Breakaway Cook

Red Lentils to the Rescue

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I love writing this blog, but occasionally I run into technical problems that take days to unravel.  It’s amazing how many hours, and then days, can go by just trying to figure out what is wrong. I do apologize for the little hiatus in posts. To console my tech woes, I made some really good lentil soup.

Lentils are supercomfort for me. When I was a superbroke student, my go-to meal was lentils cooked together with brown rice, then refried with butter, ground cumin, and ground coriander. This concoction was then stuffed into oversize tortillas and wolfed down in terrifyingly large quantities.

Lentils are still one of the cheapest, most satisfying ingredients available, and I still cook a lot of them. I’ve become especially fond of the red ones (they’re also called pink lentils and orange lentils; their color is more orange than pink or red). They make an unbelievable crust: you just grind them in a spice grinder till you get a fine powder, sprinkle over anything you’d like to get really crunchy, spray with olive oil, and bake or fry. Works great for  baked tofu, meatloaf, fish, stuffed squash, chicken. . . .

Another favorite use of lentils is for soup. Dice a large onion and a few carrots and saute them in a soup pan with oil from garlic confit (or olive oil, or butter, or a combo of the two), add large pinches of freshly ground cumin, black pepper, maybe some ground-up chiles, and salt. When the onions get soft, add about two cups of red lentils and saute a little more. Then add a quart or so of chicken stock or vegetable stock, bring to a boil rapidly, and then simmer for roughly 45 minutes. Blend thoroughly in the Vita Prep, and get ready for comfort injection.

I like to garnish the bowls of soup with a good glop of Greek yogurt, some orange zest, and herb of choice. I used nasturtium leaves today, but you could use whatever — chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, tarragon, or a combo. Be sure it’s adequately salted, slice up some bread, and have a seat.

If anyone has any breakaway ideas for lentils, speak up!

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Poached Sole in a Gingery Spice Broth

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I’ve been playing with several versions of this soup for a few weeks now, and am liking it very, very much. The version that uses coconut milk tastes vaguely Thai, and the one that uses almond milk tastes kinda hippyish (in a good way). They’re both terrific, and really comforting on all these rainy days we’ve been having. I’ve also been using up the four quarts of crab stock I made recently from the spent shells of a few Dungeness we devoured a few weeks ago, but it’s good with chicken stock and veg stock, too. Haven’t tried water-not-stock version, but I’m betting it will be good, too.

The sweetened ginger leftover from making ginger syrup is so good in this soup — it alone is reason enough to make ginger syrup! You don’t need it, however; sauteed minced ginger in grapeseed oil, along with a little sweetener of choice, is fine too.  For extra credit/extra oomph, dice up some fresh tumeric as well, and toss it in with the ginger.

And do seek out dried persimmons if you can find them; I get mine from the local farmers market, but Chinese and Japanese markets always have them. When they get rehydrated in the soup, they plump up with the essence of the soup, and are just delightful. People have a hard time guessing what it is. Dried persimmons also make a really great salt — just grind in your coffee grinder, and pulse in some sel gris.

This soup takes very little time to assemble and cook, roughly 10 minutes. Just heat the stock, add everything but the fish, and bring to a simmer. Let the green veg cook for a few minutes over low-medium heat, and then add the fish.  Simmer for just a minute or two longer, until it’s barely cooked. Serve in heated bowls with a salad and good bread.*

  • chicken stock, vegetable stock, or crab stock
  • almond milk or coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup sweetened ginger (the dregs of ginger syrup)
  • a few wheels of dried persimmon
  • pinch of cayenne
  • three or four star anise
  • splash of apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups Petrale sole (or other white mild fish), chopped roughly
  • something green (I like using Chinese broccoli stalks, but anything would work — asparagus, green beans, kale, chard ….)
  • cellophane/glass noodles (optional — makes it heartier; it’s cleaner/more elegant without them)
  • a little chopped cilantro on top

* For truly artisan breads, Tartine’s country loaf gets my vote for best bread in the bay area, followed closely by the all-grain loaf from Brickmaiden and Della Fattoria’s meyer lemon brea. For nonartisan, La Brea gets the nod for best widely available bread.

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The Occasional Fancy Dinner

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Every once in a while I cook elaborate multicourse meals for clients. I find them really fun, and tend to take lots of risk with them; I just trust that, if I’m relaxed enough and give myself plenty of prep time, it’ll all turn out just fine, even if I’ve never made, let alone practiced, some of the dishes. I just make a ton of food, figuring that I’ll have enough winners to keep everyone happy.

Last night was a dinner for a few of the board members of the SF Zen Center, held at the home of my dear friend Norma. I was prepared to go all vegetarian, since a few priests were present, but votes came in for lamb, so lamb it was! I didn’t have time to take any photos, alas, but here was the menu:

  • Mezze (kind of a starter plate) of carrot pate, smoked trout, a spicy feta spread (made with manzano chiles, shallots, and paprika), spiced cashews, and homemade Turkish crackers
  • Petrale sole poached in a spicy gingery broth made from freshly made almond milk, turkey stock, star anise, and sauteed turmeric root and ginger
  • Salad of dungeness crab, mache, pink lady apples, fennel, pomelo, and calendula flowers, with a coriander-pomelo vinaigrette
  • Lamb done two ways (a rack with a crust of cumin, coriander, and fennel, and a leg marinated in pomegranate molasses, roasted and thinly shaved), with four side veg dishes: cauliflower cooked with saffron, elderberries, and pine nuts; squash timbale/kibbeh and spiced breadcrumbs; three-beet tartare (red, golden, chiogga); and little nuggets of tofu/egg/sunchoke/herbs, rolled in sweet rice and steamed
  • Matcha panna cotta, served with a dizzying variety of citrus wedges, adroitly prepared by Kaz Matsune, my sous chef for the evening (and many other evenings; the man is a wonder).

Everything turned out as I had hoped, with the exception of the panna cotta, which didn’t quite gel enough. So it got turned into a kind of matcha dairy dip for the citrus, which turned the dish into modern,  breakaway creamsicles!

It all started with a trip to Berkeley Bowl (where else?). The incredible selection of citrus — mulitiple types of tangerines, tangelos, clementines, grapefruit, oranges of every stripe, pomelo, blood orange, every lemon and lime  — was beyond inspiring. Seven-eighths of my huge shopping cart was filled from the produce aisle. The only other shopping was done at Monterey Fish, where the crab and petrale looked crazy good.  I took it all home, plopped it on a big table, and started formulating ideas.

Menu writing can be a lot of work, and I’m bloody tired from all that cooking. But man, it’s good work. Sometimes I can’t quite believe that I actually get paid to do something that gives me such thrills, and I can’t quite imagine not doing it.

(photo by Annabelle Breakey)

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Miso-Spiked Carrot Pate

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I recently saw a recipe for something called carrot pate that caught my attention. I usually buy organic carrots by the ten-pound bag, so I’m always looking for ways to get more carrots into my life. I ignored most of the recipe and added things at will, but the idea was sound: cook carrots, cook onions with spices, process both, add nuts, season to taste. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Set  a pan of water to boil. Roughly chop about three cups of carrots (peel them first), and cook them in the water for about 5-7  minutes, or till they’re tender but not fully cooked.
  2. Meanwhile chop a large onion and saute it in olive oil, along with some cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and s&p. When it softens a bit, add the juice and zest of one large orange, and a small glug of carrot juice. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the carrots and cook for another five minutes, or till almost all the liquid is gone
  4. Finely chop about 1/2 cup of nuts in a food processor — walnuts are good, as are pistachios, but others will work too.
  5. Add the carrot mixture to the processor, add a few tablespoons of yogurt and a heaping tablespoon of white miso,  and process till smooth. Taste for s&p.
  6. Transfer to container with a lid, and chill.

I’ll probably be refining this as I make it repeatedly, but I was very happy with the results.  Placed on the table along with a good assortment of cheeses, smoked trout, cured meats, and good bread, it makes a really fine spread. Tons of umami from the miso, sweet from the carrots and onions,  and tangy from the orange juice and zest. One could get fancy and chill it in nicely shaped molds, and imagine it’s some fancy French pate. It’s a very nice vegetarian pate, however we mold it. I’m thinking it might be improved by dusting the whole thing with the nuts, as opposed to incorporating them into the pate.

It’s GREAT with rustic crackers and champagne.

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