year, when it's relatively warm out (and in the house) smoothies are my breakfast of choice — throw stuff in the blender, pour it into a jar, and drink it. I have my set list of favorite add-ins, and vary the fruit a bit, but my smoothies don't change much from day to day.

Not long ago, on a mild winter day, I came across a recipe for a healing banana split smoothie at Lexie's Kitchen and Living that sounded so delicious I was willing to break out of my breakfast rut to try it. I had it three days in a row, but then I began to miss all the foods I had been adding to my smoothies to make them healthier and more filling, and I decided to incorporate my old smoothie ingredients with the new ones, and fall into a new, delicious smoothie rut. To the banana split smoothie ingredients in the blender, I added one tablespoon of chia seeds, two tablespoons of hemp hearts, 1/3 cup of uncooked rolled oats and a handful of raisins. I didn't add the thick slice of organic lemon (with skin) that usually goes into my smoothies because I didn't think the flavor would go well with the peanut butter and cacao. And I used an unfrozen banana since the cherries I added were frozen. It tasted great and kept me full for hours. This is my new 'in-a-rut' smoothie, and I love it!

Notes: When I make my usual breakfast smoothie, I use water or a combination of water and homemade soy yogurt for the liquid, though I've been using almond milk as called for in Lexie's recipe. And I use frozen organic fruit (from Costco) such as cherries, mango, blueberries, strawberries or cranberries, singly or in combination. If the smoothie is too thin, I add a few cubes of ice. My preferred brand of almond milk is 365 organic almond milk from the refrigerated case at Whole Foods because it seems to have the fewest noxious additives of the refrigerated almond milks. I should make my own, I know.

January 22, 2016

Tortillas, tortillas, tortillas, Taco Cleanse, tortillas, pierogi quesadilla?

TORTILLAS PART THREE: Not long after my tortilla craze took hold (read about it here if you missed it.), I saw a post on Cadry's Kitchen about using tortillas to recreate a dish from The Chicago Diner — Pierogi Quesadilla. Once I understood that Cadry was using just the pierogi filling, (according to the Chicago Diner menu, it contains "sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, green onions, sautéed mushrooms & Daiya® Cheddar with vegan dill sour cream.") and not the noodles, to fill her quesadillas, I was eager to try it myself. Actually, I was eager to interest my husband in making it — I am the tortilla maker — and he was enthusiastic, though if you compare Cadry's photos to mine, you'll see that she is more artistic. The tortilla in the photo above was one of my puffier ones so I was able to stuff the fillings inside it rather than stacking two together, or laying the filling on top and folding it over, both of which are more traditional quesadilla preparations. My husband's quesadilla was of the stacked variety. We also forgot to cut them into wedges, being eager to consume them as soon as possible. (Just a note: for our cheese we used one of Miyoko's Kitchen's hard cheeses, and though it didn't exactly melt, it tasted melted.) This was our first 'adventurous' tortilla experience — a far cry from the standard, but delicious, weekly taco dinners my husband used to make on his weekend cooking night, while our kids were growing up.

The second serendipitous event to occur after my tortilla awakening, was the appearance of two of the authors of The Taco Cleanse, at a book talk/demo, in Seattle. It took place not far from my house at The Book Larder, a bookstore dedicated to cookbooks.

Jessica and Stephanie had us laughing out loud as they talked about their book and recipes. It was probably the most entertaining book talk I've been to in years. The whole time they spoke, they cooked — or rather, Stephanie cooked. Apparently, Jess' sole recipe contribution to the cookbook was tater tot tacos. Jessica is a master of the "I don't know how to cook taco," and I know there are many vegans out there who will be grateful to her for that. I now know that you can put anything into a tortilla — Pad Thai, curry, pizza — and call it a taco.

In addition to entertaining us, they also fed us. We had tacos filled with soy curls , peppers, sour cream, etc., and they were good. Though, of course, they would have been even better on fresh, homemade tortillas. :D

Naturally, we purchased a copy of the The Taco Cleanse and have been eating tacos pretty steadily ever since. For our first plunge into The Taco Cleanse, I made fresh tortillas while my husband made his version of gallo pinto — Costa Rican rice and beans — except he used kidney beans and no rice.

He also made abundant roasted potatoes so the tacos would be more fun. And a green vegetable, of course, on the side. Plus we still had dill sour cream leftover from the pierogi quesadillas, and a jar of salsa.

Here's what our tacos looked like.

I still don't have a taco press but I'm wielding my cast iron frying pan like a real pro; just this morning I developed a new technique that flattens the tortilla just right. But as you can see, I've acquired a tortilla basket. I was in a Good Will store looking for, (cough cough), a tortilla press, among other things, and I spied a nice little basket sitting by itself on a shelf. I swear it was calling me. I had some reservations about employing a used basket to hold food but I followed directions for cleaning baskets, and disinfecting  food contact surfaces with bleach and water. I scrubbed the basket, rinsed, then soaked it in bleach solution, and dried it in front of the fireplace. It looks and smells clean. I lined it with a thick napkin to keep the tortillas cozy while they wait for us to eat them, and it keeps the tortillas warm for at least an hour.

I made tortillas for breakfast, and ate leftover-bean tacos. After my husband finished his share of the tortillas, he asked, "What about dinner? Are you making more tortillas for dinner/" It's clear to me that I have to up my production, and resort to reheating. It's come to this.

January 18, 2016

Homemade corn tortillas — a revelation

Black bean chili and sweet potato casserole from Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker.

PART ONE: I was having a long video chat with my good friend Helene, and during the course of our conversation, she started telling me that she had been making homemade corn tortillas. I was surprised and impressed. I have, and do, make a lot of things from scratch, but I had never made corn tortillas. I made wheat ones a long time ago, but never corn. Never even considered it, but now that Helene was telling me how good the homemade ones were, I was all ears. Then she showed me her cast iron tortilla press and basket for keeping the tortillas warm, and my 'kitchen appliance' disease started to kick in. I could feel my body craving not only fresh tortillas, but a TORTILLA PRESS. How did I not know I needed one of those before now? Why, I even had a jar of masa harina in the cupboard. Give me strength.

The bowl will be covered and the dough allowed to rest.

I got hold of myself, as I looked around the kitchen for any spare space to store another gadget. I told myself I would have to make tortillas on a fairly regular basis using other means before I would allow myself to purchase a tortilla press, and I would have to give something away to make room for it on a shelf, should the need arise. In the meantime, I would use the bottom of a small cast iron frying pan to press any tortillas I made.

I got out my (signed but rarely used) Rick Bayless Mexican Everyday cookbook, and studied up on tortilla making. I also looked the subject up in Terry Romaro's Vegan Eats World. By the time Helene sent me the video she had watched to learn the fine art of tortilla making, I was ready to go. Like any specialty cooking skill, making tortillas is easy and fast, it is an acquired art, and not one that can be mastered in one try. The ratio of masa harina to water has to be correct, as does the temperature of the griddle and the length of cooking time. But it's easier than you think, and the results that even a beginner can achieve are worth the effort. I watched the video three times. I was ready.

Baking on the cast iron griddle.

I made half a recipe, pressing my tortillas with my frying pan, and using a rolling pin to achieve the correct diameter and thickness. I was disappointed to note my tortillas didn't puff up as in the video, but it's hard to be perfect without practice, right? The initial tortilla, shared with my husband and our three-year-old guest, disappeared in a flash — before the thought of photographing it even entered my brain. It was a revelation in flavor and texture. The three-year-old was clamoring for more, so I made another one, and it too, disappeared within seconds, as did the third. I placed the one remaining ball of dough into a plastic bag to store for the next day, as recommended in the video. (It got a little dry in the fridge and I had to add a bit more water.)

I cooked the last tortilla the next day and ate it for lunch with a bowl of leftover black bean chili and sweet potato casserole from Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker by Robin Robertson. When I cooked it, it started to puff a little, but not the way I wanted it to. Even though I am a rank beginner, and haven't mastered the finer aspects of making tortillas, they still tasted fantastic and had a wonderful texture.  And remember, I don't (yet) have a tortilla press. :)

This is the video my friend sent me. I'm also sharing a link to Rick Bayless' directions for making tortillas. Following Rick's directions (sort of) for heating the griddle, I shifted my round pan so one side was closer to the flame than the other. Maybe that's why I saw a little puffing action. In any case, it looks like I may be making more tortillas, and if they improve, I'll let you know.

PART TWO: I made another batch of tortilla dough after re-watching the videos and re-reading the directions. I'm pretty sure I didn't use enough water the first time, and I pressed my tortillas too thin with my rolling pin. This time I added extra water, kneaded longer, and used only my frying pan to press the dough — not the rolling pin — so the tortillas were a bit thicker. I was aiming for 1/8-inch thick.

'Puffery', as my friend Helene calls it.

Can you see the puffing up of my tortilla? Can you see it in spite of the terrible lighting? It wasn't a total puff, but it was close. I'm leery of telling just how excited I was to see the tortilla puff up lest you realize how boring my life is. Of course, if cooking success is important to you, you'll understand.

This is pretty, isn't it?

This time I cooked four tortillas and kept them wrapped in a towel and under the lid of my bamboo steamer, since I don't (yet) have a tortilla basket. Actually, the lid over a plate on the counter makes a pretty good keep-warm basket, I keep telling myself. No need to get another basket, right? Rick Bayless says that the tortillas aren't fully cooked to perfection until they've spent a little time stacked in the basket, where they improve in taste and texture, and I believe him. He must be right, because this batch was even better than the first. Not only did the tortillas taste amazing, but they were flexible and had an air pocket.

I think I will keep making corn tortillas. Now I just need a copy of The Taco Cleanse so I can put my tortillas to their best use!

I really did make four, but it's hard to just look at them and not eat one.

Do you make corn tortillas? Do you have a weakness for kitchen gadgets? Have you bought any kitchen equipment that at first seemed like excess but you now love? Any you wish you hadn't bought?


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