30 June 2007

Lazy lazy Friday

It's been one of those Fridays where I was busy at work, but not to the point of exhaustion, like some days. I figured out how to load up video to a PC computer from a camcorder, by switching the camcorder to PLAY mode, and hitting the play button, while setting the video capture thing from Windoze Movie Maker. It was pretty cool, if a bit slow. I'm guessing firewire would have been faster? I'm not sure. Either way, it was pretty neat to know that it's possible, and relatively easy to do! Mind, I'm not going to start cheating on my mac, so no worries there. She's the first lady of my heart anyway.

Steve, on the other hand, didn't have as easy a time as I did. He was there at work from 8:30 in the morning till close to 9:00 at night! On top of that, because he was in the middle of a project, he never did go to lunch. I figured that by the time he got home, he'd be exhausted, so we nixed the plans to go to see that new Pixar movie. Instead, we stayed in, and ate some bean sprouts (spiced with mustard, cumin, chili, lemon, salt, and pepper) and rice, and some fresh popcorn (popcorn, olive oil, salt). I find that when you pop the kernels in olive oil, they have a very rich and buttery taste. I love it! Also, before sprinkling on the salt, I ground it down in a spice grinder to get it very fine, so that it adheres to the fluffy popcorn more easily. It was divine.

I am pleased that we've started to get involved in doing things more often than we used to. Saturdays and Sundays used to be "let's lie around and be lazy, and pretend like we don't actually have to get up to do anything." I'm sure it was driving Steve slowly mad, because we're funny like that. He's very introverted, but still likes to get out and do things. As extroverted as I am, I prefer to mooch around in the house. Either way, we've always found ways to amuse ourselves, whether it's sitting around the house, or going out.

The kitchen needed a mass overhaul type cleaning, so I figured that when it was done, I'd give Steve a treat. In the filter of the coffee maker, I put in 1/2 cup of ground coffee, cinnamon, cayenne, clove, nutmeg, and then topped it off with the rest of the ground coffee that I needed for a full pot. I filled the coffee maker. I then poured a twinge of vanilla extract, 1 tablespoon per cup of water of cocoa powder (unsweetened), and a few tablespoons of sugar. I turned on the coffee machine, and let the smells waft throughout the kitchen. It smells quite lovely, and is delicious straight up, with nothing added. If you've read my book, you know how I feel about "omni subs" or foods that substitute omnivorous ingredients (tofu, seitan, tempeh, soymilk), so I won't get into it here. I'll maybe cover that stuff in a later entry.

I started some beans soaking, and another set of moong dal to sprout. I think it's so cool that I can increase the amount of food I can put on the table, just by adding water to my beans, and letting them soak for a six hours, then air dry after draining them. They sprout on their own, and they're so cute! I almost (read: ALMOST) am tempted to get the stuff planted in my garden, so that I'll have plants, but I can't be bothered. I'm a bit too lazy for that to happen.

Maybe some day, eh?

29 June 2007

On Salting

When you're in the process of putting together a soup, stew, or chili, make sure to lightly salt as you go along. What you want is for the salt to get into the components, but not to the point where you're making a pickle! Instead, take your time, and add gentle additions of salt with every new ingredient that goes into your pot.

For example, let's say we're making a soup with aromatics, root vegetables, tomatoes, and leafy greens. Let's take this step by step, and see if we can't make sense of it, shall we? As with any soup or stew, we're going to be going in the proper order of oil, then spices, then deglazing, then long cooking vegetables, then short cooking vegetables.

Start with oil in a deep stock pot. A good peanut or sunflower oil should work ideally. Turn the burner's heat dial as high as it can go. When a small wisp of smoke escapes the surface of the oil, add your whole spices (like mustard seeds, sesame seeds, and cumin seeds). Wait for about 30 seconds or so. You should hear them popping and crackling like mad. If you have them, pitch in a healthy handful of curry leaves. If not, skip this step.

Now in come our aromatics. Add your chopped or minced aromatics (maybe some onions, garlic, carrots, and red peppers this time?) to the hot fat. Stir everything around in the pot until everything is combined with the oil. Sprinkle in some salt. You just want to add enough to draw out some of the water from the aromatics. Drop down the heat on your burner to medium low. Put the lid on your pot, and get to work on chopping your other ingredients. These are going to cook for about ten to fifteen minutes, or however long it takes them to get softened. If you'd like some colour, this would be a good time to add some turmeric, and stir it through. If you want more of an earthy flavour, this would also be a good time to add your favourite dried herbs. Thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf works for a deep, rich stew.

Start with your tomatoes. If you're using canned tomatoes, skip this step, and just get them ready to add to the pot. If you have fresh tomatoes, roughly chop them up into 1 inch cubes. Don't worry about getting them perfectly chopped--we're going to end up cooking them down in any case. Reserve about a cup and change of water at this point.

If you're like me, the chopping of the tomatoes is done around the same time that the aromatics are nice and soft in the pot. Once the aromatics have softened, add your diced tomatoes to the pot, and increase the heat to high again. Add a little more salt, and stir everything to combine it with the oils and flavours. You're going to start to discover the delight of the smell of tomatoes with garlic and spices. Savour that aroma. Once your tomatoes seem to be incorporated into the dish, turn the heat back down to low, and put the lid back on. You've got another good fifteen or twenty minutes to go before you have to bother anything. If you're nervous about the tomatoes getting too dried out, check every five minutes or so, and have that reserved water at the ready to loosen things up as needed.

Next come the root vegetables (how does a nice blend of radish, potato, and turnip sound) into roughly the same sized cubes. You want to go for about 1/2 inch all around, to get relatively quick cooking times, and still give the final dish something with some oomph to bite into.

Around the time that you've diced your last potato (or a bit sooner, if you take a little longer in chopping root vegetables), your tomatoes should be ready for the next step of the soup. At this point, there's a couple of different things that you can do. If you notice that there are quite a lot of vegetables left over to cut up, feel free to buy yourself some time by adding a few cups of water to the pot, leaving the lid open, and dumping in the vegetables as you go along. Because they're going to cook for another hour or so, you don't have to worry overmuch about cooking times.

If, however, you've finished chopping your vegetables, dump them into the pot, add a couple of litres of water, and crank the heat up to high. While you're waiting for the first boil, start loosely chopping up your leafy greens. Again, you want it to be small enough to fit on a spoon, but large enough to make an impression.

Once your pot starts boiling at a full, strong boil, add a few more pinches of salt, and let it sustain that rolling boil for about five minutes. Quickly taste the soup for salt. If it tastes salty at this point, there is too much salt, and you've got time for damage control. Grab a couple of cans of beans, and tip the contents into the pot. If, however, your soup just barely tastes salted, and is a little on the bland side, you're in good hands. Why is this? As the soup continues to cook, the water will evaporate, and the flavours will concentrate. You want to know how you're doing at this point, because damage control is far easier when you're still early on in the game, rather than at the last minute when you're scrambling.

But I digress. Once you've gotten that full rolling boil sustained for about five minutes or so, drop down the heat to medium low again. Put the lid back on. Finish chopping any final greens you want to add. While you're here, you might as well wash up some of the dishes you've generated along the way. You've got a good forty five minutes to go. Pour yourself a nice cold glass of the drink of your choice, and clean up at leisure. Why leave the mess for later, when you'll be tired?

After about forty five minutes, test the largest piece of vegetable you can see in the pot. If it's done all the way through, you're good to go. Add the leafy greens to the top, and increase the heat back to high. Put the lid on, and let it come up to the boil again. Let it boil, uncovered, until the greens are done through.

When the greens are done, let the soup sit and settle for about fifteen minutes. It's just had an exciting journey in becoming a wonderful dish. Letting it settle for a bit gives the soup (and you) a chance to just relax and mellow for a few minutes. Take the time to set out the table with some nice dishes and your place settings. You've spent all this time on your dish--why not enjoy it properly?

There. Soup is ready. Test it for salt once more before serving. If it's a touch on the bland side, just perk it up with some more salt. Just make sure to let it come back up to the boil after you've added as much salt as you think you'll need. That final boil will make sure that the salt is properly incorporated.

Enjoy your meal.

28 June 2007

Inagural Post

I do have a product blog up for my book, The Alternative Vegan. However, I feel like since it's out there in the open, attached to the product itself, I can't be as chatty and silly as I want to be. If you've read the book, you know that I like to ramble on about nothing in particular, and sometimes I've got some ... unique observations about things going on in my life. I'll answer questions, if you post comments, but for the most part, this is about what's going on in my life, and other silly things of that nature. Feel free to read it, or ignore it.

As far as I know, sales are doing fine. I get people telling me about the different things that they're trying out, and I'm thrilled to bits when they try out something "exotic," if that makes sense. For example, at the last minute, I wanted to include a dish called Venn Pongal. It's a dish from the south of India, where my family is from, and it's filled with all the good things that I remember about growing up in the land of spices. It's very light in terms of fat an calories, but it's like magic. Pongal can settle an upset stomach, fill an empty belly, warm you up from the tips of your toes to the top of your head when it's dreary and rainy outside. Its smoky scent will fill the house as you cook it.

All that being said, it does take a fair bit of time for it to finish cooking, during which you're going crazy wanting it. Additionally, the instructions look complicated. Not that it's hard to make, mind you. It just looks that way, because I had to explain it just so. Anyways, I'm rambling. My publisher offered to test the recipe (because no recipe went into the book without being tested for ease of understanding the instructions, etc). He and his wife whipped up a batch, and fell in love.

Since then, they've made it a few other times. Now, my publisher is a talented and adventurous cook. He loves to tinker about with food so that it can reach the fiery heat he craves in there. (Suffice to say that chiles make regular appearances in the Torres house.) I expect him to be able to churn out pot after pot of pongal with no trouble, and no fear at all. I didn't expect people to try it after buying the book! I was surprised and so pleased that others could experience this ultimate of comfort foods for the first time, because I was introducing them to it. Something that I consider so common, but so good that I'll cheerfully eat it three times a day for a week or so. This, in all its beauty, was introduced to people, because they felt adventurous enough to give it a try.

That's so cool! What's even better is that they'll get to try the version that doesn't cost a fortune to make, and for which it is easy to find ingredients. I was telling my mother about the recipe in the book, and she asked me, "So, did you say to use moong daal?" "No," I responded, "I said to use split yellow peas." The two of us burst out laughing as she said, "I never do anything traditionally!" Of course we don't! That's how we adapt to the different places we've lived throughout my life. You can't be so rigid as to demand that everything be just so or not at all! You figure out how to make something work for you, wherever you are. Frankly, I'm not going to have someone spend three times the cost of split yellow peas on moong dal over some sniping about "authenticity" or "tradition". Sorry, but tradition is only so important that it serves us, not the other way around!

In other news, I figured out that I'm capable of getting into the door, and maximising my efficiency. Whenever you know you need to have dinner on the table in an hour or so after you get in, use this method, because it works for me without tiring me out! The second you walk in, drop whatever's in your hands onto the dining room or kitchen table, and walk into the kitchen. Quickly rinse out a pot, and start to fill it with water. While it fills, dash off to the washroom to give your hands and face a rinse with clean water and some soap. I find that if I'm using my regular facial soap to wash my face, my hands get cleaned at the same time, so I prefer to save a step if I can help it. Dry your hands off, and pat your face dry.

By now, you'll probably be feeling a lot more refreshed. The reason I added in the face and hand washing thing is twofold. For one thing, before you start preparing food, you HAVE to wash your hands. It's not pleasant to find unwelcome visitors in your food, and be laid up in bed with a stomach infection. Keep those hands as clean as you can. The other reason is that I live in Florida, and it's HOT. The first thing I wanted to do was wash my face as soon as I got in, but I knew that my kitchen sink can take a long time to fill a pot. I also fought the temptation to wash my face in the kitchen sink, because that would have involved the dirty water from my face flying around the kitchen. Ew.

Now that you're feeling more human, go to the kitchen again, and pour off any excess water from your pot. You're going to want 6 litres or so of water in the pot. Set the pot on the stove, slam on the lid, and crank it up to as high as it goes. The reason we are boiling water is because hot boiling water is perfect for cooking anything from rice to pasta to noodles to potatoes to vegetables. It's a pain, however, to wait for it to boil. Rather, why not let it do its own thing, while you go about your business? Once that's going, you can get to the rest of your meal.

Grab a clove of garlic, and smash it open, by pounding something heavy on it. Leave it whole; this is lazy, quick food, remember? Chop up an onion. Open up a can of black olives. Set a skillet onto your stove. Pour in any type of oil. See, when I came home that day, I didn't feel like digging out the olive oil. I just grabbed the canola bottle. Pour in enough oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. Quickly drain your can of olives, and pour them into the oil. Let the temperature come up, while you slice up your clove of garlic.

Within a couple of minutes, you should hear the olives in the skillet sizzling away like crazy. This is a good thing. You probably also smell an olive smell in the air. This is even better. Toss the olives around in your skillet. Sprinkle in the garlic and onions, and follow it up with a few good pinches of salt.

When you add salt this early in the game, you let the onions and garlic leak out their water more quickly, and the flavour intensifies. Find a can of tomatoes, or do what I did and find a jar of prepared tomato sauce. Nobody has to know! I have yet to see a jar of tomato sauce that had whole black olives (in this amount, anyway), and pieces of onions and garlic that you can actually see. When the onions turn light brown, pour in a few cups of the tomato sauce (or a 12 - 16 oz can of diced tomatoes, juice and all). Turn down the heat to low, and let the sauce simmer away until the pasta's done.

Now that your sauce is on the stove, your water is probably boiling. Splendid. Grab a 1 lb box of pasta, and pitch it into the pot of merrily boiling water. Generously salt the water. Throw in the juice of a lemon into the water (prevents pasta from sticking). Put the lid back onto the pot, ONLY for as long as it takes to get the water back up to a full rolling boil. Remove the lid, and set it aside. Boil the pasta until it's done.

Pour yourself a glass of wine or juice or water or whatever it is you like to drink at the end of your day, and sit down for at least five minutes, while the pasta boils. Don't leave the kitchen; you don't want to leave things on the stove unattended. You do, however, need the break for yourself at this point, because your legs are probably reminding you about the sweet allure of a hot bath. With bubbles!

When you've had your five minutes of relaxation, put a colander into the sink. Start checking on the pasta to see if it's cooked. Keep checking it every minute or two, until it's just done. When the pasta is done, pour it out to drain into the colander. Turn off the stove, and put the empty pot back onto the still hot stove. Pour the sauce into the bottom of the pot. Pour some of the cooked pasta into the sauce pan, and swirl it around to catch any leftover bits of sauce still in the pan. Dump all the pasta (including the one from the pan) over the sauce in the pot, and stir it all around to combine it.

Everything will be done to a turn, and you only need dump together a salad (which takes no time flat) and throw out some crusty bread and olive oil. That was more or less how my Monday night went. Ah, life is so simple when we've got so much.