Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recipe Wednesday: Ras el Hanout Eggplant with Chickpeas

Ras el hanout is a North African spice mixture that it is central to Moroccan cuisine. It is not to be confused with Ra's al Ghul, who is a Batman supervillain.

In Arabic, ras el hanout means "head of the shop," signifying that it is the best spice mix the seller has to offer. It can sometimes contain 30 or more ingredients, but most recipes include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, peppers and turmeric. Premixed ras el hanout can be found at many health food stores and well-stocked groceries, though a quick Web search will find several recipes for those who want to make their own batch.

Ras el hanout is most commonly used in tajines, which are a form of stew named for the earthenware pot they are cooked in. This recipe, ras el hanout eggplant with chickpeas, is sort of a cousin to a tajine. It also bears a certain similarity to an Afghani dish called bonjan, which used cinnamon and mint instead of ras el hanout and does not include chickpeas.

Ras el Hanout Eggplant with Chickpeas
(Serves 4-6)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes with juices
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed
2-3 teaspoons ras el hanout
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until it is soft. Toss in the garlic and eggplant and stir for a couple of minutes. 

Add the tomatoes, chickpeas, and ras el hanout, cover, lower the heat to low, and cook for until the eggplants are soft, about 20 minutes give or take. Be sure to give everything a stir every so often, and add water or broth in small increments if the ingredients start sticking to the pot.

Once the eggplant is soft and cooked through, the dish is done. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice (jasmine or basmati work especially well), with pita, or go for the full Arabic experience and have it with couscous.

If you are a classical buff, set the mood with Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade." If you prefer something more modern, explore the contemporary Middle Eastern-influenced music of artists such as SoapKills, Azam Ali, or Natacha Atlas (who does an incredible version of the Screamin' Jay Hawkins classic “I Put a Spell on You.”) Be sure to have some strong, sweet mint tea on hand for afterwards!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Samurai Story Time with Lt. Martin Castillo

I have quite a bit of fondness for Miami Vice, both the television show and the underrated big screen version. One of my favorite episodes of the original series is "Bushido," which for a change focused not on main characters Crockett and Tubbs (Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) but on Lt. Martin Castillo (expertly played by Edward James Olmos), their mysterious, laconic boss. Despite being a man of few words, Castillo takes time to relate the following story to a young boy in his care:

"There's a special story I'd like you to know. The story about the samurai, Toshin. Toshin was the greatest swordsman of his clan. And all the other samurai revered him very much. And the shogun became jealous. The shogun ordered Toshin to murder all the people of a little fishing village as a test of his loyalty. Toshin refused, of course, to do something so wrong. It would have destroyed his honor.

He became an outcast to his clan, which turned against him and he lived with the wild animals in the mountains with his family. The clan sent assassins to try to kill them all but none of them ever came back. Toshin knew that one day they would kill him and his family. That not even he could win all the time. That his time would come.

Finally, the clan sent his best friend. A man closer than a brother to him. It was this man's duty to obey the clan. Toshin came down off the mountains onto the beach to meet his old friend. They faced each other with drawn swords. They loved each other very much. As they both struck with their swords Toshin, the master, was a little quicker but he only touched his friend's neck. Touching it but not cutting it. His friend could not stop in time. He struck Toshin once, killing him. Toshin died in honor. It is the way of the bushido, the way of the warrior. Toshin knew that his family would now be safe. But his friend's heart was broken."

(Note: As far as I can tell, this story comes not from old Japan, but from the Miami Vice scriptwriters. It's pretty cool anyway. And "toshin" refers to a Japanese sword's blade without any mounting. 

Recipe Wednesday: Miso Tahini Udon

If by some quirk of your taste buds you ever find yourself simultaneously craving both Japanese and Middle Eastern food, this recipe is for you.

Both miso and tahini have long culinary histories. Miso, a salty paste made from fermented soybeans, dates back at least to 6th century Japan, and earlier versions existed in China as far back as the 3rd century B.C. The origins of tahini, an oily paste derived from ground sesame seeds, are a bit unclear, though sesame has been cultivated in the Middle East for about 4,000 years.

Miso and tahini are also fantastically flexible foodstuffs. While miso often gets stuck in the soup ghetto, and tahini finds itself regulated to serving as a dip ingredient, they each can be used in a variety of dishes, such as this one.

There are actually quite a few variations of miso tahini sauces floating around. This recipe is a simplified version of one that originally appeared in Japanese Foods That Heal by John and Jan Belleme.

Miso Tahini Udon
(Serves 2-3)
1 package of udon noodles (usually about 9 ounces)
4 tablespoons of white miso
3-4 tablespoons of tahini
2 tablespoons of brown rice vinegar
1 tablespoon of mirin

Cook the udon according to the instructions on the package. I normally don’t recommend adding oil to the cooking water when making pasta, but udon is very sticky so it might be a good idea to add a tablespoon of olive oil or sesame seed oil. Right before the udon is finished cooking, scoop out a cup of the water and set it aside. When the udon is done, drain and rinse in cold water.

To make the miso tahini sauce, place the miso, tahini, brown rice vinegar, mirin, and half of the udon cooking water in a large, microwave safe bowl and stir. Microwave the mixture on high for 30 seconds, stir again, and heat for another 30 seconds. Repeat this process until the sauce is all gooey. It shouldn’t take more than two minutes total.

By the way, preparing the sauce in the microwave is just a suggestion. You can also prepare it in a pot on the stove, such as the pot you used to cook the udon. Just be careful not to overcook.

Add the cooked udon and the rest of the cooking water to the miso tahini mixture, and proceed to stir everything together. Serve immediately. To ramp up the Japanese side of this fusion dish, top with a generous sprinkle of furikake and green onion.

If you have leftovers (I rarely do), there is some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that miso tahini udon doesn’t always reheat well. The good news is it tastes really good cold. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Antigone Bezzerides on Why She Carries Knives

“Fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Man of any size lays hands on me, he’s going to bleed out in under a minute.”
Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), True Detective

(PS: Looks like she's doing the top half of a classic asterisk pattern. Nice!)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Philosophy Friday: On Truth

Note: I was going through some old files and stumbled on to this essay I wrote in 2010. Oddly, I don't actually recall writing it, nor am I a sure why I wrote it in the first place. I think it was in response to someone who asked me about my view on the idea of "truth." Or maybe not. Either way, it remains an accurate reflection of my thinking.

It was an almost normal photograph of an almost normal little girl. Two things make it abnormal. One was the black bar superimposed across her eyes to hide her identity. The other was her right arm, which ended at her elbow. I was a child when I saw the photograph, probably only a bit older than the girl herself, who was five. It was in one of my mother's medical books. She was attending nursing school at the time, and there were journals and textbooks scattered throughout the house. I often looked through them, amazed by the pictures of skeletons and nervous systems and patients with weird maladies. My mom didn't care, as she was pretty progressive and didn't believe in hiding anything from me. When I stumbled onto the photo of the anonymous, one-armed little girl, I asked what had happened to her. Taking the book from me so she could read the text I was too young to read myself, my mother hesitated a moment before answering. "The little girl was told to keep out of the peanut butter. When she didn't listen, her father put her arm in a vice and sawed it off." Some people have all sorts of moral truths: taxation is theft; abortion is murder; don't mix meat and dairy; and so on. Not me. Most of mine are pretty basic. Perhaps the most basic comes from viewing that awful photo years ago: Do not be cruel to the weak. It seems so simple, so obvious. But is it? From history books to newspaper headlines, there is a barrage of examples of those who gleefully inflict pain and suffering on those who are weaker than themselves. Whether or not I want to, I can't help but remember many of them. Some I read about, some I know of firsthand. A co-worker severely beaten for her purse. A preschool girl raped by her babysitter as punishment for wetting the bed. A friend's sister serially molested by their stepfather. A puppy with his eyes scooped out. A kitten doused with kerosene and set on fire. The Holocaust. Bosnia. The Sudan. And so it goes, forever, both forward and backward in time. So what does it actually mean to take a stand against cruelty to the weak? I admit, it's easy to be cynical. It's like looking at those bumper stickers that say "Another Man Against Domestic Violence" and thinking, well, that balances out against all those pro-domestic violence stickers out there. Cruelty is going to exist no matter what I do or don't do, so what can I do? For one, I can be kind, the opposite of cruel. It's such a little thing, but I believe minor gestures like helping someone carrying a heavy load or even holding the door open for somebody really do matter. Going back to the bumper sticker example, I hate to admit it, but there is something to the sentiment expressed in the one that says, "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." There is another, less overtly-hippie side to my hatred of cruelty. By accepting as a truth that being cruel to the weak is wrong, I not only must avoid being cruel myself, but I must strive to prevent cruelty from occurring in my presence. This is why I practice martial arts and work hard to be strong. I train to hurt people because I hate to see people get hurt. Knowing of so many incidents were innocents were brutalized while others looked on fills me with both rage and sadness. I truly hope I am never placed in that sort of position. I don't want to be a hero. But I don't want anyone to be victimized in my presence wit me unable to prevent it. It could be argued that this major truth of mine, this moral outrage against cruelty, is more of a reactive truth than a proactive truth. There is something to that argument. However, when it comes down to it, no matter how we define ourselves and our beliefs, there is always an element of reaction. There would be no liberals without conservatives, no atheists without believers, no light without dark. Senseless cruelty is very much the dark in the human soul. To some extent, it's in all of us. The trick is not to succumb to the darkness either within or without, but to be the light. For a little light can chase a lot of darkness.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Respect, Open-Mindedness, and Martial Arts Dilettantism

In many ways, this is a great time to be a student of the martial arts. Thanks to Bruce Lee, the UFC, and the tough guys in the bad parts of Honolulu who melded several traditional styles into Kajukenbo, the idea of crosstraining and experimenting with different arts is usually acceptable if not encouraged. This more tolerant approach to martial dilettantism allows individuals to become more well-rounded as they explore the rich world of the fighting arts.

Of course, there can be problems as well. Some students can become plagued with a sort of martial attention deficit disorder, flitting from one art to another without really taking the time to learn anything.

Then there is the issue of respect. A little knowledge—or even a lot—can be a dangerous thing, and can lead to arrogance and closed-mindedness.

Several years ago, there was a young, douchey dude visiting Hawaii who decided to try out one of Burton Richardson's Kali classes.  Before class, I heard him talking to his girlfriend, telling her he had never practiced Kali before but he had participated in some amateur cage fights, so stickfighting should be "no problem."

Watch your head!
That bothered me. Douchey Dude's comments were arrogant and disrespectful to Burton, everyone in class, and the Filipino martial arts in general. I looked forward to sparring with him.

The end of class came and we all put on our helmets and gloves and took out the soft sticks. I don't make it a habit of going hard when sparring with newbies. With Douchey Dude, I made an exception. For better or for worse, I wanted to teach him a lesson regarding the reality of stickfighting. I sought him out as a sparring partner, and made sure to hit him on the head really hard over and over and over again. As someone said to me afterwards, "You lit him up!"

Afterwards, Douchey Dude came over to me. "Man, you kicked my ass!," he said. "You just kept hitting me on the head!" I asked what he thought of Kali. He replied that it was way harder than he expected. We shook hands and parted on good terms.

The point of this story isn't my badassery. There is a good chance that if I found myself in Douchey Dude's combat milieu, he would have had the upper hand. But here's the thing: If I found myself at his school, I wouldn't get mouthy and disrespectful.

Another, less offensive way to show disrespect when training in an unfamiliar art is to
second-guess the instructors or not follow their instructions. I recall going to a martial arts seminar featuring many different teachers. One of them was a really good boxing coach. At
one point, he was having everyone do focus mitts drills. Since he was a boxing coach and we were doing boxing drills, we all threw boxing-style punches. With one exception. A woman who clearly came from a Karate background consistently threw Karate-style punches (such as reverse punches). She got visibly frustrated because they weren't really working all that well. It wasn't that the punches themselves were somehow bad. They just weren't the right type of punches for what we were doing. She tried to shoehorn Karate into boxing instead of just going with the flow and allowing herself to try something new. While I'm sure this wasn't her intention, she was inadvertently being disrespectful to boxing and the coach. She also cheated herself out of a great learning experience.

If you are going to experiment with a new martial art, you have to be open-minded if you expect to learn anything. There is a famous story about Zen master Nan-in, who told a student, "Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" Same goes for martial arts.
Umm... no.

This isn't to imply you can't ask questions. We don't live in The Village. You just have to go about asking your questions the right way.

If you are attending a seminar, be very restrained in your questioning. After all, time is limited. If you are actually enrolled in a class, there are more opportunities to ask questions. Just be respectful. Many people ask questions not because they want an answer, but because the question itself is a way for them to show how clever or smart they are. Incidentally, I am skeptical of martial arts instructors who discourage their students from asking questions. That's taking the whole sensei/guro/sifu mentality too  far. Class should be a place for learning, and there can be no real learning without questions.

So take advantage of all the martial arts world has to offer. Just be respectful, empty your cup, and let yourself learn something new.