Monday, November 19, 2012

Masala Chai Tea

Why not just call it chai?  Why masala chai?

By itself, the word chai is merely the generic word for tea in many African, Middle Eastern and Asian languages. For those of us that speak English, the term chai is synomous with what we would consider masala chai, a spiced milk tea distinct from other types of tea.

Up until about a year ago I had never experienced the deliciousness that is an authentic cup of masala chai. It wasn't something that I had very often, but I would occasionally order a chai latte at a coffee shop and think it was the best thing ever. Sugary, milky and spicy with enough caffeine to put a little pep in my step but not make me feel like I just did a line of cocaine.  Perfection.

Over the years I have gravitated towards a eating a more unrefined whole foods diet and have become obsessed  more inclined to make most of my meals and snacks from scratch.  I had googled the ingredients for the chai concentrate that I saw my barista using last time I got my latte on and was shocked to see sugar as the first ingredient on the list (actually I wasn't.. THAT'S why it tasted so freaking good), followed by honey, "spices", black tea and the ubiquitous "natural flavors".  Now I was on a mission. I HAD to figure out what spices were used so I could make it at home.  I could taste a hint of cinnamon and cardamom, maybe some ginger, but beyond that I couldn't identify what was in it.. probably because it's pretty damn hard to pinpoint what natural flavors taste like.

I searched the internet for a recipe only to learn that there is no fixed preparation when it comes to masala chai and most families have their own versions of the tea. Based on the fact that there are so many possible preparations, masala chai can be considered a class of tea rather that a specific kind. 

But alas, after a good amount of research... here's what I found.

When making masala chai, typically a strong black tea, such as Assam is used so that the spices and sweeteners don't become overpowering. Different teas are used in different regions; most chai in India is made with black tea whereas Kashmiri Chai is brewed with gunpowder tea.
Some people choose to take their chai unsweetened, but most people agree (myself included) that a good amount of sugar is needed to bring out the intricate flavor of the spices.  Plain white sugar, honey, jaggery, palm or coconut sugar can be used.
I once made the mistake of ordering chai without milk because I'm a bonafide milkaphobe (real word). Bad idea.  It tasted like tannic spices, although some people actually prefer it this way.  Usually whole or sweetened condensed milk is used, but I've made it with almond or soy milk with great results.

The traditional masala chai is brewed with different proportions of so called "warming spices". The spice mixture called karha, uses a base of ground ginger and cardamom pods. Other spices are added to this base depending on the region.  Most masala chai found on the streets, in homes or restaurants adds cinnamon, star anise and/or fennel seeds, peppercorns and cloves. Traditionally cardamom is the dominant spice, supplemented by other spices such as cloves, ginger and black pepper.  The traditional composition of spices varies by climate and region in Southern and Southwestern Asia.  For example, in Western India, fennel and black pepper are avoided.  The Kashmiri version used green tea rather than black and has a more subtle blend of flavorings; almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sometimes saffron. Other possible spices may include nutmeg, coriander, cumin seed or licorice root.

Now that you know more than you probably wanted to know about chai... here's a recipe for ya'll.

Masala Chai Tea (makes 1 8 oz. serving, can easily be doubled)
From The Kitchn

3/4 cup water
2-4 whole green cardamom pods, smashed
1-2 thin slices fresh ginger
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
1 piece star anise
3/4 cup milk (I used almond)
1 1/2 teaspoons loose black tea leaves
Sweetener, to taste (I prefer honey)

In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon stick and star anise. Bring the mixture to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the leaves and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.
If you want deeply flavorful tea in the morning, follow these alternate directions starting the night before.
In a small saucepan, combine the water, cardamom, cinnamon stick and star anise. Do not add the ginger yet. Bring to a boil then turn it off and cover the pan. In the morning, add the sliced ginger and bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is fragrant. Add the milk and tea leaves, and simmer for another minute then turn off the heat and let steep for 2 minutes. Pour into a cup through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the tea and spices. Add sweetener, to taste.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chickpea Noodle Soup

After being a vegetarian for fiftteen years, I started eating meat again.  Over the years I avoided meat for several reasons.  I orginally gave it up to lose weight.  As a teenager I thought I was fat (much like every crazy girl going through puberty) and believed that cutting out animal flesh would make me look like a model, only to discover that starving yourself and working out three hours a day does that. I kept this up for several years, eventually going vegan and became active in animal rights organizations like PETA. Yeah, I was THAT girl that got dragged away by police officers for barricading the enterance to Macy's chanting "fur is murder".  Ahhhh, those were the days.  I felt very strongly about animal rights and still continue to do so even though I started eating meat.  Yeah, I realize that I'm totally contradicting myself here.  How can you support animal rights and still have a clear conscience about eating meat?

First of all, I'm EXTREMELY picky when it comes to what I eat. Unless I know where it came from, (as in, I can drive to the farm where it was born, raised and salughtered) I won't eat it.  That narrows it down when it comes to eating out or dining elsewhere.  If I'm going to eat meat I want to be sure that the animal was able to roam free and was fed a healthy diet before it's life was taken. You would be be surprised how most animals are raised before their death.  It sickens me and I won't go into to detail, but it's not a pretty picture.

Luckily I have a local co-op that sells local meat, dairy, eggs and sustainable seafood, but it ain't cheap.  I'm willing to pay $6 for a dozen of eggs, but that lasts me at least a week, if not longer.  A whole chicken will run you $25 but will make several meals, including stock.  A pound of bacon might set me back $15, but again I can easily six meals out of this. If you are accustomed to shopping at a typical grocery store you probably think these prices are outrageous (I should note that I get a hefty discount when I shop for being a co-op member).  I agree, it's not cheap, but I also think that you get what you pay for and when it comes to most things in life, it's quality not quantity.  I don't eat meat everyday (I actually only eat it once a week, if that) and enjoy it as more of a side dish than a main. 

We live in a consumer culture where we want more bang for our buck and our food system reflects that.  People can get massive quantites of meat for very little money at most grocery stores.  The more they have, the more they eat, and the more unhealthy they become.  It been proven that countries that eat less meat have less health problems, and just look how healthy we Americans are!

So, here's the lesson: Meat is not unhealthy, nor will it make you fat., just don't go all cray-cray with it. Personally I feel a little healthier when I add a little high quality animal flesh to my diet.  Since local, sustainable meat IS expensive it doesn't always make it to the dinner table, and I'm ok with that.

I had been craving chicken noodle soup for months, but spending $25 on a chicken wasn't in the budget this week. Then, I did what any hippy vegetarian cook would do, and broke out a can of chickpeas.... BOOM.. Chickpea Noodle Soup!

Chickpea Noodle Soup (serves 2)

4 c. vegetable broth
3 T. mellow white miso
1/4 lb. angel hair pasta (spaghetti or linguine work well too)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut on a 1/4" diagonal
3/4 c. chickpeas
1/4 t. poultry seasoning
1 large clove garlic, grated
2 c. kale, stems removed cut into thin ribbons
2 scallion, sliced
Fresh cracked pepper, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil

Cook the angel hair or other noodles of choice until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Place the vegetable broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Place the miso in a small bowl and ladel 1/2 c. broth into the bowl.  Whisk until thoroughly mixed.  Add the carrots, chickpeas and poultry seasoning to the remaining stock and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cook until the carrots are fork tender, about five minutes.  Add the miso/stock mixture back to the pot (be sure not to boil the miso as it will kill the live beneficial bacteria) along with the grated garlic.  Add the kale and cook on low for an additional 2-3 minutes.  Divide the noodles between two bowls and pour the broth mixture over top.  Top with sliced scallions, lots of fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hemp Seed Milk

As much as I love all things dairy (cheese, ice cream, gelato, and yogurt), the idea of straight up cows milk kind of skeeves me out (yeah, I know... add it to the list of my weird food phobias).  For some reason it just tastes too much like cow teet or something.  I don't know....

Most people that give up dairy products for health reasons turn to soy milk as an alternative, but there are so many other options out there. Rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, hemp seed milk and even flax seed milk.  Health food stores and food co-op usually have a section for these alternative milks, packaged in shelf stable cartons.  You can choose from sweetened, unsweetened, vanilla or chocolate, full fat, low-fat or fat-free.  Many of them are even fortified with calcium, vitamin D and other essential vitamins.  Having these options at our disposal is great for convenience sake, but when it comes down to it, these alternative milks are highly processed, not to mention expensive. 

Most people don't realize that you can make your own nut/seed or grain milk from home. Not only is it way cheaper, it's alot healthier than anything you would buy in the store.  Most store bought alternative milks contain natural and artificial flavors (whatever those may be) and can be high in sugar.  Many of them claim to be high in vitamin B12, omega 3 fatty acids or calcium, but most of these are added back in because many of those nutrients were destroyed during processing.  When you make milk at home you are left with two ingredients: water and whatever nut/seed/grain you used. All of the vitamins and minerals are left intact and you are left with a delicious, healthy beverage. 

Two of my absolute favorite milks to make at home are almond and hemp seed milk.  Almond milk is probably my favorite but that requires soaking your nuts for at least eight hours and sometimes I'm not that good at planning ahead.  Hemp seed milk can be made in minutes.  Throw some hemp seeds in a blender, add some water and blend.  You can even add some sweetneer like honey or agave or vanilla extract if you like. 

Not only do hemp seeds make a great milk substitute but they are loaded with all essential amino acids, iron, folic acid, potassium, calcium, zinc, and are also rich in easily digestible plant based proteins. They are the only food that contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid. In fact, its essential fatty acid ratio is absolutely perfect for our bodies.  Hemp has gotten a bad reputation due to the fact that some people think that it contains THC, the active chemical in marijuana that will get you high. Chill out.  There is none of that going on here.... just creamy deliciousness.

Hemp Seed Milk (makes 1 quart)

1/2 c. hemp seeds
4 c. water
raw honey or agave (opt)

Place hemp seeds and water in a blender. Blend on low for one minute then crank it up to high and blend for an additional 30 seconds. If you want it on the sweet side, add a bit of agave or raw honey and blend for another 10 seconds, or so. Pour into a glass jar or bottle and store in the fridge for 3-4 days. Shake well before using.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Herbal Profile: Valerian

As much as I love cooking, photographing and recipe development, sometimes I just don't have the energy. Especially after working a full day in a kitchen, or in my current situation, being laid up in bed healing from a lingering concussion.  Sometimes I will develop a recipe only to find out the end result looks like cat vomit. Or... I will throw a bunch of random ingredients together and think the dish looks beautiful and blog worthy but the last thing I want to do is break out my camera when I'm already borderline passing out from low blood sugar. Real life.

My food as of lately has been pretty boring since I haven't been able to be in the kitchen for more than 15 minutes without feeling like I'm going to hit the floor. Cooking is my creative outlet and without it I feel a bit.. well, empty.  It sounds strange, but food is my passion, my life force, if you will.  I cook professionally and when I'm not at work I'm either blogging about food, eating food or looking for new recipes.  I'm at a point where I want to cook and be in the kitchen. My mind says yes (er, sort of), but my body is telling me to rest.

So, out of this temporary hiatus in the kitchen, a new idea was born.  Why not write about something else that I am passionate about: Herbal Medicine. You see.. I'm really not a fan of western medicine.  I think it can be extremely helpful in certain situations but I think that we have become a culture that relies on pills to fix all of our health problems. Whether it be high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, gastrointestinal ailments, anxiety, depression, etc. there is surely a pill out there to "cure" what ails you.  Don't get me wrong many people benefit greatly by taking these medications, hell, it may be keeping some of you alive!  However, most of these pills come with unwanted side effects, and in the long term, who knows what it's actually doing to our insides.  I currently rely on prescription medicine and have done so in the past, but I think that there are other alternatives out there that have been proven to be just as effective and are alot easier on your body.  Changing your diet to include whole, unprocessed foods is a no brainer but alot of people are resistent to make such a huge lifestyle change.  A healthy diet is the foundation for good health along with exercise and stress management techniques.  But, lets be real.. we all get sick, even if we are doing everything "right".  The first thing we usually reach for is a pill that will make us feel better.  Heartburn, pop a pill.  Cold coming on? Pop a pill.  Can't sleep? They have a pill for that, too. These pills may help in the short term, but they are really just covering up the symptoms not getting to the root of the problem.

That's where herbal medicine comes in.  Why not try something that comes from nature (sometimes you can even find it in your garden or back yard), actually helps treats the problem and not just cover it up, and in most cases doesn't cause any nasty side effects. You don't even need health insurance or a prescription from a doctor. Herbs have been used for thousands of years and have been proven effective in the case of many ailments.  When taken, some herbs work immediately whereas others have to be taken in frequent high doses or taken over an extended period of time to see any noticeable benefit. 

So, this here post is the first in the herbal profile series.  I hope to post about a new herb once a week.  In these posts you will learn the history of the herb, what it's used for, how to prepare it (tea, tincture or decoction) and what it tastes like. Some say that the more bitter or vile an herb tastes the better, which is not always the case, but I usually find it to ring true.

**** Disclaimer: I am a cook and not certified herbalist. Everything you read here is based on what I have read or personally experienced. Do your research before taking any herbs as they can interfere with certain prescription medications (i.e. St. Johns Wort can interfere with birth control pills-YIKES!). Some herbs can actually worsen a particular health condition (i.e. Licorice can raise your blood pressure)

I am able to find most of the dried herbs and/or tinctures at my local health food store.  If you are interested in buying online I highly reccomend checking out Mountain Rose Herbs or Herb Pharm.

Herbs to Know: Valerian Root (Valeriana officinalis)

Valerian's name is derived from the Latin word valere, "to be well", "be strong" and has been used as an herb since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Today ther herb continues to be one of the most popular medicinal herbs in the world.  Valerian is best known for it's effects on the nervous system. It is one of the best known herbs for insomnia/restless sleep/stress and anxiety. Valerian has powerful tonic effects on the heart and when combined with hawthorne berries it helps to aleviate altitude sickness.  It is also known for it's anti-spasmodic properties, helping to relieve spastic coughing.  Because of it's muscle relaxant properties, it's an excellent remedy for menstrual tension and stress. When combined with cramp bark it effectively relieves menstrual cramps.

Valerian's odor is a little, how shall I say.... ripe.  I'm not gonna lie, it smells a little bit like dirty socks.  The odor is actually an indicator of the strength of the root: the riper, the better!  It can be prepared as a tea or taken as a liquid extract (aka tincture). I prefer liquid extracts in most cases because they are easily absorbed, digested and assimilated by the body. Sometimes taking 30 drops in some water is easier than drinking 1-2 cups of the tea, especially when the taste isn't very pleasant.

Valerian is dose-dependent; in other words, in order to be effective, a large amount may be required.  Don't be afraid to take adequate amounts. Begin with a slow dose and work your way up until you feel the relaxing effects.  The herb is non-habit forming and will not make you feel groggy.  You can tell when you've taken too much when your muscles feel rubbery, or you experience a heavy, weighed down feeling. 

I've taken valerian tincture as a sleep aid and have combined it with cramp bark, ginger and pennyroyal to help alleviate menstrual cramps.  Unlike some herbs that you must take for an extended period of time to experience the benefits, valerian starts working immediately.  Next time you reach for an over the counter pain reliever for cramps or a prescription sleep aid to help you get some rest, give valerian a try instead.