29 May 2008

How to tell that your mushrooms are fresh.

Look under its cap. If your mushroom's cap meets the stem, you're looking at a very fresh mushroom. That is, with a very fresh mushroom, the gills will be covered by skin flaps coming up from under the cap. If the cap doesn't meet the stem, but still folds underneath itself, it's still fairly fresh. If the cap spreads out and points outwards or upwards, you're looking at a really old mushroom.

Don't know what I'm talking about? Check out this neat website that I found for people who are visual (like me). It's called the Visual Dictionary. Here's a link to a picture of a mushroom:


I learned this trick while watching a Julia Child episode. She is forever giving you little hints and tricks as she goes along. PS This refers to white button mushrooms. Other varieties may or may not have different criteria.

26 May 2008

Quick recipes

Pudina Chatni (Mint Sauce)
3 parts Mint leaves
1/2 part water
1/2 lemon or lime juice

Per 1 part water and 3 parts mint:
2 shallots, diced (you may use 3 tablespoons chopped onion and 1 clove garlic instead)
1/2 tsp salt
1 green thai bird pepper (optional)
1/2 tsp garam masala

Place the mint leaves, shallots, salt, thai bird epper, and garam masala into the jar of a blender. Pour in all of the lemon juice. Pour in a couple of tablespoons of water. Gently pulse the blender until the mint leaves are roughly chopped up, and not while anymore. Pour in the rest of the water, and let the blender work on high until you get a fine, green paste. To make a milder sauce, remove the seeds from the thai bird pepper, or omit it. Mint chatni keeps for about a week or two in the fridge.

Dhania Chatni (cilantro sauce)
3 parts cilantro leaves
1/2 part water
1/2 part lemon or lime

Per 1 part water, and 3 parts cilantro:
1 TB grated ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 small onion, chopped
3 thai bird peppers
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin powder

Place all ingredients in the blender, and blend on high until you get a smooth paste.

These recipes are the applications of herbs that I mention in my latest Podcast episode. Please let me know what you think!

25 May 2008

Sauce interview, Pt 5

OK, last two questions (for now!) …

Any favorite or little-known-but-fantastic-and-easy tips for using spices and ready-made sauces you want to share?

Any words of encouragement for people who, for one reason or another – lack of experience, bad luck in the past, intimidated by TV chefs, whatever – still may lack the confidence to try out things in the kitchen?

Finally, not a question, but thanks so much for imparting all this information and enthusiasm for healthy, natural, delicious, peaceful foods. Much appreciated, and I hope we can do it again sometime.

Any favorite or little-known-but-fantastic-and-easy tips for using spices and ready-made sauces you want to share?
The microwave, of course!

Whenever I'm in a severe rush, I'm never embarrassed to use the microwave. Heck, sometimes I use it even when I'm not in a hurry. There's nothing wrong with setting a pot of rice to cook in the rice cooker, chopping up a bunch of root vegetables (yams, potatoes, what have you), tossing them with some oil, and your spice blend (Mrs. Dash, curry powder, garam masala, whatever), and letting it rip in the microwave for a while. As for sauces, I tend to save those for occasions when a large pot of soup or stew is coming up flat for some reason. Suppose you've just made a fairly large vegetable stew. At the end, you taste for seasoning, and you notice that it's all well cooked and such, but it's severely lacking in flavours. This is when you start experimenting (quickly) with your ready made sauces. Grab a few small bowls, and ladle a bit of stew into them. Line up your sauces, and try each bowl with a different one. Once you've found the combination you like, start pitching it into the pot! It will taste fine soon enough!

The reason I use sauces in this manner, is because they've already been processed in such a way that the flavours are already well developed. Spice blends, on the other hand, are in a sort of suspended animation, and are waiting to release their stuff. This is why I suggest the dry cooking in the microwave: the fast cooking speed is hot enough to pull out the flavour of the spices quickly. Don't be afraid of substituting a different sauce for a different purpose. For example, if all this time, you've only had sweet potatoes with cinnamon, sugar, and a dash of nutmeg, why not give them a shot of barbecue sauce, and see where the adventure takes you? If you've only used soy sauce (or tamari) in stir fry dishes, why not try soy sauce over steamed vegetables? Start thinking outside of the box. These ready made sauces are meant specifically to work with a wide range of foods. Chances are, you'll hit on something new that you like.

Any words of encouragement for people who, for one reason or another – lack of experience, bad luck in the past, intimidated by TV chefs, whatever – still may lack the confidence to try out things in the kitchen?
Don't look at the intimidating ones, but think of the most popular ones. Julia Child. Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook!). Graham Kerr. Rachel Ray. What did all these people have in common? For one thing, their shows are filmed live. You could see when they made mistakes, and have accidents. For another thing, they stressed that you try to have a knowledge of what you're doing, rather than have a strict adherence to specific amounts and rules.

I don't think I've ever seen Julia Child measure food in her show. She just knew what it looked like in the dish, because she knew that it's not going to make a huge difference if she got a little more or a little less in the pan. She can always adjust later, as needed. Look at Rachel Ray. She doesn't pull out measuring spoons; she tells you to "eyeball" it. The reason that these TV cooks are popular is because they're showing you how to prepare food in the way that most people do in their own homes. Even though they're all following recipes, they still don't bother being all that retentive about it, because that's how you learn. I remember being in the kitchen with my mother. The two of us would be keeping up a steady stream of chatter while working on the food. Sometimes, we'd make a fairly big mistake ("oops! I forgot to chop the onions, mom." "Well, leave it out then."), and in the end, it wasn't that huge a deal.

One such time was this Friday night that we were rushing to get dinner ready. We had more people than we thought we would, and were rushing, because they were set to arrive soon. Usually, in a proper daal, you have to chop up some onions, some garlic, some tomato, cilantro, curry leaves, and set up a series of five or six spices. Everything needs to be there to give an authentic feeling. That evening, we hadn't the time to bother with all that. Instead, in her panic, my mother toasted some cumin seeds in hot oil, and added the lot of the cooked beans when she heard them pop. She didn't even bother adding salt. Similarly on my side, I didn't have time to make my cabbage, which involves onions, carrots, cabbage, and two or three spices, along with curry leaves. Instead, I just did the grated cabbage, grated carrot, some chopped onions, lemon juice, and some curry leaves raw, and tossed it all together.

This is all because the two of us didn't do anything in advance. Before leaving the kitchen, we set the rice cooker to get going, and ran to greet the guests. It was as if the food was high gourmet. Everyone had third helpings, and was raving about the food! There were other times when the mistakes would give us either over salted (meaning, you have to double the quantity of food, and add a bit of lemon), over cooked (add water, call it a soup), undercooked (sprinkle on just enough water to dampen, microwave until cooked through), or bland (liberally add in any sort of Chile sauce you can handle; Cholula is the best, because it has heat and lots of spices), or burned (gently pour out just exactly what's not burned, and don't scrape the bottom; soak the pot in water and soap; reseason the salvaged part to your liking, using some sort of BBQ sauce or such, which goes well with a smoky taste, then call it cajun).

These things happen to everyone, because that's the nature of the beast. The important thing is to avoid panicking, and work with it. I can't remember how many times I'd mix up the sugar for the salt, and sprinkle some in, and get very odd looks from my mother at the dinner table. We'd salvage it by adding some sour (tamarind, lemon, lime, what have you), and a bit of extra heat (cayenne, black pepper, ground chilly), and the actual salt itself. There's a reason that in my own home now, I refuse to use anything else but Turbinado sugar, and Kosher salt! Can't confuse those two, right? Here's a couple of ways to avoid disaster:

1. Until you're highly adept in the kitchen, don't let the dial go on anything higher than medium to start. That is, when you heat up oil, or pop spices, or do anything else that involves a naked pan + whatever you're adding, start at medium heat. This way, you'll understand how the pot reacts to the amount of oil you have in there. I generally start at medium when I'm in an unfamiliar kitchen for the same reason: I don't know how their cookware and stoves do things until I've gotten the hang of it. Sometimes, if the pots are very thin, and the stove is very hot, I'll mentally re-calibrate the dial. Medium is the new high, and so on.

2. Once your stove is above low heat, don't leave the room. I'm seriously not joking on this one. The reason is that the boiling point of water is 100ºC. Since water resists change in temperature very well, you can more or less count on the food in the pot staying at this temperature for the most part. However, once water has left, there is no compelling reason for the pot to remain at 100º. Instead, you'll see the temperature climb extremely rapidly, to the burning point. Soon, your smoke detector is screaming, and your family is coughing.

Just stay put. If the phone rings, or doorbell rings, and your stove is on high, turn the heat off, and handle those other things. It's better to come back to it, and pick up where you left off, rather than leave things a smoking mess. If you are an experienced cook, and are simmering a large pot of food over the lowest heat setting (such as when cooking beans, or making a Chile), feel free to cover the lid of the pot, and set a timer for about 30 minutes or so.

I use the timer in my microwave (press timer, set the amount of time you need it to time, then press timer again). I can then sit down with a book, or surf the internet for a while. I won't watch TV, because the sound of the TV will drown out the sound of the timer. When my timer goes off, I'll check on the food, and keep cooking, or set the timer for a bit longer, and relax. The point is that you don't have to babysit the kitchen the entire time you're cooking, if it's a long, slow-cooking food, but when you're in a hurry, be there to pay attention to what's going on.

3. Use the built in timer for your oven. With the oven, we often forget that it's there, because it's enclosed, and doesn't really make itself known too much. Instead of risking that, just read the manual of your stove, and figure out how to set the timer. If you have lost your manual, type into Google "how to set oven timer for ________" with the brand name of your oven. Something is bound to show up!

4. Clearly label, in BIG letters, your spices. A simple piece of white paper, taped onto the jar, will do the trick. Why? Because sometimes, you can't find your glasses. Sometimes, you're in a rush, and don't look too closely at the white powdered spice (which is baking soda, not powder, or sugar, not salt), and you sprinkle some in, thinking that you'll be fine. The food comes out, and everyone looks confused.

5. Try to keep your spices and sauces in roughly the same place every time. Don't let people take it out of that spot, if you can help it. If you use ketchup in everything, it'll be a good idea to have it in the same spot in your fridge every time you need it, so that you don't have to go searching for it. Similarly, with your other spices, if you keep them in easy reach, you'll remember to use them, and you'll know where to find them. I don't let people take my salt or pepper out of the kitchen. Instead, I measure out enough for that meal, and keep it in a separate container on the table. This way, I won't have to go searching for my salt box the next time I need it. It'll be right there, where it's always sitting.

6. Before flipping on the stove, try to have most of everything waiting for you. That is, if the recipe calls for crushed garlic, a bag of green peas, some Mrs. Dash, and some oil, try to have those things all in one spot, relatively close by. In fact, open the bag of peas, crush the garlic, and have the jar of Mrs. Dash open before flipping on the stove. You'll thank yourself later when you're not fumbling around. These guidelines should give you an insurance policy against mess-ups in the future. It won't prevent them completely, but it'll certainly help avoid major disasters. Trust me when I say that even the most experienced chefs have disasters. We just make it work for us.

Finally, not a question, but thanks so much for imparting all this information and enthusiasm for healthy, natural, delicious, peaceful foods. Much appreciated, and I hope we can do it again sometime.
For sure! This was pretty much what I'm very much suited to, right? Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

24 May 2008

Sauce interview, Pt 4

Awesome, thanks!

I hear you on Mexican food. It's like asking how to make music sound Mexican. Are we talking mariachi, tejano, ranchera, or norteno? I'm also with you on corn tortillas. But not asparagus. :) Thanks also for introducing the versatility of coconut milk into the discussion.

Next set of questions has to do with spices that most U.S. households are likely to have accumulated over the years, for one reason or another, even if no one does much cooking. I want to ask you if you have any simple ideas for using these spices. Again, just to limit the scope, I'd like to focus on vegetables primarily and fruits and grains secondarily, but if there is a "you must know about this" tip you'd like to share that doesn't fit into those categories, don't hold back!

Cayenne pepper or similar
Chile powder
Garlic powder
Onion powder

Not quite as ubiquitous, but still very common:
Bay leaf

We should probably include sauces that are found in most refrigerators, as well, eh?
BBQ sauce
Soy sauce
Szechuan sauce or similar
Tabasco sauce or similar

Let's do it.

Cayenne pepper or similar
Ever seen that lovely film called Chocolat? If not, go rent it now. The next time you make a cup of hot chocolate or coffee, throw in just a pinch of cayenne. You'll never be able to go back to the sickeningly sweet stuff that passes for good hot chocolate nowadays.

Barring that, there is no Chile recipe that would do without at least a pinch of cayenne. You need it for the fiery Southeast Asian cuisines of Thailand. In fact, to be honest, I find that cayenne is just a lovely addition to any sweet-and-sour combo, to offset the sweet. Say for instance, you're starting off with a mess of stir-fry vegetables, right? Suppose you start with some screaming hot peanut oil in a skillet, and add carrots, onions, peppers, bamboo shoots (from the tin; who has time to bother with fresh!?), scallions, sprouts, cabbage, and whatever other vegetable stirs (haha) your imagination. Suppose you add a healthy splash of tamari, or soy sauce. Suppose then, to offset the salty taste, you add in a healthy splash of orange juice. Then, to offset the sweetness, you add a very generous splash of lemon juice. When all is said and done, you're talking basic, yummy, and vibrantly coloured food. However, there are those of us who like a bit of adventure when we're eating stuff that we've probably had before.

Enter the cayenne.

Just a light sprinkle of cayenne, along with some crushed peanuts, will transport your stodgy stir-fry from back-alley fast food into an orgy of flavour. If you can possibly imagine a fiery edge to the next batch of stir-fry you pick up from your local Chinese fast food place (which typically runs on the sweeter and saltier side), you're sure to do like my mother does, and carry a batch of hot chilly powder with you anywhere you go.

Chile powder
There is the spice blend that contains (amongst other spices): cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, coriander, some tiny trace of ground chilly, and other spices. This is usually what I think of when I hear "Chile Powder". It's the stuff you use when making ... well ... a Chile! Starting with about a kilo of onions, a kilo of carrots, and 1/2 kilo of bell peppers, and a head of garlic is the perfect beginning to a good, strong Chile. In the largest pot you have, heat up a few tablespoons of oil. You might need up to 1/4 of a cup of oil. Use a neutral flavoured oil, like Canola, peanut, or safflower oil.

When the oil is hot, add the onions, carrots, peppers, and garlic. Drop down the flame to as medium, and allow the vegetable combination to cook for as long as it takes to get medium brown. You want the onions, garlic, and peppers chopped into a rough chop, and the garlic to be whole (for a milder garlic flavour), or minced (for a stronger garlic flavour). When the whole lot is the colour you desire, pitch in about 1 1/2 kilos of tinned, diced tomatoes, and a good handful of Chile powder. Turn up the heat to as high as it will go, and allow most of the water from the tomato tin to evaporate. Once you're down to about 1/4 of the original liquid from the tin, add a healthy slurp of tequila or dark rum. This step is optional. Add in about 3 kilos of cooked beans (as in, they weigh three kilos when you're done cooking them; start with about 1 1/2 kilos of dry beans to get to this level, or use tinned; both are equally fine). You can use all of one bean, like pinto, black, kidney, or pink beans, or combine them in any way you deem fit. You can omit the liquid from the tin, or add it in. It depends on your preference for how thick you like your Chile.

Let the whole mess come to a full, rolling boil, and let it cook for about 10 more minutes. Add one ounce or so of unsweetened chocolate, or an ounce of cocoa powder (unsweetened). Let the whole lot cook for about 10 more minutes, and eat!

Barring that, Chile powder is wonderful when sprinkled onto yams, yucca, sweet potatoes, squash, eggplant, chickpeas, potatoes, or any other hearty vegetable that you fancy. To prepare, simply mix 1 tablespoon of Chile powder with 1 tablespoon of oil. Toss about 1 pound of your vegetable (or chickpeas, if you're feeling adventurous!) in the spice and oil mixture. Throw it in the microwave for about 10 - 15 minutes, or in the oven at 350º F for about 30 - 45 minutes. If it's a tough veggie, let it cook longer. You now have a quick and delicious entree to dump onto bread, rice, or pasta, or eat by itself.

The reason that apples and cinnamon are a cliche is because the two of them work so well together. Barring that, the next time you make the Chile recipe I mentioned, feel free to pitch in a teaspoon or so of cinnamon with the Chile powder. Also, any time you do sweet potatoes with maple syrup, you have to add a healthy dose of cinnamon for the taste to come out clearly. My morning oatmeal would be incomplete without cinnamon, as would my coffee, and hot chocolate.

Garlic powder
I tend to reserve garlic powder for when I want to punch up a jarred pasta sauce. I'll throw some olive oil into a skillet, throw in the jarred pasta sauce, throw in a few shakes of garlic powder, and let the mess come together in about five minutes. When it's done, I'll dump in the fresh pasta, and the taste is just as if I've been slaving over a hot stove. Additionally, whenever I am sauteeing onions for a recipe, and the recipe doesn't call for garlic, I'll throw some garlic powder into the sautee, to punch up the overall taste. Ditto this on whenever I make a cocoanut cream sauce. I'll start with the traditional roux (1 TB of oil, 1 TB of flour, heat over low heat until light blond, then pitch in 1 cup of cocoanut milk, then add a pinch of nutmeg and garlic powder), and do my magic when the sauce forms.

Onion powder
Ew. Wait, people actually BUY this stuff? Ew. Just. Ew. The flavour is far inferior to garlic powder, and onions are cheap and readily available enough that this travesty of the spice world should really go crawl into some corner and die.

Remember the pasta sauce example? Same here. Throw in some oregano to punch it up. Same with the Chile powder example, where I mention adding 1 TB Chile powder to 1 TB oil? Try throwing in oregano with those veggies. Also, any Chile recipe will be complemented extremely well by oregano. Simply add it with the onions and garlic and peppers. Any recipe that calls for tomatoes will do well with oregano. Any recipe with root vegetables, but not a lot else will do well with oregano. The next time you make corn chowder, try some oregano in it; your tongue will thank you. Any bean recipe will love oregano. Crumble the dry leaves in your palm before you add it to your pot, so that you release the maximum flavour.

Any time I have a sautee going, with onions, garlic, and/or other aromatics (carrots, peppers, etc), I add lots and lots of dried parsley if I have it. Just like oregano, crumble it in your palm before adding it in. Come to think of it, pretty darn near any savoury dish does well with a healthy (and I do mean healthy!) dose of dry parsley. I find that I need about a handful or so for the impact to come through in a pot of food meant for 4 - 6 people.

Not quite as ubiquitous, but still very common:

Always use wherever there are tomatoes present. Use generously in Thai food, or any other recipe which calls for hot ingredients, or creamy ingredients (like cocoanut or cocoanut milk).

Bay leaf
Never let a soup happen without some bay leaf in it. Ever. Bear in mind, however, that bay leaves are not digestible, and need to be removed before you serve the food. Also remember that bay leaves take some serious time to impart their flavours, so use it mainly in long-cooking curries, or soups, rather than quickie foods. Will do extremely well in my Chile recipe, if you add it with the sauteeing aromatics.

Always use cumin in Chile, to punch up the "mexican" flavour. Use with refried beans to /give/ it flavour; often the stuff in the tin or from the restaurant is fairly boring. Use generously with any root vegetable. Use with any Indian dish.

If you have cumin seeds, you are especially lucky. The next time you make a savoury dish, start like the Indians do. In a large pot, heat up a tablespoon or so of oil. Sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds. Wait about 30 seconds or so, and your house will fill with the mouth-watering smell of cumin. The seeds will begin to jump and pop. Add about 2 cups of uncooked, long grain rice (or any other vegetable you feel like cooking). Drop down the heat to medium heat, and gently cook the grains of rice (or vegetable) until you smell a nutty aroma (or until the veggie is browned). Add in about 4 cups of water. Increase the heat to high heat, and allow the water to come to a full, rolling boil. Let the water boil for about two or three minutes. Slam on a tight-fitting lid (or aluminum foil, if you don't have the lid), and decrease the heat to as low as it will go. Set a timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, turn off the heat, and remove the pot from the heat. Allow the rice (or vegetable) to rest for about 10 minutes. Uncover the pot, and dig in! It's fabulous. This same technique can be used to make split pea soup. Just add about 3 cups per cup of water, and skip the browning step.

Cumin has anti-gas properties, which is why Indians use the spice so generously whenever they make cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli), or beans.

To be honest, dill is one of those few herbs that I rarely use when it's dried, because the fresh and dried version are so different, that I tend to avoid the dried. When you have the fresh, it's perfect in salad, and other raw applications. Throw some onto sliced cucumbers, with a dash of lemon, for the best summer treat ever. Combine it with hummos for an unusual flavour combo. Have it with tomatoes, parsley, and lemon, and you'll never want cooked tomato again!

Dry dill, on the other hand, is a lot more sober, and subdued. I'd use it in any application where dry parsley is appropriate.

BBQ sauce
Use for dipping French cut fries, or slices of baked potato or baked sweet potato. Slather onto mature plantain, and bake in the oven for a smoky, sweet treat. Rub onto slices of eggplant, and grill. Use as a marinade for portabello mushrooms, and grill.

Soy sauce/Tamari
Use in place of salt in recipes calling for salt. Switch to Tamari, if you're gluten free. Switch to low sodium, and see if you can really tell that much of a difference (why eat the extra salt if you don't have to!). Combine with various fruit juices, citrus, and/or spices to create your own marinades for various vegetables. When making tomato sauce, use a capful of soy sauce to counteract the tinny flavour of tinned tomato. When making a vegetable stock, add a few shakes to give the stock a much deeper, richer colour. Use for dipping of steamed vegetables.

Szechuan sauce or similar
It reminds me too much of snot to take it seriously. ::shudder::

Tabasco sauce or similar
Sriracha, Tabasco, and other fiery sauces should be on hand for those who like a bit of a kick with their food. Any time you do sweet-and-sour applications, have a touch of heat to offset the cloying sweetness that is so typical of the sweet and sour craze. Always have hot sauce on hand to combine with ketchup (and, in my house, freshly minced raw garlic) for a fabulous dipping sauce for French cut fries, and tater tots. (Yes, tater tots and other fried foods aren't healthy, but if you're having them, you might as well enjoy them, right!?) Add a fiery kick to your Chile by adding a bit of hot sauce at the table, before you dig in to eat. If you're like my husband, you'll like to have it on pretty close to everything.

Coriander powder:
For those who dislike, or are allergic to cumin, coriander powder is an ideal substitute. It's got the same smoky aroma, but a much more subtle flavour.

Sesame Seeds:
I would never let my kitchen exist without sesame seeds. I add them to hot oil before adding my aromatics (when I sautee aromatics). I add them to hot oil along with cumin seeds to release the flavour of both spices into the oil, before cooking vegetables. If I'm making (cooked) garbanzo beans, I /always/ add a good dose of sesame seeds, paprika, and olive oil, before pitching the lot into the oven for 15 minutes (at 350 F). I could never dream of a soup, stew, or bean dish without some bit of sesame seeds. Because they're high in Iron, I don't even feel guilty about the negligible extra fat they add.

As a note, there are three different varieties of sesame seeds. For the purposes I mention here, any of the three will work just fine.

23 May 2008

Prices of rice

I've noticed that the cost of plain white rice is starting to get fairly ugly. I used to be able to get it on sale all the time for about $3 - $5 for a twenty pound bag. Now, I am lucky to get the same bag for $12. In the past, when things like this would happen, I would simply switch to something else. More and more, however, that's becoming a less and less viable option. Beans are up to $1 a pound, or more. Corn tortillas are up to $1.50 per package (the same package that used to cost $0.75). Bread is getting ridiculous, as is wheat flour. Yeast has gone up too.

This worries me, because when stuff like this goes down, it usually signals something nastier in the works, where everyone ends up reamed.

Anyone got a row boat?

Sauce interview, Pt 3

Thanks so much, Dino. Lots of information there! Definitely some stuff I didn't know. Oil is really its own subculture of cooking, is it not? Understand how to use oil and it seems like you're halfway there. [Dino's note: Whether it be oil, water, steam, or dry heat, it's paramount to know the different mediums of cooking. It's why I am so careful to specify which method to use in the recipes on here and in the book: it really does make a difference in the final food. Oil is but one of the cooking media.]

Thanks also for the "start small and gradually increase" recommendation on unfamiliar spices. Now let me get into some more specifics; these may be slightly random. For these next questions, I'm thinking about spices and sauces that easy to find.

First, I'm interested in spices or spice blends and/or off-the-shelf sauces that can be used to produce the flavors below. For simplicity's sake - and to fit in with our recent theme of vegetable - let's concentrate on vegetable dishes, maybe together with rice or other grains, or on a sandwich.

Suppose I want a Mexican feel?
What about Thai?
Down-home or soul food?
Barbecue / smoky?

Second...I'm interested in any favorite spices and sauces you have for the following vegetables. Let's say I'm quickly cooking up some frozen vegetables (nuking, steaming, pan-frying, etc.) as a side dish. It's a busy weeknight and I don't have any time to make anything elaborate, but I want to add a little something from the spice rack or cabinet.

Green Beans (One suggestion from me: A bit of Hoisin sauce. It works great.)

When there are times that you want to have a certain ethnic cuisine, but you can't be arsed to delve into the seedy underbelly of weird ingredients or expensive/time consuming stuff, you will need to guesstimate the experience of such cuisines.

Suppose I want a Mexican feel?
Mexican food is so difficult to classify, because there are so many regional variations, based on distance from the sea, the USA, and mixture of cultures in that particular place. However, there are some baseline foods that really feel Mexican, when you incorporate them into your regular food. For example, if you ever buy a wheat tortilla again (to have a Mexican feel), I will personally come to your door, and smack you with said tortillas. ALWAYS buy 100% corn tortillas. Wheat didn't show up in Mexico until long after the Conquistator oppressors showed up. Until that point, the native Mexcians made tortillas from corn.

Get. Corn. Tortillas.

Instead of lemon juice, use lime juice. Use lots of garlic, onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Use cumin. For example, say you want to have a quickie bean burrito. Open up a tin of black beans. Drain them, and rinse them off lightly. Pitch them into the bowl of a food processor. Add some olive oil, lime juice, and cumin powder. Pulse until everything is ground down to a paste. Chop up an onion, mince a clove of garlic, mince up a chilly (be it poblano, jalapeno, or whatever heat you can take in terms of chilly). Dump the onion, garlic, and chilly into a bowl. Add a generous squeeze of lime juice. Dice up a roma tomato, and pitch that into the bowl as well. Mince up a bunch of cilantro (use parsley if you hate cilantro), and throw that into the bowl as well. Top off the concoction with some ground black pepper, a touch of salt, and about 8 oz of tinned corn (drained, of course). Quickly toast up a corn tortilla. Spread the ground black beans onto the tortilla. Top it with your salad of tomatoes and corn. Fold it in half, and enjoy!

What about Thai?
To someone from Thailand, there is no such thing as too hot or too garlicky. Get used to using lots and lots of heat and garlic.

Say you want a quick curry. In a skillet, heat up some oil. Add a diced onion. Sautee the onion until it's soft. Pitch in as much minced garlic as you can handle. Add some chopped up green beans, some minced ginger, and a healthy dose chopped tomato. When the vegetables are cooked, throw in a few tablespoons of cocoanut milk. Add a generous squeeze of lemon juice, some chopped chilly peppers, and a whole tonne of chopped cilantro. Serve the curry over rice.

Down-home or soul food?
Soul food is concerned with taking cheap ingredients, and making them taste really great. To make some quick collard greens, all you need is a bit of oil, lots of garlic, and some Old Bay seasoning. Chop your collard greens roughly. In the bottom of an enormous pot, heat some oil. Add the greens. Stir the greens around in the hot fat, so that every green is coated in a bit of the fat. When everything is coated, add a generous dose of Old Bay seasoning. Stir the greens around some more to combine them with the seasoning. Add in just enough water so that the first inch or so of the pot is filled. Add the garlic. Cover the lid of the pot, and drop down the heat to as low as it'll go. Let the greens steam for about five to ten minutes. Remove the lid, and stir everything around again. Serve with corn on the cob, a green salad, and some rice. Soul food need not be artery clogging!

Since I've never eaten it before, I'm out of my depth. What worked for me, is to rub on some cocoanut oil on some portabello caps, sprinkle on some Chili powder, and grill them. Friends have raved about it.

I hate asparagus.

Garlic powder, a touch of nutmeg, and cocoanut milk. Combine the spices and cocanut milk. Toss broccoli florets in spice and cocoanut milk blend. Nuke on high for like 10 minutes.

A tonne of parsley, basil, oregano, and dill (all fresh, please). Add some lemon juice, some olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Green Beans
Sautee in olive oil. Add slivered almonds. Pitch in some white wine. Cook until liquid evaporates.

22 May 2008

Sauce interview, Pt 2

Now that the news about your open marriage to Mrs. Dash is out...let me ask these questions next:

- What kind of oil should I use?
- What is sriracha, and can I find it in Nebraska?
- How do I know if I've added enough spice? How do I prevent adding too much?
- If I add more than one spice, do I cut back on the amounts of each one?
- Adding OJ and lemonade is a nice touch! Do any other kinds of juice work? Pineapple? Apricot? Fruit punch?

- What kind of oil should I use?
The midnight oil, damnit! After using some of these techniques, you'll find yourself cooking less, and eating more. This is a good thing. Seriously though. It depends on what you're doing.

Say for example, you're adding garlic, onions, peppers, celery, carrots, or any combination (or any one of those) to cold oil, heating said oil and aromatics in a pan, and then adding other ingredients, you can use any cooking fat. What am I talking about? Frankly, fats have this wonderful way of only doing one thing rather well. For example, olive oil is really good at tasting buttery, and lending such a depth of flavour to whatever you eat. However, it's really bad at getting super duper hot. Try to set your stove on high with olive oil in the skillet, and you'll soon have a face full of smoke, and really nasty smelling living grounds. Instead, with olive oil, you add aromatics (garlic, onions, carrots, celery, etc.) to the cold oil, and set the pot on the heat. The aromatics have water, which prevents the oil from rising too much above the 212F, which is the boiling point of water. Mind you, this isn't a license to set the stuff on the stove and forget about it, but rather a nice insurance policy.

However, there are times when you want to really scorch the bottoms of your vegetables, and get some serious colour going. In these cases, you use an oil that can handle very high heats. Examples are canola, peanut, vegetable, and safflower oil. With these oils, you can set a pot on the stove, crank the heat up to high, add the oil, and add the aromatics, or whatever else to the pot at your (relative) leisure. You still need to act quickly, as you've got about a minute before your kitchen turns into a smoky mess, but the oil will resist the temptation to stay at the neat and pat 212F. Instead, it will aggressively inch towards 500F! The point is that you want to suit the oil to your cooking situation, right? HOWEVER! Don't feel afraid of starting canola, peanut, safflower, etc. oil off cold, with aromatics thrown in.

Starting with cold oil, and cold aromatics, and allowing the two to come to temperature together, is a time-honoured method of withdrawing the maximum of flavour from the aromatics. Also, when you're baking or have everything ready, and you do the spice blend method, you really don't need to worry about which oil you use. Let me handle the first scenario first. Suppose you are feeling infinitely lazy, and need to have a shower before dinner is served. You're smelling quite ribald, and feeling the need for the cleansing waters to relax. Get into your kitchen, and hack up some root vegetables to about the same sized chunks. In a small bowl, combine a couple of tablespoons of oil with your favourite spice blend, and a bit of salt and pepper. Make a loose paste of this. In a large roasting pan, combine the spice-oil mixture with the chopped vegetables. Toss the veggies with the spices and oil to combine everything evenly. Set the oven to 350, the timer to 35 minutes, and get on with your shower. By the time you get back, you'll have the kitchen smelling heavenly, and a large mess of vegetables, waiting to be served over salad greens, or in between two slices of bread. In this case, the oil doesn't matter, because you're mainly using it to be a vector for the spices, and the fact that the oven is slowly roasting your vegetables will keep the oil from burning. Frankly, the controlled temperatures are ideal for any oil.

The second scenario is if you have a quick hand, and everything waiting. Set your large stock pot onto the stove. Crank the heat up to high. Drizzle in whatever oil you choose. Wait about 20 seconds for the oil to heat. Immediately pitch in your aromatics. Because you've got everything waiting, you don't have to worry about the oil getting too hot too quickly. Otherwise, if you aren't that quick in the kitchen, follow the advice I originally gave.

- What is sriracha, and can I find it in Nebraska?
It's one of those delicious fire sauces from Southeast Asia. If you can't find it in Nebraska, never be ashamed of substituting Tabasco, or whatever other hot sauce you fancy. If you don't fancy hot sauce, cheat, and add a touch of black pepper (as much as you can take!) to some ketchup, and call it a night. Nobody has to know.

- How do I know if I've added enough spice? How do I prevent adding too much?
Eyeballing it works for me. If I'm looking at a piece of vegetable in the pot, and each piece has enough spice that about half of it is visible through the veil of spices, I'm good to go. If you've added too much, cheat, and pitch in some cooked pasta, potatoes, rice, or whatever other frozen vegetables you have lying around. To prevent adding too much in the first place, measure out just enough of whatever spice you're adding into the palm of your hand first. If it takes up more than a dime-sized round, you're probably going to end up with too much ... stuff in your food. Err on the side of not enough. Worst comes to it, you can always sautee some more onions and garlic in oil, add additional spices to that pot, and mix it in with the rest of the food. Nobody has to know, and you've avoided the problems of having raw-tasting dried herbs.

- If I add more than one spice, do I cut back on the amounts of each one?
Here's a rule that works for me. When I'm working with an unfamiliar spice, I'll first start with 1/2 teaspoon, and add the rest of the "normal" seasonings. For example, whenever I make a pasta sauce, I add 1 tablespoon of italian seasoning, 2 tablespoons of Mrs. Dash, and 5 cloves of garlic. However, I saw a recipe that used fennel seeds. I'm not sure how it'll work out in the end. Because I'm a bit nervous about a spice like fennel seeds, I'll even cut it back to 1/4 teaspoon, rather than 1/2 teaspoon. Chances are that it'll be so subtle that I won't even notice it (as I tend to make about a 6 lb tin's worth of diced tomatoes of sauce every time I bother to make sauce). If that slight hint is pleasant, I'll try to up the ante the next time. Eventually, I'll find an amount that's close enough to the new recipe to suit my tastes. Sometimes, I end up adding more. Most of the time, I add less than what others like. The point is that because I introduced it gently, I never jarred myself into dislike.

- Adding OJ and lemonade is a nice touch! Do any other kinds of juice work? Pineapple? Apricot? Fruit punch?
YES! Yes! Not so much. Pineapple juice is very easy to incorporate into different foods, because it's got a distinctly tropical feel. Apricot juice tastes of Tradition, and Pomp. It's quite a sophisticated taste. Fruit Punch, however, tastes of ... red. I'm serious. What other flavour can you attribute to Fruit Punch? It's lovely with a hefty shot of vodka, and a splash of lime juice, but otherwise, it's best left to Church picnics, with women who wear tragic parodies of fashions they saw in Better Homes and Gardens. Frankly, I love Better Homes and Gardens, Fruit Punch, Vodka, and Apple Pie, too. However, I do feel that all of those things should be enjoyed in places where they will make the most impact.

21 May 2008

First podcast; new website

First Episode up on the new site.

The lovely people at the Vegan Freak podcast helped me get this site up, and gave me the hosting for the 'cast. The iTunes version will be up if/when it's approved. I have it put up as explicit, just to be on the safe side. Hope you enjoy it!

Interview about sauces and spices.

My friend interviewed me about some quick cook stuff, and I offered to respond to him as best as I could. Here's how it turned out:

Okay, here’s the scenario – I’m an average Joe or Jane. I’m busy and don’t cook. Dinner for me, if it’s not take-out, is something frozen or a sandwich, with maybe a salad and a vegetable to round it out. Cooking’s not my thing, I’ll never be a cook (although never say never), but I’m in a rut. I’m making a few baby steps, like buying varieties of frozen or steam-in-the-bag vegetables beyond my usual five – such as asparagus, cauliflower, and collard greens. I may not be a chef, but I figure I can shake a spice jar or pour sauce out of a bottle. Before we get into details, are there any very general guidelines for which spices and/or bottled sauces to use when? Where do I start? What should I buy? Is it totally individual, or are there certain combinations of spices and sauces and vegetables that work for most people most of the time – maybe I can start there…

Mrs. Dash is my wife. Seriously. OK, maybe I /am/ married to a man. BUT! We're not going to let that get in the way of my flavour profiles! Frankly, the only spice blend I've ever been seriously impressed by in terms of overall flavour, and overall versatility, is Mrs. Dash.

Suppose you have a bag of frozen veg, and you want to seriously add some depth of flavour to it. Start with a small amount of oil in the bottom of a skillet, and heat it up over high heat. Don't even bother thawing out the frozen veg in the microwave. There's honestly no point. When the oil is hot, pitch in as much of the frozen vegetables as you like. LIBERALLY sprinkle on the Mrs. Dash. It doesn't even matter which blend you use! That's how good her stuff is.

No, seriously. I speak from feeding carnivores. Every time I'd use aheavy hand with the Mrs. Dash, everyone would RAVE about the food, and come back for FIFTH helpings! Continue cooking the vegetables for as long as it takes for the ice to be gone, and for the vegetables to be cooked through. If you're in the mood, rub a clove of garlic on a slice of toasted bread, and use that as your starch to accompany your quickie meal.

If you're more of a saucy type, Lee Kum Kee Vegetarian Stir Fry Sauce is an excellent place to start. Start with the hot oil, the frozen veg, and the not bothering to thaw, like you would with the Mrs. Dash. I wonder if Mrs. Dash and Mr. Lee ever talked to each other. It seems to me like the two of them DOMINATE the quickie flavouring department, don't they? I digress.

Slather on about a teaspoon or so of the Vegetarian Stir Fry Sauce into your cooking vegetables. After you've added that sauce, you have a million different combinations to expand the flavour of what you're cooking. If you want a more salty flavour, pitch in a bit of soy sauce. If you want a combo of sweet and salty, pitch in some orange juice. If you want sweet, salty, and hot, do a combo of soy sauce, OJ, and some sriracha or hot sauce of your choice. If you want a sour twang, substitute a bit of lemonade (from the bottle) instead of OJ. I won't tell anyone that you buy lemonade in the carton. Quite frankly, if it ends up netting you a yummy meal, it's nobody's business what you did to get there, right?

That being said, don't feel like you have to follow hard and fast rules with these two Gods of the flavouring arena. Instead, feel free to mix and match the combinations in different ways, until you find something. Worst comes to it, you can always feed the disasters to the dog, and order takeaway.

This was the first part of a multi part interview. I certainly hope that you enjoy the rest of it as it unfolds. :)

Face to Face

For whatever reason, I'm a huge fan of getting things done in person. Last night, our fridge started giving brown water. That was decidedly gross. Ordinarily, most people would have buzzed down the front desk, and asked them to handle it. They would have, and the next morning, someone would have come in to fix the fridge. Instead, because I went downstairs, and joked about how I'm a late riser, it looks like they didn't send anyone yet, which is a good thing, as I had a rough night and couldn't sleep till rather late. Just to be on the safe side, however, I did run down again, and the nice man at the desk said that he'd have someone call me to let me know what's up. Again, that's wonderful. I could have called, but the guy would have been talking to someone else (who was trying to make a delivery at that moment). He appreciated my being there, and politely waiting my turn.

I've noticed this time and again with people that I serve, and who serve me: do things in person if you want them done right. When I'd have those people who would walk the three feet to my desk to ask me for computer help (in my old job), I'd ensure that I'd dash over to their desk immediately, and handle it. Those who sent me emails (and I hate emails, when you have my phone number or can come see me) go sent to the back of the line.

I'm not sure what made me think of this, other than the --

Oh right. When you're out there, and you have friends who question your veganism, don't discuss it over the phone, or via email. Do it in person, after you've cooked for them. I've had the hardest hard core carnivores come over to my side when I've taken them to eat really good vegan food, or when I've cooked it myself. They can never say that all we eat is twigs and tofu, because I've physically shown them differently. It's not like showing a recipe, or a shock video. Having them share that meal with you, in person, as you describe how easy everything was to make will give you the ability to make a lasting impression.

20 May 2008

I am not the illustrious Grammar Girl, but I do know a couple of things about correct punctuation. I've been helping a friend of mine proof read her work, and I'm verging on a meltdown. She doesn't seem to care for traditional punctuation marks. As I'm sure you all know, punctuation marks are meant to provide the reader with clarity about the meaning of a piece. I could launch into the "cute" examples about misplaced punctuation, but I'm not in the mood right now.

Today, I'd like to personally slap the people who abuse the ellipsis. Let's set the record straight before we even begin: an ellipsis is not a substitute for punctuation. If you don't know what mark goes there, don't substitute an ellipsis. Making a piece that's riddled with ellipses is akin to driving with both the gas and brake pedals pressed. You get nowhere fast, and end up pissing everyone else off in the process.

If you really /are/ that scattered in your brain, keep those thoughts in the brain, or leave them in a place where you don't subject the rest of us to it.

19 May 2008

Salad Rant

We were having deep discussions about salad (in a group of friends, of course), when I found myself silently twitching. I hear the poor salad being maligned, because many people have been presented with horrible representatives of it. You can't call all vegetables terrible based on the horrible, overcooked, grey, mushy nonsense you were served as a kid. It's not fair to say that an entire country sucks, based on the actions of a few primo assholes. Similarly, it's unfair to say that you dislike salads, based on the actions of a few misguided people.

First, let's get into what a salad is not:

1. Mayonnaise. Adding mayonnaise to something does not make it a salad. Mayo is a sauce. It's to enhance the flavours of the rest of the food, not overpower them. A salad should taste like the vegetables that you're eating. Instead of using mayo in a salad, the next time, use a bit of balsamic or wine vinegar, and a bit of olive oil. The tastes will be complemented, rather than drowned out.

2. Jello. Whoever thought that suspending fruits or vegetables in Jello is a good idea really needs a firm shaking. I didn't like it as a pregan, and I don't have to eat it anymore, as it contains animal scraps.

3. Limp, watery iceberg lettuce, with a few scraps of what could be vegetables. The only reason to use iceberg lettuce is as a filler for more expensive greens, like arugula (or rocket), watercress, baby spinach, or romaine. If you can't afford too much of the expensive greens (like field greens or the others I just mentioned), feel free to shred up some iceberg, and bulk it up. You'll get the same flavour, but without having to buy so much of it. Don't try to use iceberg by itself. It doesn't have much in the way of nutrition, and it doesn't taste like anything.

4. Raw broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower. Seriously, people. What are you thinking?

A salad should be a celebration of the different tastes, textures, and colours that your food has. That is, it should be so bursting with taste, that you barely need a scant dab of flavouring to make it outstanding. A salad should be a combination of the finest, freshest ingredients you can find, because the bulk of them are going to be raw, and the bulk of them don't have fancy sauces, spices, and other veiling techniques to hide poor quality.

Let me explain. Suppose you bring home a bunch of vegetables. You find that some of them have bad parts, or have become dodgy looking. This is fine, as long as you can cook it well enough (after cutting out the bad parts). When you're done, you can always sneak the final product into a heavier sauce, or gravy, or get it so mixed up into other ingredients, that you never have to notice them standing out. Or, in cases like smooth soups, you puree the whole mess, so nothing has to stand out at all!

With a salad, however, every blemish and shortcoming of the ingredients you buy will come forward.

Another consideration is the size of the vegetables. Everything should be chopped small enough to fit at the end of a salad fork. I haven't seen people offering salad knives in a very long time, and seeing giant pieces of lettuce sticking out of someone's mouth is decidedly disgusting to look at. Similarly, any accompanying vegetables need to be chopped up into relatively small pieces, so that you can get a little bit of everything in one bite. If you're done one with (for example): romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, bean sprouts, and olives, here's what you'd do:

- Slice the cucumbers in half lengthways, then slice it into thin half-moon slices
- Cut the tomato into wedges, then slice the wedges into thin triangular slices
- Grate the carrots and beets
- Remove the pit from the olives. Cut each olive into four or five pieces
- Cut the romaine into 4 long spears lengthways, and then chop it into bite sized pieces

This mode of preparation may take a little longer with chopping, but will be much more kind to your guests. This way, with every bite, they'll be getting a little bit of everything, and won't have to struggle with individual ingredients. Also, because the colours will be so vibrant, you'll not want to disguise everything with a smothering dressing.

Finally, the vegetables you include should require roughly the same amount of chewing. That is, if you're putting in broccoli, you want it at least steamed, so that you don't spend so long chewing the broccoli that it becomes the overwhelming flavour in your mouth. Instead, when you spend equal time chewing each ingredient, the flavours mingle in your mouth, and each has a chance to stand out on its own for a little while. This is why I discourage raw cauliflower and broccoli, or mushrooms (which really suck out the flavours from the surrounding areas). Try to sauté these first before adding to your salad.

The point is that you should try to make your salads so interesting and varied that you feel like eating it. We all should be eating more fresh vegetables anyway, and a salad is the perfect way to get it in there. Try to make it so that when you (or others) are eating it, you have an easy time of it. Soon, you'll look forward to salad!

Are you a hoarder?

Do you have trouble getting rid of random, useless junk? Do you often find yourself vying for space with broken, useless, or irrelevant stuff? Does your desk resemble the fallout from a nuclear war?

I slowly see the creeping, clawing caresses of the stuff starting to take over my house. I valiantly struggle to purge things for which I haven't found a use, but even so, I find myself wondering why I'm holding on to some things that I don't use on a regular basis. Does anyone else hold onto things for those once-in-a-while projects?

My Achilles' heel on this count is kitchen gadgets. I have a bread machine and crock pot. Now, for one thing, I have excellent bakeries all over the city that make excellent vegan bread. I also have the corner store that sells vegan rye fairly cheaply, and Steve and I both love it. And yet, there is a bread machine that my mother gave me when she came to visit from CT. I have used it, but not that often. It's so cheap to get bread that I don't think it's worth the aggravation of making it.

Mind you, even when I do make bread, I have recipes that involve no kneading. I also have recipes that don't even involve yeast (like banana bread, or soda bread), which means that the bread machine is useless. Come to think of it, although the smell was lovely, it's a LOT of space to take up in a New York apartment for something I'm not using regularly. And yet, because I know that I will use it, I don't feel right in getting rid of it.

Ditto this on my crock pot. I cook most of my beans on the stove, because I haven't been able to afford the long-cooking ones, like chick peas ever since I moved here. Even in bulk, they're over $1 a pound, and I'm not willing to spend that. So instead of relying on the crock pot for my beans, I'm perfectly content to throw it on the stove, and have food ready in an hour. And yet, it's still here, isn't it?

Compound this with the extra clothes I never wear, the books I don't read (ever since I discovered the library, audio books, and librivox books), and spices I don't use daily. Ditto this on pots I don't use, and plates I don't use (I prefer to eat in bowls). When you look at the sum total of stuff I don't use regularly, it doesn't add up to much. When you spread it out over a New York apartment, on the other hand, it does.

What /is/ it about stuff that makes us cling so hard to it? It can't strictly be the utility, because not everything we hold onto is useful. It shouldn't necessarily be sentimental, because we have video recording, audio recording, and digital cameras at the touch of a button. Why, even my computer has a camera built in! When you really think about it, that "stuff" is holding you back from actually enjoying your life.

My concession has been to relegate the non-essentials to places where I don't see them regularly. My bread machine is tucked away in a cabinet I never look in, because it's too out of my way. My crock pot is in the bottom of the pantry closet. Those dishes I'm not using every day have now become tucked away in another cupboard I don't use a lot. When/if I entertain a lot of people here, I'll pull them out, and go to town. Until then, they can hang out away from my direct line of sight.

My mother is going through the grand purge right now. She's got over 15 years worth of junk piled up, and no place to store it. She and my sister (and their respective husbands) are all about to move to Arizona. This means that they can't take everything, because they're not driving all that way. Everything must go. If they don't get it to people who can use it, they'll have to throw it away, which to someone who can't bear to part with /anything/, is tantamount to torture.

I quietly fear getting to that level, where I can't bear to throw away something that is of no use to me. I remind myself daily that it's very easy to fall victim to those "let me just get a backup of that thing," or "I can still use ______ part!" When my rice cooker finally gave out, I got rid of the whole thing. I could have kept the pot, and the lid. Instead, in the interest of "I'm getting a new one anyway," we got rid of it as a full set. Let someone else enjoy that piece, and clutter up their place.

As for me, I have more useless stuff to buy.

18 May 2008

Vegetable Peeler

The basic vegetable peeler is the unsung hero of the kitchen. For starters, it's often relegated to solely peeling vegetables. For another, people often buy/get the cheapest ones they can find, and then complain that it's not doing its job. A good vegetable peeler should be sharp. The reason for a having a very sharp peeler is so that the peeler doesn't slip. Instead, you want it to power through the skins smoothly and easily.

The blade should sit fairly snugly inside the housing. You don't want one that's flapping in the wind, because it'll tend to break quickly, and also tend to slip a lot. You want one with blades that are sharp all the way inside, so that you can use it left handed, right handed, peeling away from you, and peeling towards you. You want to go for one with a comfortable grip, so that when you're peeling stacks of vegetables, your hands don't get tired. This is especially important if you are prone to muscle fatigue in your hands, are working in a professional kitchen, or have arthritis.

Most of all, if you have more than one person in your family, you might consider investing in more than one peeler. They're not too terribly expensive, and it's nice to have multiple people helping you in the kitchen at the same time.

I'm sure you've noticed by now that your peeler is a multitasking tool. It does more than peel vegetables.

When you want those really super duper thin slices of cucumber, nothing beats a vegetable peeler. Same with carrots, onions, squashes, etc. Same with when you want very thin slices of firm fleshed fruit, like honeydew, cantaloupe, or apples. Definitely good for getting super thin slices of root vegetables, like poatotes, beets, parsnips, radishes, and others like those. Wrap your vegetable peeler up in something, and take it with you when you travel. This way, you can pop into a grocery store, grab some veggies, some dressing, and maybe some nuts or other salad toppers, and you'll have a salad wherever you go! No need to pack a knife, which is bulky, and threatening.

Think about it: you're stuck in a middle of nowhere town. The hotel has nothing for you that looks palatable. You run to the grocery store (and in some cases, convenience store), snag whatever raw veggies you want, and then process them down with your peeler. This goes double for when you're doing a road trip, and have limited space in your car. Why take up space with bulky food that'll go spoiled? Isn't it easier to throw together a salad, wherein the grocery store is storing the food at a crisp, cold, fresh temperature, than have one pre cut? Think of how much you spend on a salad at a restaurant or store. Think of how much more you'd be getting if you're willing to invest just a little bit of time. This is ideal, because you don't need a cutting board or other tools. Everything fits in your hand.

Your vegetable peeler is also perfect for shaving very thin slivers of chocolate. You'll never get it thin enough with a knife. Although you may like it, it's probably best if you keep the chocolate consumption to a reasonable level. Use your peeler, and you'll be fine!

Finally, as the days go by, you'll start finding uses for your peeler that you hadn't considered before. Have fun with it! The other day, I made very long slices of cucumber with my peeler, and used those slices to wrap up little pieces of avocado, carrot, and a bit of rice. It was like having my own home made sushi without buying the sushi mat, the expensive ingredients like nori, and taking time to compress it down or whatever.

The point is that it's sometimes fun to see where a particular tool can take you, and run with it!

Not goin' anywhere this weekend, beans and rice

So we were supposed to head out to DC this weekend. Suffice it to say, it wasn't in the stars. Instead, we stayed in. This is fine by me, but for the fact that all our friends can't seem to hang with us either, for lack of it being in the stars. Flat out nobody is able to get to us! This is madness!

To make up for not going to DC, I made Puppy a bunch of fried food, including samosa, and Lelly's deep fried Venn Pongal. Basically, she took a recipe from my book that she had leftovers of, and figured out how to deep fry it. I borrowed the idea, and it worked out great!

In most of the great food cultures of the world, I've seen some combination of legume/pulse/bean and rice. It's not only because it's cheap, but also because it's filling, and plentiful year round. It's easy to find dried beans and rice (unless you're talking about recently, with the crazy food riots!) anywhere in the world you go, and it's relatively simple to cook up a pot. In its most basic form, it starts with any form of soaked bean you have. You then season said beans, and cook them over low heat. When they're 3/4 of the way cooked through, you add 2 times the amount of rice. You let the beans and rice cook together, until both are very tender.

It's not supposed to be firm, because it's food that the whole family, from young children whose teeth are still growing in, to the elderly, whose teeth are on their way out! In our house, we can power through a pot of this comforting thing as fast as I can make it, so it's not usually a problem of "using up" leftovers. In other homes, however, where other foods are more par for the course, you try to figure out ways to use the leftovers, so that your family doesn't mutiny on you.

What I did is take the leftover Venn Pongal, and combine it with freshly sliced and chopped up onions, a teensy bit of tomato, and lots of garlic powder, sesame seeds, and ground black pepper. I amped up the salt a bit (because you expect fried food to be a bit salty). I then picked up my potato masher, and gave the mixture a good mashing. As I mashed, I started to incorporate rice flour. You can use chickpea flour or bread crumbs instead if you want to.

I kept mashing and adding rice flour until it became a relatively firm dough. It was still damp to the touch, but it was firm. I finished it off with a generous sprinkling of grits, and gave it a final mash. This was to mix up the textures a bit. The grits aren't required, but they sure are nice!

Finally, I made them into patties, and poked a hole in the centre. This would keep the little cakes crispy all the way through. I made the patties ahead of time, so that they'd have time to rest and set up a bit. Finally, I deep fried them. I imagine you could do them in the oven, with a bit of cooking spray. I just wanted to deep fry, so deep fry I did!

They came out wonderfully, and taste great by themselves, or with some ketchup.

17 May 2008

Lazy, I don't have everything Rasam

We tried to make it to DC last night. No luck. It was raining, we headed out too late, and were queued up at the wrong bus. There comes a point where you just say, "Forget it. It's not in the stars." Rather than spend even more money than I had already thrown into the trip, I just decided that we should go home. It was raining fiercely.

By the time we got home, we were both drenched to the bone, and cold, and fairly miserable.

I wanted hot soup, and I wanted it quickly. I didn't want to wait to wait for split peas to boil for a full on, proper rasam. Enter, the lazy, I can't be bothered Rasam. A traditional rasam is every South Indian's idea of the ultimate in perfect food. It's hot, it's spicy, it's got your pulses/lentils/beans, and is eaten with rice. You eat it when you're feeling sick, in the winter if it gets cold, in the rainy season when you're drenched to the bone, and even in the summer, when the increased sweating helps cool the body down. We even drink it like a tea!

So you can imagine what I was craving when I got home after that fiasco. Enter, lazy rasam.

I started with the standard mustard seeds, asafoetida, and oil. Then I pitched in some tomato puree. I let it come up to the boil. I added a generous dose of rasam spice. Then in went a lot of fresh ground pepper. Add water, and let it boil for another few minutes. Fifteen minutes later, it was done to a turn.

I finished it off with a bit of tamarind concentrate that was dissolved in water. It wasn't perfectly the same, but was so startlingly close that it really hit the spot.

14 May 2008

Fire Pickles

Vegetable Pickles

2 lbs daikon radish, sliced
1 1/2 lbs carrots, sliced
6 thai bird chilly peppers, whole
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups vinegar (I use apple cider)
1 TB coriander seeds, lightly crushed
1 TB whole mustard seeds
1 scant tsp whole fennel seeds
1 TB whole pepper corns (optional)
3 tsp salt (less if you prefer less salt)

In a pot, boil the water, and add the salt and spices. When the salt dissolves, turn the heat to low, and add the vinegar. Let the water and vinegar come up to a simmer, and let it simmer for four minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the sliced vegetables and chilly peppers to the vinegar mixture. Let it sit in the pot until it's room temperature. Transfer to a plastic or glass container. Place in the fridge. Eat after it's matured (roughly 3 - 5 days, depending on how thin you slice the veg).

I like my pickles to be fiery hot, so omit the chilly peppers or pepper corns as needed. I also like my pickles to be good and salty. You can cut back on the salt as you wish.

Favourite quick fix meals.

When I'm feeling unmotivated to cook, I turn to my quick-fix meals. These are things like baked potatoes, or rice and _______ that are enough to fill me up until I feel like cooking, or will tide me over till the next meal. Today was too gorgeous to spend indoors, so I had to come up with something that'd fill me up after my romp outdoors. Enter Pasta and Beans.

This is one of those dishes that is perfect for everyone. I love it because it's easy. Steve loves it because it's tasty. Moms love it because they're able to sneak in vegetables and proteins that their kids might otherwise fuss about. It's also great for those who love garlic (lots of it) and those who don't (easy to pick out!). 

Pasta and Beans
1 lb pasta (short shapes preferable to long strands)
1 lb tinned tomato (preferably diced; you can use whole if you grind them as mentioned)
1 lb tinned beans, washed and drained (I like black beans; use any kind you like)
1 lb frozen veg of choice (run cold water over them to thaw quickly) [optional]
1 medium onion, diced [optional]
3 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole [optional]
1 - 3 TB olive oil
1 - 3 TB Italian seasoning, or your favourite seasoning blend [optional]
The skin should come off in one swoop. Leave the garlic whole. While the water boils,open up the tins of tomato, beans, and the package of frozen vegetables. Set the vegetables in a colander, and run cold water over them. Mince the onions. Grind the tomatoes with a hand blender, food processor, mini chopper, or blender. This will speed up the cooking process later. You may skip this step if you'd like. If you want to speed things up, and you only have whole tomatoes, just crush them with your hands. 

In a large, shallow skillet, pour in the olive oil. If you're watching your calories, use a nonstick skillet, and wipe the skillet with just a scant amount of olive oil. If you don't mind the extra fat, use the extra olive oil. It'll make up for the flavour of using tinned tomatoes and the like. Add the onions while the skillet is still cold. When the onions start to sizzle, add the Italian seasoning and garlic. Cook the onions and garlic until they're just soft. Add the thawed frozen vegetables. 

By now, the water should be boiling. Generously salt the water, and add the pasta. If you have it, squirt in a bit of bottled lemon juice to prevent the pasta sticking. Stir the pasta around. When the water starts boiling again, give the vegetables in the sauce skillet a quick stir. 

When the vegetables are just cooked through, add the drained beans. Stir the beans through the vegetables, and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes. Drop down the heat to low. Let the sauce simmer until the pasta is cooked. When the pasta is cooked, drain out the water, and mix the sauce through. Eat!

You can actually leave out the tomato if you don't like it, and you'll still have a very beautiful dish. I just really love tomato, which is why I add it. I sometimes use the method of "hide it in something they're bound to like" to introduce my friends to vegetables they haven't tried before. Later, when I mention it, I can casually say, "Oh, that vegetable was in that one dish!" and they're surprised that they liked it. 

Happy sneaky cooking!

13 May 2008

Does your food match your moods?

Do you ever notice how you tend to gravitate towards certain foods, depending on how you're feeling? What do you tend to eat to celebrate? To comfort yourself? To make you feel better when you're sick? To lift your mood when you're sad or depressed? What are the things you eat at a party? What about when you're gossiping with friends? What do you eat when you gather as a family? 

I find that certain foods always remind me of specific situations. For example, if I'm feeling sad, I'll gravitate towards large quantities of water. I think it's because I can't really bring myself to have anything more substantial. Alcohol won't do, because it'll irritate my stomach, and I don't want to feel sick and sad! Chocolate is a definite no, because it's yucky. 

There. I said it. I don't really care for chocolate. 

I can't eat anything soupy either, because I have to concentrate. So, if you ask my mother or someone close to me what I do when I'm feeling a generalised sense of malaise, they'll respond that I grab a large jug, fill it with water, and sit around drinking glass after glass of water, while I do other things to distract myself. Come to think of it, I also turn to water in large quantities when I'm very upset, or angry. I need that cool, sloshing liquid to clear my mouth, because it often gets dried out when I experience those acute emotions that I don't like to have. 

To celebrate, I tend to go towards foods that, in my mind, embody sharing. That is, if I'm going out with groups of friends (and anyone who's gone out to eat with me will tell you this), I'll tend to do the ordering, and grab a bunch of little nibbles. Then, as a group, we all share those little nibbles, and try a bit of everything. We keep doing this until everyone is feeling full. I don't like the "get your own thing and eat it" method, because it feels so isolated. 

There's this delightful restaurant in Midtown, called Hangawi. When you enter, you must remove your shoes at the door, and walk towards sunken seats. You sit, and the waiters provide you with outstanding service the whole time. 

Whenever I go here with friends of any shape, I make sure that we all get something different (unless it's our drinks; we don't ahre those!), starting with the appetisers. Sometimes, I'll even just do the ordering myself, and everyone takes from the main plate. By the end of the meal, we'll have gone through something like five or ten dishes, and everyone has tried a bit of everything. The whole time, we're rapidly chattering on about the food, about "you HAVE to try this!" and carrying on about the rest of our nonsense as usual. The major good thing about this method is that if you find something that you in particular dislike, someone else will probably like it more, and will really dig in. If it's something that everyone dislikes, you'll have confirmation, and multiple opinions when requesting that the waiter take it back. Most of all, however, nobody has the chance to be isolated, and everyone is highly social.

Those foods tend to be appetiser foods, and fried foods. The more fried, the easier it is to share. You don't feel quite so guilty when you split a plate of fried food with others, because you're not eating it all! 

I tend to be happy when the weather is clear, and the sun is shining, and there's a light breeze flowing. When I'm happy, I gravitate towards fresh, raw food. I like the vegetables to be bursting with flavours and wonderful aromas. When I slice into a tomato, I want the scent to leap into my nose, and drag me face-first into its bouquet. When I cut into the onion, I want the sharp sting to make my cry out. When I slice the cucumber, I want to smell the slight bitterness, a bit of grass, and the crisp, cold rivers. When I'm happy, I love having fresh vegetable sandwiches, where the juices of the vegetables fill my mouth, and dance on my tongue. I like salads, loaded with colour and flavour and texture. Just a light splash of lime or lemon juice, and a bit of salt is more than enough to make those salads and sandwiches heaven on earth. No dressings for me, thank you!

If I'm feeling sick, the first thing I hit up is Rasam. It's the one thing that will drag me out of any sickness I'm having within the shortest time possible. It's a blend of spices, tamarind, tomato, cilantro, and a little bit of legume (I use yellow split peas). Ever since Steve and I have been together, it's been his preferred sicky food as well. Barring that, I also like mooshy comfort foods, like pongal (rice cooked with split peas), gallopinto (rice cooked with beans), pasta with cream sauce, and others of that ilk. It's not a common thing to eat those fattier ones, like the pasta, but pongal and/or gallopinto is a definite staple. 

When I'm feeling in the mood for something decadent, I go towards very fatty foods, like smashed potatoes with cocoanut bechamel (make a roux with flour and oil, add cocoanut milk, add a scraping of nutmeg), macaroni and cream sauce, pilaf with saffron and three kinds of nuts (slivered almonds, pistachios, cashews), or something along those lines. Those things aren't hard to make, but the fat content, or ingredients just makes me feel like I'm on top of the world. 

When I'm with my girlfriends, and the gossip chain is in full swing, there is a requirement that there be either soda, or alcohol. Be it cocktails or cola, water simply doesn't cut it. Something about water just makes the gossip freeze in your throat. The popping of the bubbles on your tongue just lubricates the gossip into moving faster. The alcohol loosens your tongue to wag faster. In combination, the two harmonise to keep the conversation moving rapid-fire. Food is strictly optional, because it's hard to tell a juicy story while you're chewing. If any food is present, it's something you can finish off in one bite or less, and doesn't require much chewing. Hummus and pita, bajji, pakora, spring rolls, sushi, and other such nibbles are perfect. 

My mother and I try to reconnect as often as possible. Since she's so far from me, we do so on the phone. We can go for hours about nothing and everything, only pausing for breath once in a while. On those occasions, only water will do. Frankly, with my mother, the diversions and random tangents need a fair bit of attention, and require that you be up to par, or you'll get lost half way to your train of thought. 

I don't know what brought this musing on. I suppose that it's because I wasn't feeling too hot this morning (glug, glug, glug the water), but as soon as the sun came up, my mood lifted considerably (fresh vegetable sandwich). What about you? 

12 May 2008

Speaking of bulk ...

I also do something else that helps me quickly label and identify what my stuff is. When I go to the stores that sell bulk grains, spices, and other staples, I'm always left with the convenient stickers that they put onto the plastic bags from the stores. Once I get home, I have a lot of containers that are not clear, but are perfectly large enough to hold the spices. I immediately jumped on the idea of simply taking off that wonderful sticker (which carries both the product name, and the price that I paid for it!), and slapping it onto my container! 

This way, when I go back to the stores, to check the price, I'll know at which store I bought the product, and the amount of money that I paid for it. It's highly handy for those of us who like to think we paid less than we did. It certainly keeps me honest! 

It's a decidedly disgusting day today. The wind is out in full force, and the rain is pattering away steadily. When will this weather ever look up again!? Yesterday was fairly nice, but turned rather cold, rather quickly. Then this morning, we all wake up, and see that it's a soupy mass outside. 

The one bright point was earlier today. I was looking out my window (my bedroom has huge windows, and gives me a lovely view of Midtown and the East River). There's this lovely little walkway that leads you along the East River. On sunny days, the trees that line the walkway shade you. On rainy days, however, the middle of that walkway creates lovely little puddles for you to splash. I watched an older gentleman pick up a long stick, and shake up the water in a particularly hefty puddle. He was laughing his head off! Soon after, I learned the reason for his mirth: a tiny little person, wearing a yellow slicker, and cute little red galoshes. It was so cute to watch those two play in the puddles! Both of them were dressed in such sunny, happy colours, and were laughing and being so happy that I couldn't help but smile. 

11 May 2008

Spice Organisation

Directly to the left of my stove, there is a small drawer, which I think most people would use as a drawer for silverware, serving spoons, or generalised junk. I use it to store my commonly used spices! I got the idea to do this from the restaurant, where the spices are stored in large glass mason jars. I, however, don't like that setup, because those weird canning lids keep falling out of the ring when you open the jar. Also, if you drop one, it's a recipe for disaster. Finally, I don't need a container that large. And of course, a container that large would neither fit in my cupboards, nor would it fit in my drawer. 

I do, however, have quite a few of those deli containers. They're ubiquitous in any restaurant, and I'm sure you've all got quite a few of those lying around. Whenever I go to the store to buy spices, I buy them in bulk (about 1 - 5 lbs at a time). This means that they come in clear plastic bags, which are fine to transport the spices from the store to your house, but are utterly useless to store in your cabinet or drawer. Enter the deli containers. They're about 8 oz (mine are, anyway), and stand just tall enough to fit neatly into my drawer.

The lids are clear, so I can see what the spice is without having to open anything. Having a bird-eye view of all your most commonly used spices is a very handy thing. My mother has a masala dabba, which works just fine for her. I'd like one eventually, but I don't think it's as efficient as my method. I'm sure you can see that the masala dabba is basically a stainless steel container that's round, with a series of small (open) cups in it. My mother's doesn't have a clear lid, but some of the newer ones do. Unfortunately, the top is open. This means that when spices spill out, they're going to mingle with each other. You seriously want to avoid this, especially in cases like fenugreek or urad daal, where the spices are only meant to be used in specific applications so that they get cooked properly. 

I can fit almost all of the spices that I use in this little drawer, and I can keep the larger bags in less easily accessible storage, or in the freezer, depending on how much of that spice I have lying around. This frees up the cupboard just above the counter space next to my stove for spices that came in those fancy containers from the stores. These I don't mind having in the cupboard, because they're clear, clearly labelled, and are too tall to keep anywhere else. This is where you'll find my salt, pepper grinder (hint to all those out there who like to get me gifts: I'm seriously eyeing the Unicorn Magnum salt grinder), my tall jars of spices, and other tall stuff. This way, when I'm cooking, I just roll open my drawer, and pull out the spices I need. A quick open of the box lid, and I'm ready to roll.

When I want to use the box for a different spice, I just rinse it out with warm, soapy water, and let it air dry. 

I hope this gives you inspiration to get your spices organised in a way that works for you. Whether it be a masala dabba, Lazy Susan (and I hate those, because they don't let you see everything at once), stadium seating in your cupboard, or my method, having organised spices is what keeps things flowing smoothly while cooking. It also encourages you to improvise when you want to. If you see all the spices, you're more likely to use them! 

10 May 2008

When food gets burned ...

As I say over and over again, "If I can do it, you can." This goes double for burning food, and other such accidents of the kitchen. There are times when I'm using my vegetable peeler on a mango (instead of a paring knife, as I'm accustomed to), and I'll take a slice off of my index finger. There are other times, when I forget to set the timer on the rice on the stove (because my rice cooker recently broke down), and it'll turn into a burned mess on the bottom. Instead of the timer beeping, the smoke alarm does, and I'm left with a house full of smoke. 

Those are my most disheartening moments, because I'll have a pot of food that's ostensibly ready to eat, but half of which will have to be thrown out. With the prices of rice and beans the way they are nowadays, I can't exactly afford to call the whole pot a bust, and call it a night. So, because I'm dealing with this now, I figured I'd address the issue of burned dishes, and maybe help someone else in rehabilitating their dinners as well.

1. Don't leave anything on the stove over high heat unattended. This is a VERY important rule that I forgot once (and only once, because the resulting fire caused some pretty bad smoke damage to the kitchen). If you are about to leave the kitchen, and you're making a dish that requires very little cooking time, turn off the stove. The residual heat will probably help the food to cook completely. If you're making something that takes a longer time to cook, like rice or beans, only leave the pot alone if it's over low heat AND you've set a timer that you can easily hear. If you're cooking pasta, which takes under ten minutes to cook, stay put in the kitchen the whole time, because a lot can happen in a couple of minutes. 

2. Set timers whenever you put something on the heat that you're not directly looking at. For example, when something goes in the oven, you're not actively looking at it. Rather than relying on the time on the clock (which you can forget), set the timer that comes with the oven. If you don't have a timer on the oven, buy one of those digital kitchen timers, and clip it to your own belt. What's the good of having it sit in the kitchen, if you can't hear it! The point is that when you set a timer, you know (at the very least) to check up on that pot or dish in the oven.

In the restaurant, we set timers for everything, be it on the stove or in the oven. This way, if someone in the kitchen hears a timer beeping like mad, they know to ask the last person who was in the kitchen, "Hey! What's the deal with the timer?" This is useful in your home, if you get everyone used to keeping an ear open for the timer. This way, if you had to rush to go to the washroom, take an important phone call, or answer the door, and get caught chatting with your friends, someone will let you know that there's a timer screaming, and that someone needs to do something about it. 

Again, if you're alone, keep the timer on your person, so that no matter where you go in your house, you'll hear it.

3. Stick to lower heats, and longer cooking times, so that even if there is a little burning due to negligence, it won't be the whole entire pot, but rather just a little bit. This means that when you set something on low heat, the total heat in the pot will only get so high before hitting a plateau. If it's on higher heat, however, it has the chance to escalate and ruin your food and dishes (dishes often get warped when used over high heat repeatedly). 

So, suppose you do have one of those moments, and you end up burning the food.

If it's rice, you can wait until the whole mass cools off, then un-mould it from its cooking container. Often, it'll come out in one solid mass. You'll be able to slice off the burned part, and salvage the rest. If it's beans or some other liquid, like a tomato sauce, decant the unburned portions. DO NOT use a ladle or other serving spoon to remove the food from the container, as the serving spoon will agitate, and turn loose the burned parts. When you've got the food into a new container, set a few slices of stale bread over the top of the surface, and cover the lid of the new container. Let it sit that way for thirty minutes or so. The excess burned smell should be absorbed into the bread, which you can then discard.

If it's still tasting a little burned, feel free to use spices in the final product that are enhanced by their own natural smoky flavour, such as coriander powder, Chile powder, Cholula Hot Sauce, cumin powder, or curry powder. Let the food come up to a quick boil over medium high heat, and let it cook for about five minutes or so. The new flavours will complement the final dish, and you might end up being able to gently mask the burned taste. 

Of course, if the whole entire thing is a burned cinder, there's not much you can do to salvage the food.

To remove the burned from the bottom of your pots:

1. Initially scrape off as much as you can with the serving spoon of your choice. Also, get the rest of the pot as clean as you can, so that you can visually isolate the places where the charcoal has built up on the bottom of your pot.

2. Give the whole pot a good rinse in hot, soapy water. This will often loosen up any stray grease or other piled on stains sitting around, so that you can see where the burned spots are.

3. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the crispy parts. 

4. For each litre of water, add 1/4 cup baking soda. 

5. Set the pot on the stove, and turn the heat onto high heat. 

6. Let the water come to a full, rolling boil.

7. Boil the water for ten to fifteen minutes. 

8. Remove the pot from the heat, and let it soak for 1 hour or so.

Most of the burned part should come right off at this point. Repeat this process a few times, until you have your old pot back.

I know that it can be traumatic to have burned something on the stove, but it's an important step in learning your own limits in the kitchen. Once you do burn something, you have the opportunity to have a much clearer understanding of how your stove, pots, and food works in your kitchen. Use that knowledge to prevent accidents in the future, and I'm sure you'll continue to learn as we all do. 

09 May 2008

Pasta and Soup

There seems like nothing more natural than a good strong soup with some pasta in there to round it out. Here's a couple of tips to make it work.

1. Depending on how you'd like the final product to come out, adjust the water accordingly. If you want the soup to shrink down around the pasta, and form a thick gravy like thing, with the soup ingredients almost ending up as a loose, rich sauce around the pasta, go with about 1 1/2 litres of water per 250 grams of pasta. If you want the pasta to float in the soup, however, amp up the water considerably, because the starches liberated from the surface of the pasta will make the whole thing decidedly more thick.

2. Only use whole wheat pasta. Do /not/ try to use regular white pasta in a soup, because it does not have enough structural integrity to stand up to a long cook (and subsequent soak) in that much liquid. Whole wheat pasta, on the other hand, pretty much won't fall apart. It'll be fine.

3. If you're not serving it immediately, cook the pasta a little on the under-done side. The longer it sits, the more it cooks, and soaks up water. This is why I suggest using whole wheat pasta, because the water won't absorb as well. In other words, try to serve it immediately, but feel free to undercook it if you need to let it park for a bit.

By the by, I generally do not take such a risk, as cooking pasta in soup, where it'll fall apart eventually, but I had some whole wheat pasta (which I ordinarily strongly dislike, but my mother had dropped some off for me), a bunch of soup, and some serious hunger pangs. I didn't have time to bother with rice, which would have taken closer to 20 minutes, so I decided to experiment. If I am combining pasta and soup, I tend to cook the pasta, toss it in a bit of oil and salt and pepper, and serve it on the side with the soup, so that people can combine it in their own bowls to their own liking.