The starting point for any good meal is great ingredients. I’m fortunate to have access to wonderful produce–both down the street and a strones throw away on on charming local islands. Below is a quick snapshot of “souvenirs” from a short afternoon trip to Vashon Island.
Cashews are something I grew up with, regularly inserted into our family’s diet whether toasted, raw or ground into a creamy sauce for something delicious and spiced. But I rarely translated these delicious nuts into my non-Indian cooking. I’m fortunate enough to have been introduced to a wonderful vegan chef, Chad Sarno whose use of cashews inspires me–especially when I might feel helpless without dairy.
A quick variation in my own kitchen was to take two of my favorite salad staples, kale and radishes, and make them just a bit more decadent for a recent at-home asado (…where they were served with rosemary-smoked chicken and roasted yams. Sorry, Chad.) In this salad, I love the combination of bitter, sweet, creamy–and how each time I get a bit of radish, it cleanses my palate and takes me through all those experiences again.
- 1/4 cup cashews (raw)
- 1/4 cup of water
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (coconut oil also works, but changes the flavor quite a bit)
- 1/4 clove of garlic
- juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 4 blackberries
- pinch of salt
- 1 bunch white radishes, sliced lengthwise (A bit sharper than your normal red radishes, which are a fine substitution.)
- 1 bunch lacinato or “dinosaur” kale (Now is the season to plant them. We do in pots on our patio!)
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley (curly or Italian)
- 2 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of blackberries, cut in half, lengthwise
- 1/4 cup of hemp hearts for topping (optional)
Blend all of the ingredients for the dressing in your blender until smooth. Drizzle in extra lemon juice or olive oil and blend further, depending on the needs of the resulting emulsion.
Place the dry, washed kale in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, and massage for 30 seconds. Next, add the dressing and massage until evenly distributed. Then, toss in the rest of the ingredients except the blackberries and hemp hearts. Sprinkle the blackberries and hemp hearts on top as a garnish and serve.
WHY COOKING MATTERS
Last week, I was chatting with my friend about how he stays healthy. One of the main ways, aside from being intentional about what he eats, is cooking for himself. But his main stumbling block was getting to the point where he gets to the grocery store—or even his kitchen.
“I know that cooking my own meals is good for me, but I seem to forget how much I like the process until I am cooking until I’m actualy cooking. It’s very soothing, almost therapeutic. But, it’s funny, when I’m thinking about how much time it’s going to take me, that really stops me about 80% of the time from cooking—let alone making anyting meaningful.”
As I’ve spoken with more and more friends, the key to healthy eating (granted, for a specific sample set) is learning to cook. There is something in the intentionality of thinking through what you’re going to select and what truly goes into a meal that can then translate to decision making when you’re not cooking for yourself.
Translating this to impulsive or bad habits, if you better understand what goes into that bacon double cheeseburger, you may find less satisfaction in ordering it or be a more discerning in where you choose to eat one.
I’m not advocating that everyone stops to become a world-class chef, I think that’s unrealistic. I believe that cooking is going to become an increasingly specialized skill, just like knowing how to build your house or growing your own food has. However, there will always be a desire to connect at a deeper level with food, and that’s where learning classic techniques, like good knife skills, will be critical.
But as fewer and fewer people know these skills enough to pass them on, where will we be able to learn to cook for ourselves?
AN ONLINE SOLUTION
Beyond friends and family, there are professional places to learn in-person (local community college, culinary academies, culinary stores, etc.) but over the past few years, online education has exploded.
Not only is there increased quality and speed of video, storage and sharing leading to exponentially increasing content online, there is more general penetration of smart phones, making it easy to access classes anywhere, anytime. Assuming food preparation does become increasingly specialized, online education is going to be key in providing those who are the most talented and passionate about food with training and certification they may not have been able to access or afford.
How does this technology trend translate to cooking for the individual? There are a few key advantages with online, video-based culinary education, aside from the lower cost and easier access.
Unlike a television program, you have choice over what you’re going to learn. Some of the schools edit out excess content, such as chitter-chatter of the more talkative chefs. With video, you don’t have to wait for things you would in a real class, like the oven to pre-heat or the water to boil so the demonstration can begin. You also get a front seat with video features such as zoom or alternate angles – and many have live chat functions to ask questions. But the biggest advantage? You can usually start, pause and re-start a video (class/course) as your schedule permits – often still getting to ask questions to live staff.
Here is a list of some of the most popular online cooking schools for you to check out. Some are more basic while others get into some rather advanced topics. Most offer free trials, but do your research and figure out which one will really help you connect with your food.
SELECTED ONLINE COOKING SCHOOLS
Tito and I don’t have a backyard, but we do have a rather large patio. The first thing Tito announced when we moved in was that we were going to have a garden, an efficient, practical garden. (Flowers were later allowed for pollination, but only if they were edible.)
I select what we’re going to grow (within reason), help select pots, soil, composting bin, etc., and Tito magically makes everything grow. But what happens if you don’t have a Tito, accessible land (e.g., a backyard or community garden), a big patio, or any outdoor space at all?
If you value fresh herbs, flowers, fruits and veggies, you CAN grow and even compost (adventure level=high) for yourself, at home, indoors–even in tight spaces. This can be as simple as a pot for your windowsill or one that’s wall-mounted, but you can scale it up a notch with some of these more advanced, beautifully designed products.
These amazing vertically-stacked, hydroponic gardens were launched by a Kickstarter campaign at the end last year. Prior to that, Window Farms showed people how to assemble these gardening systems using plastic bottles and a few other parts, but it took quite a bit of work and some McGyver-ing. Now, they’re beautiful and easy for almost anyone to put together. You can grow mostly smaller items, from salad greens and herbs to selected fruits and veggies–during any season. They start at around $200 for a single tower starter kit.
Designed by Hyundai engineers, this hydroponic solution for growing vegetables, flowers and herbs in your kitchen in a footprint the size of your refrigerator. You won’t have to use pesticides or chemicals, or even sunlight for that matter (it has lighting built in.) You can also control how fast the plants grow – and the device lets you know when you provide water or nutrients! It supposedly also filters out unpleasant odors, but I’m yet to actually see one in person as they’re not yet available for purchase, as far as I can tell. In the meanwhile, there are two similar versions recently created by The Urban Cultivator (TM): one large and one smaller, similar to a wine-fridge,
A clever name, this product (not yet available, but hackable) helps you grow herbs in tight spaces. It resembles cubby holes and integrates a fully-functional worm farm to help optimize the soil and act as a small indoor compost. It’s incredibly compact and has removable compartments to make it easier to switch out different plants.
HOW DO YOU EMBRACE URBAN FARMING?
What are some of the tricks you use or hacks you’ve created to bring farming to small spaces or city dwellings?
**Note: Photos of products are from respective companies’ or designers’ websites.
One of the things I miss the most about living in Bangalore is Brahmin’s Coffee Bar. It’s a tiny establishment, but the first time I ate there, it solidified my lifelong obsession with idli (a.k.a. idly or idldly), a savory steamed cake usually made of fermented urad dal (black) and rice.
A bit sour, a bit sweet, idlis are the perfect vehicle for one of my other favorite things in life, coconut chutney. They’re also perfect for a light breakfast – or pretty much anytime of day if you’re as obsessed with them as I am.
Other varieties of idli include vada (fried) and rava (wheat/semolina)–although you may be more familiar with their cousin, the dosa (crêpes also made with fermented dal and rice batter.) I often turn to rava idli (recipe below) for two reasons: shorter preparation time and easier access to ingredients than traditional rice-based idli.
As for chutney, there are endless varieties in Indian cuisine alone, including many variations with my beloved coconut. But my one of my favorite versions (recipe below) includes a burst of cilantro, an obsession of mine that you may recall.
SWEET COCONUT CHUTNEY
In a blender, mix the following ingredients:
- 1 1/2 cups of warm water
- 1/4 inch of tamarind or 1 tbsp of tamarind paste
- 1/4 cup pitted chopped dates (soaked raisins are an acceptable substitute)
- 1 tsp whole cumin (toasted)
- 1/2 tbsp grated ginger
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 3 tbsp roasted unsalted peanuts (can substitute with almonds or cashews)
- 3 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
SPICY COCONUT CHUTNEY WITH CILANTRO
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup unsweetened grated coconut (fresh is preferable)
- 1/2 cup chana dal (a.k.a bengal gram, roasted)
- 3 tbsp green chili
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup cilantro, leaves removed from stems
- 1 tbsp light-tasting vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 large red chillies, dried
Blend coconut, chana dal, green chillies, salt and water in your food processor until it forms a smooth paste. Pulse in cilantro until fully incorporated.
Next, you’ll be tempering in the spices using oil so that this extra flavor is fully distributed throughout the chutney. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat. Add in the mustard seeds and dry red chillies until their aroma is released. Often times this recipe calls for toasting an extra 1/2 tsp or so of chana dal, but I prefer my chutney without.
EASY RAVA (WHEAT) IDLI
One of the more delicious idli houses in Bangalore, MTR, claims to have invented rava idli out of necessity during WWII when rice was in short supply and semolina was more available.
History aside, I’ve been impressed with how much “more” rava idli can hold. While rice idli are generally served plain, rava idli get jazzed up with all sorts of extra embellishments such as cashews, onions, and chillies thrown into the batter, making not only the flavor but textural experience markedly different from rice idli.
Rava idli is also significantly easier for cooks in North America to make for two reasons:
(1) Availability: Urud dal is not commonplace outside of Indian grocery stores
(2) Shorter Preparation Time: Regular idlis require you to make the batter and let it sit overnight to ferment. Rava idli can be made in a fraction of the time.
- 1 inch of ginger root, grated
- 2 cups of buttermilk*(Can quickly make with 2 cups whole milk & 2 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar.Sit aside 10 min or until it curdles.)
- 1 cup cream of wheat
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp eno salt (Digestive salt. Baking soda may be substituted.)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp whole mustard seeds
- 1 tsp cumin (dry toasted)
- light tasting vegetable oil such as grapeseed or sunflower oil
- 1/4 cup minced vegetables (I prefer celery, onion, green chillies and sometimes leeks.)
- 1/4 cup toasted cashews, chopped
- 1 bay (laurel) leaf
(1) Toast the Spices
Bring a pan to a medium-heat and add bay leaf, cumin, mustard seeds to 1 tbsp of vegetable oil until their aroma intensifies. Remove from pan to cool.
(2) Sweat the Vegetables
Add vegetables to the pan and cook until they become slightly translucent and are softened.
(3) Make the Batter
Add the cream of wheat and stir frequently, until they become lightly golden in color. Turn off heat and add the baking soda and eno salt. Mix well and let cool.
Next, add the buttermilk, mix well, and let stand 15 minutes, or until the cream of wheat (rava) is soft. Remove bay leaf.
(4) Cook the Idlis
An idli stand used in a pressure cooker is ideal, but in a pinch, I have placed individual cupcake tins on top of my steamer tray to make these tasty cakes. The second option may take a bit longer to fully cook the cakes – and may not produce as fluffy a final product.
Once you have your apparatus ready and lightly oiled, fill your pot with 1/2 inch of water. Place on stove over high heat. Place batter into each individual tray 2/3 full. Put the trays in the pot before the water begins to boil, cover, and cook for approximately 5-7 minutes.
There are a number of tests for doneness with idlis including “an evident fragrance” or when they are “firm to the touch,” but the easiest test for me is using a toothpick (as you would with a cake). Insert the toothpick and remove. If it is still clean, the idli is done.
(5) Cool & Serve
Remove the trays from the cooker and let cool a few minutes. (Caution: This takes a lot of willpower.) Serve with chutney of choice.
When it comes to food preference predictability, I’m pretty easy to get to know. I like heat, but more than heat, I like creamy textures and bright notes that balance sweet and sour flavors. This dish takes sweet roasted carrots to a new level by incorporating a member of the same family (apiaceae), fresh-tasting cilantro, a dash of lemon juice, a smidge of harissa, pine nuts and the creamiest hummus imaginable.
HELLO. MY NAME IS SHARBANI AND I LOVE CILANTRO
Let’s start with cilantro. As you may be able to tell by the presence of roots, I didn’t find the cilantro photographed above in the local store. I found it at one of the largest markets I’ve even been to–and possibly the most magical place ever to find mass quantities of cilantro–La Merced in Mexico City. As my friends and I drove into the market, we passed what appeared to be an entire smaller market (yet still larger than my local farmers’ market) devoted only to cilantro. I rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply to experience the scent of one of my favorite ingredients. (If this sounds awful to you, there’s a reason why and it’s not that I’m insane.)
HELLO. MY NAME IS SHARBANI AND HUMMUS SAVED MY LIFE.
Moving on from my love of cilantro, let’s talk about hummus. No, it’s not made of magic, but it might as well be. Hummus has helped me through college, breakups, and life–and out of plenty of awkward conversations. Ok, so it hasn’t technically saved my life, but emotionally, maybe.
I fear that I learned too late in life that not all hummus is the same. The first time I had freshly, homemade hummus at a Middle Eastern friend’s house, I felt I had been duped by all previous hummus in my life. It was so creamy, so perfect. But I couldn’t seem to shake loose any secrets from apparent experts over the years to come.
That was until I was recently gifted Jerusalem by two lovely Egyptian friends. The secret, it turns out, is baking soda! Baking soda is alkaline and helps to soften chickpeas (and other legumes) faster by weakening pectic bonds. Adding acids, such as lemon juice or vinegar, will actually hinder this process. (This also works for lentil dishes such as dal.)
All the way at the bottom of this post is the recipe from Jerusalem. (If you care at all about hummus, take the time to try it at least once.) I highly recommend purchasing the whole cookbook – it’s one of the best I’ve read in years! (Meaning not only are the explanations great, but I have actually been using the recipes without excessive tweaks!)
SO, TAKE ME BACK TO THE DISH
Yes, so the delicious picture on top. The sliced carrots were tossed in olive oil and salt, then roasted at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 min and finished with lemon juice. They were then piled on top of the hummus (mixed with some spicy harissa) with sauteed bitter, leafy greens, then sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and cilantro.
HUMMUS FROM JERUSALEM
- 1 1/2 cups/250 g dried chickpeas
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 6 1/2 cups/1.5 liters water
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/270 g light tahini paste
- 4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 6 1/2 tablespoons/100 ml ice-cold water
The night before, put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover them with cold water at least twice their volume. Leave to soak overnight.
The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a medium saucepan over high heat and add the drained chickpeas and baking soda. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. The chickpeas will need to cook between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on the type and freshness, sometimes even longer. Once done, they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your thumb and finger, almost but not quite mushy.
Drain the chickpeas. You should have roughly 3 2/3 cups/600 g now. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the iced water and allow it to mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
Transfer the hummus to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If not using straightaway, refrigerate until needed. Make sure to take it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving.
This time, wanderlust came to me. I’m fortunate that one of my good friend’s parents have a catering business in Cairo – and that they were very excited when I asked to learn some of their favorite classic Egyptian recipes.
I’ve included four simple but delicious ones of the many we sampled below. These dishes can bring a light, uplifting yet warm touch to chillier days.
I love almost any dish with nuts or seeds, but for me, tahini is the superstar of pastes. This sauce is amazing with salads, roasted vegetables or meat, in sandwiches – I can’t think of too many things that this sauce doesn’t make better. That said, it’s still rather calorie dense, so I try to indulge in moderation.
- 2/3 cup tahini paste (sesame paste)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- 1 clove of garlic, grated.
- 1/4 tsp sumac
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Make sure to whisk up the tahini in the jar or can before measuring as the oil tends to separate from the solids. Then, whisk all the ingredients (except sumac & olive oil) together until the mixture has emulsified and has the consistency of honey. Then, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and garnish sumac to serve.
This can be made ahead of time and can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week.
Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and one of my ultimate comfort foods. When it comes to something so simple with virtually no prep-work, why not?
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius.) Place eggplant on a heavy-bottomed baking sheet and roast until the skin beings to wrinkle/collapse. This should take around 30-45 minutes. Then, once cool, peel back the skin with a knife and spoon. Mash the flesh with a fork, adding a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. (Optional addition: 1 clove of garlic, grated.)
A light, refreshing dish that will never weigh you down. This dish goes with almost anything and works as a side, starter or stand-alone snack.
- 1/3 cup bulgur wheat (medium)
- 2 large tomatoes
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 4 large bunches of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
- 1 bunch mint
- 1 tbsp sumac
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- salt & pepper
- 1 shallot, minced (can substitute with around 2 tbsp of minced red onion)
- 1 head leafy green lettuce (optional)
(1) Cook the Bulgar
I usually can’t find fine bulgur, so I use medium bulgur in this recipe. If you get fine bulgur, you just need to rinse it until the run-off is clear, indicating that all the starch has been removed. For medium bulgur wheat, soak it in boiling water for 5 minutes, then strain. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
(2) Chop the Parsley & Mint
Thoroughly wash the parsley (it is often very gritty) and mint and find someone who is willing to pull the leaves off of the stems. Then, finely chop the parsley. Separately, roll the mint into a cigar and chiffonade, then coarsely chop. (Mint bruises easily.)
(3) Dice the Tomatoes
Dice the tomatoes. Reserve any juice that escapes.
(4) Make the Dressing
Add the lemon juice, olive oil and excess tomato juice to a bowl. Whisk until emulsified, then add in the salt, pepper, shallots, and sumac. Whisk until incorporated.
(5) Mix & Serve
Toss tomatoes, bulgur, and parsley together with the dressing.
(6) Optional: Serve two large spoonfuls per single green lettuce leaf.
The highlight of the meal for me was the traditional Egyptian dish, koshari. An ultimate comfort food, this blend of rice, pasta and lentils and spices is something that I couldn’t stop eating, even when I had run out of room in my stomach.
- 1 cup dry brown lentils
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup uncooked long grain rice (we used basmati)
- 1 cup macaroni
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 large onions, 1 sliced, 2 diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can diced tomatoes (or 3 large tomatoes, diced)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne chili powder
- sea salt
In a large saucepan, add the lentils, water, 1 of the sliced onions, and a dash of salt and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for around 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked.
Strain and reserve the liquid from the lentils. Leave the lentils in the sieve to drain.
In the same saucepot (or rice cooker) add 1.5 cups of the reserved liquid to the 1 cup of dry basmati rice. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, or until you can fluff the rice with a fork.
In a separate saucepan, bring lightly salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni. (Follow the timing instructions on the box, but likely around 8 minutes.) Drain.
Heat a pan to medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the diced onion, garlic, and cook until golden. Add in the tomatoes, cayenne, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer for approximately 15 minutes.
(5) Mix & Serve
In a large bowl, stir the lentils, rice, macaroni. At this point, you can either add in the tomato sauce and stir, or you can let everyone add as much or little as they like to their own portion.
Embracing squash is one of my favorite things about this time of year (and maybe the whole year.) I love the generally creamy texture, sweet flavor, and varieties of beautiful colors they bring to the colder seasons. I cannot recall a time I have turned down an item with squash on the menu – or left the grocery store without at least one member of the squash or gourd families. They’re also flexible to my sometimes temperamental meal planning as some squash can last up to one month at room temperature.
Today, I’m embracing my love of acorn squash, possibly one of the easiest and most ubiquitously pleasing. The execution is simple and takes approximately two minutes of prep time. Slice the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, rub with extra virgin coconut oil, 1 tbsp of maple syrup, sprinkle with cayenne and fresh rosemary. Bake for approximately 45 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, or until you can insert a fork easily into the flesh.
Not a fan of these ingredients? Acorn squash is easy, but my general recipe for success involves an oil, an herb and/or spice and a natural sweetener. (Honey, agave, brown sugar and maple syrup have all worked for me.)
Cauliflower is one of my favorite comfort vegetables. I can happily eat it raw, curried, puréed or other. But roasted is my go-to cooking method when it comes to this friendly member of the cabbage family.
I tend to be biased toward the Indian influences of my cooking when it comes to cauliflower, meaning I often add a homemade mix of garam masala or panch phoron – or at least cumin and coriander (and chili and turmeric.) But, I’ve recently been getting more into the world of salt after a friend wowed me with one of the more miraculous pieces of halibut I’ve had–cooked in her oven on a pink himalayan salt slab.
Roasted Cauliflower with Coriander & Pink Salt
Grind 3 tbsp toasted coriander with 1tbsp pink Himalayan sea salt (usually purchased in larger rocks/pebbles). Slice one head of cauliflower into 3/4″ thick pieces (2cm”), toss in a light-flavored oil and the ground spices.
Then roast at 425 degrees Fahrenheit (~220 Celsius) for approximately 30 minutes on a heavy-bottomed pan lined with parchment paper, or until both sides of the cauliflower have a golden color. The time will vary depending on how thick you cut your cauliflower.
This method generally works well for any combination of spices and oil. Make sure to toss then remove the cauliflower from the mixing bowl with your hands or tongs. If you pull too much oil onto the sheet, it will steam instead of roast the cauliflower, meaning you won’t get those gorgeous golden edges.
Cheese is something I generally try to limit in my diet, although it’s hard for me to restrict the passion in my heart. I adore the full range of stinkier cheeses available. Although I lean more heavily toward a goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese, a great aged sharp cheddar can also do me in. I will always eat burrata on special occasions (included embarrassing friends with the closed eyes, transport-me-to-heaven-now look I apparently get.) But, don’t get me started on feta. I’ve always had a passion for feta, yet my true revelation was the day a close Albanian friend introduced 23-year-old-me to the sweet and salty love story that is feta and watermelon.
Fast forward just a few years, and it’s summertime a few weeks before my wedding. I’d promised that I’d cut out dairy (and processes sugar) until the big day, but after we pulled tomatoes and herbs from the garden, I couldn’t resist throwing everything that looked delicious and fresh into one bowl, including red bell peppers, parsley, mint, kale, tomatoes, avocado, red bell peppers—-and one gorgeous, creamy-yet-crumbly brick of feta fresh from the farmers’ market, all tied together with a quick lemon vinaigrette (whisk 1 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, dash of salt, pinch of pepper.)
An additional tip for those who like the idea of feta, but find it a bit strong by itself: marinate it. Keeping it in the brine will preserve feta, but if you have a food saver, jar, or other way of re-sealing the feta, you can remove it from the brine and add olive oil and herbs or sweeter additions such as preserved lemon or sun/oven-dried tomatoes to soften the flavor. In the image below, I have used my food saver so I wouldn’t have to add as much olive oil.