Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 15th

‘Twas the night before Christmas and finally a bit of time to write a long-overdue blog entry. Frugal Foodies didn’t happen this past Tuesday as we didn’t have enough registrants, and I had planned to dedicate the evening to catching up on the blog (from the week before) but a game of Scrabble got in the way. And fortunately so since I now get to include something about a dinner I had last night.

I had dinner last night at Oliveto in Oakland. I had never been there before and went for a friend’s birthday. I’m often skeptical about “nice” restaurants and especially so in large groups. Part of this was my rationale for starting Frugal Foodies. I’m doubtful than any meal is “worth” more than $20, and if I’m going to pay any multiples of that, the meal better be damn good.

I should say that the overall event was very enjoyable and that Oliveto seems nice enough, but they should have been embarrassed by the entree that they served me. Really embarrassed. As someone who wants to open up a restaurant one day, I’d want for everyone to consistently rave about every dish on the menu, and certainly not feel that they were being ripped off. The dish that I ordered was one that the server described as “wonderful”: Spaghetti with black truffles and walnuts. The pasta was either undercooked or just bad, the flavor was absolutely unimpressive, and I’d be surprised if they invested more than $1 in a dish that they were charging $19.50 for. Using the Frugal Foodies scoring scale, I’d give the dish 1.5 bucks, which basically makes it memorable only for how bad it is.

When I give a dish at Frugal Foodies a low score, many cooks seem to take it personally. They shouldn’t. Fact is that I pick most of the recipes and that the score is generally about the recipe and not the cooks. Sure, there are cooking screw-ups along the way, but it’s rare that the cooks at Frugal Foodies are ruining a dish. A dish at Oliveto, on the other hand, IS the responsibility of the cooks…and of the chef, the management, the owners, and maybe even the servers. I probably should have sent the dish back, but they shouldn’t have served it in the first place. This is my long way of saying that I’m a tough critic, and that we seem to be programmed to settle for a lot of overpriced, mediocre food. Not at Frugal Foodies!

Last Tuesday, we had a Guest Chef Night at Frugal Foodies. Our guest chef was Jina Shah, who gave us a mostly Indian and entirely vegan menu. I think that most of you know that I’m not a huge fan of all things vegan, but this meal was generally good and altogether healthy (Jina is a doctor and very much into healthy eating). Here are the five dishes that we made:

Grilled Okra with Pomegranate—this dish was the highlight of the night for me. I love okra a lot, but this dish will please even the non okra-lovers. This is a dish that can be done on the grill, though we did it on trays in the oven and it was just fine. While the okra was nicely cooked, it was the sweet juice that put it over the top. While the pomegranate juice was nice, it’s on the pricy side, and I’m quite certain that the dish would have been equally good using cranberry juice, or really any other berry juice. I give it a score of 6.5 bucks.

Red Cabbage, Apple, and Edamame Salad—this salad was pretty good but not great. I thought that the ingredients were solid but it was lacking a compelling dressing. Interestingly, I think that the pomegranate sauce from the okra dish would have worked well on this salad, though really any tasty dressing would have been an improvement over the lemon juice. Still, I give it a score of 5 bucks.

California Quinoa Khichdi—again, a dish that had some promise but not enough flavor for me. The grains were well cooked and I liked the texture combination of the quinoa and lentils. But it ended up tasting more healthy than tasty. It was more porridge than gourmet, and it would have been nice to have some of the latter. The flavor was supposed to be provided by the kadhi (which follows), but that was lacking. As is, I give it a score of 4 bucks.

Kadhi—As mentioned, the kadhi was the sauce for the khichdi, and it might have been good had the sauce been a bit thicker, and if it had packed more of a punch. I think that this was the one recipe that suffered from being vegan in that the soy yogurt didn’t have the tang of dairy yogurt, and the flavoring just seemed off. It’s too bad since I’m a big fan of curry leaves, but the overall effect left much to be desired for me. I give it a score of 2 bucks.

Carob Fudge Combo—This dessert was a big surprise. I was skeptical about an unbaked fudge type thingy, but this dessert was very good both in terms of taste and texture. Chocolaty (OK, carob), peanut buttery, nutty, coconutty, sweet (but with no added sugar). My only critique was that the “fudge” didn’t cut super easily, and I think that the dish would have been much better shaped into balls and maybe coated with coconut or powdered sugar. I recommend this for anyone looking for a natural, low sugar, gluten-free dessert. This one’s a winner and gets a score of 6.5 bucks.

Overall—this was generally a tasty meal with a few ups and downs. Its total score of 24 bucks is many times greater than my Oliveto meal at a small fraction of the cost. And not only was this meal super healthy, but it was cruelty-free, and not at all cruel to the wallet. Here are the recipes…

Grilled Okra with Pomegranate

Adapted from the December, 2009 Guest Chef Night of Jina Shah and the Vegetarian Table, India, by Yamuna Devi

2 lbs small, bright green okra
3 pomegranates or ¾ cup pomegranate juice
2 T maple syrup
1 t fresh lemon juice
2 T cold pressed peanut oil
Olive oil spray
3 T chopped cilantro

1. Wash okra and pat dry with an absorbent towel. Trim okra tops and skewer them lengthwise. Set aside in a shallow dish.
2. To make fresh pomegranate juice, roll fruit around to release juices inside. Halve and squeeze on a citrus reamer. Strain juice through a fine sieve.
3. Combine juice, maple syrup and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil . Lower heat and reduce mixture to a syrupy consistency, stirring steadily toward the end to prevent scorching to yield about 3 tablespoons.
4. Stir in oil and brush pomegranate glaze on the okra.
5. Spray okra with olive oil.
6. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Spread okra out in single layer on baking trays, roast until browned.
7. Serve hot, sprinkled with cilantro and salt.

Serves 6-8

Red Cabbage, Apple, and Edamame Salad

Adapted from the December, 2009 Guest Chef Night of Jina Shah

2 T olive oil
1 medium head of red cabbage (about 6 c), shredded
2 t salt
1 t cumin powder
1 t cayenne pepper
1 cup edamame, thawed
4 apples, diced into bite sized pieces
Juice of one lemon

1. Heat olive oil in a large pot on high heat and add cabbage, salt, cumin, and cayenne. Stir fry for 10 minutes and adding water if the cabbage begins to stick.
2. Add edamame and apples and continue to cook until apples are slightly soft but not overcooked. Remove from heat.
3. Add lemon, check salt and spice level, add more, in the same proportions, if necessary.
4. Serve hot or cold

Serves 8-10

California Quinoa Khichdi

Adapted from the December, 2009 Guest Chef Night of Jina Shah

1 cup mung dal
1 cup quinoa
4 ½ cups water
2 tsp canola or sesame oil
½ t whole cumin seeds
¼ t mustard seeds
1 t cumin/coriander powder
1 t garam masala
1 ½ t salt
¼ t cayenne pepper
¼ t turmeric
1 pinch asafetida, optional
1 medium tomato, chopped
½ cup arugula, kale or mustard greens, chopped
Cilantro for garnish

1. Rinse mung dal and discard rinse water. Thoroughly rinse the quinoa. Combine the two and add water so that there is a total of 4 ½ cups of water.
2. Bring to boil on stove and then lower heat, stir several times, until both grains plump up. Keep heat on low while you add the rest of the ingredients and add water as needed so the mixture doesn’t stick.
3. In a small pot, heat oil, then add mustard seeds. After 20 seconds or so, add whole cumin seeds. After the mustard seeds pop but before the cumin seeds burn, add them to the pot with the grains. Add cumin/coriander powder, garam masala, salt, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and asafetida to main pot. Add tomato and greens, and season with salt to taste.
4. Top with cilantro and eat with Kadhi.

Serves 4


Adapted from the December, 2009 Guest Chef Night of Jina Shah

1 cup soy yogurt
1 ½ cups water
2 t chickpea flour
4 T water
1 t sesame oil
1 t whole cumin
1 pinch mustard seeds
1 pinch turmeric
3-4 curry leaves, fresh or dry (see directions below for difference in cooking method)
1 t freshly ground ginger
1 t salt
1/8 cup cilantro, chopped
1 t spicy green chili peppers, freshly ground (optional)

1. In one pot, mix soy yogurt and water.
2. In a separate bowl mix chickpea flour in 4 Tbsp water. Remove lumps by pressing with a spoon, and if needed, strain through a strainer. Add to the pot with soy yogurt.
3. In a very small pot, warm the sesame oil, then add cumin, mustard seeds, and turmeric. If curry leaves are fresh, also add them to the oil and spice mixture. If not, add them directly to the pot with yogurt and chickpea flour mixture.
4. Add the oil and spice mixture to the pot with yogurt and chickpea flour. Heat entire mixture until warm. Add ginger, salt and optionally, chili pepper. Remove from heat.
5. Add cilantro as garnish, serve over Khichdi, and enjoy.

Serves 4

Carob Fudge Combo

Adapted from the December, 2009 Guest Chef Night of Jina Shah

1 c chopped dates
1 c water divided
½ c carob powder, sifted
1 c peanut butter
½ c coconut
1 c chopped walnuts or ½ c slivered almonds + ½ c raisins
1 t vanilla

1. Cook dates in ½ cup water until they are very soft, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. Combine ½ cup water with the carob powder in a small saucepan. Boil carob mixture, stirring, for 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth paste.
3. Combine the dates, carob mixture, and the remaining ingredients. Press into an 8 inch square pan. Refrigerate.
4. Once cold, cut into squares.

Makes 2 dozen squares

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