Awesome Okra

I love Indian food.  And when my family got me a DNA test from Ancestry.com for my birthday a few years ago, imagine my surprise to find out that I came up 1% Indian.  So, when a student of mine, let’s call him Neel, was going to visit his grandparents in India over our winter break, he asked what I would like him to bring back for me.  I said, “Your grandmother’s recipe for garam masala (a mix of spices, with no one set recipe, so I was looking for a genuine family recipe).”

When he got to his grandparents’ home, he asked his grandmother for her recipe, explaining why he wanted it.  She was so excited to pass the recipe along, she made him escort her to the local market to purchase all of the spices that I would need to make it.  But it doesn’t end there.  Timing is everything: We were in the just-post-9-11-high-alert security mode.  Neel hadn’t bothered to shave while he was in India, and had grown a full beard.  He had a stop-over in Paris, and when he was going back through customs to get on his flight to the US, he was pulled out of line and interrogated because he looked suspicious.  The interrogators opened his bag and out spilled a dozen or so little unmarked packets of seeds and powders.  All of the powders were opened and tasted.  Guess what? None of them were drugs or explosives!  They were the spices I would never get to use, one of them a very hot ground red pepper.  Karma.

My passion for Indian food did not wane.  One night, we were out at an Indian restaurant and we ordered the full dinners that came with an assortment of sides.  I particularly loved the vegetable and asked what it was.  I was told it was bhindi.  When I got home I looked up bhindi and found out it was okra!  Okra generally made me gag – the slimy texture just got stuck in my throat.  But this was dry and crispy and delicious.  I looked up a recipe and started making it at home, tweaking and tweaking until I came up with the recipe that follows.  It is an easy recipe to make, but there is one must-have ingredient that you may need to get from an Asian market: asafetida powder.

People say that you can substitute garlic and onion for the powder, but I think it changes not only the flavor complex, but the texture of the dish.  When I didn’t use the asafetida, the okra didn’t crisp up as nicely.  It’s pretty inexpensive, so try and add it to your spice rack!

Bhindi Masala (Indian style okra)

  • 3 T ghee, for frying (if you don’t have ghee, you can use any oil)
  • 3-4 cups of okra, cut cross-wise
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 1” piece of ginger, grated
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
  • 1 t fennel seeds, toasted
  • ½ t red chili powder
  • ½ t turmeric powder
  • ½ t asafetida powder
  • ½ C water
  1. Grind the toasted whole spices together and combine with the powdered spices.
  2. Heat about 1 ½ T of the ghee in a heavy skillet. When it is melted, add the okra and stir until it is fully cooked, about 5 minutes.  Remove from the pan.
  3. Put the remaining ghee in the pan and when it is melted, add the ground spices and fry them until they are fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Add the ginger and garlic, and stir around for a minute until that is also fragrant.
  5. Pour in the water and scrape everything up off the bottom of the pan. The spices will thicken the water.  Add the okra back to the pan and toss to coat.  I usually cook this a little longer, stirring constantly until it is at the dryness I want. I don’t like this overly sauce-y, but that is my personal taste.

Zucchini Parmesan

Looking for something a little different to do with your zucchini or summer squash?  Here’s a recipe that can hold you over until the eggplant starts arriving at the Farmer’s Market.  You can prep this in advance and bake it later.

Zucchini Parmesan

  • 1 quart tomato sauce (see recipe here: http://tradsnotfads.com/the-tomatoes-are…atoes-are-coming/)
  • 4-5 medium zucchini or yellow squash, cut into ½” planks or oblongs**
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 4 cups corn flake crumbs (if you are not gluten free, you can use bread crumbs)
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • Olive oil, to drizzle
  • 1 1/2 pounds mozzarella cheese, cut into thin slices
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 pound provolone cheese, grated

 

  1. Line a baking sheet with paper towels or tea towels. Place the squash planks in a single layer on the toweling and sprinkle with salt.  Put more toweling on top and then another baking sheet.  Put something heavy on top of the baking sheet and leave it sit for 15 -20 minutes.  This will squeeze out excess moisture.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 F
  3. Put the flour on a flat dish and mix in a few grinds of pepper.
  4. Combine the milk and egg in a wide bowl.
  5. Mix the crumbs, oregano, and thyme and place on a dish.
  6. Remove the squash from the baking sheets and line the sheets with foil.
  7. One at a time, take a squash plank, dip it in the flour, shake off the excess, dip it in the egg, and then the crumb mixture. Place the plank on the foil-lined baking sheet. Repeat until all of the planks have been dipped.
  8. Drizzle the planks with olive oil and place in the oven. After 10 minutes, take them out of the oven and flip them over, and put them back in for another 10 minutes.  You can skip the flip by putting the planks on baking racks rather than directly on the baking sheet.
  9. Reduce the oven to 350 F
  10. Assemble the casserole:
    1. In a greased 9×13 baking dish, place about 1 cup tomato sauce in the bottom and spread evenly.
    2. Place a layer of squash on the tomato sauce, as close together as you can. It is ok to overlap the pieces.  You want to use half of the squash.
    3. Sprinkle with ½ of the parmesan cheese and then using half of the other cheese, place a layer of mozzarella on top and then the provolone.
    4. Make a second layer of squash, top with about 1 cup of tomato sauce and then the remaining cheeses.
    5. Cover and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 10 minutes.
    6. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before cutting.

 

**If you are using a “baseball bat” of a zucchini, cut it in half length-wise and scrape out the seeds.  Then cut it into the planks.  I usually trim the pieces to fit short-ways in the baking dish.  One huge zucchini is usually enough for this recipe.  However, it does freeze well, so you could make one for now and one for later!

Blueberry Conserve/Preserve

It isn’t every day and anyone ends up with more blueberries than she ever imagined would be sitting in her kitchen.  But that is where I found myself this year after having the excellent luck of a friend offering for me to pick at his family’s blueberry patch because nobody else would be using them.  I froze many for the winter.  I dried many more for the winter.  I then decided that maybe I would make some preserves and I tried a little experiment.  This takes a lot of blueberries and does not yield a lot of preserves.  However, the upside is that it uses only enough sugar to balance the tartness of your blueberries.  This is more of a technique than a recipe, and you can substitue any type of berries, or blend of berries.

The Technique

Put enough blueberries in a stainless steel (non-reactive) pot to fill about half way. Add about an inch or two of water and the juice of one lemon.  This will help prevent scorching as you begin to cook the berries.  Over medium heat, bring the berries up to a low boil.  Reduce the heat to low simmer, stirring frequently, until they have decreased in volume by about a third.  The fruit will be mushy and the mixture will look runny.  Add more blueberries until you have a little more than the original volume in the pot.  Cook these down until the volume decreases by one third.  Repeat the process until you have use all of your berries.

At this point, you need to watch the berries carefully and stir the pot a lot to prevent scorching.  Continue cooking the berries until mass becomes thick and spreadable.  If you are using honey to sweeten this, remove the preserves from the heat and add the honey to taste.  If you are using sugar or other sweetener, add it to taste, and continue stirring until all of the sweetener is dissolved.

Put the hot preserve into freezer-safe jars*, and cap it.  When it has cooled, put the preserve in the freezer, or store in the refrigerator, where it generally keeps well for 3-4 weeks.  Once it is defrosted, the jam keeps well in the refrigerator for 3 weeks.

Freezing Jars

Glass jars may crack in the freezer, so take some precautions:

  1. Use freezer-safe jars! These have straight sides (“jelly jars,” regular mouth half pints, wide mouth half pints, wide mouth pints).
  2. Leave more “head space” at the top of the jar.  When liquids freeze, they expand — the reason ice floats in your drink is because between the temperatures of 34 F and 32 F, water actually expands as its structure changes from liquid to solid.  Therefore, whatever you are freezing will take up more space in the jar than it did as a liquid.  If you do not give the liquid room to expand, it will break the jar as it freeezes.
  3. Be sure that the jar is completely cooled before moving it to the freezer.  I do this by allowing the contents to come to room temperature and then putting it in the refrigerator overnight before moving it to the freezer.

*Not all canning jars are freezer safe, so read the label of the case to be sure.

New Ideas for Dinner: Rice Wrappers

Our CSA shares are getting enormous.  The first few weeks of the season, we get a couple heads of lettuce, a variety of greens, like spinach and kale, and maybe a pint or two of strawberries.  But now, we leave with bags overflowing: napa cabbages, spring beets, kohlrabi, early cucumbers, garlic scapes, and early summer squash.  I love this bounty, but I also understand that it can be a little overwhelming for people who are accustomed to shopping in a supermarket and purchasing only the things with which they are familiar. New foods are scary.

New Foods

One bane of the parental existence is trying to get your children to try new foods.  We all succeed at some point or other, to some extent or other, otherwise we would have adults still drinking formula.  It’s like my pediatrician said about potty training, “Eventually they get it.  I have never had a patient go to college in diapers.”  We heavily influence our children’s eating based on our own preferences.  I worked with a woman years ago who was flabbergasted that my children ate fish.  She herself didn’t really like fish, didn’t serve it to her children, and so they grew up thinking that they didn’t like it.

Me?  I didn’t like beets or Brussel sprouts.  The beet thing didn’t bother me, but I always had this thing for Brussel sprouts – I desperately wanted to like them because they are so cute.  My husband made me roasted beets, and I love them.  Now I eat beets roasted, pickled, fermented, and raw.  Since then, I haven’t met a beet that I didn’t like.  The Brussel sprouts he made me were sautéed in bacon fat.  Bacon does make many things better, but it was the sauté, the caramelization, that made them so tasty, and now I love all kinds of brussel sprouts.  So, in my 30’s, I was still trying new foods.

In a weird way, once we are adults, we kind of retreat to toddlerhood when it comes to food.  We know what we like and then we don’t seem to stray from the course. We have a repertoire of dishes we make and we get into a rotation of those things.  Rarely do we venture out into new territory.  Ok, yes, the internet has a gazillion recipes that are available in a flash, but when people search recipes, they are searching for a way to prepare an ingredient with which they are familiar.  One of the beauties of CSA life, of Farmer’s Market life, is seeing new produce and learning what to do with it.

New Food May Mean New Cuisines

A key to meal and menu planning is to try and use ingredients that are in season at the time.  Right now, that means snow and snap peas, napa cabbage, spring onions, garlic scapes, kohlrabi, and early cucumbers.  The cuisines that come to mind for me are Asian.  This is the time of year for beef and snow peas, fermenting kimchee, and making roll-ups with rice paper wrappers.

At our house, we each make our own roll-ups at the table.  I put out a variety of fillings (recipes follow): sautéed napa cabbage, marinated cucumbers, sautéed shrimp; and a variety of raw veg: shredded carrots and kohlrabi, thinly sliced spring onions, snow peas (sometimes I steam these for about 1 minute), chopped cilantro, chopped Thai Basil* (or regular basil, if I can’t find Thai basil). I also add some fermented foods, like kim chee. Because everyone drips water all over the table, I usually put an old towel on the table.

To Make the Roll-ups:

Put a few of the stiff rice wrappers in a shallow pan of water that fits the entire wrapper.  We use a 9×13 pan.  After a couple of minutes, they soften.  Carefully remove the wrapper from the water, and put it on your plate.  Place the fillings of choice in the center of the wrapper, put the bottom of the wrapper up over the filling.  Then flip the sides in over the filling and roll it up.  Although this is a finger food, I always put forks on the table because we sometimes lose some filing in our dipping sauce (what we refer to as “Vietnamese Condiment” – an addictive balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot).

*Thai Basil has a different flavor from Genovese basil (what you commonly find at the grocery store).  If you have cinnamon basil, that is a better substitute than Genovese basil.

 

Sautéed Napa Cabbage

  • 1 Chinese or napa cabbage, shredded
  • 1-2 spring onions, sliced lengthwise
  • 1-2 garlic scapes, chopped fine (if you don’t have scapes, use one medium clove of garlic)
  • 1 T toasted sesame oil
  • 2 T fish sauce

Heat the oil in a large skillet.  Add the garlic scapes and stir around for about 30 seconds; Stir in the onions and saute for another 30 seconds.  Add ½ the cabbage and stir it around.  Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.  The cabbage will start to deflate.  Add the rest of the cabbage and fish sauce and stir around.  This can be made in advance and served at room temperature.

 

Marinated Cucumbers

  • 3-4 Kirby cucumbers (or 1 medium slicer), thinly sliced
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 T rice vinegar

In a medium bowl, toss the cucumber slices with the salt.  Transfer them to a colander, put a plate and a weight (a heavy can or something like that) on top and leave them to “sweat.”  After about an hour, most of the water should be pressed out of the cucumbers.  Toss with the rice vinegar.  You can also add some toasted sesame seeds for a garnish.

 

Sautéed Shrimp

  • 1-2 lbs. of shrimp (depending upon how many people you are feeding. I generally make 1 lb for the four of us)
  • 1 T sesame oil
  • 1-2 T fish sauce
  • The juice of 1 lime

Heat the oil in a large skillet.  Place the shrimp in a single layer in the skillet. Sprinkle with 1 T of the fish sauce.  When the shrimp starts to turn opaque, flip them over and sprinkle with the rest of the fish sauce.  Turn the heat off and cover for 5 minutes.  The residual heat in the pan will finish cooking the shrimp. When you are ready to take the shrimp to the table, add the lime juice and toss.

 

Vietnamese Condiment (We make triple recipes of this so we always have some on hand)

  • 1-2 garlic scapes, minced (or 1 clove garlic, minced)
  • 1 fresh hot chili (heat)
  • 2 t coconut sugar (or 1 t granulated sugar) (sweet)
  • 2 T fish sauce (salty)
  • The juice and pulp of one lime** (sour)

In a small food processor, or mini-blender, mince the scapes (or garlic).  If you like things super-hot, slice the chili pepper and add it to the processor.  If you like things more on the mild side, de-seed the pepper before you add it. Blend the pepper and garlic.  Add the rest of the ingredients and blend.  Adjust the sweet, salty, sour, hot balance to your liking!

** I squeeze the juice out of the lime first and then use a grapefruit spoon to scrape out the pulp.  Try not to get any membrane in there.

Foraging in my Yard

It has been a while since I had time to work on my blog, which was a sadness.  But now Summer has begun and with it a bit more flexibility in my schedule.  For the past few days, I found myself awake at 4:30 AM, not able to fall back to sleep, but not thinking about lesson plans or Student Growth Objectives, which is a nice change.  Instead I was thinking about blog posts, berry picking, staking tomatoes, and what to do with the mint that had gotten out of control!

Clearing Space

I have two varieties of mint growing on the side of my house: peppermint and spearmint.  They seem to get along with the raspberries, but this year, when I went out to start picking, I couldn’t get down the rows because the mint was out of control.  I started pulling it out and ended up with three enormous bunches of mint.  It hurt my heart to just throw them in with the chickens, and then I had the “A-ha” moment: tea.  This was way too much mint to put in my dehydrator, so I just tied it up to my clothes line.  I took it down at night and hung it back out the next day.  It took three days until it felt like it was really dry.  Then I just stripped the leaves from the stems and stuffed them in a jar.

This coming winter, I will happily drink mint tea from these dried leaves.  It also makes a nice iced tea, but I generally use the fresh mint for that in summer, since we have so much.

Storage Space

The fun part of this is that all of that mint, when dried packed into a quart jar.  In the winter, when I use the mint, I will put it in the mini-prep (a small food processor) to chop it up and release the oils from the leaves. Otherwise, I think it has a little bit of a “grassy” taste.  Sometimes I will mix it with loose black tea; sometimes I just make the mint.  Other dried herbs that make a nice tea with mint are lemon balm and chamomile.

This time of year, a lot of perennial herbs, like mint, sage, and oregano are going a little crazy.  Cut them back before they flower and dry them.  Any dried herbs you have left from last year should get thrown in the compost (or give them to the chickens!), as they have probably lost their potency.