June 26, 2009

Ethiopian Stew in Spicy Berbere Sauce

Ethiopian cuisine is unusual in that most of it is eaten with a spongy flat bread called injera. If you ever get the opportunity to eat in an Ethiopian restaurant, take it! The best meal to get is a large platter of various meats and vegetables. These are shared among the table. If the restaurant is authentic, there will be no silverware. You tear off a chunk of injera and use it to pick up food off the platter.

Ethiopian food also tends to be spicy. A common spice blend is called berbere, which is used in many local dishes. This recipe recreates this blend. The amount of heat can be controlled by how much cayenne pepper is added.

This dish is typically made with beef, but I have adapted it to use soy wadi and cook it in a pressure cooker. I also serve this over rice, as I am still trying to perfect a gluten-free version of injera. And since this is traditionally eaten with injera, it is supposed to be drier than I make it here. You could boil off some of the liquid once the dish is done, or drain the tomatoes before adding.

Ethiopian Stew in Spicy Berbere Sauce


2 small onions, finely minced
3 T olive oil
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 T ground paprika
1 t cayenne
1 t ground cumin
1 t ground fenugreek seeds
½ t ground turmeric
½ t cinnamon
½ t cardamom
¼ t ground cloves
¼ t allspice
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
¼ t cup dry red wine
¾ c water or broth
2 c soya wadi


1. Add the olive oil to the pressure cooker and bring to medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add the ginger and saute an additional minute.

2. Add all of the spices and stir in. Cook until fragrant. Add tomatoes (including juices), the wine, and the water. Finally, stir in the wadi.

3. Lock the lid and bring to high pressure. Cook for 15 minutes, then let the pressure release naturally.

4. Salt to taste and serve over rice.

June 21, 2009

Simple Foods

You may have noticed that many of the dishes presented here on the Evolving Palate are fairly simple. This is another motto of the Evolution Kitchen: "Simple foods satisfy the palate; complex foods confuse the palate." This is the main reason I don't like French cuisine. It it often overly rich and complicated.

I like to think that food has several levels of complexity. To me, the most important levels are taste and texture. Other less important levels, but still important, are color, temperature, and aroma. Complex foods have many tastes and textures. A rule of thumb for me is: simple foods should have no more than 3 tastes and textures, each. Any more overwhelms and confuses your senses.

There are many tastes in the food world. Example tastes are:
  • sweet
  • sour
  • salty
  • creamy/buttery
  • cheesy

That list pretty much sums up the repertoire of the SAD (standard American Diet). But there are so many other tastes that foreign to us, like savory, earthy, bitter, tangy, spicy, and so on.

For texture we have:
  • soft
  • chewy
  • crunchy(celery, apple)
  • crispy (fried food, chips)
  • flaky (pastries)
  • stringy (meat)
  • mushy

Food can be categorized according to their complexity. Here is a chart with some example dishes to demonstrate what I mean:

The green zone are foods that require little enhancing. Nuts and fruit are excellent examples of food that can be eaten simply as they are. Yellow zone foods blend contrasting tastes and textures to create a tantalizing dish, yet still simple. The red zone is what we call overly-complicated food. This food is such a mish-mash of tastes and textures that your mouth never quite knows what it's eating. The type of food you will find in the Evolution Kitchen are those in the green and yellow zones.

I present now a recipe that clearly falls into the yellow zone. Not only does it have only three main ingredients, but it forgoes the traditional sauce that drowns most vegetable dishes.

Here I showcase broccoli, an incredibly nutritious vegetable that rarely needs much enhancement. But I add a little twist by putting in cranberries for their sweet/sour taste and slightly chewy texture. Then I add some toasted pine nuts to add a crunchy earthy taste. This recipe is a breeze to make and satisfies the palate.

Broccoli with Pine Nuts and Cranberries


2 bunches of broccoli (about 2 lbs)
1 T olive oil
1/3 c dried cranberries
¼ c pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ t salt
¼ t pepper


1. Trim the broccoli into bite-size pieces. Shave off outer layer of stalks. Cook broccoli in boiling water for about 5 minutes. Drain, but keep the broccoli in the pot. Add the olive oil and stir fry for 2 minutes.

2. Stir in cranberries and pine nuts. Heat for another 30 seconds or so until heated through. Serve.

June 9, 2009

Grilled Herb Tofu

I love the taste of gyros. I can do without the lamb, but the herbs and spices are quite tasty. So I have been searching for a good gyro recipe using tofu, which has a similar enough consistency to lamb.

I combined two recipes and came up with something that is not quite the gyro flavor I was looking for, but the taste nonetheless was wonderful. Sometimes "failing" at your quest can succeed in discovering something new.

Grilled Herb Tofu


1 block firm tofu, drained
2 T olive oil
1½ T lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 t oregano
1 t rosemary
¼ t pepper
1 t soy sauce


1. Slice the tofu along the short edge in 8 thin slices.

2. Mix together all other ingredients in a dish. Lay the tofu slices in the marinade and make sure it is all covered. Marinade for at least 4 hours. Overnight is best.

3. Grill the tofu on a hot grill.

June 8, 2009

In Defense Of Food

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

These terse sentences open up Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. These simple words should be enough; no need for an entire book. They could have been written on a Chinese fortune cookie.

Pollan shares his theories as to what is wrong with the Western Diet and how it leads the world in cases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. He delivers fascinating insights to how the Western diet is influenced by scientists, nutritionists, and government. And none of these entities really know what they are talking about. Eggs are bad for you, now they're good. Oat bran is good for you, now it's not. Eat butter, don't eat butter, eat it again. Avocados are horribly fatty, but that kind of fat is now ok. Sound familiar?

Scientists and nutritionists are barely on the cusp of understanding how the human body needs and utilizes food. Everything they say is very narrow-viewed and must be taken with a grain of salt (but not too much; remember your blood pressure). And Government guidelines regarding food can't be trusted at all since they are largely controlled by the powerful beef, dairy, and sugar lobbies.

Pollan goes on and on about how nutrionalism is way off base because it is trying to find that single magic bullet that will make us healthy, adding supplements here and anti-oxidants there. Nutritionists tend to reduce food down to single nutrients and chemicals and try to isolate what it is that makes it healthy (or unhealthy). Pollan's point is that you cannot dissect food into parts. It is whole food in its entirety that make it healthy, not any one compound contained therein.

An idea that Pollan drives hard is the notion that nutritionalism is not only bad science, it is dangerous science. He points out how nutritionists rose to power over the Western diet by saying that margarine was healthier than butter. Feeling smug, nutritionism continued to lay down the law of healthy eating, only to contradict and recant most of what they say months or years later. For example, the margarine advice turned out to be very bad advice indeed.

All in all, I think Pollan is a bit unfair to the nutritionists. Nutritionists are not doctors and they are not chemists; yet everything they publish is treated as gospel by millions of gullible people. It is these ignorant masses who have developed a "unhealthy obsession about eating healthy." The nutritionists are just feeding their obsession.

Another issue that Pollan kept harping on is that we should go back to the traditional diet of our culture and ancestors. Basically, he says we should go back to eating what our grandmothers and great grandmothers used to eat. But I have German, Irish, and Scottish roots. Do I start eating German potato salad crammed into a sheep's stomach?

Pollan lost me a little in this section of the book. I don't think we should trap our diets in time, forced to eat boiled rump roast and goose liver for an eternity. There is no reason why our palates cannot evolve. What I think he really wanted to say is to remove the modern processing that is going on with today's food, processing that did not happen in your grandmother's time.

Another point I believe he was trying to make is to eat a diet that has been time-tested by the various cultures throughout the world. Take the vegetarian Hindus, for example. Over the centuries, they have perfected a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, and beans. And Orientals have found ways to eat soy (tofu and tempeh) that is both nutritious and removes the problems inherent with soybeans. So what Pollan is really asking is, why mess up a good thing? Which is exactly what the Western diet has done with its chemical tinkering.

To me the advice is simply this: Mother Nature already produces the best food possible. Processing food beyond basic preparation is not natural. Adding chemicals, anywhere in the food chain, is not natural. High fructose corn syrup is not natural. Wonder Bread is not natural. Cows forced to lactate via hormones is not natural. Genetically modified grains are not natural. Anything that is not natural is not good for you. I think this theory is pretty easy to digest (sorry about the pun).

In the end, here is what Pollan advises: eat more whole foods, cut back on quantity, stop snacking, savor your food, cook your own food, and grow more of your own food. Or to go back to the very beginning: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

All in all I found Defense a good read. Although nothing he said will change my diet much, because I am already following most of his ideas, he does provide an interesting history on how we got to where we are. I do have an issue with his tone at times, but as a journalist, I think he uses this style to force readers to think. If he were too subtle, we might miss his point, and missing the point could mean the difference between a healthy life and one riddled with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.