Using a big chunk of my CSA box in one go

Back when we first received amaranth in our CSA box, I did some recipe research about the vegetable. Once I learned that it was popular in Indian dishes, I realized I should check and see what Raghavan Iyer would suggest.

Raghavan Iyer is a local Indian chef who has written a number of excellent cookbooks on Indian cooking. He also teaches cooking classes at local kitchen stores Kitchen Window and Cooks of Crocus Hill, and will be opening a new upscale Indian restaurant, OM, in downtown Minneapolis in the very near future.

I had a chance to cook with Raghavan personally a couple of years ago. For our annual holiday party, my office hires a chef to come in and do a hands-on cooking experience with us; we choose a different cuisine each year. In 2006, it was Indian.

Raghavan was an excellent cooking instructor from whom we learned a lot, and just an all-around good guy. It was fascinating to learn more about the Indian approach to spices in particular – cooking with whole spices and grinding your own.

When I emailed Raghavan for his recommendation of what to do with amaranth, he suggested a recipe from his most recent cookbook, 660 Curries. It looked pretty simple, but I got hung up on one ingredient it called for – asafoetida.

I’m not at all familiar with asafoetida. Raghavan told me that asafoetida could be found at co-ops, but Mississippi Market doesn’t carry it. I ended up finding it at an Indian grocery on Central Ave. in northeast Minneapolis. (I did end up seeing it at the Wedge co-op this past weekend after the fact).

The Indian lady working the register at Bombay Grocery wrinkled her nose at the mention of this spice, saying her mother used it a lot in her home cooking and it was really smelly. However, it’s supposed to help with gas and bloating.

Wikipedia corroborates these points and elaborates further, offering some interesting facts about asafoetida.

Asafoetida is also known as devil’s dung, stinking gum, asant, food of the gods.

[Uhhhhh, okaaayyyyy...]

Asafoetida has a pungent, unpleasant smell when raw, but in cooked dishes, it delivers a smooth flavor, reminiscent of leeks.

This spice is used as a digestive aid, in food as a condiment and in pickles. Its odor, when uncooked, is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers; otherwise the aroma will contaminate other spices stored nearby. However, its odour and flavor become much milder and more pleasant upon heating in oil or ghee, acquiring a taste and aroma reminiscent of sautéed onion and garlic.

Regional usages

* In the Jammu region, in the northernmost state in India, Asafoetida is used as a medicine for flatulence and constipation by 60% of locals. In India, it is used especially by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism and Vaishnavism, who do not eat onions or garlic. It is used in many vegetarian and lentil dishes to both add flavor and aroma and reduce flatulence.

The description gets a little weirder at this point:
Other uses

* Bait – John C Duval reported in 1936 that the odor of asafoetida is attractive to the wolf, a matter of common knowledge, he says, along the Texas/Mexico border. It is also used as one of several possible scent baits, most notably for catfish and pike.

* Avoiding spirits – In Jamaica, asafoetida is traditionally applied to a baby’s anterior fontanel (Jamaican patois “mole”) in order to prevent spirits (Jamaican patois “duppies”) from entering the baby through the fontanel. In the African-American Hoodoo tradition, asafoetida is used in magic spells as it is believed to have the power to curse. In Ceremonial Magick especially from The Key of Solomon the King, it is used to protect the magus from daemonic forces and to evoke the same and bind them.

With my full jar of asafoetida on hand, I’m certain that nobody is going to mess with me, because either the stench will keep them away, or the knowledge that I could break out some voodoo on their sorry ass.

On the other hand, maybe we’ll start having wolf sightings in Northeast Minneapolis….

OK, back to the cooking.

Because we had only one bunch of amaranth (it weighed about 5 oz.), I halved the recipe, and made a couple of other Indian-inspired dishes to accompany the curry – Spicy Green Beans from the Vegetarian Perspective blog, and the Grilled Eggplant Salad with Yogurt that appeared in Mark Bittman’s NY Times column last week. We also served basmati rice and spicy pappadums on the side.


Mustard seeds were popping all over the place in our house that night.

In making this menu, I used the amaranth, onions, green beans and eggplant from our Harmony Valley Farm CSA box this past week. Not a bad way to take out a big chunk of the CSA box in one go.

Here’s the full recipe for the amaranth dish. If you only have one bunch of amaranth like I did, I’d recommend bulking up the recipe with other greens such as spinach.

Raghavan notes:
If you can’t find amaranth at your market – or more likely, at an Asian grocery store –spinach, collard, mustard (slightly more bitter), and kale are all great stand-ins.

Amaranth Leaves with Peanuts (Chowli nu shaak)
From the cookbook, 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, published by the Workman Group


Ingredients:

1 pound fresh red amaranth leaves, well rinsed, tough stems discarded
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1/4 teaspoon ground asafetida
1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon white granulated sugar

Directions:

Stack a dozen or so of the amaranth leaves on top of one another, and cut them into thin strips. Repeat with the remaining bunch.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, cover the skillet, and cook until the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn), about 30 seconds. Remove the skillet from the heat and sprinkle in the cumin seeds, turmeric, cayenne, and asafetida, which will instantly sizzle and smell nutty (without burning).

Grab a handful of the amaranth strips and stir them into the spiced oil. Allow them to wilt before you add another handful. Once all the leaves have been added and wilted, stir in 1 cup water and the peanuts, salt, and sugar.

Bring the curry to a boil. Then lower the heat to medium, cover the skillet, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are tender and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. (The sauce will be on the thinner end of the spectrum; so, if you wish to shift it toward the thicker, remove the cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to boil off some more of the broth-like liquid, about 5 minutes.) Serve.

***

Some more cooking notes about this menu:

The amaranth dish had nice flavor, I just wish we had more of it. The leaves cook down a lot and so next time we make this, we’ll round it out with additional greens.

I liked the green beans, but maybe used too many peppers and mustard seeds in it (my husband disagreed and liked the level of spiciness). The Wedge co-op didn’t have any Thai chiles, and so we used more serranos in its place. We were both coughing and sneezing from the extremely spicy aromas emanating from the kitchen during cooking.

The eggplant salad was so-so for me – the grilled, peeled eggplant didn’t look very appealing (it was grey and looked a little like herring) so I was pre-disposed not to like it. The minted yogurt was a nice counter-point to the spicy green beans, though. Next time I’ll probably stick to an even simpler eggplant preparation, just grilling it in slices like Kate in the Kitchen suggested.

One final note – I can verify that asafoetida is truly a stink bomb of a spice. We initially stored it in our spices cupboard but then after being driven crazy by the smell, we decided to place it in a plastic bag and put it out into our porch.

Watch out for the wolf howls in Nordeast, people….

Blowing my cooking gasket

Feeling blessed by my bounty of basil pesto, I decided to make yet another recipe – Creamy Pesto Pasta Salad with Chicken, Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes, using green beans in place of the asparagus, because they’re in season now.

I was pushing my basil luck at this point, as you shall see. Here’s how the recipe played out:

Mon night – Make basil pesto.

Tues night- Take chicken out of the freezer to thaw in refrigerator. Promptly forget about making the salad.

Fri afternoon- When digging through fridge for something else, I come across the pack of chicken. (And wonder, how long can it be defrosted in the fridge anyway?) Decide I’d better poach it and make the chicken salad recipe. My husband and I will be the test subjects for determining whether it’s gone bad or not.

Soon, though, my kitchen is feeling like O’Hare Airport stacked up at rush hour, as I have several new recipes on deck that I plan to try out for dinner on Friday night. So I run out of time to make the chicken salad on Friday; will have to do it tomorrow.

Sat morning -
9:15 am – Start prepping the ingredients. The prep work is nothing too complicated, but still… Begin to fully grasp that there are a hell of a lot of steps to this recipe, including:
-Cook chicken (at least that’s already done)
-Make pesto (thank god, again, already done)
-Mince garlic
-Mix up dressing ingredients
-Cook pasta
-Trim green beans and cook them
-Cut up artichoke hearts
-Thinly slice green onions
-Halve cherry tomatoes and sprinkle with salt
-Toast pine nuts

This is all while fielding numerous interruptions from the kids, stopping to break up fights, etc. etc.

I curse the fact that I didn’t read through the entire recipe before deciding to make this.

9:55 am – As I work my way through the tasks, thoughts about opportunity costs spring to mind (e.g., I could be at the gym or outside enjoying the weather, and instead am slaving away in the kitchen). Tom carts the crazy kids off to the gym.

10:15 am -The number of dirty dishes, pots and pans is mounting. I run out of prep bowls, and when I go to wash them, find that we are just about out of dish soap. I have run out of clean dishtowels too, and so I go downstairs, see a huge mound of laundry and start a load going in the washer.

10:30 am – Back upstairs. Start excavating the fridge in a search for ingredients and become mildly overwhelmed with all that’s crammed in there. Begin spontaneously cleaning out the fridge and throwing out expired items.

10:45 am – Finally find the basil pesto I prepared, and discover that there’s not enough left for this recipe, I’ll have to make more.

$%^&##@$!!!!!!

Trudge back downstairs to retrieve the food processor I’d put away earlier in the morning, go outside to pick more basil, and make another batch of pesto. (I swear, this is starting to feel like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…)

11:15 am – Assemble all of the ingredients and discover this makes a massive amount of food, enough to feed Paul Bunyan, and maybe Babe the Blue Ox too. Cram the bowl in my fridge to chill.

I come to my senses and decide that this will not be served at lunch, it’s too precious and deserves a prime time slot due to the effort involved. We’ll have it for dinner instead and I WILL COOK NO MORE today. I’ve blown my cooking gasket.

***

Creamy Pesto Pasta Salad with Chicken, Green Beans and Cherry Tomatoes

Well, I have to say, once I tried this salad, it is a definite keeper. Lots of yummy items in it. While it’s best eaten the day that you add the dressing to it, it’s still pretty good for a couple of days afterward.

I ended up giving away almost half of it to my family and neighbors, so none of it went to waste. Whew.

There is still a ton of basil growing in the container; I think I’m going to have to start drinking my herbs pretty soon.

IN SEASON: Green (Yellow & Purple) Beans

Last week at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, green beans were EVERYWHERE. They are in their prime here in the Twin Cities now, and my family is gobbling them up.

Fresh beans are a warm weather crop, best enjoyed at the height of summer. In addition to green, there are also yellow and purple varieties.

What we think of here in Minnesota as “green beans” may also be referred to as snap beans, string beans (Northeast US), French beans or runner beans (British English). [Wikipedia]. Haricots verts are a very tender, slender variety of green bean.

Not all green beans are equal. Some varieties are low fiber, tender, and are best with brief cooking methods such as sauteing and steaming, while others are high fiber and require longer cooking times to make the beans shine.

Green beans are versatile and can be added to all sorts of dishes such as salads, stir fries or casseroles, or served on their own. Or, if you’re like my daughter, you can even nibble them fresh (though I’d recommend blanching them briefly first).

How do you keep the color as green as possible? The book How to Pick a Peach suggests the following tips: cook the beans in plenty of water, make sure that the water returns to a boil as quickly as possible, cook them briefly, then, if possible [and it makes sense for your recipe], plunge them into ice water as soon as they are done.

If you’re wondering why each of these steps is important, read Russ Parson’s book. It’s an excellent source of information about all sorts of produce, including selection and storage tips and contains some easy looking recipes. I finally returned my copy to the Minneapolis Public Library after being two months overdue (oops!), but plan to purchase my own copy sometime in the near future.

You can probably figure out a way to use green beans on your own, but in case you’re looking for some further inspiration, check out the following:

Arugula, Potato and Green Bean Salad
Stir Fried Spicy Green Beans and Pork Sausage
Best Ever New Potatoes and Green Beans
Penne, Crispy Tofu and Green Bean Salad
Roasted Green Beans in Shallot Vinaigrette
Soy-Glazed Green Beans with Toasted Almonds
Roasted Carrots, Golden Beets and Green Beans with Crispy Chard and Fresh Chevre
Green Bean Salad with Lemon, Dill and Feta Cheese (scroll down to the EatYourVeggies comment)

And some more ideas from CSAers in the Cooking Away My CSA Google group.

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