Month: August 2015

Help! My Basil Has Bolted.

My summer lunch staple is often a meal of heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil vinaigrette. Recognizing that the lone basil plant on my window ledge wouldn’t provide enough leaves, I recently added a lush pot filled with three more basil plants. Two weeks ago and well into summer, the plants seemed to pull water the instant they were watered. All of sudden, I noticed tall green flower stalks appear where there should have been new leaves. I remembered the gardening adage, and pinched out the flowers to encourage leaf growth. It was too late as the plant bloomed with white flowers; my basil plant had “bolted” or gone to seed.

A plant bolts when the weather becomes too hot – a survival mechanism for the species. The stalk rapidly produces flowers, which then go to seed. Bolting is a common gardening term, but it represented nothing that I had encountered in all the years that I had grown basil. I would have not even realized the connection, if not for a Skype chat with my uncle who asked me to look out for bolt-free cultivars of spinach. (Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and cilantro are some of the plants that bolt.) Plants that have bolted become inedible, and their stems become woody and tasteless and the leaves turn bitter. The leaves on my basil plant had just started turning bitter, and I immediately stripped them off the plant. I used the basil leaves to make pesto and basil butter in order to preserve what was left of their aromatic sweetness.

Some Common Sense Tips To Prevent Bolting:

  • Move the plants to a shady location once the weather becomes hot.
  • Cover the topsoil with mulch to keep the roots cool.
  • Cut back the existing leaves further down the stem, forcing the plant direct its energy towards producing more leaves.
  • Deadhead or promptly remove the buds as soon as they start to appear.
  • If starting from seeds, stagger when the plants mature (early spring to fall) so as to have a continuous supply of new plants.

IMG_4065

Advertisements

Baked Eggplant

One of my favorite and one of the most versatile vegetables is in season. Eggplant, (also called brinjal or aubergine in different parts of the world), starts appearing in August and stays in season through fall. Having long shed their negative image of being part of the toxic nightshade family, eggplant along with tomatoes and bell peppers are valued for their many nutritive qualities.

The texture and taste of eggplant is often described as “meaty.” However, during its season, the dense and spongy flesh has none of the fatty or savory protein (umami) taste associated with meat. Instead, eggplant has more of a fruity taste that is complemented by its soft skin and seeds. The newer eggplant varieties do not even need to be salted to remove any bitterness. The only downside of eggplant is that its spongy flesh easily soaks up oil. Last week, I decided to try baking freshly-picked organic eggplants to reduce the amount of oil normally required to cook them.

The baked eggplant was flavorful; the purple skin was perfectly scorched and smoky and the flesh moist and soft. I used the baked, cubed eggplant pieces in a salad with diced cucumber and red pepper. I also blended the baked eggplant to make smooth baba ganoush dip.

Baked Eggplant Cubes

Eggplant – 1 lb

  • Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  • Cut the eggplant into cubes.
  • Arrange them on an aluminum foil.
  • Either use nonstick spray or toss them in two tablespoons of oil.
  • Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven.
  • Turn over the cubed eggplant and bake for another 20 minutes.
  • Remove and cool the eggplant.

 

IMG_4042IMG_4045

 

 

 

Watermelon: Juice, Salad, Salad Dressing, And Granita

There are many choices to make with one watermelon! This ubiquitous summer fruit, with its high water content and natural sugars, loses its flavor quickly when cut and left in the refrigerator. By divvying up a whole watermelon immediately, you can introduce a variety of tastes (sweet and acidic) and textures (juice and shaved ice) into sweet and savory dishes.

The watermelon’s soft flesh can be processed easily to make a vitamin and potassium-loaded smoothie or juice. Unlike the more acidic lemon and orange juice that is traditionally used to make granita, the juice extracted from the melon’s pulp lends itself to making a more delicate shaved ice dessert without the addition of much sugar.

To transform the inherent sweetness concentrated in cut and drained melon cubes, pair them with the tart flavors of goat cheese (in a salad) and raspberries and balsamic vinegar (in a salad dressing). Mint leaves add fragrance and sharpness to both watermelon salad and vinaigrette.

Tips for choosing a watermelon:

  • Pick one that feels heavy. The fruit is 92% water, and the weight indicates its freshness.
  • Make sure the watermelon isn’t bruised or nicked; watermelon grows and ripens on the ground and can be attacked by both airborne and ground pests.
  • Look for a yellow or pale cream discoloration on one side as a sign that the fruit rested on the ground and ripened naturally on the vine.

Tips for cutting a watermelon:

  • Cut a small section off from the broad part of the melon. This will keep the watermelon in position and balanced on a chopping board.
  • Using a large knife, in proportion to the melon, makes it easier to go through and around the surface.
  • Cut the fruit in thick bands to make them easier to stack on a plate and store.
  • Remember that cutting up a whole watermelon gets messy, so keep kitchen towels nearby.

IMG_4027 IMG_4029

Watermelon Granita

Cubed watermelon – 4 cups, de-seeded

Caster sugar – ½ – ¾ cup, depending on sweetness of melon

Lemon – 1, juice

  • Mix all the ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth.
  • Add ½ cup of water to the mixture.
  • Strain the contents through a cheesecloth and squeeze as much of the juice out as possible.
  • Pour the liquid mixture into a large Tupperware container or freezer bag.
  • Freeze for 2 ½ hours.
  • Remove from the freezer. Using a fork, break up the pieces that have started to set and mix back into the liquid mixture.
  • Cover and freeze for another hour.
  • Repeat one more time until all the liquid has frozen into shaved ices of watermelon.
  • Serve in glass containers in order to showcase the jeweled ruby color.
  • If frozen completely, watermelon granita can be thawed a little and blended again.

IMG_4037

National Rice Pudding Day

I was thrilled that this Sunday (August 9th) coincided with Rice Pudding Day, an easy way to indulge my sweet tooth. More importantly, the day fitted with my summer Sunday philosophy, which consists of putting as little effort as possible into cooking and as much effort as possible into enjoying the day. Salads and grilled food are easy to put together. Dessert from an untouched box of rice from a takeout Chinese leftover was sweeter.

Rice pudding is made with uncooked rice that is simmered in whole milk and sugar. The cooked rice has a porridge-like consistency and is rich and comforting. On the other hand, sticky cooked rice needs a summery infusion to freshen flavor. Lemon verbena, a new herb that I bought from a friend’s stall at the farmer’s market, has the crisp aroma of freshly cut lime or lemon. The leaves of lemon verbena also has warmth and richness of deeper spices like cardamom, which normally perfumes rice pudding. Nothing says summer like the scent of crushed herbs on the fingertips, and lemon verbena didn’t fail.

IMG_3990

The coconut milk infusion made with lemon verbena  countered the day-old rice’s taste, and injected the rice with fresh flavors of lemon and the creamy taste of coconut milk.  Instead of garnishing with raisins and cashews, fresh raspberries and blueberries completed this lazy Sunday dessert.

Rice Pudding

Long grain rice – ¼ cup, washed and drained through a colander

Whole milk – 4 cups

Whole cardamom – 6

Sugar – 4 tbsp

Butter – 1tbsp

Raisins – ¼ cup

Cashew nuts – ¼ cup

  • Bring the milk to a boil.
  • Add the sugar and cardamom and stir until sugar dissolves.
  • Lower the heat to medium, and add the rice.
  • Cover the pan, and cook until rice is soft, about 20-25 minutes.
  • While the rice is cooking, heat the butter in a pan.
  • Add the raisins and cashew nut and stir-fry, until the raisins swell and the cashew nuts have a golden color. Use as garnish on the top of individual bowls of rice pudding.
  • Serve rice pudding warm or cold.

Rice Pudding (with cooked rice)

Leftover rice – 3/4 of carton

Organic coconut milk – 1 can

Sugar – 4 tbsp

Lemon verbena – 8-10 leaves, torn roughly

Fresh berries – a handful

  • Bring the coconut milk to a simmer.
  • Add the sugar and lemon verbena leaves. Mix until sugar dissolves.
  • Remove the pan from heat and let the coconut milk with the leaves sit undisturbed for 20 minutes to an hour.
  • Bring it back to a gentle heat. Add rice. Stir until all the clumps of rice are broken up and incorporated into the coconut milk infusion.
  • Serve immediately. Garnish with berries.

IMG_3997 IMG_4022

 

 

 

Chilies For Summer

A. and N. recently commented that one of my recipes was tongue-numbingly spicy! I hadn’t taken into account my tolerance for chilies, and had assumed giving a range, between say 1-2 chilies in a recipe, would be a sufficient warning. The fiery heat in a spicy dish comes from both the number of chilies added and the type of chili used.

Chilies are available most commonly in red and green colors – the red chili is spicier than green, while the darker green varieties are hotter than the paler ones. The Scoville scale, which measures for the pungency in both chilies and other spicy food, can only serve as a guideline. For example, Carolina Reaper is now the hottest chili pepper available pushing bhut or ghost pepper down the scale; bhut when I was growing up was the hottest chili known and those who ate it were looked on with hushed admiration. Serrano, which I use, is three-quarters way down the chart, but obviously is still too hot for A. and N.

Heat receptors on our tongue feel the chili burn, and people with more heat receptors are more sensitive. A compound found in a chili called capsaicin is responsible for the burn or chili heat. As you build up a tolerance to spicy food (by eating more because you enjoy the kick), these receptors become less responsive. Why bother suffering to build up a tolerance? Chilies have anti-oxidant properties and provide vitamin C – roughly six oranges’ worth in one chili. The other advantage of eating spicy hot food (especially prevalent during these summer months!) is that the chilies cool you down more effectively. Chili heat increases blood circulation and metabolism, which increases perspiration – releasing heat and cooling down the body naturally.

Following some basic precautions, spicing up food with chilies is adding yet another flavor enhancer to a meal.

IMG_3981

Precautions:

  • The capsaicin gland is in the white pith-like tissue in the center of the chili fruit. Remove this spongy tissue along with the seeds attached to it for a milder flavor.
  • After chopping the chilies, wash your hands well with soap and water to prevent the burn irritating your skin.
  • If a recipe gives you a range, start with the smallest number of chilies in the range.

How To Tone Down A Spicy Dish:

  • Once a dish is cooked and tastes spicy hot, the dish can be saved by adding a teaspoon or two of sugar to counter the heat. Sour flavors are also known to reduce the heat. Add a little lime or lemon juice to the dish.
  • Dairy products also counter chili burn. In Indian meals, dairy products such as yogurt are added to the dish or served on the side. In Thai dishes, coconut cream serves to balance the heat. In Mexican food, sour cream is served with spicy guacamole and meat.
  • Drink buttermilk or milk with the spicy dish or eat a carbohydrate such as bread or rice to minimize the chili heat.