Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smashed Chickpeas with Sumac & Cumin

Chickpeas are having a moment. Have you noticed? It seems as though everyone has caught on to the deliciousness and versatility of the lowly legume all at once. Mark Bittman wrote about its varied uses lately (and he's right, chickpea fries are sinfully easy to make and incredibly satisfying). I recently ate a beautiful dish of grilled octopus and chickpeas with house made chorizo at a local restaurant, and hummus is practically as easy to find as a carton of milk these days. Well I say it's about time! I grew up eating chickpeas--or "garbanzo beans" as I was taught to call them--straight from a can, by the handful. Unadorned they are nutty and rich with a slight sweetness and a wonderful, dense texture. Dried chickpeas definitely have a superior, earthy flavor and hummus made from the dried bean will blow any you buy in the store out of the water. But since I am still prone to eat handfuls of the wrinkly little beans, I buy them by the can, usually three at a time. The other night I had a couple lamb chops in the fridge and little else. In the cupboard I found two cans of chickpeas, some San Marzano crushed tomatoes, and a box of organic chicken stock. While the gardener of the family harvested greens from the backyard and started the grill, I cooked the chickpeas and tomatoes with sumac and cumin and, at the last minute, smashed them with the back of a wooden spoon. They were perfect with the lamb chops--hearty and darkly savory but simultaneously light, the sumac and tomatoes lending an almost lemony-brightness to the dish. Somehow we resisted cleaning the whole bowl and I ate the leftovers the next day with a salad of paper-thin slices of cucumber with mint, lemon, and olive oil. I don't know how long the garbanzo will stay in favor but I hope it's a while. And when its fifteen minutes of fame have passed, it will still have a place center stage in my kitchen.

Smashed Chickpeas with Sumac & Cumin
2 15oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 15oz can crushed tomatoes
1/2-1 cup chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
6 garlic cloves, sliced
1 t ground sumac
1 T cumin seed
1 T coconut oil or olive oil

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seed and garlic and stir constantly until aromatic. Add sumac and continue stirring another minute or so. Add the chickpeas and stir, then add enough chicken stock to just cover the beans. 

Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium and let cook, undisturbed until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir. Again, let the beans cook undisturbed until almost all the liquid has been absorbed. About 25 minutes. 

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. My chicken broth was rather salty so I didn't add any salt but you may need to. Once you have it seasoned as you like, smash the chickpeas with the back of a wooden spoon until you have a consistency you like. Delicious as a side with lamb or chicken.

And as soon as you can, follow Mark Bittman's recipe and make these:

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Umeshu: How a Workshop Saved My Weekend

On Sunday I was in a funk. It was an unspecific funk, one that had me feeling anxious and a little trapped. I spent the morning drawing little pleasure from the rituals that usually feed me on weekends (moving my body outdoors, spending hours with the Sunday New York Times, cooking) and flitted instead from email to Instagram to Facebook in a part-communicative, part-voyeuristic media binge that left me feeling even more like a caged animal. Luckily, a friend had signed me up for a workshop on how to make Umeshu, a kind of Japanese plum cordial made from Ume plums. In my cantankerous mood I was half dreading the commitment and half relieved that I had such an event to anchor my day and get me out of the house.

I heard about the workshop through the Peko Peko mailing list.  I had never tasted Umeshu before but everything I had ever tasted or seen of Peko Peko was beautiful, and delicious. A class hosted by them was bound to be worthwhile. Plus they promised snacks.

I arrived at Peko Peko headquarters--a nondescript building in Oakland--to find Yoko, one of the owners of Umami Mart, waiting outside to greet the workshop attendees. At the top of the dark stairway was a large, virtually empty room with a stage in one corner, old church pews pushed against the walls, and a few booths where the other students of the day mingled politely. I circulated the room like a tourist, taking pleasure in the details: a hand drawn sign on a neighbor's door, the intersection of a painted floor and tile, a room full of strangers: a mix of farmers, avid Umeshu drinkers looking for a more economical way to slake their thirst, Japanese natives living in California who grew up with Umeshu but had never made it themselves, and curious home cooks.
Before long we were each holding a file folder with neatly printed sheets of information. Junko, a staff member of Peko Peko, instructed us on the Umeshu process from beginning to end. She gave us history of the fruit (brought to Japan from China in 6th or 7th century), an explanation of what Umeshu is (a fruit cordial or liquer made from Ume and some kind of high proof alcohol), and, with a pride akin to showing off one's children, showed us photos of previous batches she has made of Umeshu using different kinds of Ume, alcohol, and types of sugar.
Eventually we were each given a jar and a recipe, and with Junko's gentle guidance we went through each step of making Umeshu. We sterilized the jars with vodka.
We selected our fruit, which resembles an apricot despite being called a plum. We then carefully nudged the stems from the depressions in the top of each one, using bamboo skewers, trying not to puncture the fuzzy skins.
We layered rock sugar and whole ume in our jars and then covered it all in vodka.
Finally, jars filled, we tasted a batch of Junko's Umeshu from last year while we ate homemade tofu, yellowtail sashimi and salmon croquets. 

The Umeshu was delicious. It was sweet and plummy at first (like the best fruit roll up, one woman said to me), and as I swallowed it turned tart on the tongue and left the mouth feeling refreshed and clean. I felt rejuvenated. On the drive home, my Umeshu jar buckled into the passenger seat, I couldn't stop thinking about the trajectory of the day and how much power we have, as individuals, to change our own stories. Sitting in my booth, cleaning the fragrant fruit and chatting with a fellow student, my agitated morning was a distant memory. I was calm. My mind was engaged. I felt at once shy and emboldened by being in a new place, out of my element but not overly so. It reminded me of traveling.
When we travel to foreign places we are forced to be men and women of action. We have no choice but to try new things, new foods, new words, to experience new smells and sights and customs. The only other choice is to hide out in our hotel rooms and the sheer cost of a vacation is usually incentive enough not to do that. Why, then, do we so readily abandon that same sense of curiosity and courage in our day to day? Why do we rationalize ourselves out of new experiences? Why do we let the scope of our daily lives get small?
Umeshu saved my weekend, and probably the weeks to come. My unsolicited advice to you is this: That recipe you've been meaning to try? Make it. The person you've been friend-flirting with? Call and make a date. That town or museum or hiking trail you keep hearing great things about but haven't made it to? Go there. A family member used to exasperate me when I complained of having nothing to do by saying "Only the boring are bored." Harsh perhaps, but in a way, true. To be bored is to throw up your hands in defeat. To be bored is to assume that you have seen all there is to see, tried everything under the sun, stimulated every different part of your personality. To be bored is to pace the room like a caged animal. You may be the animal, but remember, you are also the zoo keeper.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Raw Milk

I have never been a milk drinker. I disliked milk as a child unless it was filled with Nestle's Quick. My mom tried in vain to get me to drink milk, worried as most mothers are about growing bones, but eventually she let it rest. It was chocolate milk or bust. The one time I can remember really enjoying milk was on a childhood visit to a farm in Penobscot, Maine, with my Nana to get raw milk and eggs from her cousin. I had heard my parents and grandparents reminisce about the days of milk delivered to their doorsteps, the glass bottles beading with sweat and the wide neck choked with a thick layer of cream. It sounded romantic, and the way they said the word cream made it sound exciting and special and utterly delicious.

When we arrived at the farm the last of the cows were being milked. They were quiet and massive. Their movements were cumulative, a collective shifting from hoof to hoof or a sequenced wave of tails flicking flies. I was shyer then and it took some coaxing, but eventually I sat on the three legged stool by my Nana and gingerly placed a hand around one of the cow's teats. I jerked my hand back. The udder was soft, coated in a light fuzz of hair, and it was hot! Nana laughed and wrapped her hand over mine, showing me how to squeeze and pull (no I wouldn't hurt her) so the milk would spray into the pail below. Try it, Nana said, when we had emptied the last cow's udder. She helped me lift and tilt the pail. It smelled of hay and of animal and of butter. I took a sip. It was hot still from the cow's body. It was rich and creamy but left none of the coating on my tongue that I hated so much. It had the faintest taste of field, the sweetness you find at the juicy end of a blade of grass, pulled from its leaves and placed between your teeth.

Dairy is a hot topic in the nutrition and health world. There are arguments that dairy isn't digestible by humans, that it is poisonous, that it causes and worsens allergies and increases mucus production and inflammation. That is only one facet of the debate which doesn't even get into raw dairy versus pasteurized. The raw versus pasteurized debate has the government and food safety activists on one side, arguing that unpasteurized milk is host to all kinds of dangerous bacteria and that pasteurization was invented and standardized for a good reason. On the other side of the fence is the Weston A. Price Foundation which is arguably the leading authority on, and proponent of the benefits of raw dairy. They make a convincing case for why pastuerization is the worst thing we could do to our milk. One piece of the argument that makes particular sense to me is the notion that the rapid heat used in pasturization warps and distorts the protein chains in the milk, making them unrecognizable to the body and thus difficult, if not impossible to digest. I hadn't ever thought of milk as having gone through a process in the same way "processed foods" do, but in a sense, if milk is pasteurized, it has. Over the years I have gone through phases of attempting to drink milk but find that it sits heavily in my stomach, as if my body can't figure out what to do with it. Perhaps denatured proteins is the reason.

It's a passionate debate and the claims on both sides are equally bold, defensive, frightening and propganda-ish. After reading arguments about the dangers of raw milk and the benefits of raw milk, I decided to try some raw milk myself and see what all the fuss is about. It isn't easy to get your hands on unpasteurized dairy in most states but luckily, in California, you can find it in a surprising number of grocery stores. I bought a heavy glass bottle from Claravale Farm. It was beading with moisture. I could see the thick inch of cream at the top. I was excited already. I barely got out of the store before I tore off the plastic top and took a swig. It was cold and creamy but clean and light. No coating of my tongue, and again, that slightly sweet, grassy taste. It was delicious. Over the next few days I ate it poured over berries, in my granola, or slugged straight out of the bottle. I did not get sick from a pathogen. I did feel like I was drinking something whole and complete and truly healthy.
So now what? Is raw milk healthier? Should we avoid dairy products altogether? Is unpasteurized dairy too dangerous a food to have out in the world? I don't know. It's a complicated and far from transparent topic. What I do know is that I am still not a daily dairy drinker. It's just not for me. But when the mood strikes, as it did today, to bake chocolate chip cookies, I'll go straight to the far end of the dairy cooler and, health debates aside, go for the one in the thick glass bottle, the one that tastes the most delicious, the raw milk with that beautiful layer of cream.

Do you have experiences with raw dairy? What side of the debate are you on? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!