Aquel no era yo

[No real spoilers here—it looks like I'm telling the ending, but the ending is shown in flashforwards right at the beginning.]

I went to a showing of the Oscar-nominated short live-action fiction films at the ICA over the weekend. "Aquel no era yo (That wasn't Me)" seems a shoe-in for the Oscar, 'cause it seems like it was taken directly from the "How to Win an Oscar" guidebook. A child soldier from Africa (no country ever named, but, you know, Africa—one of those bad ones) rehabilitated by The West after having been rescued by a beautiful young do-gooder white woman. Chock full of harrowing violence, focused mostly on the violence against the white people, but socially relevant harrowing violence, so you can feel virtuous for watching it, along with horrified and thrilled.

Though it was quite accomplished. It felt like a feature film that happened to be short (24 min)—which is also at least partly a criticism. Contrast it with "Just Before Losing Everything," about a woman leaving her abusive husband, which I think really makes use of the short-film form. Its 30 minutes shows events that take place over an hour or so, a short time out of a much longer story. She's taken her kids to the supermarket where she works, where she can use the phone and meet her sister; we see that a few people at work know her plan without having seen them discuss it, we see that everyone at work knows she has an abusive husband without having seen them ask "how did you get that black eye," we see that she doesn't get along with one of her coworkers without seeing what led to it. And it ends, not exactly abruptly or with a cliffhanger, but unexpectedly and with not much resolved. It's a much more daring use of the medium, using the fact that it's short to do interesting things—definitely not a short feature film, not a sitcom like "Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" not a comedy sketch like "The Voorman Problem" (other nominees). Making a short feature film is another play out of the "How to Win an Oscar" playbook—the people who vote for Oscars know feature films, and feel comfortable with them. A 24-minute feature film isn't going to unsettle them.

Iced Chai

It took a while, because I don't make it all that often, but I finally converged on a recipe I like for chai. In particular, it took me a while to figure out that the right amount of coriander, found in many recipes, is none.

  • 14 2.5″ cinnamon sticks
  • 2.5 Tbs whole decorticated cardamon seeds
  • 2.5 Tbs whole allspice
  • 2 Tbs whole cloves
  • 1.5 tsp whole black pepper, lightly crushed
  • 8 cups cold water
Bring to boil, turn down to simmer, and simmer covered 15 minutes.
Remove from heat and add
  • zest of 1 orange (use a vegetable peeler; much less if grated)
  • 1.5 Tbs grated fresh ginger
  • 4 Tbs roasted chicory*
  • 1/3 cup honey
and let sit 15 minutes, covered. Strain through fine mesh and let cool, covered; chill.
This makes fairly strong chai, for adding quite a bit of milk to.

*Instead of chicory, which gives a definite roasted/coffee-like flavor, I've also used tea, which is more traditional. I strongly recommend teabags, because the tea should go in as soon as it comes off heat, but should only steep 4 minutes: 4 teabags. I've more often used Celestial Seasonings "Caffeine Free Herbal Tea" (which is not decaffeinated black tea, but an herbal tea that tastes somewhat like black tea), 4 bags steeped only 90 seconds.

Thanksgiving meal

I've made a pretty set Thanksgiving meal when I've cooked for myself for a while now, seasonal for this part of the world. I like all of these individually, and really like them as a menu. A pretty plate, too.

To whatever extent succotash is authentically Indian, it'd be made with dried corn and dried beans.
Soak 2 c lima beans (I like large ones) in 8 c water with 4-1/2 tsp salt overnight. Drain; bring to boil in water to cover, cover pot, and transfer to 300° oven for 30 min to 2 hrs (depending partly on how old they are) until just tender. Drain and quickly cool to stop cooking.
Soak 1-1/2 c dried posole (mote) in water overnight. Drain and cook in water to cover 1-2 hrs (depending partly on how old they are) until cooked through, adding 3/4 tsp salt toward the end; they won't get tender, but they'll stop being mealy. Drain. (This can be difficult to find in some places. It's often labeled mote pelado in Spanish; I believe anything labeled mote or posole will be right. "Hominy" may or may not be the same thing; maíz trillado isn't the same, nor is regular dried corn. Canned hominy would be the closest substitute.)
Cook 2 onions, diced, 2 green peppers, diced, 3-4 Tbs oil, 1/2 tsp salt over med-high heat until well browned. Add a little water to deglaze the pan, along with 3-4 Tbs almond butter, and enough additional water to make a sauce. Stir in the posole, then fold in the beans. Taste for salt (or tamari) and pepper.
From The Second Seasonal Political Palate with small variation.
Growing up, my babysitter was a very good cook of typical midwestern food. Her butterbeans (large lima beans) were one of my favorites. I'm sure hers was made with saltpork, which I don't eat now, but almond butter adds a richness and savoriness that is reminiscent. Here's remembering Hazel.

Butternut squash with ginger and garlic
Peel 2 lbs butternut down to the orange flesh, and scoop out seeds; cut into 1/2" dice. Add to pot with water to not quite cover, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 Tbs butter. Simmer, covered, until just tender, 4-10 minutes. Drain, reserving liquid, and spread out to quickly cool. Return liquid to pot along with 2 Tbs grated ginger, 2 Tbs pressed garlic, and 1 more Tbs butter. Boil down quickly until most of liquid is gone and it's syrupy-thick. Toss with the cooked squash. Best if it sits at least an hour for flavors to soak in before reheating.
From Julia Child & More Company with small variation.

Cranberry-orange relish
Roughly chop 1 whole orange. Pulse in food processor until finely chopped but not pureed. (You may want to go through it to pull out larger chunks to add to next step.) Sort 12 oz cranberries and pulse in food processor until finely chopped but not pureed. Add to chopped orange along with 1/3-1/2 c honey and 1/4 tsp salt Best either immediately or after a day.
Adapted from Joy of Cooking.
Even a little salt interferes with the perception of bitterness; the salt greatly mellows this. I'm surprised the Joy recipe doesn't include it.

Wilted cabbage salad
Finely shred 2-1/4 lb red cabbage (quarter longitudinally, core, slice crosswise). Toss with 1 Tbs salt and let sit at least 6 hours, tossing occasionally. Rinse in two changes of water (add water to the bowl and drain in colander twice, don't just rinse in colander) and thoroughly dry (a salad spinner in several batches works well). Combine with about 1/6 onion, thinly sliced, 3-4 Tbs cider vinegar to taste, 2 Tbs dried dill, maybe more salt.
Red cabbage behaves like litmus paper, changing color dramatically depending on acid/alkali. With the cider vinegar, it's very red/purple.
This is new to my Thanksgiving menu; I happened to have some leftovers. But it's certainly seasonal, and its refreshingness works well with this menu.

Variation: cumin instead of dill plus a little garlic is good too.

Drained yogurt

I haven't posted this earlier because it seems more like an ingredient than a recipe, but I do have a couple uses for it. I've started making well-drained yogurt and like it. Put a quart of full-fat yogurt (it doesn't seem to have to be great yogurt—I'm using my grocer's house brand—but full-fat definitely makes a big difference) in a dish towel in a colander and let drain (in the fridge) 6-10 hours; then put a saucer on top and a 1.5-2 lb weight on top of that and drain another couple hours. The result is thick enough to come off the towel in a few chunks. The whey that drains out can be used as yogurt or buttermilk in most baking, or makes a decent (if odd looking) lassi. Makes about 2.5 c drained yogurt and 1.5 c whey.

What to do with it:
The result is a kind of über-yogurt: really thick and rich; approaching cream cheese in texture but without cream cheese's heaviness. Toppings of various kinds work well. I've tried toasted pecans with maple syrup and rum, which was pretty good (though the tanginess of the yogurt wasn't quite right with that); orange juice concentrate is also nice. My favorite is a pineapple-ginger syrup: finely grate 1–1.5" fresh ginger and squeeze the juice into a cup, and add 12 oz pineapple juice concentrate (the frozen stuff, thawed). 3-4 spoonfuls of that over 2/3 cup of the drained yogurt, as desert or breakfast, is pretty spectacular.

You can also use it where you might use sour cream. I'm not one of those people who thinks you can substitute yogurt for sour cream, but you can substitute this stuff for sour cream, and the result is even richer. (I don't know that I'd do it where the sour cream is standing nearly alone, the taste isn't the same, but if it's doctored up the mouthfeel makes it great.) I've made a topping for steamed or boiled potatoes with this yogurt, with mustard, garlic, and shoyu, that I like very much. (A bit less than half the fat of sour cream, if that matters to you.) I heated it in something and it didn't break, as sour cream can, though I should experiment with it more before making that a strong claim.

That pineapple-ginger syrup, by the way, is pretty good other ways too. A fair amount added to seltzer makes a very nice soda, or a little added to iced tea, or spooned over fruit. I used it in a Thai-ish curry and liked it that way too.

Savory biscotti

Made for a friend's birthday, and for the Boston gender-free English country dance anniversary dance; a requested recipe.

1¼ c all-purpose flour
1½ c barley flour (or whole wheat pastry flour, but then you need to be careful not to overwork the dough)
1 t coarsely ground black pepper
1½ t salt
1 t baking powder
¾ c grated romano cheese
½ c toasted pistachios (prettier if left whole)
½ t dried thyme
½ t dried oregano
¾ t dried basil
2 Tbs (packed) minced fresh parsley
¼ c julienned marinated sun-dried tomatoes*
2-3 T minced canned chipotle (1½ to 3 with adobo)—the higher amount is quite spicy
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ c olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1/3 c vermouth or white wine or water [perhaps less; it's a pretty sticky dough, though not that difficult to roll out]
paprika (preferably smoked)

Preheat oven to 350F. Place two baking sheets together (for insulation) and line the top sheet with parchment paper.

In large mixing bowl, whisk together flours, black pepper, salt, and baking powder. Add cheese, nuts, thyme, oregano, and basil, and stir together.

Separately combine eggs, ¼ c oil, wine/water, chipotles, tomatoes, and parsley. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients; add the wet and stir to make a soft dough. Let sit a few minutes to firm up.

Roll to shape into a log about 3" diameter (about 10" long). Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and dust with paprika.

Bake 25-30 minutes until golden and slightly puffy. Remove from oven and set on rack to cool completely.

Set oven to 325F. Slice cooled log on the bias into slices a bit wider than 1/4". Place flat on baking sheets and bake 12 minutes; turn each slice over and bake another 10 minutes, until barely colored.

Transfer slices to cooling racks. Lower oven to 175F and crisp the biscotti on the racks, about 45 minutes. (They should not color further.)

I think these are bit dry to eat by themselves, but they're very nice buttered, and they should be good with soup.

*America's Test Kitchen likes Trader Joe's; best to get the halves and julienne them yourself.

Freshly baked bran muffins

Freshly baked because you can keep the batter in the fridge for a couple weeks, and bake them as wanted. Traditional in a lot of ways, though the apple juice concentrate (in place of buttermilk and sugar or honey) is my idea.
Various people have told me they don't like bran muffins but they like these.

Combine and allow to cool
1 c boiling water
1 c bran
Whisk together
2-1/2 c whole wheat flour
2-1/2 t baking soda
3/4 t salt
Separately mix together (use a pretty large bowl: it can expand quite a bit when you add the other ingredients)
2 eggs
1/2 c oil
2-1/4 c apple juice concentrate
(the frozen stuff, thawed)
Measure out
2 (additional) c bran
1-1/2 c raisins
Stir the cooled bran into the wet mixture. Add the flour mixture; before completely mixed, fold in the dry bran and raisins. Cover and keep refrigerated.
To make:
Do not stir the batter—most of the rising has happened in the bowl, and stirring will deflate it. Fill greased muffin tins almost full (again, most of the rising has already happened), and bake at 400° about 20 minutes (start checking a little earlier), until springy. If you're not using all the cups in the tin, put a little water in the empty ones, for more even cooking and to avoid warping the tin.
Makes about 40

The above is more traditional, but I now replace the raisins with diced crystallized ginger (1 – 1-1/2 c, depending on how strong it is). "Baker's cut" is already diced, though difficult to find. I assume you could use other fruit juice concentrates or other dried fruit.
I've used melted butter in place of the oil, and barely notice a difference—I now stick with oil.

Two bits of cleverness

I cooked at Farm and Wilderness camp for a few days this week; Sam Arfer is head cook there and he invited me up for "skills week," cooking for 130 adults (with 6 cooks). They do real cooking there, no heating up frozen lasagna, and very good food. I had two while-cooking ideas I'm pleased with.

I made scrambled tofu for breakfast, and I'd pressed (and crumbled) the tofu the night before so it wouldn't end up soupy. But by the time it had started to brown it was really too dry, even with a ton of caramelized onions—it'd be difficult to eat with a fork without it all falling off. I thought, with the help of one of the other cooks' suggestion of hummus, of tahini. Not enough to really be noticeable of itself, not enough to be in any way creamy, but enough to definitely improve the texture. Something I'd probably do at home too.

The other bit of cleverness was in a coconut-milk sauce for stir-fry. I was looking for something sweet to add to it, and was considering applesauce. I was looking around the walk-in cooler for leftover applesauce and saw leftover canned pumpkin. It worked very well—a little sweetness, some earthiness, ideal amount of thickening. (This along with a bunch of other seasonings.) Definitely something I'll use the next time I make my quick-curry chickpeas. About 2 parts coconut milk to 1 part pumpkin puree.

Several snack-like things

I found an interesting bowl as a holiday present for my brother and sister-in-law, and filled it with several different snacks:

Candied pecans
The candied pecans from below. (I ended up making 3 [double] batches, because I slightly burnt the first one, and needed an extra gift. I lost my nerve and undercooked the next two batches. This can be partially remedied by putting them in a low oven for quite a long time. They'll get un-sticky, but they'll never get crisp.)

Chocolate peanut brittle
This turned out quite different from what I intended, though I wasn't unhappy with it. It was supposed to be a thin layer of brittle with cocoa nibs floating in it and peanuts sticking up through it. But it's been too long since I've made peanut brittle and I didn't remember that the candy cools and seizes up after you add the room-temperature ingredients, so if you want it to pour you have to get it fully hot again. Also, I'd never done anything with cocoa nibs before, and I didn't know that they'll at least partially melt. Also, I used so many cocoa nibs that they were never going to be individually visible anyway. The result looked like a disaster—such large chunks that you'd surely damage your teeth trying to eat it. But the cocoa nibs acted like shortening in biscuits, making the brittle much less hard. (The brittle was nearly black from the nibs, which was not unattractive.) The result wasn't bad at all. I don't offer this as a recipe so much as an idea—using cocoa nibs in nut brittle, either just as an ingredient, or to "tenderize" it (not quite sure what to call it—the result is still entirely crisp/crunchy/brittle, just less hard).

Candied orange peel & candied ginger
I cheated on the candied ginger and bought it from Trader Joe's, then sliced it (knife dipped in hot water—you'll need to set the ginger aside to dry afterwards) to be about the same size as the orange peel. It'd been years since I made candied citrus peel too, so I forgot that it has to age for at least a couple weeks before you eat it, or you'll get a pretty objectionable and long-lasting bitter aftertaste.

3 (organic, or at least unwaxed) oranges
2 c sugar
3 Tbs light corn syrup
3/4 c water
Cut the oranges into quarters and cut out most of the flesh (you don't have to be too obsessive at this point). Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain, cover with fresh cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender (about 15 minutes). Drain and dump into cold water. Remove the softer remaining innards with a spoon. Cut into 1/4" or so strips (and to a length that's similar to the ginger).
Combine 1 cup of the sugar with the corn syrup and the water in a heavy pan. Stir over low heat until dissolved, then either a) brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in hot water, or b) cover the pan and simmer a few minutes so condensing water will wash down the pan sides (this option is a bit less reliable) (you're doing this to make sure there are no stray sugar crystals that might make the whole thing crystalize as it becomes supersaturated). Add the orange peel and cook over low heat, carefully stirring occasionally, until most of the syrup is absorbed. Cover and let stand overnight. Bring to a simmer again.
On several layers of paper towels, spread the remaining cup of sugar. With a slotted spoon (if there's still syrup remaining), remove the peel and roll in the sugar. Transfer to a sheet of wax or parchment paper and let dry for several hours, turning occasionally.
Either put this (mixed with about 2/3 the amount of candied ginger) in single layers separated by wax or parchment paper, or toss both with about 1-1/2 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot. Store in an airtight container. Set aside for at least 2 weeks to mellow.
(Taken with minimal alteration from 1997 Joy of Cooking.)

Thai curried sliced almonds
2-3 tsp Thai curry paste (I used red, Thai Kitchen*)
3/4 tsp salt
4-1/2 tsp oil
2 c sliced almonds
Lightly cook the first 3 ingredients in a saucepan. Put the almonds in a bowl and pour the spice mixture over; stir to combine. Spread out on a cookie sheet and bake, stirring occasionally, at 275° for 30 minutes. (If you start out with toasted sliced almonds, you can cut the time to about 15 minutes; if you use whole almonds bake at 300°.)
The higher amount of curry paste is probably too spicy for snacking, but I meant them to go on salad, fish, etc. Even 2 tsp may be too spicy for eating out of hand.
*Thai Kitchen is quite strong, which you really need for this recipe; a mild one will require so much that it'll do odd things to the texture. I've since used green to good effect as well.)

Curried pecans
2-1/2 Tbs olive oil
1-1/2 Tbs curry powder (Anyone have a recommended one that's reasonably easy to find? Mine is Frontier Herbs, which is okay.)
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp chipotle powder
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1-1/2 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 c pecans
Heat the first 5 ingredients in a small saucepan and cook gently for a couple minutes. Take off heat and add the Worcestershire. Pour over the pecans and stir to combine.
Line a cookie sheet with several layers of paper towels or brown paper. Spread the pecans on the paper, and bake at 275° for 10 minutes. Transfer to fresh paper and bake another 10 minutes. Raise heat to 300°, transfer to fresh paper, and bake 4 minutes; stir and bake for 3 more minutes. Let cool.
I'm sure you could use half a pureed canned chipotle instead of the powdered, or cayenne plus more smoked paprika.

New Year's meal

I have a pretty set meal that I've been cooking on New Year's Day for a long time now.

I tend to shop for groceries several times a week (partly from spending my early adulthood without a car), and to expect to go the grocery store if I need something for that day's meal. A couple of days before New Year's many years ago I realized I'd have to decide ahead of time since the stores would be closed. I hadn't had black-eyed peas in a long time and decided on them, not remembering that they were traditional for New Year's Day—when I looked up some recipes, one mentioned the tradition, and I've stuck with it since.

Of these three recipes, only the cornbread is even a little unusual, but I'll include all of them for completeness.

Black-eyed peas and rice
1-1/2 medium onions, chopped
1/4 c olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
7 cups water
1-1/2 tsp salt
1-3/4 c black-eyed peas (dried)
1-1/4 c brown rice

Saute the onions in the olive oil until lightly browned; add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook a few minutes more. Add the water and bring to a boil, then add the black-eyed peas and rice. Cook 45-55 minutes till tender.

It's worth getting the peas from a store with a decent turnover; very old ones will take a lot longer to cook. Reasonably new ones will cook in about the same time as brown rice.

1-1/2 medium onions, chopped
1/4 c olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
3 lbs greens* (weight includes stems)
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs shoyu

Saute the onions in the olive oil until lightly browned; add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook a few minutes more. In the meantime, stem, wash, and coarsely chop the greens. Add the greens to the onions along with the salt and shoyu, and water to cover. It's fine to have plenty of water, it's good mixed with the peas & rice and the cornbread. Simmer 60-90 minutes, until very tender. Taste for shoyu/salt.

Note that curly greens like kale take up a lot more room until they wilt. Just keep adding them to your pot (along with a smallish amount of water) and stirring until there's room for the next couple handfuls. Don't add water to cover till it's wilted.

*Greens: I like kale. Supermarket collards are overwhelmed by the taste of the onions, chard gets too soft when cooked long, and the bitterness of mustard is the wrong symbolism for New Year's.

Some years I've added some kind of smoky veggie "meat" to one or the other of these. (One year I added it to both, and they tasted too similar to one another). This year I added "sausage" to the greens after they'd finished cooking, so the greens still tasted of themselves—a better choice than adding it at the beginning.

I don't know why I tried this recipe—everything about it suggests dry cornbread (not much fat, all cornmeal, hot pan) which I don't like. But it doesn't come out dry, and it's my favorite recipe. And the fact that it's all-cornmeal gives lots of taste.

1 egg
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs olive oil
1 c buttermilk*
1 c cornmeal
1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 425°, and put an 8- or 9-inch cast iron skillet in the oven; let it heat for at least 15 minutes. (If you don't have a cast iron skillet you can use an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan, but you won't get much crust.)

Beat together the egg, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the oil, then add the buttermilk. Whisk together the cornmeal and baking soda. Add the buttermilk mixture and quickly whisk to combine. Remove the pan, add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the hot pan and swirl it around, and pour in the batter. Return to oven for 12-15 minutes, until springy in the middle.

*Buttermilk is best, but plain yogurt is an okay substitute.

The black-eyed peas & rice and the greens recipe are slightly modified from The Political Palate, Bloodroot Collective, 1980 Sanguinaria. The cornbread recipe is slightly modified from Vegetarian Express Lane Cookbook, Sarah Fritschner, 1996 Houghton Mifflin.