Sour and Spicy Sea Bug Soup

Strictly speaking, the Lenten fast is not “vegan”. Vegan is a contemporary term and does not really correlate directly to what is and is not proscribed during this season. For example, honey is always permitted during this time. Also, aquatic animals which have neither spine nor fins (shellfish, basically) can be consumed. This seems to be a quirk of culture. “Oil” is specifically off limits, because in the ancient Byzantine Empire, fine oils were eaten more or less alone as a feasting food, while shellfish were essentially viewed as “bait”. So yes, in today’s world, during Lent, you can have a $30 lobster, but not a $0.50 hot dog, and still be “fasting”. In the Gamer Geek world we call that “rules lawyering” and it isn’t seen in any better light in the faith than it is at the gaming table.

Why am I talking about this? Because today’s recipe involves shrimp, and I didn’t want to confuse anyone. My wife is out of town for a few days, which means I can cook seafood in the house without her complaining about the smell or running around casting “scented candle” spells everywhere (which make me sneeze).

One concession I made to the Lenten season was that I bought a bag of block frozen shrimp (better quality than individually frozen, actually, just more frustrating to get thawed out for use) rather than fresh, to keep the expense down. For this recipe, though, you want shell on, raw shrimp. Ideally you would make this recipe with fresh, whole shrimp. Whole as in heads and legs intact. Shrimp shells and brains contain an enormous amount of flavor which is ideally suited for sauces and broths. However, I’m unaware of a way to get frozen shrimp with the heads still on, so I had to settle for shells intact but headless.

Shellfish should get cooked one of two ways: as hot, fast and brief as possible, or as slow and low as possible. Given that I was starting with something frozen, I had to opt for the latter. I used a stainless skillet for this, and the glass lid with the vent hole from my pasta pot just happens to fit onto this skillet. So, I put the shrimp into the pan with the lid on over very low heat, and turned them over from time to time. This cooking is going to create a lot of water in the pan. Keep this. Hence the lid. Once the shrimp are cooked through, put the shrimp into a bowl in the freezer and transfer the resulting liquid into a large sauce pan.

In a food processor or blender combine stewed tomatoes, roasted garlic, lots of lemon juice (lots), a couple tablespoons of white vinegar, heavy coconut milk, fresh cilantro, a generous amount of “rooster sauce” (or similar sriracha type hot sauce) or a combination of hot peppers and honey/sugar, and kimchee if you have some (I make my own approximation of this as a source of probiotics).

Once the shrimp have cooled, shell them. Put the meat aside, and put all the shells into the sauce pan where your retained liquid is. Add a carton of vegetable broth. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for a long time. Strain, and dispose of the now thoroughly depleted shells. Add the blended items and bring back to a simmer. Make adjustments with lemon, vinegar, honey and heat to create your desired level of “ouch”. If you have access to kaffir leaves, add them during this simmer stage. Be sure to remove them before serving.

Put shrimp meat into a bowl and pour hot broth over them. This will warm them through without making them over cooked and tight. I recommend serving this with either glass noodles or rice noodles. Prepare them separately and add them to the bowl with the shrimp, and then pour over the broth.

Just don’t forget to cast an immunity to fire spell on yourself before digging in. And to have a breath mint after.

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Endlessly Absorbing Grain (+3 against curries)

This past Wednesday I needed to prepare a dish to take to a pot luck dinner which was occurring after Lenten Vespers. The parish I attend is overwhelmingly dominated by Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian families. I neither know how to cook the food of The Levant nor would I want to go toe-to-toe with some of the mothers and grandmothers who can. So, for these kinds of events, I turn to the vegetarian fare of “The Sub-continent” aka India. At least as a starting point. Almost nothing I cook could ever really be seen as an attempt to produce an “authentic” ethnic dish.

So, the plan for this past Wednesday was roasted vegetables, legumes and barley in a coconut milk curry. Pause to store provisions, memorize spells and tune your weaponry, this is going to be long.

1 cup hulled barley
1/2 cup yellow dal
1/2 cup green lentils

Combine with five cups of water in a Dutch oven, bring to a boil, cover and put into a 375 degree oven for an hour.

1 can heavy coconut milk
1 cup tomato soup (I like the tomato and roasted red pepper in a carton stuff, myself)

Place this in a small sauce pan over low heat.

Work in these spices. I grind them all in a coffee grinder to a fine powder both to “wake up” and reduce textural impact.

red pepper flake
smoked paprika
garam masala
muchi curry
turmeric
coriander
cardamom
cumin
garlic powder (not salt)

I use a fairly balanced amount of each, and not much of any. If you want to get precise, I’d start with 1/8 teaspoon of all, if that seems under seasoned after 15 minutes of simmering, go up to 1/4 teaspoon of each.

What follows had been prepared previously

roughly chop a balanced amount of each of these items:

yellow sweet onion
red onion
several garlic cloves
zucchini
baby carrots (can be left whole, or roughly chop big carrots)
celery
fresno peppers
orange or yellow bell pepper [1]
brussel sprouts (whole or halved if fairly large examples)

Combine with a small amount of oil and salt into Dutch oven 425 degree heat, uncovered, for at least an hour. You’ve got a lot of water to drive out, here. Stir every 10 or 15 minutes so that neither to top nor the bottom get burnt. Basically continue this until you worry they’ll get absolutely mushy. You’re doing dry cooking, so you aren’t losing any nutrients anywhere, just driving out water which is tasteless and has no nutrition.

This kind of vegetable combining and roasting is one of my “staple” techniques. I make fairly large batches of this and then re-use it in many ways. Most of the previous batch got rendered down into sauce by pureeing it and adding stewed tomatoes and basil.  I deliberately leave it without seasoning or spice to keep it as versatile as possible.
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Returning to real time…

Fold some of this vegetable mixture into the red curry such that it is neither sparse nor overwhelming. combine this with the lentil and barley mixture.

Ideally, served with naan or some other similar flat bread and eaten with the hands, but as it has grain in it, you can just dive in with a spoon.

What you are supposed to end up with is a kind of thick stew of red sauce in which you find vegetables, grain and legumes. But I needed to make this in the early afternoon, and services were at 6:30. So when I was done, I put this into the serving dish I was going to use, and put it back into the oven at 200 degrees. I should have put it in covered. I was worried it would get watery if I did. What ended up happening is that the barley sucked all the water out of the coconut milk and the soup and so what I served, instead of being a very loose, saucy kind of stew, was a thick, sticky, almost spreadable kind of situation. And most of the color cooked out of it, too, so it was all brown.

It was still tasty, just not what I set out to serve. The good news, I guess, is that it was easy to spread into a piece of pita bread and eat.

[1] Colors equate to specific sweetness levels. Green are bitter. Red aren’t as sweet as orange or yellow.