Quinoa and Greens in Soy Sauce

Simple and fun, and make use of all those amazing spring greens out there. Potential filling for Passover tomatoes (we’re of the grain-eating persuasion).

2 cups quinoa
2 carrots, grated
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 kg leafy greens, like mustard greens, leaves from red or white beets, kale, collards, etc, chopped up into ribbons
1 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp vegetable broth
1/2 tbsp crushed chilis
a teeny bit of squeezed lemon juice
(optional) 1/2 tbsp honey

Cook quinoa in 3 cups of water until all water is absorbed. In the meantime, in a wok, heat up garlic cloves, chili and onion in canola oil. After a minute, add grated carrots, chopped greens, veg broth, soy sauce, lemon juice and optional honey. Then, add the quinoa and stir-fry for three minutes or so. Ready.

Oh, Boy, What do I do with this?

Yesterday, I had lunch with my dear grandparents at their house.

Lunch at the grandparents’ is always a source of joy. Beyond the pleasure of hanging out with them, my grandma is a fabulous cook. Her cooking influences hail from Russia and from Egypt – two places where the family had been before being in Israel. Accordingly, we get some traditional stuff like gefilte fish (carp balls, which, as opposed to the Polish version, are spicy rather than sweet) side by side with spicy exotic vegetable stuff. However, decades of cooking with the same ingredients have made my grandparents completely ignore the world of whole grains.

Ahhhh, don’t I like all those “traditional foods” advocates, who say that whatever your grandma cooks is good for you! Don’t these people know that white rice and flour, and refined grains, have been available for a long, long time, and enjoyed a reputation of being more palatable? While the grandparents know the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cook wonderful, creative dishes with them, they are a little bit afraid of whole grains.

So yesterday, my grandma took the plunge, and cooked quinoa from a packet that included some raisins and almonds and nuts. It came out very good, but she was very hesitant about doing other things with quinoa.

“You can buy this in bulk, like rice”, I said.
“Really?” she said increduously. “But then how do I know about the fruit?”
“You don’t have to have fruit”, I said. “You can cook this with vegetables”.
I got strange looks.
“Yeah”, I said with lots of conviction. “All those amazing dishes you make with white rice? You can make all of them with quinoa”.
“Wow”, my grandpa joined the conversation. “This is really good.”
“Like your mejeddera“, I said. “You can make your mejeddera just the same, with the lentils and onion, except use quinoa instead of the rice”.
“You know”, said my grandma corageously, “I went to the store and almost bought brown rice. Except, with those rough peels, how can it cook at all?”
“C’mon”, I argued, “if it wasn’t cookable, why would people sell it an eat it? Of course you can cook it. It takes a little more time”.
“But it probably has a different flavor”, said my grandpa.
“Yeah, it does”, I replied. “It tends to be a bit of an acquired taste for folks who are used to refined grains. But it’s really good once you get used to it”.

A short discussion revealed that the grandparents do eat barley and buckwheat and quite a variety of beans. “There”, I said, “you do eat beans and whole grains. So you can just add a couple more to your repertoire”.

My grandma promised she’d do some experimenting, and we’ll see the results next week when I come back for lunch. Hurrah!

In the meantime, for your sakes and for posterity, I’ll try and collect her traditional wonderful Russian and Egyptian recipes, and come up with healthier versions for them whenever needed.

The Very Best Bowl of Oatmeal

One of the reasons for the big break I took from posting was feeling exhausted after spending a month and a half flying back and forth between Israel and the US. The constant jetlag, the lack of adequate food, and the stress of travel, took their toll, and the doctor has officially pronounced me exhausted.

In Chinese medicine, exhaustion can be the manifestation of several different conditions, depending on the person involved and the symptoms he or she experiences. But in many of these variations, the issue has to do with a depletion of the body’s reserve of qi, the energy of life. In my case, the exhaustion manifests itself in (of course!) various annoying digestive issues, headaches, tiredness and moodiness, muddled thinking, and a very strained set of back muscles.

One of the doctor’s recommendations for this situation was a bowl of oatmeal every day. Oatmeal is a pleasantly warming and healthy grain, that provides energy, vitamins (particularly B vitamins), minerals (particularly manganese) and an abundance of fiber. Apparently, there are many people who are allergic to wheat but not to oats, despite the fact that both grains contain gluten. Oatmeal with cinnamon and dried prunes and raisins is truly excellent; cinnamon is a very warming spice in Chinese medicine, and if you add a vanilla pod of a drop of natural vanilla extract, your oatmeal will truly rise to unprecedented levels of yumminess.

Now, please give this a try: I know you’re all busy in the morning, but I find that making oatmeal out of steel-cut oats (as opposed to the quick-cooking rolled oats) doesn’t take up a large chunk of time, especially if you lower the heat after a while and let it happily simmer while you take your morning shower. So, here ’tis, and it’s really worth it.

Oatmeal – 1 serving (more can be made by simply multiplying the amounts!).

1/2 cup steel cut oats
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp vanilla
20 organic raisins
3 organic dried prunes, chopped up into raisin-size pieces
a drop of vanilla extract, or 1/2 vanilla pod

Place all ingredients in a small pot and heat up. Do not wait for it to boil – when things start getting warm, lower the heat. Go about your business, stopping by the stove to mix up your oatmeal every 5 minutes or so, so it doesn’t stick. At some point, the oats will change their consistency and the whole thing will be a lot more porridge-like. Spoon into bowl and enjoy.

Whole Grains Chart: A Service to the Public

In her fabulous book Sunlight Cafe, Mollie Katzen devotes a special chapter to whole grains and their cooking methods. In her honor, and as a service to the public, I’m posting a modified version of her excellent grain cooking chart.

Grain Water (cups) to 1 cup grain Cooking Time Yields (cups)
Oat Groats 2.5 40-45 mins. 3
Brown Rice 1.5 35-45 mins. 3.5
Wild Rice 2.5 1 1/4 hours 4
Pearl Barley 3 1 1/2 hours 4
Quinoa 1.5 25-30 mins. 3
Millet 1.5 25-30 mins. 3
Buckwheat 1.5 10 mins. 3.5
Amaranth 1.75 25 mins. 2

Happy cooking!

Madison County in Tel Aviv

Stuffed peppers… not necessarily a romantic dish, isn’t it? When we think of romantic dining, some delicate, nouvelle-cuisine thing in delicate china comes to mind. Preferably something that is eaten sensually (and optimally fed to the other person, by hand). Stuffed peppers don’t exactly fall into that category. Or do they?

For me, they do. And the credit all goes to Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. The book (for those of you who haven’t read it, and there can’t be too many who haven’t heard about it) is an amazing, tear-jerking story of an Iowa housewife who meets a National Geographic photographer. The two fall in love – an unpredictable, all-consuming, impossible love. And one of the exotic features about the photographer – who is so different from the housewife’s husband and all other men she knows – is his vegetarianism.

So, she makes him stuffed peppers. She stuffs them with wild rice and cheese. And it’s a lovely, romantic, fabulous dinner.

Now here’s why stuffed peppers are such a romantic food. First of all, they are extremely sexy. The contrast between their bold, colorful exterior and their comforting, nutritious interior is beautiful to see and fabulous to eat. Second, they are messy. Beautiful before touched, they require crossing a boundary when cutting into them and spilling their goodness on the plate. And third, they are soaked in good tomato sauce – the sexiest sauce of all, in my humble opinion.

The version photographed here (and eaten for lunch today by a hungry man studying for a university exam and his blogging girlfriend) is a bit unusual, and consists of cooked millet, leeks and dried tomatoes. You can be quite creative about the filling and many whole grains will do fine; the millet, however, tends to absorb flavors and liquids, sort of like couscous. Enjoy!

Stuffed Peppers with Millet, Leeks and Dried Tomatoes

4 large, nice, red peppers
2 leeks
1 1/2 cup cooked millet
3 garlic cloves
5-6 dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons rosemary, thyme, or (best) mixture of the two
2 1/2 cups good quality tomato sauce (or, if you’re in a hurry, make a quick sauce by quickly mixing, without cooking, tomato paste, water, herbs and crushed garlic)

Cut the top of the peppers and remove as many of the seeds as you can.
Slice the leeks into little circles. Chop up the garlic cloves, and heat up the cloves and leeks in a pan with a little olive oil. Add cooked millet, chop in the dried tomatoes and herbs, and mix with a few tablespoons of the tomato sauce – until the millet’s “thirst” is “quenched” and it’s soft and moist.

Place the peppers in a baking pan so they stand firmly, and stuff each of them with the millet mixture. Pour the remaining sauce on top of the peppers (and make sure at least 1 cm of the baking pan is covered in liquid). Stick in a hot oven for about 35 minutes, or more if you want the peppers softer. If they get dry, add a bit of sauce and water on top.

Buckwheat Salad

This is a quick but helpful entry, because this salad is oh-so-easy and good. I served it yesterday to my pal Rosie who stopped over for dinner.

Buckwheat is actually not a grain; it is a fruit seed, akin to rhubarb. But it is cooked and eaten like a grain. Buckwheat is rich in manganese and magnesium and contains plenty of insoluble fiber. A cup of cooked buckwheat has almost six grams of protein.

I made this salad with cooked buckwheat, but if you have uncooked stuff, just cook it and add the vegetables in the very last minute of cooking.

Buckwheat Salad

2 cups cooked buckwheat
1/2 onion
3 garlic cloves
4 carrots, grated
2 zuccini or summer squashes, grated (the food processor is truly a great invention)
2-3 tbsp water or vegetable broth

Heat some oil in a wok. Add onions and garlic and sautee for a while. Add the grated carrots and zuccinis, and sautee for about five minutes, adding broth if stuff sticks to the wok too much. Then, add buckwheat and mix well together in the wok, adding more broth if necessary. Enjoy.

Yasai Soba

(pic on its way)

The noodle craving is still on, and I’m contemplating the possibility of reproducing a household favorite of us: Yasai Soba.

It appears that noodle soup is something everybody likes; every culture has some version of it. Soba, a noodle made out of buckwheat and wheat, is a particularly delightful and healthy way of consuming noodles. Slimmer and browner than its big sister, the Udon noodle, Soba pleasantly slips through your throat and makes you feel warm and happy.

In our favorite vegan Japanese restaurant in Berkeley, Cha Ya, you can get two types of fabulous Soba soup: sansai soba, comprised of wild mountain vegetables and seaweed, and yasai soba, based on cooked vegetables which seem to be a tad more mundane in the Western world. Both versions are comprised of hot vegetable broth with soy sauce; the nonvegan versions use fish broth. The noodles, and delicately sliced and steamed vegetables, are decoratively placed in the bowl, and the soup is eaten with both a spoon and chopsticks.

As you’ll see from this recipe, the wheat-free, vegan adjustments are not difficult. As to the noodles, I’ve had good experience with soba from Eden Foods, but apparently other brands, like Clearspring carry it as well. Buckwheat, it turns out, is not a grain; it’s a fruit seed and a distant relative of sorrel and rhubarb. It offers a wealth of benefits, including anticancerous nutrients and fiber.

As to the broth, as you’ll see, this version of the soup uses shiitake mushrooms (which are anti-inflammatory and very good for your immune system), and the soaking water makes wonderful broth, particularly when mixed with Tamari soy sauce.

The vegetables, naturally, can change, depending on what’s out there in the market. This version sports carrots, turnips, potatoes, wild beet leaves, shiitake mushrooms, and extra-firm tofu.

A package of soba noodles
10-15 dried shiitake mushrooms
4 carrots
3 turnips
4 large manguld (wild beet) leaves (chards also ok).
A few pieces of wakame seaweed
2 small potatoes
1 package of extra-firm tofu
1 cup Tamari soy sauce
4 cups water

We start by boiling the water and soaking the shiitake mushrooms in it. This needs to stand for, say 15 minutes at least, and the more it stands, the fluffier and softer your mushrooms and the richer your broth.
While this is going on, two things need to happen: the tofu needs to spend some time in the soy sauce, and the vegetables need to be steamed. Slice the tofu and place it in the tamari sauce for a while (you can dilute it in water, or in some tablespoons of the mushroom liquid). Also, slice the carrots, turnips and potatoes, and tear large pieces out of the manguld leaves. Place all these folks (except the wakame) in a steaming basket, and steam for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft, but still have personality.
When the mushrooms have softened to your liking, strain, keep the liquid, and carefully slice them in pretty, thick slices. Save the mushrooms and steamed vegetables.
Pour the shiitake liquid into a large pot, and add the tamari sauce (without the tofu). Add soba noodles and cook for ten minutes or so, or until the soba is soft and slurpable. Then, using a straining spoon, place some noodles at the bottom of large, fun bowls. Arrange the vegetables and tofu prettily on top of the vegetables, then pour the hot soup to cover everything. Serve with chopsticks and a spoon. Enjoy!

Brown Rice Pasta with Greens and Mushrooms

Sometime in the early nineties, Israel went through a culinary revolution; gone were the awful salty, processed restaurant dishes always covered by a blanket of cheap, fat cheese. All of a sudden, we all became gourmets. And then came a succession of trendy foods, headed by pasta. One day, everyone knew that we had been cooking our pasta, which we had wrongly called “macaroni”, for too long, and it had to be al dente; fresh ingredients were added and eradicated the canned tomato paste regime.

But before we started counting our blessings and saying good riddance to the awful food we’d been eating, we took things to the other extreme; we became finicky, snobbish gourmets, establishing proper rules and regulations for even the simplest comfort foods. Now we’re all experts; we know which ingredients are used in which area of Italy, and what wine to serve with our pasta. But – y’know – sometimes you just want to eat a fun bowl of fine noodles, and not obsess about it.

Which is how the following recipe came about. We’re both exhausted from numerous work issues and social engagements which, while fun, took a toll on our sleeping and relaxing time. Today we felt like putting our house in order and cleaning it, and having a nice bowl of pasta. Fortunately, I had anticipated this craving and bought fabulous and healthful brown rice pasta.

Attention, all ye celiac folk, gluten-avoiding gents, wheat-intolerant ladies: there is excellent-tasting brown rice pasta out there. And the good people of Tinkyada make it for us. And it’s not devastatingly expensive. Naturally, it’s always best to actually have brown rice rather than pasta; but this stuff is big fun, and it allows me to enjoy an old favorite without suffering the repercussions (one of these days I’ll post some more info about the strange world of sensitivity to wheat). You can make the following recipe with their product, or with any whole grain or white (insert health-freak-shudder here) pasta of your choice. It involves lots and lots of greens, organic crushed tomatoes, sliced champignon mushrooms, lots of herbs, and much garlic. Serves two tired, grumpy folks, and restores their good spirits.

1 package (340 grams, I think) of Tinkyada brown rice pasta – I like the vegetable fusilli
4 cups of coarsely chopped kale, beet greens or Swiss chards
1 cup of organic crushed tomatoes
10 champignon mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves
3 hearty handfuls of chopped basil, parsley, or oregano

Boil about a liter of water in a large pot. While you wait for it to boil, heat up a large wok. When it almost smokes, add chopped garlic. After a minute or two, before the garlic becomes brown, add in the mushrooms. Cook a bit, then add the greens and stir around. Wait for them to slightly wilt, then put in the crushed tomatoes and about 1/2 a glass of water. Then add the herbs. Cook until sauce thickens and the greens’ stalks are chewable but not hard.

By now, the water is probably boiling. Add a tablespoon of herb salt and the pasta, stirring often to avoid stickiness. Cook to desired consistency, then drain.

Now, since this is a homey recipe, with no pretensions of authenticity, add the drained pasta to the wok and stir with sauce until it coats the noodles. Put in deep bowls and eat to your heart’s content.

Tiny Amaranth Popcorn

People around me LOOOOOVE to talk about food; which works out just fine, because so do I. And one of the topics people feel very passionate about is breakfast. I’ve often wondered why so many people are willing to try a variety of foods, but insist on having a familiar breakfast. I guess when you get up in the morning you want to face something you know and care for, before the surprises of the day start hitting you…

Here in Tel Aviv, one of the most beloved breakfast traditions is the Israeli breakfast, consisting of fried eggs, a vegetable salad, cheese, bread, orange juice and coffee. In California, going out for brunch meant you’d face fried potatoes and some meat, and sometimes fruit instead of vegetables. When I visited Oxford for a talk, my hotel served cooked tomatoes and mushrooms. Each of these, of course, seems the only viable breakfast option to those used to it…

These days, I usually have fruit, or veg juice, or some light cereal of some sort; the newest invention I’ve come across is actually quite fun, and it makes breakfast into snacktime. Eating popped grains for breakfast feels a bit like pretending to be sick and skipping school; it’s a breakfast that breaks the rules. I don’t mean Rice Krispies or anything of the sort, but something that can be made, within minutes, in your kitchen, and tastes lovely on its own, or with your favorite soy, goat or cow morning liquid.

Amaranth Popcorn.

Yeah, Amaranth Popcorn. The concept is quite fun, actually. When in California, I bought Amaranth and didn’t know what to do with it; my beloved nutritionist, Anasuya, recommended it as one of the healthiest whole grains. Apparently, amaranth seeds are very high in protein and contain significant amounts of amino acids; it’s high in fiber and mineral content, in fact, much higher in fiber than wheat and much higher in calcium than milk. Truly a supergrain. And, as an added bonus, its chemical structure makes its many nutrients available to us even when processed. Which means, folks, amaranth is good for us.

There are many ways to combine amaranth in your diet, and I’ve tried some of them, and I find that I don’t really enjoy cooked amaranth. In her wonderful breakfast book, Sunlight Cafe, Mollie Katzen recommends making wafers out of it, or cooking it into a porridge. You might enjoy this; me, I’ll stick to the popcorn option any day.

So, how do you do this?

Popping seeds is quite easy once you know how to do it – “follow these easy assembly instructions”, as Tom Waits says, and you’ll be left with beautiful amaranth popcorn, with no charred grain or sticky skillets. The only tool you need is a smallish skillet, preferrably with a glass lid. I wouldn’t do this in a wok, as the bottom needs to be wide and flat.

Put the skillet – dry, without even a drop of oil, on the stove. When the skillet is very hot, pour in, carefully, about a tablespoon of amaranth seeds. Avoid covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Quickly cover with the lid. You’ll then witness a fun theatre of miniscule popping action (now this is why a glass lid is best; otherwise, you’ll just have to trust your ears and listen carefully to the quiet, cute popping sounds). When all the grains have finished jumping merrily in the skillet, pour its contents into a bowl, return to the stove, and repeat with the next batch. Each batch takes, oh, about five seconds, and the entire amount you need will be made easily and quickly. The top picture in this post shows the exciting popping action as it happens.

Now, whaddya do with this thing? You could, of course, snack on it as it is. Or, you could add spices. Amaranth is a bit on the sweet side, but the popcorn will also take nicely to savory options. You could go with any of the following combinations:

Cinnamon, nutmeg, ground clove
Cumin, fennel seeds
Cardamon and cinnamon
Herb salt and pepper

The spiced popcorn goes well with nuts and yogurt, or with fruit, or on its own. Enjoy!