September 30, 2011
Welcome back to the kitchen. As food lovers
know, inspiration can strike at any moment. Bothe the enjoyment AND creation of great food is at least party
mental. Our taste memory is surprisingly strong. If you imagine the crunch of a celery stalk, that almost salty
flavor starts to creep into our minds. Or imagine picking fresh mint leaves, that bright aroma filling your
By imagining different ingredients and pairing them in our minds, we can come up
with unique and original combinations. Or, at the very least, I find it worthwhile to sometimes just sit back and
day dream about awesome dishes and ultimate meals.
In the spring of 2005 I found myself at
a Zen Buddhist retreat in southern India. This consisted of several sessions of meditation throughout the day
lasting 45 minutes each or more, plus service work around the compound, hikes around the beautiful surrounding
hillside, and incredible meals made of fresh ingredients from Bodhi Zendo’s on-site garden.
/> Now, I am no meditation master. In fact, I found the act of kneeling or sitting cross legged,
completely still for such long periods of time to be a challenge for both my body and my mind. But by the end of
the retreat I finally had a few sessions where I was able to stop fidgeting.
afternoon meditation one of my instructors commented that I had seemed particularly centered and still. I had to
laugh. You see, the point of meditation is to have no real attachment to any particular thought, and to try and
still and empty your mind. But what had I been doing? I’d been planning out the intricate details of a
gourmet vegetarian menu for a fantasy restaurant!
In stead of meditating on the sound of
one hand clapping I’d been pairing sliced steamed beats with toasted hazelnut paste, crumbled gorgonzola,
and the bite of fresh arugula leaves with a drizzle of aged balsamic. I’d been browning sage leaves in
butter to toss with roasted squash and home made pasta, topped with toasted garlic, parsley, and plenty of fresh
ground black pepper. I’d been squeezing fresh fruit juices for a rainbow of naturally sweetened sorbets to
be served with roasted chocolate nibs and candied flowers or crystallized ginger. The food fantasy just went on
So perhaps I ended up missing the point of that Zen meditation retreat. But you
know what? I really enjoyed it. For me, fantasizing about food is a useful exercise, especially when I am able to
turn those dreams into reality.
I think one of the most useful tricks for inventing
recipes in your head is to have foods grouped into categories. I know that ginger goes really well with soy sauce,
sesame oil, and spicy pepper. Cilantro can be good in there as well. I think of thyme, basil, oregano, and
rosemary as sort of the Italian family of flavors, which go great with tomato, zucchini, and of course olive oil.
Garlic goes with pretty much anything savory. I love the sweet family of “pumpkin pie spices” like
cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little clove.
As you try various dishes, exotic or otherwise, try
to pay attention to what specific ingredients make it good. You can train your tongue to distinguish pretty subtle
flavors, and this is a skill that can really aid in cooking by feel. You see, I am a big proponent of just rolling
up your sleeves and giving it a try. I think that recipes can sometimes become too much of a crutch, limiting
creativity. When you look over a recipe, think what you would change or substitute and why.
/> And finally, some people think of me as overly picky or never happy, because I can always
think of ways to improve a dish I’ve cooked. But this critique is just another important tool in the cooking
arsenal. Anything we do in life can always be improved in some way, and when cooking it is important to reflect on
what you’ve created so you can remember it for next time, and make it even a little bit better.
/> Oh dear, we’ve gotten his far into the program and haven’t even yet begun to talk
about a specific recipe. I’d love to get back to some of those dishes I created while pretending to meditate
in India, but regretfully I can’t really remember very many of them this many years later.
/> I am still thinking of some of the exotic spices I enjoyed in India, like cardamom and
ginger, and how I might be able to put those to good use in a classic comfort food dessert—rice pudding.
This is a really easy sweetened dairy and rice dish that likely has many variations throughout the world. In our
Indian version we will use fragrant basmati or jasmine rice, plus add in some raisins and chopped cashews.
/> But why stop there? I’ve got a big harvest of pears from my backyard tree, and one of
my very favorite things to do with this excellent local fruit is to poach them in wine with honey and spices. So
we’ll add the ginger and more cardamom in here along with cinnamon sticks and citrus zest. They take on a
beautiful hue fro the red wine, and will pair really nicely with the Indian rice pudding. A pear’s perfect
So for the Indian Rice Pudding we’ll
1 cup cooked long grain or basmati rice (a great time to use leftovers!)
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 ounces sugar, approximately 1/4 cup
teaspoon ground cardamom
1 1/2 ounces golden raisins, approximately 1/3 cup
1 1/2 ounces chopped
unsalted cashews, approximately 1/3 cup (I prefer them toasted)
1 tablespoon candied ginger, chopped fine
In a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat, combine the cooked rice and milk.
Heat until the mixture begins to boil. Decrease the heat to low and cook at a simmer until the mixture begins to
thicken, stirring frequently, approximately 5 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium, add the heavy
cream, coconut milk, sugar, and cardamom and continue to cook until the mixture just begins to thicken again,
approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Use a whisk to help prevent the cardamom from clumping together. Once the mixture
just begins to thicken, remove from the heat and stir in the raisins and cashews.
Transfer the mixture
to individual serving dishes or a glass bowl and place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding. Serve
chilled or at room temperature. Of course, it tastes good hot to, but I want it cooled to go with the wine poached
So for our wine poached pears with Indian spices we’ll need:
4-6 cored and
sliced pears. You can just slice them in half if you would like to present them that way. Make sure the pears are
just barely ripe, they will fall apart if they are too far gone
About 2 cups of red wine. Don’t waste
the good stuff; any cheap or decent red wine will do fine
About ½ cup honey, though you may be able to
use less if your wine is at all sweet. It depends how sweet you want the pears to end up
1 teaspoon lemon
zest, plus a tablespoon or two of lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks
fresh ginger, chopped
A few whole cardamom pods
Combine all the ingredients except the pears in a
large pan and bring it to a boil. But don’t add all your honey at once, taste the wine mixture to decide
when it is sweet enough. When the wine is boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and add the pears. Don’t
cover the pan, because we want the wine to cook down and reduce.
Simmer the pears for approximately
10-15 minutes before turning them over and simmering for another 10 minutes, or until they are tender when poked
with a fork. Remove the poached pears from the wine with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Try to fish out
the cinnamon stick and cardamom as well, and discard.
Continue to simmer the wine until the liquid has
been reduced by at least half. It will thicken into an amazingly delicious sauce. Now, in reality it will take
some time for our rice pudding and pears to cool. So you would actually not reduce the wine sauce until about 10
minutes before serving. Pull the pudding dishes out of the fridge and remove the plastic wrap. Arrange a few
slices of the poached pears over the top and drizzle with some of the sweet wine reduction. Sprinkle on just a bit
of the candied ginger, and maybe some more crushed cashews if you’ve got them.
Yum! The cardamom
and ginger smell amazing, and transport me back to India. The poached pears are beautiful, and make a unique
complement for the creamy pudding. Nice work everyone. I hope if nothing else today’s recipe inspires you to
play around with exotic flavors and go off-book on your next recipe. Remember, it is perfectly ok to make mistake,
and sometimes you might even stumble onto an entirely new path to deliciousness.
I’d love to hear
what you are cooking these days. Send me any questions or comments to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the
KOHO kitchen, I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.