Lately, I’ve been having an extravaganza of making up my own recipes. And they all seem to involve turmeric.
I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the gorgeous orange color, bright and alive against the grey clouds. Maybe it’s the slight bitterness, which tastes a little like the fall. Or maybe it’s the joy of watching the little turmeric dust clouds rise up from my hands as I pinch it into the skillet. With a hint of ginger, and the echo of curries in my mind, turmeric has been infusing all my dishes lately.
Turmeric originally grew in India, where it’s essential in curries and spicy dishes. It’s a rhizome relation of ginger, which makes sense when you see a photograph of it in its natural state. History documents its use as early as 600 BC. Mostly, it was used as a food coloring and natural dye. In one of my favorite useless quotes, Marco Polo once tried to describe by tumeric by writing that it is “a vegetable with the properties of saffron, yet it is not really saffron.” Gosh, that’s helpful. In the US, most people don’t use it alone. You probably recognize its yellow-golden color as the base of blended curry powder. But lately, I’m just using it by itself, with spectacular results.
Chickpeas dance in my mind too. I just can’t eat enough of them lately. For years, I have been buying chickpeas in the can, already cooked, ready to eat. I always wondered, “Does making them myself really make a difference?” Yes. The answer is yes. It does. Last week, I bought a bag full to bursting in the bulk section of Whole Foods, their dried shells clicking against each other in the cart. Using three parts water to one part dried chickpeas, I filled my biggest stock pot full and let it sit on a back burner, covered, for the entire night. On a slow Sunday, I boiled them up, lifting the lid to smell the steam sometimes. When I took my first bite, I was converted. No hint of the slight sliminess that sometimes accompanies the canned beans. Just gorgeous organic goodness. Rich, meaty, and filled with flavor, these chickpeas just made me want to sing out loud.
So what better combination than turmeric and chickpeas? With a tub full of chickpeas in the refrigerator, and a fresh bunch of organic spinach delivered to my doorstep, I just had to experiment one afternoon.
Here, I have to pause to tell you I have always had an unusual relationship with spinach. I adore it, dream of it, can’t get enough of it. Cutting gluten out of my diet was easy when it came to breakfast, because my favorite breakfast in the world is perfectly poached eggs placed on top of mounds of sauteed spinach. But it’s not just now, in my enlightened adulthood. When I was a kid, I begged for spinach. When I was a teenager, I came home from school, pulled a package of frozen spinach out of the freezer, ripped it open as fast as I could, threw it in the microwave, waited for it to stop spinning, squeezed lemon juice on the dark green leaves, and sat satisfied, five minutes later, after having eaten an entire bowl of salty spinach. What kid does this? I did. And I still do. Only now it’s with fresh spinach, organic, an entire bunch torn into giant pieces, thrown into a pan, with sea salt and olive oil. Three minutes later, I’m sitting, satisfied, my belly full of spinach.
So all I needed to be happy was some chickpeas, some spinach, and some turmeric. Based on a Spanish tapas dish my vegan friend Daniel has made for me a dozen times, this dish arose spontaneously one afternoon last week. I heated the skillet to nearly-smoking high. A little Spanish olive oil. And then a handful of chickpeas. Sea salt. Garlic, and lots of it, minced finely. Cumin seeds, enough to fill the palm of my hand, which I opened and let them rain down upon the browning chickpeas. And enough turmeric to stain my hands that faded saffron color.
I threw in the spinach and stirred it all madly until the spinach wilted. And ate it, with gusto, watching the blustery afternoon outside my window. My new autumn comfort food.
A few days later, I was over on Vashon, spending the weekend with the nephew. We had our wonderful fun together: walks in the forest; twirling; playing with “the tiny man” in the dollhouse; rolling dump trucks over the bedroom carpet; reading the Elmo flap book and giggling; sniffing; and shooing the chickens off the porch. And Elliott told me his first story, after he had “read” me Cowboy Small. (He has it memorized, down to the word, including the page that reads, “’Come and get it!’ yelled the cook at noon. The cowboys had lunch around the chuckwagon. They ate beef, red beans, and rice.”) He said, “Once upon a time,” and everyone around the house perked up his or her ears, because this had never happened before. Here was Elliott’s story:
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Felix. He was at his house, and he heard a knock on the door. Who could it be? When he opened his door, he saw two oranges and a deer. The oranges said, “Hello,” and Felix said “Hello.” The deer said “Hello,” and Felix said, “Hello.” And then they said goodbye, and he shut the door.
I couldn’t stop laughing.
So it was, once again, a magic time with my favorite little guy in the world.
But perhaps the best time of all this weekend was cooking with Elliott. My brother asked me if I wanted to cook on Saturday night, since I have been enjoying my time in the kitchen so much, and Dana was at work until late. (Just before he starts to sound sexist in my words, my brother cooks nearly every night, and he’s good at it.) Of course, I said yes. We all, including my parents who were visiting for the day, climbed in the car and drove to the local health food store on the island. Minglement, a tiny wooden rectangle of a shop, with a sloping floor and the faint smell of patchouli, has been there for decades now. But it still continues to be a gathering place for the community. And recently, I discovered that it also has more gluten-free products available than any large store in Seattle so far. Whenever I visit my brother and his family, I stock up on goodies there.
So we wandered the small store, Elliott shrieking with delight at something. I grabbed whatever looked good, and fresh. Concocting something in my mind, I tried some strange ingredients. I had no recipe. I had never even heard of this recipe. But why not?
Later in the evening, after Mom and Dad had left, I put a butternut squash in the oven to roast, coated in olive oil. When it was done-to-bursting and golden, I started cooking the quinoa. I had found organic red quinoa at the store, and intrigued beyond my knowledge of its taste, I grabbed a package. Andy had a box of Pacific mushroom stock (gluten-free, of course) in the back of the refrigerator. I splashed some into a pan and boiled it, then poured in the red quinoa.
At this point, Elliott looked up from my knees and said, “Is you cooking, Shauna?” Yes I am, Elliott. I could tell that he wanted to see what I was doing. He wanted to be part of it. So I grabbed the chair from the pantry, the same one we had been sitting on earlier to sniff, and pulled it close to the stove. He stood on it, solemnly, staring into the pot of boiling quinoa. When I asked him if he wanted to help stir, he nodded. I put the spatula into his hands, warned him quite strenuously to not touch the burner, and stood by to watch. He stirred with all his might, which wasn’t much. And after every half turn, he stopped, lifted the spatula with a half inch of rosy grains on the end, and said in a quiet voice of awe, “Whoa.” Seriously. He did this every forty seconds. “Wwwhhhoooaaa,” he stretched out, looking intently at the little grains, watching them become food. I wanted to cry with happiness, to see him enjoying it so much. Again, he asked the name. And when he picked some up the next time, he shouted, “Hi there, quinoa!”
How could I be happier?
We ate, a little later, Dana home from work by now. I had seared some tofu, in high heat in the skillet. And of course, I had thrown in little dust clouds of turmeric, with ginger, cumin, onions, and garlic. I’ve finally learned to let tofu cook much longer than I think it should be done, just before burning. This way, it takes on a crunchy taste, with a soft inside. When it was done, I tossed in cubes of the butternut squash, and some sliced red peppers. More turmeric and garlic. And served it all up, over the fragrant red quinoa.
When we were eating, talking away, we let Elliott sit in his high chair, with a little plate in front of him. I don’t think anyone expected him to like it, or even eat it. We enjoyed it, thoroughly, but he is only two. We were almost ignoring him, when he piped up, in a musing, surprisingly insistent voice, “This is very good.” Surprised, we said, “Yes, it is, Elliott.” And he took up another forkful, raised it to his mouth, and chewed thoughtfully before he said, again, “This is very good. Quinoa is very good.”
I agree, little guy.
SHAUNA’S AUTUMN SQUASH, RED PEPPER, AND RED QUINOA
1 butternut squash
enough olive oil to coat
2 cups of organic red quinoa
4 cups of mushroom stock
2 tablespoons of walnut oil
2 red peppers, sliced thin
1 package of firm tofu, drained of liquid
5 garlic cloves, minced finely
turmeric, ginger, and cumin, to taste
°Cut the butternut squash in half. Brush olive oil onto the cut surface. Place in a 375° oven and cook until the squash is soft enough to cut through with a fork. (About one hour.)
°Boil the mushroom stock, then pour in the red quinoa. Cook on low, stirring constantly (preferably with a favorite nephew), until the water is fully absorbed.
°Set a skillet on high heat. Add one tablespoon of the walnut oil. When it’s hot, add medium-thick slices of tofu. Sprinkle on turmeric, ginger, and cumin with a flourish. Throw in the minced garlic. Wait to turn the slices until they’re just about to burn, about five minutes. Do the same on the other side, until they are seared. Set the slices aside.
° Pour the remaining walnut oil in the pan. Quickly sautee the red peppers, then the butternut squash, with more turmeric, sea salt, and cumin.
°Serve the tofu and vegetables on a bed of the red quinoa. Enjoy it while it’s hot.