Reveling in Rusticity

“Rustic” is one of my least favorite words. Plain and simple, it comes off as a measured euphemism for crude, unpolished, unprofessional, or downright poor quality. Applied to houses, pottery, or cooking, it just strikes the wrong chord, like a polite guest biting their tongue. They really want to tell you that they hate your decorating sense, or they’d rather eat a bale of hay than dig into your latest culinary disaster, but they’re too kind to say that.

It’s not a bad effort at all, they’ll insist. Perfectly rustic!

Nikujaga, literally “meat and potatoes,” is classic yoshoku for the soul. Westernized Japanese food at its finest, it has the unfortunate distinction of fitting that bill as “rustic” to many. Though meant as a term of endearment, I can’t help but hear it as an insult. Sure, it’s a homely stew that would never make headlines or start a viral craze, but there’s a real art to layering in rich flavors using minimal ingredients.

It doesn’t take a master chef to whip up this one-pot meal, but don’t do yourself a disservice by downplaying the deeply satisfying layers of flavors.

Between the salt and fat, protein and starch, it’s a foolproof approach to pure, unadulterated comfort food. Double it for a crowd, halve it if you’re short on ingredients, prepare it in advance, freeze in portions and thaw out as needed; this is a dish that will bend to your will without threatening to break.

It takes real finesse to craft a dish so well-balanced. The last thing I would ever call it is “rustic.”

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New School

For young scholars across the globe, going back to school undoubtedly looks a bit different this year. Having a sharp new haircut, the freshest pair of shoes, or the coolest backpack on the block may not mean as much when classes take place just a few feet from where you woke up. Packed lunches aren’t going anywhere outside the home when lessons take place over Zoom, within arm’s reach of the fridge. However, that doesn’t negate the importance of meal planning! In fact, even greater emphasis should be placed on advanced prep, when easily accessible snacks beckon at all times.

Even under stay-at-home orders or quarantine conditions, the show must go on. Weekdays are still busy as ever, and the last thing you want to do is waste precious time wondering what to eat. Don’t stress yourself out by try to cobble together a passable meal out of cold leftovers while the clock is ticking. Prep ahead, divide, and conquer your day.

From this point forward, barley will be your new best friend. Unlike plain white rice, pearl barley is an excellent source of fiber and protein, to keep you full and energized longer. Plus, it’s toothsome, chewy texture holds up to reheat much better than more fragile starchy grains, which makes it the perfect base for advance prep.

Traditional risotto is finicky, demanding constant attention while cooking and immediate service the minute it’s done. Let it cool, and the whole pot of silky, al dente rice will turn into a gooey, over-cooked mess. Perish the though of saving leftovers, unless you plan to deep fry them the next day.

Barley risotto, or barlotto as I like to call it, offers an endlessly adaptable foundation to build any seasonal meal around. Mix and match based on what’s in the fridge, what’s in the market, or what’s on your mind. My default approach is to riff off classic barley soup, complete with some hearty meatless beef and bold aromatics. I would argue that mushrooms are essential for their meaty texture and umami essence, but there are no hard and fast rules here. Let’s save those for the school teachers, shall we?

Designed to stay creamy yet toothsome over the coarse of subsequent re-heating opportunities, there’s no reason to get locked into the same eating experience, meal after meal. Get younger kids (or the young at heart) on board by transforming the leftovers into finger food! Think of hearty, baked arancini, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Anything you can pick up and dip has an added fun factor, making it a painless way to explore new whole grains. Plus, you can justify a bowlful (or a more measured cup) of marinara on the side, you know it’s going to be a good day.

Let’s spoon and dip our way into the next chapter of this strange true story. Stay at home or take it to go; stay safe, and always well-fed.

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Taking a Dump for Dinner

The mere concept is ripe for ridicule. Built upon a shaky foundation of canned goods and prepared foods, dump-and-bake meals are the semi-homemade answer to the daily dilemma of someone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t like to, or doesn’t know how to cook. All you need is a can opener and a cooking device; I do understand the appeal. Quick, easy, pantry-friendly, and so much more SEO gold, convenience seems to win the war over good taste in this instance.

Of course, don’t get me started on the name. “Dumping” is simply never a positive verb. Evoking images of landfills, garbage, dropping or throwing away, I can’t get past the term. Mentally condensed, I read it out as “Trash Casserole” nine times out of ten, without thinking about it. Of course, don’t get me started on the connotations of “taking a dump.”

Snark aside, there’s a time and a place for everything. It’s a shame the idea is maligned by basic nomenclature, but you can’t blame a child for a name given at birth. Considering the dire state of my refrigerator, it’s time I get my head of out the gutter- Or toilet, as it may be.

Relying more on unprocessed dry goods than traditional alchemic creations of modern prepared foods, my take on classic stroganoff is an effortless one-pan approach to nearly instant gratification. Soy curls, some of the greatest unsung heroes of meatless proteins, take the place of more bovine inclusions. Re-hydrating right in the cooking liquid, alongside dry pasta, there’s no fussy soaking, draining, sauteing, or separate special treatment necessary.

You don’t even need to break out the knives if you plan your pantry well. Purchase pre-sliced mushrooms, jars of minced garlic ready to go, and even frozen diced onion to keep in the true spirit of dumping doctrine. Heck, go ahead and use canned>mushrooms if need be. There’s no shame in making the most of what you’ve got, and this luscious cream sauce is so rich, it can easily conceal a multitude of sins.

Soaking in all the umami seasonings built into the broth, tender noodles provide actual substance, rather than filler for this rendition. Use whole grain options for a bit of extra fiber, or gluten-free if you’re intolerant. Remain flexible, keep an open mind, and start preheating your oven.

Comfort food shouldn’t just provide solace on the plate. If I may be so bold, I’d like to propose that it should be soothing to create, too.

I get it: Dump dinners sound like culinary defeat, the last attempt at sustenance devised by a starving cook at the end of their rope. It doesn’t have to be that way. Emboldened by fresher fare, let’s all take back the notion and take a dump for dinner, together!

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Dancing in the Rain

Predictably unpredictable as always, springtime in San Francisco meaning blazing hot days of sunshine, followed immediately by the shock of hail, and endless vacillation between floods and droughts. Winter is usually the rainy season, but all bets are off as weather across the globe grows more extreme.

Though fleeting, each sudden downpour puts a serious damper on business as usual. If you’re on foot, you’re liable to drown before reaching your destination, even if it’s just across the street. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, get cozy because traffic will be at a standstill as hapless motorists try to contend with the unmanageable conditions. A real rainy day like this calls for staying in by all means possible, for the sake of safety and sanity.

That means you had better stock your pantry and be prepared to make a meal of whatever you have on hand. Soups and stews are my go-to solutions for just such an occasion; anything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry can meld together in some sort of harmonious fusion, and with an ample spice rack, you’ll never risk flavor fatigue. Cook once, eat twice, thrice- or as many times as you can stand it.

Contending with another drenching rain one recent afternoon, sheer luck and serendipity yielded one of the most brilliant, prismatic brews I’ve had simmering on the stove in many months. Boldly magenta, or perhaps violently violet, purple potatoes, black quinoa, and red cabbage join forces to create a stew of a different hue.

Delicious as it is visually stunning, I knew right away that this was no average stone soup, setting to work recording my recipe for future reference. Only in hindsight to I see the uncanny connection to Prince, whom we remember for his untimely passing exactly two years ago tomorrow.

I’d like to think that this simple bowl of comfort might be a small way to celebrate, rather than mourn such a vibrant life. It doesn’t need to be raining out to enjoy such a blend, but it certainly does make for a comforting complement to the weather. As Prince has said, “Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing.”

It’s time we all reach out for something new,” so go ahead, shake up the usual routine and give it a try.

Yield: Makes 4 - 6 Servings

Purple Rainy Day Soup

Purple Rainy Day Soup

Boldly magenta, or perhaps violently violet, purple potatoes, black quinoa, and red cabbage join forces to create a stew of a different hue. Delicious as it is visually stunning, I knew right away that this was no average stone soup, setting to work recording my recipe for future reference.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • 1 Medium Red Onion, Diced
  • 4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 4 Cups Shredded Red Cabbage
  • 1/3 Cup Black Quinoa
  • 2 Medium Purple Potatoes, Peeled and Diced (About 1 Pound)
  • 1 Bay Leaf
  • 4 Cups Vegetable Stock
  • 2 Tablespoons Red Miso Paste
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, Crushed
  • 1 Tablespoon Sherry Vinegar
  • 1/2 Cup Frozen Green Peas

Instructions

  1. Place the olive oil in a large stock pot and set it over medium heat on the stove. Saute for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add in the garlic and continue cooking for another 5 – 10 minutes, until aromatic and lightly browned. Incorporate the shredded cabbage in handfuls, allowing it to wilt down slightly before adding more. Follow that with the dry quinoa, potatoes, and bay leaf.
  2. Whisk the miso paste into the stock until smooth before pouring the mixture into the pot. Bring the mixture up to a boil, reduce the heat, and cover. Simmer for 25 – 30 minutes until the potatoes are fork-tender and the quinoa is fully cooked. Season with black pepper, rosemary, and vinegar, adjusting to taste if needed.
  3. Toss in the frozen peas and simmer just until thawed and hot all the way through. Serve right away while piping hot!
  4. Makes 4 – 6 Servings

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 177Total Fat: 5gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 693mgCarbohydrates: 29gFiber: 6gSugar: 7gProtein: 6g

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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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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