A Different Kind of Fried Green Tomato

Well, no, those aren’t particularly green, are they? They do look suspiciously red. (They were green when Michele sold them to me on Saturday; I just didn’t get to them fast enough and they reddened on standing a few days.)

That’s not what’s different about them, though.

Though I’ve had some food blogs put me in their Indian category when linking to me (I consider it an undeserved honor), I’m as pale as a marshmallow. I’m not Southern either – yes, I grew up in Virginia, but Northern Virginia, the D.C. area, which is a different state entirely from Virginia Virginia, the rest of the state. I sometimes tell people I’m from the “Fake South.”

Despite that, somehow this Indian-by-Southern food hybrid arose in my kitchen and has developed into one of our favorite summertime treats.

Most fried green tomatoes are made with cornmeal and use egg to bind the coating. These are made with chickpea flour, also known as gram flour or besan, which is a wonderfully versatile ingredient. In this dish, it fries up on the outside of the tomatoes with a smooth, crunchy (not gritty) crust, and it doesn’t require the slices to be dipped in egg before the batter is applied – which means they can be made vegan. (You can do fried green tomatoes without egg, but there is significant trouble in convincing the cornmeal to stay attached.)

I laced this chickpea flour batter with aromatic cumin, coriander, cayenne and ginger. The result is something like pakora, the Indian batter-coated vegetables or cheese – but I’ve never seen a tomato pakora.

They’re simultaneously crunchy, juicy, salty, tomatoey, spicy – and all-around delicious.

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A Simple Little Summer Dinner


Part of what I love about cooking is attempting to answer the question, "What can I do with these ingredients?" in continually new and different ways.

When you eat strongly seasonally, you are almost forced to get better at painting with the colors you have, as there’s not as much cross-pollination to be done.  While asparagus might be nice with a glaze of fresh tomatoes, when there’s asparagus, there are no local tomatoes, and when there are tomatoes, there is no local asparagus.  So asparagus gets tossed with green garlic, and tomatoes, like these, get a partner of roasted onions.

It’s more challenging to come up with new answers to what’s for dinner with a smaller palette, but there’s a certain comfort to it too.  Once you’ve learned the rhythm of a place’s harvests, you come into the same progression every year, and the same items make their regular appearance and then disappearance at the same pace.

I find it tends to raise a little nostalgia – each food’s arrival makes me think of arrivals past: what I was doing last radish season, last cherry season, last tomato season, last pomegranate season – and how I and my life have changed in relation to each of those times.  It’s a bit like having two dozen New Years Days a year.

So what can be done with the same old tomatoes and onions, now that late summer is here?

This week, I had a pint of cherry tomatoes in the CSA box.  Their tart-sweetness is great for salads, but I especially love them rolled around in a hot pan with a little oil and then smashed a bit to release their juices.  They’re stronger-flavored than big tomatoes, and that plus their high skin-to-flesh ratio gives an unexpected flavor and texture to a cooked dish.

My inspiration for this dinner was a panir kebab I ate years ago at an Indian restaurant in Chicago.  While obviously there are no kebabs in sight here, I wanted to capture the flavor I remembered of flame-roasted onion and crispy-outside chewy-inside cheese seasoned at the table with fresh lemon.  I was also in the mood for curry spices, but not in the mood for something long-simmered – I wanted something very fresh-tasting.

So I broiled then roasted the onions, gently fried the panir (don’t try to speed it up by frying over a high heat – it’ll both stick and get tough – low and slow is the key to cooking cheese successfully), slumped the tomatoes in a little of the panir-frying oil along with some garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander, and finished it all with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a hit of cilantro.

And not only was it good, it was a snap – it took me longer write this up than it did to cook it.    

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Chickpeas in a Curried Tomato Sauce with Black Mission Figs

Today, I figured out exactly what I should make with the rest of the figs that came in our CSA box from TD Willey last week, something I would really enjoy: a chickpea curry with tomatoes, figs and sweet spices.

Often, tomato-based curry sauces are sweetened with jaggery to tone down acidity and round out their flavor. That was the role I imagined the figs playing in this dish – I thought about the depth of sweetness they would deliver – it would be a caramelized note, a rounding note, but not a one-dimensional one like sugar provides.

And it turned out perfectly on the first try: a sweet-hot tomato sauce scented with coriander, ginger, cinnamon and anise, with background notes of cardamom and cloves. I have made a lot of tomato-based curries in my life, but I like this so well it might turn out to be a signature midsummer dish.

Only at the height of tomato season – because they’re insanely plentiful – can I bear to cook this many fresh tomatoes. The rest of the year, I wouldn’t buy fresh ones to make this; not only would it cost an arm and a leg, it just wouldn’t taste the same as what you can get out of a perfectly ripe summertime tomato. I use canned organic tomatoes the rest of the year in tomato-based sauces like this. It’s not the same, of course, but it means I appreciate the flavor of fresh all the more when I can have it.

Who knows – maybe this winter I’ll find myself making a canned tomato curry sauce with dried figs.

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Another Day, Another Dal

A couple weeks ago, I had suggested Chimp use yellow moong beans for a dish he was making for our dinner. When I came home from work, I found Chimp in the kitchen with a batch of lentils draining in a mesh strainer and another batch on the stove.

“What’s with all the lentils?” I asked him, looking at the first perfectly-cooked batch in the strainer.

“I ruined the first batch. They totally disintegrated.”

“That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Yes,” I said, tasting the second batch, which was just finishing cooking, “and these are perfect too.”

“I meant to do that.”

“So we have extra lentils?”

“I guess so.”

“Why don’t we just stash the first batch in the freezer, then, and I’ll use them sometime soon.”

Saturday morning was the day. I was up at 6:30, at the farmer’s market by 7:30, and home a little after 8. I made this right then, and it was done by 10 a.m. When Chimp woke up, around that time, I told him I’d already finished this and a batch of curtido, and he muttered into his pillow, “Jocelyn: she cooks more before 10 a.m. than most people cook all day.”

I have a great dal makhani recipe up already. I even have a cabbage dal recipe up already. This one, though, is less rich than the first one, richer than the second one, and has more vegetables than either, so it gets a place too.

I was out of garlic, so this has no garlic – you could certainly add it, if you think you just can’t live without it. Because I was out of garlic, I compensated by adding plenty of other rich flavors – the ginger, bell peppers and tomato all provide dimension.

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Saag Story

I like to put up the repeatable recipes I come up with more often than not, and the great majority of them are, but I don’t mind putting up the odd ye-gods-let-this-serve-as-a-lesson-to-you-all post, especially if there are humorous moments or flashes of learning that happen along the way.

I’ve been trying to get this saag recipe (Indian-style greens) together lately. Last week I got some Russian and dinosaur kale and resolved to try again.

I usually chop the greens. This time, to get the texture closer to the disintegrated style of many of the greens dishes I’ve eaten, I got the bright idea to shred the greens in the food processor. It would get them closer to what I suppose you could describe as a ropa vieja texture (Spanish for “old clothes” – usually a long-simmered shredded meat dish), a texture with which I figured they’d be cut smaller and cook faster, plus they’d pile together more effectively than chopped greens, which tend, no matter how long they’re cooked, to clump.

So I fired up the food processor with the shredder disc in it, and jammed great handfuls of washed greens into the feed chute. As I pushed down on the plunger, well into the third batch, I realized I smelled a familiar smell.

A green…bitter…hot…damp smell. I looked up in that idle way you do as if you’re scanning the inside of your brain for something that you know is up there.

A chlorophyll smell. A smell of friction and plant matter. Shredded green stuff…

The smell of lawn clippings.

I looked down at the food processor and pressed the off button. I did that little combination lock maneuver you do on the Cuisinart in order to get it open, but I already knew what I had done.

I had effectively mowed my dinner.

Damn it.

Now, I already had the spice masala together and the aromatics cooked, so I just went ahead and kept on shredding, figuring the dish might somehow come together as it cooked, but I remembered warily my only interaction with fenugreek greens (which did actually smell and then taste exactly like lawn clippings to me) and warned Chimp, when he came in the kitchen, that we might be eating out of the fridge that night.

“What’s going on?” he asked, looking over my shoulder at the battered vegetation in the work bowl.

“I thought I’d shred it…and maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.”

“No?”

“Well, we’ll see – I’ll apply a good deal of butter and salt to it to see if that helps.”

Sometimes, most of the time, an increasing amount of the time, perhaps based on the amount of experience you have in the kitchen, you can pull those near-failures out and get something edible, if not repeatable, out of it.

When I got the ingredients into the pot and first set it on to simmer, I tasted it to see how the seasonings were going to work.

The flavorings were totally overwhelmed by the greens. Bleargh. Lawn clippings. I sighed and turned to open the fridge, weighing my options.

But 40 minutes or so later, when the greens had had a chance to leach out their bitterness and assimilate into themselves the flavors of the other components, it ended up working. The good news is that this was edible, by the time I got done with it, adding potatoes to it to cut the flavor of the very strong greens a bit, and I did get significant knowledge out of it, which you get out of near-failures perhaps more than you do out of a success.

Here’s what I learned:

Most importantly: Though I love strong greens, a recipe like this needs a balance of milder and stronger greens to be at its best.
Additionally: Shredding the greens does result in a good texture.
Incidentally confirmed: Cooking the onions until they’re well-browned is the right technique – you don’t want any of that half-cooked onion flavor that works in a soup.

So we applied these to some of our usual chickpea pancakes, topped with a little yogurt, with dal on the side, and everything was fine.

Chimp, slurping another one of my “failed” Scharffenberger frozen chocolate pop experiments, urges me not to give up. He has faith in my abilities, thank goodness, lawn clippings for dinner notwithstanding.

Mean Peas

It’s been a very long time since I shelled peas.

I had plenty of time to try to think of when it might have been that I last did so while I was shelling the peas, since I don’t do it often and I am terribly slow at it. I honestly couldn’t remember what year it might have been.

In the springtime in Michigan, we bought our peas already shelled at the Kalamazoo farmers’ market. I will admit, I appreciated these peas I shelled myself more, knowing what it took me to get this little bowl together, than I did the ones in Michigan when I could just dump a shelled pound into a pan without a thought.

Repetitive food tasks appeal to me – they become meditative. When I worked for Whole Foods as a cheesemonger, I genuinely enjoyed the first few quiet hours of the day, when there were few people around and I could wire-cut 120 lbs. of cheddar, wrap it, and stack it in neat rows. My mind could be somewhere else while I did that, as the task became second nature to me over the five years I did that work.

I was trying to be mindful of the peas as I shelled them, though. To shell peas, you press down on the far end of the pod first to open it, then peel it open and tease the peas out. When pressed, tightly-packed pods tend to make a cracking noise, I discovered on this occasion, and ones where there is a little space at the end make a tiny popping noise, one that sounds like the natural antecedent of the opening of a champagne bottle.

I cooked these peas in salted water with butter until they were creamy and soft – I was surprised to find that it took 10 minutes – then tossed them with sautéed onions, garlic and spices. I remembered, as I was getting my seasoning together, that peas have a natural affinity for cardamom, and was pleased I had – it really brought the dish together.

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Chard Fritters

Yes, that is an okay I can’t bear to photograph and not eat this for another moment image. I needed a little box lined with parchment paper to nestle these into, and I didn’t have one. If you’re dissatisfied with the aesthetics of this, let me assure you that there’s a far better-looking recipe coming tomorrow.

Chickpeas really are the endless vegetarian miracle. Beyond their charms in whole form, they give us hummus, falafel, and chickpea flour, the last of which assists egg-avoiding vegetarians in all sorts of helpful ways. For example, I put up the chickpea pancakes last week, and now I’m putting up a little fritter.

I saw that the women at Naughty Curry had made some chickpea-flour bound Peppy Greens Pattycakes last week, which had been inspired by Rayma’s greens-potato-breadcrumbs Mustard Greens Cutlets.

I had leftover cooked chard in the fridge, which had come from K.M.K Farms at the farmers’ market. Actually, some of it was the white chard from K.M.K., and the other portion was the tops off a bunch of beets (which are effectively chard) that – I confess – I bought from Whole Foods because they looked so good, and besides, they were only from Bakersfield! It’s not that far away…and they were probably from north of Bakersfield, really…

At any rate, it was two huge bunches of greens I had cooked, and both Chimp and I had grown tired of eating cooked chard and beet tops, so I decided to make them into fritters, which helped the leftover greens disappear tout-suite.

These would be great dipped in yogurt, raita, or with a dab of chutney atop each. And you can do this with cooked or raw vegetables – in fact, I’m planning to inflict this method on some cooked carrots later in the week, and make larger cutlets, more like what Naughty Curry got up to. I’m in a vegetable cutlet mood – but it seems like I’m not the only one, huh?

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