Monday, October 13, 2008

hey, I could make dinner with the spare change in my car

I don't even have to say the E word, right? The thing is, most people I know had no money before the world ended last week, so hey. Same old. Tonight is another night of eating in, and eating on the cheap. And what says Depression Couture like lentils? Here's a kick-ass recipe for lentil soup, another food that can go terribly wrong (but doesn't have to.) It's adapted from the indomitable Bryanna Clark Grogan, who calls it Shawrbat'adas Filasteeniya (Palestinian lentil soup.) I'd also like to point out that these proportions will feed four hungry people, at least. That means that the cost per person, not including energy and time (about 45 minutes) is just about 63 cents.

1 large sweet onion: $.40*
1 cup red lentils: $.85
1/4 cup jasmine rice: $.10
1 tsp cumin: $.05
1 tsp turmeric: $.05
1/4 c olive oil: $.55
2 low-sodium vegetable boullion cubes: $.50
salt: ? not much.
total: $2.50

Heat up a nice big soup pot on medium heat. Dice the onion. Add the oil, let it heat up for a moment, then toss in the onion, along with a pinch of salt (to help draw out water and instigate caramelization.) While they're browning, dissolve the boullion cubes in six cups of hot water. (Don't get it from your tap unless you like the taste of heavy metals. Heat it up your own self. ) You can use broth if you want (more on this and life with a juicer at a later date) but I find boullion cubes, powder, or concentrate more convenient.

Once the onions look nice and brown, throw in everything but the rice. Bring it to a boil, reduce to low, and cook covered for 15 minutes. Then, add the rice, cover, cook for 15 more minutes.

At this point, the soup is done in the sense that you could choose to stop here. But, if you've got the equipment and time, there's an optional step that I think is worth it. I use a pitcher-type blender for this because it's what I've got, but I bet an immersion blender would be a lot easier and less hazardous. Next time I might try the food processor. Working about a cup and a half at a time, blend about half the soup into a puree, and add it back into the pot. It sounds easy, but blending hot soup is a fool's errand if ever I embarked upon one. Just remember: keep it small, and don't be shy about holding that lid on.

I think this soup is rich and satisfying, and I'm pretty lukewarm on lentils in general. It's reminiscent of a soup I had once in an Indian restaurant, except this one doesn't have butter and it's a lot cheaper. You can toss in a pinch of curry powder, some black pepper, cayenne, whatever you want. Oh, and a note on turmeric: as the poor man's saffron, it's definitely a lifesaver. But boy does it stain. If you're attached to your countertops, try not to set your spoon on them after you stir the pot.

*Obviously, I've listed the prices of each ingredient; yours probably won't be exactly the same, and my math might be faulty. It kind of scared me just doing this amount of division. And, I tended to round up instead of down. Just a disclaimer.

I buy my lentils, rice, and spices in bulk at the Indian-Pakistani grocery down the street. I know the guy who runs it since I like to support my local grocers, and he cuts me a deal on a samosa now and then. More importantly, his store, like many other ethnic groceries I've been to, has a great deal on imported goods like spices, beans, and grains. I buy herbs and spices there in plastic packets at about half the price of grocery store jars. Rice costs less than a dollar a pound-- for the good stuff-- and red lentils are comparable. If you're lucky enough to have one of these around, and their prices are right, I urge you to support them. It's easier than getting up at 9 on a Saturday morning to buy apples at the farmers' market for $4/lb, and you're still supporting local, independent businesses. I'm not saying you shouldn't go to the farmers' markets, but Sudivha Bazaar ain't Wal-Mart either.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

hey, I could make tofu taste good

In a move that some people might call ironic, my move to veganism involved a move away from tofu as a staple. Because the reasons I left meat and dairy are led by environmental concerns, it makes sense also to question the soy mega-industry in America. The tofu I do buy is organic (Trader Joe's is a good source for this, cheap) but I'm wary of monocultures both in our farmlands and in my body.

BUT tofu is still a convenient, versatile source of protein for an exhausted student. And if you're gonna cook it, cook it right.

The way I start most stir-fry type recipes involving tofu is the same. Where you go from there is what changes a bland, boring basic into a culinary event. So:

Start with extra-firm tofu. I guess firm is okay too, but why not go for it and get the good stuff. It's the same price anyway. They (the vegetarian food police) say you should always press your tofu before you cook with it, to get all that extra water out. I never do this because I am too impatient and because it doesn't seem to make much difference as long as you cook it right. I do dump the block onto my cutting board and press it (over the sink) with my hand for a few seconds, like squeezing a big sponge. Good enough.

Then, heat up your biggest frying pan on low heat. My jury is still out on non-stick or not, but I use what I got and right now I got teflon. If you're working with something else, heat up the pan dry, then add the oil. It'll keep the food from sticking so bad. I don't know why.

While you're heating the pan, slice up your tofu. I generally just lay it big-surface-down and slice it into 1/2 inch slabs, but you can make triangles or sticks or whatever inspires you. Just don't make the pieces too small since you'll have to turn them over one by one later.

Add just a little oil. I can't say how much because it's a secret or maybe I just don't know. Just don't put in too much or you'll get oil burns, I promise. Make sure the heat is low. Then, lay your tofu down easy. If you can't fit it all in, put the rest in a container and cover it with water, then stick it back in the fridge and remember to use it up within a couple of days.

Let your little tofu buddies bubble and crackle for like five minutes or so, until you can see a little bit of brownedness creeping up from the bottom. Flip them over gently with a fork or a tiny, tiny spatula (I happen to have one of these for some reason.) If they stick, they're probably not ready. Listen to the tofus.

Repeat this process on the second side. Then, you can either pour in a glaze like this delicious one or toss in some chopped veggies and toss the whole thing around. I like to do both, and with the second option I usually top it off with some peanut sauce and dump the whole thing on some rice noodles.

If you know someone who "doesn't like tofu" make them try it this way. Then explain to them that's like not liking potatoes. Just silly.