Month: October 2014

A Good Carbohydrate: Cassava (Manioc or Yuca). Part 1

One of the advantages of visiting my foodie family is that I am treated to my favorite foods – and this time around I was lucky enough to enjoy fresh kappa and meen (tapioca and fish) not just once, but three times. Tapioca is technically the starch taken from the cassava root, but in Kerala, India, the root and its preparation are interchangeably called tapioca – a custom derived from its Portuguese origins. Originally from Brazil, cassava is a carbohydrate that is eaten throughout Asia, Africa, and South America. Aside from eating the fresh tuber, starch from cassava root is made into flour and tapioca pearls, the glistening “pearls” that are found in bubble tea, falooda, and tapioca pudding.

With the advent of low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets, complex starches like potato and cassava have come under unfair scrutiny. However, for a properly functioning system, we do need plant-based starches for energy. It is for this reason that I decided to post about a complex carbohydrate source. I chose to showcase cassava in a two-part blog – the first on cooking the root tuber, and the second, using the gluten-free tapioca flour and pearls, derivatives of the original root.

The taste of cooked cassava is similar to a potato – with maybe a little more of a fibrous texture. A fresh cassava root has a tough outer skin similar to winter squashes, and travels well thereby extending its shelf life. The hardest part of using fresh cassava is cutting and peeling the tough skin. Once that is done, cassava cooks as simply as boiling a potato. Cooked cassava has a mild taste and adds bulk to stews; it also makes an ideal pairing with fiery dishes.

Note: The root contains toxins that are removed when cassava is boiled. If you want to try out the raw taste, you can also buy the pre-cooked frozen cassava.



How to prepare and cook fresh cassava:

  • Bring a pan of water to boil.
  • In the meantime, scrub the cassava root under running water.
  • Place it on a cutting board; use a sharp knife to cut through the root.
  • Hold the cut half upright, and peel back the tough outer layer and the purple skin. Repeat for the other half, cut off the ends, and you should be left with a white root.
  • Wash the root well. Cut into large cubes.
  • Add the root to boiling water. Let it cook for 30-50 minutes, depending on the freshness of the root. It is ready when you can pierce it easily with a fork.
  • Drain the cassava pieces in a colander. Rinse with fresh water.

Fu Fu: In Africa, the cooked cassava is mashed like potato. While it is still hot, add butter, salt and pepper. Serve Fu Fu (or Fufu) with a hardy stew.

In Sri Lanka and Kerala, the boiled cassava is served with a punchy chutney made with green chili, onion, and coconut oil.

Tapioca (Kerala style)

Cassava – 1 medium

Oil – 3 tbsp

Mustard seeds – 1 tbsp

Cumin seeds – ½ tbsp

Shallot (or 1 small onion) – 2, chopped finely

Red chili – 3

Curry leaves (optional) – 1 sprig

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Unsweetened shredded coconut – ½ cup

  • Cook the cassava (above).
  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add the mustard seeds. Wait until they pop before adding the cumin seeds.
  • As soon as the cumin seeds start to sizzle, add the onions.
  • Sauté until the onions start to brown.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and stir-fry for one minute.
  • Add the cooked tapioca and blend it with the mixture.

Enjoy with a spicy stew or as a savory snack.


Winter Squash: Splash of Color and Nutrition

It is coming to an end – my farmer’s market closes down its vegetable stalls and local produce around this time, but not before winter squash displays a show of color in the stands. Winter squash didn’t enter into my cooking repertoire until this year – the closest I got to them were the seeds I gouged out from pumpkins I put outside the front door, a leftover from Halloween days when A. and N. were at home. I was intimidated by the thick-skinned squash because I feared I would lose a finger trying to slice through it (I have a distinct memory of a near miss cutting through butternut squash). This year their colors and varieties tempted me enough to brave another stab at these nutritionally rich (fiber, Vitamin A and C) vegetables.

With cutesy names like Acorn, Ambercup, Butternut, Delicata, Spaghetti, and Sweet Dumpling, the winter squash are picked in the fall and stored until ready to be eaten, unlike the summer squash that are ripened on the vine. Their rinds, unlike summer squash, cannot be eaten, but their hollow cavities reveal orange, yellow, and red flesh that favor all types of cooking – baking, roasting, sautéing, pureeing, and slow cooking.


How to Pick a Winter Squash

  • The squash should feel heavy and full when lifted.
  • Look the squash over to make sure there are no soft spots.
  • Blemishes, if any, should be minor surface ones.


How to Store a Winter Squash

  • If kept at temperatures around 50-55°F (basement or cool pantry), a squash can last for 2-4 months.
  • If kept on a kitchen counter, use within a month.


How to Cut the Winter Squash

  • Wash the squash. Dry it well. Lay the squash on its side. Cut the ends off and then crosswise in half. Inch into the squash using the knife in a sawing and rocking motion. Peel the halves carefully using both a peeler and knife. Scoop out the stringy fibers and seeds. Cut into chunks.
  • Microwave the squash for 5 minutes. Let it stand for another 5 minutes. This softens the rind, making it easy to cut the squash. Watch that it doesn’t start cooking in the microwave and get soft, if you want to keep and use as chunks.
  • Boil the squash for a few minutes to soften the rind.


What to Make with Winter Squash

  • Roast the seeds; they make a great snack or as a garnish for soups.
  • Treat the squash like a sweet potato or yam: roast, bake, or puree them.
  • Use winter squash for stuffing.
  • Make soups: Cut the squash up into chunks. Add low sodium stock to it and cook  on low for 30-40 minutes.
  • Prick the squash in several places (to let the steam out), and bake whole in a 400°F oven for about 40 minutes, or brush the halves with oil and place the cut sides down on a roasting pan and bake until soft – 30 minutes. Broil for 5 minutes to caramelize the top. Add maple syrup or cinnamon sugar for a healthy dessert.
  • Add chunks of the squash into stews and curries. Winter squash absorbs the flavor of spices, and they add a fiber-packed punch to a meal.





Infusions: So Simple, Yet So Complex

A. had a sore throat during my last visit, so I made her my mother’s remedy – a ginger and cinnamon infusion made with grated ginger shavings, a cinnamon stick, and sweetened with a dash of honey. Infusions have long ago come out of medicinal closets and are now staple cooking embellishments. They are turning up with ultra-hip allure as hibiscus-infused teas in gin cocktails or Serrano infused vodka in spicy cocktails. An infusion is simply a “tea” made by pouring boiling water, alcohol, or oil over herbs, spices, or other plant parts. The resulting “tea” when added to a drink or dish add yet another subtle layer – a fragrant flourish to the final dish. Aromatic lemon rinds and cinnamon inspired my two infusions below – one with seafood and the other in a soup.

Infusions are made with unfussy ingredients such as lemon peels, slivers of fresh ginger, cinnamon, or rose petals (pesticide-free petals from your garden are best). I had previously used lemon zests (many!) to make Limoncello, and the fragrance on my fingertips remained with me for a long time. As I am partial to lemon’s lingering aroma and flavor, I use the fruit often in savory dishes. A lemon zest and herb infused oil adds summery hints to a seafood salad, instantly enlivening plain cooked shrimp and steamed mussels. The infused oil adds an understated flavor without overwhelming the delicate taste of seafood.

Cinnamon showcases its aromatics best in an infusion. In Indian cooking, cinnamon is stir-fried to release its warm tones. However, if cinnamon is added to a simmering soup or stock, the fragrance overpowers the dish and masks the finer flavors of the vegetables. Butternut squash, a fall feature in farm stands and supermarkets, has many nutritive qualities and makes for a good soup. The squash, being somewhat bland, benefits from a cinnamon-infused cream which gives the soup a  smoky warmth and flavor. Infusions are easy to make — just as simple as brewing a cup of tea with fresh tea leaves. An infused cream is made by pouring gently-heated cream over some whole cinnamon sticks and allowing the mixtureto steep for couple of hours. Easy, but the new ingredient adds a quiet complexity to the soup.


Seafood Salad

Olive Oil – 2 tsp

Butter – 1 tbsp

Lemon – 1

Tarragon – 1-2 sprigs

Shrimp – 6 large, deveined

Mussels – 12

Scallops – 6

Salt and pepper – to taste

  • Zest and juice the lemon. Keep both separately.
  • In a frying pan, heat 1 tsp. each of oil and butter. Once it starts to smoke, turn off the heat.
  • Add the lemon zest and tarragon sprigs to the hot oil. Let it steep for half-hour.
  • Steam the mussels.
  • Cook the shrimp, either grill, broil, or quickly dip in boiling water and remove.
  • In another pan, heat the remaining oil.
  • Add the scallops. Cook each side for about 2 minutes.
  • Mix the shrimp, mussels and scallops together.
  • When ready to eat, toss them with the lemon-herb infused oil and lemon juice.
  • Season with salt and pepper.


Butternut Squash Soup

Cinnamon sticks – 2

Cream – ½ cup

Butternut squash – 4 cups of cubed squash or half a squash

Olive oil – 2 tbsp

Onion – 1, chopped

Ginger –1-inch, peeled and chopped

Carrots – 2, cubed

Low sodium stock – 2 ½ cups

Salt and pepper –to taste

  • In a pan, heat the cream gently. When it starts to simmer, remove it from the stove.
  • Add the cinnamon stick to it. Keep aside for about two hours.
  • Peel the butternut squash. This is the hardest part of the recipe as the skin is tough. However, it is cheaper to buy the whole squash, and you can toast the seeds — which can be added for a crunch in the soup or eaten on its own.
  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan.
  • Sauté the onion and ginger for a minute.
  • Add the cubed squash and carrots. Stir fry until mixed well with the onion and ginger.
  • Pour the stock and 1½ cups of water. Bring it to a boil.
  • Simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the squash can be mashed easily.
  • Strain the vegetables from the stock and grind them in a food processor until you have a creamy mixture. Add it back to the stock.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Just before you serve, drizzle the cinnamon infused cream. Decorate with toasted seeds.

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Note: Infusions can be used right away (cream-based) or they can be stored for later use (herb-infused oils).