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Lentil Soup

Who needs a delicious, fat-free, easy soup full of protein that can double as a dip with only a minor adjustment? You? Well, isn’t it lucky that you are reading this instead of some poor silly person who needs no such thing? Because this, you see, is a post about such a soup-slash-dip.

Celery. Onions. Garlic. I know I put ’em in everything, but they’re just so tasty. Hack some up and put them in a pot. You can also add parsley at this step.

mmmm

Sort the lentils – they are not always perfectly sorted when you buy them, and there will sometimes be rocks, other legumes, or grains in with them. Throw out anything you don’t want to eat. Then, thoroughly rinse off your lentils in a sieve or small-holed colander. The more you rinse, the less lentil scum you’ll have to skim off the top of your soup as it cooks. Add the quantity of lentils to the pot. In this example, I’m using red lentils, but other varieties work too. Add also some Better than Bouillon, some salt, and enough water to more than cover the whole thing. Stir it up and turn the heat on high.

yum

Lentils absorb a lot of water. Stir every few minutes, and keep an eye on the pot to make sure they don’t dry out and start to burn – you will probably need to splash in a little more water now and then.

delish!

During the cooking process, some moderately gross stuff will float to the top. This is lentil scum. It’s not dangerous, and it won’t even taste bad if you leave it there, but if it makes you nervous you can skim it off with a spoon and rinse it down the sink. Expect a few onion/garlic/celery/lentil casualties with the scum if you do.

When the lentils start to look nice and mushy, spoon out a few and eat them. If they are soft and squishy all through, then you can turn off the heat; if not, keep adding water as necessary, cooking, and tasting until they are. Once you have the desired texture, you can keep them at a boil long enough to cook off any excess water (you don’t need to worry about overcooking lentils); just make sure they stay wet and stirred-up enough not to burn. When this is done, turn the heat way down.

Next, it’s time to season them. I have two basic seasoning styles I use with lentils: curry and citrus-green spices. (Citrus meaning lemon or lime – I haven’t tried other fruits – and “green spices” meaning things like thyme, dill, chives, rosemary, sage, etc., not so much basil or oregano.) In this example, I’m using lemon and thyme as the main flavors (I’ll cover curry later): to do the same, squirt in some lemon juice to taste and do the same with thyme (except thyme you need to pinch or sprinkle, rather than squirt). Small quantities of the other green spices I mentioned aren’t amiss with this combination either – sometimes I add all of them. Finish off with salt and pepper, also to taste. If they’re starting to look less brightly colored than you’d prefer, you can add turmeric to give them a nice yellow-orange hue.

om nom nom

If you wind up with a thin soup and you were hoping to be able to use it as a dip, you can use cornstarch to good effect: mix up a spoonful or two of cornstarch in a separate cup or bowl with water (or your lemon juice, if you feel like being super-efficient) until it’s smooth, then pour it in and stir to incorporate. The lentils will stick more effectively to chips after that. If a small amount of cornstarch doesn’t thicken the soup enough to suit you, add more, or try turning up the heat for a bit to cook the starches.

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Begin with a generous amount of olive oil:

oil

Heat it over medium-low heat. Add enough flour to turn it into goop, and fry it up into a nice roux:

roux

Add a generous amount of minced garlic, a little Better than Bouillon, three or four good squirts of lemon juice, lots of basil (dried is fine), any combination of crushed red or ground white pepper, and a small palmful of salt.

sauce

If it thickens up very fast on contact with the moist ingredients and threatens to burn before you’ve finished adding them, you can add a little cold water and mix it in. When you’ve gotten them all into the sauce, it’s time to thin it out with cream (light and heavy both work) Don’t use milk – it will curdle! Stir thoroughly as you add cream, to make sure the roux mixture is all broken up and incorporated. Add cream a little at a time until the sauce is the right texture for your taste and purpose. Taste it; if it needs something, give it to it. If you are likely to have leftovers, add more lemon than you think you need; the strength of the lemon flavor diminishes overnight in the fridge.

sauce

Use it on pasta, veggies, as a hot dip, as a pizza sauce in place of marinara, whatever you need a yummy sauce for.

Dumplings

Dumplings are a versatile food. You can put all kinds of things in them, not just specifically crafted dumpling filling – some of the things I have successfully made dumplings with are leftover lentil or bean soups, chili, applesauce, mashed potatoes, and stirfries of various types. I have attempted but do not recommend tuna salad dumplings and chocolate dumplings. Dumplings have two major cooking methods: boiling and frying. If you fry your dumplings (as I will do in the example below) then the filling must contain plenty of moisture so you don’t wind up with an extra-crunchy dinner. If you have a filling that’s a little on the dry side, you can add a few drops of water before you seal up the wrapper.

I use Shanghai-style dumpling wrappers, which I procure from the Asian grocery down the street. Lay out any number of them on a plate:

wrappers

Then put one heaping spoonful of filling in the middle of each. Don’t overload the wrappers; I know it doesn’t look like much filling, but once they’re sealed up they’ll be quite plump.

w/ filling

Seal the dumplings by dipping your finger in a cup of water, trailing it around the edge of the dumpling wrapper in a ring (replenishing the water on your finger as necessary), and then folding the whole thing in half and pinching tightly along the semicircular edge.

folded

Coat a frying pan with olive or canola oil and put it on medium-low heat (you can go up to medium if you’ve done this before and you’re confident in your ability not to burn the dumplings). I do not recommend including anything but the oil outside of the dumplings at the stage; if you want to put something like soy sauce, salt or spices, or powdered sugar on them after the fact, do it when they’ve come off the heat. Arrange your pinched starchy containers of filling, laying them on one side:

in pan

Move them around with a spatula or similar utensil periodically, to make sure they don’t stick – just nudge them enough to make sure they have a layer of oil between them and the pan itself. Turn them over periodically. You don’t have to make sure they’re done on a given side before turning that side up; nothing is stopping you from turning them back over. The more you turn them, the less likely they are to burn when you aren’t looking. When they have cooked to your desired level of crispy brownness:

browned

Then turn them out of the pan and eat them.

To boil: Bring a pot mostly full of salted water to a rolling boil. Drop in tightly sealed dumplings (if they have gaps, water will get in and filling will get out) and give them a stir. Continue cooking them until the dumpling wrappers are tender and transparent, then either drain them in a colander or fish them out individually with a slotted spoon. Consume.

Dumpling Filling

Dumpling filling is just what it sounds like: a thing you make to put in dumplings. I’ll be covering the dumplings themselves in a separate post. I make dumpling filling with two basic ingredients – textured vegetable protein and a veggie. Kale is the best veggie I’ve tried for the purpose, but other greens would work too, and for this example, I used chopped broccoli.

broccoli

I boiled it. In theory, you could roast it, but you want a nice moist result for your dumpling filling: it’s the water in the filling that cooks the wrappers, if you fry rather than boil the dumplings. Reserve the cooking liquid. Measure out the same volume of water as you plan to use of TVP (for instance, if you want a cup of TVP, measure out a cup of the vegetable’s cooking liquid.) Add Better than Bouillon and the herbs and spices of your choice.

liquid

Bring it back to a boil and then dump it in a bowl with your measured amount of TVP. Stir it up to make sure every one of the flakes is incorporated.

tvp

Let that sit for a while, and then mix up the TVP and the vegetable. You can taste it at this point and see if you put in enough herbs and spices, and add more if you didn’t.

filling

This is the best soup ever.

Make it. You will thank me.

First, chop up an onion, a potato, a ton of garlic, and a head of cauliflower. Remove the peels/leaves/skins. (You may adjust these ratios if you like. One entire bag of frozen cauliflower works nearly as well as a head of fresh cauliflower.) You don’t have to chop the items up neatly or into small pieces, just get them dismantled reasonably thoroughly.

Add water – don’t overdo it; just add enough for the veggies to cook in. When they cook down, there will be plenty of liquid to go around. Add, also, a generous spoonful of Better than Bouillon. Bring to a boil, and stir occasionally. You don’t need to worry about overcooking this, so err on the side of leaving it simmering for too long rather than risking the larger chunks being underdone.

When it’s cooked, it goes through the blender. I recommend a hand blender/blender wand for this purpose, because you don’t need to do as many dishes that way, but as long as you can be reasonably sure your stand blender won’t crack at an inopportune moment and hit you in the face with hot soup, that will work just fine too. Blend and blend and blend until you have a delightful off-white purée. Then, in goes the cream!

Isn’t it bee-yoo-tee-ful? Keep adding and stirring in cream (heavy cream and light cream both work fine, and if you are on a diet, you could probably get away with half and half) until it is this color:

soup!

Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a grain. It is easy to cook, delicious, and nutritious! Begin by rinsing your quinoa thoroughly in a sieve: it arrives at the store with stuff called “saponins” all over it and they are not tasty. Then, measure out about how much quinoa you’ve got, and put half again as much water or broth (with salt and the spices of your choice, and whatever liquid flavorings – lemon juice? olive oil?) in a pot on the stove. Half a cup of dry quinoa is more than enough for one person. Dump in the quinoa, too, and stir it up and bring it to a boil.

quinoa

When it’s boiling, put a lid on, turn down the heat, and let it cook for fifteen or twenty minutes. (I advise using a clear lid so you can see if the water has all been absorbed without having to pick it up. Then, take the quinoa off the heat and let it sit with the lid on for another five minutes or so before fluffing it with a fork.

quinoa

It’s pretty tasty by itself, but not all that exciting. Stir-fry it with leafy greens – kale is a good choice! – to jazz up the color and texture. You can also serve quinoa cold or under things like thick soups or curries.

You can make cheese at home! It’s easy and delicious. All you need is milk, salt and the other spices of your choice, and lemon or lime juice (vinegar works too). I have always used whole milk, cumin and coriander, and lemon juice (with a little vinegar if the lemon juice won’t curdle it properly), but you can vary these things. I usually make half a gallon of milk’s worth. If I made any more, it would be very hard to keep the milk from boiling over – milk foams up like crazy when you boil it. Which is the first step:

milk

Pour all the milk into a pot that’s much bigger than you think you need. If the milk takes up more than half the volume of the pot, you’ll get into trouble. You might get into trouble if it takes up less than half the volume, too, but at least it won’t be inevitable. Add a small palmful of salt and generous sprinkles of your favorite spices, stir it up, and turn up the heat. Stir constantly, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pot thoroughly as you do so, because milk burns easily and scorched milk will make your cheese taste funny.

The object of this part of the process is to get the milk to boil/simmer for a bare minimum of five minutes. This doesn’t necessarily have to be continuous. If your milk foams up, you will have to pick up the pot off the burner to get it to simmer down; this might get it to stop boiling temporarily. But make a note of how long it spends at a boil. When it’s been five minutes – maybe plus one for luck, if you’ve had to pick it up and put it down again very frequently – you can take it off the heat.

Next comes the curdling! Lemon juice is my acid of choice, but lime would work too, and in a pinch you can go with vinegar. Add it a little at a time and stir frequently until you see the milk solids separating from the liquid:

curds

Now it’s time to strain. If you have a cheesecloth, another pot, and binder clips or a reasonable facsimile, you can copy my setup:

cheesecloth

If you don’t have those things, an old, smooth cotton pillowcase works too (and comes conveniently in a bag shape). Basically, you need to arrange a way for liquid to pass through a cloth while the curds are caught. Cheesecloth is pretty cheap, and so are binder clips. Be sure to rinse your cloth thoroughly in cold water first to wash away any lingering flavors of detergent or your kitchen cupboard. You don’t want your cheese to taste like those things.

Ladle or pour your curds and whey onto your straining cloth:

curds

Then, pick up the cloth, wring out as much whey as you can (careful – it’ll still be hot) – and put it between a few layers of paper towels, on a cookie sheet or something similarly washable with a lip, under a potful of water, to press out more liquid.

pressing

If you are the kind of person who (like me) likes to fuss over things, you can turn over the paneer and change the paper towels and poke it to test the consistency every half hour or so. If you’re not, just leave it alone for three to six hours depending on how moist you want your final product. When it’s done, gently unwrap the cheesecloth:

cheese

Eat it plain, put it in curry, crumble it over salad, chop it up for sandwiches, freeze chunks of it and dip them in batter and deep fry them, cut it into cubes and put toothpicks in them and serve them at a party with chutney. Mmmmm. Cheese. (It doesn’t melt well, so you can’t really make cheese sauce with it or use it to top a pizza.)