How to Avoid Cooking with Bugs

Having East European ancestry, I cook with a lot of paprika — the hot and the smoked kind, not the sweet kind. Until I can afford to buy all of my spices in fancy shops with high quality product, this means getting my paprika in small metal tins at the grocery store, being careful to always get the ones that say “hot” because they look exactly like the ones that do not say “hot” aside from this single word.

I just opened a new can today so that I could include it in a rub I was putting on a rump roast. [1] Thankfully, I was preparing a dry rub and poured the paprika out into the spice mill, not directly onto the meat. BUGS! Lots and lots of little pill bugs. Somehow alive, and moving about. They’ve been inside a sealed can, with nothing but hot paprika for months. Many months. How are they alive?

This was nearly a huge disaster. I nearly cooked a huge roast with a bunch of bugs. Being an American, if I had discovered the bugs after I cooked the roast, despite well above boiling point heat for hours, I’d have concluded the food was “ruined”.

Lesson: When opening a new container of dried goods that you can’t see into at the time you buy it (like a box or a tin, not a glass jar), be sure to make the first pour into a dish and do some examinations before letting the contents touch anything you plan to eat.

I’m going to be over here rocking back and forth and mumbling quietly to myself.

[1] One of the several local Whole Foods in Houston has some kind of an arrangement with a local farm which raises grass fed beef. Since I am the only one in the house who eats meat, and then only a few days of the week, certain weeks of the year besides, I can no longer sustain a regular standing order from a farm directly, which is what I used to do. This is the next best thing. I usually get the eye round roast because it is almost like a tenderloin but costs $5 a pound instead of $30 a pound. They were out of those, so today we’re trying the rump roast. Mine was more than two pounds and should probably last me almost two weeks of lunches.

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Why Do Druids Sell Fresh Herbs Only in Huge Bunches?

Maybe this is only a problem for those of us who rarely cook for more than two people at a time. But when I’m buying fresh basil, or cilantro, or parsley, I really (really) don’t need three quarters of a pound of cilantro. After you’ve put that quarter cup of chopped herbage into your recipe, what do you do with the rest of the bunch before it is fit only for the compost?

Mint is easy. You put it in the food processor with sugar and just enough water and you then have a great simple syrup for your spirituous libations.

Rose mary, sage, and other heartier greens should be wrapped in towels and dried. This way they keep a long time, and work more or less just as well — sometimes better.

But the delicate greens like basil, parsley and cilantro? What do you do?

Step one is to find an art supply or restaurant supply shop (do not go to a dedicated cooking store as these are almost always very over priced, especially that one you find in upscale malls that seems to be named after a California grape growing region) and to purchase a few squeeze bottles of a reasonable size. You know, the kind that look like they should have ketchup or mustard in them. But get clear ones if you can, not the red and yellow ones, to avoid confusion.

Next, put your herbs, one at a time please, into your blender or food processor with high quality olive oil. High quality, but not the super ultra premium stuff.

As a bit of a tangent, let’s talk about olive oil. Everyone loves to talk about fancy extra virgin olive oils. Everyone loves to find those free samples in the grocery store with bits of bread to taste oils that come in tall, skinny, dark green glass bottles which are the equivalent of a single barrel scotch or a regional wine. This stuff is not for cooking. This stuff is for eating. Yes, by itself, with bread. These high end oils have unique, strong flavors that don’t belong in food, but do belong in your belly. Heck, when the Orthodox fasting rule excludes oil, what it means is this kind of oil, the stuff you’d break out for a feast of some kind, not eat everyday. Why not everyday? Because that skinny glass bottle costs $20 or more, that’s why not. But our culture has even gotten a bit weird about cooking olive oil, as well. TV chefs of the variety that make me question the way men think about women and also drive me to drink like to get all sassy about their “ee vee oh oh” when they’re cooking. Behold as I wave my magic wand and make you disappear (that’s a remote control joke). As a rule of thumb, the higher the quality of the olive oil, the lower the smoke point is. Thus, the better it is, the less useful it is for cooking. Now, I’m not saying you should start doing all your cooking with canola or vegetable shortening. I’m just saying that there’s nothing wrong with those big cans (or big plastic bottles) of fairly generic extra virgin olive oil or even olive oils that are not extra virgin, or even virgin. This stuff is cheap. It has a high smoke point, and you can get more than 20 ounces of it at a time, which is good. This is what you’re supposed to cook with. Sure, it isn’t prestigious, but that’s because you aren’t going to put it out on the table in a clear dish for dipping bruschetta into. You’re going to use huge glugs of it at a time to make your food cook better and taste better. And you don’t want to go broke in the process. I cook almost exclusively with olive oil. We keep small amounts of sesame oil in the house for certain Asian dishes, and we have some extremely high smoke point stuff like safflower around for the wok, and baking gets done with something more neutral than olive oil. But if I’m cooking, I’m cooking with olive oil. Like my “go to” preserved vegetable items, I buy this stuff in bulk at the warehouse store. Seriously. There is no shame in this. You may find that many dishes actually taste better with a cheaper olive oil that brings less flavor into the mix. Try making steel cut oats one morning with that top shelf stuff and tell me it isn’t better with the cheap stuff.

Sorry, tangent over. Put your herbs into the blender or food processor with some of your good but not great olive oil. There’s a balancing act here, much like making the simple syrup with the mint, where you want just enough of the herb and the oil so that neither really dominates the mix. Store this in the squeeze bottle in the fridge. This will now keep much longer than fresh herbs do, but gives you a way to cook with fresh herb like flavor without wasting huge bushels of green leaves in the compost every two or three days. Just remember to take the bottle out and let the oil come up to room temperature before trying to use it, or it won’t come out of the bottle. Also remember to put it immediately back into the fridge when you’re done.

If you want to make an amazing salsa-type dip, dice up your veggies (onion, tomato, tomatillo, garlic, chili &c.) and then dress them with a bit of cumin, salt, and your cilantro oil. No nasty leaves in your teeth, and still that great, fresh, green lawn clippings flavor! Or, make an Italian cold salad with white beans (cannellini) and your basil oil.

Quest for the Wholly Chicken (Roasted)

I have this problem roasting chicken:  I have been following recipes that seem to be written by people who don’t like chicken.  I also don’t pay attention as much as I should, but even when I have paid attention the roasted chicken I have made hasn’t been all that great.  I believe I fixed that last night.

I received Anthony Bourdain’s cookbook as a gift — which is just as fun to read as it is to cook with.  As usual for this sort of thing, the recipes have ingredients that I don’t tend to keep around.  This recipe is going to change one item though:  white wine.  As for the other things, I made substitutions that were sufficient enough for the result to be wonderful.  The chicken was flavorful, juicy, and delicious; it represented exactly what I have been trying to do.  It required a little tending, but for the result I got, it was worth it.

  • 4lb whole chicken
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1T rosemary
  • 1T thyme
  • 2t lemon juice
  • 1 “medium” sweet onion — halved, in “the easiest way, in your opinion”
  • 1T bacon fat (the recipe called for the giblets, but this was what I decided to use in their absence)
  • 1/2c white wine — This is wine I didn’t mind drinking.  I finally learned that if I wouldn’t otherwise drink “it” (wine, whisky, vermouth, etc.), then there was no point cooking with it.
  • 1/4c olive oil

Rinse the chicken and pat dry with a paper towel.  Rub all over with salt and pepper.  This is very important.  I was not shy and rubbed it all over.

Splash lemon juice into body cavity.  View this like an adhesive for the thyme and rosemary.  Ideally, the spices should be somewhat spread around, not settled into a heap.  Add half the onion and then truss the legs together.

Rub the bacon fat on the bottom of a roasting pan (the inside, dude… the inside…). I used a cast iron dutch oven for this because it is better for me than any roasting pan I’ve used (it also makes a fair helmet in an emergency…).  Slice the remaining half of onion into 4 pieces and lay flat in bottom of pan.  I’m a “tuck the wings behind the bird” cook, so I did that before I put it in the pan — on top of the onion slices.[[3]]  Pour in the wine, being careful not to rinse off the salt and pepper rub.  Drizzle olive oil over bird. [[1]]

Cook for 30 minutes at 375F, basting every 10 minutes.  Now it’s okay to have some of that rub rinse off, you won’t be able to baste otherwise.  I cooked it in 10 minute increments to ensure the bird spent all 30 minutes in the oven.  Crank the oven to 450F and cook for 25 minutes, covered and left alone.  Remove from oven, leave covered for 15 minutes to rest.  This 40 minutes of being unobserved is the moment of Quantum Cooking.  Maybe the chicken comes out alright, maybe it’s a mess — but that lid can’t be opened until the full 40 minutes is up.

Remove bird from pan, remove onion — and giblets if you happened to have and use those.  Put pan on low heat and scrape around in there (wooden spoon!!!) to loosen up all the flavorful bits.  The original recipe called for another 1/2c of wine, but I used 3/4c of water with about 2T of cornstarch to thicken.  I’m not very good at gravy, so cornstarch is my escape plan.  A roux could be used, but I’m not that good with that either.

And that was it.  I had a nice juicy bird with some outstanding gravy (duh… it had bacon fat in it!!).

Keeping bacon fat is a leftover (har har) from my childhood.  My parents and grandparents always had a container of drippings.  It was what was used before “cooking sprays”.  Sometimes butter was used, but bacon fat is heavier and won’t cook off as quickly as butter will.  Also, depending on the bacon you use, there is phenomenal flavor in bacon fat that is a shame to feed to your Omnivorous Trashcan or worse, The Gurgling Drain of Death.  [[2]]

[[1]] Do yourself a big favor and get an olive oil cruet to your adventuring gear.  Avoid kitchy, decorative crap.  Get one that you can easily tell (a) you will be able to fill without gymnastics, application of quantum physics, or anti-gravity, and (b) that you can actually hold on to if it gets slippery.  It contains oil — it’s going to get slippery at some point.

[[2]] … never put heavy oily sludge down your drain!!! It will seriously mess up septic tanks, and fouls up waste processing in municipal water.  “Other people do it”, but Heroic Cooking Adventurers are better than “other” people.  Besides, every adventurer knows you never throw something away — the DM has provided it for a reason not yet obvious to you (or overlooked that they just handed you an unplanned solution to an Epic Problem).

[[3]] 2011-12-28 — I’ve learned after a few adventures that putting the onion in the pan such that the bird can rest on it is a good thing.  This requires the onion to be cut into 4 slices, roughly the same thickness.  My observation is that the meat absorbs more good flavor from the onion this way and the onion breaks down more and contributes to the juices for gravy.

What Good Is a Spell-book Without a Pouch Full of Physical Components?

I have been wracking my brain trying to remember blatant “happy accidents” since John invited me to co-author on this blog, but so far, I haven’t been to sufficient therapy sessions, it seems, to un-repress them. Soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I will continue a bit on the theme from my first entry with regards to flexibility and working with left overs.

One key to establishing flexibility and adaptability in the kitchen is to develop a core set of “go to” items which you understand deeply and which occur over and over in your spell-book, ehem… cookbook. For me, these items include cans of stewed tomatoes, cans of tomato paste, marinated artichoke hearts, olives (green, black and kalamata), garlic, onion, capers, and then wet items such as olive oil, lemon juice, various vinegars, vegetable broth and then staples like lentils and barley. These are the physical components for casting the spells in your spell-book. I use these things to make everything from pasta sauce to tapenade, soups, stews, and cold salads. I buy them in bulk at warehouse stores. Seriously. Huge quantities. Notice that they’re all things which are unlikely to spoil. That’s the key.

With careful honing of skills, advanced Kitchen Klerics can also use them to polymorph yesterday’s soup into tonight’s sauce or stew.

Behold.

Last night I made lentil soup (what is it with us and lentil soup?!?!). On purpose. Here was my approach for the soup:

Simmer half a cup of green lentils in water until nearly fork tender. I use roughly a 3 to 1 water to lentil ratio. The trick is to not go 100% dry when you reach “done-ness” but you don’t want too much left over, either. Saute chopped leafy greens in olive oil until soft but not disintegrating. Lightly pulse one can of stewed tomatoes w/ basil until rough chopped. Combine with vegetable broth to create 4 cups of flavorful liquid. Add new liquid and greens to tender lentils, retaining any water still not absorbed by the lentils. Season with salt, all three: hot, half-sharp and smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro. Bring all the new liquid up to heat quickly so the lentils and greens don’t go to mush. Add already cooked barley (see Alton Brown’s technique for baked barley) and serve.

To clarify, the salt, half-sharp paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro were in a blend provided by Penzey’s which they call “Turkish blend”. The hot and smoked paprika I added myself. Also, as a point of order, that’s as close to a formal recipe as you’re ever going to get from me. Fair warning.

Now, part of last night’s experiment was to avoid past disasters in which creating correct proportions between ingredients resulted in eight quarts of soup for two people. This was probably enough soup to serve four hungry people. I had some left over for lunch after last night’s dinner, and so tonight’s goal would be to use up what remains without simply eating more soup.

There was also a carton of mushrooms (baby portobello, which I think are really just re-branded button mushrooms) in the fridge. I hate mushrooms. I will eat nearly anything. Often in states of cooked or uncooked that would terrify most other people. I am a genuinely adventurous eater. My “no freaking way” list is very short. Wax beans are on it, and mushrooms are on it. Haggis is probably on it, but I intend to never find out. But we ended up with this carton of mushrooms because my wife wanted to make a particular recipe which called for them last Friday. I talked her out of including them in that recipe, but we already had the carton in the house. What to do? Clearly, I need a high level spell which will obliterate the evil fungus into something I can eat. This is where those “go to” components shine.

In a skillet saute chopped garlic and chopped mushrooms with a generous amount of olive oil. In a second skillet defrost a bag of sweet peas. Once the peas are no longer cold and the mushrooms have reduced down considerably, add a proportional amount of peas to the mushrooms (put the rest of the peas in the fridge and combine with black beans for a nice salad later in the week). Add some of the chopped leafy greens from the night before which didn’t go in the soup because you made too much of them (they were also from a frozen bag). Add chopped up artichoke hearts, drained of their marinade. Put last night’s left over lentil soup into the blender and render into a liquid. Add this to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drive out most of the water. Serve over baked barley or pasta. If it isn’t Wednesday or Friday, add a hard, well aged cheese, shredded.

There is no way I am going to taste those mushrooms. Viola! Food doesn’t get wasted, I don’t have to hold my nose while I eat, and once again, my tried and true “go to” elements save the day.

Speaking of skillets, I remain relatively convinced that the only cooking vessels you really need to own are one large pot for boiling pasta, a Dutch (or French) oven, two cast iron skillets, a couple of simple steel sauce pans and a wok. If you cook eggs, you need something nonstick, otherwise you don’t. The only items here that may ever wear out are the pasta pot and the sauce pans. The cast iron and the wok should actually get better the more you use them. Think of these items as the armor which is permitted for your Kitchen Kleric. Huge arrays of shiny pans or entire sets of nonstick are out of bounds for your character class.

I promise not to mention lentils or lentil soup again anytime soon. Really.

Pot Pie of Fire (aka, Don’t Broil a Pot Pie)

Yeah, that’s pretty obvious now isn’t it?  This brilliant idea is brought to you by the Hippos of Hunger, Insanity of Late Evening, and a completely failed intelligence check.  Common Sense was on vacation I suppose.

From time to time we have a chicken pot pie.  We have a local farm that prepares them with Happy Meat [1] and sometimes Good Vegetables [2].  They are packaged in a convenient aluminum container with a cardboard cover that has the directions on it.  The directions include “Remove this Before Cooking”.

This is the point where I note that this is a reason why I started this blog.  This is one of those simple plans that went crazy because of a simple step overlooked.  It’s a silly story, it’s a simple story, it made a few people laugh when I told it in person.  So why not laugh here too?

And so, after it’s directed 50 minutes of being in the oven, the result was a very hot pot pie with a completely uncooked top crust.  The crust could have been removed and the contents used otherwise, but a good idea at the time seemed to be to broil it for a short bit to quickly cook the crust.

This is where Hunger + Late Evening + FAIL comes into play.

So setting the broiler on Hi (FAIL!) I set a timer for 10 minutes and walk away (Lo and “stayed to watch it intently” would have been smarter…).  Right around the time I thought I smelled something cooking I headed out into the kitchen to find flames ever so gently licking at the oven window.

Of course, I opened the oven instead of turning it off.  Why?  Because I’m a man and it is fire!  I must play with the fire first!  And, like any good adventurer, something on fire doesn’t say “Danger!!!” it says “please inspect me more closely, you know you want to.”

And so I still ended up with a pot pie, with very hot contents, and a completely unusable crust.

The end result was simple.  I believe forms of this were called “SOS” in the military, how appropriate.  Basically, put it on toast.  Uncomplicated, and easy to do in the late evening.  Besides, I’ve never lit toast on fire… yet.

Cheers!

-jw-

[1] Happy Meat is what we like to call the locally raised meat which is at least Free Range, though not always Organic despite the farms commitment to feeding them “good food”.  From everything we know about this farm, they do try.  They just can’t guarantee absolutely organic intake by their animals.

[2] Good Vegetables is my name for those that I believe are local or came from a well-intended co-op.  Again, absolutely conclusive evidence here is lacking, but the local farm doesn’t give me that Used Car Salesman vibe in any form.

I Thought I Was Making Lentils not Soup

There is an unplanned lentil theme to start here.  That has a certain ironic humor about it since a theme of this blog is cooking adventures — and real adventures are rarely planned.

Lentils are easy to cook.  Or they are supposed to be, right?  They are apparently so easy that the bags I get do not have preparation suggestions other than “you are making soup”.  Not yet I wasn’t.  My quest was for plain lentils to go as a side with my meals this week.

As any inquisitive cook can do these days, I consulted a web search engine which gave me thousands of results.  Of course, there’s nothing fewer these days than thousands of results unless I’ve spelled my search criteria wrong or provided too much for it to know what I’m asking for.  It also seems that almost everyone on the Internet also wants to make lentil soup; but when someone is making plain lentils, we intuitively know if they are using red, white, yellow, green, or mauve.  Though hopefully not mauve because I think I may be confusing those with a bag of beads I’ve seen recently.

But from the thousands of mostly soup-related results, I did find a few suggestions on how to cook plain lentils.  Now equipped with a vague idea on how to do something simple, I figured I had it covered.  Lentils, one-and-a-half times that in water, cook until “tender”.

While cooking, I sometimes end up on the phone to catch up with relatives.  It is convenient since I have lots of time that doesn’t require intense thinking and I can talk and cook.  But what I should have been doing was not cooking my lentils as if they were rice.  And that right there was lesson #1.  Lesson #2 is that lentils continue to cook when removed from heat.  So the “tender and moist” look when removed from heat can quickly turn into “mushy and dry” if one is not careful.

As is my habit when I prepare something, I try it as intended and then determine if something else needs to be done with it.  I have rarely changed a recipe part way through to make a different-than-planned dish*, so I thought I could safely get away with serving the lentils as is. (* That’s more about stubbornness than proficiency.)

It took a couple of forkfuls at dinner to realize the lentils needed a Plan B that didn’t include weighing down the weekly trash with them.

The next morning I brought my old friends “onion” and “garlic” to the rescue accompanied by “carrots” and “vegetable broth” as support.  They were the clerics healing my savaged Lentil Warrior after battling the Cauldron of Death.  The end result of my lentil side-dish was a simple and tasty soup.  It could easily take rice to bulk it up, and I may even pull out a Bag of Spinach +1 to continue rounding it out.  Because, as has been said in another article, why serve leftovers the same way twice?

Lentil Polymorph Soup

2-1/2 c lentils

3-3/4 c water

  • Cook lentils until tender (requires monitoring, which I didn’t do, and that resulted in dry lentils … which resulted in soup!)

1 Large Sweet Onion, chopped small

1T garlic, minced

2 carrots, chopped small (would work with more, but this is what I had on hand)

4c vegetable broth

olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

  • Over low heat in a large skillet (I used a #10 cast iron Wagner, a Griswold clone), sauté onions and garlic in about 1T of olive oil — enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan.  Sauté until onions are soft and begin to change color.
  • Over low heat in a large pot (I used a 6 qt. stainless, the kind with the aluminum composite bottom), heat carrots in about 1T of olive oil until soft — I did these separately to conserve on time.  These could be done in the same pot, starting with the carrots, and adding the onions and garlic after about 5 minutes.
  • Remove pot from heat.  Add those nice, dry, barely edible lentils.  Add vegetable broth.
  • Return to medium heat and bring to a simmer, and then remove from heat.  Everything is already cooked.  If this boils, or simmers for too long, you may end up with paste.  I happen to like a “chunky” lentil soup, so no blending happens here.
  • Salt and Pepper can be added either to the entire pot, or per bowl.  I prefer per bowl to let everyone judge for themselves.
  • A drizzle of olive oil to each serving also helps make it a little more filling and add flavor — fat is flavor, and olive oil is good fat.

And there you have my adventure with lentils that polymorphed into soup.  After some advice on how to cook lentils, I now believe I know the right way… but I’ll wait to see how that works out before sharing.

Cheers!

-jw-

It Is Only Ruined if There Is Nothing Left But Carbon

I don’t know how to cook from recipes. My mother uses recipes for anything she’s only done once or twice, but never again after that. My grandmother, who really set out to teach me to cook, not only doesn’t use recipes, she doesn’t measure anything. This means that I’ve spent most of the past 20 years or so (ouch) “cooking without a net”. While no one has ever been hurt or killed [1]  (that I know of) during these high wire antics, I am definitely glad that many of my earliest accidents are forgotten in time. I didn’t really hit my true stride until the occurrence of two things:

  • The Food Network began re-broadcasting the Japanese show “Iron Chef”. Unlike (either of) the American version(s), the original Japanese program spends a lot of time showing you not only what the chefs are doing, but why, and the on-floor commentator asks a lot of questions which get very educational answers. You can learn a lot watching this show.
  • The Food Network began airing Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”. If you watch the earliest seasons of this show, you notice that each episode focuses on some very staple food item, and that rather than giving you recipes, per se, AB focuses on techniques and cooking science. He uses recipes as a kind of condescension to the conversation, but the emphasis is always that these are templates, not narrowly understood. This appealed to a geeky guy like me (and millions of others) and again, I learned a lot.

This new found knowledge allowed me to go into the kitchen with a lot more purpose even when I wasn’t sure what I was about to cook. From this point forward, if I made a mess of things in the kitchen, it was a genuine accident, not merely blundering ignorance. The Japanese “Iron Chef” does not seem to be easily available on DVD, but the early seasons of “Good Eats” are. If you want to “up your game” in the kitchen, even if you are not a geeky guy, I would recommend making the time to watch this stuff.

So in that vein, this first entry is going to be much more about a mode of thinking than about any specific incident in my life of cooking and what happened. The number one golden rule I have learned about food preparation is the title of this entry: it is only ruined if there is nothing left but carbon. One of the most important techniques for cooking without a net is to always be willing to abandon the dish you were trying to make and to serve something else entirely in the event that, dare I say it, things go pear shaped. Examples:

  • You are trying to make a meatloaf and the whole thing seizes up and crumbles — turn it into hash instead.
  • Your vegetable casserole comes out wet and soggy — blend it into a soup. You may or may not need to boil up some small noodles to dress it up.
  • That same casserole, the next time, comes out dry and brown — chop it up, dress it with fine oil, use it as a sauce.
  • Half your dinner guests were a no show and you have a huge left over roast — chili, stew and more hash.
  • Extra lentils can either be soaked in broth for soup or dried in the oven for flat bread.

There may be some exceptions to this rule involving seafood unless you have some truly advanced techniques, but you get the idea.

A good way to build up your skills at this kind of “clutch play” is to create low stakes practice for yourself. Resolve to never, ever waste left overs. Also resolve to never eat them the same way twice. But the real practice in this is learning to let go of whatever goal you had for a dish and to adapt as needed. Be nimble, be flexible, and don’t get too attached. If I was a different kind of person, I’d say cultivate your zen. But I’m not that guy.

By way of condescension in the “Good Eats” tradition, I’ll include two “recipes” (as close to them as I can write) to try to illustrate the basic idea for which I am advocating here. Here is a moong bean curry recipe followed by a flat bread recipe which uses the left over curry.

For this dish, I opted to grind my own curry spices. I ground whole fennel, black and yellow mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek seeds), and kalonji (nigella seeds) to which I added powdered turmeric, garlic powder and cayenne powder. I use my spare coffee bean grinder for spices. I also used fresh tarragon leaves, a storage onion which had been sauted down until brown, some salt (if you want to be super cool, find Indian black salt) and a can of coconut milk. All this gets pureed into a kind of sauce. Near as I can tell, all Desi cuisine cooks any kind of dal (legumes) in a pressure cooker. I don’t have one so I either use the crock pot on days when I have all day, or simmer on the stove on days when I don’t. I start out with a two to one ratio of liquid to lentils, but with moong beans you’ll want to start three to one. Cook until fork tender but be sure not to go all the way to mushy. If you want something more like a soup, add some vegetable broth when you add the flavorful sauce, if you want a curry dish to serve over rice, just add the sauce.

Now that you have lots of extra dal curry that you don’t know how to use up, you can make what I very geekily refer to as Lambas Bread. Remember, that’s Tolkien’s idea of travel rations for the Elven people, a single bite of which is supposed to sustain a grown man for a whole day. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Take your left over dal curry and combine it in a 3 to 2 ratio with buckwheat flour either in your food processor or stand mixer. Let it run a good, long time. Do not, no matter what you do, add water or broth. No matter how over-dry or over tight you think it is, that’s fine, just leave it. Spread this out as thin and even as you can on a non-stick baking surface (silicon sheet, Teflon pan or parchment on a hotel pan) and slide it into the oven. The idea here is to drive out as much moisture as possible. But of course, you don’t want to burn it. This is the reason for the low heat. The first time I did this I started at 350 and had to radically reduce the heat to avoid burning the edges. As it stands, you may have to cut off the edges as too far gone in order to get the center truly dry. Once done, use either a pizza slicer or a big cleaver to cut into large cookie sized squares.  Be warned when eating. This stuff is dense and will fill you quickly. I would recommend having it with a few chutneys and maybe just one vegetable or meat dish and nothing else. Otherwise, you’ve got even more left overs.

I hope this gives you a flavor (sorry) for what it is I’m describing here. Flat bread, travel bread, really couldn’t be any less like a soup or a curry. I hate the phrase “think outside the box”. What you really need to do is not get over-focused. Think in potentialities and properties rather than in goals and actualities. Curry is wet and mushy. But it is high in protein and can easily give up its water with heat. High quality cuts of meat have great grain and marbling, but these are the very things which eventually render down so wonderfully into either chili or stew which have neither grain nor marbling.

This is in danger of becoming a ramble in search of a dead horse.  Just remember, if you never announce your menu ahead of time, your guests won’t know that the soup, stew, chili, pasta and sauce you’re serving is an “accident”. They’ll just know it is tasty.

Happy cooking!

~ Jim

[1] OK, OK, I had to go to the emergency room. Once. But that was a knife accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with the food.