Curry of Another Color

Glowing like a vibrant stoplight on the table, each bowlful of curry distinguishes itself with a visual warning, much like the markings of poisonous animals send out a visual alarm to all those who cross their paths. Stay away, or else, admonish the unworldly hues, seemingly more insistent and threatening when found in the boldest shades. For curry, quite the contrary, those alarm bells seem to be silent, and in fact beckon to gustatory fire-starters with their distinctive complexions. From the more mellow Indian yellow madras, the deceptively gentle browns of massaman, to the full spectrum of more fiery stews from Thailand in brilliant greens and reds, at least we only have ourselves to blame when our palates are set ablaze. The cautionary colors were all plain to see.

What then, if you came across a curry of another color, an entirely different beast altogether? Would the potential culinary danger be daunting, or a delicious challenge to face?

All hints of heat are hidden within that murky stew, concealed by a cloak of impenetrable darkness. Fresh vegetables light the way, promising a healthy and satisfying meal, but all other bets are off the table.

Darkened not by some flavorless edible dyes, but by the rich, pungent cloves of black garlic, this new breed balances out heat with a molasses-like sweetness, earthiness, and smoky character. All of that darkness conceals bright, bold pops of citrus and herbaceous cilantro, a stark but compelling contrast to those initial base notes.

Once you make the paste, you have this umami bomb ready at your finger tips for many more almost instant meals to come. Just freeze the leftovers in ice cub trays and store in zip-top bags when solid. Pop one or two out when you’re ready to eat, and toss in any of your favorite vegetables to round out the dish. Consider the following recipe a guideline to fill out to your own taste- and, of course, spice tolerance.

Black Curry Paste

1/2 Cup Fresh Cilantro, Lightly Packed
2 Stalks Fresh Lemongrass, Peeled Chopped
14 Makrut Lime Leaves
4 Cloves Raw Garlic
1 1/2 Bulbs Black Garlic
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Roughly Chopped
4 – 6 Thai Bird’s Eye Chiles, Stemmed
3-Inches Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Roughly Chopped
1 Lime, Zested and Juiced
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Cup Avocado, Peanut, or Olive Oil
1/4 – 1/3 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Stock

To make curry paste, simply toss the cilantro, lemongrass, both types of garlic, onion, chiles, ginger, and lime into your food processor. Pulse to combine and begin breaking down the more fibrous vegetables. Slowly drizzle in the oil, followed by 1/4 cup of the stock. Puree, pausing to scrape down the sides periodically, until the paste is very smooth. Add more stock if needed to keep the blades spinning, and be patient. It could take as long as 10 minutes of processing to plow through all that lemongrass.

Use right away or freeze for more long term storage. It’s perfect for enlivening soups and stews, of course, but also stir-fries, salad dressings, veggie burger patties, cornbread, and more.

Makes About 1 Cup Curry Paste

Black Curry:

1/4 Cup Black Curry Paste
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
1 14-Ounce Can No Salt Added Black Beans, Undrained
1/4 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Stock
3 – 4 Cups Mixed Vegetables (I used yellow squash, green beans, mushrooms and carrots)
Fresh Cilantro
Roasted, Unsalted Peanuts, Roughly Chopped
Rice or Noodles, to Serve

To make a simple black curry, stir the curry paste, tomato paste, and black beans together. The liquid in the can will help create a thick, rich sauce, so don’t even think of dumping it out! Heat the mixture, along with the stock and your vegetables of choice in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and the stew is highly aromatic. Top with fresh cilantro and peanuts, and serve alongside hot rice or noodles to complete the meal.

Makes 2 – 3 Servings

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Welcome to the Dark Side

Maybe the most ardent shoppers are still shaking off crushing food comas from the previous night’s excess, but I’m ready to call it early: Black Friday has lost all credibility. Gone are the lines snaking through parking lots, populated by die-hard bargain hunters setting up camp up to a day in advance. 3 AM wake up calls are almost entirely a thing of the past, owing to advanced Thanksgiving day openings, if they didn’t simply leave those automatic glass doors yawning wide open all night long. Most notably on the list of offenses, however, is the fact that it’s not even a single day anymore. How can you call it Black Friday when the big ticket, door buster deals hit a week ago, if not earlier? Perhaps it’s just my heart that’s gone black this year, but I’m officially burned out on this buying and selling insanity.

No, on second thought, I take it back. It’s more than just my black heart speaking, it’s also the black stew percolating on the stove that’s keeping me away from the celebration of consumerism this afternoon.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of darkness, especially when it comes primarily in the form of rich, nutty tahini paste. Quite the rarity despite the popularity of standard blonde sesame butter, black tahini is in a category all its own. I was lucky enough to score a jar while visiting the Living Tree Community Foods offices here in the east bay, and have been somewhat obsessed with it ever since. If you thought almond butter toast was pretty snappy, just try switching up your schmear tactics and taste the difference for yourself. A subtly bitter edge offsets its sticky decadence, lending a far more nuanced flavor profile than one might expect from this silky-smooth, raw puree.

Not to throw shade on Black Friday, but it only wishes it was half as dark as this hearty concoction of black lentils, black beans, black cocoa, and of course, black tahini. Get a healthier fix this “holiday” and save your dollars for the important things that really matter… Like more sesame paste to prepare a second round, perhaps?

Blackout Sesame Chili

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 (14.5-Ounce) Can Diced Tomatoes
1 (6-Ounce) Can Tomato Paste
1 1/2 Cups Dry Black Beluga Lentils
1 (16-Ounce) Can Stout Beer
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/4 Cup Maple Syrup
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
2 Tablespoons Black Cocoa Powder
2 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Chipotle Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/2 Cup Black Tahini
2 (15.5-Ounce) Cans Black Beans, Rinsed and Drained
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1 Teaspoon Salt

To Garnish (optional):

1 Cup Vegan Sour Cream
3 – 4 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/4 Cup Toasted Black Sesame Seeds

Place a large stock pot over medium heat and add in the oil. Once shimmer, add the onion and garlic, sauteing until lightly browned and aromatic; about 6 – 8 minutes. Introduce the diced tomatoes and tomato paste next, working the paste into the scant liquid to break it down into a smooth mixture. Next, incorporate the lentils, beer, vegetable stock, maple syrup, chili powder, black cocoa, cumin, chipotle powder, and cayenne. Stir well to combine, cover, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until lentils are tender. Add tahini and black beans, mixing well to incorporate. Continue to stew, uncovered, for an additional 15 – 20 minutes until thick, rich, and piping hot. Add the lime juice and salt, adjusting both to taste as needed.

Depending on your desired consistency, you may want to add more vegetable stock or water, particularly if the chili is made in advance. It tends to thicken further as it cools.

Ladle out into bowls and top with sour cream, scallions, and black sesame seeds. Eat to your black heart’s content!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

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Curry Favor

Curry is the catch-all solution to an infinite variety of meal planning dilemnas. No time for a complicated dinner? Throw a pot of curry on the stove. Too many random vegetables languishing in the fridge? They’ll all play nicely together in a spicy vat of curry. Need to feed an army on a shoestring budget? Who doesn’t love curry! Thus, I find myself with a spicy stew on the dinner table at least once or twice a week, no matter the season.

Of course, “curry” as I refer to it for these quick-cooking melting pots is a far cry from anything you might find on the entire Asian continent. Generous handfuls of fresh garlic and ginger sauteed with chopped onions, a shower of blindingly yellow madras curry powder, and a drenching rain of coconut milk are the only constants. Never measured, never varied, this foundation guarantees a satisfying, savory brew every time, authenticity be damned. The point isn’t to make a culinary masterpiece, but to placate a growling stomach at the end of a long day.

For as many times as these quick fix curries pass my lips, I still delight at the opportunity to get the genuine article when eating out. The blazing hot green curries of Thailand, the cinnamon-scented curries of Sri Lanka, the gravy-like, sweet curries of Japan; each one a unique delight. While it’s only too easy to reach for that jar of generic curry powder, why relegate these more elegant flavor profiles to only special occasions?

Certain preparations have long held an air of mystique, out of reach for the typically harried weekday dinner and rife with meat or dairy when outsourcing the meal. Defined by a luxurious sauce of spiced yogurt or cream, chicken korma falls squarely into that category, tempting from afar.

Happily, it turns out that vegan korma needn’t be overly complicated nor time-consuming. Truth be told, my interpretation still uses the ubiquitous madras curry powder as a crutch, but only for lack of a proper spice pantry in my tiny apartment kitchen. A homemade blend would undoubtedly send this dish soaring to new levels of flavor, but it really is a winner as written, if I do say so myself. The distinctive twang of plain yogurt harmonizes with the bright acidity of lime, informing the true character of this incomparable variation within this vast category. Vegetables and “meat” are truly interchangeable, depending on your mood, tastes, and access; the heart and soul of any curry is the sauce, and this one is near saintly.

Vegan Chicken Korma

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 1/2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Minced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
12 Ounces Chicken-Style Seitan, Soy Curls, or Meatless Chicken Strips
2 Yellow Onions, Roughly Chopped
1 Large Tomato, Roughly Chopped
1/2 – 1 Fresh Jalapeno, Minced
1 Tablespoon Madras Curry Powder
1 1/2 Tablespoons Garam Masala
3 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 Tablespoons Almond or Cashew Butter
3 – 4 Cups Chopped Vegetables, such as Red Bell Pepper, Zucchini, Cauliflower, Sweet Potato, etc.
1/2 Cup Frozen Peas
2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1 6-Ounce Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
Fresh Cilantro, Finely Minced

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the ginger and garlic until aromatic before adding in your protein of choice. Cook until lightly browned all over.

Meanwhile, prepare the curry base. Toss the onions, tomato, jalapeno, curry powder, garam masala, tomato paste, and nut butter into your blender. Thoroughly puree, until completely smooth. Pour the mixture into the saucepan, turn down the heat to medium-low, and add in your chopped vegetable selections.

Let simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, at least. This is the kind of dish that can cook almost indefinitely, until the flavors are concentrated to your liking or you’re simply ready to serve. Once the sauce has thickened and the vegetables are tender, add the peas (no need to thaw, just toss ’em right in), lime juice, and plain yogurt. Stir well and adjust seasonings to taste.

Cook for just a few minutes longer to let the new ingredients mingle and meld properly before turning off the heat. Top with fresh cilantro and serve with rice (black rice is pictured above, but of course and variety you enjoy will do.)

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Running Wild and in the Gnude

Never have I met a group of people more enthusiastic about an ominous forecast calling for relentless days of rain, varying from light mists to pounding torrents. After waiting with baited breath for the El Niño predicted to put all other storms to shame, the entire state of California seems to breathe a sigh of relief with every drop of moisture returning back to the parched earth. Cautious optimism prevents anyone from suggesting that our water woes are a thing of the past, or that reservoirs are even remotely close to normal levels yet, but the subject is no longer so fraught with doom and gloom, despite the lack of sun. We all know just how important these rains are to fortify all the local farms both big and small, responsible for producing no less than 99% of the entire country’s artichokes, walnuts, and kiwis, just for starters. What fewer are aware of is the positive impact the precipitation is having on a much smaller, less cultivated crop; mushrooms.

Mushroom foraging is a hit-or-miss affair, unpredictable in the best situations. Aside from the poisonous potential of picking the wrong fungus, the intrepid adventurer risks disappointment on every outing, no matter their level of expertise. Mushrooms love damp, but not cold, and cool, but not wet weather, which makes this season their time to shine. Springing forth under the cover of fallen leaves and the fallen trunks of trees, finding these edible treasures is like a grownup version of hide-and-go-seek, although the seeker doesn’t know exactly what might be hiding, complicating the game quite a bit. The good news is that as long as it doesn’t kill you, every mushroom has incredible culinary potential, stuffed to the gills with deep, nuanced, and entirely unique umami flavors, simply waiting to be unleashed.

Such a lavish assortment of wild mushrooms should be celebrated in dishes that will feature their savory character and meaty texture to the fullest.

Gnudi, best described as naked ravioli, also share similarities with gnocchi but are made with ricotta instead of potato. Simple in concept yet spectacular in execution, they’re like little cheesy pillows that practically melt in your mouth. Bound together with just enough flour to hold their shapes, these are nothing like the dense balls of dough one might otherwise encounter when attempting to eat traditional dumplings. In this case, tofu ricotta easily replaces the dairy foundation, transforming this savory dish into a light, dreamy, and yet impossibly rich indulgence. It’s all thanks to those humble mushrooms.

If you’re lucky enough to have the right terrain and ideal conditions, get out there while the fungus is good! For everyone else, hit up the nearest grocery store and start foraging through the produce aisle instead. It may not be so wild, but let’s be honest: Any mushroom will still be delicious.

Gnudi with Wild Mushrooms

Tofu Ricotta Gnudi:

1 Pound Extra-Firm Tofu, Thoroughly Drained and Rinsed
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1/4 Cup Nutritional Yeast
2 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
Pinch Ground Nutmeg
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Water
All-Purpose Flour*, to Coat

Sauteed Wild Mushrooms:

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Small Shallots, Finely Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Pound Fresh Wild (or Cultivated) Mushrooms (Such as Crimini, Oyster, Shiitake), Sliced
1 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary
3/4 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Broth
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Fresh Parsley, Minced

*For a gluten-free version, try using white rice flour or sorghum flour instead.

Crumble the tofu into a large bowl and add all the rest of the ingredients for the gnudi, except for the flour. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, because the best way to mix this is to get in there with your hands! Combine everything thoroughly, further breaking down the tofu so that no large chunks remain, and the overall texture of the mixture is something akin to smooth cottage cheese. Move the bowl into the fridge and chill for 15 – 30 minutes before proceeding.

Bring a large of water up to a gentle simmer. It’s very important that the water is not boiling, because the gnudi are too delicate to withstand that sort of violence. Using a small cookie scoop or two spoons, form the chilled gnudi mixture into about 24 balls, tossing them gently in flour to coat. Carefully slide 5 or 6 balls into the simmering water at a time to prevent the pot from getting too crowded. Simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until cooked through. Lift out with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining gnudi. The gnudi can be made in advance up to this point and kept for up to 4 hours in the fridge.

When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sautée until golden brown. Introduce the sliced mushrooms, dried herbs, and broth next, cooking until softened and highly aromatic; about 5 minutes. Add the gnudi, gently tossing to incorporate and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until gnudi are heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with fresh parsley, and enjoy immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

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Down and Dirty with Clean Eating

Holiday indulgences still weighing heavily on the minds (and hips) of many winter revelers, the added stress of New Year’s resolutions brings out the worst in some people. I’m not talking about those determined to follow the gospel of the latest diet fad or exercise craze- They’re only trying to do what’s right, what society expects of them for all their gustatory sins. No, I’m pointing straight to those spreading this propaganda, pushing the miracle cures and instant detoxes, complete with catchy slogans so obtuse that it’s hard to find any true meaning behind them. “New Year, New You” is undoubtedly one of the most prevalent, springing up again year after year, the elastic of its tenor just as punchy in 2016 as it was in 2006, and perhaps even 1996. It’s a good thing most consumers can’t remember the marketing pitches from these forgotten eras, or else we’d all be bored to tears for the redundancy of it all.

As a food obsessive and enthusiast, the saying that really gets to me above all others is the call to “Eat Clean.” Tell me, when was the last time you got a plate of food at a restaurant and thought, Oh, I’m so hungry, but this meal just came out much too dirty for me. What would that even look like? A plate full of soil, wriggling earthworms and all? Would it constitute a reasonable excuse for sending the dish back, an offense on par with receiving a carbonized, unforgivably burnt pancake? My own personal mantra has become a reactive “Keep Your Laundry Clean and Your Food Dirty.” Yes, I want to buy my kale with ladybugs still clinging to the leaves. Yes, I will actively seek out potatoes that are in dire need of a good scrub. I want my food to be that dirty, because to me, “dirty” should be synonymous with “fresh.”

Rant aside, there are still some redeeming side effects to the annual revitalization of healthy eating. While I may not be a fan of the label, I do love a hearty meal that doesn’t contain the same amount of oil required to power a snow blower through a foot of icy slush. Thus, titles notwithstanding, I’ve found some real edible gems in Terry Walters’ work. A prolific recipe writer, I’ve been enjoying her food for years now, and this brief feature itself is long overdue. Eat Clean, Live Well was released well over a year ago, but has proven to be a real catch in a sea of nutritionally-oriented cooking tomes.

Pictured above, the red lentil patties in particular have become an indispensable staple for quick meals, perfect for preparing in batches, freezing, and reviving on the fly. The crisp exterior allows them the fortitude to withstand the burger treatment, standing strong without crumbling on the bun yet yielding to a downright creamy interior texture. For a more elegant meal, they function beautifully atop roasted or sauteed vegetables, drizzled with delicate herb-infused sauces and garnished with tender micro greens. Or, as is most often the case, they’re downright dreamy paired simply with tahini or a pungent, garlicky aioli sauce for dipping.

Don’t fall for the hype; eat as dirty as you like. Just make sure you wash your hands before sitting down at the table.

Red Lentil Patties with Garlic and Fresh Herbs

Reprinted with permission from Eat Clean Live Well © 2014 by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

1 cup red lentils
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped roasted red pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro or any combination)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup gluten-free bread or rice crumbs

Rinse and drain lentils and place in pot with vegetable stock or water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer covered 15 minutes until lentils are mushy and all liquid is absorbed (you may want to leave lid cracked open slightly to prevent pot from boiling over). Remove from heat and set aside.

In large cast iron skillet, sauté garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft (about 3 minutes). Add roasted red pepper and sauté 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and transfer mixture to a bowl. Add lentils, fold in herbs and sea salt, and season to taste with pepper. Gradually fold in breadcrumbs until batter is thick (you may not need all depending on how dry your lentils are) and set aside for 2–3 minutes to allow batter to thicken.

Drizzle cast iron skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Scoop batter and roll into 1 1/2 -inch balls. Place in skillet and flatten into patties 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Cook until crispy (4–5 minutes per side), transfer to baking sheet and cover to keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter until ingredients are used up and serve.

SERVES 6 (makes twelve 2 1/2-inch patties)

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Cashew Cache

In honor of labor day and what might be summer’s last hurrah, the only suitable recipe to share would have to be one cool customer, unencumbered by complex procedures or obscure ingredients. Luckily, I have just the dish to fit that bill.

Step away from the stove! Raw, vegetable-based noodles are the key to beating the heat and simultaneously lightening up this satisfying savory treat. Delicate strands of carrots and cucumbers mingle together in crisp tangles of “pasta,” as vibrant as they are flavorful. Inspired by classic cold sesame noodles, the Chinese takeout staple has graced my table countless times but never in such a fresh format.

Cashew butter takes the spotlight for this round, adding a unique nuance to the nutty, lightly spiced sauce. Deceptively simple in composition, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special on paper, but one taste and you’ll be hooked on that creamy cashew elixir, lavishing it over everything from salads to grilled tofu and beyond. Although you may end up with more than you need for this particular dish, trust me: It won’t be a struggle to polish off the excess in short order.

Carrot Cashew Noodles

Cashew Sauce:

6 Tablespoons Smooth Cashew Butter
1/3 Cup Vegetable Broth
2 Tablespoons Braggs Liquid Aminos or Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Teaspoons Light Agave Nectar
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Clove Fresh Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Grated
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Sriracha

Carrot Pasta:

5 Large Carrots, Peeled and Shredded with a Julienne Peeler or Spiralizer
1 English Cucumber, Peeled and Shredded with a Julienne Peeler or Spiralizer
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/3 Cup Toasted Cashews, Roughly Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly and doesn’t keep particularly well once assembled, so make sure you’re good and hungry before you begin!

Start by preparing the sauce. Place the cashew butter in a medium-sized bowl and slowly add the vegetable broth, stirring constantly to loosen and smooth out the thick paste. Simply add the remaining ingredients, whisk thoroughly until homogeneous, and set aside. Kept separately in an air-tight container, the sauce should keep in the fridge for 1 – 2 weeks.

To finish the dish, toss together the carrot and cucumber noodles and begin by adding about half of the sauce. It may be difficult to combine everything with tongs or a spatula, so don’t be afraid to get in there and mix it up with your hands. Add more sauce as needed (don’t forget that carrots and cucumbers come in all different sizes, so your mileage my vary), incorporate the scallions, and toss to combine.

Move the mixture out onto a serving plate, top with chopped cashews, and enjoy!

Makes 2 – 3 Main Dish Servings; 4 – 5 Side Dish Servings

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