Saturday, February 23, 2008

Romancing Cinnamon

Ever since I've turned veg (October 8 of 07) I've not only been spending time experimenting in the kitchen (basil cream sauce with silken tofu?! tofu in cake?! Not only do I venture into the realm of weird cooking, the results turn out quite delicious!), I've been overdosing on listening to vegan podcasts. I'm loving Vegan Freak Radio for cow-hugging anarchist-ish angry commentary and Vegetarian Food for Thought for cow-hugging food-related discussion. I also like watching vegan cooking shows like Vegan A Go-Go and Delicious TV. I've listened to a few episodes of Vegan Cooking School and Let's Get Baked and they're pretty good too (this is how obsessed I am with cooking and veganism -- I listen to the podcasts while doing the actual cooking).

Vegan A Go-Go and Vegan Cooking School both had episodes on a Moroccan Stew-type dish that really inspired me to have a go at it. I'm quite lazy at taking notes of recipes though -- I prefer reading the recipe or listening to the episode and then try to remember it while in the middle of cooking. Maybe I'm just testing myself without being aware of it... Anyway, I remembered hearing the words cumin, cinnamon, and cilantro though and I was curious enough to cook this. I've never tried cinnamon in a savory dish and if you're the same, you should try it.

Moroccan Stew with Cinnamon

South Asia actually uses cinnamon a lot in its cooking repertoire, usually as one of the ingredients in curry powder. The cinnamon-y taste doesn't shine in curry though, so I encourage that you experiment with this spice. This recipe that I discovered (for we never really create recipes, we simply find out pleasantly different ways of combining foods -- and surely there are a million different ways) uses curry powder, cumin, cilantro, and cinnamon as the main flavoring ingredients. 

Why Morocco? Try smelling the spices and not think about traveling to some far-off palm tree-lined oasis in the middle of a desert. The complexity of the curry, the smoky earthiness of the cumin, the warm citrus-y cilantro, the sweet woodsy cinnamon... Are you still with me?

Now you can play around with your plant protein of choice -- you can go the tofu way but even for me that's too experimental. Legumes go well with these spices and they're more traditional too. The great thing with legumes is that they're practically flavorless, leaving you, the cook, to come up with your own flavor combinations. Perhaps this is why legumes in stew / soup-type dishes taste so good. You can eat this dish straight after cooking, or let it sit in the fridge for a day or two to really develop the flavors.

I know pinto beans are uncommon in South Asian cooking, but those were what I had on hand. You can use whatever bean you have -- chickpeas, kidney beans, canellinni beans... Have a ball.

Another pleasant surprise (apart from the cinnamon in a savory dish discovery) was: [1] using pinto beans and lentils together and [2] using tomato pulp. The reason I added lentils was because I didn't have enough pinto beans to balance out the amount of the tomato pulp. A few days ago I roasted up some fresh tomatoes but took out the seeds and the juice beforehand. It felt like such a shame to throw away the pulp so I set it aside, knowing well enough that I'd have to find a clever way of using it without looking cheap (or in Filipino, "koripot" -- which I am in real life). 

If you look at the picture of the dish closely (or open it up in another window to really zoom in) you'll see the different play of shapes: the tiny tomato seeds, the medium-sized lentils, and the larger-sized pinto beans. It's art appreciation in action in the kitchen. Now you know what to do when you've got tomato pulp sitting around! The dish will work with regular fresh or canned tomatoes too, if you don't like eating tomato pulp. For me, finding ways of utilizing (usually) unwanted food is probably the epitome of being a domestic goddess.

Oh and another thing, cinnamon with tomatoes just seem to work. Perhaps it's the sweetness of the tomatoes?

olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup cooked pinto beans or any large-sized beans (kidney, canellinni, lima, chickpeas would work)
1/4 cup rinsed uncooked lentils or split peas
1 1/2 cups tomato pulp, diced fresh tomatoes, or canned tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
handful of cilantro leaves and stems, roughly chopped

1. Heat a splash of olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. When warm, throw in the garlic and toss around in the oil. Add in the 3 spices and cook until an amazingly delicious smell wafts across your kitchen.

2. Add in the beans and lentils and stir the mixture until the spices are incorporated into the legumes.

3. Pour in the tomato pulp and stir once more. When the mixture starts to boil, turn down the heat to low and simmer for at least 25 minutes (to fully cook the lentils) or as long as 2 hours (the longer it cooks, the better the flavors develop). If it's looking a bit dry, thin it out with some water.

4. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you want some zing, throw in a pinch or two of dried chili flakes.

5. Fold in the chopped cilantro and turn off the heat.

Makes 2-3 servings.

You can go through several directions with this recipe. Perfect accompaniments include crusty bread, a steaming bowl of rice, even a bowl of pasta noodles.

Some of you may be concerned about cooking the lentils in the tomato pulp as acidity can get in the way of softening the lentils' skin. This shouldn't be a problem though. Lentils cook quite easily in any liquid medium. It's cooking dried beans in an acidic liquid that you should worry about...

When eating this dish, I recommend you close your eyes and think of what far-off place you wish you were in, instead of... here.

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