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
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.
Looking across the field at the ruby dots suspended amongst tangles of vine, my eyes find inspiration. Especially in the late afternoon when the sun is hitting the field just right, casting a haze on the landscape as I look through my camera lens. I think of cherry tomatoes like most kinds of berries: radiant jewels in the garden. Harvesting them is a treasure hunt. When ripe, they release into your hand with ease. So do the larger tomatoes, but let’s face it: little things are cute.
Picking them is a pleasure and if you are inclined, you can eat as you go. Kids are supposedly more likely to eat a vegetable they’ve had a hand in growing themselves. I would say that’s true for adults too.
Pan-seared is my favorite way to eat them. I love the way little tomatoes pop and roll around in a hot pan. With enough heat and space in the pan, the petite varieties will blister immediately and begin to wilt. Less than a minute or so later, the tomatoes can be finished in endless ways: deglazed with a favorite spirit or fresh citrus juice or just a pinch of salt, for example. Then use them everywhere, from a garnish where vibrant color is desperately needed, to full-on side dish status.
Where I wouldn’t even consider buying a regular fresh tomato any time but the heat of summer, I have become more open to the cherry and grape varieties in the grocery store year round. With their higher sugar concentration, they tend to taste more like themselves even in the cold months. And my tendency to pan-sear them anyway makes the season irrelevant. Aside from a full sized August heirloom, I don’t eat raw tomatoes. I feel good about my tomato tendencies since common research shows that cooking tomatoes releases more of their antioxidant qualities.
1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, rinsed and dried
1 ounce of silver tequila, bourbon or juice of one lime
1 tablespoon or so of fresh mint, chopped
Pinch of salt
One half tablespoon extra virgin coconut oil, grape seed or other high heat oil
Heat a sauté pan on medium high heat. Add the oil and allow it to heat for a few seconds.
Cool oil won’t produce that immediate sear you are looking for. Throw the little tomatoes into the hot pan and wait about 15 seconds. Don’t move them just yet.
Then start rolling them around in the pan and watch their skins blister. About a minute later, move the pan away from the flame if you are using a spirit and pour it in. Carefully return the pan to the burner. If the flame catches a vapor of the alcohol, it will flare in the pan. That’s not a bad thing. As the flame dies down, you know the alcohol has burned off. Just watch that you don’t set yourself on fire in the process.
Fresh lime juice or any other citrus will work fine, without the fear of fire.
Finish the tomatoes with a pinch of salt and the chopped mint.
Variations: other spirits will work fine here as well as your choice of herbs. Play around with infinite combinations. Another favorite of mine: bourbon finished with honey, fresh orange juice and fresh basil.
When I make this sauce, it’s usually because I am making some kind of Middle Eastern or Indian rice and vegetable dish. It’s a dairy free version of an Indian raita or a Greek tzatziki sauce. The two are so similar. There are inevitably leftovers, which means for the next few days, I will put this stuff on everything else I eat: scrambled eggs, roasted vegetables, green salad. It’s so versatile; I should keep a batch made at all times.
And when you look at the ingredient list, that’s not such a bad idea. The fermented coconut or almond yogurt has probiotics. There’s vitamin c from the lemon juice. There’s the anti-inflammatory boost from the garlic (you could get crazy and add some fresh ginger too!) and cucumber. And fresh mint, like most fresh herbs, is full of antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Research here.
Veganizing a cucumber yogurt sauce has been pretty easy for a while with all the soy yogurt products on the market. But until recently, if you were vegan and soy free, it wasn’t an option. I love both the So Delicious brand of coconut yogurt and the Kite Hill almond yogurts that are readily available now. Look for plain, unsweetened varieties of any nondairy yogurt you choose for this recipe.
Coconut milk yogurt tends to be a little thicker and a brighter shade of white than almond milk yogurt. But those details are negligible. Experiment with both, as well as the other brands on the market, to discover which kind best suits you. Always look for brands without added preservatives like carrageenan. The only ingredients necessary are the nut milk, probiotics and something like guar or xanthum gum or pectin which are natural thickeners.
You could handle the cucumbers a number of ways for this sauce. You could leave the skins on. I sometimes do if I am fortunate enough to have an organic cucumber in my possession. You could peel and discard the skins. If the tiny seeds don’t bother you, leave them in. I tend to deseed most things: it’s a texture thing for me.
You could shred the cucumbers into the sauce. Or you can dice them. The size of the dice is also completely subjective. You can dice the cucumbers large, medium or small. How much of their presence do you want to feel in the sauce?
Lately I have been mincing the peeled and deseeded cucumbers with a micro grater so that the flesh melts into the sauce, contributing flavor but little of the normal crunch.
Serves 4 to 6
Two 5.3 ounce containers coconut or almond milk yogurt, unsweetened and plain
½ medium cucumber, peeled and finely grated
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 to 6 sprigs fresh mint, chopped fine
Juice of half a lemon
Mix all the ingredients together. Taste and add more lemon, garlic, salt or cumin to your liking.
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.