Monday, August 25, 2008

Black Bean Soup

Don't be misled. This image isn't a shrine commemorating aromatics, but rather a sure way to chop and dice with no tears. Light a votive candle and place it close to the action! I keep mine right on the cutting board. It works.

The assortment of onions, shallots, peppers and garlic pictured above was the prep for a little sofrito used to flavor a pot of simmering black beans.

Cuban black bean soup is a favorite comfort food. Easy to prepare and especially flavorful, particularly if you plan ahead and make the soup with dried beans. But often in a hurry, I've been pleased with the results of using canned beans. The secret is to infuse the cooked black beans and rich broth with sofrito, a combination of onions, bell peppers and garlic.

The aromatics used for soup bases varies slightly from one ethnic version to another. The French use mirepoix, a combination of carrots, celery and onion. The Cajun holy trinity is onion, celery and bell pepper and the Spanish influence is sofrito, onions, garlic, peppers.

Each combination of aromatics provides the complex flavors needed to change water into a rich, tantalizing pot liquor boosting the earthy flavor of the cooked beans. Use one of these combinations as the starter for almost any soup, particularly those featuring beans: white, black, pinto, etc.

Make a big pot of this luscious vegetarian soup on a day when you're home doing other chores. Once the beans and water are in the pot and brought to a simmer, they take care of themselves with an occasional stir from the cook. Allow 2 1/2 to 3 hours for this soup, if using dried beans. The sofrito can be made ahead of time, ready to pop in the pot when the beans are almost cooked.

In a big stockpot, bring one pound of black beans, 12 cups of filtered or spring water and a couple of bay leaves to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently for 2 1/2 - 3 hours or until the beans are tender. Add more water if necessary to keep the beans covered as they cook.

(If using canned beans, heat thoroughly then proceed with instructions).

Meanwhile, in a medium frying pan, heat 1/2 cup of good olive oil over medium heat. Stir in the following aromatics: 2 red or green bell peppers, diced; 2 medium yellow onions, diced; 2 large shallots, sliced. Cook, stirring frequently for 8 - 10 minutes, or until the onions are translucent. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of cumin, 2 tablespoons of oregano and 8-10 cloves of coarsely chopped cloves of garlic. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Purée in food processor or blender.

When the beans are almost done, remove the bay leaves, then stir in the purée, 2 tablespoons of kosher salt and some freshly ground pepper (do this to taste - adding a little at a time). Continue cooking for another 15 - 20 minutes.

This soup is delicious served with rice and/or chopped onions and sour cream. Another highly nutritious, very inexpensive taste treat.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Versatile Veggies
After a trip to the local farmers market following right on the heels of taking advantage of the produce specials at my local supermarket, I found I had a fridge full of great veggies vying for star status at the dinner table.

With so much fresh produce, much of it straight from the garden, or grown on my kitchen counter, I had a bit of difficulty deciding what to eat first!

Brussels sprouts, corn with thyme, grape tomatoes dressed with lemon zest and juice.

Fresh radish and broccoli sprouts drizzled with Meyer lemon infused olive oil.

Alfalfa sprouts and garden fresh beefsteak tomatoes with Italian herbs and balsamic vinegar
Separating the leaves from each little Brussels sprouts head is a wee bit tedious, but it really goes quickly and provides a different texture and milder taste than cooking the sprouts whole. I sautéed two sliced shallots in a little olive oil until soft and fragrant then tossed in the leaves with about a tablespoon of white wine and covered them for a little bit to allow them to steam. Then removed the cover and finished cooking until they were just crisp tender and still vibrantly green. A dash of tamari at the finish along with salt and pepper to taste, made a wonderful tasty green accompaniment to the corn and tomato salad.
Cut the corn from the cob and toss with a bit of dried thyme. Sliced grape tomatoes marinated in a little fresh lemon juice and lemon zest are served a top the corn for a wonderful taste treat. The crunchy sweetness of the corn is a perfect partner for the piquant zip of the lemon zest and slightly acidic tomato. Makes a fine salad to serve with any dark green: broccoli, spinach, chard for example.
Growing sprouts on the counter is fast fun and so nutritious. I can't believe I settled for store-bought for years.
Roasted cauliflower certainly satisfies that craving for fried food. The lovely crusty outside with the creamy, mild flavored inside provides a nice occasional cooked treat. After washing and separating the florets, toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and roast off in a 450° oven, turn after 10 -12 minutes and continue cooking until tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. The batch pictured above was cooked with a generous sprinkling of crushed Aleppo peppers to provide another flavor layer.
Eating economically and well is simple. Fresh veggies, whether from the garden, the produce stand or the supermarket are the stars at my dinner table, some cooked, most raw.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sushi at Home

Early last month, Kevin and Anne-Marie Gianni showed us how to roll nori on their Wednesday food segment of The Renegade Health Show. I was intrigued. If you have any difficulty following the link, the instructions and video were distributed on July 9, 2008, Episode #92.

At first opportunity, I was off to the Asian market to purchase sheets of nori, along with a bamboo mat for rolling ease. The first attempt was pretty much a disaster! Getting the hang of rolling, stuffing in enough slivered veggies to fill out the roll, and assuring enough moisture to prevent the nori from having the taste and texture of roofing paper, is all part of the learning experience.

I long ago learned that success in the kitchen is achieved with practice, so rather than be discouraged when the first batch was almost inedible—I ate the filling, sans wrap— I set about making some changes with the second batch.
To maintain 100% raw, guacamole, or simply mashed avocado, hummus or baba ganouj, can be spread in a thin layer over the sheet of nori. This will add moisture as well as another layer of flavor and nutrients to the roll. It acts as glue to hold in the raw veggies and it adds a touch of moisture to the dry seaweed sheet.
In the case above, I spread the nori sheet with a thin layer of cooled Jasmine rice, using wet fingers to spread it out evenly and thinly. Doing so did remove the dish from the realm of 100% raw, but still kept it vegetarian.
Thin batons of raw veggies, I use whatever's on hand, make up the filling. Red pepper, cucumber, carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, radishes, sprouts, a combination of any or all makes a wonderful nori roll. Left over pieces keep well in the fridge overnight and make a wonderful next-day lunch.
The batch pictured above is served with a dipping sauce of tamari, enhanced with a pinch of Coleman's dry mustard. Make the heat level to suit you! Wasabi is the flavor of choice here, but most commercially prepared wasabi pastes contain green food coloring.
Watch Anne-Marie make these rolls on the video and then give it a whirl. It's fun, quick, easy and a real taste treat. The kicker is, while it's a very healthy meal, it's also very inexpensive!

I had already made great strides in mastering summer rolls. Rolling raw veggies in rice paper wrappers, ready for dipping in a zingy peanut sauce. I use almond butter instead of peanut butter to improve on the nutritional aspect without losing a bit of flavor.

The rice wrappers above are filled with Asian cole slaw. Cabbage, carrots, vidalia onion, sprinkled with a bit of rice wine vinegar and rolled tightly. The dipping sauce is a lively mix of almond butter, aromatics and heat:

Almond dressing: two inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated; 1/2 cup almond butter (peanut butter can be substituted); 5 TBS mirin; 1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar; 2 TBS tamari or soy sauce; salt to taste. Whisk all together in a medium bowl until smooth. Store unused portion covered in refrigerator.

Here are two fun, healthy finger food meals that add variety and interest to everyday meal planning.