26 January 2011


I found this recipe on Vegweb for Tofu Sour Cream (which, for the record, came out delicious), involving really simple ingredients: tofu, fresh lemon juice (and it did make a difference using fresh), olive oil, salt. The recipe called for sweetener, but nuts to that. I hate sweetener. Also, vinegar. Meh. Don't really care about vinegar. If I'm adding lemon anyway, I'll stick with lemon, and not have to add another ingredient to keep track of.

However, when reading the comments for the recipe, I wanted to slap my forehead repeatedly. Various folk tried to use /frozen/ tofu.


Clearly, they'd never worked with the stuff before, and weren't aware that when you freeze tofu, it gets a very spongy texture. There are some Chinese dishes that take advantage of this property, and they're lovely (not my thing personally, but I know people who like that extra chewy texture). But when you're blending tofu in a processor or grinder of some sort, you're meant to use the stuff direct from the box.

And I thought /I/ had it hard with writing recipes! For someone who has worked with tofu before, it's very obvious that no amount of grinding is going to get frozen tofu into a soft fluffy cream like you'd get with fresh tofu (the fresher the better, come to think of it). For someone who's never touched the stuff, however, there are bound to be pitfalls. This is why I love VegWeb so much: there's various people who reply to the recipe with their experience, and you can learn from it by reading the comments. It's become my go-to source for when I'm trying something that I haven't made before.

Cutting board

While we're on the subject, let's talk cutting boards. I'm not going to ask you to go out and spend a fortune on them. I have one large one that I bought in a store for like $17. This is one of those things that takes a little more work to get your hands on for cheap, but again, it's well worth it.

I was in Florida at the time, and at a friend's house. He had a beautiful kitchen. Viking range, gorgeous marble counter tops, one of those huge sinks that you can easily wash a large stock pot in with no trouble at all, and enormous windows to let in the heavenly Florida sunshine. He even had the Henckles knives that I'd been eyeing at the store!

And then I saw his cutting boards. They were glass. Glass with pretty patterns on.


Having any kind of knife, cruddy or otherwise, and using a glass cutting board, your counter tops, or a hard plastic cutting boards (yes, they're not /as bad/ as glass, but they're pretty up there) is like seeing a really hot guy at a cocktail party, and then having him turn around to see that his face looks like he fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

Aside from the annoying loud tapping noise that happens every time the knife hits the glass cutting board (and the gut-wrenching feeling that you're going to shatter the thing), you're wrecking your knife. This goes for using the counter to cut on. Or a plate. I think I just imagined my own personal hell: a person using a small tiny paring knife to cut up a mountain of vegetables, doing it on a ceramic plate that's sat atop a glass cutting board. Also, it's a plate from a tea cup and plate dealie, so there's no flat surface. Also, the cutting board is 1 inch square. Oh. And there's a giant knife block behind the person, with actual knives in.

Anyone who likes to cook will likely be cringing right now.

Let me explain a couple of things, and hopefully it will all make sense in the end. A cutting board is for a couple of things. First and foremost, it protects your knives from getting damaged. When your knife constantly is hitting hard surfaces (counter top, glass cutting board, dinner plate, etc.), the pointy tip that makes the edge is slamming against a surface that it's not meant to encounter, and over a very short time, the knife's edge warps, bends, or even shatters (in tiny little places; it's not instantly noticeable). A cutting board will also protect your counter top. Finally, a decent sized cutting board means that you're not dirtying up a million little bowls and such while you're cooking.

I know you've seen the shows on TV or the Internet where everything is neatly placed into bowls, which the chef tips into the cooking vessel. The reason they do it this way is that on TV, you want the ingredients to be in stark enough contrast to each other that you can easily identify them. Realistically, you'll notice that folk who have a large cutting board will tend to use it as a space to park the prepped veggies.

Suppose I'm making a potato soup. I set the pot on the stove over medium heat, and quickly chop an onion. If I'm making a bit more, I chop two. It shouldn't take me but a minute or two. By the time the onions are chopped, the pot is pre-heated. I heave the onions into the pot, and throw in a teaspoon or so of oil, and stir everything around. I drop down the heat to medium low, and let the onions simmer away. While that's going, I peel and chop my potatoes. For two people, I'll use two to three potatoes. For each additional person, I'll add an extra potato. Point is that while I'm chopping the potatoes, I want space enough for the potatoes to hang out while I finish the job of chopping them. Were I to have one of those dainty little cutting boards, I'd need to find a bowl where the potatoes can park. With my large cutting board, I keep everything in one place, and it's easy enough to lift the whole do, and carry it over to the stove when the veg are ready to go in.

This goes double for when I'm making more complex things, like vegetable soups, where your aromatics alone end up being three to five ingredients (onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bell peppers, etc etc), to say nothing of the veg to follow. Again, I want a place for all the different veggies to hang out so that I'm not constantly bumbling around, looking for containers for everything.

What material should you get?

Whatever you can afford that's not glass or hard plastic or marble. Stick with wood, or plastic. Try to avoid one with ridges around the side, because it makes sliding vegetables from the board to the sink a pain in the butt. Instead, try to get one that's completely flat. Trawl your local department stores for sales on them.

If you insist on getting one of those horrible flexible cutting boards, please use them as sort of liners for your larger cutting board. They're too thin to protect your knives. The first cutting board I bought was plastic. That was three years ago, and I'm still using it quite happily to this day. It's about 1/2 inch thick, and very large. I've got plenty of space for whatever I'm prepping. Later, I bought a small wooden one to supplement the plastic one, because I found myself wanting to wash just the little guy when chopping just one small onion, or one clove of garlic. For anything more than that, I pull out the big dog.

Make sure your cutting board is, at the very least, the size of a standard sized sheet of paper. Get one (initially) that's relatively cheap, so that you're not worried about damaging it with repeated use. Anywhere between $10 - $30 is a reasonable amount to spend on one, because you will use it so frequently. This one is about the size of a cookie sheet, and is around $11. Even if you live in a small apartment, get a decent sized cutting board. It's worth the space.

Life will be good.

25 January 2011

Small hands, big knives

What is it about folk with those tiny little knives? I understand that some people have small hands, and it’s easier for them to wield a smaller knife, but there comes a point when you’ll need more than a paring knife to do the job. Mind you, the cook him/herself will make the food work regardless of what tools there are to work with. I’ve seen some perfectly lovely spreads of food created by people who are working with a tiny little paring knife, no cutting board (they’re cutting on the counter instead), and plenty of care and attention to detail.

However, these people also tend to take a rather long time to get the cutting finished, because each little piece of food must be chopped inidividually, rather than en masse. If you’re not a fan of those enormous 10 inch, 8 inch, or even 7 inch chef’s knives that weigh a half ton, and cost the same as your mortgage payment, you can still snag a pretty nice Kuhn Rikon knife from the Amazons for about $20. Those things are wicked sharp, and stay sharp for a good long time. I had mine about a year before having to sharpen it. Best part is that it’s got a non stick surface, so when you’re chopping vegetables, they tend not to stick to the blade.

If you have a bit more money to spend, consider getting your hands on a ceramic knife. They’re also on the small side, and weigh as much as a postage stamp (or at least the ones I’ve used are). It’s a little awkward for me, because my hands are large. I’m typing this on a 12” iBook G4, and my hands dwarf the keyboard/bottom of the computer. For me, the 8 inch to 10 inch steel chef’s knife is ideal. For someone with smaller hands, however, the ceramic knives are an excellent option.

The only thing you have to watch for with ceramic knives is that they’re brittle, meaning that they’ll snap in half. You don’t want to do too terribly much banging and bashing of a ceramic knife.

If for no other reason than you’re going to have a faster time of it, get yourself a decent knife, and get a cutting board. The difference is noticeable, as the students in the classes I teach will let you know. Trying a nice knife exactly once (and I don’t mean the $100+ ones, I’m talking about the Kuhn Rikon ones) is enough to convince you that it’s worth the small investment.

20 January 2011

Midweek Feast

As many of you know, I try to do at least one during-the-work-week dinner that's a little more elaborate than the usual brown rice and vegetables, or brown rice and beans. It takes a bit longer (last night took about 1 1/2 hours), but it's worth it to me to break things up, and keep us both motivated to eat at home every night. The amount of money I'd have spent on one meal (about $15) I spent on enough food to feed me and Puppy for that night, and quite a few nights to come. The most expensive part was the Korean seasoned nori. That was about $1.25 for each 5-pack.

14 January 2011

Update on the book

So there we go. In other words, the current issue has been cancelled from the sellers, and will be re-listed. I'd say wait up until you see the whites of the pages, then go forward.
Hello Dino,

I hope you're having a good holiday season and that the weather isn't keeping you down. We've been slammed in New England, but I heard New York was spared, at least in this last storm.

We've had an issue, that I hope you view as minor, with the release date of Alternative Vegan. Due to the continued delays we've experienced and the way of the publishing world we've had to cancel and re-list Alternative Vegan. Our distributor who handles all of our sales to the book selling world left us with no option but to follow this path. Due to the delays the pre-orders for the book were lost and the likely hood of the title being picked up by most bookshops doesn't look good when that occurs.

What this means is that instead of the book coming out in the next month or two we've had to re-list it for the start of Fall 2011. That's the official release time period. However, the title will be finished on the same schedule we planned to complete it in which will help a great deal in the end with some of the oddities of the publishing world. We'll be able to recoup the pre-orders and get the title into the hands of reviewers who won't usually review late titles, or even titles released on time, if they don't have the book in hand a month or two in advance of its release.

Overall it's a positive development, though we were hoping to have the book released sooner than later.

I hope this makes sense and isn't too upsetting. If you have any questions please let me know.

Take care,

10 January 2011


The problem is that you have to have the feel of the thing for it to work properly. The consistency of the batter is adjusted at the last minute, so that it's not having too much water in. The other problem is that I mostly eyeball it, because I've made it so many times, so my measurements may or may not match what you've heard others say. I use short grain brown rice, because I like the flavour/colour of it better when it cooks up. You mileage may vary.

If you think you dislike brown rice, you can use parboiled rice, which is more traditional in India. Just bump up the urad daal by another 1/2 cup. It's not that I use brown rice for health reasons. I deep fry things, thank you very much. It's that the flavour is (to me) far superior to white or parboiled rice. My sister and her husband flew in from India, and had dosa all the time. To tell me that mine is excellent is a pretty ringing endorsement.

To make it easy on me, I use the measuring cup that came with my rice cooker. I do four "cups" of brown rice, and wash it once. You don't want to wash off any of the natural/wild bacteria or yeast on the surface of the rice. Soak it for twelve hours in cold water. The next day, soak 1/4 "cup" (I like a lot of fenugreek, but it will make your dosas slightly bitter; feel free to scale back if you think you'll dislike it) of fenugreek seeds in water for 1 hour. Then, soak 1 "cup" urad daal in water for 30 minutes. The urad daal doesn't need very much soaking. When my mum bought a dosa grinder, the recipe that came with it suggested that she only soak the urad daal for a short time. So far, it's been working great.

SEPARATELY grind the urad daal, fenugreek, and rice, until it's very finely ground. Use the smallest amount of water humanly possible to lubricate. It's best if you use the soaking liquid. Here's the method I do. I strain out the soaking liquid for the urad daal, and set it aside. I add the soaked urad daal to the blender, and start it on low speed, along with about 1/4 of the liquid, to get it going. Once it's chopped up fairly well, I crank up the speed to high, and pour in more soaking liquid, as needed. When it's ground to a fine paste, I stop the machine, and dip my finger into it. I rub the dough between my fingers to ensure that there's no grit left. If there's no grit, I pour it out into a mixing bowl, and grind the fenugreek seeds the same way.

Once the fenugreek and urad daal are ground, I add the rice, 1 "cup" at a time, to the blender, along with 1/4 "cup" of the soaking liquid. Start it on low speed, and get the rice grains chopped up. Once they're good and chopped up, add a bit more water, and increase the speed to high. Keep adding water as needed, occasionally stopping the blender to scrape down the sides. Again, try to use the smallest amount of water you can possibly do. It's vitally important to grind down the rice very finely. Otherwise, your dosa will be gross. Also, the reason I'm asking you to grind the rice in such small batches is because you want the rice to get thoroughly ground, without overworking your motor. If you have a vita mix, feel free to use two to three "cups" of rice at once. It can handle it.

As you finish grinding the rice, pour it in with the ground urad daal and ground fenugreek. Finally, at the last batch, grind the rice along with a generous pinch of salt. Why? You want the dosa batter to ferment a bit, and it will, like a sourdough. Because of the fenugreek seeds and urad daal, you'll have a good fair bit of wild yeast in there, and it'll get nice and sour. The pinch of salt keeps the yeast from over-multiplying, and making your batter taste off. You don't want very much, because you don't want to kill the yeast. Just a nice pinch should do it.

Using a wire whisk, thoroughly mix together the ground rice, ground urad, and ground fenugreek. Cover with a kitchen towel, and let it rise in a warm~ish location. If it's cold out, feel free to wrap it in a few thick terry cloth towels, and set it near your radiator. If you don't have a radiator, preheat your oven to as low as it'll go, and turn off the heat. Wait about 1 minute, and put the mixing bowl in there. It'll rise just fine now.

Let it rise while you're off at work. If you time this just so, you can soak the batter before you sleep, grind the batter the next morning (budget at least an hour if you don't have a powerful blender, like a vita mix), and let it rise while you're at work. Anywhere from 8 - 10 hours later, your dosa batter will have puffed to double the size. It'll smell very like sourdough, and make you hungry. Don't cook it yet.

For the best results, I give everything a very good stir, and put it into the fridge overnight, to let the rice and the rest fully rehydrate. I don't know why, but for whatever reason, that final park in the fridge just makes it work. When I don't park it in the fridge overnight, it tends to make a mess of my pans, and not turn out properly.

The next morning, pull about 1 1/2 cups of dosa batter, and add just enough water so that it's like a crepe batter. Whisk it with the extra water very well. The dosa batter will keep for a good week or two. I'm not sure exactly how long it'll keep, because we tend to go through it in a couple of days. Cook up your dosa, and enjoy with salt, vegetables, or coconut chatni. :)

UPDATE: As of late, I've been making smaller batches of dosa batter at home. To make sure that my tiny little blender can handle it, I sprout the brown rice, which seems to make it softer. To sprout brown rice, wash it once under hot tap water. Soak it in more hot tap water, covered, in a place where it won't be disturbed. The next morning, drain off the water, and rinse the rice under lots of cold running water. Place the drained, washed brown rice into a tupperware container, and put it into your fridge for one more day. It will be perfectly softened 24 hours after you drain and rinse it.

Once you have sprouted your brown rice, you can also cook it much more quickly than if you used raw brown rice. In my rice cooker, I can set sprouted brown rice for "white rice" setting, and it cooks to perfection.

08 January 2011

Coconut Rice

It's one of those dishes that I keep under my hat, because I know that it's a crowd-pleaser, and I know that I can generally sort it out in a few minutes or so. I'm going into a bit of detail, because it can be intimidating for folk who haven't done it before, but it is certainly simple enough to make.

So, here goes nothing. These are the amounts I used. You can use more or less, depending on what you've got. I didn't have fresh coconut, because the stores are only carrying really bad quality stuff, so I used frozen in this case, because it was easy enough to find. It also means that you're not worrying about having to open up the coconut. I used nonstick, because it would mean that I can use a bit less oil (although I don’t know why I bothered, because I’m adding coconut and peanuts, both of which have a considerable amount of fat in them).

Substitutions: If you don’t have asafoetida (I use LG Compounded Asafoetida), leave it out. It won’t hurt anything. If you don’t have the urad daal (also, you should be using the hulled, white, split urad daal, and not the whole one with the skin on), leave it out. The peanuts will do the job. Curry leaves are another one where it’s strictly there for if you have it. If you don’t, don’t stress about it. Those three ingredients cannot be substituted, but they can be comfortably left out. It will still be delicious in the end. The sesame seed is there, because I can’t easily get my hands on the sesame oil that I’d be using to cook with in South India. I find that adding the sesame seed to the spice mix gives a nice flavour, gives a boost of iron, and has a nice colour in there too. Use white hulled sesame seeds.

This makes a fairly large batch, but it freezes well.

Don’t use brown rice. It won’t taste right. At home, Steve and I eat only brown rice, except for when I make something special like coconut rice, tomato rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, or any of the other South Indian spiced rice dishes. We don’t eat them frequently, because they’re not really that nutritionally strong. It’s best to keep these sorts of dishes for those times when you have nothing else in the fridge.

6 cups basmati or jasmine or long grain white rice
2 TB peanut, canola, or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed (brown, black, or yellow; just don’t use powdered or prepared mustard)
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed (powder is not acceptable)
1 teaspoon urad daal (optional)
1/2 teaspoon white hulled sesame seed
2 big pinches asafoetida
1/2 cup raw peanuts (preferably with skin), cashews, or other nut of your choice
1 - 3 stalks curry leaves (you can add up to 1/3 cup of curry leaves with no problem)
3 - 6 green thai bird chiles, sliced into rounds (omit if you don’t like it spicy)
1 - 3 TB grated fresh ginger
1 cup grated coconut (frozen is fine. If you’re using unsweetened coconut flakes, cut it back to 1/3 cup)
Salt to taste

Cook the basmati rice in whichever method you’d use to cook rice. I use my rice cooker, but you can use a pot if you’re comfortable with it. When the rice is cooked, DO NOT OPEN THE LID. Let it sit in the covered pot for about five minutes to finish the last stages of cooking. If you remove the rice from the cooking vessel as soon as it’s done, you’ll end up with undercooked rice. If you’re doing this one the stove, simply remove the pot from the burner, and set it on your counter. If you’re using a rice cooker, unplug it from the wall, and let your rice sit, undisturbed WITHOUT OPENING THE LID, for about ten to fifteen minutes.

While the rice is having its rest and relaxation time, start up a skillet over medium high heat. You want the heat to get hot, else the mustard seeds will never get cooked. While your skillet is pre-heating, get your spices (mustard see, cumin seed, urad daal, sesame seed, asafoetida, peanuts) in order, so that you don’t end up burning your spices. Start by pouring the oil into the skillet. A small wisp of smoke should come off the surface of the oil. If a lot of smoke comes off, you’re working with something other than peanut, canola, or vegetable oil. There’s a reason I specified.

Once your oil is smoking a little, start off with the mustard seed. Wait about 30 - 45 seconds, while the mustard seeds splutter and pop. Once you hear the seeds pop, lift the skillet off of the stove for a few seconds, until you hear the popping subside. Replace the skillet over the stove. If you hear the popping begin again in earnest, pull the skillet back off the heat for a bit, and let the mustard seeds continue to pop. The reason you do this is because the difference between burned spices and just cooked spices is a razor-sharp margin. It’s best to err on the side of caution, rather than burning your spices.

Yes, it’s normal for the seeds to end up all over your stove. The flavour is well worth it.

Once the popping of the mustard seeds has subsided (when the skillet is over the flame), add the cumin seeds. They will pop much more quickly; about 15 - 25 seconds should suffice. Add the urad daal, sesame seeds, and asafoetida. IMMEDIATELY pull the skillet off the heat, because the sesame seeds are violent little buggers, and will start popping at a much lower heat than the other spices. You’ll also notice the urad daal turning from white to a medium brown colour. As soon as the urad daal is cooked, and the sesame seeds aren’t popping so violently, add the peanuts to cool down the skillet. If you're using dried chile, or chile flakes, add it with the peanuts. Dried chile needs to cook in fat for the flavour to come through strongly.

Drop down your heat to medium low, and toss the peanuts in the spices and oil, so that they’re coated. Turn down the heat to low, and put the lid onto the skillet. Let them toast for about two minutes, then open the lid, and toss the peanuts in the spices again. Continue to alternate stirring and covering the peanuts until they’re lightly toasted. You’ll notice that the round part of the peanuts will get a darker toasty colour, while the rest of the nut is only slightly darker than before. This is perfectly fine.

Add the curry leaves when the peanuts are cooked. Stir to combine. Add a few big pinches of salt, to your liking. Stir through the chiles and ginger, and cook for an additional minute or two. The ginger tends to make everything want to stick to the pan, even if you're using nonstick, so you don't want to add the ginger any sooner than you absolutely need to.

Finally, add the coconut, and turn off the heat. Toss to coat, until the coconut gets lightly cooked. If you’re using frozen or dried coconut, turn the heat back on to medium low, and toast lightly until the coconut is light brown. I find that to bring out the strong coconut taste that the dried and frozen coconut lack, you need to give them a bit more time to cook, so that they really stand out a bit. Fresh coconut, on the other hand, needs no help at all. It is the superstar of the dish, and you just need to barely warm it through.

By the time your spice/coconut mix is finished, your rice is done resting. Take the skillet off the heat, and set it aside. If you’re nervous to have the spice mix done in time (because you’re using frozen coconut, or dried coconut, and you’ll need additional time to cook it), feel free to make the spice/coconut mix while the rice cooks.

Now, open the lid of the rice cooker. A steamy puff of fragrant aroma should rise up from the rice, and greet you. Please don’t be tempted to stick your face near the rice. It’s still piping hot, and having steam burns on your face, because you wanted to smell it closer isn’t going to help anyone.

Using a rubber spatula (heat resistant is best), gently pull the rice out of the rice pot. Pile it onto a cookie sheet, and gently (ever so gently) pat it down with the spatula so that it’s one layer high. Pour on the spice/coconut/oil mixture over the rice, until it’s fairly evenly spread out. Set it in front of a fan, or open window, or use a paper fan, or do whatever it takes to cool the rice down to room temp. If you try to mix the rice and spices when the rice is still piping hot, you’ll end up with broken rice, and a mushy mess. Ugh. Be patient, and it’ll pay off. Then, when the rice is cool enough to touch, use your hands to very gently toss the rice with the spices. Be gentle, so that you don’t break up the super long grains of basmati rice.

Eat it as is, or with Indian pickle, or as a side dish to another meal.


My mother saw the blog entry, and sent me an email:

greatly detailed.i cant imagine anyone having any doubts but then i'm a lifetime cook and cant think like a novice.you can add some chopped fresh cilantro to the coconut mix at the end if there is no curry leaves.try it sometime.ive had it and it tastes really good.
maybe you can mention while cooking rice its a good idea to try to cook it so it falls apart and not mushy.did you leave the ginger out on purpose or you dont use ginger.
love you

D'oh! I forgot the ginger. I'll go back and edit that in now. Also, I forgot to mention when you add the chiles. It should be fixed now. Thanks, Amma!

07 January 2011

Easy kombu dashi

So I was googling around on how to sort out a kombu broth for miso soup. Turns out that all you have to do is soak the kombu in water overnight, and you're set. So I actually tried it. I broke off what I thought was a tiny piece of the kombu kelp, and put it in about 1 1/2 litres of water overnight. The next morning, the thing had grown to fill the container!

I guess I didn't need quite so much. Next time, I'll cut it in half.

Another suggestion I read was to throw in a shiitake mushroom (dried) along with the kombu, and let the lot sit overnight. If you do try this suggestion, please make sure you wash it well. Otherwise you'll end up with a fair bit of grit in the bottom of the container. This goes for the kombu as well. Wash that thing under cold running water, to wash off the excess salt, and clear off any grit that's on the surface.

The point is that the next morning, all I had to do was to heat up the broth, add a tablespoon of miso paste, some sliced scallion (1 stalk), and 1/4 cube of tofu (cut into tiny tiny cubes--it was so cute!), and a touch of salt (I like things salty), and all was right with the world. I always have a pot of piping hot rice, because my rice cooker keeps the rice hot for three days without drying it out. It made a lovely breakfast.

What's even better is some enoki mushrooms put into the bottom of your soup bowl. They cook when you pour the hot miso soup over it.

The Japanese are definitely on to something. On a cold morning like today, when the snow is falling in fat flurries, there are few things as comforting as a bowl of piping hot miso soup, a bit of brown rice, and a couple of nice condiments to round out the meal nicely. It's also super quick to sort out, and fairly filling.

Difficulty of writing a recipe

Please read this real quickly.

If you don't feel like clicking, I'll copy paste a bit from it.

The recipes aren't very specific as well. Some dishes will require 2 large tomatoes, chopped. Yet what is large to one person can be small to another. I would have preferred a direct measurement like 3 cups chopped tomatoes. Some dishes will call for 2 to 3 green chilis. Well, what kind of green chilis? Serrano? Jalapeno? Poblano? Bell peppers? We overcooked our mangoes into a mushy mess on our first attempt because the recipe required simmering in water, but how much water?

Also, the recipes do not specify exact serving amounts rendered, for example the fishcake recipe simply states "Serves 4". Ok, but how many fishcakes does it make? 4? 6? 8? We ended up with 12 fishcakes from a doubled recipe. Somehow the math didn't add up. There is a definite assumption with this cookbook that one is a somewhat experienced cook and/or familiar with Indian cooking.

My friend Chuck is a rather accomplished cook. I remember when he first started his journey, and he could knock up a rather nice pizza dough, and put various toppings on for a lovely dinner. Unfortunately, he hadn't ventured out too far from said pizza dough. Then he blossomed overnight somehow, and recently shared pictures of his bread baking adventures, many of which made me want to book a flight to Alabama, and schlep the however many hours it takes to get to his particular small town. Why do I mention Chuck? Because to him, the book seemed a fine book, and one that made plenty of sense for my way of thinking: get a few good pantry staples, combine them with a few fresh ingredients, and sort out dinner in 20 minutes or so.

Unfortunately, for those folk who are unfamiliar with cooking in general, or that particular cuisine, such things are not so simple. One needs to be highly specific. While writing my book, I had to learn that lesson the hard way, because what I assume to be the norm is anything but. I recall asking someone to use a tin of chickpeas. In my brain, it was the 16 oz tin, which holds about two cups (give or take) of beans. In her mind, it was the one double that size, because that's what she buys all the time.

And, as the reviewer mentioned, "two large" isn't as specific as "two large tomatoes (roughly the size of your fist)", or even better "two large tomatoes, which yield about 1 1/2 cups of chopped tomato", so that you know that you're working with similar quantities. If the exact amount doesn't really matter much, then /say/ so. "I'm calling for ___________ amount of onions, but if you have more or less, it won't hurt anything" would be a useful thing to mention. Come to think of it, I wish I did mention those guidelines in future, so that people who are unfamiliar with the recipe feel confident to try it. I think I'll do that in the future when it comes up.

Another thing she mentioned is that they couldn't find some of the ingredients, and had to make replacements. I know that in mine, I gave instructions on replacing ingredients. I guess it's one of those things that you have to specify, or someone will try to substitute something that won't work, or substitute in places where you can't, and disaster ensues.

I find that reading the reviews on cookery books is enlightening, and helps me to learn to tighten up my own work. Thank you, review writer. You're a star for being so specific in your feedback.

EDIT: PS. I'd most likely consider the book to be quite entertaining, much like Chuck did, because I /am/ familiar with Indian cooking, and its nuances. I don't know about being an accomplished cook, but I do know my way around a spice pantry.

06 January 2011

Red Lentils

Red lentils are like this magical bean. Why? They cook in about twenty minutes or so, and you don't need to soak them. They're also loaded with fibre, protein, and a respectable bit of iron. They’re also fairly low in calories (around 170 if you start with 1/4 cup of dry red lentils, which is a decent serving portion). And they /cook in 20 minutes or so, without soaking/. Please keep that in mind.

This means that during those weeknights that you’re running late, there’s really no excuse to call for delivery of bad junk food (or, for that matter, good junk food; it all costs a fortune). I live up in Washington Heights/Inwood, where vegan options in restaurants are fairly limited. It’s why when we do order delivery, it’s from this Chinese place that does every kind of mock meat you could think of, and then some. The food is not greasy at all, and when you ask for tofu, they don’t mess about. They give you some serious tofu load.

However, dinner for two can easily run $20. Ouch. Throw in tax and tip, and you’re talking around $25. Mind you, they’re extremely nice people. When I call up, the lady knows that I’m going to ask for vegan food, and knows my address. This year, however, I have resolved to stock my pantry with staples that I can whip up in a hurry, even if I’m running a bit late from work (since I work at Chow, it takes about 45 minutes, door to door, to get home).

I always have garlic and onions in the house. This is non-negotiable. In the rare times that I don’t, the bodega downstairs carries it. Even though it’s four flights of stairs down, I can deal with it. I also always have a few kilos of red lentils in my cupboard. Why? Because there are many a time when I get home, and am too tired to really do any cooking, but I don’t want to call in for delivery and spend a fortune.

Most places that you go, you can get red lentils for anywhere between $1 and $2 per pound, depending on which neighbourhood you buy from. If I’m in Jackson Heights, or in certain areas of Brookyln that cater to Middle Eastern folk, I can snag red lentils for around a dollar a pound, give or take. Anywhere else, and you’ll be veering towards the two dollar per pound range.

At the end of the day, however, it’s well worth the expense. If you’re looking to feed six people, you can easily do it for under $10 with red lentils on your side. A pound of decent onions should run you about $0.50, if you’re not shopping in the really expensive stores. Garlic is pretty cheap too. A tin of diced tomatoes would be about (if you’re spending a lot) $1. A pound of the red lentils (max) would be $2. All said and done, you haven’t even broken a fiver. Snag some bread, and you’re out another $2, give or take. If you’re in the mood, grab a lemon, some lettuce, a cucumber, and a bit of parsley, cilantro, or whatever other fresh herb you like. All told, you’ve got a good fair bit of food.

Combine the cucumber (sliced), lettuce (washed and shredded), herbs (washed, and chopped fine) together in a large bowl. Smash a clove of garlic, and mince it up finely. Add the juice and zest of the lemon to the garlic. Sprinkle on a bit of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a lovely low fat dressing.

Take a nonstick pot, and throw in a few drops of oil. Add a diced onion, a few cloves of smashed garlic (don’t bother chopping them; the flavour will be more mild) and cook over medium high heat until the garlic and onions are softened. You don’t need to bother browning them, because that takes too long. Throw in your red lentils, tomatoes, and just enough water to come up about half an index finger’s length above the red lentils. Set it to cook over medium high heat with a lid on, until it comes to the boil. Drop the heat to medium low, and clean up after yourself. If you rub the bread with a clove of garlic, then drizzle on a few drops of oil to the outside, then toast it under the broiler for 30 seconds to a minute (just before serving), you’ll get a lovely garlicky bread.

Once the red lentil stew does come to a boil, set a timer for 20 minutes. Then go off and relax for a bit, while dinner comes together. By the time the red lentils are cooked, you’d have had time for a quick freshen up in the washroom, and a bit of time to clear off your table.

Taste your red lentils to check for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as necessary. Remember that tinned tomatoes have a bit of salt in them already, so it’s best to wait for it to finish cooking before fussing with any more salt.

This is also a good base from which to build different soups. It takes up other aromatics (that you’d add with the garlic and onion) with the greatest of ease. Peppers, chiles, celery, carrots, whatever you have. When the lentils are cooked, you can add any variety of frozen or fresh vegetables you have. The point is that it’s very easy to put together, and should be one of the first things you really get comfortable with cooking, because it’s so forgiving. That’s the reason I didn’t provide specific amounts: you’re meant to customise this to your needs and liking.