Black Bean Soup

Around this time of year I always get the same ambition. No matter how many times I’ve failed in the past, the sunshine (we do get it sometimes!), warmer weather, and my antsy-ness from being trapped at a desk all winter always leads to the same thought: this year I’m definitely going to be a runner. Now before you get any crazy ideas, let me clarify what I consider to be “a runner”: for me it means someone who runs on a weekly basis, for at least 30 minutes at a time total (this means running + walking), without feeling like they are on death’s door after every session. Pretty low standards, right? I think so. My body doesn’t agree.

This season in particular I got a stronger urge than normal. I think it’s because this time around – for the first time in about 5 years – I have to actually WORK at working out. No laughing, I’m serious! In the past, my hobbies had the (wonderful) added bonus of exercise: climbing, kayaking, biking, being on my feet all day in Japan or in a Vermont coffee shop… I just never had to worry about fitting exercise into my routine. Unfortunately, everything I do these days is in front of a computer screen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying my studies and am really looking forward to having a summer free of classes to focus on my research, but I’m very quickly realizing I’m going to have to actually make an *ahem* effort to stay healthy now. Can you hear me whimpering?

So, full of naive ambition and covered in sunscreen (some of us only burn), I set out yesterday for my first run of the season. What started off so well quickly deteriorated and it always begins with the “stuff”: having exercise-induced asthma, my puffer is always with me. Then I carry my phone both for safety and for music. Next, I have to find room for a 4″x2″ laminated building keycard with attached apartment key. I settled on stuffing my 4″ puffer into the tiny pocket in my leggings, forcing my phone into my old iPod armband, and sliding the keycard under my waistband…only my puffer kept popping out, my armband kept slipping down (not made for the weight of the iPhone), and I gave myself an uncomfortable blister where the keycard rubbed against my upper thigh.

As I was jogging and juggling objects – more juggling than jogging – my left earbud also refused to stay in. Then the wind picked up (it IS Nova Scotia after all) and, believe it or not, kept blowing the headphones cord into my mouth every few minutes. If you had passed me on the street that day you would have seen a gal puffing her way down the avenue with her left hand on her ear, her right hand holding the cord while simultaneously trying to pull up her armband, a brass key flapping from the front of her pants, and a bulge sticking out the back like a little tail. Oh, and my face was bright purple. Of course.

In the end I gave up, turned around, and just walked home. I couldn’t have been out there more than 20 minutes and I feel like I honestly get a better workout just following my pilates or yoga DVDs in my living room…but those won’t get my outside and into the sunlight. I think I’m going to give running at least a few more shots and am brainstorming ways to make the experience at least more manageable if not less painful. I’ll run my headphones cord through my shirtsleeve next time to – hopefully – keep it out of my mouth. I’ll only run when Brad is home so I won’t have to take the cumbersome keys. I could just hold the phone, although I’m always afraid of dropping it…

How about you? Are you a runner at all? Were you one of the dozens of folks who so effortlessly bounded past me the other day – hands free and head high? haha. Tell me your tricks! My lazy bum may never get used to going more than 3 mph, but I’d at least like to feel able. We’ll see.

Black Bean Soup

(slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Soups & Stews 2010)

Ingredients:

For the Beans…

1   lb.   dried black beans, picked over and rinsed (~2 C)

2   bay leaves

5   C   water

1/8   t    baking soda

1   t   salt

For the Soup…

3   T   olive oil

2   large onions, chopped fine (~3 C)

1   large carrot, peeled, chopped fine (~½ C)

3   celery stalks, chopped fine (~1 C)

½   t   salt

6   garlic cloves, minced (~2 T)

½   t   red pepper flakes

1½   T   ground cumin

4   C   low-sodium vegetable broth

2   T   cornstarch

2   T   water

2   T   fresh lime juice from 1 or 2 limes

For Garnishes…

lime wedges

chopped fresh cilantro leaves

finely diced red onion

diced avocado

plain, non-fat greek yogurt or sour cream

* Note: While the recipe calls for using the liquid the beans are cooked in, you don’t have to be that afraid of…shall we say…the “side effects”. The test kitchen chef explained that the added baking soda not only helps in keeping the beans an attractive black color, but also aids in reducing the bloat beans can cause. Hurray!

Procedure:

1) For the beans: place beans, bay leaves, water, and baking soda in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to boil over Medium-high heat and skim foam from the service as needed. Once boiling, stir in salt, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until beans are tender – 1¼ to 1½ hours. If necessary, add an additional Cup of water and continue to simmer until beans are tender. Do not drain!* Once beans are done, remove bay leaves and set aside in remaining water.

2) For the soup: heat oil in an 8-quart Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot over Medium-high heat until shimmering, but not smoking. Add onions, carrot, celery, and salt and cook – stirring occasionally – until vegetables are soft and lightly browned – about 12 to 15 minutes. Reduce heat to Medium-low and add the garlic, pepper flakes, and cumin and cook – stirring constantly – for a few minutes or until fragrant.

3) Stir in all but 2 Cups of the beans w/ their liquid and all of the vegetable broth. If you want a perfectly creamy soup with no chunks of beans, add all the beans at this step. Increase heat to Medium-high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and let it simmer uncovered for about half an hour – stirring occasionally. This will blend the flavors and reduce the stock.

4) To finish, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until creamy or, alternatively, blend the soup in batches in an upright blender or food processor. Once blended, stir in the reserved whole beans (if saved). In a small bowl, stir together cornstarch and water until all lumps have dissolved and then gradually add about half of the mixture into the soup. Return the soup to a boil over Medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, to fully thicken. If you’d prefer you soup to be thicker once it’s boiling, add in the remaining half of the cornstarch slurry (you may have to whisk it a bit to recombine it before adding to soup) and allow soup to boil for a few minutes to thicken further. Remove from heat.

5) Off the heat, stir fresh lime juice into soup until fully incorporated. Ladle soup into bowls and serve immediately with preferred garnishes. Be prepared for meat-loving friends/family to love this Mexican-themed, vegetarian soup. 😉

Beezer’s Notes:

I am really surprised how much Brad and I both liked this soup! This was supposed to be just another healthy meal to add to the repertoire (I adapted it to be vegetarian and used greek yogurt instead of sour cream). In particular, I was waiting to hear complaints about the lack of meat and giant dollops of yogurt – he did refuse to eat it until I confessed it’s true nature – but…BUT…he liked it! WE liked it. The generous amount of cumin gave the soup an unidentifiable richness and the red pepper flakes produced just a slight heat, satisfying without making you sweat. The beans were filling enough to make this soup a great stand-alone dinner (especially with toppings), but we didn’t feel weighed down like you’re apt to with other Mexican-themed meals. Finally, the source recipe suggests using chipotle chilies in adobo sauce instead of the red pepper flakes for a smokier taste. Somehow I missed that note the first time around, but I love my choptle chilies in adobo so I’m really excited to try that variation next time!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥  

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味噌汁 (Miso Shiru)

I have finally found a Japanese grocery store. It’s a cute, tiny place about the size of my living room that is stocked full of most Japanese staples and – best of all – is within walking distance of my apartment. Although there are still numerous Japanese items on my “To Make” list, this first one was a no-brainer: I’ve recently caught a bug (Murphy’s Law: you can never begin school without being at least moderately sick) and nothing screams healthy like a piping hot bowl of Miso Soup.

These days miso soup is not as foreign in the West as it once was. You can find instant, watered-down versions accompanying most meals in Japanese restaurants across the States. Some dedicated Japanese and even Pan-Asian restaurants will make theirs from scratch, and – if your lucky – offer varieties of the soup itself. Once I learned just how easy it is to make a basic miso broth I have a hard time understanding why folks bother with the instant versions at all. Making your soup from scratch is not only simple, but it gives you the added health benefits this soy bean paste is known for having. There’s even a “Japan Miso Promotional Board” dedicated to spreading awareness of this wonder-food. If you’re curious about miso’s history, varieties, and usage there’s a very informative online-book from the JMPB. Here’s an example page below:

味噌汁 (Miso Shiru) (slightly adapted from Let’s Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko)

* serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as the main course *

Ingredients:

4   C   dashi*

4   T   white miso paste

2   whole shiitake mushrooms sliced (if dried, reconstitute first)

1   generous pinch dried wakame, reconstituted

5   oz.  soft tofu cut into small cubes

2   green onions, minced

* Note:   Dashi is a traditional Japanese fish stock that is used as a base in many Japanese recipes, but does not have a very strong “fishy” taste as you might think. Most Japanese home cooks today use varieties of “instant dashi” which come in several forms. The easiest to find in the West, I think, is hondashi: granules that resemble instant yeast and work as a sort of bouillon. Unfortunately, the only hondashi I’ve found so far has MSG in it – which I refuse to use. If you can’t find instant dashi or if you’re like me and can’t find any without MSG, I found that I can replicate a dashi stock fairly well using dried bonito flakes, two pinches of salt, and a pinch of sugar. Add those three ingredients to 4 Cups of boiling water, let soak for 5 – 10 minutes, and strain out the bonito flakes: ta da! …a milder form of dashi stock. Pick up the procedure below at Step 2 and proceed as normal.

Procedure:

1) Bring dashi to boil in a small saucepan. If you are using dried shiitake and prefer a strong mushroom flavor you may want to add them in here to reconstitute as the stock is heated. Dried wakame can be reconstituted this way as well, just keep an eye on it – it will soften faster than the mushrooms and it shouldn’t be overcooked as it will get mushy (alternatively, the shiitake and wakame can be reconstituted separately by soaking in warm water for 30 minutes for the seaweed and up to an hour for the mushrooms).

2) Reduce the heat to Medium-low and begin incorporating the miso the following way: put 1 Tablespoon of the paste in a large spoon and, holding the spoon in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other, dip the edge of the spoon into the hot stock. Scoop up a bit of liquid onto the spoon and use the chopsticks to stir the paste into the liquid to dissolve the miso before adding the mixture back into the pot. Repeat with the remaining 3 Tablespoons of miso. Careful: once the miso is in the pot the soup must never boil!

3) When the miso has been mixed into the stock, add the tofu cubes and heat through – about 1 minute. If you haven’t already done so, add the wakame and sliced shiitake next and cook for an additional 30 seconds or so. Sprinkle green onions into the soup before serving.

Beezer’s Notes:

I have made two batches of this soup in the last 24 hours, if that tells you anything, haha. Even Brad, who isn’t the biggest fan of seaweed or Japanese food in general, slurped down three bowls after I had agreed to dice the tofu into tiny cubes. White miso gives the soup a sweet earthy flavor that is also quite delicate. I increased the stock to 4 Cups where the source recipe called for 3 and used my bonito-flake dashi substitute for the base, so I think my version is a bit milder than the original. If you are using the bonito flakes and want a stronger soup, it’s an easy fix: just add an addition Tablespoon or more of miso. I also love to use miso paste as a spread on sandwiches or a glaze on fish. Now that I know where to buy several varieties, I hope to share some more miso recipes with you in the future!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥

Shiitake & Tofu Laksa

Well it’s been a full week of classes now and things are still (*knock on wood*) going smoothly. I’m absolutely loving my lectures. Finally, after four years of Physics and five years in the “real world”, I am studying what I’ve been wanting to study all along: Astronomy. Now I’ll admit it’s a bit surreal jumping headlong into academia again (oh wait, I can only afford two bags of groceries at a time? …you want me to ssh into where??…yes I do in fact know what it’s like to work outside school), but after having my Astronomy studies previously limited to Science Daily, this is just so cool! 😀

One of my biggest challenges so far hasn’t been the work – although my math skills are still VERY rusty – it’s been finding the time to cook even the simplest meals. I need at least two dishes’ worth of leftovers to sustain me through the week and there have been some days when I’ve given in and bought my food, not ok when you’re on a strict budget

…that is why, people, I love this dish. And if you are a person pressed for time with a weakness for flavor I highly suggest you make this soon! Laksa, I’ve learned, is a traditional Malaysian noodle soup marked by its main ingredients of curry, coconut milk, and noodles. Are you familiar with laksas? Is such a dish primarily Malaysian and just borrowed in other cuisines, or do other cultures have their own personal varieties?

Shiitake & Tofu Laksa (very slightly adapted from The Big Book of Wok and Stir-fry)

Ingredients:

2 fresh red chiles, seeded and chopped

1½” (4 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2  large garlic cloves, chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers discarded and inner stalks chopped*

small handful fresh cilantro, a few leaves saved for garnish

3   T   vegetable oil

3   C   vegetable stock

14  oz.  canned coconut milk

9  oz.  shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed and thinly sliced

1   C   firm tofu; drained, pressed, and cubed

2   T   tomato paste

2  packs instant ramen (without spice pouches)

2 – 3 scallions, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

*Note: I couldn’t find lemongrass at the time so I added scallions instead. Loved the scallions and bet the lemongrass would make the broth even more delicious so I’ve included both here. 

Procedure:

 1. Puree chiles, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro, and oil in a food processor until smooth. I deliberately left mine with small chunks in it because I wanted little bursts of flavor in the broth but I’m sure it’s just as delicious perfectly pureed.

2. Heat wok over Medium-high heat and add puree. Stir-fry puree for 30 seconds or until fragrant before pouring in veggie stock and coconut milk. Bring broth to boil. Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water and place on separate burner to boil.

3. When broth is boiling in the wok add mushrooms, tofu, and tomato paste and lower heat to gently simmer for 5 minutes. As broth is simmering, cook ramen in saucepan for just two minutes or so – until soft but not fully cooked (be careful here, it’s very easy to overcook instant ramen!). Drain noodles and set aside.

 4. Remove wok from heat. Taste-test your broth and add salt and pepper as desired. Using tongs or two forks, divide ramen into bowls (will serve 4 without leftovers) and ladle broth over the top. Garnish with sliced scallions and cilantro and serve immediately.

Beezer’s Notes:

I feel a tad guilty saying it, but I think this is the best Asian dish I have ever made. The guilt comes from the fact that this isn’t a Japanese dish, it’s not even an Asian dish I’ve eaten much of, yet I pulled it off better than any of my Japanese dishes attempted so far (speaking of which, I’ve been wanting to get back to those challenges for a while now but haven’t found the ingredients I need within biking distance – yet!). Even Brad, who’s a bit skeptical of international foods he hasn’t tried yet, told me it was really good. The best part? Easily-reheatable leftovers! Woohoo!

Overall Enjoyment:   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥   ♥

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