Rad for Rampe (and pumpkin curry)

Greetings from the frozen depths of central Queens! This winter is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory in NYC, but bad winters mean one thing to me and that’s staying inside and making good curries. Curries have roots in mild, often tropical climates but it’s the riot of spices and vegetables performing culinary kung fu that kicks the hell out of most any frozen day.

Sweet winter squash is the obvious choice ingredient for a mid-January Sri Lankan style pumpkin curry. One of my favorite aromatic herbs unique to this dish are frozen rampe (RAHM-peh) leaves (as seen in the photo above), also known as pandan, the awesomely sophomoric sounding screwpine or if packaged in Thailand, bai toey. My friend Danaher–who’s been schooling me in Sri Lankan cuisine since last year–opened my eyes to rampeh last year at his annual birthday dinner that’s a virtual Sri Lankan curry-a-thon. Since then I’ve been hooked on this grass-like herb, obsessed with how a few stalks rampe infuses into food the mouthwatering aroma of gentle citrus and toasted vanilla. That particular flavor really blooms in this sweet, mellow winter squash curry, but if you can’t find rampe near you don’t hesitate to make a batch without it.

But with a little help from online shopping it’s possible to get that authentic flavor with pandan essence, if you can’t find the frozen leaves at an ethic grocery that stocks Southeast Asian goods. My friend usually makes a special trip to Kalustyan’s in Manhattan to replenish his frozen rampe stash, but I found mine for a paltry $1.30 at a tiny Thai grocery in Woodside in the Queens. Without further ado, my favorite pumpkin curry recipe, at least this week, great with any aromatic rice or even a crusty baguette. If you do go for the rice, try poking a few strips of frozen rampe into the rice just before covering for the final simmer for an extra splash of that exquisite vanilla creme aroma.

Pumpkin Coconut Curry
Serves 4 along with steamed rice or bread

If good quality pumpkins are in short supply near you (they are by me), butternut and kabocha squash are usually plentiful, of decent enough quality and always make for tasty curry. If using kabocha you may need to cut down on the final simmer: this starchy squash cooks somewhat faster than it’s crisper cousins.

2 lbs pumpkin, butternut or kabocha squash
1 medium red onion
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons dried shredded unsweetened coconut
1 tablespoon vegetable or coconut oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

4-6 curry leaves, fresh or frozen

4-6 three inch pieces of frozen rampe leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1-2 dried hot red chile peppers (optional)
¾ teaspoon sea salt or to taste
One 3 inch cinnamon stick
1 cup coconut milk (reduced fat coconut milk is fine)
½ cup vegetable broth

1. Wash the squash, removing any dirt or debris. With a sharp Y-shaped vegetable peeler scrape off the skin and remove the seeds and the stringy flesh around the seeds. Cut the squash into 1 inch cubes. Peel and roughly chop the onion, then place along with the garlic into the bowl of a food processor.

2. Over a low heat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, dry roast the coconut until golden brown, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Watch carefully, as the coconut will appear not to be doing anything then bam!, suddenly roasted coconut. Just as the coconut is starting to get dark pour into the food processor along with the chopped garlic and onion. Add 2 tablespoons of water and grind to a smooth paste, stopping to scrap the sides of the bowl frequently with a rubber spatula. In a separate clean spice grinder grind together coriander and cumin seeds, ground turmeric, and chile peppers.

4. In a large measuring cup combine the coconut milk with vegetable broth and salt. In a heavy pot with a lid add oil, heat over medium heat and the mustard seeds, cover and fry until the seeds begin to pop. Add the curry leaves and the ground spices, cover and fry for 30 seconds. Stir onion mixture into the sizzling spices, fry for 1 minute then add coconut milk mixture, cubed pumpkin and cinnamon stick. Partially cover and gently simmer for 15-20 minutes or until a fork easy pierces a tender chunk of pumpkin. If liquid level reduces too much add ¼ cup more broth or water, but not too much: the curry should be moist but not swimming in liquid. Remove from heat, let stand covered for 10 minutes and serve with hot cooked aromatic rice or Indian-style flatbread.

New year, new book(s)!

How has your 2011 been so far? I’ve been hitting the cutting board once again; cooking, recipe making, researching and writing. I’m involved in two big projects for 2011; though the foundations were laid months ago it feels more real to launch new projects in this shiny new year.

Big project number one: I’m working on a new solo cookbook with a publication date for 2012. In a way Viva Vegan! was the stepping stone to my dream of working on a great big global book; a vegan vision of region cuisines all over the world. Besides, there is yet more Latin vegan food to uncover, and I’m thrilled to have an excuse to dive into my growing obsession with curries, all things Asian food and Middle Eastern cuisine. Essentially the continuing Terry spin on the great ethnic foods that inspire our vegan way of eating.

And the second project is a collaboration with Isa concerning all things pie; sorry no savory pies, just dessert. This one has a tighter deadline than the former book, and I’ll have more to add come early February.

Will I need testers? Certainly my dears, especially for ethnic vegan book. Currently my website elves are building a new blog-style format for recipe testers. Expect general fixing, updating and more website grooming thrills as well. I aim to have the testing open for business mid-February, with recipe testing itself extending into the fall/early winter in an attempt to cram in all seasons of produce.

Do I have a name yet for the “big” book? Heavens no, but for now it will go by codename: World of Vegancraft. It’s just a name; testers won’t have to commit to the grueling quest for The Scepter of the Shifting Sands*, only be willing to make some curries, noodles, roti breads, soups and dips once or twice a week, such as the lovely Sri Lankan style Butternut Curry depicted above (recipe post coming very soon). So clean out your coffee grinder (get ready to stuff it with coriander and cumin), it’s going to be a fragrant-as-hell 2011.

*Disclaimer: A hardcore mmorpg-ing friend schooled me on this insanely grueling of World of Warcraft task. Though nerd, I’m not of the online gaming tribe; I just like the name. Testers don’t need to know a thing about WoW, all you need is a burning desire to quest on for cooking and eating.

Snobby Joes for friendly folks

Borders Books produced a cute step-by-step video for Isa’s creation, Snobby Joes (a lenti-based spin on sloppy joes), a fan favorite from the pages of Veganomicon. There’s nothing stuck up about this homey family-style meal, so if you’ve been on the fence about this recipe rest assured Borders has your back.

Coquito bonito

Just when you thought it was safe to put away the tinsel, shiny glass balls and Santa-themed boxer shorts, many Latinos are ready to squeeze another drop of festivity from the passing Christmas holiday season. January 6th marks the date for “El Dia de los Tres Reyes” or just Three Kings Day (those robed, beardy guys bearing gifts for baby Jesus) if you’d rather say it in English.

In some Latino countries it’s still the day when kids look forward to receiving most of their holiday presents, but with my family it never really caught on: as a Americanized kid I’d rather do two weeks of non-stop homework than perish the thought of getting gifts nearly two weeks after Christmas. When we would experiment with gifts on January 6th, candy was fair game: the exchange of holiday sweets while everyone else was tossing out their withered Christmas trees felt like quite the edge.

But if celebrating is part of your new year list of resolutions (and why not, you know you’ll want to party eventually), then my recipe at Cosmopolatina.com for a eggless, dairy-free coquito should be on that list too. Coquito is a traditional coconut based drink enjoyed in Puerto Rico during the winter holiday season. In Venezuela they call it ponche crema but really it’s all just eggless “eggnog” to me: creamy, spicy and brimming with silky winter cheer. This vegan version makes use of almond milk, coconut milk, tropical aromatics like ginger and lime plus a little help from arrowroot for thickening during the traditional cooking process. And plenty of white rum: no holiday–or Après-ski, snow shoeing, or snuggly winter-time party–grown-up drink would be the same without.

Jump over to LaCosmopolatina for the complete recipe and a coquito vegano tips.

Never-too-late ganache strawberries

I’m typing this in my pajamas, and hopefully you’re reading this in bed, but take a second to consider making something last minute in celebration of the last night of 2010. Bringing along a plate of hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries to whatever New Year’s Eve adventures await will make you a thousand times more memorable than the guy who brought the hummus.

Even lackluster winter berries won’t be denied wearing a jacket of chocolate ganache spiked with liquor. 20 minutes is all it takes for treats for impressing your friends and family into the new year, so relax, you have plenty of time yet. And if I don’t run into you tonight bearing a golden platter of these, have one hell of a happy new year and I’ll be seeing you in 2011!

Chocolate Ganache Jacket Strawberries
2 quarts strawberries, stems & leaves intact
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips (about 1 overflowing cup)
1/3 cup almond milk or soy milk creamer
1 teaspoon non-hydrogenated vegan margarine
1 tablespoon orange (Grand Marnier) or hazelnut (Frangelico) liqueur

Wash and pat dry strawberries. Line a cutting board or large dinner plate with waxed paper.

In a deep saucepan over medium heat bring almond milk to a gentle boil, then remove from heat. Using a rubber spatula stir in margarine and chocolate chips. Stir constantly until chocolate chips are melted and very smooth, about 4-5 minutes. Stir in liqueur and let mixture cool for 4 minutes. Gently hold a strawberry by the stem, and using a swirling motion dip the bottom half of the berry into ganache and place immediately on waxed paper. Repeat with remaining berries and move cutting board or plate of berries into the refrigerator, chill until ganache is firm. Serve immediately or store chilled in a tightly covered container for a day.