Working with tahini is an act of faith and perseverance. You must be able to hold fast to your conviction that everything will turn out fine.
When it's fresh, sesame seed butter is smooth and a bit runny. That can deceive you into believing that making a sauce with it will be a breeze. (Not-so fresh tahini can be dry and clumpy, like the last bit of peanut butter at the bottom of the jar. It will require extra patience.)
Jumping into the process of working with tahini will teach you things about yourself. Are you willing to keep going towards your destination or will you throw up your hands, give up? Will you cry and perceive yourself as a failure? Or will you declare yourself as capable as centuries of cooks who have made it through, and persevere?
Tahini is bitter on its own; so most recipes are going to call for the addition of water, citrus juice or oil. But when tahini meets liquid, it typically seizes up... appears to break.... becomes something scary, nothing like the lusciousness it was moments before.
Heed my advice: keep whisking. Don't take no for an answer.
Add a bit more of your liquid. Whisk some more. And watch the clumpy mess return to its former smooth self.
When working with tahini, always take the liberty to add more water or other liquid than the recipe calls for, but go slowly. Add a little at a time and then whisk. You get to decide how thin you want the sauce to be.
Arab-inspired Prana Bowl
The recipe below is a traditional Arabic tahini sauce that is often added to a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes or cooked chic peas. It can also be used to dress greens on a salad; like the Prana lunch bowl pictured below. To assemble the Prana Bowl: smear some hummus on the plate and throw in some cooked chic peas, dried figs or dates, cucumbers and tomatoes. Toss the creamy lemon mint dressing with fresh kale and/ or lettuce and pile the dressed greens in the middle. Some toasted pine nuts and zatar or sumac sprinkled on top would elevate the Middle Eastern vibe.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup tahini
1 cup warm water
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (mint, cilantro etc )
In a medium sized mixing bowl, add the tahini. Slowly whisk in the water, continually whisking until the tahini has returned to a smooth consistency. Whisk in the other ingredients. Taste and adjust any of the seasonings as you like.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Product recommendation: organic tahini
I love messing around with super nutritious esoteric ingredients, using them to reinvent more familiar dishes in a cleaner way. I’ve used chia seeds to try to get somewhere close to my grandmother’s banana pudding. I’ve used flaxseeds to mimic an egg. I am completely comfortable with the idea of pureed cashews as a “cheese.” In the pursuit of optimal health, I am not afraid to take risks.
But sometimes I wish it could be like the old days, when we didn’t have to think so hard about what foods were healthy; we just had a repertoire of dishes that were familiar and we never questioned them. My grandmother had a repertoire of family heirloom recipes built entirely around seasonality, with little regard to nutrient content. I envy her free reign with butter and cream atop all of those garden vegetables; all that bacon grease stored on the stovetop in a coffee can.
As our knowledge of the connection between our food and health expands, we are forced to look at our family’s traditional foods with new eyes. And so for people like me, with an extra keen interest in nutrition and a willingness to experiment, things can get interesting.
Socca is an example of a dish that makes me happy because it hits all the notes of a clean diet, but it is a time-honored classic. Chic pea flour is hardly a familiar ingredient here in the states, but it’s been used since ancient times all over the rest of the world. There are variations of this crepe like, oven baked, four ingredient flatbread in Italy (farinata or torta de ceci)…in Gibraltar (calentita)…in Uruguay (faina) and northern India (cheela).
It is gluten free, dairy free, sugar free and soy free only by coincidence, not design, making it so easy for me to adore.
In fact, I wish more people had its combination of old world charm with
Chic pea flour, also know as Besan or Gram flour, can be found in any Indian grocery store or ordered on line. I have started to see it in regular grocery stores here and there. It is a denser, heavier flour so take the time to sift it before adding in the water.
You're making a pancake batter so a whisk is your tool of choice. The batter will be thin and should be lump free. If sifting the dry flour didn't yield you a smooth batter, go ahead and put the wet batter through a sieve as well.
Rosemary is a traditional Provencal herb of choice, but there are no limitations here. I have used chives, cilantro or thyme. The objective with the fresh herbs is to lend flavor notes to the Socca. (And I like the phytonutrients they lend as well.) Chic pea flour has a bitter earthy flavor that needs balance from the floral herbs.
It is customary to let the Socca batter sit for several hours before cooking. I have used the batter immediately and seen little difference in the results. But I like that I can make the batter ahead of time - even in the morning before heading to work - and cook the Socca whenever I'm ready to eat.
The key to Socca is a super hot pan. So set your oven to at least 450 and let it preheat. Once it is preheated, heat a dry 9 to 12 inch cast iron pan for about 5 minutes.
Remove the heated pan from the oven and swirl in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Then the batter. Make sure you coat the pan well with the batter. The oil will mix in and float on top. That's what you want.
Put the Socca on the top oven rack and let it bake for about 5 minutes until it is well set. Then turn your broiler on for another 2 minutes or so until you see the top browning. Carefully remove from the oven. Slide a thin spatula around the edges and then underneath to loosen; and then onto a plate or cutting board. Always serve Socca immediately.
Serves 2 to 4
1 cup chic pea or garbanzo bean flour (Besan flour in Indian groceries)
1 cup lukewarm water
4 Tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
fresh ground pepper
3 Tablespoons fresh minced rosemary, thyme, chives or other herbs
9 to 12 inch round oven-proof skillet or Socca or crepe pan.
Sift the flour through a fine sieve into a mixing bowl. Slowly add the water while whisking out any lumps. If the batter is still lumpy, strain it through the fine sieve another time. The batter needs to be smooth.
Whisk in the salt, pepper and 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Set the batter aside to rest while you preheat the oven, or up to several hours.
Set rack as close to the top of the oven as will accommodate your pan. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. When the oven is preheated, set the pan inside to heat, about 3 minutes.
Stir the fresh herbs into the batter. Remove the pan from the oven and swirl in 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Coat the pan well. Pour in the batter and swirl it around to coat the pan.
Bake the socca for about 7 minutes, until it is well set and then turn the oven to broil. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes until a brown crust forms on the top.
Carefully remove from the oven. Slide a thin spatula around the edges to loosen and then underneath the bread and slide onto a cutting board. Cut into triangles and serve immediately.
product recommendation: organic chic pea flour
There is something about this dish that really plays on my fantasy of living in the French countryside. It’s a traditional Provencal summer dish, the ingredients of which could be gathered solely from one well-planned garden in July and throughout most of August. The ingredients are not exclusive to the south of France; my own grandmother would have grown the traditional zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in her garden in rural Kentucky.
It’s the abundance of herbs that inspire the romance around this dish for me. (My grandmother didn’t grow many herbs). Any combination of summer herbs: basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary are typical. I’ve read some French cooks even add fresh lavender, which I’ve yet to try. Some fantasies may best be kept elusive.
Perhaps the romance lies in how ratatouille represents what is best about French country cooking: simplicity. It’s really just a vegetable stew. There is a brilliant humility about it.
Like so many other iconic national dishes, ratatouille has some essential ingredients - eggplant, zucchini and tomato - along with possible other elements that vary from cook to cook. These elements are usually guarded like a dark family secret.
My recipe includes balsamic vinegar: not a traditional ingredient to ratatouille, although some cooks do use it. It is a sweet and tart contribution.
The vibrant colors of the ingredients reflect the depth of phytonutrients inherent in this dish: yet another reason to love it. For example: the deep purple eggplant (anthocyanin), the red tomatoes (lycopene), and the green zucchinis (chlorophyll). Instead of the usual red or green bell peppers, look for the orange or purple or yellow for beta-carotene and Vitamin C (source here).The aromatics (garlic and onions) bring allyl sulfides and bioflavonoids, for cancer prevention (source here). And those beautiful herbs I love bring in polyphenols and endless other beneficial nutrients (source here). I think it would be fair to call ratatouille a power dish - nutritionally speaking.
You can put a ratatouille together in various ways. I love the beautiful photos of the dish done with layers of sliced vegetables arranged in a circle, like a tian. But I am suspicious of how well the flavors meld presented like that. The success of a good ratatouille is the synergy between the ingredients, the melding of flavors. That’s what makes it a stew.
However, that does not mean that the cubed vegetables (as this recipe suggests) should collapse into each other completely. Mushy and unrecognizable is not the goal.
The secret to maintaining the integrity of each vegetable is two-part. First, take the time to sear the zucchini and eggplant to give them a nice crust. Second, don’t cook the ratatouille too long.
NOTE ABOUT THE EGGPLANT: The eggplant can be cubed with the skin left on, if you like. Some find the skins of eggplant bitter and if so, you can remove them. You can also take the time to salt and let the eggplant drain for half an hour to further remove any bitterness. Be sure to rinse and dry the cubed eggplant if you do this step.
NOTE ABOUT THE ZUCCHINI: Make sure you let the zucchini (and eggplant) get a nice brown crust. Don't overcrowd the pan while searing the vegetables; you may need to do it in several batches. It's worth the effort: you gain some texture to the vegetables that will keep them from becoming mushy.
NOTE ABOUT PEPPERS: This is another place where you can take liberties. If you love peppers and onions, feel free to cut them bigger. Adjust the size according to how much of their presence you want to see in the stew. I love them medium sized and deeply caramelized.
Serves 4 to 6 people
1 pound Zucchini, diced medium
1 pound Eggplant, peeled, seeded and drained on paper towels, then diced medium
1 medium or 2 small yellow onions, diced medium
2 Bell peppers of one or various colors, diced medium
1 head Garlic, chopped
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped rough
3 Tablespoons fresh herbs, chopped fine. Any combination of basil, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary or lavender.
½ to 1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt or more to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper or more to taste
3 Tablespoons olive oil
In a large sauté pan or dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Pan-sear the zucchini and eggplant in olive oil in batches to get a nice crust on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil and sauté onions, bell peppers and garlic until soft and deeply caramelized. Deglaze the pan with ½ cup balsamic vinegar. Reserve the rest if needed later.
Add the seared vegetables in with the aromatics and tomatoes. Cover and turn the heat on medium to start to soften the vegetables. Keep a careful eye on the stove and adjust the heat if the vegetables are cooking too fast. The lid will help to keep the juices steaming. Add ½ cup water or more balsamic if the pan is running dry.
When the vegetables are soft, add at least 3 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary, parsley and thyme. Add 1 teaspoon salt and fresh cracked pepper or more to taste.
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.