Adventures in Food #3: How to Explore A New Cuisine

In my last Adventures in Food post, I mentioned that Tumeric and Garam Masala were my first Indian spice purchases that were new to me. Now, I’m going tell you how to break into a new cuisine– you know, the food you love to eat in restaurants but think its too difficult to make at home.

Curry & Garam Masala

I really like Indian food, and after flipping through a few Indian cookbooks it seemed to me that Garam Masala & Tumeric were two of the core Indian spices (though of course this varies by region but we’re talking basic here). I already had and use ground cumin, so no need to purchase anything new there.

After deciding that I would make some sort of tumericgaram masala chicken dish, I began looking for Indian or specialty stores that would carry tumeric and garam masala at a reasonable price. My search ended with at a local Indo-American Convenience Store (the same location where I purchased the infamous naughty tomatoes). Happily, this was very close to a friend’s house so I knew the area quite well.

My first visit was a little intimidating– most of the items are in another language and look unfamiliar. To acclimate myself to these foreign treasures, I took a slow walk around the store, starting in the rice and packaged foods, then onto refrigerated items, and then finally ending up in the spice and legume aisle.I planned to purchase a package of Garam Masala and tumeric, but I was distracted by the rainbow of lentil varieties: Oily, split, yellow, red. I indulged my desires and picked up the 2 pound split red lentil variety. On a later trip, I purchased split yellow mung beans in an effort to branch out of my ‘rut’.

Moving on to the wall of spices, I allowed myself to get lost in the smells and names. Aamchur (sour mango powder). Choti Elaichi (Green cardamom). Ajwain (Thyme Seed). Asafoetida.Jaiphal (Nutmeg). Even spices I know and love took on an unfamiliar air with their imported packaging and Hindi names– and that is one of the bigger hurdles to overcome when venturing into a new cuisine: the vocabulary. Many of the Indian cookbooks I checked out from the library were “Intro” books, which was great because they contained copies explanations and definitions, often with a glossary of terms and substitution notations in case the ingredients are unavailable where you are. My advice to you is just to read as much as you can about your new cuisine to acclimate yourself to the core flavors, cooking methods and techniques.

When you finally bring your pile of treasures to the cashier, be sure to chat them up to find out how they use the items you’re purchasing. The gentleman who rang up my mung beans told me that he likes to eat them plain, after they’ve been pan toasted. I’m looking forward to trying that!

Here’s a quick summary of how to ease into a new cuisine without breaking the bank or your sanity:

1. Go to your local library and peruse the books on the cuisine you’d like to explore. If they don’t have any on the shelf, use their online catalog or ask your reference librarian to help you find cookbooks for that region.

2. Read those books! Flip through the books you found and mark any recipes that look tasty. Then, go back through the recipes you marked and review their ingredients and special cooking materials.

3. I would recommend selecting recipes that only use 1-2 core ingredients that you don’t already have on hand (assuming that you have a decently stocked pantry with your native spices & ingredients). Good beginner/intro to cuisine cookbooks will note where an ingredient is not essential or a replacement that is likely to be found in your country. Or, search the web for a conversion table like this one for Indian spices. In addition, keep an eye out for notes like: advanced, hard, 1-2 hours, etc. You want to start off with something relatively easy while you’re still learning.

4. Focus on recipes that use cooking instruments you already own, or get creative about ways to use what you have for the purposes described. E.g. a deep frying pan instead of a wok.

There you have it– the Bread and Butter Method to Exploring a New Cuisine (without breaking the bank or losing your sanity).

Let me know how it works for you! Share your experiences below.

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Crushed Lentil Soup

I first had crushed lentil soup at my all time favorite Lebanese restaurant- The Grape Leaf. This soup was a turning point for me in my culinary repertoire. Prior to this soup, I pretty much thought that soup was Lipton’s chicken noodle soup that my mom would make from a packet when I was sick or some hearty but fairly unhealthy soup, like my college’s baked potato soup (tasty but high in calories). After tasting the Grape Leaf’s crushed lentil soup, I realized two things: 1: I love lentils! and 2: Soup can actually be pretty darn good.

This soup could be vegetarian- pretty much just substitute the broth/stock for vegetable broth! (I almost made it vegetarian, but I couldn’t get the vegetable broth jar open. Doh!) I actually found the original version of this soup in one of the editions of the Moosewood Restaurant cookbooks— a tome of vegetarian recipes that the Moosewood Collective puts out every so often, filled with creative and tasty vegetarian foods.

I make this soup pretty much as often as I make cornbread (they’re YUMMY together)– so at least once a month, if not more.

Crushed Lentil Soup garnished with Beer Bread chunks and Baked Kale

Crushed Lentil Soup

Time: Approx. 1 hour
Servings: 4-8

Ingredients

Garlic, 5-10 cloves (depending on how garlicky you like your soup)
3-5 Tbsp Olive Oil (I used Extra Virgin Olive Oil, aka EVOO)

An assortment of vegetables, about 6-8 cups total. I use the following:
2 medium sweet onions, diced
3-4 ribs of celery, diced
1 1/2 cup carrots, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 zucchini or yellow squash, diced
2 broccoli stalks, diced (You can use the florets as well)
1 Jalapeño (optional)

Spices
1-2 Tbsp cumin (more or less to taste)
1-2 Tbsp curry powder (more or less to taste)
1-2 Tbsp turmeric or a pinch of saffron
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp garam masala
Dash of: Paprika, fresh-ground pepper, sea salt, chili powder

1 1/2 to 2 cups lentils, rinsed and picked over
6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock, or water, heated
Sea salt to taste
Lemon zest to taste (1 lemon)
1/4 cup fresh squeeze lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
Garnish: Sea salt, baked kale chips, or bread (optional)

Special Tools: Immersion blender, heavy duty blender, or food processor (to blend the soup)

What To Do

Chop up your vegetables, except garlic, into roughly the same size pieces– you just want them to cook evenly. They’re going to get blended later, so they don’t have to look pretty! If you like, you can slice or chop them up with a food processor.

Dice the garlic. In a large stockpot, heat the EVOO and garlic on medium heat  for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic has begun to turn golden (but not crispy).

Garlic & EVOO

Add the rest of the vegetables and stir to coat them with the EVOO.
Veggies

Now, add your spices and stir again. Place a lid over the pot to get cookin’!

While the vegetables are cooking, rinse and drain your lentils. Be sure to pick out any small rocks or debris. I used a mix of brown and red, but you can use your favorite variety. I’ve been trying to find French green lentils, as I’ve heard they’re exceptionally tasty.

Red & Brown Lentils

Add the rinsed lentils to the vegetables. Pour the heated stock into the vegetable-lentil mixture and stir until combined. Let the soup simmer, with the lid on, on medium heat for 20-30 minutes.Adding Chicken Broth

Your soup will look like this when its about done. Test the lentils and vegetables with a tasting spoon (Those plastic spoons you get from take out are perfect!  Yes, I am one of those people- I reuse plastic utensils). If the lentils and veggies are tender, and you’re satisfied with the seasonings, remove the pot from the heat and over to a stable flat area, like your counter. Be sure to use potholders! What's cookin' good lookin?

If you have an immersion blender, you can start blending up the soup right away. If you’re using a blender or food processor, you may want to allow the soup to cool down (for your safety) before blending.

Blend the soup for 2-3 minutes, until fairly smooth. Ultimately the texture is up to you, so be sure to taste the soup at various stages until you’re happy (coarse, medium, fine). I generally prefer a finely blended soup.

Its like a Jacuzzi... a sharp Jacuzzi

Zest and juice one lemon (if you don’t have a lemon on hand, you can omit the zest and just use the juice). Stir in the lemon juice (lemon juice tends to break down when heated, so to retain the flavor, add at the end of the cooking process).  Taste the soup, and add more lemon juice if desired.

If you cooled the soup down, gently reheat the soup before serving.

Garnish, if desired, with bread and kale chips. Serve hot!

Enjoy, and as they say in Lebanon: “The eating is proportional to the love.” (Thanks to this blog for that phrase!)

Barley & Lentil Vegetable Soup

The finished product- Yum!Winter is back again, and snow on the ground means that a hot bowl of soup is the perfect meal. Cooking in the kitchen seems to make my chilly apartment warmer (nevermind that I have the heat cranked up to 80 degrees). I thought I’d try this hearty soup to use up some of the barley that’s been sitting in my fridge forever.

I found my inspiration for this soup on AllReceipes.com but as usual I quickly deviated from the instructions to develop my own creation. This is a simple but hearty winter soup loaded with veggies and healthy grains (and my favorite legume- lentils <3).

Barley & Lentil Vegetable Soup
Makes 12 Servings

Time: Approx. 15 min prep, 45+ min cook time, 1 hr total

12 cups vegetable (or chicken or beef) broth (low sodium is preferable)
1 1/2 cups uncooked barley (I used quick cooking barley)
1 1/2 to 2 cups uncooked, rinsed lentils
3 large carrots, chopped (Ok, I cheated on this- I used peeled baby carrots)
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 1/2 zucchini and/or squash, chopped
1 1/2 onion, chopped
5-8 peeled garlic cloves, chopped (feel free to use more… or less)
1 (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes (you can also used diced canned tomatoes in sauce)
4 1/2 bay leaves
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)
3 teaspoons dried parsley
3 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoon chili powder
2 tsp cumin
Pinch of Garam Masala (optional- I had some on hand and thought it would be interesting)
1-1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar (a couple of good shakes)
Hot Sauce- to taste
Salt to taste, use less if your broth and canned tomatoes have a high sodium content

 

  1. In a large stockpot (and I do mean large!) begin heating your broth on medium high. I used about 3 tsp low sodium chicken bouillon powder mixed with the water- you can add more but that’s all I had left!Stock Pot I microwaved my water prior to adding to the stock pot to cut down on cooking time.
  2. Chop your vegetables so that they’re roughly the same size. If you have a food processor, I highly recommend using it here- it will shave off loads of prep time. I used my Cuisinart with the slicer blade to do the heavy lifting. The pieces were a little larger than I would have preferred if I

    chopped by hand, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make when my stomach is grumbling. Also- feel free to substitute your favorite veggies for the ones listed above. The garlic, carrot, celery and onion are typically considered the core “aromatics”- so try to use them if Chopped Vegetablesyou have them on hand. (I promise you won’t taste the onion).

  3. Add in the barley and rinsed lentils. Stir to mix the ingredients together. Your pot should be pretty much full now.
  4. Add the bay leaves and spices and stir.Spices Since the recipe already called for curry, I thought an Indian flare might be interesting, so I added cumin and garam masala (a blend of spices that has a kind of sweetish spicy flavor).
  5. Let the soup cook on medium high until the mix comes to  a boil, stirring occasionally- for about 15-20 minutes. Cover loosely. The barley and lentils will absorb the liquid and thicken the soup.
  6. Once the soup has reached a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium low. Simmer the soup for another 15-30 minutes, until the barley and lentils are tender and the soup has thickened.Soup Cooking
  7. Let the soup cool for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a hearty crusty bread or cornbread. Enjoy!

    Pot of Soup

    Yummy Soup!