Friday, April 11, 2008

Improv for Beginners

Recipes are great (especially the previous quinoa recipe. . . give it a try), but no one should be shackled to a list of things they know how to make. At some point you have to suck it up and improvise. One of the easiest ways to start in the throw-it-together-and-hope-for-the-best world of cooking is with soup. Soups have no problems of structural integrity or touchy cooking times, and they can be tinkered with at almost any point. They may seem a little Early Bird Senior Special, but in reality soup can be -gasp- exciting.

Once, we had almost no food in the house. However, we did have some couscous. I had seen a soup recipe that involved toasting couscous in oil and stirring in tomato paste before adding stock. . . but we had no tomato paste. Instead, we added some leftover tomato sauce. We also threw in frozen spinach and thickened the stock with a handful of red lentils. The soup needed little more than some North African seasonings to be delicous. Toasting the couscous first made it swell up beautifully, and the broth was just thick enough. A wonderful soup.

Just last night the weather was cold and rainy. As my coauthor and I were riding the L home, we composed a soup in our heads. We had some fresh pasta in the freezer and some sage that was nearing the end of its life. Add some canned white beans and canned corn (I know it sounds gross, but try Trader Joe's. It's amazing.) and there's a soup. We didn't have any vegetable stock in the house, but that wasn't a problem. Cook up some onions and maybe carrot and celery, add garlic, pour in water, and you have a stock. A dash of soy sauce gives it a nice savory flavor without really tasting like soy. You could also pick up veggie stock, but why bother?

I know spring is approaching, but around here that seems to involve many dark, rainy days. Even when the weather warms, soups can make a delightful light dinner. Keep in mind this simple formula: tasty things + broth + seasonings = soup. There may be some limits, but I haven't found them yet. Happy cooking.

Quinoa With Patatas Bravas

So Anna's been trying to get me to post this dish for quite some time now. It's a true Nubbin fusion dish, equally versatile whether it's warm and sunny or cold and rainy out, and (of course) is super-cheap and easy to prepare. It contains quinoa, which is admittedly a strange ingredient, but is an excellent vegetarian source of complete protein; you can find it at any health food (or Whole Foods) store.

The first order of business, as usual, is to preheat the oven (to 400°F) and get some water boiling. You'll be using the double-boiling method in the previous post to cook the quinoa; it's the easiest and safest way to cook any whole grain, so boil about two parts water for one part quinoa, plus a cup or so to keep the double boiler working.

Chop up about 3 small potatoes into centimeter-sized cubes. Make sure you scrub them first; I generally avoid peeling potatoes whenever possible, since the vast majority of the nutrients (and flavor) in the potato are located therein. Once your water is hot, pull out a little in a small dish and toss in some saffron threads (to the small dish). Whatever you do, don't buy them a few at a time; go online and invest in a whole ounce. It seems a little pricey, but it lasts forever and a half. Let that sit for about five minutes while you mince a couple of cloves of garlic and measure out your quinoa.

Once the saffron is infused, toss it in with the potatoes and toss them around a little. The potatoes should absorb it pretty handily, turning bright gold at the same time. Then, add the garlic, several good pinches of salt, a little black pepper, some red chili flakes, and a couple good pinches of paprika. If you can get the smoked Spanish kind, all the better, but Hungarian sweet works plenty well. Toss this all with enough olive oil to lubricate the whole mess.

Your water's probably boiling by now, so add two parts water to one part quinoa in your bowl and set the double boiler up (pot, then bowl, then lid. Turn the heat way down; this is a very efficient method of cooking, so you don't need to keep a high flame. Toss your potatoes out in a single layer on a baking sheet, and toss them in the oven. Check them after about twenty minutes, and every five minutes thereafter, to see if the biggest chunk is soft in the center. Once it is, they're done, pull them out. The quinoa should be finishing up about the same time; it becomes very puffy and light, with a hard white ring around each grain, when it's finished. It's important to cook quinoa fully; it sometimes has traces of saponin, a natural pesticide (produced by the plant itself), which can cause digestive discomfort, but breaks down under prolonged heat.

So, that was a long paragraph. This one's easier: toss your potatoes into the quinoa bowl, then scrape all the burny bits off your baking sheet into the quinoa (lots of extra flavor). If the color has gone a little dark, toss in an extra pinch of paprika to get that nice golden-red color. Test for salt (you shouldn't need to add much, if any), and eat.