Monday, August 17, 2009

Good peasant food: Kathy Morsell's hummus

A young friend-of-a-friend has expressed interest in, and some frustration at, trying to get started cooking in an economical and vegetarian way. Have been working for a while on a blog-post on "Dr Coyote's Kitchen", a kind of jump-start for ways of preparing what I've called elsewhere "good peasant food." But this young friend's request, and the fact that I spent the evening cooking another friend's recipe for another friend's relocation here to go to school, suggested a slightly different approach.

So, picking up from preliminary posts, here's the formalized "Good Peasant Food" series. In each, I'll lay out at least one recipe that fits the "economical and vegetarian" dicta, and also talk about some of the prep, cooking, cuisine, and maybe even philosophical issues that each suggests.

Here's the setup:

I've known The General for at least 10 years, and we're incredibly excited that he's just moved here from Taos NM to work on a Master's degree. Knowing that he's a fan of Middle Eastern food, and knowing that I'd originally got this recipe from a mutual friend, also in Taos, we thought it might be nice if he found a batch of this stuff in his fridge.

One night, years ago, we played, with our little Irish band, in the Adobe Bar of the Taos Inn--an ancient building just off the Plaza in that ancient town, with a fantastic wine-list and more than one resident ghost, which has been called "Taos's Living Room." I'm not a huge fan of the place--there's no real clear and sight-lined corner to set up the musicians, and there's a whole lot of Expensive Posing going on--but my buddy Coop had been going there since he was sixteen years old and skiing the Black Diamond runs in the Ski Valley.

So he was really looking forward to the gig, we had a lot of friends in the house, and a good turnout, and we had a good time. But it was afterwards that the evening really turned magical.

Kathy Morsell, a good friend who lived in a trailer in Sun Valley north of town with a pod of Jack Russells and rescued cats, was cooking at a veggie/organic restaurant called Western Sky, and after we'd broken down the PA system (the Adobe Bar's music shuts down early, because there are rooms just off the second-floor balcony) and loaded the cars, we headed out to the restaurant, whose kitchen itself had just closed down for the evening.

But Kathy, head chef, had stayed on, and had put together a fantastic feast that was all the more magical because it was cooked for us by someone we loved. We all sat around a big table, boarding house-style, with the stars of northern New Mexico through the picture windows flaring above the canyon's rim to the west, about 12 of us--friends, spouses, offspring, lovers, and lucky hangers-on--and Kathy just kept bringing dish after pan after casserole out of the kitchen: all vegetarian, all organic, all fresh, all local, and cooked with the virtuosity of a kitchen expert and the insight of a Zen practitioner.

It felt like we had walked out of the Adobe Bar and driven right off the edge of the mesa into some parallel universe with a million stars and the Milky Way in a night-black sky, where everyone cared for everyone else, where no animals would die, and where no-one need ever go hungry. Kathy Morsell, that night, showed us what such a world could be like: a world in which
we are brave enough, sufficiently aware, to express, moment-by-moment, how much we love one another.

This is one of the things she gave us.

Kathy Morsell's Hummus

Ingredients: chickpeas, lemons, tahini, olive oil, garlic, cumin, sea salt

Rather than giving specific amounts, I'll give rough proportions: adjust to taste.

For each cup of cooked chickpeas, use 1 clove garlic, 1/2 lemon, 3 tbs tahini, 2 tbs olive oil, cumin & salt to taste.

This dish is relatively quite low in calories & fats, high in fibre, and cheap as hell. As so often in cooking from scratch, using fresh ingredients, bought in bulk, provides both the best value, the healthiest result, and by far the best flavor. Buy the chickpeas dry and in bulk; find the tahini (sesame paste) and olive oil at a Middle Eastern market (you can even find Joyva tahini in most chain supermarkets, even here in Texas); buy the cumin in bulk, ideally as whole seeds, also in a Middle Eastern market; buy the garlic as whole cloves. In all cases, the flavors will be FAR better and the costs FAR lower.


If using dry chickpeas, the best way to prepare is in a pressure cooker. These are not cheap, but can very often be found (electric or stove-top versions) in Salvation Army or similar used-appliance store: they were central in 1950s and '60s cookery manuals, but fell out of favor when it became possible to buy more convenient (and more expensive, and inferior) canned beans. If you don't havve or can't afford a pressure cooker, soak the beans in 3x their volume of water overnight. Then bring to a boil, again in ample water, and cook until soft--the husks will start to peel away. Reserve this cooking water--do not discard.

If you want to go the full prep-route, rinse the cooked beans in clean water, and drain the floating husks away with the rinse water.

If using cumin seed, toast (don't burn) them in a dry frying pan over moderately high heat. As they are toasting, stir in the frying pan so they don't stick; when properly toasted, they'll turn dark brown and become quite aromatic. Remove from heat and allow to cool. When cooled, crush to a powder with a mortar & pestle, or in a food processor--another incredibly useful tool, which can be purchased quite cheaply and second-hand (old ones are fine--Dharmonia and I are using one that's at least 25 years old).

Before cutting and squeezing the lemons, here's a trick to maximize juice I learned from friend Terrie: ROLL each lemon, leaning on it hard, on the countertop. This will break-down the internal membranes and release the yield of juice per lemon.

If using whole garlic: separate into individual cloves. Cut off the hard tip and bottom of each clove. "Smack" the clove: that is, place it between the cutting board and the flat of your chef's knife, and smack down on the flat of the blade. This will loosen the dry husk; remove. Then, for additional flavor, lean hard on each clove, essentially crushing the clove flat before chopping. This will maximize the juiciness of the chopped garlic and its resulting flavor.


In the food processor: whirl the garlic cloves until they are finely chopped, scraping the sides of the canister.

Add the cooked chickpeas. Process again, on "puree" setting, and scraping the canister.

Squeeze the lemon. Process again, scraping the canister.

Add the olive oil and tahini. Puree.

If the mixture is still too stiff and/or dry--which it probably will be--add a small portion (like, a couple of tbs) of the reserved cooking water.

Add the cumin and salt. You will probably need to use more cumin and more salt than you might anticipate. But add in increments: it's easy to add one dash more, but overstep--make it too salty or spicy--and you've ruined the batch.

That's it! It keeps very well in the fridge, but it's nicest on the first day, when the ingredients are still fresh and still working with each other.

Hint: refrain from refrigerating, if possible, until you've served it, and ideally until it's all been eaten: hummus is absolutely at the tastiest at warm room-temperature, without having been chilled.

Serve with warm pita, raw veggies, good olives, feta or other aromatic cheese, and a good sharp white: Pinot Grigio is best.

And when you do serve it, hold in your mind the love and compassion and insight with which all the thousands of cooks over many hundreds of years before you have done the same.

Gassho, Kathy.


sunshine said...

I love your recipe posts. Thanks for sharing.

Mac Tíre said...

My grandmother called this empty larder you can make from a basically empty food larder. New ones to add to the collection are always appreciated!

masbrow said...

fuckin' awesome!

Seeker said...

This is my favorite hummus recipe. I had it for the first time at a musicology gathering at your house and dharmonia gave me the recipe- now it's almost always what I make to take with me to gatherings.