Summertime and the cookin’ is easy
Tunisia is pretty hot in the summer. Not as hot as some places, like Death Valley or Arizona or the Arabian desert, but hot enough to want to go to the beach every day. Which fortunately, we can. In fact, remember that one time I blogged about Rambo? I saw him today at the beach, and he was tickled pink that someone had told him they read about him on my blog. So if my blog doesn’t bring me fame, at least it brings fame to Rambo. Which is almost as good, right?
Along with helping us not miss a day at the beach, the warm weather gives me a serious disinclination to make some of the heartier standbys from my cooking repertoire; things like vegetarian baked beans or Jamie Oliver’s beef stew, or slow-cooked Moroccan tagine. Eating a hot dinner just does not make sense when you’ve been trying to cool down all day.
So I’ve been experimenting with cold meals. I started with bean salads. This Simple Lentil Salad tasted good, but since I couldn’t find the fancy French lentils that hold their shape, the lentils kind of turned the whole salad a lentily grey color. If you try this recipe, mom, I will be interested to know how the borage tasted. It’s the first recipe I’ve ever seen that actually calls for borage, my absolute favorite herb that grows in my parents’ garden.
Then I remembered that in college my favorite meal was Pizza Pasta Salad. I had to substitute (cooked) merguez sausage for the pepperoni, which was good but not as good, and I just refuse to use canned mushrooms, which are the only kind they have here. At least we have good olives. But my really daring substitution was cooked white beans for the pasta! I can hear you ooohing and aaahing at my audacity. The verdict: pretty good, but not awesome. Too bad. It would have been great to be both audacious and awesome.
But where I’m really hitting my groove is with the cold soups. So far, my favorite has been this Green Gazpacho. I subbed in the juice of two small Valencia oranges for the maple syrup and water, and added a smidgen of fresh ginger and a bit of grated nutmeg. It was delicious. I also sent Tony to get me a basil plant. He tried to explain basil to the vendor, who just told him that all the plants were for keeping away mosquitos. We needed that too, since we had left the windows open too long the first night we got here, and Dominique was eaten alive. So Tony came home with two mosquito repellant plants. One of them actually turned out to be basil, though. I guess basil repels mosquitos. So I was able to make this Fresh Tomato and Basil soup, which is NOT gazpacho because you cook it before chilling, but is tasty nonetheless.
Making cold soup totally took me back to the time when we lived in La Jolla and decided to try the raw food diet. It’s a pretty interesting diet, which prohibits meat, dairy, eggs, sugar, flour, most condiments, and a host of other things. What it encourages are lots of raw fruits and vegetables, and sprouting any seeds you eat (including grains, beans, nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.). You can’t cook anything, so most of the recipes in the book involve either a juicer, a blender, a mandoline (not the musical kind), or a dehydrator. Or all of the above. Have I mentioned that in addition to being restrictive, the raw food diet is also very work- and time-intensive?
But we were excited, because we thought it was a whole new way to live, and we would save the earth and the farmers and the animals and ourselves. And plus it was hip and green, and we were living in Southern California across the street from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Jamba Juice. So. We bought a couple of raw food cook books and got all excited to try things like raw portobello mushroom “pizzas,” raw squash “spaghetti,” raw banana “cheesecake,” etc.
Only, every recipe we tried ended up being pretty disgusting. There’s no other word for it. Especially the ones where you did things like blend up a whole bunch of spinach and garlic and onion (remember, everything is raw) and then pour the viscous mass into the dehydrator. After 24 hours of anticipation (you can’t dry it at a very high temperature or the all-important enzymes will be killed) the tough, leathery result tastes like, well, highly concentrated raw spinach, garlic and onion. It might work well as a vegetarian bouillon cube, but for a dinner entree it left a little to be desired. The “soups,” which were basically salads put in the blender with some fresh vegetable juice, were OK, but would have been vastly improved by the addition of some of the prohibited condiments.
Anyway, this went on for a week or so, during which we exhausted all the recipes in the book that actually sounded good. We decided we needed help to stick to our diet. So we found out that there was a raw food restaurant in downtown San Diego, and planned a family outing there to re-inspire us. I can’t remember what we ordered, except that while we were waiting for our cold raw entrees, we shared a green smoothie with parsley, cucumber, celery, and some other things. The funny thing was, they must have put about a cup of agave nectar in it (the only allowed sweetener other than fruit). That thing was SWEET! Cloyingly sweet after a few sips. It was also not improved by the fact that their juicer was broken the day we went, so they had just blended everything up. Let me tell you, celery and parsley stems are still pretty fibrous when they’re finely blended.
The rest of the food at the restaurant was similarly gross, and we ended up leaving uninspired. It was the last straw, and the raw food diet fell by the wayside. I still remember how delicious the smell of cooking food was to me for weeks afterward. We did stay vegetarian for a few more months, though. Long enough, in fact, to have a truly glorious stuffed pumpkin for Thanksgiving dinner that year.
We did retain a few of our raw food recipes. If you already have an expensive industrial juicer that you’ve bought for your raw food diet (luckily we got ours used off of craigslist from another ill-fated raw foodie), you can make some pretty awesome “ice cream” out of frozen cubes of mango or other fruit. And the riceless sushi was yummy too, even if the nori wrappers did get soggy and begin to fall apart as soon as they came in contact with the vegetables.
But my best discovery from the raw food diet? You know how almond extract tastes so much fuller and more round than almonds? Well, if you soak almonds overnight and then painstakingly peel them between your thumb and finger, they get this incredible flavor that is just like almond extract. When I get around to doing that much work, I’m going to try using soaked almonds instead of blanched in this White Gazpacho. Maybe I’ll get really ambitious and make a whole meal of different colored gazpachos. Summer cuisine can’t get much better than that.