Caramels and Bonus Caramel Sauce

My favorite candy in the whole world is a good caramel. Which is why, for thirty years, I have been making them every holiday season to give to people I care about.

Over the decades, I have tried a lot of different recipes, but I always seem to return to a version I first found in the 1948 version of “The Settlement Cookbook” by Mrs. Simon Kander (the first edition was published in 1901).

Mrs. Kander was a woman whose life’s work was to help young, female Jewish refugees become assimilated in the United States. We all have to eat, she figured, and food and cooking was the way she taught her charges to live in America.

So here is my take on Mrs. Kander’s caramel recipe, finessed over the years. Her mission is still right on target. Those who eat together, can live together.

The biggest change in my version of her recipe has been to come up with a tag-along recipe, one that uses up the dregs in the caramel cooking pot. You see, if the pot is scraped to get the last little bit of caramel out of it, the results are usually disastrous. Those dregs crystallize, and then the whole batch of caramels crystallizes. Oy, as Mrs. Kander would say.

So resist, people! Do not scrape. Instead, throw those dregs back on the stove with some cream and flavoring, and harvest a bonus recipe of caramel sauce. The following is flavored with coffee, vanilla and brandy or rum, but you can make up your own variation. Whatever you do, it will be great on ice cream.

And if you want to dip these caramels in chocolate, have a look at my post on tempering chocolate for dipping candy centers.

If not, simply wrap the cut caramels in parchment or wax paper, or any other candy wrapper you choose. They will keep for weeks at cool room temperature, so if you make too many for this Thanksgiving, they will still taste pretty good come Christmas.

 

Caramel Candy and Bonus Coffee Caramel Sauce

For the Caramel Candy:

2 cups white sugar
2 cups corn syrup
3 cups cups heavy cream
¼ cup unsalted butter (plus a little more for buttering the pan)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons vanilla
an instant read thermometer
an 8 inch square pan
parchment paper

For the Bonus Coffee Caramel Sauce

the leftover caramel at the bottom of the pot
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon instant espresso
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon cognac or rum

To Make the Caramel Candy:

Grease the bottom and sides of the 8 inch pan with a little butter. Cut parchment paper to line the bottom and sides of the pan, place the paper in the pan, and grease the paper with a little more butter. Set aside.

Combine 2 tablespoons of vanilla and the salt in a small bowl or cup and set aside.

Place the sugar, corn syrup and one cup of the heavy cream in a large, heavy pot; this pot should be wide and shallow but large enough to accommodate the alarming bubbling up of the cooking caramel without over-flowing. I use a double clad eight quart stock pot.

sugar, corn syrup and cream boiling to make caramel

sugar, corn syrup and cream boiling to make caramel

Stir the ingredients together and place over medium heat. Bring to a rolling simmer, stirring often and being careful to make sure the pot doesn’t boil over and that the caramel doesn’t burn on the bottom.

When the mixture reaches a temperature of around 236 degrees, add one more cup of heavy cream, stir well, and continue the rolling simmer.

When the mixture reaches 236 degrees again, add 1 more cup of heavy cream and bring to a rolling simmer again.

When the mixture reaches 230 degrees, stir in the butter, combining until it is completely melted. Keep the mixture boiling, being careful it doesn’t burn on the bottom.

Keep a close eye on the thermometer as the temperature rises into the low 240s; be ready to take the pot off the heat the moment it reaches 245 degrees. The caramel’s temperature will continue to rise, and can get as high as 250, but anticipation is key. Much past 250, the caramel will be too hard, so watch the pot!

As soon as the mixture reaches 245 degrees, take it off the burner and stir in the vanilla and salt, then immediately pour the mixture into the prepared pan. When you get to the dregs at the bottom of the pot, stop pouring and place the pot back on the stove.

DO NOT SCRAPE THE POT.  Scraping will cause crystallization, and any tiny bit of crystallization that is introduced into the hardening caramel will cause the whole batch to crystallize over the next few days. In which case, it will still be edible, but not nearly as good.

Set the pan of cooling caramel in a dry, cool spot. If making the Coffee Caramel Sauce, this is the moment to head back to the stove. Otherwise, fill the dirty pot with water and let it soak.

At this point, you have at least twelve hours to kill before the caramels are ready to cut. Go binge-watch Netflix. However if, while binge-watching Netflix, you decide you can’t wait to try your caramels, as soon as the candy is cool enough not to remove skin on contact, you can scoop out a taste with a spoon from the corner. The remaining caramel will flow into the hole by the time you are ready to cut for real.

When the caramels are completely cool and set (12-24 hours after they hit the 8 inch pan in liquid form), they can be cut into pieces. Remember, though, that caramel is essentially a liquid in slow motion. Once cut, the individual pieces will melt and stick together if they are not contained inside a chocolate coating or a wrapper.

So before cutting, know whether you are going to: 1) dip them in chocolate, and/or 2) store them in candy wrappers, and be prepared with whatever is needed for the next step.

And if you can’t decide which way to go or don’t have the necessaries, don’t sweat it. The pan of caramels will keep for days at a cool room temperature, so you have lots of time to decide.

When you are ready to cut for real, be sure to have a very large, sharp knife on hand as well as a big cutting board that doesn’t smell like onions. A ruler is good if you love symmetry. Proceed as follows.

Using the parchment paper, lift the caramel out of the pan and place it on the cutting board. Cut the caramels into even-sized pieces according to your preference. These can range from bar-sized pieces (1 inch by 3 inches, say) to small pieces ½ inch x ½ inch.

caramels cut and ready to dip or wrap

cut caramels ready to dip  or wrap

Once cut, the caramels may be dipped in tempered chocolate, or wrapped in waxed or parchment paper. Don’t freeze or refrigerate caramels, no matter how they have been treated. Cooling will cause the caramels to absorb moisture and lose freshness. So long as all the ingredients used in the recipe were at their use-by dates, the caramels will keep well for a month at a cool room temperature.

Caramel and Caramel Coffee Sauce on ice cream

Caramel and Caramel Coffee Sauce on ice cream

To make the Coffee-Caramel Sauce

Pour 1 cup of heavy cream into the pot with the dregs of the caramel in it and place the pot over medium-low heat.

Stir well, scraping up the bits of caramel so they melt into the warming cream. When the caramel has dissolved pretty well into the cream, add the espresso powder, the vanilla and the cognac or rum to the mixture. Bring to a slow simmer and allow the sauce to thicken a bit.

When the sauce has thickened, remove it from the stove. Allow it to cool a bit before using it. Serve warm over ice cream. You may also pour it into a glass jar and seal with a lid and store in the refrigerator for a week or so. Remove the lid before carefully reheating in the microwave in 10 second bursts with stirring in between. It should take only 2 or 3 bursts before the sauce is pourable and warm.

Pear and Pecan Tart

Pear-Pecan Tart

Pear-Pecan Tart

The best seasonal recipes are templates that work with whatever happens to be available fresh from your backyard or local farmers’ market. This pear tart, for example, could turn into a plum tart, or a peach tart, or a fresh fig and raspberry tart (and yes, it’s possible to grow fresh figs in New Hampshire).

Unless you have access to a nut tree – and we do grow black walnuts, hazelnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts, among others in southern New Hampshire – your nuts probably won’t be local. But if you can get local nuts, use them, by all means.

The basic concept is to make a sandy mixture of nuts, sugar and flour, sprinkle it over a rectangle of pastry (puff pastry as here, but plain old pie dough will also work) and top it with very ripe fresh fruit. As the tart bakes, the fruit releases it’s juices, which are soaked up by the nut mixture. The nut mixture becomes soft and a little chewy, and the pastry stays crisp on the bottom.

For my tart, I used home-made, all butter puff pastry (here’s a link to that recipe) but you can substitute store-bought frozen puff pastry and get great results. Use Trader Joe’s or Dufour brands if you can find them, because they are made with butter and taste better than those made with shortening. Otherwise, Pepperidge Farm makes a reliable and easy-to-find frozen puff pastry.

These brands are packaged with slightly different weights, but all are close to 1 pound, which is what this recipe calls for, and all will work. Plan ahead so you can follow the directions on the package for refrigerator defrosting. And if the pastry comes in two pieces, simply make two smaller tarts.

This tart goes together quickly once the ingredients are assembled. Try serving it, as I did, fresh from the oven for a lazy Sunday morning brunch. It would also be delicious as the finale to a dinner party featuring the best of what fall has to offer. Either way, it is best eaten the day it is made, or it may become a little soggy.

Fresh Pear and Pecan Tart

  • 1 pound (approximately) puff pastry dough, defrosted
  • 4 very ripe, juicy, pears
  • 1 orange
  • 1 lemon
  • 1-½ cups pecans
  • ½ cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons more for sprinkling
  • 1 tablespoon flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll the puff pastry, if necessary, into a rectangle about 12 inches by 14 inches, and a little less than ¼ inch thick. Use a knife to cut directly down (do not drag it – dragging seals the edges and will keep the pastry from rising) to even the edges of the dough (reserve the scraps and re-use if desired).

Place the puff pastry on a sheet tray that has been lined with parchment paper. Prick the pastry all over with a fork, leaving about 1-½ inches all around the edge of the pastry un-pricked. This will allow the edges to rise in the oven while the center of the tart stays flat. Place the dough in the refrigerator to rest.

While the dough is resting, zest the orange and lemon and reserve the zest. Squeeze the juices of the lemon and orange into a medium sized bowl.

Place the zest and ½ cup sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the zest is well combined with the sugar. Leave the sugar in the processor and proceed with the next step. This will allow the sugar to absorb the oils from the zest and add a lot of flavor to the mixture.

Peel the pears, one at a time. When a pear has been peeled, cut it in half, use a melon baller or other implement to scoop out the seed cavity and tough stem, and place the halves in the citrus juices, coating well to keep them from browning. Proceed until all the pears are soaking in the juice.

Place the nuts and the flour in the food processor with the sugar and zest and pulse until they make a coarse mixture.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator. Lightly sprinkle it with half the remaining sugar all the way to the edges. Cover the pricked portion of the dough with the nut mixture. Arrange the pears on top of the nuts in a decorative manner (discard the citrus juice or use for another recipe). Sprinkle the tops of the pears with the remaining sugar.

Place the tart in the center of the preheated oven. Allow it to bake for 10-15 minutes until the edges have risen nicely, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Continue baking for about another 45 minutes, turning once or twice to ensure even browning.

The tart is done when the pears have released their juices into the nut mixture and they are soft and beginning to brown a little on top. Allow the tart to rest for 10 minutes or so before cutting with a serrated knife. Serves 8 or more.

Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is a sublime demonstration of the power of mathematics. You begin by layering a block of butter between two layers of dough. Fold the dough in thirds, and now there are 3 layers of butter between the layers of dough. Let it rest, roll it out, fold it in thirds again and now there are 9 layers of butter. Repeat – 27 layers of butter. Repeat – 81 layers of butter. Repeat – 243 layers of butter. And one last time – 729 layers of butter, and 730 layers of dough (including the top and bottom layers).

As the puff pastry bakes, the butter fat melts, which separates the layers of dough, while the butter liquids turn to steam, forcing the layers apart and causing the pastry to rise in a spectacular fashion. And unlike a soufflé, which must be served immediately before it falls, properly baked puff pastry will maintain its loft even after it cools.

When golden brown and fully cooked, puff pastry is a delight in the mouth, melting almost as soon as it hits the tongue into rich, delicate shards. And rich as it is, puff pastry provides a neutral backdrop, working well with both sweet and savory fillings.

I think puff pastry’s reputation for being tricky to make has more to do with the cultivated mystique of the pâtissier than the reality of the recipe. It’s actually a pretty straightforward process, though it does require a cool kitchen and patience through all the resting and rolling. It also requires care in choosing ingredients – the butter needs to be cold, the flour needs to be bread flour.

It also requires care in measuring. I recommend weighing ingredients whenever you’re baking, for this recipe in particular. If you don’t have a scale, make sure you fluff up the flour, dip a measuring cup designed for dry ingredients into it, and then use a knife to level the cup (rather than tapping it on the counter, or pushing it down with your fingers, which compacts the flour).

Below is the basic recipe for puff pastry. On separate pages, you’ll find recipes using it as an ingredient, including Vol-au-vent, Spinach Tart and Maple Tarte Tatin.

Puff Pastry

Butter Block

  • 1 pound, 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (4-1/2 sticks)
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • pinch of salt
  • 4-1/2 ounces bread flour (1 cup measured by the dip-level-pour method)

Dough

  • 15 ounces bread flour (3-1/3 cups measured by the dip-level-pour method)
  • 2 ounces cold unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 2 teaspoons salt

For the butter block:

Cut the butter into pieces and put it into a large bowl or the bowl of a mixer. Add the lemon juice and salt and use your fingers to mix them into the butter a bit, or use the paddle to of the mixer to combine them a little. Add the bread flour and continue mixing until the mixture becomes fairly homogenous. Don’t let the mixture get warm and soft; rather, it should have the consistency of clay.

Put the butter mixture on a large piece of plastic wrap. Pat it into a 6 inch square and cover completely with the plastic. Refrigerate the block while you make the dough.

For the dough:

Cut the butter into small pieces. Put the flour on a work surface, (a clean countertop will do), sprinkle the butter over the flour, then use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until it has the texture of corn meal with a few butter-peas floating around in it.

making puff pastry - water in the well

making puff pastry – water in the well

Make a well in the center of flour-butter mixture and sprinkle the salt into the well. Pour about half the water into the well, then use your fingers to begin swirling the flour mixture into the water. When there’s a thick paste in the well, add a little more water and then stir in more of the flour-butter mix. Continue adding water and mixing in the flour mixture until you’ve used up almost all of the water.

Gently knead together the dough, adding the rest of the water if necessary to finally arrive at a messy, slightly sticky ball of dough. Don’t  knead it too much – just so that it all holds together and isn’t dry.

puff pastry - cutting an X in the dough

puff pastry – cutting an X in the dough

Use a sharp knife to cut an X about halfway through the dough ball, then loosely wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour so the gluten in the flour relaxes a bit.

To make the puff paste:

Ideally the butter block and the dough will be about the same consistency. Pull the dough ball apart at the X to open it into a rough square. Shape it until it’s about an 8 inch by 8 inch even square.

puff pastry - placing the butter block on the dough

puff pastry – placing the butter block on the dough

Place the butter block on the dough, juxtaposed to it so that the butter is a diamond to the dough’s square. Fold the dough over the butter so the corners of the square meet in the middle. Pinch the seams together firmly so that the dough completely surrounds the butter.

puff pastry - enclosing the butter block in the dough

puff pastry – enclosing the butter block in the dough

Turn the dough so that it sits like a square again, sprinkling a little flour on the counter and on the dough so that it won’t stick as you roll it out. Roll the dough into a rectangle 12 inches wide by 16 inches long, keeping the sides as straight and even as possible, sprinkling more flour as necessary to keep the puff paste from sticking.

puff pastry - folding dough in thirds to make a turn

puff pastry – folding dough in thirds to make a turn

Fold the dough into thirds so that it becomes a three-layered rectangle about 5 inches by 12 inches. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.

Repeat the process 4 more times, rolling the dough out to a

puff pastry - a completely folded turn

puff pastry – a completely folded turn

rectangle 12 inches by 16 inches and then folding it in thirds, wrapping it in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 1/2 hour.

After the final rest period, roll the dough out into a 20 inch square (trim the sides if necessary, reserving the scraps) and then, if desired, cut that square into 4-10 inch squares (this is a convenient size for storage and works well for most recipes). Wrap each of the squares in plastic, place on a baking sheet and freeze until needed. You can also freeze the scraps; thawed and rolled out, this can be used just like regular puff paste, except that it won’t rise quite as high. The dough will keep frozen for several months.

Buttermilk

Buttermilk is a useful ingredient to have on hand. Refrigerated, it keeps a long time, usually way past its sell-by date. Too, buttermilk is one dairy product that a lot of people who are lactose intolerant can actually consume. Originally, buttermilk was made from the whey left over from churning butter, but most of the buttermilk you will find in the grocery store today is “cultured.” That is, it’s made by combining milk with a lacto-bacillus starter. These friendly bacteria eat the tummy-upsetting lactose, or milk sugars, in the milk, converting them to acidic lactase, which is easier to digest.

Buttermilk’s acidity makes it especially useful for baking. When mixed with baking soda and baking powder, the combination creates gases that give a lift to un-yeasted baked goods, while at the same time adding a satisfyingly tart dairy flavor-note to the finished product. Buttermilk is especially welcome in recipes calling for whole grains, which otherwise might be unappealingly leaden. The recipe below for buckwheat waffles is a great example – even with a 50-50 split between whole grain and white flours, the waffles cook up nice and light.

Buttermilk made with living cultures is, when uncooked, a pro-biotic food, one that delivers good-for-you microbes to the digestive tract. There’s no need to drink it by the glassful to get this benefit. Simply add raw buttermilk to chilled soups, smoothies, or as in the recipe here, use it as an ingredient in salad dressing. I particularly like buttermilk salad dressing poured over sliced avocados – the fatty avocados are beautifully balanced by the tangy dressing.

Buttermilk Buckwheat Waffles

Buttermilk Buckwheat Waffles

Buttermilk Buckwheat Waffles with maple syrup, butter and cherry jam.

  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (half a stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled a bit
  • 2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 cup whole grain buckwheat flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • butter, jam and maple syrup for serving

Whisk the eggs together in a small bowl. Whisk the melted butter into the eggs, then whisk in the buttermilk. Set aside.

Whisk together in a larger bowl all of the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients and stir until well-incorporated. It is all right if there a few lumps. Let rest a few minutes before continuing.

Use a cup or ladle to pour enough of the batter into the heated waffle iron to come about 1/2 inch from the edge of the waffle form – the batter will spread and expand as it cooks, so don’t overfill. Close the lid of the iron.

Cook, monitoring the heat carefully, until the waffle is beginning to brown on the first side, then flip the waffle iron over and continue cooking until the other side is golden brown.

Serve immediately with butter, jam and warm real maple syrup. You will have enough batter to make five or six 7 inch by 7 inch waffles.

Buttermilk Salad Dressing

Buttermilk Salad Dressing

Tangy Buttermilk Salad Dressing with fresh herbs.

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 2 tablespoons good cider or rice wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (more to taste if desired)
  • about 1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil (more or less to taste – can also be a combination of olive oil and other less flavorful oil, if desired)
  • about 1 tablespoon fresh chopped herbs, or 1 teaspoon dried (can be a mixture – dill, basil, chives are all good)
  • freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine the mustard, shallots, vinegar, buttermilk and salt in a bowl and whisk together well. Drizzle in the olive oil, a little at a time, whisking like crazy as you do so that the mixture emulsifies.

When all the oil has been added, stir in the fresh herbs and ground pepper. Taste and adjust the flavorings with a little more oil, vinegar, salt or herbs and pepper, if desired.

This will probably be enough dressing for a few meals, as you will need only a tablespoon or two for an individual salad. Makes about 3/4 cup.

Root-Sprouted Legumes

Sprouted Soybean and Shitake Soup

Sprouted Soybean and Shitake Soup

Sprouted Mung Bean And Pea Curry

Sprouted Mung Bean And Pea Curry

Dried beans and peas are inexpensive, nutritious and satisfying – perfect ingredients for cold weather fare. But many cooks avoid dried legumes, put off by their long cooking time and reputation for causing, shall I say, “gastric distress.”

There’s a simple trick, though, to address the issues of long-cooking time and indigestibility: root sprouting.

You’re probably already familiar with the crunchy sprouts you can pick up in the produce section of most grocery stores; perhaps you make your own.

The process is simple. The seeds are rinsed in clean water, then soaked for several hours until they swell. They are then drained and placed in a container that has plenty of room for growth (dried legumes will expand at least four-fold), typically a glass jar with a piece of plastic screening bound with a rubber band over its top to allow for air circulation and drainage.

root-sprouted mung beans

root-sprouted mung beans

The jar is placed on its side in a fairly warm spot out of direct sunlight and twice a day the seeds are rinsed well with lukewarm water and drained; this prevents the seeds from growing unwanted fungi or bacteria. After several days (depending on seed viability and variety), roots emerge, followed by the “cotyledon” or first leaves.

For our purposes, though, we don’t need or even want the cotyledon to sprout. As soon as the root begins to pierce the skin of the legume, the formerly hard as a rock bean or pea has been transformed by metabolic activity into something soft enough to cook fairly quickly, its undigestible starches transformed into much more easily digested sugars.

Some sprouted legumes, such as dried peas and mung beans, cook up soft enough to eat without becoming mealy and mushy like most cooked legumes. Too, root-sprouted legumes are more nutritious than conventionally cooked dried beans and peas because sprouting results in a spike of nutrients meant to feed the growing seedlings.

And finally, because root-sprouted legumes must still be cooked before eating (unlike fully sprouted seeds), there’s no need to worry about the pathogens, such as salmonella and e-coli, that sometimes cause illness when people eat raw sprouts. Long simmering kills most food-borne microbes, so it’s fine to sprout dried legumes bought off the shelf in the grocery store, rather than buying guaranteed pathogen-free seeds, as is recommended if you intend to consume sprouts raw.

I have had good luck sprouting many different legumes; most will work just so long as they are whole, have skins intact and are not too old. In my experience, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and mung beans all germinate rapidly and taste great. I have had less luck with black beans, kidneys and pintos, all of which I suspect were too old to be viable. If four or five days go by with no sign of roots, I recommend simply cooking the beans in the conventional manner rather than waiting any longer.

Here are two easy recipes for root-sprouted legumes. The first is a nutritious Japanese-style soup full of the umami flavors found in shitake mushrooms, seaweed and soybeans. The second is for a tart-crunchy-spicy Indian curry that goes together quickly and could make a vegetarian meal accompanied by flatbreads or brown rice, or would also be delicious as a side to grilled fish or meat.

Sprouted Soybean and Shitake Soup

Sprouted Soybean and Shitake Soup

Sprouted Soybean and Shiitake Soup

  •  2 cups root-sprouted soybeans (start with about 1/2 cup dried)
  • 2 cups sliced fresh or reconstituted dried shiitakes (if dried soak 1 cup mushrooms in 2 cups water and reserve the water for the soup)
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups water (can include the mushroom soaking liquid)
  • 1/2 cup sake or white wine (optional)
  • 1tablespoon dried wakame seaweed, soaked in 1 cup water
  • 1 small bunch scallions, trimmed then sliced into rings, white and green parts
  • salt to taste (may not be needed depending on how salty the seaweed is)
  • pieces of lime for squeezing or good rice or cider vinegar (optional)
  • ground hot red pepper or sriracha sauce (optional)

Place the soybeans, the shitakes, stock, water (and/or mushroom soaking liquid), and sake together in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, skimming any foam that gathers on the soup’s surface and discarding.

When the shiitakes and soybeans are tender, add the wakame and cook 5-10 minutes longer. Taste to see if the broth needs salt – the seaweed may have added enough seasoning already.

Just before serving, stir in the chopped scallions. Pour the soup into warmed bowls and serve with lime slices or vinegar and hot pepper on the side, so that guests may add as much acid and heat as desired to their own bowls.

Serves 6-8.

Sprouted Mung Bean And Pea Curry

Sprouted Mung Bean And Pea Curry

 Sprouted Pea and Mung Bean Curry

  •  2 tablespoons oil, such as sunflower
  • 1 large onion, red or yellow, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1/4-1/2 cup pickled jalapenos, chopped (more or less to taste)
  • 4 cups root-sprouted dried peas and/or mung beans (you will need to start with 1 cup dried)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt (more or less to taste)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 small bunch cilantro (try to find a bunch with roots still on it), rinsed and chopped, including stems and roots

Heat the oil in a heavy pot, then add the onion and saute, stirring for 5 or 10 minutes, until just beginning to turn brown around the edges. Add the garlic and cook for a minute and then add the turmeric, cumin and coriander and cook, stirring for a few minutes. Add the chopped jalapenos, and stir well, then add the beans and peas and stir for a minute or two.

Stir in the water and salt, bring to a simmer, lower the heat and put a lid on the pot. Allow the mixture to simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the legumes are cooked, but still have a nice crunch to them. Stir in the chopped cilantro, taste for seasonings and adjust if desired.

Serve with lime slices on the side for diners to adjust the tartness of the curry, if desired. Serves 4-6 as a main dish, 8 as a side dish.

Recipes that you and your gut flora will love

Yesterday, I wrote about all the amazing things the trillions of symbiotic microbes that live in our guts do for us. If we want to keep them happy, we need to feed them lots of complex carbohydrates, mostly in the form of whole plant foods. Here are some recipes I took to the farmers markets last week for my gut flora talk. Folks gobbled them up, and I’m guessing so did their microbes.

  • Try to incorporate whole grains and new kinds of grains into your meals. Add in lots of fresh herbs and spices for added phytonutrients. Use unfiltered extra virgin olive oil – it has more antioxidants and keeps longer without going rancid than filtered olive oil – and work in kefir or yogurt for their nutrition as well as their ability to lighten dough and keep it moist once cooked. Here’s a recipe that does all that.

 Herbed Whole Grain and Kefir Flat Breads

  • 2⅓ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup chickpea flour (also called besan)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons minced mixed fresh herbs (I used cinnamon basil, parsley, garlic chives and dill)
  • 1/4 cup packed chopped scallions, white and green parts
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup kefir or plain yogurt

Combine all the ingredients, except the oil and the kefir, in a large bowl and toss to combine well. Drizzle in the oil and toss the mixture lightly to disperse it through the mixture. Pour in the kefir or yogurt and mix in well with your hands.

When well combined, turn out onto the counter and knead well for a few minutes. Cut the dough into 16 equal pieces and roll them into balls. Cover with plastic wrap and let them sit for 1/2 hour or more before rolling out and cooking.

When ready to cook, sprinkle a little flour on the counter and roll the balls out into thin rounds about 6 inches in diameter. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium high heat and cook the breads as you continue rolling.

Cook the breads on one side for a few minutes until small bubbles begin to appear in the surface of the bread. Flip the bread and continue cooking a minute or two. The bubbles should puff up a bit and the bottom will also have several small rounds of brown.

Stack the breads on a plate as you cook them – this will keep them moist. Serve as you go, or when all the breads are cooked. They can be cooled in the stack then covered with plastic and refrigerated for a day or two before serving. Reheat on the skillet or allow to come to room temperature before eating.

  • Eat lots of fresh greens. One way to do this is by turning herbs into sauces to liven up other foods. Check out Indian cookbooks for many such recipes – this mint and cilantro and hot pepper recipe is very common in many parts of India.

Mint and Cilantro Chutney

  • 2 cups mint leaves
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves
  • 2 hot green peppers, such as jalapenos, seeded and chopped (leave in seeds if you want this very spicy)
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until it becomes a chunky puree. Taste for seasonings and add more of any of the seasonings as desired. This will keep, sealed in a jar in the refrigerator for several days.

  • Kamut is an ancient form of wheat from Egypt and is easy to find in grocery stores these days. It stays chewy, even after being soaked and cooked, and adds a lot of body to this Mediterranean style-salad. If you are avoiding wheat of all kinds, simply leave it out.

 Kamut, Feta and Vegetable Salad

  • 2 cups cooked Kamut (follow directions on the package)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 medium sweet red pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 medium chopped cucumber (peel it in stripes, if it’s organic, to leave on a bit of skin)
  • 2 cups chopped fresh cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped mint
  • good olive oil and vinegar, to taste

Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

  • Try to find ways to make desserts that use healthier ingredients. Here, olive oil replaces butter, nutritious ground walnuts replace some of the flour, and oranges and blueberries (you can substitute other nuts and fruits), add vitamins and antioxidants.

Blueberry Walnut Cake

  •  3 eggs
  • grated rind one orange
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 generous cup walnut pieces
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup white flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (325 if a convection oven). Oil an 8 inch square pan, line with parchment paper, oil the paper, then dust the whole thing with flour. Set aside.

Whisk together the eggs, then whisk in the orange juice and olive oil. Set aside.

Place the walnut pieces, sugar and orange rind in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the walnut pieces are finely ground. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the walnut-sugar mixture and whisk until homogenous. Add 1 cup of the blueberries and toss to coat with the dry ingredients.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and gently fold together using a rubber spatula until well combined and there are no large lumps of dry ingredients remaining.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining berries over the top of the cake. Bake in the preheated oven for 50 mins. – 1 hour, turning once so it cooks evenly.

  • Use local ingredients with short shelf lives as they become available. Yellow Transparent Apples are a tart heirloom variety good for eating and cooking that ripens in August at the same time as mulberries – a sweet, nutritious, dark purple berry that grows on a tree. Both are perishable, which means they’re hard to find even at farmer’s markets. Pick them yourself when you can find them – they’re a summer treat that you will never find in winter. And if you can’t find them, simply substitute another tart cooking apple and whatever berry is available, including frozen ones (just don’t thaw them before adding them to the apples).

Transparent Yellow Apple and Mulberry Oat Crumble

For the Oat Crumble:

  • 1 cup oat flour
  • 1 cup whole rolled oats (not quick cooking)
  • 2 sticks cool unsalted butter cut into chunks (plus a little more for the pan)
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup sugar

Put the oat flour, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and one stick of butter chunks in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times, until the mixture is crumbly with some chunks about the size of a pea. Put the mixture into a large bowl.

Put the whole rolled oats, the other stick of butter chunks and the other teaspoon of cinnamon into the bowl of the food processor and pulse until the mixture begins to come together into loose clumps – don’t over-process. Add the mixture to the mixture in the bowl.

Add the sugar and the pinch of salt to the bowl. Toss with your fingers, until the mixture takes a chunky crumble texture. Place in the refrigerator or a cool spot until the filling is ready.

For the filling:

  • 2 pounds Yellow Transparent or other tart summer apple (2½ pounds if organic and in need of a lot of trimming), peeled, cored, and cut into thin slices
  • 3 cups fresh mulberries or raspberries
  • the juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 cup light summer honey

1/4 cup of Oat Crumble (removed from the completed crumble recipe)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (350 if a convection oven). Butter a 13 x 8 inch oval baking dish (you may also use a rectangular dish of a similar size).

Combine the ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine. Pour into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining crumble evenly over the top of the fruit.

Place in the oven and bake, turning once or twice so the crumble browns evenly. The crumble is done when the crumble is golden and the fruit bubbling in the center.

Allow to cool for at least an hour before serving to set the syrup in the fruit filling. Serve warm or at room temperature.

  •  Soba Noodles are made of buckwheat, and sometimes buckwheat with a little bit of wheat. If you are gluten intolerant, be sure to buy only noodles that are 100% buckwheat. They come in packages with single servings divided out with a paper wrapper. They are often served tossed with sesame oil, chilled and with a variety of toppings.

 Soba Noodles with Toppings

  • Soba noodles, cooked (follow package instructions) one bunch per person, rinsed with cold water and tossed with a little sesame oil to prevent sticking
  • Kimchi
  • cucumbers mixed with a little grated ginger, vinegar, and salt
  • fresh tomatoes chopped and mixed with a little sesame oil, chopped scallions and salt

Place noodles into bowls and then allow diners to top them as desired.

  • Cut back on your meat consumption by mixing meat with grains and vegetables. Here, ground beef is mixed with a quinoa pilaf to make meatballs that are then cooked in a roasted carrot and tomato sauce.

Tomato Carrot Sauce

  • 1 pound carrots
  • 2 pounds tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
olive oil
  • 1 quart water or stock
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons fresh basil chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Clean the carrots and trim them of the leaf end and spindly root end. Cut into pieces that are 3 or 4 inches in length. Toss with a little olive oil and place on a baking sheet and put into preheated oven. Bake for about 1 hour, until tender.

At the same time, cut tomatoes into even pieces and toss in olive oil and bake in the same way as the carrots.

When both are tender, remove from oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Place in batches in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed. Set aside.

Saute the onions and garlic in olive oil heated in a large skillet until translucent, then add the pureed carrots and tomatoes. Add the water or stock, basil and salt and pepper. Allow to simmer for 1/2 hour or so, then remove from heat and either use immediately or cool be before using. It may be refrigerated for a week or frozen for up to 4 months.

 Beef and Quinoa Meatballs in Tomato Carrot Sauce

  • 1 medium onion, peeled and minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3/4 cup white quinoa
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 recipe roast tomato and carrot sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the onion and garlic until softened. Add the quinoa and saute for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned and glossy. Remove from heat and cool.

When cooled, mix with the ground beef, cumin and salt and pepper. Form into small meatballs about 1 inch in diameter.

Brown the meatballs in a large skillet in batches if necessary to prevent crowding. When all the meatballs have been browned, put them back into the pan and add the sauce. Cover and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through. The quinoa will have expanded and the “tails” turned white.

Serve the meatballs warm or at room temperature.

Gut Microbes: or, Why You Ought to Invite Your Trillions of Brand New Best Friends to Dinner

I recently gave a couple of demonstrations at the Canterbury Farmers Market and the Warner Area Farmers Market. The theme was great recipes that feature complex carbohydrates to feed your gut flora.

“Huh?” you may be asking. Read the article below for the lowdown on our microbe friends and why it’s important to feed them. And then look for my next post featuring the recipes I cooked up. Believe me, nobody was choking that rich-in-complex-carbohydrates-food down. Au contraire – people loved it. And I KNOW their microbial body-mates did, too.

Why you need to invite your trillions of microbe friends to dinner, and feed them what they like to eat:

Our bodies contain trillions of micro-organisms – they outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. There are upwards of 100 trillion bacterial cells alone (that doesn’t count things like fungi and other micro-organisms) on our skin and inside of us.

We used to think of these organisms as harmful germs, but it has become clear in recent years that though some them do make us sick, most of them are essential for human health.

In 2008 the National Institutes of Health started the Human Microbiome Project, a 5 year, 115 million dollar project to partner with researchers to map the human micro-biome. Scientists are looking at 5 sites – oral, skin, vaginal, gut and nasal-lung – and identifying the microbes living there and how they affect human health.

The greatest diversity of micro-flora is in the gut. Most are bacteria, but there are a few other things like fungi and yeasts as well. It’s thought that there are at least 1000 different microbial species that inhabit the human gut, and each of us has at least 160 of them.

One of the most important things these microbes do for us is to ferment the carbohydrates that our stomachs and small intestines lack the enzymes to digest. When these carbohydrates reach our large intestine the micro-flora living there can produce the enzymes that will break them down and ferment them.

These bacteria have a symbiotic relationship with us – they take what they need to survive from the complex carbohydrates that reach them (think fiber), and donate to us by-products that they don’t need, primarily short chain fatty acids. These provide we human hosts a huge amount of nutrition and energy that we can’t make for ourselves.

The microbes also help to synthesize important vitamins, like B vitamins and vitamin K, and can break down harmful toxins that have entered our bodies, fighting not only things we’ve ingested that might make us sick immediately, but also things that might give us cancer. They can also influence the production of neurotransmitters and so are involved in brain function; they may even be involved in mental illnesses.

Another essential task they perform is training our immune systems; this happens in a variety of ways. For example, some bacteria train the gut mucosa to produce antibodies that kill harmful pathogens while leaving the good microflora alone. Others encourage T-cells that produce antibodies to turn on. One kind of T cell, the T Helper 17 cells, are suspected of becoming overactive and causing autoimmune diseases like MS and Rheumatoid Arthritis as well as some forms of cancer, and it is now believed that specific gut bacteria may control these overactive cells.

Gut flora also seem to be involved in the production of hormones that tell the body to store fat. It is known that obese people have very different kinds of gut flora than leaner people, and as obese people lose weight, their gut flora changes to look more like that of thinner people. Just how these gut flora contribute to obesity isn’t completely understood, but it may be that they are capable of extracting more calories from foods than other kinds of bacteria.

If you eat lots of complex carbohydrates, like vegetables, your gut will be dominated by bacteria in the family Prevotella; most people in developing countries have gut bacteria in this category. If you eat lots of meat and fat, your gut will be dominated by the family Bacteriodes; most people in Western countries have this kind of gut bacteria. Even vegetarians and vegans, if they eat enough fat and processed foods, can have this kind of gut “enterotype.” Such a diet may be related to inflammatory bowel disease and other inflammatory disorders.

It is very likely, according to early research, that “metabolic syndrome,” the combination of obesity, diabetes type 2, and high blood pressure that plagues more and more people every year, is linked to the kind of bacteria we have in our guts. It has been shown experimentally that changing diet will change gut bacteria, leading to an increase in the number of species that inhabit us, and knocking back populations of some kinds of microbes that might contribute to obesity.

The research so far seems to indicate that most of us could improve our health by eating lots more complex carbohydrates, primarily foods that come from plants and that have not been heavily processed. This gives your gut flora lots of undigested carbohydrates to ferment and feed on, providing the human host with many health benefits. So in order to grow good gut microbes and reap all the health and psychological benefits of a vibrant personal gut biome, many of us need to change our diets.

Here are a few pointers on how to do this:

  • Try to eat a lot more plants than you do animal products. Look for recipes that use a little meat to a lot of vegetables, like stews and stir fries.
  • Shop the edges of the grocery store, where the whole foods are located, and skip as much as possible the aisles that contain processed foods. Just because something is labeled “gluten-free,” “organic,” or “low-fat” does not mean it’s good for you.
  • Try to eat as many different plants as you can. Try for 30 different plants a week. I know this sounds like a lot, but remember that adding some chopped up parsley to a sauce counts as 1 plant. If we sneak lots of little things like this into our diets, we can get to 30 quickly.
  • Try to eat more of the actual plant. For example, don’t just eat the florets on broccoli – eat the stem, too. In many cases, the greatest nutrition in a plant is in its skin. Potatoes are a good example of this. Skins are high in complex carbohydrates, and are great for your gut microbes. They will slow down how fast you metabolize the starches and sugars in the rest of the potato. Remember, though, that skins from conventional produce can be loaded with pesticides – potatoes are notorious for this. So, if you aren’t eating organic produce, it may be best to toss the skin. At the very least, wash thoroughly (though this may not remove all contaminants).
  • Learn more about which vegetables and fruits contain the most nutrition (and the least) and try to pack your diet with the best ones. I recommend Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side – she has done a tremendous amount of research on plant nutrition and also includes great advice about which varieties to grow or seek out at farmers markets, as well as storing and cooking foods to retain their nutrients.
  • Some foods have “probiotic” qualities – that is, they already contain bacteria that are good for our guts. Some examples are kimchee, sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir, though there are many more. Eat them – they’re good for you. And try making your own. I recommend Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation to learn how.
  • Be aware that, unfortunately, some complex carbohydrates can cause gastric problems in some people. Such problems can be life-threatening, as in celiac disease, where an allergy to the gluten in wheat and some other grains can so degrade the lining of the digestive tract that microbes leak into the blood stream and make the individual extremely ill. For most of us though, such gastric problems amount to uncomfortable bloating, excess gas and, sometimes, constipation or diarrhea – the by-products of happy microbes madly fermenting the food you eat. If you already have such symptoms, or you begin to experience them after you begin eating more complex carbohydrates, talk to your doctor about trying a FODMAP elimination diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, and Mono-saccharides And Polyols. I recommend the book IBS: Free at Last! by Patsy Catsos for an in-depth description of the diet.
  • Go do some research on the research. Here are some websites to start with: hmpdacc.org/ – a link for the NIH Human Microbiome Project.
  • humanfoodproject.com/ – home of the American Gut Project.
  • Avoid antibiotics when you can do so safely, because they can destroy many of your beneficial gut flora. Avoid conventionally raised meat, because many of these animals are fed antibiotics, and this practice may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant microbes.