Pepita and Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

My first experience with a pesto-style dish was in my Greek grandmother’s house.  Yia Yia prepared every family member’s favorite dish and my father’s was skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce.  As a child in Crete, where almonds are plentiful and full of flavor, her mother taught her the art of the dish; she learned to prepare the skordalia by pounding garlic, almonds and olive oil with a mortar and pestle.  We always knew when we walked into her home that she had prepared the skordalia because of the heavy garlic smell in the air. It seemed to stay in our mouths for days and even crept out of our pores as garlic-tinged sweat.  Over the years, my dad was the only one adventurous enough to indulge, which he would do on a Friday so he could return to work on Monday with minimal effect.

The Italian word pesto is often used to describe a combination of ground garlic, basil and pine nuts, although the preparation method of grinding ingredients into a paste is universal and cross-cultural.  Ever since man discovered how to grind and pound food products with stone and wood, this method has been employed in traditional cuisines around the world to create sauces, condiments, bases and pastes which enhance flavor profiles. Every culture put their stamp on the method with the common denominator being a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and it is a superb way to add a savory and flavorful edge to a dish without frying or grilling.

A Sicilian version is pesto rosso which substitutes almonds for pine nuts and adds tomatoes with less basil.  In Mediterranean France, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil is the base for the much-acclaimed pistou soup in Provence.

In India, I watched cooks deftly handle a flat grindstone with a rectangular pestle to create intensely flavored mint chutneys, robust masala pastes and pesto-like fillings for a variety of breads and savories.  The grinding stones would absorb the right amount of moisture and unique flavors would be developed by the grinding action.  I was so enamored by the amazing quality of these preparations that I carried two of these heavy stones home on a flight.

Central and South American cuisines have a long history of grinding spices, pastes and mole bases using a metate or mealing stone. Chimichurri sauce is one of the well known sauces to use this method.  One can imagine my pesto recipe being made on a metate grindstone in an adobe kitchen a hundred years ago.  Nutty toasted pepitas with crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, brightly flavored cilantro and smokey fire-roasted poblano chiles provocatively meld together to create an explosion of flavor in any dish that it is served with.  I particularly like it as a foil to corn dishes and often pair it with Quinoa-Corn Arepas and Chocolate Cherry Salsa from my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions.  The bright flavor of the pesto is the perfect companion to the natural sweetness of the corn and deep, dark anti-oxidant-rich salsa.

Today, I often make pesto with a food processor, which is a compromise for the sake of modern efficiency.  However, if you have a metate, or mortar & pestle and a little extra time, I encourage you to use it–not just for the earthly connection and romance of hand-working one’s food, but also for the flavor.

This easy-to-prepare recipe works well in sandwiches, as a mezzes-style dip, a quesadilla filling or a layer in a tortilla casserole.

Pepita & Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

1/2 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 poblano chile, fire roasted, stemmed and seeded

In a food processor, grind pepitas to a meal, add all pesto ingredients and pulse to a coarse consistency.  Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated.

Roasted Spring Onions

 

After the winter freeze, one of the first signs of  life in the Midwest Farmers Markets are spring onions which are full flavor, extra sweet young shoots that only vaguely resemble a mature onion.  At this stage, even the sharpest tasting onion will easily compete with sweet varieties such as Vidalia, Maui and Walla Walla.  At this time of year I use them generously, raw in salads and roasted, as in this recipe.  This is an excellent easy to make side dish cum condiment that adds zest to a variety of dishes.  Make it ahead and use it as an impromptu garnish or a sandwich ingredient as well.  Enjoy!

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Serves 6

6 spring onion shoots cut in half lengthwise and trimmed to four inches long

½ cup seedless raisins

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ cup diced Roma tomatoes

½ teaspoon coriander seeds

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

3 whole cloves

½ teaspoon whole peppercorns

½ teaspoon sea salt

Bake in a covered dish at 400º F  for 1 hour.  Serve as a side or garnish.

About Making Scents

 

 

 

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“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived”

Helen Keller

 

Aromas enchant us, molding images into the cerebral cortex which can be recalled at any moment with a familiar whiff.  With food, an attractive scent can trigger the desire to eat and cause a singular drive to eat something right away. 

The sense of smell is seventy percent of taste.  While taste buds receive input from salty, sweet, bitter and pungent receptors, olfactory input can recognize up to 10,000 different aromas.  This input is immediate and can bypass the normal processing to trigger memory in the cerebral cortex.  Imagine having a barbecue without the intensely sensuous aroma not wafting by.  A world without aroma is a sanitized and bland proposition.  Studies have confirmed that the olfactory sense triggers memories more than the other senses.  Mental imagery with the natural romanticized versions, adds immensely to the ‘theater of dining.’ 

Just as the chemical combination of food ingredients are medicine, food is also integral in aromatherapy.  To exemplify this, think of the scents that floated out of the kitchen as a child, baking cookies or a cake, baking bread, or the almost acrid aroma of food cooking over an open fire.  There is a sound reason for fast food restaurants to exhaust fumes onto the street.  Over the years, it was very common for passersby to eat at Inn Season Café after walking by and smelling the great cooking scents outside our building. 

It has been well documented that specific aromas encourage the body to function in different ways.  There are scents which cleanse nasal passages, a few aid digestion and some inspire passion, while others work with the psyche.  Scent is very much part of the ‘feng shui’ of food and old cultures have this built in to the cuisine.  

Setting a stage with scents

Scent is also very subjective.  What we like has direct correlation to our life experience and conditioning.  For one person the scent of a wonderfully aged cheese is mouth watering, to another it is revolting.  The audience is important when planning a meal.  Sometimes, we need to help educate a palate, so scents are orchestrated to enhance each other, framing the so called offensive aroma with more accessible and universally appealing scents.  When entertaining, it is good to plan an aromatic environment along with the rest of the menu.  Many times the aromas around the food have a profound effect on the flavors inside the preparations.  

Importance of smells in cooking

Without tasting, the scent of food becomes prominent as a tool for perfection.   In Vedic cooking, enjoying the smells of the food for oneself while cooking is the same as tasting it.  The cooking aroma can be enjoyed as part of the process of cooking for others and certainly may be used as a tool for creating culinary wonders. 

Manipulation of aromas during eating

Timing the drifting scents emanating from food and organizing them in a almost symphonic way can be as important as combining spices.  Complimentary aromas play off each other, dancing in the imagination, toying with our memories.  

The after dinner scents

After a fulfilling dinner, scent plays an important role in comfort and good digestion.  Some of the unpleasant things restaurants do which we can avoid in our personal lives are spraying tables with window cleaners to sanitize while customers are nearby; using heavy bleach  solutions to sanitize equipment and counters; have strong smelling food being served with delicate flavors; and allowing smoking nearby, or even at all.  

Fortunately in our own homes, we may create environments without these olfactory pitfalls.  To focus on the positive, candles create warm, cozy scents that are nice when extinguished too.  A flaming dessert or steamy hot fudge sauce can fill the air with deep sensual undertones.  Also removing the food from the table is a must before dessert and after the entire dinner when conversation may be heightened. 

Learning How to Eat

Mainstream America does not emphasize food as a key to a quality life and source of longevity.  Food is mostly used as a sensual sideshow and necessary evil.  One the big challenges we face, especially in dire times, is to reconnect with the earth’s culinary heritage. Not only the exclusive diets of the privileged, but those of common people.  These are diets that nourish body and soul, which utilize the senses instead of merely placating them.  Such foods help define who we are and keep us in touch with the ever present  organic cycles of the earth.

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I first discovered the significance of food as a young child from my Greek grandmother, who tirelessly went out of her way to both nourish and nurture her family through the medium of lovingly prepared traditional dishes.  Memories in my Yia Yia and Papou’s house invariably are associated the times when our family gathered around the dining table, situated just outside of Yia Yia’s kitchen.  There I sampled exquisite hand made, tender dolamdakia, irresistible spanikopita, perfectly balanced moussaka and pastitsio to die for.  The memories were augmented with intense and creamy skordalia, almost sinfully sweet baklava and the melt-in-the mouth amigdalota cookies made from almonds and orange blossom water.  The food sparked conversation and familial bonding.

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Eating this way, we knew what it was to be Greek.  The food was historically intertwined with cultural identity.  What, how and when it was (or is) consumed was a major portion of the Hellenic psyche.  Greece is a land that has witnessed the ravages of changing civilizations, occupations and political turmoil.  Often it was recognized as the center of the civilized world and the source of our modern political structures.  The unique and flavorful cuisine has been a consistent reminder of the greatness that Greece was…and still is.  Much of this glory was achieved over millennia at tables in homes and villages with foodstuffs foraged in the mountains, harvested from the land and caught in the sea.  The plant based food was so significant that the famous Greek Key pattern, found over millennia as a theme on temples, homes, fabrics and ornaments, was derived from the field plowing pattern used by farmers.  Ancient Greeks would also pour a small libation of wine on the earth before drinking, much in the way we toast today.  The Greeks have learned to live with the earth in a respectful partnership, where harmonizing with the energies of the cosmos became a goal in life.  Anyone who has spent time in Greece can still feel this incredible energy integrated into every aspect.  Often this translates into the Greek spirit of life.  Along with the Mediterranean sunshine, the sea breezes and the stark raw beauty of the land, it is unique and unlike any other place on earth.  No wonder so many Greeks return to their mother land.

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Maple Carrot Halava

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Outside of carrot cake and muffins, carrots are rarely used for desserts here in North America. Traditional Indian carrot halava is prepared using two different methods. The first is to cook the carrots in clarified butter (ghee) and sugar until only the sweetness of the carrot remains and the sugar slightly caramelizes. The second is to reduce the carrots with milk to a light burfi or fudge consistency. Our method combined the two because maple syrup starts as a liquid and becomes solid with cooking, giving a similar texture to the candied sugar in the first variation. This recipe also retains the richness that ghee or milk would add without the fats and is a very satisfying dessert. Brightened with cardamom, it can be made 3 to 4 days ahead of time if kept refrigerated. It also freezes well.

Maple Carrot Halava
Serves: 8 Preparation Time: 30 minutes

6 cups carrots, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon decorticated or ground cardamom
1 cup whole cashew nuts (optional)
2 cups maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom garnish

In a large skillet on medium low, while stirring frequently, slowly cook the oil, carrots, cardamom and cashews until the carrots start to break down. Add the maple syrup and vanilla, turn the heat up to medium and cook until the maple syrup is absorbed and starts to caramelize. Serve warm or cool in a fruit compote dish with a dusting of cardamom.

In Food We Trust

“Trust,” as it pertains to the food system, has become an increasing concern for all of us.  As part of the ongoing research and planning for the James Beard Foundation’s annual conference over the last few years, a series of regional salons were conducted around the country on the subject of Trust.  A small group of diverse stakeholders in the local food system—including chefs, farmers, food producers, distributors, policy makers, urban planners, academics, and others—attended a salon at Color’s Restaurant in Detroit.  It was exciting for me to be a part of this and inspired me to revisit some principles I hold near and dear.

-Healthy food is the primary source of nourishment and a primary nurturer–the ultimate in holistic health and the key to longevity and quality of life.

-Creating and presenting food is an art form which can inspire us and awaken all our senses in the creative process.

-Food is a language.  Our personal tastes defining which dialect we speak.  It is  an important method of expression and reciprocal exchange between people.

-We feel better about ourselves when we’re cognizant of what we eat.  Whenever possible, eat plant based whole foods which are organic, unadulterated and unprocessed.

-Food connects us with others and cultivates natural satisfaction.

-Know where your food comes from and support local farmers.

-Discover local sources and how the food we eat is a direct connection to the earth we walk on.

-Be honest with your food

Trust is an expansive subject and individually intimate at the same time.  As a plant-based chef, every aspect of the ingredients I use are as important as the final dish.  Each one is chosen for its culinary contribution as well as healthful properties. The following recipe is one you can trust!

For this recipe, I used fresh cranberry beans at Food Field Farm’s stall in Detroit’s Eastern Market. Similar to pintos, they cook to a tender creamy texture.  This recipe is a simple medley of vegetables and beans.  If you can’t find fresh beans, cooked from dry or canned may be substituted.

Cranberry Bean Ragout

 

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/4 cup red onions, diced

1/2 cup Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, diced (or red bell peppers)

1 cup yellow squash, large dice

1 1/2 cups cooked fresh podded cranberry beans* (dry beans**)

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1/2 teaspoon mild chile powder

In a twelve inch skillet on medium-high heat, cook oil, garlic and crushed red pepper until it begins to sizzle.  Add onions, sweet peppers and yellow squash.  Cook until the edges of the vegetables are seared.  Add cranberry beans and all remaining ingredients.  Turn down, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Serve hot.

Serve with rice or quinoa.

*To cook 1 ½ cups fresh cranberry beans, simmer for 30 minutes in 4 cups of water in a covered saucepan.

**With dry beans, soak in 4 cups water for 4 to 6 hours. Rinse well.  Simmer for 30 minutes in 4 cups of water in a covered saucepan.

Sounds

Pimiento peppers

Chefs witness this on a daily basis, but most of us disconnect from the notion that food influences us far beyond the digestive tract.  Eating is a multi-sensual experience and what we hear plays a significant role.  With food,  sound supports the other senses, placing us in a three dimensional experience.Even though it seems to play a background role, the influence of sound on our heart and mind is perhaps the most powerful sense.In Feng Shui and Vedic Vastu, sound is recognized as having the ability to create motion through vibration.What we hear inspires us to react and that is why the aural environment is important in all stages of the food experience.

According to Pythagorus, and confirmed by Plato, sound is the primordial element.This is also embraced by the Vedas from India, which are considered by many to be the oldest books in the world.According to these beliefs, sound is the original element that creates vibration, thus causing movement in the universe.If we could hear across the entire aural spectrum, everything would have a sound, including the silence we currently perceive.According to the Vedas, physical environments can change through sound and it is also an important tool for spiritual connections.Sound is a key part of our environment affecting our mind, body and spirit.Often, ancient Greeks spoke in song.This is still evident through Cretan spontaneous poetry known as Mantinades.Sanskrit is a poetic language, verbalized with meter and rhythm, often with melodious incantations.Sanskrit is called Deva Nagiri, because it is believed to be a heavenly language and is structured in a way that creates change and movement when enunciated.Vedic Brahmins maintain chanting specific Sanskrit mantras can change physical environments, mundane elements and alter the cycles of action and reaction they call Karma.

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More accessible to everyday thoughts, music can change moods, evoke passions and greatly effect perception.  White noise and harsh noises can also make a difference.Cutting words, arguing, criticism and expressions of anger are vocal distractions which can  affect us in both subtle and gross ways.Abrasive soundscapes often create stress, adding clutter and distraction to thoughts and actions.  Sound affects our mindset, bodily movement and clarity of spirit.It is natural to see how an aural environment influences cooking.For me, cooking is an expression of what lies within, most often I see culinary actions as a conveyance, of knowledge, tradition and creative expression.As some people are eloquent speakers, the eloquence I rely on the most is in the language of food and all that goes with it.

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Choosing sounds

Often, traveling to Crete with my father and son, we found simple tavernas where waves lapped in symphonic meter by our feet while feasting on a crisp cucumber salad glistening with the liquid gold of fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil. Local dialects epitomized the Greek word onomatopoeia, with mellifluous chatter beautifully decorating the aural landscape. Mixed with the scents of the sea and the olive oil basted grills we entered a meditative state, much like Odysseus and the Sirens, where a concentrated effort to extract ourselves from the hypnosis was necessary to accomplish tasks of the day.

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A visual landscape is dramatically enhanced by sound.The transition from silent film to ‘talkies’ is one example of the difference.Sound gives depth and definition to sight.To create a fulfilling dining experience, chefs and restaurateurs sculpt the aural experience to compliment and enhance the sensual experience.In dining, sound is a compliment to the meal, a background enhancement that soothes and excites indirectly. Anticipation and salivation are encouraged with the sight of food cooking uttering companion sounds like crackling, spurting, bubbling, puffing and sputteringSound also plays a direct part as an accompaniment to taste, touch and aroma as food is consumed and we sense such things as crunching, slurping, chewing and swallowing.In some old cultures, a good belch at the end of a meal signifies a cook’s success.Listening, and becoming sensitive, to the sounds of cooking and eating is a very important part of the world of cooking.Just as a spice can change the nature of a preparation, so what we hear when cooking and eating alters the food and how we digest it.

Cold preparations in particular seem to produce more sounds due to brittleness enhanced by the temperature.  While eating, these dishes produce a mellifluous combination of crunches, snaps and juicy sound bites that are intriguing, fun and fresh.

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The snack food industry is testimony to the human addiction to crunch. Thinking about it, if we take the sound away from crunching, the feel alone is not enough to satisfy. It is the sound, inside and outside the jaw, which pleases our senses and creates the moment of satisfaction until the next bite. Crackers, chips, nuts, apples, corn, celery, carrots and many other foods are crunch worthy. In a dinner, a light, delicate crunch from a garnish or integrated crispy pastry provides a surprising and very pleasant addition to the sensual experience. A salad is an ideal course for exploring crunching with fresh, crispy greens, delicately cut vegetables, toasted nuts and the snap of fresh cherry tomatoes.

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Dessert can turn into an extravaganza for all the senses by adding the crunch factor with a sweet pastry or candied nut.

Artisanal Fermentation

Each day, 30 to 40 minutes is usually spent cooking. Fast traditional cooking is wonderful, but the traditional slow and carefully prepared dishes add depth, perspective and an understanding of the true meaning of the food. I like to use traditionally prepared condiments, such as tamari, ume plum vinegar, unpasteurized miso, cured olives, salted capers and well aged balsamic vinegar to compliment my quickly prepared meals. Often these dishes are rooted in the climate and politics of the era they originated from, adding romanticized imagery of the times of yore. Many well crafted preparations depend on fermentation, something we are rarely exposed to since refrigeration came into the kitchen. These dishes often define flavors of a cuisine with the unique flavors of enzymatic growth. Often they were used in winter to add flavor and vital nutrients when the fresh harvest was not available. Along with preserving and salt curing, fermentation was used to keep perishable ingredients edible.
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Sauerkraut is one of those dishes. In Michigan, every Autumn during the abundant cabbage harvest, housewives and farmers would grate large amounts of the cruciferous vegetable on everything from hand graters to handyman crafted grating boxes which could shred an entire giant head at a time. The freshly shredded cabbage was placed with salt in crocks, barrels or bin, then pressed and covered to encapsulate the fermentation process. After a couple of weeks or so, the cabbage turned into sauerkraut and continued to ferment until canning. Today, a good amount of Michigan’s bountiful cabbage crop is turned into nutritious sauerkraut and donated to food banks.

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In India, nation culinary treasures such as Idli, Dosa, Jallebi and Dahi (yogurt) all depend on fermentation for unique flavors and health giving enzymes. Dosa has very ancient roots in South Indian Tamil culture that are at least 6,000 years old. This original “crepe” has maintained popularity and is one of the most recognized and cherished dishes in greater Indian cuisine. Thirty years ago, Indian dahi-walla shops were frequently a stove, a pot and a cook (sometimes with a couple of cows out back) who worked among clay vessels of all shapes and sizes made to hold yogurt as it cultured. Down the street, one would usually find a potter sitting on the ground with a throwing wheel, a pile of clay vessels and a pit for firing. For yogurt, the clay would insulate as well as remove whey from the yogurt as it turned to curd over a four to five hour period. Turning milk into yogurt, butter and sweets were a method of preservation before refrigeration and was practiced wherever cows, sheep, goats and buffalo were kept. I remember my Yia Yia (Greek grandmother) making her own yogurt, keeping a string of cultures from one batch to the next. She would culture the yogurt on top of her refrigerator wrapped in towels where it would stay warm enough to transform the milk into a very tangy yogurt.

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India also has a long history of pickle making, using sea salt, mustard, fenugreek, chillies and oils. I learned the craft from a Gujarati family and, over the years would make salty, hot, sour and often sweet pickles during the growing season. Pickles from eggplant, green beans, green mangos, lemons, limes and chillies accompanied the regional Indian cuisine we were preparing daily at the time.

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Garum, a fermented fish sauce, was used throughout the ancient Roman Empire, much the same way fish sauces are used in Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Fillipino and Vietnamese cuisines. Soy sauce, shoyu and tamari in Chinese and Japanese cuisines are rooted in similar traditions. Asian cuisines are full of fermented products, like Tempeh, Natto and Kimchee.

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Commonly acknowledged, products with long traditions of fermentation are beer and wine. The ancients became masters of wine and beer making, not just for the pleasing effects, but also because water could not be trusted. The armies of Alexander the Great marched to India using beer and wine instead of water. Bread baking as we have come to know it also started from the process of making beer and wine. The white coatings we sometimes see on grapes are a yeast that is also used for sourdough bread. Brewers yeast, the by-product of beer making, is also an old source of traditional bread yeast. Beer making is perhaps one of the oldest known fermenting traditions with archeological evidence from 9,000 years ago. Since it is made with grains, beer has kept a close relationship with bread. Ancient Egyptians had massive bakeries at the base of the Great Pyramid, capable of providing up to 30,000 loaves of bread a day and were conveniently located next to breweries. Up until the last 60 years, many people kept crocks with yeast starters in their kitchens to make bread with. With the exception of Prohibition, yeast was readily available from breweries throughout America. Packaged, and especially, active dry yeast are relatively new in the world of food.

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With the arrival of dependable refrigeration, many of these foodstuffs were relegated to the realm of cultural identity as they were no longer were necessary. Commercial manufacturers took over more difficult tasks such as bread baking, wine and beer making, yogurt and butter as well as anything else they could sell back to the public in order for to time to be saved in the kitchen. 19th and 20th century kitchens evolved so fast that many of the time honored culinary traditions have become very rare or even lost.

Growing up with my Greek Yia Yia’s cooking helped me to appreciate the deep connections between food, culture and environment. For this reason when the current culinary revolution recognized these same connections, I found a natural kinship with those who embraced it. Over the years, I have also discovered the remarkable role vegetarianism has played in human history. Often, it is associated with the visionary brilliance, notably such souls as Gandhi and Einstein. Every cuisine has some form of plant based food in it and I promote that every culture has vegetarian traditions. Commonly, fermented dishes and condiments are prominent in such repertoires.

Beyond obvious refrigeration issues, both ancient and modern medicinal wisdom recognize the potent nutrition and life giving value in fermented foods. Modern science has also recognized the hazards of improperly fermenting, requiring sterile environments and standardized cultures. While this has undoubtedly increased food safety, we have also lost many organic hand-crafted traditions. Often, much of the health benefit is diminished as well. I include as many of these dishes as possible in my culinary stable and even find that once a cultured product is made, it facilitates quick and easy meals while, at the same time, adding the depth of slowly developed flavors.

Black Pepper Tofu

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For many people tofu is a bland experience, turning off the most adventurous of palates.  This recipe helps to counteract that falacy with the assistance of the treasured spice of Asia, black pepper.  It makes for a flavorful side dish with a simple meal as well as a provocative appetizer.  The key to good sautéed tofu is to cook it hot at first, then turn down the heat and finish it off slowly allowing the flavors to absorb.

Makes 12 pieces

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 (14 ounce) block firm tofu, drained and cut into twelve ¼ inch thick triangles
2 tablespoons tamari
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

Heat a 10 to 12 inch saute pan on medium heat.  Add oil and tofu.  Cook one side until slightly browned and then carefully turn each piece.  Add tamari and turn heat down to a simmer, then grind half the fresh pepper onto the tofu.  After a minute, turn the tofu again and grind the rest of the pepper.  Continue to cook until the tofu is firm and the pepper is cooked in.  Serve hot or at room temperature.