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Expanding Your Comfort (Food) Zone

By Herb Gardener –

The comfort food groove can soon turn into a rut without an injection of unfamiliar or downright adventurous ingredients. A home cook need not trek far to find new inspirations; let Herb be your Sherpa.

Ume vinegar (not a true vinegar, but who’s keeping score) is extracted from Japanese plum-like fruit, umeboshi. Briny and acidic, it is best enjoyed in small doses to brighten vegetable sautés (excellent on bok choy), soups, or dressings. Stay with the saline theme and take a chance on seaweed. I like to add mineral-rich purple dulse to a grilled cheese sandwich. Destination: health food store.

Kraft wants you to believe that Velveeta® is “liquid gold”, but during my college years that label was reserved for gold tequila. My attention recently turned to tequila blanco upon discovering and preparing a hot sauce recipe in Bon Appetit magazine featuring the clear blue agave distillate, Thai chilies, and whole spices. Fish tacos took welcome notice of the heat, as did brunch guests that I introduced to a “sunburned” margarita. Destination: liquor store.

Kale

I recall the kale garnish that accompanied my father’s well-done t-bone and baked potato at the officer’s club circa 1970 — a fibrous, dark green nettle fit for ruminants, not humans. Kale is a splendidly earthy and nutrient-dense vegetable, however, when purchased fresh and treated with care. Lacinato or black, red, and other kale varieties taste great in soups and stews as anyone with a Portuguese grandmother will attest, but they shine even in raw preparations. I like Aarti Sequiera’s “spa treatment” in the following recipe, http://bit.ly/aS79Wd. Destination: farmer’s market.

Guava paste will transport you to a Cuban street café, sun plunging into the Caribbean, salsa rhythms riding a sultry breeze. Pair this sweet/tart tropical quintessence with salty cheese, fold in muffin batter, or build an aromatic, exotic barbecue sauce around its luxe flavors. Buy Guava paste, also known as guayabate, in the flat round can, not the box. Destination: Megamart Hispanic or ethnic food sections.

This Spanish recipe from The Essential Saffron Companion by John Humphries (Ten Speed Press, 1996) starts with chickpeas, an indispensably versatile ingredient. Keep several cans in your pantry for when, as the Cajun superstition goes, you drop a dish towel and company suddenly appears.

 

Garbanzos Azafran Con Espinaca/Chickpeas with Saffron and Spinach

(Serves four to six)

Garbanzos Azafran Con Espinaca

One pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

One pound potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

Two hard-boiled eggs

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

One thick slice French bread

One clove garlic, peeled and halved

One onion, finely chopped

One teaspoon paprika

30 saffron filaments, or ½ packet of powdered saffron, infused with one

tablespoon hot water

Salt

Two pounds fresh spinach, washed and chopped.

 

Heat plenty of water in a large pot. When boiling, add the chickpeas, cover, and simmer. Add the potatoes and a little salt and cook for 30 minutes. Chop the whites of the eggs. Reserve the yolks. Heat some oil in a frying pan and fry the slice of bread. Remove, then fry the garlic and remove. Slowly sauté the onion in the same pan, add the paprika and saffron infusion. Stir pan contents in with the chickpeas. Crush the garlic, bread, and egg yolk in a mortar and add to the chickpeas along with the chopped egg white. Season with salt. Cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. Add the spinach. Finally, test the chick peas for doneness, then serve in soup bowls. Fabulous comfort food!

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