Monday, December 30, 2013

Black Beans and Corn Cakes

When I moved out to Colorado Springs (the first time, in '99) I was working an assembly job that paid $7.50 an hour, and living vegan in a very meat-and-potatoes town. It actually wasn't that hard, but I had to learn to do a lot of my own cooking. There was a Safeway about a dozen blocks away from my apartment, where I did just about all my shopping. Pretty convenient, except I was one of the only adults in town without a driver's license, so I got to lug all my shopping bags back through snow in the winter if I wanted to eat. On the plus side, the liquor store and library were right across the street, so I never had to go far for novels and whiskey sours.

Anyway, one of the first dishes I learned to cook myself was beans, rice, and corn, and it is one of the cheaper and more filling meals you can cook. Black beans are full of iron and taste a lot more interesting than pinto beans, in my opinion. A word of warning: this requires some planning to cook (figure two days) and will make your place smell like black beans and garlic. This is a good thing in my book, but I've heard rumors that not everyone feels the same.

Bag of dry black beans (1 lb is good - remember that they will cook up quite a bit)
Bag of brown rice (again, 1 lb is good)
Bag of cornmeal
1 head of garlic
Olive oil
1 onion (optional)
1 jar green olives (optional)
1 habanero pepper or bottle of hot sauce (optional)

1. Rinse the beans and soak them overnight. Most people will throw out the water the beans have soaked in (rather than cooking them in it) in the belief that this will keep the beans from imparting musical powers. Far be it from me to argue with conventional wisdom, but I've tried it both ways, and I didn't notice any difference in terms of gas. What I did notice was that when I cook the beans in the water they're soaked in, they have a richer flavor.

2. Peel the head of garlic. This is going to make your fingers smell garlicky (again, a good thing in my book.) It's also kind of time-consuming. One way to speed up the process is to crack open the skin of each clove by pressing down on it with the flat of a knife.

3. Put the beans and peeled whole cloves of garlic into a pot with water and a good shake of salt, and cook them on high (for a crockpot) or medium-low (on the stovetop.) You want them simmering for a long time, without boiling over. Give them the occasional stir for fun.

This will probably take a few hours (2-4) and this is where the difference between a crockpot and a pot on the stovetop becomes important. With a crockpot, you can set it and leave it, and I've actually gotten fantastic results setting this to cook all day while I'm out at work. It cooks the beans into a mushy mass, which is perfect for what you're trying to accomplish. On the other hand, cooking them on a stovetop will cook them quicker. Either way, you're pretty much trying to cook off most of the water so that you eventually have a black bean paste. A tasty, garlic-infused black bean paste, with the occasional mushy lump of pure garlic mixed in.

It's at this point that you may want to settle down for a few hours with a whiskey sour and a few chapters from your favorite Octavia Butler novel.

4. Boil or steam the rice. You've probably boiled or steamed rice before, but if you haven't, just throw the rice in a pot with boiling water and a pinch of salt. Stir occasionally so the rice doesn't stick to the bottom. This is not an issue if you're using a steamer, but you'll want to make sure the water doesn't all boil away. When the rice is thoroughly cooked, set it aside.

5. Chop up the onions, olives, and/or habanero pepper. Sautee them lightly in a big pan, and then pour in the beans. Keep stirring on the heat until you have a nice big pan of bean paste. When this is the right consistency, set it aside.

6. Mix some cornmeal and water in a bowl - again, you'll want a paste that isn't too watery and isn't too dry. You'll probably have to add in some meal or water once or twice to get the mixture right, but you'll know it when you see it.

7. Heat some oil in a big pan, and drop in dollops of cornmeal paste - maybe about 2-3 ounces each. Fry them until brown on one side, and then turn them over. When they're nice and crispy, drop them on some folded up paper towels to cool down and dry. One decent-sized bowl will make about a dozen corncakes, which is enough for a hearty dinner and the next day's lunch.

8. Lay out a bed of rice on a plate, and lay about half a dozen corn cakes on top of it. Pour the bean paste over the corn cakes, and season with hot sauce to taste. Garnish with whiskey sour and reruns of the Highlander TV show for an authentic 20-year-old-in-a-strange-town experience.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Stuffed Squash

About a dozen years ago, I went to Thanksgiving dinner at my mom's place, to which my aunt brought some delicious stuffed butternut squash. I asked her for the recipe, and she told me in a couple of sentences. I've since been asked for the recipe myself, and have decided to make it available online, complete with pictures.

This squash is gluten-free, vegan, and pretty darn tasty.

Please forgive the sloppy nature of this recipe. I have a theory that there are two types of cooks in this world: bakers and stovetop cookers. Bakers measure everything precisely, set the oven to an exact number, and set a timer for a specific period of time. Stovetop cookers throw in a pinch of this, a dash of that, and a dollop of the other thing, and are inclined to be comforted by instructions that say things like "cook until brown" and "season to taste." Stovetop cookers cook from the gut rather than from the head, and it is very difficult for us to precisely pin down anything we do, even when we do wind up opening the oven and sticking something in to bake.

2 butternut squash
1 onion
~6 good sized potatoes
1 bag of wanuts
1 bag of dried cranberries
~12 mushrooms
lemon juice
olive oil

1. Hollow out the squash by scraping it out with a spoon. You'll want to leave about an inch of meat on the skin. You can make this a little easier by nuking the squash a bit, but it isn't necessary, and I think you get a better flavor by scraping it raw.

2. Chop up the onions, potatoes, and mushrooms into little squares.

3. Chop the walnuts and cranberries up good, but not too fine.

4. Start pan frying the onions until they start sizzling and you can see the skin on them starting to bubble up a little. You don't want them to quite start browning yet, but you do want them to be starting to release some of their juices into the olive oil.

5. Throw in the potatoes, and start cooking them until they begin getting soft. This is going to take a little while.

6. Throw in the mushrooms, and cook them in until everything is starting to brown up a little bit.

7. Throw in the walnuts and cranberries, squirt it all liberally with lemon juice, and keep stirring and frying it all up until the lemon juice is all cooked in to the mix and things are starting to brown and stick to the pan a little.

8. Scoop out what you've been frying up, and load it into the squash you've hollowed out. Put the stuffed squash on a cookie sheet.

9. Preheat the oven to around 350-400 degrees, and shake cinnamon powder all over the squash.

10. When the oven is hot enough, slide the cookie sheet in, and bake the squash until you hear the oil starting to pop on the sheet. This usually takes somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes.

You can eat the whole squash, skin and all, although you can skip the skin if you don't like it - think of it like the skin on a cucumber: optional, but edible.