Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mulukhiya--One Green You Definitely Will Not Find in Whole Foods

Let's start this post in our typically seditious fashion by watching this video of a Cote D'Ivoire cacao farmer who has never tasted chocolate though he has spent his life growing cacao beans. Two takeaways for me: one, profound sadness over the fact that due to colonization and oppression, many (most?) people all over the world will never get a chance to benefit from the fruits of their labor. Much akin to the construction workers in Mumbai who literally live in the construction sites of luxury buildings they will never set foot in again, too many people are ground up in the machine of consumption. On the other hand, this also brought a smile to my face if only in the sense of that despite the hardship, they were still able to smile and enjoy this, albeit small, sensory experience and smile about it.

Food for thought, literally.

Since this entire post is North African in theme, let's continue by listening to this:
And this:
Let's talk mulukhiyah. Mulukhiya is the Corchorus plant, or jute, whose leaves are used in North African cooking. A bitter plant, it grows rather mucilaginous when cooked. If you had to look that word up, bone up on your GRE vocab, boys and girls :) While on, look up masticate, macerate, and mucus. Good :) Basically, the plant becomes slimy, like okra, when cooked--you will even see slime trails when you stir it with your spoon. Appetizing, I know. But you don't care about that! Why!? Because it is incredibly good for you! Health over everything--the leaves are rich in betacarotene, iron, calcium, Vitamin C and more than 32 vitamin and minerals! Heck, you feel healthy just looking at it. Stop whining and eat your greens!

As my friend Erin says, the Tunisian mulukhiya is "the best-tasting motor-oil-looking food I have ever had."

Now, usually, mulukhiya is prepared with a lot of meat, oil, or generally non-vegan-friendly ingredients. I took it upon myself to fix that.

Toni's Kidney Beans and Mulukhiya

Go to your local Middle Eastern store. Stop grumbling--just do it. If you keep shopping at grocery chains, you will never learn how to cook. There, I said. Gauntlet is thrown down; what! :)

The mulukhiya is sold frozen and for a whopping bank-breaker of $2. Gasp!

The way I came up with this version is from constantly making rajma. The process in this case actually matters a lot. I use a pressure cooker. You should really consider investing in one--saves a lot of time.

Soak kidney beans overnight, changing the water a couple of times. On the next day, in a pressure cooker, put both the kidney beans and the solid frozen rock of the mulukhiya inside with some water. Cook for maybe 5-10 minutes. In another pan, start caramelizing/browning very thinly-sliced ribbons of onions. Add some garlic after they have caramelized. Add cumin and coriander powders. Also, see if you can find some Aleppo pepper or what Whole Foods calls the "tagine spice blend." Another crucial ingredient--dried small lemons, often used in Persian cooking. If you cannot find those, use some lime--rind and juice. Some salt.

Once the kidney-mulukhiyah mix is ready, add the onions, etc. to it and cook all of this on a low temperature for a good while. This will definitely get rid of any sliminess, I promise.

Next, time to make some bulgur! You see, there is bulgur, and then there is bulgur...and well, then there is also Bulgar, like me, and vulgar too :) The bulgur in question is a Turkish bulgur. It is definitely not the kind used to make tabbouleh salad--the grains are significantly bigger and fatter. Now that you are at the Middle Eastern store, go ahead and get that too (see how I did that. Heh). It, too, is a whopping $2.69.

The Bulgur-aian

Saute shallots in olive oil. Add turmeric and fresh thyme. Add the bulgur and let the grains brown a little bit. At this point, you could put in some mushrooms or some red pepper paste or ajvar or roasted garlic or truffle powder (if you fancy) or really experiment with anything extra. Add water enough to cover the bulgur by at least two fingers of depth (very scientific measure, I know). Put on a really low heat and cover with a lid. It will be done when all the water has been absorbed.
All I can say about this is that even the pickiest eaters (and there are many) love this--I am talking skateboarders, graffiti artists, both... :) So, bulgur--for the Banskies in your life. :))

Finally, end with a sorghum-date cake. You would probably say, "Toni, this does not look appetizing!" My retort would be, "Umm, what do you expect for a gluten-free, vegan, low-fat and low-sugar dessert!" But in all seriousness, for being ridiculously healthy, this is not half-bad. I "invented" it because I love sorghum!

2 cups sorghum flour
5-6 dates (chopped)
a splash of orange blossom water
1-2 tsp. cardamom
the rind and the juice of one Meyer lemon (sweet lemon)
about 1/2C almond milk (unsweetened)

If the mix is a little too dense, add a little water. Bake at 375 until the top is set.

On the side, have some home-made bread with zaatar. Will tell you about how I always make my bread from scratch next time :)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Pan Con Tomate and Bulgarian Banitsa

Greetings, folks. Let's begin with a message we can all get behind:
And as proof that I like my subversive activities thoroughly riotous, here is a shot of my large arsenal of fireworks for the 4th of July:
Before we move on to the regularly-scheduled culinary delights, check out my latest article where I up to my usual Martha Stewart meets Marla Singer cultural pokings :)
And since we are talking about hipsters, natch, let me tie this in to talking about tapas. The latest "in" thing amongst the prison-tattooed masses are the small bites that have long moved past their originally Spanish roots to essentially mean exorbitantly-priced appetizers. I say we replace tapas with the new item du jour--dim sum is, at least, significantly more substantial and forgiving on your wallet.

Pan Con Tomate, usually priced at $7 a plate, is ridiculously easy to make at home. All you need is good bread, garlic, and a good tomato.
Slice bread; toast it in the oven. When you take it out, rub a garlic clove all over it (trust me when I say I could live on this and this alone. Bread and garlic. The life for an Eastern European). In a little bowl, take a nicely-ripened beefsteak tomato and grate it. There should be no skins--only pulp and seeds. Of course, if you are a real food snob, you could always make tomato concasse, but...whatever, Martha! Add salt and pepper. Assemble the pan con tomate by just spreading the tomato mixture on the bread. Maybe drizzle with good olive oil (that's like the "good" living room--for guests only!) Yes, that simple! "Trust the T :)," as my friend Frank would say.
And in segueing over to my Bulgarian recipe, allow me to share some photos of Bulgarian tomatoes I had the pleasure of eating. Al fresco national pride indeed :)

To further get you into a Bulgarian state of mind, watch this absolutely delightful trailer:

Then proceed with the Bulgarian Justin Timberlake to get amped for your cooking exploits:

Now you are ready to make some banitsa! Opa!

There is no Bulgarian dish that is loved more than the banitsa (well, maybe the shopska salata is a close second). All of our Slav neighbors have some version of it; the Greeks have spanakopita and the Turks have burek.

So--on to Toni's Vegan Banitsa. My poor Grandma is probably rolling in her grave reading this very thing, but I invented a vegan banitsa, sans feta cheese, butters, milk, or eggs. Crazy, you say. Indeed!

1. Chop some green onions (the poor man's leeks, as I like to call them). Toast some walnuts in a pan and chop them. Super crucial step--add zaatar! Zaatar is a spice blend quite akin to a Bulgarian table salt blend called chubrica. This basically makes the dish. Add good olive oil and make the oleo.

2. Take phyllo dough sheets and take about two sheets; maybe drizzle a bit with olive oil and start to do layers. The top layer should be phyllo with olive oil on it.
3. This is super crucial--make criss-cross knife cuts into the whole thing so the slices are in place. Bake the whole thing at 350 until it starts to get a tad bit brown on top; no more than 5-10 minutes. Then take a bottle of sparkling water and pour it over the whole banitsa, making sure it gets through the cracks. You will likely use about 1/2 to 3/4 of the bottle. Throw it back in the oven and bake until the whole thing is set--maybe 15-20 mins. max.

I hope you try it :)