Saturday, December 17, 2011

Two great stews

As readers of this blog may know, I've been in a Middle Eastern food phase.  Beans are frequent players in peasant and street dishes throughout the Middle East, and I've been eating a lot of them lately.

I've also learned something recently that was sort of shrouded in confusion for me in the past, and that is that you don't have to soak your beans before you cook them.  Half the people on earth probably don't soak their beans, but I always did, thinking in a vague way that the soaking water ("Never, never cook your beans in the soaking water," how many times have you read that?) was mildly poisonous or something, that beans would remain tough in the centre if you just tossed them into boiling water, that precious enzymes would not develop if the beans weren't allowed to soak overnight.  Bryanna Clark Grogan has an enlightening discussion on this topic in her World Vegan Feast, and comes to the conclusion that there are a lot of different ways to cook beans, but soaking is totally optional.  I've been playing with this novel concept of not soaking, and as usual she's right.  So far I have not been poisoned or blown up with gas: my beans take a little longer to cook, but that's it.  Not even that much longer, to be perfectly honest.

How liberating to know that you can cook with bean mixes like the one shown above with impunity.  Because you can't soak these bean mixes overnight as they contain red lentils and barley and split peas, which will decompose in the soaking water.  (Then why do they sell them like that?  The whole issue, as I say, has been a snarl of contradictions for me, which I am happy to have finally unraveled.)

This particular bean mix is a mixture of mixes, kind of a button box of beans where I put odds and ends and trouble beans like those innocent-looking white kidney beans that would not soften no matter how long I soaked them, cooked them, etc.  I had been reduced to picking them out of cooked dishes in the past but, frugal as I am, didn't actually throw them out, thinking that one day I would find a way to make them as tender and tasty as other beans...and I have.  The slow cooker will do it.

I had the day off work and a million things to do and no time to hang about the kitchen watching pots, so I washed two cups from the bean box and put them into the slow cooker on high while I shopped, cleaned house, went for a long walk, wrapped Christmas presents, and completed all the 999,996 other urgent missions on my list.

After a few hours, when the beans were tender--even the white ones, to my joy--I [took some out to freeze for another day and] fried up onions, garlic, eggplant, sweet pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, salt, and pepper:

and added that to the slow cooker, along with tomatoes, some kabocha squash, chopped parsnip, and a handful of dried apricots and prunes:

This soup is loosely based on the Iranian bean and vegetable soup in Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, in which she remarks that "It is the type of soup you will find in the bazaar at the earliest hours of the morning, dished out for breakfast from huge cauldrons in which a sheep's head and feet have given their special richness, and where all the vegetables in season find their place."  I skipped the sheep parts and added some additional broth powder, swapped TVP for the ground meat in the recipe, and, near the end, added a dusting of bulgur to thicken it, which it didn't really need, I just wanted to try it.  In fact, I just kept adding bits of this and that until the slow cooker was full, went off to do some more errands, and by suppertime it was a great big slow cooker full of fragrant flavour.  The eggplant, kabocha, tomatoes, and most of the beans melted into silky nothingness, the dried fruits were plump and sweet and wonderful...mmmm...

So what I did with it was take as much out as I wanted to eat that day and put it in a little pot and wilted in some spinach and cilantro, topped it with red onions and tofu yogurt, and it was one lovely meal, ready in only 12 hours from start to finish:

What to do with the other five quarts or so?  Well, I froze most of it in batches, but saved some in the fridge.  Ms. Roden further remarks that "In Iran it is served with bread and bunches of fresh herbs such as cress, mint, cilantro, and also scallions, radishes, and pickles."  Doesn't that sound good?  Language like that I find intoxicating and I was looking forward to mixing and matching all those lovely fresh ingredients with the stew (leftovers, yes, but you can do something different with them every time).

So last night I got home late, and had planned just to have the stew again, maybe with scallions, etc., this time, but looking for a salad recipe in another book, was struck with cyclonic force by a recipe that is going to change my culinary life, the Pumpkin and sweet potato stew from a book called The Food of Morocco, one of those big picture books they sell in Chapters/Indigo ("recipes by Tess Mallos" in tiny little white letters practically dissolved in the photograph of a silver serving dish behind them--not even on the cover but on the inside title page, and the name of Jane Lawson, the supposed author according to Amazon, doesn't appear anywhere at all--what's the deal with that, anyway?  Most of the books in this series don't actually even have authors, though the recipes and the writing in general are in my opinion both good, and the pictures are superb).

Anyway, my lord!  The recipe is here--this is pretty much the exact recipe, except that mine doesn't call for saffron or give the option of ground cinnamon (don't use ground cinnamon, it will muddy the look of the dish).  Using cooking pumpkin or butternut squash would likely give a more chunky stew, as kabocha tends to melt under any kind of heat, but kabocha is so...absolutely...wonderful...sweet and melt-in-your-mouth buttery may have noticed I've been putting it into everything lately.  It's my favorite food so I'm sure it's a superfood ;-)

Start with browning onions in a large pot.  If, like me, you pour the oil off the top of your jar of peanut butter rather than stirring it in, this is an ideal time to bring out that roasted peanut oil.  You don't need much, but it adds a perceptible layer of flavour to the stew.  When the onions begin to turn golden, add garlic, ground ginger, turmeric, a cinnamon stick, harissa or cayenne, the chopped sweet potatoes and squash, and a handful of raisins.  I did not add any sweetener--the dish was sweet enough without it.

Then you just cook it down, which takes about 15 minutes:

Words just don't do justice to how good this is.  You can't stop eating it, and what a colour!  It's like a bowl of sunshine.  Most definitely something to serve on the winter solstice if you celebrate it (and if you don't, you should start, just so you can serve this stew).  I cooked the kabocha with the skin on, but you don't have to, and of course if you're using another kind of squash that might not be practical.  I really wouldn't have thought of combining orange squash with sweet potatoes, but the mixture is peculiarly divine, and the raisins add sweetness and a tangy, tart edge, and it's hot from the harissa too...sigh...maybe I'll have it again tonight...

Continuing the sunny theme, I served it with some sauteed peppers and red onions with fennel seed that I saw Michael Smith do on the Food Network (monkey see, monkey do, especially when the monkey sees it at the gym in a state of semi-starvation):

The whole meal?  Why, it looks a lot like most of my other meals, a big colorful mess...

In this case, the parts are greater than the whole, at least visually, but where is it written that you can't serve two stews in the same meal?


  1. Wow, what gorgeous colors and incredible-looking food! Aren't slow-cookers great, especially for beans?

  2. Good to know about the beans; I've kicked myself so many times for going to bed without beans soaking.
    Both dishes look great but I'm partial to the kabocha stew. I had a kabocha squash for the first time this fall and I'm hooked!

  3. Wow, both these stews look gorgeous! They both sound wonderfully delicious too! I think I'd have a hard time to stop eating either one.

    Great info on the beans too. I've used my slow cooker for beans, but only after soaking them...I'm going to just go for it next time! :)

  4. I learned, due to laziness, that you don't have to soak your beans. Well, I do the whole "quick soak" thing where you bring them to a boil and let them sit, covered, and then drain and cook them after. I know you don't even need to do that - you can just boil the crap out of them - but it takes the same amount of time and it's a habit now.

    I love those big food picture books from Chapters, and they're usually really inexpensive! They're so fun to flip through.