Monday, July 8, 2013

Jamaica Jerk Cooler: Hibiscus, Watermelon & Heat!

In Spanish, the hibiscus flower is commonly known as flor de Jamaica or rosa de Jamaica (sometimes just jamaica) but a somewhat less common name for it is rosa de Abisinia. It's interesting that two names for the same plant would reference two different places, especially places that are connected in other ways. Abisinia, rendered in English as Abyssinia, is an older name for the territory that is now Ethiopia. There are several cultural connections between this part of Africa and Jamaica, but none so significant as Rastafarianism, the Jamaican-based, Ethiopian-focused religion. While most people's first associations with Rastafarianism involve dreadlocks and weed, the underlying theology of the faith is rooted in a belief in a deep connection between Jamaica and Ethiopia. Drawing heavily from the biblical stories of the Jewish exodus from slavery, Rastafarians seek to eschew the trappings of "Babylon" (interpreted as the forces of modern imperialism) and see Ethiopia as the homeland to which they will return, and Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974, as a messianic figure. I don't know how old the Spanish names for hibiscus are, but they almost certainly predate the beginnings of Rastafarianism in the 1930s, which makes the connection all the more interesting.

Interesting connections aside, hibiscus tea makes a fabulous summer drink, crisply tart and refreshing with a striking ruby hue. Known in Spanish as agua de jamaica, it is one of several classic aguas frescas with roots in Mexico. Lightly sweet coolers that go a ways toward quenching both thirst and heat, other common aguas frescas include sweet, tangy tamarindo (tamarind), creamy horchata (a sweet rice milk with cinnamon), and smooth sandía (watermelon).

So with all this talk of Jamaica, Ethiopia and Mexico, on to July 4th. This July 4th was a blast. We took a little road trip to Cambridge for my friend Meaghan's South Pacific tiki-themed party, complete with pig on a spit (here's Neko in position under the serving table, watching the ground hopefully). Although, interestingly, it was hotter in Cambridge than in Honolulu that day, by about 10°. Meaghan, whom I play music with, is one of two the proprietresses of Booze Époque, a Cambridge-based mobile cocktail magic outfit (always a good friend to have). Meaghan and her BÉ collaborator, Harmony, created a number of delicious concoctions for the party (with and without booze), they also held a tiki drink contest. Contestants concocted their own summery drink with the requirement that it include at least one local ingredient. Among a number of interesting and tasty entries, I am honored to say my Jamaica Jerk Cooler ended up taking the grand prize Cthulhu-on-vacation tiki sculpture.

As I've said before, my family's recipe secret is that we don't keep secrets about recipes, so here's how you make it. The drink takes advantage of good lessons learned from aguas frescas, combining hibiscus and watermelon juice with a syrup made with honey and steeped with spices you might find in a jerk marinade - allspice, cinnamon and chipotle pepper (in most jerk spice mixes, this would be Scotch Bonnet peppers, but I wanted the smokiness of the chipotle here). It is also good with a little gin in it, but it's delicious without as well.

Jamaica Jerk Cooler

    Makes about 3 quarts
  • 1 ½ c. dried hibiscus flowers
  • 2 qts water
  • 1 qt watermelon juice (I'll go into more detail below about how much watermelon you need for this much juice)
  • 2 c. honey jerk syrup, below
  • lime wedges
  • gin (1 oz. per serving or about 1½ c. for whole recipe)

  • Honey Jerk Syrup
  • 3-4 whole chipotle peppers, not in sauce
  • 2 Tblsp. whole allspice
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 c. water
  • 1 c. honey
Start with the syrup: bring the water and spices up to a boil in a small saucepan, turn heat down to a simmer for about 5 minutes, then turn off heat and allow to steep for at least an hour. Strain out spices, then return liquid to saucepan. Add honey and warm until the honey combines totally with the spicy liquid. Set aside/chill. I had a little trouble finding whole chipotles (smoke-dried jalapeños) outside of adobo. Apparently, my local coop only has chipotle powder now.

Next, make the hibiscus tea. Put 1 quart of water and the dried hibiscus into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat and let steep for about an hour. Strain and add the remaining quart of water.

As far as the watermelon juice, I started with a melon weighing about 10 lbs and ended up with about 10 cups of juice: what you see at right, plus another quart. I'm enjoying having the extra watermelon juice around (see below), but you probably only need about 6 cups of cut up watermelon to get a quart of juice. To juice the watermelon, cut it off the rind and put it in a blender or food processor. Blend for a few minutes, until there are no visible chunks. Pour through a fine mesh sieve and press through with a spatula or spoon. True to its name, watermelon is primarily water, and what you see in the mason jar at right is all the pulp left from the entire 10 pound watermelon. There's about a cup of it, relative to the 10 cups of juice, and it's great to eat chilled, with a spoon when it's really hot out.

If you plan to make this punch alcoholic, add about 1½ cups of gin to the total (or to taste). You can also mix it by the serving, adding about 1 oz. of gin to 8 oz. of punch. With or without alcohol, serve each cup with one or more lime wedges.

On using up the Watermelon

Making watermelon juice is a great way of reclaiming the fridge space taken by a languishing piece of melon. I've been having fun playing with watermelon juice this summer. It's a great base for all kinds of drinks. One of my favorite cool down drinks right now is a cup of watermelon juice, half a lime and a can (12 oz.) of seltzer. It pairs really well with citrus, mint, and many other fruits.

Additionally, for extra points in not wasting ingredients, here's my recipe for watermelon rind pickles.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Curried Tempeh with Mustard Greens and Cellophane Noodles

I'll be perfectly honest: I didn't like tempeh as a kid.

In fact, early experiences with tempeh meant that I didn't give it much of a chance again until about a year ago, but, boy howdy, am I making up for lost time.

Tempeh is a protein-rich food made from split soybeans and, sometimes, a variety of grains which have been parcooked and innoculated with Rhizopus oligosporus, a type of fungus, and incubated for 24-48 hours. The culture partially ferments the legumes/grains, making them easier to digest, and binds them together into a firm cake with a mild flavor somewhere between nuts and mushrooms. It can be sliced or crumbled and holds up to grilling or stir-frying. Most tempeh is gluten-free, but, if you're concerned about that kind of thing, it's important to read the labels on multigrain tempehs, which vary in contents, but sometimes include gluten-bearing barley or rye.

In its native Indonesia, it's very often served fried or grilled, often with some kind of lightly sweet & spicy accompaniment. Peanuts turn up with it a lot too. For me, I've found that I still don't fancy the taste of plain tempeh - despite liking nuts, mushrooms and tempeh - but that sauteéing it until it's a little crispy with some salt or soy sauce makes a world of difference.

Recently, I've been cooking it up in a spicy-sweet stir-fry with mustard greens, largely inspired by this South Indian take on tempeh from Delectible Victuals, with the addition of a generous helping of fresh cilantro, including the stems. It's good over rice, but it's great tossed with thin cellophane noodles, made from mung beans and also gluten free (available at Asian markets - rice vermicelli is a good, slightly more common replacement and any other thin, clear noodle would work). If you want to serve with rice or bread, you can simply omit the steps in the recipe below involving the noodles. It's also at least as good cold the next day.

Curried Tempeh with Mustard Greens and Cellophane Noodles

vegan, gluten-free (depending on tempeh, soy-sauce)
Ready in about 30 minutes, serves 2-3
  • 1 small-medium onion, small dice
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ red bell pepper, medium dice
  • 1-2 tsp. light-flavored oil
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • handful cilantro
  • soy sauce
  • 1 Tblsp. sugar
  • 1 8-oz. package tempeh, crumbled
  • thick chili sauce, like sambal oelek or sriracha, to taste (start with 1-2 tsp.)
  • 1 good sized bunch mustard greens or other medium-weight green like swiss chard, sliced into 1" ribbons
  • about 4 oz. dried cellophane noodles - in the packages I get, this is two bundles
  • crushed peanuts (optional)
Start by putting the noodles in a bowl of warm water to soak, which is all the precooking they need. They will need to soak at least 15 minutes. Prep the veggies and crumble tempeh coarsely. Cut off the bottom half of the cilantro stalks. Set aside the leafy end for later and mince the stem end very small.

Heat a large wok or skillet over a high heat. Add a teaspoon or two of oil and swirl to coat. Add tempeh and a teaspoon or two of soy sauce. Cook until tempeh becomes browned and a little crispy. Set aside and try not to pick at it too much. Wilt the greens slightly in a separate pan with a tight fitting lid by putting on medium-low heat with a tiny bit of water in the bottom. The greens will reduce in volume by at least half.

Add a little more oil to the wok or skillet and add the onions, garlic, bell pepper and minced cilantro stem. Saute until the peppers and onions get a little color, then add the turmeric and sugar. Add the tempeh and chili sauce. Drain the noodles, then add the wilted greens and noodles to the wok or skillet. Toss to combine. Remove from heat and toss with roughly chopped cilantro leaves. Adjust soy sauce, chili and sweet levels as desired. Serve with optional crushed peanuts on top.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Pi Day: The Snozzberries Taste Like Snozzberries!

by the amazing Ryan North

I don't love π Day just because I teach math. I mean, that helps, offering an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the playfulness that math can offer, but there's also some degree to which celebrating a transcendental number such as π is an interesting examination of our quest for knowledge. Humans have been aware of π, the constant ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, for about 4000 years, since the time of the Ancient Babylonians (who approximated π at 3.125). Since then, a remarkable amount of time and energy has gone into extending and refining how accurately we can describe π, even though the most common approximations — 3.14 and 22/7 — haven't changed in nearly 2500 years, since at least the time of Archimedes, in the 3rd century BCE and even though we've understood that it's irrational and won't end since 1761. There's a somewhat apocryphal claim that it would only take 40 digits of π to measure the circumference of the known universe with a minute margin of error. Regardless of the veracity of that, it does highlight the degree to which the vast majority of the calculated digits of π, patternless, endless and infinitesimally small, are unnecessary for any practical purpose. And yet, we keep calculating further. There is a certain poetry in seeking knowledge purely for its own sake; this is another piece of what we're really celebrating by celebrating π Day.

Also, it's a good excuse for pie: pie and scores of terrible, terrible puns.

I make two pies each π day, because two pie are enough to go around (I warned you about the terrible puns). I like to try a new pie every year for π Day, usually a somewhat fanciful one that I invent, if only so that it's unique among pies. Last year, I decided it was time to take on Snozzberry Pie. Unfortunately, snozzberries aren't in season this time of year (or any other), so what to do in their absence? Examining the answer to that question has much in common with humanity's quest for pi: fundamentally unanswerable, but bears eternal examination, revealing more and subtler nuance over time. Alternately, you can just go with whatever fruit looks good and on sale. The below pie got rave reviews from tastebuds young and old last year. The taste blends into something not entirely placeable, yet pleasantly fruity with a surprise twist, and the filling has just enough starch to hold a soft gel.

Excuse the terrible photo quality.

Snozzberry Pi(e)

  • 2 pie crusts (for top & bottom, your own recipe or the one below)
  • for filling:
  • 1 c. formerly frozen raspberries (they'll be pretty mushy)
  • 1 c. fresh blueberries
  • 4 kiwis, quartered, peeled and sliced
  • zest and juice of one lemon
  • ½ c sugar
  • ¼ c. flour
  • ¼ c. cornstarch
  • pinch cayenne (good snozzberries have a little piquancy to them)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all filling ingredients in a small bowl. Roll out one pie crust and lay in pie pan. Pour filling in, cover with other crust and crimp edges. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until crust is browned and filling is bubbly.

Pie crust

makes 1 pie crust (you'll need 2 for the recipe above)
  • 1 stick cold butter
  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • no more than ¼ c. cold water

You can use whatever crust recipe you like for this pie, but this is the recipe that stays in my head, so it's the one I use.

The food processor helped me conquer my timidity of pie crust as it helps avoid getting the butter too warm, working the flour too much and developing the gluten, or taking forever. Cut each stick of butter into 10-20 pieces of roughly equal size. Put that and the flour in the food processor and pulse until the butter is a somewhat gravelly texture. Pour water in a thin stream while on until the dough starts to come together. Dump out onto waxed paper. Gather and squeeze into a ball, then flatten into a rough disk and wrap in its own piece of waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

When making more than one crust, you should wrap and chill each individually. I like to do each in a separate batch to keep the amount consistent. If using a food processor, it's not necessary to wash the bowl between each crust. If you're doing multiple crusts old school with a pastry cutter, you may want to cut all the butter into all the flour at once, but I'd still recommend mixing each crust with water individually. After cutting the butter into the flour and salt, take 1½ c. of that mixture and trickle in the water while bringing the dough together with a spoon or your hands. Wrap and and chill individually as for food processor directions.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aloo Mattar Deconstructed (Or, one more thing to do with mashed potatoes)

I'm always interested to hear from people if they have, historically, been food separators or food mushers. Food separators are those who observe strict boundary lines between food on their plate; they may go so far as to reject those impure motes of food which may have absorbed traces of the others. Food mushers, on the other hand, tend to take a more integrative, Gestalt approach, seeing divisions between the food on your plate as totally constructed and unnecessary, swirling it all into a cohesive whole.

Kids tend to be much more hardline about their separation/mushing practice, though it is certainly not limited to young folks. Interestingly, despite any value judgment I may have implied in my descriptions, I know great cooks who grew up in each camp. It truly is interesting to see how it's an indicator of one's approach: Separators tend to take a more measured, scientific approach. They're more likely to do careful research before cooking, even if they're creating a new recipe. You want one in your kitchen the day you get that perfect first bunch of asparagus in the spring. Mushers tend to play a little more fast and loose in their recipe creation, coming up with uncanny combinations on the fly and making the most of what's at hand and reimagining ingredients. You want one in your kitchen when you have a fridge full of leftovers that need to get used up.

That said, this one goes out particularly to those other folks who ever got excited about swirling together mashed potatoes, peas and ketchup. Doubly for anyone who would add hot sauce.

Aloo Mattar is a hearty North Indian dish featuring potatoes (aloo) and peas (mattar) in a spicy, tomato-based sauce. I first made this on a cold, damp day I really wanted mashed potatoes, much more than I wanted rice or flatbread, so I pulled the recipe apart so as to put the curried peas over the potatoes. Since then, I've used the curry over mashed potatoes idea in a few other ways, but this is still my favorite. It also leaves broader possibilities for using the leftover mashed potatoes.
The dish comes together quickly (I've done it in less than 30 minutes), is vegetarian, and could easily be vegan: make whatever mashed potato recipe you like, and omit or replace the (sour) cream. You can even make your own: one of my vegan friends swears by this recipe for cashew sour cream.

Aloo Mattar, Deconstructed

vegetarian, gluten/grain-free, easily veganified
serves 4, start to finish in 30 minutes.

    Super-Basic Mashed Potatoes

  • 5 med.-large potatoes
  • 1-2 tsp. salt
  • 2 T. butter
  • 1/4 c. milk

    Masala Mattar

  • 6-7 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1" piece ginger, peeled and finely minced
  • 2 c. tomato puree (about ⅔ of a 28 oz. can)
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 med. onion, med. dice
  • ½ T. butter
  • ½ T. oil
  • 1 2" cinnamon stick (if you don't have it, add another tsp. of ground cinnamon later)
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 2-3 green cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp. methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional)
  • 2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 lb. (3½-4 c.) frozen peas
  • ¼-½ c. light cream or sour cream
  • fresh cilantro

  • Start with the mashed potatoes. You can use whatever mashed potato recipe you like, but this is a good basic one. It's just a base, anyway. Wash potatoes and slice into chunks about ½ to 1 inch large (you can peel them, if you prefer). Place in a large saucepan, cover with water and add about a tsp. of salt. Cover with a well-fit lid and bring to boil over high heat. Let boil until potatoes are fork-tender, then add butter, milk and salt to taste as you mash. I don't like mine perfectly smooth, and find that having some intact pieces of potato helps back this as an interpretation of aloo mattar, but it's up to you.

    I made the whole peas thing in my cast iron dutch oven, but this would also work in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan.

    First, prep the garlic and ginger. You have two options here: you can chop them roughly, then throw them in the food processor with the tomato and red pepper or you can mince them both finely and add them at the same time as the tomato.
    Put your large, heavy-bottomed pan over a med-high heat and start toasting the whole spices: the cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom. let them get fragrant but don't let them burn. Add the butter/oil, cumin and methi (if using) and stir/toast until the cumin seeds get sizzly and fragrant. Add the onion and let it cook for 2-4 minutes until it starts to soften. Add the turmeric, ground cinnamon, peas and tomato/garlic/ginger/chili mixture. Let simmer for 5-10 minutes, then add cream or sour cream and cilantro. Adjust salt/spicy to taste and serve over mashed potatoes.


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