Friday, January 16, 2009

A Spicy Winter's Tale

Darn that polar express that rips through the northern half of this country during these months. A high temperature of 10-degrees Fahrenheit leaves nothing on my doorstep that is fresh, green and vibrant. And, while I can go and find fresh herbs locally that have been shipped from lands south and west of the Mason/Dixon Line they offer precious little in the way of flavor. So, in order to get my fix of aromatic pleasure I tend to play heavily with spices during the winter. Yes, I have a couple different pestos squirreled away in my freezer that I have been dipping into that I try to parcel out over the depressing winter – they are in part anti-depressants so full of summer for me.

I keep at any given time a dozen or so different spices. It is my tendency to buy them whole, and grind to order so as to get the maximum fragrance into my dish. To that end, I would advise to store spices in a cool, dark place, like the freezer, and that way their potency will last years. Buy a spice or two that pushes the culinary envelope – right now I am a bit obsessed with black cardamom (the north Indian relative to its more floral scented, celadon hued cousin), smoked paprika (both Spanish and Cuban), and turmeric (it is believed to be a highly prized medicinal spice). Like the alchemist of yore I fiddle in my kitchen laboratory in search of a golden combination.

Spiced Red Lentils and Vegetables – serves 6 to 8
1 cup red lentils – soaked in water for 2 hours
2-teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon grated ginger
3 garlic cloves – finely minced
1 tablespoon powdered tamarind
2 teaspoons powder turmeric
1/4-teaspoon clove
3 whole black cardamom
1-teaspoon coriander seed
1-teaspoon cumin
1/4-teaspoon whole black pepper
1 to 2 dried red Thai chilies
1 cup chopped canned tomato
1 onion – roughly chopped
3 celery ribs – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium carrot – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4-pound fresh or frozen cut pumpkin
1 chayote squash – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1-teaspoon salt

Drain the lentils.

Grind all the spices.

In a three-quart saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, and add the ginger. Cook the ginger for a few minutes – you will smell the aromatic release. Then add in the garlic, and all the ground spices into the pot; cooking the mixture for a few minutes longer. Mix the tomato, onion, celery, carrot and soaked lentils. Sir in 4 cups of water, and bring everything to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for one hour. After an hour add in the pumpkin and salt, and simmer for another hour.

Then add the chayote. Cook for another 15 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve with a garnish of orange if desired.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Creamy Naughtiness

I would be considered a nightmare of a sweet’s person. It is well known I do not eat chocolate; find fruit tarts too messy and my patriotism has been questioned due to my refusal to eat pie. However, give me a white cake simply frosted with an Italian buttercream or carrot cake with my Mom’s secret gook, and I am inhaling fork loads.

I have discovered that I am rather fond of the sweets of a people it did not meet until well into my adult-life. I find myself drawn to Indian sweet shops sampling the milky, nutty and incredibly sugary confections they produce. There is not a chocolate coated-anything to disrupt my selection or glazed fruit desperately trying to maintain a sense of freshness. Then I started to try and make my own – it began with my need for an elusive concoction called ras malai, which is a sweetened cheese ball that is poached in milk. I could, and should have started with something simpler. It took two days to achieve satisfaction.

When I have a craving for sweet I want it satiated immediately, and so I have laid to rest the making of sweetened curds, and turned my attention to crafting creamy little squares. These little nibbles are inspired by but would never be seen in my favorite sweets shop.

Cashew-White Chocolate Squares
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
8 ounces white chocolate – chopped
1-cup cashew butter
2-teaspoons vanilla extract
1-teaspoon rose water
1/2-cup slivered almonds

In a work bowl combine the condensed milk and white chocolate. Over simmering water melt in white chocolate in the milk. Once the chocolate has melted remove from the heat, and whisk in the cashew butter, vanilla and rose water until very smooth. Then beat in the almonds.

Transfer the mixture into a 4x7 pan that has been lined with enough plastic wrap that it hangs over the sides. Make sure that the cashew mixture is evenly spread out, and you gently pat it out to remove any air bubble. Fold the excess plastic wrap over the top of the cashew, and refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours. Flip the now set cashew mixture onto a cutting board, and cut it into 1-inch squares. Store in airtight containers in the refrigerator for about a week.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Citrus Time

It has been a less than exciting few weeks for me though thanks legally prescribed narcotics I have little memory of the time that has elapsed. There has been a bright spot for me during this hiccup with my physical prowess – it is citrus season! And, not a single frost in Florida or unexpected torrent in California has caused the US crop from going a foul. Ruby grapefruits, tangerines and the Minneola have been greedily consumed during this very period for me, and the platter of Clementines made for work with their ease-to-peel coquettishness. How fortune for me that their calorie punch is right in line with a life that has been teetering between sloth-like and downright inactive with about 60 calories per.

As we look out the window in lands where the trees go bare, and everyone is buried deep in quilted down and tie-up with woolen ribbon it is a visual respite to the grayness with burst of orange, yellow and lime green. I may have spent the holiday season in the twilight zone, but I have come down totally c’ed up.

Clementine Salad

3 clementines – peeled and separated into segments
1/2 pound jicama - peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 jalapeno – seeds discarded, and minced
1 Hot-house cucumber - cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small red onion – minced
4 scallions – washed; root trimmed and minced
2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves – chopped
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

Toss all the ingredients together, and let sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.