“Less meat, less junk, more plants”

Mark Bittman, NYTimes food columnist-turned-food-advocate, wrote a neat little article  encouraging people to be, on the one hand, more thoughtful about their food, and, on the other hand, less neurotic about it.  Instead of worrying about some silly diet regime,  his ideology of eating is simple: “much less junk, fewer animal products and more veggies.”

For more about the social and environmental impact of this ideology, albeit simplified into soundbite form, check out Bittman’s TED talk from a couple year ago; it’s a clarion call to reduce your intake of meat and processed foods:

Luckily for the whole “Food Stamp Feast” concept, it’s possible to cut out the junk food and switch to (mostly) veggies while keeping your food expenses to a minimum.

I’m not offering you any of my cooking adventures in this post, but in case you’re scrounging for cooking ideas I’ll point your towards ‘Below the Line’ Budget Recipes. It’s a list of tasty and nourishing recipes from a British blogger with a taste for frugality…that’ll give you something to chew on. (Get it?)

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Lentil Chili (…but not vegetarian in any way)

Are those lentils in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Ah, but before you chastise me for having sexual thoughts about your pure, virtuous lentils, let me just say: lentils were meant to be sumptuous and awesome. They just need a little bit of help from the food that makes *everything* sumptuous and awesome: bacon!

Keep in mind that the goal is to build flavor. I don’t want a finished product that simply tastes like bacon, because that would be weird in this instance. What I want is to use bacon as a stepping stone to achieve a tasty chili.

First things first: boil about two cups of lentils and drain them. I gave my lentils about 20 minutes (and used red lentils which don’t take as long as your garden variety ones.) The result was a kind of porridge-y consistency that I wanted for the chili:

lentils

So appetizing, right??

Anyway, start frying some chopped onions in a large pot at medium-low.  While those are going, chop up a few pieces of bacon and fry them in a separate pan.  Get rid of most of the grease and let the bacon sit for a bit.  Meanwhile, once your onions are looking nice and translucent, and on the well-traveled way to brown, add chopped red pepper. Then, the most delicate and essential herb: garlic.  Season everything with salt n’ pepper.  You can also add oregano and cumin and probably some kind of chili powder. (It’s chili, right? What else is chili powder even for?)

Now’s when you can really start to amplify your veggies with the addition of various members of TEAM FLAVOR, depicted below:

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Add a tablespoon of tomato paste, a couple of smoky chipotle peppers from a can, plus a can of diced tomatoes — and your cooked bacon (minus most of its grease.)  If you feel adventurous, you can add your favorite hot sauce. (I was using some frighteningly potent habenero stuff (above) so I added only a few drops.)  At this point it looks something like this:

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Then pour in as much chicken broth as you dare; I used about two thirds of a Tetra Pak™ of the stuff. Then I got confused about whether or not I could recycle said Tetra Pak™, but that’s another story.

Now dump in your lentils, which look kind of comical:

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Finally, mix this all together and let it simmer on low heat for about an hour, with the lid  off so that you can a) reduce some of that broth and b) make the whole house smell like spicy goodness.

Your final product should look something like this:

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Yummy!

Whatever you do (e.g. whether you add more veggies or use ground beef instead of lentils,  for a more orthodox chili), you’ll find that the small amount of bacon and smoky chipotle peppers really round out the flavor.  Instead of just spicy, your chili will possess a pleasing tangy-ness.

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Easy Vegetable Enchiladas

I live with three roommates, all of whom like to cook at home quite a bit.  As you can imagine, our freezer — which is not particularly spacious to begin with — is constantly packed to the gills.  People seem to like to freeze bread before it goes moldy and then abandon it to the frost, someone years ago thought it would be a good idea to freeze a massive pile of peaches, my pumpkin ice cream from last fall is still in there…you get the idea.

My roommate was pondering this situation the other day and decided to get rid of some corn tortillas that had been occupying a bunch of space in there.  Hoping to put them to some good use, and use up some summer veggies to boot, I made easy vegetable enchiladas!

Preheat the oven to 425. (Why screw around roasting vegetables at low temperature?) Chop up some carrots, zucchini/other squash, and (my favorite) eggplant, and douse with olive oil in a roasting tin. Season with salt and pepper and, depending on how much spice you like, chili powder/cayenne pepper. (I’m pretty sure I had some fresh jalapeños around, so threw those in.)  Roast for 40 minutes or so.

The spoon and tortilla (on the right) suggest that I was already jumping the gun for the next step of the process, which is: fill your corn tortillas, cigar style and lay them side by side on another pan.  Then cover your stuffed tortillas with grated cheese.

NOW run out to the grocery store to buy enchilada sauce!  Spread a whole jar’s worth of the sauce on the enchiladas. I used a fancy organic kind:

You could argue that buying enchilada sauce is a form of cheating here…i.e. usually spending money for a pre-prepared product is not in line with the goals of eating cheaply and well.  But in this case, it was a matter of using up my roommates corn tortillas! And getting all the necessaries for home made enchilada sauce would have required a major outing to the grocery store (rather than a quick stop at the co-op).  It’s all about using the materials that are available in a timely and conscious fashion!

Anyway, here it’s appropriate to turn the oven down to 350 or so before putting in your completed enchiladas.  Here’s what they look like out of the oven, after 15 minutes-ish:

Pretty dang good, and not hard to prepare. Serve with some fresh tomatoes, or a simple salad, or some sweetcorn if that kind of thing floats your boat. Most importantly: Enjoy!

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Tempura Cheesecake!

Well, I’ve been working on a short film with a friend of mine for the past month or so.  Luckily for our tiny budget, someone volunteered to cater the film shoot for us! Needless to say, I haven’t had much chance to cook due to being fed all the time…

Not that anyone is out there expecting a huge volume of posts, but there it is.

Anyway, before this craziness began, we went out for a fancy meal at a local sushi place.  Desert was outrageous!

It tasted exactly as amazing as it sounds. Like “Baked Alaska” for yuppies!

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Thai Green Curry: The “only slightly harder” way

In my almost completely uninformed opinion, there are two ways to make Thai green curry.  The super easy way is this: buy some curry paste and coconut milk, both of which are available at your local chain grocery store, cook up some random vegetables, then mix in said curry paste and coconut milk.  Easy!

However, I’m a big advocate for the “only slightly harder” way.  You’ll see that it deserves its name. Basically you just buy some fresh Asian herbs and spices and grind up a curry paste for yourself — then mix with cooked veggies and coconut milk out of a can. Only slightly harder!

What does it take to make the paste? Well, I’ll start with the generic stuff: cumin, lime juice/zest, garlic, ginger, cilantro, fresh basil (or Thai basil), and fresh jalapeno pepper (or the smaller, spicier Thai chilies, a.k.a. “bird’s eye” chilies).

You definitely have a handle on those. Now here are the more obscure ones:

Lemongrass: it is a hardy, reed-y grass with a sharp, citrus-like flavor.  The husk is inedible, though, so it’ll require some forceful peeling before you get to the tender core.  (That said, if you’re interested in making Thai-style soups or broths of any kind, then you can save some of this stalk/husk business and get some future flavor out of it.)

Galangal: looks like fresh ginger, except it is hard as a rock.  It has a bright, tangy taste with a hint of sour, as opposed to ginger’s warmth and spice.

Kaffir lime leaves (on the left): my vocab for describing tastes is stretched to the limit on this one.  These leaves have a fresh, zesty, grassy taste — and just a tad bitter.  It’s one of those tastes that you’ll instantly recognize from Thai restaurants.  The secret is out!

As long as you’re looking at the stuff on my kitchen counter, note the little round baby eggplants on the right.  They’re a nice segue into the next topic, i.e. what vegetables to include in your curry.  You can really choose anything you want! Carrots, snap peas, various peppers, squash…whatever lends buoyancy to your sea faring vessel.  I was a little strapped for vegetables at the time, so I just cooked up those cute little egg-y planties with some green pepper:

Meanwhile, assemble your curry paste ingredients and pulse them into submission in a food processor, like so:

I would recommend starting with the galangal, as it requires a lot more automated chopping than the other ingredients I’ve mentioned, which will all puree pretty easily.  I would also add a little oil as the paste is forming, because it will give it a nice consistency.

Now add this paste to your cooked veggies, mix around, *turn down the heat* and add as much coconut milk as you dare.  (Coconut milk has a tendency to curdle if it gets too hot too quickly.)  The coconut milk won’t require much cooking to lend its rich flavor to the dish, so once the milk has arrived, just let the mixture simmer on low for 5 or 10 minutes.  Some recipes call for diluting the milk with vegetable broth or water, so that’s an option — however, you’ll have to cook the curry longer so that it simmers down to the desired thickness.

If you can’t eat all of your curry, it will be even more delicious once it’s been in the fridge for a few days.

And of course, serve over rice. Oh crap, you remembered the rice, didn’t you?!

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Chinese Cooking Class

This spring, I spent my Sunday mornings cooking home style Chinese food with a cute old Chinese couple:

Qian Jiangwei and Mrs. Qian hail from Suzhou, not far from Shanghai.  Their style of cooking was minimalist, down to earth, with a strong emphasis on balance and simplicity. (And cost control!)  Originally I wanted to document all of the dishes that we made together, but it was an ordeal just to get there on time — let alone remembering to charge my phone or bring my camera.  (Also, most of the dishes are very common, so they’d turn up a million hits on Google anyhow.)

That said, I did learn a few tricks from them that I want to record here before I forget.

One trick is this: If you’re making a dish that calls for very thin, matchstick slices of meat, go ahead and cut the meat while it’s still frozen.  (I’ve seen this tip in Cook’s Illustrated as well.)

Another trick: if you’re working with something that starts to stick to the pan, or tends to dry out while you’re coking it, don’t be afraid to add a little water.  Each time Mr. Qian did this, it always seemed so odd; but it’s surprisingly effective.

Also, don’t forget sugar! Most of the dishes that we made called for a pinch of sugar at one point or another.  Asian cooking famously strives for balance; one dimension of this is the balance between spicy, salty, sour, and sweet.  It may seem strange to add sugar to your savory dishes, but it is often the perfect note to offset spice and vinegar flavors.

Anyhow, check out the final feast from our last day of class:

From the left: beansprouts, braised pork belly, baby bok choi, and some kind of sauteed kipper-like fish. And plenty of rice (not pictured).  Delicious!

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Kung Pao Chicken

Here’s my first attempt at the famous spicy chicken dish.  Note that I’ve never traveled to Sichuan province, so this dish is unrelated to any kind of “real” 宫保鸡丁 — no claims of authenticity will escape my lips.  In fact, I’ve never even looked at a recipe!

That said, Kung Pao chicken (or something like it) was a staple food at my old house.  My roommate swore by his tried and true recipe (which, again, I never looked at).  Though I did watch him make it a number of times, coughing and sputtering as the kitchen filled with capsaicin vapor.  Also, I’ve seen my Chinese professor cook it.  He’s not a professional chef by any means, but he’s competent enough that the local Confucius Institute is willing to pay him to teach a Chinese cooking class (about which I’ll divulge more in a later post…)

Anyway, after letting the experts have their turn at the wok, I’m confident enough to give it a try.

Ingredients include: chicken (shockingly), peanuts, garlic, ginger, dried chili peppers, fermented bean paste, Chinese cooking wine, soy sauce, and black vinegar.

I know you often wonder to yourself, “Gee, after all the hype has died down, precisely which brand of fermented bean paste is *really* the best?”  Well, wonder no further.  I can confidently say that the best brand of fermented bean paste is “Old Stepmother” brand, seen here:

I just love her stern facial expression. That’s how you know it’s good!

Mince the peeled ginger and garlic. Dice your green onions and cut up the chicken into vaguely peanut-sized chunks.  Mix these chicken chunks in a bowl with a dash of cooking wine, soy sauce, and a little corn starch.

Incidentally, the best brand of cooking wine appears to be Shao Xing cooking wine, i.e. I have seen and heard about this stuff so much that I thought “Shao Xing” simply *meant* cooking wine.  (In fact, it’s a city in China where the famous brand is produced.)

Allow the meat to marinate while you heat up a pan with peanut oil or the like. Into the hot oil, drop a few dried chili peppers.  The package of chili peppers may or may not look like this:

I really have a knack for photography, right?  That is such an awful picture…but I took it — and I went to the trouble of doing so while the oil was hot and the kitchen was bustling — so it would be a shame not to include it here.

Anyway, after the peppers have been in the hot oil for a few seconds, strir them around with the garlic, ginger, and diced green onions.  The idea for this step is to release the aroma of these ingredients, not to burn the hell out of them.  With this in mind, you really only need to stir fry these together for thirty seconds to a minute.  Next, add the chicken and stir fry vigorously on a high heat.   While the chicken is gaining its color, add  a good teaspoon of “Old Stepmother” spicy fermented bean paste, a dash of Black Vinegar (or you could use rice wine vinegar), and some light soy sauce.  Also add a generous handful of boiled peanuts, which can be found at your friendly neighborhood Asian market.  Now you’re on the home stretch!

PROVIDED that you took one thing into account. This is the *biggest* trick to Chinese cooking, the one crucial, crucial thing, the thing that will leave you up a shit tree without a tree-descending apparatus if you screw it up…what is it?

Remember to start making rice before you do anything else! 

I am thinking about getting “Remember the rice” tattooed on my forearm.  Seriously, it is very important to your overall happiness.

Assuming you thought about rice, here’s the final product:

Note that the chicken pieces are a little bigger than I advised above.  A screw up on my part…so do as I say, not as I do.  And enjoy that exhilarating Kung Pao spice!

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