Something from Nothing: Ramiro’s Beef Stew

As a long time fan of both a) learning and b) free things, the relatively recent surge in available MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has me enraptured. Thanks to Coursera and EdX, as well as the many institutions they partner with, I’m on my eighth free, online course. While many study at their own pace, I tend towards the deadline-driven approach, keeping up with course material as it’s posted each week and trying my best to complete the occasionally rigorous, occasionally token assignments. The courses, while not worth any so-called credit, are my way of preventing a lapse in productivity and abundance of unallocated free time, which my anal retentive nature prefers to avoid at all costs (read: my sanity).

Whether or not the unnecessary rigidity is healthy or not, I’m certainly learning a lot of really fascinating things. I’m currently deep in focus on international development, exploring topics in subsistence marketplaces, forest livelihoods, and sustainable agriculture. One class has been providing a particularly rich experience through short videos of and interviews with people living in both rural and urban subsistence, with a focus on India.

As a relatively rich westerner with little exposure to poverty in day to day life, it can be hard to grasp what a simple, average life would look like isolated from the abundant, unappreciated wealth of the first world. Movies, television, and your average travel experience may offer glimpses of this reality, but generally fail to depict the mundane aspects of life that inform the human experience. Call me an anthropologist (which actually, I am), but to me the mundane holds the most meaning, value, and insight. Which is why I’m so excited that these straightforward videos answer simple questions like, “Where do you sleep?,” “Do you buy soap?,” “How do your children get to school?,” “When do you eat dinner,” and so on, providing an incredibly rich window into the daily life of billions.

 

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Why do I mention it?

Well, it just keeps making me think back to this past spring and the magical month I spent working on a small, off-the-grid ranch in Mexico, Rancho La Venta. The ranch was staffed by a small crew: the owners (a hard-working, dedicated ex-pat couple), one or two temporary helpers, and Ramiro, a Baja native and long-time ranch hand.

 

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And that’s why I mention it.

Largely isolated on the ranch, Ramiro was my window into life in La Sierra de la Laguna. His English was limited to a handful of words. My Spanish, a cruel amalgamation of Italian and Spanish unintelligible to either speaker, was a mess. But we worked with each other every day, and soon enough we were bantering – albeit disjointedly – comfortably enough that I became translator between him and my hopelessly Spanish-less (but expertly Australian) roommate.

Over the course of the month I got to know, piece by piece, a bit of his story. But the funny thing is that the most powerful exchange we had was not with words or pictures or even a shared wheelbarrow full of horse manure. It was a meal.

 

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Ramiro was – by his own reckoning – the best cook in his family. He was the requested chef for family events of all sizes, and never failed to bring a homemade lunch – albeit always the same one – to work. He had long promised to demonstrate his culinary prowess and one day finally showed up with a package of beef, a stack of handmade tortillas, and a fixin’ on makin’ good.

I watched him in action. Stern as a soap opera surgeon he requested: “Tomate.” “Patata.” “Poblano.” When what we had didn’t align with expectations, he made it work. To offers of assistance he merely raised a hand in silent dismissal. Taking a break only to march into the garden for a handful of scallions, Ramiro put on a nonstop show worthy of the finest in culinary entertainment. Finally, he turned and declared, “Finito.”

 

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Somehow that handful of incredibly simple – yes even boring – ingredients came together to make something not necessarily grander, but a whole lot more flavorful, than the sum of its parts. Hearty, yet somehow perfect even after a 95 degree day, this water-based stew had taken on new life in the 10 minutes it simmered together. Perhaps it was the beef, which likely came from a cow down the road, or the lovingly flowered cherry tomatoes, or the brave scallions just picked from our desert garden. I don’t know. However it happened, it did, and it will forever serve in my memory as a reminder that just because you have more shit doesn’t mean it smells any better. Not sure why it had to be a poop related adage, but there it is.

So if you use Ramiro’s lovely, simple, rustic, ranch stew as inspiration for your next meal, I hope you remember to keep it simple, and perhaps give a nod to others in the world making amazing things with what some might see as nothing.

 

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Ramiro's Beef Stew

  • Servings: Oh, plenty
  • Time: A little while, but not too long
  • Difficulty: fácil
  • Print

Ramiro used what we happened to have in our sparse pantry for this spur of the moment stew. I have listed those ingredients as best I can here, but in no way mean for them to be rigid instructions. You can adapt this very forgiving, incredibly simple recipe to your pantry as well, using whatever you happen to have, in almost whatever quantity.

Ingredients

  • Oil
  • Garlic, a few cloves, minced
  • Poblano, one or two, large diced
  • Scallion, two or three, chopped
  • Potato, a handful of small white potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • Cherry tomatoes, a handful, with two incisions made in the shape of a cross on one end so each tomato sort of opens up like a flower (this was Ramiro’s real showstopper move)
  • 7 oz. can of Herdez salsa casera
  • A few thin slices of beef, cut into bite-sizes pieces
  • Oregano
  • Black pepper
  • Handmade corn tortillas

Directions

  1. Add a swirl of cooking oil to a large pot over medium/high heat (we couldn’t really control the burner anyways). Then add the garlic, poblano, scallions, and chopped potatoes. Stir.
  2. Add the cherry tomatoes and can of salsa. Stir.
  3. Add the beef, and a generous pinch of oregano and black pepper. Cook until the beef is no longer pink.
  4. Add water. Maybe 1-2 quarts. Basically until it looks on the slightly watery side of “stewy.”
  5. Cook until the potatoes are tender.
  6. Eat with handmade corn tortillas.

Plug: If you’re ever in Baja Sur make sure to check out my friends at Rancho La Venta for a horseback ride through the beautiful mountains and a glass of mango wine! Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get a handshake from Ramiro too!

 

The Watermelon Ritual

2melon

Chores, labor, monotony, routine, physical. All describe my life here at the ranch. Each morning we rise just before seven (a comfortable hour – yes: I know and am thankful) to feed the horses, sheep, and chickens. We clean out paddocks, change straw bedding, scrub water tubs – all before breakfast. As each day’s work comes to a close, again – time for chores. Before dinner, of course.

Some days are harder and longer than others, but all are built on and around the schedule that our charges demand. The animals and plants in our care depend upon this continued and regular attention, and it forms the backbone of our life here.

Often, words like “chores,” “monotony,” “labor” and “routine” enliven a host of negative connotations among disciples of the so-called modern day, eliciting responses as mild as “simple” and as harsh as “PEASANT.” It’s why you probably never heard your high school guidance councilor suggest that you explore farming as a creditable career. But what many suit-wearing, cultured sophisticates don’t understand is that within the confines of a life devoted to physical routine, there lies an invaluable opportunity.

And that is: watermelon.

Every day here, Emily (my housemate, colleague, and companion) and I get up together, do chores together, make breakfast together, ride together, clean together, study Spanish together. And each day, after a laborious and yes – monotonous – morning and early afternoon, at an hour that varies slightly from day to day, our keen awareness of the day’s progression indicates to our sixth sugary sense that it is time. We descend upon our little outdoor kitchen. One silently opens our modest, gas-powered refrigerator. The other reaches past the spiders for our single cutting board and only chefs knife. And together, we butcher four thick dripping triangles of crispy red watery goodness from the godly green egg of mother melon.

This is the power (or at least one of the powers) of routine. Because when routine becomes a lifestyle – not just a “workout” or “diet” or “happy hour” – it is transformed into ritual. And rituals have meaning.

Any myopic belittlement of the agrarian lifestyle on the part of academics, paper-pushers, suburbanites, or politicos does nothing more than belie any commitment to meaningful pursuits they’ve signed for in student debt, contracts, mortgage payments, or oaths of office. To claim one understands meaning in a human life without understanding the things that make that life possible – how a well-pump works, when to plant tomatoes, or what to do with a dead chicken, to name a few – is poo-diddly-doo.

Don’t get me wrong here – there are certainly many other non-farm-related routines that have the power to become sacred. But there’s something really especially powerful about a ritual that is so fundamentally entrenched in, well, fundamentals. Food, water, shelter. The true necessities of life.

It makes the watermelon all that much sweeter.

watermelon ritual

Full Disclosure: I’m not only living and working on a ranch, but reading Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” Hence the bitterness.

Okinawa-nt! I love Bitter Melon and Goya Chanpuru

As I head off for a long weekend of uber-indulgence in Colorado (think Freshcraft to Strange Brewing to Great Divide to Falling Rock to Oskar Blues to Lefthand to New Belgium to Odell’s to Funkwerks to…liver failure and a broken home?) I wanted to leave you with the recipe for my last supper before the storm.

In an attempt to set my body so straight that it can only get so out of whack, I “traveled” to Okinawa, Japan’s island prefecture famous for its inhabitants’ long lives and excellent health. I figured taking some cues from their kitchens might just lend me some of their resilience.

And this means I get to use one of my favorite funny looking produce items: bitter melon!  This bumpy fruit is prized among Okinawans and is often credited with, well, just about everything. Seriously this thing had been used by populations all over the world for centuries to treat ailments ranging from stomach pains to nema toads to measles to diabetes to dysentery to scabies to cancer to malaria to — get this — HIV. And there’s actually science behind it. Like whoa.

The one catch is, well, it’s bitter. Certainly an acquired taste. There are things you can do to reduce the astringency, but its got a bite no matter what. Me? I love it. My boyfriend? Not so much. But considering that its basically a miracle in a melon, don’t you think you should like it no matter what?

To really get at the heart of this amazing community of folks, I sprung for a foundational Okinawan dish: Goya Chanpuru. It’s basically the Okinawan version of bi bim bap or donburi — a meal in a bowl — but features traditional Okinawan ingredients. To go the extra mile, I served mine with boiled satsuma-imo, the purple-skinned Japanese sweet potato cultivar. It is often said that Okinawans love this yammy bugger so much that it is often eaten boiled and cubed in the place of rice — perhaps contributing to their overall health and well being. Doesn’t much matter though, because they’re delicious anyway!

To sum up how I feel about this dish, I was absolutely unable to follow the traditional Okinawan rule hara hachi bu. Putting down the chop sticks at 80% full? There was no way. I stuffed my face. Addictive.

Goya Chanpuru with Boiled Satsuma-Imo

Serves 2-3 (can be vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten free)

  • 1 small bitter melon (select firm, yellow-green melons, about 5-6″ long)
  • 1/2 small yellow or white onion
  • 1/2 block of extra firm tofu
  • 1/2 can of tuna (for vegans use 1/2 cup cubed ham substitute or seitan)
  • 1 egg (for vegans use your favorite vegan egg scrambler substitute)
  • 1 large or 2 small Japanese sweet potatoes
Condiment Sauce
  • 2 tbs white miso (rice, buckwheat, or millet based if gluten free)
  • 2 tbs sake
  • 1/2 tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp tamari

Boil scrubbed potatoes in water until easily pierce-able with a fork (and then once cooled slightly have someone else cut them into cubes while you cook the chanpuru 🙂).

Meanwhile, whisk condiment ingredients together and set aside.

Also, crack the egg into a bowl, beat well and set aside.

Then, slice the bitter melon down the middle. Scoop out the seeds and most of the white innards. Slice into half moons about 1/8-1/4″ thick. Place the slices in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for 10 minutes (this will remove some of the bitterness).

Meanwhile, wrap tofu in a paper towel and press the water out. Wrap in a new sheet and place in microwave for 20-30 seconds. Press more water out. Wrap in new sheet and press one more time. Then cube!  About 1/2″ square.

Cut the onion into half moons.

Once 10 minutes has passed, pat the bitter melon dry with a paper towel.

Then start cookin’!

Coat the bottom of your saute pan or wok with non-stick spray, heat over medium and add egg. Let spread and cook until just firm, but still runny, and then set remove from pan and set aside – like a loose-y goose-y omelet.

Add 1-2 tsp of sesame oil to the same pan, let heat up and then add the bitter melon. Saute for a minute or two, then add onion. Saute for another minute or two, until just lightly softened and starting to brown. Add tofu cubes, continuing to move the whole mixture around your pan. Let saute for a few minutes, then add tuna (or vegan meat), incorporating well. Mix the egg back in, not being afraid to jostle tofu cubes. You don’t have to be gentle with this!

Lastly, slowly pour the condiment sauce around the rim of the pan and mix in.

Serve with the steamed satsuma-imo cubes your friend so nicely cut up for you.

Then, LIVE LONG AND PROSPER.

In Colorado.

Say Yes to New Mexican Posole

Part of the reason I’ve been out of commission, at least lately, was a visit from some long-lost world travelin’ New Mexican family. During this visit, though, despite the running around from Philadelphia institution to institution, I didn’t stop trying new things in the kitchen.  Just writing about it.

In fact, I got a little inspired. The combination of 1) my sad attempts to neaten the house, 2) a reminder of how amazing New Mexican cuisine is and 3) a guest’s encouragement to temporarily drop all concern for my vegan/carb-related instincts inspired me to tackle an ancient bag of hominy sitting in my cupboard — and with no nutrition-related hangups, which, you can probably tell, win me over a bit too often.

To give you some background, hominy is one of those staple foods that has basically kept entire peoples alive in Middle America up through the American west — much like cassava and other tubers have done in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s basically just dried maize kernels with their germ and hull removed either mechanically or through a good soak in lye (yes, lye). This prevents the grain from sprouting during storage and makes them an excellent source of nutrition during cold winters when other foods are scarce.

And one of the most hearty, simple, down home ways to serve this heartwarming foodstuff is in posole – a rustic stew originating in Mexico, but most delicious (if I do say so myself) in New Mexico. And thanks to some encouragement from some real New Mexicans (boyfriend included) I didn’t try to alter this one. This is NOT vegan. This is NOT low fat. This is full of pork. And full of pork fat. As it should be.

So if you’re harboring any healthy-hangups in need of a good whack, and you have a day with some well-loved family around, run on down to any of the numerous Mexican grocers in the Italian Market for a bag of hominy. And be sure to grab a big ole’ pork butt while you’re down there. To make Posole.

New Mexican Posole

Serves 4

  • 1/2 pound dried hominy
  • 1 onion (half quartered, half diced)
  • 1 pound pork butt (aka shoulder etc)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-4 dried ancho chiles
  • salt, cayenne to taste

SOAK POSOLE: Soak the posole in a generous amount of water overnight. Drain and rinse.

PREPARE POSOLE: In a large pot add the posole and twice as much water as you have posole. Add quartered onion and about 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and let cook uncovered for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until the posole “blooms” or opens up like a pretty little flower. Add water if it begins to dry out.

MEANWHILE, PREPARE PORK: Place pork in another large pot and cover with water. Add diced onion, minced garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, and salt/cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until the pork is cooked through and fork tender, 1-2 hours. Remove the pork, let cool completely and then pull apart with a fork.

THEN, PREPARE CHILES: Remove chile stems (and seeds if you want your posole less spicy — booooring), and soak in 2 cups of the hot broth that the pork cooked in for 20 minutes. Blend broth and chiles to make a firey red paste.

COMBINE: Add the pork, remaining pork broth and chile paste to the posole. Continue to cook for another 1-3 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water if it looks to be drying out. It’s finished when the posole is fully bloomed and tastes slightly chewy but pleasantly tender.  Be careful not to let it cook too long or your broth will lose flavor!

Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve with any number of delicious toppings: cheddar cheese, lime wedges, chopped cilantro, minced onion, shredded lettuce or cabbage, diced avocado…whatever your heart desires!

SO GOD DAMN GOOD.

Go Cephalo with Squid Adobo

I love squid.  If you think you don’t like squid, I hope you’ll try it again.  I love cooking squid.  If you’re afraid to cook (or eat) squid, I hope you’ll do it anyway.

Because it is super easy.  And super delicious.  And (high cholesterol aside) super healthy.  Think low calorie; high protein; and copper, riboflavin (which can ease migraine headaches) and selenium (a powerful anti-inflammatory mineral that provides immune support and may reduce the risk of cancer) rich.

My favorite quick and easy squid preparation comes from the Philippines, a place where squid is abundant and home cooks rule.  It’s a style known as Adobong (or Adobo), which involves cooking your protein in a wonderfully tangy mix of vinegar and soy sauce, seasoned with peppercorn and bay leaves.  While it’s often used for preparing pork or chicken, I prefer to use Pusit (or squid).  Hence: Adobong Pusit, or Squid Adobo.

Boasting 30 minutes max from start to table, there’s no reason not to go-cephalo tonight!

Adobong Pusit (Squid Adobo)

Serves 2

  • About 1/2 lb. baby squid (buying pre-cleaned is easier, but if you want an adventure and something much cheaper, go for the whole baby squid — there’s a wonderful video on how to clean and break them down here)
  • 1 mid-size tomato
  • 1 small yellow or sweet onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 dried hot pepper and/or 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
  1. Prep your squid — IF PRE-CLEANED: rinse the squid well under cold water and cut the bodies into rings about 1/4-1/2 inch wide — IF WHOLE: watch the video, clean your squid, and cut your bodies into rings.
  2. Chop your tomato and onion into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick, and dice your garlic.
  3. Heat a dutch oven or wide pot at least a few inches deep and coat with non-stick spray.
  4. Add onion and saute until soft and brown (5-10 minutes).
  5. Add garlic and saute until fragrant (about 1 minute).
  6. Add tomato and saute until tomato is broken down (5-10 minutes).
  7. Add vinegar, soy sauce, water, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaf and pepper (if using).
  8. Let simmer for about 10 minutes until slightly thickened (as you like it).
  9. Incorporate squid and cook for 3-5 minutes ONLY until just cooked through (feel free to pick one up and poke it — it’s done when opaque and just firm).
  10. CLICK THE PHOTO TO SEE ADOBO IN ACTION:
  11. Serve on brown rice!

PS – I served my Adobo with a variation on Ginisang Ampalaya, or sauteed bitter melon, another quick and easy traditional Filipino dish made with onion, bitter melon and scrambled egg!  And just because my boyfriend accidentally bought them instead of normal chives I also added garlic chives (aka chinese chives or nira grass), which ended up serving as a delicious — and green — addition to the dish!  Recipe forthcoming.

Go Pig or Go Home at Alla Spina

When I do eat meat, I like to go big.  Or in this case, pig.

Last night during our first foray out to the hip, happening–you know, GQ-approved–new spot from Philadelphia’s beloved Marc Vetri, Alla Spina, there was no way I was going to resist the chalk-scrawled depiction of a pig’s head on the specials blackboard. I never pass up an opportunity to try something new. Especially when it’s a true snout to tail eating.

We were greeted by this fellow:

And, well, all I can say is that we quite enthusiastically welcomed him to the table:

So, as you can see by the lack of brains and eyeballs in that pile of debris, this experiment in “will I be able to survive when we finally make it to Mongolia for my dream trek across the steppe” was a complete and total success. Yum!

No seriously, yum. Eyeballs are delicious.

Thank You, Passionate People…I Owe You One

Sometimes the world seems cold and heartless.  And sometimes it seems like no matter which way forward you try to take, there’s nothing there but frustration waiting.

But sometimes, our lives are graced with the presence of warmth and goodness and passion – moments we too often squander hastily in some masochistic favor of “the grindstone.”

Luckily, that horrid vapid abomination of a holiday called Valentine’s Day managed to get me thinking about the people around me that spur those moments of almost tangible optimism, most of them so distractedly and unintentionally that it’s hard to appreciate. There are so many people that put so much love into what they do that just being around them and the products of their passionate pursuits makes me feel like there’s something worth living for. And here are just a few of them:

At the South Philadelphia Tap Room, Chefs Scott Schroeder and Mark Regan reign over an ever-evolving menu of specials that keeps it real with classics like fried chicken and eggplant parm, but also delves into the deep dark corners of the culinary world…and that is why I go back again and again and again. Be it head cheese, monkfish liver or just a spectacularly-prepared cevice, Scott and Mark’s dedication to serving fresh, fun, honest, diverse and delicious food has got me hooked. Well, that plus their usually stellar draft list and gang of wicked cool servers. To the SPTR crew: YOU RULE.

I learned a lot during my first visit to Le Virtù. After a long-overdue foray to their cozy bar for wine (yes I drank wine!) and an unbelievable plate of a variety of house-cured salumi, Chef Joe Cicala had the good grace to show us where the magic happens. In the nondescript basement of this quiet Italian oasis, Joe is truly working miracles. Their small in-house salumeria houses row after row of beautifully marbled cuts of meat, each seasoned simply and traditionally (as per Joe’s regular training trips to Abruzzo), dangling tauntingly, aging to perfection. Right there in South Philadelphia. It is a sight to behold. So much love. To the Le Virtù crew: YOU RULE.

Sometimes produce speaks for itself. Sometimes a farmer speaks too. One look at Culton Organic’s produce and one chat with farmer Tom Culton were enough to hook me on this Lancaster farm’s artisan goods. Like the regular table at Headhouse Square wasn’t enough, I was lucky enough to visit the farm, which Tom manages almost single-handedly. His dedication to the preservation of heirloom varietals of game and produce and his almost aggressively frank passion for living with and not on the land (not to mention his impressive collection of colorful satin scarves) is contagious. What a dude and what a farm. To the Culton crew: YOU RULE.

Here are just a handful of the other people and places that make me all warm and fuzzy on the inside because of how much they rule:

  • Catherine and Al Renzi and their dedication to Yellow Springs Farm in Chester County,
  • Jean Broillet and his unwavering commitment to the blossoming Tired Hands Brewing,
  • Marisa McClellan and her amazing preserving and lifestyle blog Food in Jars,
  • Fair Food (Farmstand) and everything they do to bring local farmers and local consumers one step closer together,
  • and so many more.

So who for you?

Celebrate Often, and with Cheese

I was torn about the paltry and primarily symbolic raise I received last week.  The weekend was largely spend navigating extremes, oscillating from pangs of bitter entitlement to moments of humble appreciation.  Emerging now from the emotional turmoil into a week dedicated to raw food and yoga, I realize how gosh darn dumb I really am.  THE ANSWER IS THAT YOU SHOULD BE THANKFUL AND GLAD, EMILY.

Darn.  The belated epiphany totally took a dump on my chance to celebrate what I should have (at least with the promptness that gives a celebration that gutsy gusto).  Luckily – memories of the past’s more successful celebrations live on.

So in an attempt to recreate that feeling of exuberance, I’m going to revisit a ridiculously decadent celebratory cheese spread that John and I enjoyed last fall.

And I hope to at least leave someone with a lesson from the errors of my waffling ways: celebrate what you can while you can, be it the laughter of children or the smell of Pillsbury crescent rolls, because, well, duh.

Before I get into the chees-ifics, I should mention that despite how amazing each and every cheese we savored that day was, the winner of the night was hands down the jar of Dilly Beans I myself had made the summer prior with fresh-picked green and wax beans.

That said, there was nothing even remotely close to a loser on the table that night.  We started off with a real stunner: Jasper Hill‘s Moses Sleeper.  This Vermont-made bloomy rind cheese is perhaps the best American made brie-style wheel you can get.  Pillowy, gooey and smooth, the pasty center is at once buttery, citrusy and freshly earthen.  If you’re looking to convert a “non-brieliever” (yes, I went there) this is the cheese to do it with.

Next up was Valley Shepherd Creamery‘s Oldwick Shepherd, a classic favorite from the Garden State.  Fresh raw sheep’s milk is pressed into these firm wheels and cave-aged for at least 3 months to produce this wonderfully nutty Pyrenees-style cheese.  The earthen qualities of the lightly molded rind and the rich fatty sheep’s milk make for a slightly salty bite that would please even the most discerning Basque.

Crossing the world and going back in time to a provincial French monastery, we sample Abondance.  This alpine-style cheese produced exclusively in the Abondance valley is made from the milk of their prized Abondance cows (or occasionally the Montbéliard and Tarine breeds).  This ancient farm cheese touts a firm, smooth and supple body with fruity overtones and a lovely hint of hazelnut.  No wonder this is one of France’s most popular cheeses!

Like that all wasn’t enough, we really hit it big time with Cardo, an incredible washed rind goat cheese made by Mary Holbrook (yes, one lady and one lady only) at Sleight’s Farm in Somerset, England.  Don’t be deceived by it’s innocent creamy appearance — this stunner reeks of meaty pungency.  And yet while its full bodied texture coats your tongue with a savory, earthen, tingly funk, it still manages to deliver the fresh dry delicate floral tones one would expect from a goat’s milk cheese.

Mary has spent years perfecting her technique, which actually incorporates some inconsistency by rule.  For instance, she cuts the curds of the set milk with only her arms, leaving the curds free to maintain some irregularity.  Also setting this magical wheel apart, Mary uses cardoon (aka artichoke thistle) stamen instead of animal-based rennet to start her cheese, a Portuguese tradition.  After an aging process facilitated by Neal’s Yard Dairy (as she has no caves of her own, poor woman), a few lucky folks get their hands on this very limited production treat.

I rounded out this wildly decadent spread with a classic: Colston Bassett Stilton.  This creamy crumbly blue produced with all the pomp and circumstance of English tradition is the best way to finish out a night (especially when paired with a link of the Northeast’s own Rieker’s Landjaeger Sausage and some homemade black raspberry jam).

Take it from me — if you really want to celebrate (be it a baby or a finished book), $50 and a trip to Di Bruno Bros. can take you there.

Do it.

Improvising with Inspiration: Ash-e Anar or Persian Pomegranate Soup

Sometimes when your largely raw diet catches up with you right in the middle of the worst week ever, you just need to do something crazy in the kitchen.

So that’s what I did last week.

I’ve long been intrigued by the cuisine of the Middle East.  It’s one of the most foreign styles of cuisine to me personally and incorporates some unique flavor profiles that I could never cook up on my own.  One particularly alluring dish had long been calling my name, and it features the one ingredient, pomegranate seeds, that I intended to use up in my stress-busting kitchen rampage.  That is, Ash-e Anar, or Pomegranate (anar) Soup (ash), a traditional Persian dish featuring sweet and sour flavors mingling amidst a rich depth of complex aromatics.

I had read up on the history and tradition of the dish, primarily via the wonderful ethnic food blogs Habeas Brulee and Tigers & Strawberries (which I would highly recommend reading before trying to understand my botch of the dish below), and unfortunately while the soup did promised to highlight the intended star of the night, it also called for several ingredients that I never have around the house.  But that was part of the fun.  Improvising with inspiration, I’ll call it.

With inspiration in heart, I set off to improvise with what I had on hand.  Of course meaning it would be a health-conscious vegan version of the dish, but, you know.  Funny enough, though, the soup turned out absolutely delicious, if not “accurate,” and it was certainly unlike anything else I’ve ever prepared at home.  So read on for a chronicle of this stress-busting, not to mention heart-healing (ever read about the health benefits of pomegranate and/or turmeric?!), Persian culinary adventure:

The Ash-e Anar Experiment

Serves 2

SOUP

  • Non-stick spray
  • 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/2 cup red lentils
  • 1 medium beet, small cubes
  • Lotsa (1 tbs?) turmeric
  • Some paprika (2 tsp) and a dash of cayenne (in an attempt to replicate the flavor/color of Aleppo Pepper)
  • Contents of 1 cardamom pod
  • Several dashes of fennel seed
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3-4 cups stock (I used beef – shh don’t tell the real vegans) or water
  • Squeeze of agave nectar
  • About 1/2 cup pomegranate juice (made from pulverizing about 3/4 cup seeds in food processor and straining)
  • Large handful of chopped red chard
  • Chopped cilantro and parsley to taste
  • Cooked white rice (optional)

“MEAT” BALLS

  • 3/4 tube of sausage-flavored Gimme Lean
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, parsley, scallions and chives (the last living scallions and chives from my garden) to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

TO SERVE

  • Clove of crushed garlic sauteed with turmeric until golden
  • Pomegranate seeds
  1. Saute onion in large soup pot until soft and golden brown.  Add garlic cloves and saute until fragrant.  Add lentils and continue to saute until they take on some color (a few minutes max).
  2. Add 2-3 cups stock or water (NOTE: you may have to add water/stock later as the soup thickens.  Do as looks right to you at the time).  As you bring to a boil, add turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cardamom, fennel seeds, S&P, and cinnamon stick.  As you reduce from boil to nice simmer, add beet.  Let simmer.
  3. Prepare “meat” balls!  With whatever meat or meat substitute you have on hand, prepare balls by mushing together with chopped herbs and garlic.  Make them about the size of a chestnut or walnut.
  4. NOTE: When finished with “meat” balls, I popped them right into the simmering soup.  In retrospect I should have browned them first, then popped into soup, as the vegan sausage does not cook through properly when simmered like lamb (which is traditionally used).
  5. Once “meat” balls are added to soup (whether browned first or not, your choice!), continue to simmer for another 20 minutes or so.  Most important thing here is that the lentils and the “meat” balls cook through, so play it by ear/taste/touch!
  6. When you’re getting close and your lentils are soft, add a nice squeeze of agave nectar (or honey or sugar or whatever), the pomegranate juice, the chopped chard (or kale or spinach or whatever), and the chopped herbs (really almost any herbs will do).
  7. Simmer until chard wilts and fish out cinnamon stick.  If you would like to have rice in your soup, you can add at this time.  I had no rice, but mixed about 3/4 cup into my boyfriend’s portion.
  8. Serve with a golden-yellow garlic clove and pomegranate seeds.  Voila!  Vegan “Fauxash-e Anar!”  Yum!!

Sunshine (Kabocha) on a Cloudy Day: Ginataang Kalabasa at Hipon

The one nice thing I can recollect from my dark, dank and horrible October (besides it becoming November) is this Headhouse purchase-promted dish: warm, creamy, comforting Ginataang Kalabasa.

I came home from the market one week with an irresistible sunshine kabocha.  Kabocha — also known as Japanese pumpkin — is a fantastic squash variety from, you guessed it, Japan (though originally Cambodia). It has a wonderful sweet chestnut flavor that is certainly one of my favorites.  The sunshine varietal doesn’t have a distinct taste profile, but it sure does look pretty, don’t you think?

On one of those cold blustery days it beckoned — “Stew me…..steeeewwww me.”  So I did.

In an effort to bring the kabocha back to it’s roots, I went for a Filipino-style preparation called ginataang, which basically means “stewed in coconut milk.”  The only protein I had on hand were some lovely large shrimp from Whole Foods stashed in the freezer, so the dish became Ginataang Kalabasa at Hiponkalabasa referring to the “pumpkin” and hipon to the “shrimp.”

Aside from the initial effort needed to cleaver the kabocha in two, this is a super easy dish to throw together — under 30 minutes from squash to table.  And like that’s not enough, it’s basically the culinary embodiment of the large, generous and warm Filipino mother you likely never had – well, the one I never had, at least.  On a cold, blustery day, nothing could be more comforting.

Ginataang Kalabasa at Hipon

(Kabocha Squash and Shrimp Simmered in Coconut Milk)

gluten free, can be vegetarian/vegan

Serves 2-3

-1 kabocha squash,* peeled, seeded and cut into 1-1.5 inch cubes
-1 small white/yellow onion, diced
-4 garlic cloves, crushed
-1 cup broth or stock
-2 chili peppers, tops removed
-1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined (can use cubed tofu to make vegan/vegetarian)
-2 cups coconut milk**
-1/2 tsp fish sauce (optional)
-Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat a wide pan coated with nonstick spray. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chicken broth, whole chili peppers (although you can split open and remove the seeds if you’d like less heat) and squash pieces – along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and then lower to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the squash is tender but still holds shape.
  3. Add the shrimp, coconut milk and fish sauce. Simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring, until shrimp is opaque.
  4. Serve over nice fresh rice 🙂

*Feel free to use any winter squash you have on hand!

**I, of course, use reduced-fat coconut milk.