cake

Birthday Cake and Special Dinners- Celebrations of Life

cake

Monday was my birthday.  We’re not going to discuss how old I am now.  We’re just not.  But I was fortunate enough to actually get two birthday cakes that day.  The first one I received from my coworkers, who were kind enough to go to Rick’s Bakery here in Fayetteville (see guys, it’s on the blog!).  The second one was made by my wife, a wonderful and decadent dark chocolate cake with creamy chocolate frosting.

I love homemade cake.  I do.  But there’s also something about cake from boxed mixes that I love.  I think it probably reminds me of countless birthdays growing up, and how the taste of cake, even from a box, was somehow the taste of love.  Of celebration.  Of family.

Chocolate Cake

What is it about cake?  Is it some genetic impulse, a connection to our distant ancestry, gathering together as a community to share fruit in the jungle, the sweetness of ripe fruit somehow making it easy to forget the last few weeks or months of near starvation?  Every mouthful of something sweet and rich is a celebration of life when life is lived near starvation.  Life for humans in the Ice Age was a constant flirtation with total disaster (there’s even evidence that at one point humans were reduced to 1000 breeding pairs; think about that).

Japanese steak house

Or is it more general?  Does it go beyond cake?  I think it does.  In honor of birthdays in our family we have a tradition where the birthday person gets to choose where we go for a special celebratory dinner.  I chose to go to Shogun, a Japanese restaurant.  Isn’t that what family is, and community?  Coming together.  Breaking bread (or wooly mammoth, whatever).

All over the world, no matter where you go, people gather together, as families, to celebrate milestones, births, graduations, birthdays.  They even gather together to celebrate those who have passed.  And food is our constant companion, the thing we gather over.  I find this universality comforting.  We’re all the same, really.  Not so different, no matter what divides us, we can all find common ground and build community.

So the next time you have a birthday celebration think about that.  Yes, it’s your family celebrating, as you eat birthday cake.  But humanity is your family, too.  We should ALL celebrate.

(Next time I write something about cake I promise I’ll include a recipe)

mango salad recipe

Dragon Fruit Mango Salad

mango salad recipe

When I visited a local Asian market I found these remarkable fruits.  If you’re not familiar with them, they’re called dragon fruit, or pitaya.  As much as I love to eat local fruits and vegetables, I also have a real love for the exotic and unfamiliar.  I had to try some.  The best, most tastiest thing I came up with while experimenting with them was this dragon fruit mango salad.

It’s very minimal, but I think that’s where its charm lies.  There really is nothing quite like ripe fruit.  It’s the flavor of joy.  It makes your blood sing, with some half remembered song from millions of years ago, primates calling to other primates at their good fortune, starvation evaded again.  It’s very primal.

That’s also one of the reasons to eat fresh fruit, the primal nature of it.  There are profound health benefits available from eating dragon fruit (it has an amazing amount of vitamin C, a nontrivial amount of dietary fiber, and the seeds contain good fats).  Mango, in addition to having phenols with anti-cancer  and antioxidant properties, is also very high in iron and has vitamin E, which may have some quasi-aphrodisiac effects.

pitaya

So how does it taste?  Well, the first thing you really notice about dragon fruit is that there’s not much of a taste.  It’s a little bit like a vanilla custard kind of flavor, but much more subtle.  Basically it tastes like fruit. The flesh is white almost clear, with tons of little black seeds throughout the whole fruit.  But the texture of the seeds, the crunch factor, is an interesting contrast to the soft and almost buttery texture of the sweet flesh of the fruit.

Mango

Of course mango has a much stronger flavor, sweet but almost piney in a sense.  They work really well together, both in their similarities in texture and their differences.  The flavor contrast is quite appealing as well.

So this is probably the simplest recipe I’ve ever made.  You simply slice up the mango and the dragon fruit (don’t eat the skin/peel of either; yuck!) and mix in a bowl with the juice of half a lime.  In the future I’ll probably add some diced fresh mint and the zest of the lime, if I want a slightly more complex flavor.    Or I might just stick with minimalism.

The ingredients:

  • diced mango
  • diced dragon fruit
  • juice of half a lime

Eat more fruit.  Eat more green stuff.  Go for a walk.  Take care of yourself.  And follow me on Pinterest and repin all my recipes!  (It’ll make you feel good, promise!)

Thai Eggplant and Mushroom Curry

Thai Eggplant and Mushroom Vegetarian Curry Recipe

vegetarian curry

I recently visited an Asian grocery store.  I was quite inspired by the produce, particularly the kaffir lime leaves and Thai eggplants.  Thai eggplants are smaller than Western eggplants, and green instead of purple.  They’re just as delicious, though, and absorb the spicy goodness of a curry sauce quite well.  Kaffir lime leaves add a citrusy herbaceousness to any dish, but work particularly well in red curries, like this Thai eggplant and mushroom vegetarian curry recipe.

red curry paste

At the Asian grocery store they had an abundance of green curry pastes, red curry pastes and even Masaman curry paste, as well as plenty of different varieties of curry powders and other spices.  Of course, if you prefer, you can always make your own curry paste.  That’s always an option.

cooking onions and carrots

The first step is to dice some red onion and carrot, and cook them until in a pot over a medium high heat (with just a little bit of oil) until the onions begin to brown a little and turn translucent.  This will sweet the carrots and onions (the joys of the Maillard reaction).

kaffir lime leaves, mushrooms and Thai eggplants

Quarter the Thai eggplants and slice the mushrooms thin.  Then add to the pot with the red onions and carrots.

mushrooms

Cook until the mushrooms and Thai eggplant both brown a little.  This will take several minutes.  Continue stirring occasionally to maximize that browning action, and so nothing burns.

adding curry paste

Then add the red curry paste.  You might want to go easy.  I added about three tablespoons here,  and it was pretty much nuclear hot.  Don’t overdo it unless you’re a brave soul.

Adding coconut milk

Finally, add kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk and bring to a simmer.  You want to simmer it until the oils in the coconut milk begin to break.  This will change the texture and appearance.  Also, near the end add a little basil, if you have it.  The basil and kaffir lime leaves work together really well in this curry.

The ingredients:

  • 1 carrot, sliced thin
  • 1/4 red onion, sliced into slivers
  • 2 large mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 to 3 Thai eggplants
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (unless you like it hotter)
  • 3 or 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • a few basil leaves
  • 1 lime

Towards the end add the juice of one lime.  If you like this vegetarian curry recipe let me know.  You can always connect with me on Facebook.  Also, repin if you liked it!  Pinterest is awesome!

Karavila Sambol, or Bitter Melon Salad, or What the Heck Do I Do With That?

Bitter Melon Salad

There’s this amazing ethnic grocery store in Springdale, the city that borders my city, Fayetteville.  It’s called Asian Amigo.  As you can imagine, they sell a vast amount of both Hispanic and also imported Asian foods (and other products).  The other day I managed to find the time to drop by, and found these lovely bitter melons (also called bitter gourd, or karavila in Sri Lanka).  I had to have them.  But then, what do I do with them?  A very helpful soul on Instagram (hi @smthgcookin; you should follow her) suggested this bitter melon salad, or karavila sambol.

bitter gourd

So these things are BITTER.  Seriously.  But according to a lot of folk wisdom have profound benefits for diabetics, blood pressure and a number of other things.  Something that tastes bitter just HAS to be good for you, right? (unless it’s poison, but let’s not go there)

But what do you do with it?

bitter melon cleaned

The taste, before you do anything to the bitter melon, is somewhat like the inner pithy part of a green pepper crossed with a faint celery taste, just far more bitter.

soaking in vinegar brine

So I sliced them thin (being sure to remove the seeds and pithy white stuff), then let them soak for about twenty minutes in a salt bath.  Then, after draining and rinsing, I let them sit for another twenty minutes in a solution of white vinegar and salt.  After another drain and rinse they were ready to fry.

frying

The frying process took a while.  It might have been the high moisture content from the soaking.  Your mileage may vary.  Fry them until they’re golden brown.

spice mixture

I can’t think of South Asian food without thinking of spices.  So I made a mixture of mustard powder, paprika, cumin, fresh cracked pepper and a hint of cinnamon.

spice fried bitter melon

I coated the warm, fried bitter melon slices with the spice mixture and let them cool for about five minutes.

parsley

Finally, I sliced a tomato, some red onion and parsley, and tossed them with the spiced, fried bitter melons.  Then I added the juice of one lime and the salad was ready to eat.

The ingredients:

  • 1 bitter melon, sliced, brined, quick-pickled, drained and rinsed
  • 1 small tomato, sliced
  • small handful of parsley, chopped
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons of sliced red onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • dash of black pepper

It might be heresy, but I opted to omit the salt, for health reasons (I was already eating something fried, even if it was with a salad).  However, I don’t think it really needed it.  The lime juice in this bitter melon salad does a really good job of tying everything together (it’s kind of the culinary equivalent of that rug in the Big Lebowski).  The faint bitterness of the bitter melon was tempered by the frying, and eclipsed by the spice flavors.  The tomato, red onion and parsley added fresh and complex flavors to the mix.

If you manage to find some bitter melon at your local Asian grocery, let me know what culinary adventure you have with it.  I’m all ears.

Easy Summer Rolls

Summer Rolls

The beautiful thing about these Summer Rolls, aside from the quasi-vegetarian theme (eat more green stuff, seriously, it’s good for you) is that you can adjust the spiciness to exactly your own tastes.  If you opt to make a spicy dipping sauce, the cooling action of the basil, mint and cilantro tempers the heat on your tongue (and will make you feel amazing).  You could also opt to make a dipping sauce that’s not spicy, just yummy.

basil and mint

The first thing you’ll need is plenty of herbs.  I like to use a mixture of cilantro (I’m sorry, those of you who think it tastes like soap, you can’t help it; just omit it and use more basil), basil and mint.  Gather a bunch of each together, roughly chop, then add lime juice.  This will help keep the leaves from turning brown as you assemble your Summer Rolls.

Ingredients assembled

You’ll also need rice paper wrappers, a pie dish full of warm water, and thinly sliced carrots, cabbage and sugar snap peas.  We’re going for sweetness and crunch.

Summer Rolls First Steps

Soak rice noodles in hot water for about ten minutes, then drain.  Add some noodles to a wet rice paper wrapper, then add some of the cilantro/basil/mint mixture.  Next add cabbage, sugar snap peas and carrots.  Fold the edges over.

Summer Rolls Last Steps

Next, roll one side up and over, pushing the contents in slightly.  Finally, roll it completely over, sealing all the wonderful noodles, herbs and vegetables inside.

summer rolls

The dipping sauce for the Summer Rolls is easy.  Add lime juice, fish sauce, sriracha hot sauce, ground peanuts and grated ginger together and mix well.

The ingredients:

  • Rice papers
  • Rice noodles, drained
  • thinly sliced carrots
  • thinly sliced cabbage
  • thinly sliced sugar snap peas
  • chopped basil, mint and cilantro
  • lime juice

For the sauce:

  • juice of one lime
  • 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 teaspooons ground peanuts
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce (omit this if you don’t want spice)

I know, the dipping sauce isn’t vegetarian because of the fish sauce.  You could always substitute soy sauce if you wanted.

What foods do you think of when you think of Summer?

 

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No Bake Chocolate Date Bars

No Bake Chocolate Date Bars

Sometimes you have to trick your kids.  You just have to.  Or at least I do.  Getting them to eat enough enough fruits or vegetables can be a challenge.  That’s why I made these No Bake Chocolate Date Bars.  There is plenty of fiber in this recipe, and even though they think they’re eating a yummy chocolate treat, they’re actually eating some fruit too.

Dates

The technique:

It’s really remarkably easy.  Place whole, pitted dates into your food processor and process until the dates are in smaller pieces.

Adding peanut butter

Add peanut butter, then process again.

Adding cocoa powder

Add cocoa powder.  I use Ghirardelli’s Sweet Ground Cocoa, but you could use regular cocoa powder and sugar in equal proportions.  Process until it looks like a smooth chocolate paste.

Adding oats

Then the whole oats go in.  Process again.  More fiber!

Final Processing

Action shot.  At this point, while it’s doing the final process, slowly add honey and a little water until it forms a dough ball.

Spreading in the pan

Pull out the chocolate date ‘dough’ and place into a baking dish (or really any kind of container).  Set it up in the freezer for thirty minutes until it’s firm, then slice into little bite-sized pieces with a knife.

The ingredients:

  • 1 cup whole pitted dates
  • 1/4 cup Ghirardelli sweet cocoa
  • 1/4 cup raw oats
  • about 1/8 cup honey
  • a small amount of water (approximately a tablespoon)

Next time I’m considering adding some coconut, and maybe a prune or two, just to amp up the fiber content.  The dates are so sweet in this No Bake Chocolate Date Bar recipe that you really feel like you’re getting a decadent chocolate treat.  Mission accomplished!N

Shakshouka – Easy, Healthy and Quick

Shahshouka

Shakshouka is a staple Middle-Eastern and North African dish.  It’s remarkably easy to cook, like most comfort food, but has a rich, exotic flavor.  Shakshouka is essentially peasant food (like most really good food all over the world), a quick and easy meal made with the humblest of ingredients, tomatoes, onions and eggs, with spices thrown in for flavor.

Cutting up the vegetables

The first step is to slice your red onion, green peppers and zucchini into slivers.

Frying the vegetables

Then saute them in olive oil in a hot pan.

Ras al hanout and berbere

In keeping with the North African theme, for my shakshouka recipe I used half a teaspoon of ras el hanout and half a teaspoon of berbere spice mix (both homemade, of course).  McCormick makes a very good ras el hanout if you don’t have time to make your own.  Of course, you could also use garam masala as a substitute.  The flavor would be slightly different but just as good.

Eggs, tomatoes, spices, parsley

Assemble your diced tomatoes, eggs and parsley.

Adding diced parsley

Add the chopped parsley to the cooked vegetables.

Adding tomatoes

Then add half the spices, then the tomatoes.  Bring it to a boil.

Adding eggs

Crack the eggs into the tomatoes, then sprinkle the rest of the spices on top.

Shashouka finished

 

Let the eggs cook for another ten to fifteen minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Once the eggs are firm and most of the liquid is gone, you can remove from the heat and serve.

The ingredients:

  • 1/4 red onion, slivered
  • 3 tablespoons slivered zucchini
  • 1/4 green pepper sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon berbere spice mix
  • 1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout spice mix
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • small sprig of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large eggs

Try this.  It’s so easy you’ll wonder why you haven’t been cooking it all these years.  If you do cook this shakshouka recipe, be sure and let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you.

 

Pepper Okra Socca

Green Pepper and Okra Socca Recipe

Pepper Okra Socca

Socca, or farinata, is a Ligurian (the little Western coastal part of Italy by France) thin pancake or crepe made with chickpea flour, water and olive oil.  The great thing about socca, apart from its simplicity, is its versatility.  Adding a wide variety of vegetables is easy and delicious. This green pepper and okra socca recipe is delicious, relatively healthy (chickpeas have a very high protein content) and beyond easy to make, as long as you have a few key ingredients.

slicing the vegetables

 

For this recipe I simply sliced onion, okra and green pepper into long thin slivers.

cooking the vegetables

I then sauteed them in a nonstick pan with olive oil until they start to brown.  The nonstick pan is key here, because if you use a normal aluminum or steel pan, the socca is likely to stick to the pan.  We don’t want a culinary disaster.   We want crispy, delicious goodness.

adding oregano

Sprinkle a little oregano, or any other appropriate Mediterranean herb you have on hand.  Fresh thyme or rosemary would work beautifully.

pouring the batter

Mix your batter (chickpea flour, water a touch of salt and pepper and olive oil; that’s it) and pour it over your cooked vegetables.  Spread it out as evenly as you can.

cooking

Once it begins to set up flip it over.  Cook it for another few minutes until it sets up, nice and brown on both sides.

socca

 

And there you have it.  Quick.  Easy.  Relatively healthy.  This green pepper and okra socca recipe makes a great side for a North African shakshouka recipe.  I’ll show you how to make that tomorrow.

The ingredients:

  • onions, slivered
  • slivered okra
  • slivered green pepper
  • 3 tablespoons chickpea flour or ‘gram flour’ if you’re looking in Indian food stores
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (1 for the batter, 1 for the pan)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a little dried oregano (or fresh rosemary or thyme)

 

curry okra

Indian Spice Baked Okra Recipe or Yes, You Can Really Do That

curry okra

Okra is slimy!  That’s the usual objection to eating okra, the texture more than the flavor.  While that texture can be an asset in some dishes (like gumbo), we don’t necessarily need or want it in other contexts.  The easiest way to transform okra from slimy to crispy would be to fry it.  But if eating healthier is a concern (as it should be) then there’s an easy alternative to frying.  This Indian Spice baked okra recipe is a delicious and easy way to use up all that okra in your Summer garden.

exotic spices

As with most other Indian inspired dishes (hello, curry!) this okra recipe begins with spices, a mixture of whole and ground spices.  For this dish I used ground mustard, amchoor, whole fennel, whole kala jeera and coarsely ground cardamom.  Simply add all of the spices to a small bowl and mix well.

slice okra

Slice the fresh okra on a bias, removing the ends.  You want them as long and thin as you can get them.  This helps them crisp up.

grating ginger

Grate frozen ginger onto the sliced okra with a micro-planer.

adding Indian spices

Add the olive oil and the spice mixture.

adding garlic and olive oil

Add the chopped garlic then mix well, coating all of the okra well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

on a baking sheet

Lay out on a baking sheet.  Elevate it from the cooking sheet using a wire drying rack like this, if you can.  When the air circulates underneath it helps crisp up the okra.

Bake for at least 30 minutes at 450 degrees.  You may need to take the okra out about halfway through and turn everything over.  Otherwise you’ll end up with less than crisp okra.  Not a disaster, but not quite what we’re going for here.

The ingredients:

  •  1 teaspoon ground mustard
  •  1 teaspoon ground amchoor (dried and ground green mango)
  •  1/2 teaspoon whole fennel
  •  1/2 teaspoon kala jeera
  •  1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground cardamom
  •  salt and pepper to taste (use the salt sparingly)
  •  2 tablespoons olive oil
  •  2 cups thinly sliced okra, cut on a bias
  •  1 tablespoon grated frozen ginger
  •  2 garlic cloves, diced

The aroma as this comes out of the oven will almost knock you over.  The spices become very aromatic as the okra bakes, perfuming the whole kitchen.  It’s best to eat these warm.

Let me know if you try this Indian Spice baked okra recipe, and what you think. What other vegetables could you bake like this?  If you like this okra recipe, you might check out my okra and green pepper socca recipe here.

 

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