Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tofu Veggie Hash

Hello Foodies,

I got through two books in two days this weekend. And I got 4 more from the library to read over the next few weeks. I go through these phases where I pick one hobby and do one project after another, crocheting, sewing, photography or reading. Its been a while since I picked up a good book and read it in one sitting. I have a hard time picking books, if I don't like the first few pages I'll never get through it not matter how good the reviews. Last year I read the books suggested by Tara Austen (Tea and Cookies) and enjoyed all of them. The library system here is just brilliant and I can find almost any book in the vast network they have. Each book on that list was very different from the other but they all were tied by the common theme of food. I love getting immersed in a book, living with the characters and anticipating how the story unravels. Even when I have to step away from the book I'm still in their world with them until I complete the book. A well written book can do that to you, drawing you into its imaginary world by creating life like scenarios. A movie not matter how good it is lasts just a few hours and is soon forgotten.

I picked the first book (The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi) at  random with just 5 mins to library closing. Once I got through it late that night I went back the next day and got a second one from the same author, Serving Crazy with Curry. I was so thrilled to have finished the book in one setting that I did not want to stop with one. Both were easy reads with well developed plots and characters. They also had little recipes strewn between the chapters which was nice. I picked up more books when I went back and is it odd that they all seem to have a food theme going on! ha. So as to not spend too much time in the kitchen I whipped up this quick brunch style dish to keep me with my books longer.

Tofu Veggie Hash
Prep time - 10 mins
Cooking time - 20 mins
Servings - 2 -3
  • 3 oz - Tofu block, extra firm
  • 1/4 cup - Tomato, diced
  • 1/3 cup - Onions, Green & Red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup - Potatoes, cubed (Red or Yukon Gold)
  • 1/2 tsp - Cumin & Fennel seeds
  • 1/4 tsp - Red pepper flakes
  • 1/8 tsp - Turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 Tbsp - Olive oil
  • 2 - Spring onions greens for garnish
  1. Heat a Tbsp of oil in a saute pan on medium high heat. Add cumin & fennel seeds, once they begin to sizzle add red pepper flakes, turmeric powder, diced onions and peppers. 
  2. Meanwhile, peel and cube potatoes. Rinse them in water to get rid of extra starch. Drain tofu and cube in roughly the same size as potatoes.
  3. When the onions and peppers are tender and begin to char slightly transfer them to a plate and reserve. Add another tablespoon of oil to the saute pan and toss in cubed potatoes. Cook for 5-6 minutes without moving then too much so they can crisp up on each side. 
  4. Cubed tofu, tomatoes and sauteed veggies go in next. Add salt to taste and cook for 5 mins until the flavors meld together. 
  5. Transfer to a serving dish, garnish with diced spring onion greens and serve with fruits and toast. 

Hash is one of my favorite brunch dishes when I eat out and making it at home is even better. Potatoes and peppers go perfectly together and adding tofu brings protein and substance to the party. It soaks up the flavor from the veggies and tastes really good in the end. The different textures from the peppers, crispy and tender potatoes and tofu work well together. The fennel seeds add just enough interest along with the cumin seeds or I its just that I'm in a fennel phase now :) What are your favorite brunch recipes ? or weekend reads ?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Spread the Bounty

Hello foodies,

The final haul from one of our trips. And this was just half of it! We ran out of buckets and had to empty the fruit into a trunk of a van to be hauled out. Orange, blood orange, grapefruit, kumquats, tangerines, lemons, Meyer lemons, pomelos.
Nope, this was not a pick your own farm loot :) The last few weeks I've been spending my Saturday mornings volunteering for a wonderful organization called Harvest Crops. They work to bridge the gap between the haves and have not's of fresh fruit. Its a great cause and I am glad I am able to contribute.  Its a win-win situation for everyone involved and that's the beauty of it. Every resident we have helped is happy to have us there and welcome us into their homes and backyards. They are happy to see their fruit picked at its peak and taken to those who need it most. It just amazes me each time to see how many buckets we fill up from one tree. Even the barest of trees yields no less that 4-5 buckets of fruit. The best part of it all though is the last bit of delivering the fruit to those who need it. It leaves me with a smile that lasts through the whole week. This past week we picked just three trees but ended up with 20-25 buckets of fruit that would serve many many families. As a volunteer I am just having fun. I get to explore the city, meet new people and also sample some fabulous organic fruit. So to leave with so much more than what you put in is gratifying.
Meyer lemon blossom                                                                                                              Orange blossoms
California is known for its citrus harvest. The markets are usually stocked with multiple varieties of citruses all through the year, even the winter months, or should I say specially the winter months. Right now the farm stands are bursting with blood oranges, grape fruit and many lemon varieties  - meyer, eureka, sweet lemons and a few more names that I don't recollect right now. Drive out a few miles from the city and you are bound to come across orange orchards lining the road. But right here within the city almost every house that has even a few feet of open yard has a citrus tree or two that is bursting with fruit.
They all start green                                                                                        Orange bunches everywhere

Overloaded with Meyer Lemons!
The famous California Meyer lemons have a floral aroma and are sweeter than regular lemons. I've made lemonade, salad dressings, muffins, cupcakes and currently have a batch of preserved lemons curing in the refrigerator. The lemons from this tree are probably the juiciest and sweetest I've had till date. The tree was brimming with fruit but did not want to let go of them either. The fruit were nestled among the inner branches that had huge thorns! I was lucky we had gloves but that did not help us for long. We eventually just started jerking the branches to loosen the fruit and luckily for us it worked out.We got close to 10-12 buckets of fruit from this one.

Grape fruits!
This grapefruit tree was in a mini orchard that a resident had. From the outside the tree looked like it did not have much fruit. But once we took a peek behind the outer leaves, this is what we find! We got close to 6-7 buckets of fruit from this one alone. They were huge and juicy. But this was the day I also realized I have a very low tolerance to grapefruit. Its way too acidic for my throat, just a few drops and I was left with a soreness that lasted a whole day.

Ponderosa lemon blossom                                                                                  Ponderosa lemon
The shocker from last week was discovering Ponderosa lemons. Looking at how big the fruit looks in the photograph you might think the photo angle is odd. But nope, these lemons are enormous! The fruit were easily 7-8" in diameter. I initially mistook them to be grapefruit until the kind lady who lived there told us about these special lemons.
That's a blood orange for comparison alongside one of the smaller lemons on the tree. And if that's not big enough these lemons are still just half their size at this point! The wiki link tells that they taste exactly like lemons just a looooot bigger. More about blood oranges in the next post :)

Peach blossoms!
These flowers in pretty pink are peach blossoms I was told! Looks like we might go back to this place in a few months for another harvest :) Take a few minutes to see if such an organization exists in your neighborhood and I can promise you'll have a wonderful time.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fennel Salad with Chaat Masala

Dear foodies,

This year is in a rush to get done. I planned to share this recipe in early January and now we are into March already. So let me get to it right away - this is the best salad I've made, ever. It was only after I came to San Diego that I started noticing fennel bulbs in produce aisles almost all through the year. I love flavor of fennel seeds (saunf), specially in the form of addictive mukhwas. As kids, my brother and I would hoard the bowls placed on the table at the end of meal in restaurants. While my father took care of the bill, we took care of the saunf bowl! We'd fill our tiny mouths with as much as we could and then stuff the rest into paper napkins for later. Though not at the same level, my fascination for anisey flavored food is not lost. And so when I saw huge white bulbs labelled fennel at the store I had to give them a try.

Fresh fennel has a crisp, refreshing flavor unlike any other raw vegetable. Initially, it took a few tries to get used to the concept of eating my favorite mouth freshener in vegetable form. But since then it has become a regular in my shopping list. Fennel has been used in Mediterranean cuisine for a long time. It can be eaten raw, cooked into stews and soups, braised and even roasted. I've tried all these methods and enjoy eating them raw the most.

When buying look for plump bulbs with fresh, healthy fronds on top (fennel greens). If the outer layers look blemished, give it a good wash and shave away a thin layer using a vegetable peeler. Slice off close to where the greens begin and the tough bottom core. I reserve the fronds to use as a herb.  If roasting fennel, retain the core and cut the bulb into quarters so they hold their shape. Otherwise slice the bulb in half, splitting through the tough core and cut a deep wedge to remove the core. Once this is done you can slice it lengthwise or across based on the final dish. For maximum crunch I prefer cutting thin slices across the bulb instead of lengthwise.

If you have a mandolin, this would be a perfect place to use it and make thin half moons of fennel, onions and matchsticks of carrot. I don't have one and doing it by hand takes only a few minutes longer and you have one less gadget to wash :) You can also use a serrated vegetable peeler for the carrots which gives a slightly similar texture.

I think I go through more cilantro than any other herb and the same goes with chaat masala in the spices section. I periodically get rid of all the other masalas that rarely get used but that's never the case with chaat masala. A little sprinkle on salads and fruits is a sure way to make me eat them with relish. In this salad though fennel is the show stopper - chaat masala, cilantro, limes - combine to make it an instant hit. They add to make it super refreshing and the khatta meeta balance of flavors is amazing.

Fennel Salad with Chaat masala
Prep time: 20 mins
Serves: 4-5
  • 1 - Fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 - Carrot (medium size), sliced into thin matchsticks
  • Quarter of a red onion, halved through the root end and thinly sliced into half moons
  • 1/4 cup - Cilantro leaves, washed and roughly chopped
  • 1 - Lime, juiced (~ 1/4 cup)
  • 1/2 tsp - Chaat Masala
  • 1/8 tsp - Red chilli powder (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp - Salt
  • 1/4 tsp - Pepper, freshly cracked
  1. In a bowl, toss together sliced fennel, carrots and onions. Sprinkle salt, lime juice and combine well using your hands, rubbing the salt into the veggies. Add chaat masala, red chilli powder, pepper and mix well.
  2. Next add chopped cilantro and some of the reserved fennel fronds. Combine and taste for seasonings adding more as needed.
Note: Make the salad at least 30 mins before serving to soften onions and allow time for flavors to combine. That said it could be made well in advance and refrigerated as it does not loose its crunch even after a few hours or up to a day. I tend to enjoy extra lime juice and chaat masala in this salad. I can assure you that the raw onions will not leave you with bad breath since they are softened by the salt and lime juice but feel free to exclude them.

The only confusion with fennel salad is if it should be served as a first course or last :) I've served it to friends and family and they've all loved it. If you never tried fresh fennel before this is a perfect first bite. Like any addictive chaat item, this salad has contrasting colors, textures and flavors that are in perfect harmony. I use it in tacos as a slaw, a side salad when serving heartier stews and its been a perfect addition to potluck fare. Give it a try and let me know what you think. It could be a great pick me up in the cold weather.
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