Sunday, April 29, 2007

Moroccan Couscous, and some thoughts on eating

For those of you generous enough to spend some of your time reading this blog, you know what I'm talking about. I mean, those of us who love to think about food, love to cook, and who find the scent of fresh herbs and spices thrilling, all share a common denominator. It's a sensory gene, I guess. One that finds some basic comfort and meaning in the preparation of food, as well as the pleasure of eating it - either alone or with others. (Preferably with others.) It is something that we all share - no matter what country we come from, no matter what the color of our skin is, or whether or not we believe in a God, many gods, or no God. Food is one of our common links.

I've been thinking about this subject for years. It's endlessly fascinating to me that all of us, regardless of where on this planet we may live, must find a way to feed ourselves and our families, and we do it in such diverse and interesting ways. In the U.S. and Europe, we generally eat with knife and fork. In other places, they eat with two sticks of wood. And in still other places, they rip apart bread and pick food up with it, making everything they eat either a "dip" or a "wrap". In the U.S., a hamburger, french fries and a coke is practically a national symbol. In India, a hamburger would be a sacrilege. Unthinkable.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had come back from India changed. I also said that I wasn't trying for sainthood, but rather attempting some sort of balance. My dilemma isn't about how to prepare chicken. Or fish. It's how to make a vegetarian meal that is substantial enough to be satisfying, and simple enough so that the idea of doing it appeals to this working woman. Tasty isn't a problem. I can make anything taste good.

So working within those parameters, I turned once again to Claudia Roden's recipe for Moroccan Couscous. It seems that I'm not alone this time. Ann, over at A Chicken In Every Granny Cart seems to be on the same page. But while she opted for the authentic approach, I went for the "down and dirty". Someday I will cook this grain in a more traditional way, using a colander (absent a couscousiere). But in the meantime, I used about a cup of couscous, poured boiling water over it slowly, watching for signs that it was swelling. When the grains began to swell, I made sure there was a little extra water in the pot and then I covered it, letting the steam do the rest.

Meanwhile, I added the following, mostly following Roden's recipe, but using no meat, and altering the rest of it to suit my whim:

2 1/2 TBS olive oil
6 pearl onions, halved
1/2 onion, chopped
1 can of chickpeas, drained
1 turnip, peeled and cubed
about 8 "baby" carrots, halved
large handful of dried, unsulphured apricots, chopped
1 tomato, skinned and chopped
about 2/3 cup green beans, halved.
about 1/2 cup chopped parsley
dash of ground ginger
healthy dash of cinnamon
healthy dash of Hungarian paprika
red chili powder to taste
salt and black pepper to taste

Heat oil in pan and add the onions, turnips, carrots and stir. Add spices and continue stirring. Add a small amount of water, salt and pepper, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 40 minutes. Add the tomatoes, string beans, chickpeas and apricots. Stir and cover for about 10-15 minutes, or until the last ingredients are cooked. Add the couscous, stir and adjust the seasonings.
If I made this again, I'd consider adding some sliced almonds to it. However, I served this with the stuffed eggplant dish I wrote about in my last post, and the pine nuts were sufficient.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture.

For a place to share what you've learned about vitamins, herbs, or other natural remedies, visit Second Opinion.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vegetarian instincts revived and stuffed eggplant

My curiosity about health really began while I lived in New Mexico. Now, New Mexico is not a state known for their vegetarian cuisine. Not that you can't get a decent vegetarian meal there. You can. But what that state thrives on is chili and meat. In the winter, the chili and meat keeps you warm with all those flavorful calories you're burning. In the summer, the chili cools you off by making you sweat while you're chewing on your carnitas. But for some reason, I was drawn towards the notion that diet and health were related. (An idea I would now put in the "DUH" pile.) I began my journey with an experiment in macrobiotics.

Well, let's put it this way: with Toni's version of macrobiotics. In those days, you were supposed to have 7 days of nothing but brown rice to start with, to "cleanse" yourself. I decided that I would die of boredom before the 7 days were up, so I jumped into the second week's fare immediately.

I did OK with it, and learned something about food combining in order to eat complete proteins. But eventually I loosened up a little, when I noticed that it was no longer easy (or sometimes not even possible) to eat with my friends. No one else I knew was even remotely interested in this kind of thing. And eating is, if nothing else, a social act.

So now I would consider myself to be an omnivore, once again. I tend not to eat a great deal of red meat, but I haven't banned it completely from my diet. Basically, though, my animal protein comes from chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese.

And then I went to India, where every restaurant offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals. We found ourselves eating quite a few vegetarian meals (and drinking almost no alchohol), and finding ourselves quite satisfied. So I came back with a desire to once again incorporate this kind of eating into my life. I'm not really looking for sainthood, here. I'm just experimenting with the idea of balance. Sometimes meat and wine, sometimes vegetarian fare and water. It's all good.

Now, as much as I love Indian food, I have not wanted to make it since I came back. It's about variety. So once again, I turned to my cookbook "A Book Of Middle Eastern Food" by Claudia Roden and found 2 recipes that interested me. Today's post will be about her stuffed eggplant dish called "Imam Bayildi", or "The Imam Fainted". I figured if this dish was so good that it caused the Imam to faint, I'd give it a try. Though I didn't faint, I definitely enjoyed it, and will be making it again for sure.

She gives 4 different methods of preparing the eggplant for stuffing. I chose the 4th method, as it seemed like the easiest to me:

Cut the eggplants in half, lengthwise. They may be peeled or not, as you prefer. (I didn't peel mine.)
Scoop out the centers.
Sprinkle the hollowed-out vegetables with salt, and leave to drain for at least 1/2 hour. Then rinse with cold water and pat dry.
Fill each hollowed-out half with filling and proceed according to the recipe.

Filling: (I used only one eggplant, and so I dramatically cut down on the ingredients here)

3/4 lb. onions
4 TBS olive oil
2-3 large cloves garlic, crushed
A bunch of parsley, finely chopped
3/4 lb. tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

Slice the onions thinly. Soften them gently in olive oil, but do not let them color. Add garlic and stir for a minute or two until aromatic. Remove from the heat and stir in parsley and tomatoes. Season to taste with salt, and mix well.

(I added some pine nuts, because I had them and thought they'd be good.)


This is a Turkish specialty.

6 long medium-sized eggplants
Filling (described above)
1/2 C olive oil
1 tsp sugar, or more
Juice of 1 lemon

Prepare the eggplants as described above. Stuff them with the filling. Arrange the eggplants side by side in a large pan. Pour over them the oil and enough water to cover (she says about 1/2 C, but I needed a little more). mixed with a little sugar, salt to taste, and the lemon juice.
Cover pan and simmer gently until the eggplants are very soft, about 1 hour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Turn out onto a serving dish. Serve cold.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what you've learned about vitamins, herbs, or other natural remedies, visit Second Opinion

Saturday, April 21, 2007

India, Indian Food and Jet Lag

How does one "return" from India? Changed. And I suspect it will take quite a bit of time for me to truly return. I'm not just talking about jet lag here (it's on the opposite side of the world, minus 1/2 hour), but I'm talking about something much deeper: my internal "map" of the world. It has been re-ordered. I will give a brief explanation later, but to start with an overlay of our trip might be useful.

I met my brother and his wife, and my sister in Chicago on April 2nd. We spent that evening together celebrating Passover with his daughters and other family members. The next evening, we flew to Delhi, arriving on the 4th at around 8:30 in the evening. Our trip included the cities of Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur, and a small town called Junia, which no one in India has ever heard of. We went there to satisfy my brother's need to see a bird called the Great Indian Bustard. As a retired pilot for American Airlines and a fanatical bird watcher, he travels all over the world to see birds. This one was about the size of an ostrich and quite beautiful. And the hunt for it brought us to a place which isn't on the tourist trail, which is always fun. From there we drove back to Delhi, and my sister and I flew home. My brother and his wife are still there, bird watching.

People have asked me, "What was the highlight of your trip?" I think they're expecting the answer to be "the Taj Mahal". And it's true that no matter how many pictures you've seen, it still has the power to fill one with awe and wonder. It is, in short, spectacular. Especially at dawn, which is when we saw it, and, I imagine, at sunset. However, it wasn't, for me, the highlight. The highlight was Varanasi. Hands down.
Varanasi (which is also called Benares), situated on the Ganges river, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and is considered to be the holiest of the 7 holy cities in India. According to legend, it was founded by Shiva, which makes it pretty special. There are 4 universities in the city. Also, Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, are cremated there and have your ashes go into the Ganges, you will be free of the cycle of life and death. You no longer need to be reincarnated. So it is known as the city of "learning and burning".

There's really no way to describe what it was like. At one point, I turned to my family and said "This place is not on my 'map'." It is the only place I've ever been (and I've traveled extensively) where spiritual life and daily life, where life and death, are not separated. Every morning, thousands of people go down to the Ganges to bathe. This is not just about cleaning - it's a deeply spiritual act as well. Every evening, they cremate about 100 bodies in front of the temples on the river. These cremations are done the old fashioned way - with wood. You can be walking down one of the narrow alleys of this town when suddenly, around the corner, will come a group of men, chanting, ringing bells, and bearing a body, covered with flowers. People step aside to let them by, and when they pass, life goes on. Buying, selling, sipping tea, talking on cell phones, stepping aside to let the cow go by.

How do you process this? I'm still working on it. It is, as a friend of my sister's said, life altering.

The rest of the trip was fantastic, too. The other cities were exotic and interesting, and saturated with color. Jaipur, "The Pink City", was the most sophisticated. And oh yes - the food. Personally, I loved the food. You could be an omnivore, like me, or vegetarian or vegan and do quite well in India, as long as you don't mind spicy food. My sister-in-law, who cannot deal with spicy food, had a much harder time. But for me, spicy works. Walking down the street, you can catch the scent of cardamom, ginger, fenugreek and other spices. Spices are the perfume of India. (Laced with other scents, which we won't mention.)

India is not for the beginning tourist. If you're from the U.S. and you've never traveled, I would say "Go to Europe." It's easier to grasp. But if you've seen Europe and the Americas and are looking for something more exotic, more adventuresome, then turn your eyes to Asia. For color, spice, warmth, vibrancy and life, go to India.

For health news, visit Mission Valley Acupuncture
For a place to share what you've learned about vitamins, herbs, or other natural healing methods, visit Second Opinion