The other day I read Mark Bittman’s farewell post as the Minimalist in the NY Times. As sad as I am to see him go, I will be happy to read more of his editorial pieces. I like Michael Pollan; he has made a significant impact on the conversation about food. But the thing is, I find Bittman to be more realistic about the food movement. Pollan is big picture, and Bittman is your everyman. Can someone with food stamps really supply a four-person family with oragnic, local, fresh foods every week? Doubtful. I can’t, and I think it is way cheaper in Seattle than it was in NY. I’ll support them both, but I throw my allegiance to Bittman.
Anyway, he mentioned something in his column the other day that really resonated with me. Do I like traditional foods from another culture? Obviously. Do I wish I could cook them? Yes. Do I feel guilty about swapping ingredients because the ones I have are cheaper/more available/etc than the original ones? Occasionally. But Bittman makes a point. Making traditional dishes with what you have available is what makes good food. It also is how you experiment. Sometimes you have no choice. And those are the times that you learn what works and what doesn’t.
I’m fairly new to experimenting, going beyond the recipe, and just plain making things up. I still have a pile of cookbooks that likely reach half my height, but I use them as a reference more than a direct guide. One book I come back to for a few staples was a splurge a number of years ago: The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook by Diana Shaw. Shaw’s recipes are so rich and so vegetable-focused, but often can be quite time consuming or ingredient-heavy. I’ve made her Peanut Curry with Sweet Potato and Collard Greens more times than I can count. And recently, I’ve started to swap in ingredients. I made this for our New Year’s Eve potluck, and it paired extremely well with the prime rib and, oddlly, even the mushroom risotto that went alongside it. It’s what my mother might call a patschka. It requires lots of chopping and peeling. But it makes a ton, can be frozen, and is so warming in the winter.
On New Year’s I made the recommended beet raita to go along with this dish for the first time. When one guest took her second bite, she said, “This tastes like the earth.” That was a good feeling. So, below are both recipes. Be warned: the raita looks like something your 7-year-old niece would be all too excited to have painted on her walls.
Peanut Curry With Root Vegetables and Kale (adapted from The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook), serves 8– 2 tsps oil (canola, vegetable, safflower–something mild) – 1 large onion, chopped – One 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped or grated – 4-5 garlic cloves, minced – 1/2 cup loosely packed minced cilantro – 1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped (I used one from the jar because I have no skills at peeling a roasted pepper) – 1 small, dried chili, chopped – 1 Tbsp ground cumin – 2 tsp whole mustard seeds – 2 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 tsp paprika – 1/4-tsp cayenne, or more to taste – 1 small can chopped tomatoes, drained – 1 lb. potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-size pieces
– 2-4 lb. root vegetables (e.g., carrots, rutabaga, turnip, parsnip, sunchoke, sweet potato), peeled and chopped into bite-size pieces (I used carrots, parsnips, and sunchokes in this particular one–you can also throw in some frozen peas here, which I think are almost essential to any good curry)
– 1/2 cup light coconut milk – 2-1/2 Tbsp peanut butter, no salt, sugar, or oil added – 1/2-1 lb. kale, stemmed and coarsely chopped – 2 cups cooked beans (black, chickpea, white, pink) (I used about 1.5 cups of dried cannelini beans that I cooked earlier that day. You can probably use 1-2 cans of beans, which will make things move much quicker.)
Heat the oil in a large stock pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion, ginger, garlic, and cilantro. This should instantly smell amazing. Reduce heat to medium and saute, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the peppers, cumin, mustard seeds, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and cayenne. Stir to blend. This will instantly smell like curry. No joke! Pour in the tomatoes, potatoes, and vegetables. Cover and let simmer over medium-low about 20-30 minutes. At this point, I would recommend checking on the veggies and maybe stirring every 7 minutes or so. If the veggies really take up much of the pot, it will be important to do this stirring. Before the next step, all the veggies should be cooked through so that they can be eaten as is.
Combine the coconut milk and peanut butter, and stir until smooth. Add them to the pot along with the kale and beans. Cook until the kale wilts into the curry, about 4-9 minutes, depending on the type of kale. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes before serving.
Beet Raita (from Essential Vegetarian Cookbook)– 2 medium beets – 1 medium waxy potato, such as yukon gold – 1-1/2 cups plain yogurt – 1 sweet onion or 2 scallions, including greens, minced – 1/2 tsp pressed/grated garlic – 2 Tbsp minced fresh dill (I used about 1 tsp dried dill weed) – 2 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro – 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice Salt & black pepper to taste
Heat oven to 425. Wrapped the unpeeled beets in foil. Bake the beets until tender, about 50 minutes, depending on size/shape. Unwrap and slip off the peel. Dice beets and set aside.
Meanwhile, fill a saucepan with enough water to cover potato. Bring to a boil over high heat, add potatoes, cover, and lower hear to medium. Boil potatoes until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, peel, and dice.
In a glass or ceramic mixing bowl, combine the yogurt, onions/scallions, garlic, dill, cilantro, lemon juice, beets, and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through, about 1 hour. Serve cold.