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.

Not Your Run of the Mill Cucumber Salad

One of the hobbies I have is reading old cookbooks.  I have a review of a classic gem from the 19th Century by Mrs. Owens elsewhere on this site.  I find many interesting recipes and rediscover ideas and solutions to problems that have been long forgotten.  Although sometimes I laugh when I see them on “life hack” links on my social media.  Don’t know what I mean?  Like rubbing a walnut on scratched furniture to make the scratch less noticeable.  So as the cucumbers started filling out on the vines, and piling up at the markets, I went back to an old recipe that I adapted from The Searchlight Cookbook (mine is the 23rd edition, published in 1952). This is not your run of the mill cucumber salad that uses vinegar and onions.

I went back to the original recipe to see how many changes I made, and there were quite a few.  While I was looking through the book, I saw recipes for other cucumber dishes, including scalloped cucumbers and creamed cucumbers, both of which sounded rather unappealing.  But I realized that may be because the only cooked cucumber I ever ate was a pickle.  I might just have to try one of those recipes and get back to you next week. But for now, a really unusual side for a hot summer evening.

Cucumber and Cheese Salad

  • 2 medium cucumbers, cut length-wise, seeded and diced
  • ¾ C sharp cheddar cheese, cubed small
  • ¾ C diced celery
  • 1 C grated carrots
  • 1 sweet pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeño, diced (optional)
  • ¼ C  relish
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ to ½ C mayo or creamy dressing, such as the Cooked Dressing below
  1. In a colander, combine the cucumber, celery, carrots, pepper(s), and salt. Put a plate on top and weigh it down to press out some of the water. Let rest for about 20 minutes.  While you are waiting you can make the cooked dressing below.
  2. After 20 minutes, press out as much water as you can. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the cheese, relish and about ½ of dressing (you can use mayo or the dressing below). Toss to combine and evenly distribute the dressing.

Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

In addition to using this as a side, it makes a great stuffing for fresh tomatoes: cut the tops off and scoop out the seeds.  Fill the cavity with the salad.  A light refreshing lunch or dinner.

Cooked Dressing

(this is good on coleslaw, potato salad, cucumber salad, or a garden salad)

  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • 1/4 C melted butter
  • 1/2  C white vinegar
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t dry mustard
  • ¼ t paprika
  • 1 T arrowroot powder
  • 2 T honey
  1. In the top of a double boiler, or a metal bowl, combine all ingredients EXCEPT the honey, and mix until it is smooth.
  2. Place the metal bowl on top of a pot of simmering water, being sure that the water is not boiling up to the level of the bottom of the bowl. Stir constantly until it is thick and very smooth. This may take a few minutes.  Be patient.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Adjust for sweet and salt until you achieve the desired balance.
  4. Cool and transfer to a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator.

 

**If you are looking for some old standards as far as cucumber recipes, here are some links to pickles: your standard dills and garlic.

Living La Vita Locale: Vida Salad

Growing up, my grandmother made this concoction called Health Salad.  So, color me shocked one day in NYC, when I saw it at a deli.  I turned to my friend and said, “I thought my grandmother made that up!” Honestly, when I was younger I didn’t like it.  I didn’t really like anything that tasted cabbage-y, from coleslaw to cabbage borsht, although I have since changed my mind and will heartily dig into all things cabbage, from kraut to prakas (stuffed cabbage).  My husband jokes that the horseradish is the root of my people, and if that is the case, then the cabbage is the brassica of Everyman.  The ancient Greeks wrote about them, as well as the ancient Chinese.  From north to south and east to west, there are varieties of cabbage that are central to most major cuisines.  This humble green is packed with vitamins and minerals, grows well in poor conditions, keeps well through the winter, and along with the potato, probably kept a gazillion people alive during hard times.

After a time, my mother took up the mantle of making the health salad.  It was one of her contributions to every family dinner occasion, from Thanksgiving to Passover, my mom, Vida, made the Health Salad.  It was about this time of year a few years back, and I was putting away my share from the CSA when I realized that I had all of the ingredients to make Health Salad.  There was a head of cabbage in the fridge from the week before, and I had cucumbers, carrots, and the one pepper per share from that week.  I called my mom and asked for the recipe.  Since then I have tweaked it a bit, and since my mom likes these results better than hers, I feel good about renaming the recipe, Vida Salad.  Yes, after my mom, but her name means “lifetime” in Spanish, so “Lifetime Salad” — salad that will help you be healthy for a lifetime!

Vida Salad

Salad

  • 1 medium head of cabbage, quartered and cored
  • 2 medium cucumbers
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 sweet pepper, halved and seeded
  • 1-2 T salt
  1. Put a large colander inside a bowl.
  2. Slice the cabbage quarters thinly, across the grain, so you have thin shreds (I usually do this on a mandoline).  Put them in the colander and sprinkle with 1 T salt. Toss to coat.
  3. Grate the cucumbers and carrots.  Add them to the colander and sprinkle with the remaining salt.
  4. Cut the pepper into strips and then cut across the strips to make small squares.  Add them to the colander.
  5. Using a plate that has a smaller circumference than the colander, weigh down the veggies to press out the excess water that the salt is drawing out. While you are waiting, make

The Dressing

  • 1/2 C Apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 C water
  • 1/4 sugar or honey (but use a mild flavored honey)
  • 1/4 C olive oil
  • 1/4 C coconut oil

Put all of the ingredients in a jar and shake until the sugar is dissolved.

6. Press out as much of the water as you can.  I take an extra step here and put the veggies in a towel and wring out as much water as I can.

7. Dump the water, and put the veggies in a bowl.  Add the dressing and mix thoroughly.  While you can eat this right away, the flavor definitely improves after a day or two in the fridge.

 

This is great as a side, on a burger or hot dog, or mixed with tuna.

Using Kim Chee

Oddly, I find myself using kim chee frequently.  Maybe you attended my lacto-fermentation class, or read an old post of mine, Anticipation,  where you learned about it.  You got a bunch of napa cabbage, and kohlrabi, and various other greens, and you made a lot of varieties.  And it is all in your fridge.  You aren’t eating Korean food every night, so now it is just sitting there.  In this world of diversity, there is more to do with this spicy side dish than merely pairing it with bulgogi!  You can mix things up and put some on a burger or hotdog.  Not things we would normally put kim chee on, and I do not know what possessed me to try it, but I did and both were really great.  Scrambled eggs benefit from a dollop, as well.

Here are some other recipes I came up with that use kim chee as an ingredient:

Kim Chee Slaw

  • 1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup of kim chee

In a large bowl, mix this all together.  I know, I know.  It sounds gross.  Mayo and kim chee.  Please trust me on this.  It is the best slaw.  So, so good!

Changed Overs

Do you have members of the family who won’t eat leftovers?  Here’s a way to recycle leftovers:

  • 2 cups leftover meat, cut up in bite-sized pieces
  • 2-3 cups leftover vegetables
  • 1 cup of kim chee

In a large bowl, mix all of this together.

If your family prefers hot food, you can put this in a casserole dish and heat it in the oven, just until it is heated through.

In the summer we like this room temperature or cold, served over hot rice, or tossed into pho (rice noodles) that have been soaked in boiled water for about a minute.

Don’t think about kim chee as a stand alone side.  Think about it as a way to flavor other things!  In the winter, I love to heat up some stock (make your own — Stock Going Up!) and add about a 1/4 c of kim chee.  Fast, easy, delicious and really good for you!

Stuffed Summer Squash

It is almost time.  Summer squash is hitting the farmer’s markets.  And then in a month or so a, your neighbor who grows her own zucchini will be leaving them on your back step.  In the middle of the night. Because yesterday you told her that you didn ‘t really need any more zucchini.  A couple of years ago, I did a post about that over abundance (Zucchini and Summer Squash) that includes directions for freezing squash, a recipe for “faux crab cakes” and one for homemade seafood seasoning similar to a branded spice mix that rhymes with OK.

But right now, we aren’t tired of eating zucchini.  As a matter of fact, we are anticipating it.  One way I like to prepare it is to stuff it and then bake it, but not in the oven.  We bake it on the grill.  If you have a gas grill, you would heat one side of the grill and then put the zucchini on the grill so that it is not directly over the heat.  We use charcoal, so we leave part of the ember pan empty so create a place where there will be indirect heat. Another nice thing about this recipe is that I can prepare it in advance, and then when the grill is ready I can just drop it on there.

Stuffed Summer Squash

  • 2 medium zucchini or yellow squash (patty pan also works well for this), cut in half, lengthwise
  • 2-3 cups spinach**
  • 1 T butter or olive oil for saute
  • 4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
  1. Scoop the seeds out of the squash, and make a thin cut on the back of the squash, so it will sit steady on the counter.
  2. Chop the spinach, and quickly saute in the butter with a little salt. Press it against the side of the pan and drain out as much moisture as you can.
  3. Mix the spinach and feta. Spoon this mixture into the squash boats.
  4. Put a piece of foil on a tray and put the squash on the foil.  If you are not going to bake these right away, cover them and put them in the fridge until you are ready to cook.
  5. When you are ready to cook, put the uncovered squash on the foil on the grill.  I usually fold the foil over double to make it stronger.

These take about 15-20 minutes, depending on the the size of the squash and the temperature of the grill.  Because these cook on the indirect heat, you can use the direct heat to cook up some burgers, or some fresh caught fish! Go summer food!!

**You can use any kind of greens and cheese you like: Swiss chard and gruyere, tat soi and cheddar, etc.