Monday, May 26, 2008

Emergency Gourmet: Mint Pea Soup & Tip for Over-Spiced food

My life is honestly less interesting when we don't post. I mean, first of all, I become less interested in food and ingredients and presentation in general. Dinners degenerated to leftovers, canned/defrosted goods, and even (gasp!) ramen. I come home and find myself lackadaisical and apathetic and bored. And boring.

But just as bad, when I don't blog, I feel too guilty to go visit my bloggie-friends. And we really do have the best bloggie friends ever. You guys keep visiting and posting even when I (metaphorically) refuse to get out of bed and actually communicate. Thank you for not giving up on us. I especially want to give a shout-out to Krysta, who went out of her way to find some key ingredients at her local African-Caribbean grocery store to support my Chiebu Djen odyssey. I am completely floored and energized by her thoughtfulness. Apparently that Chiebu Djen struck a cord: my Dad also bought and mailed some dried fish for version 2.0. So expect some heavy duty Chiebu Djen to surface within the next few weeks!


Earlier this week, Do and I had a couple of his graduate student pals over to dinner. Let me rephrase that: Do remembered 24 hours ahead of time that he had invited them over a month ago. We had just gotten back from Chicago, there was dirty laundry and half-unpacked luggage all over the place (and in an apartment as small as ours, even one suitcase can feel like an invasion), and the fridge was empty. Deer in Headlights moment. Oh and did I mention that one friend is vegetarian (there goes the quick roasted chicken idea) and the other turns out to be lactose-intolerant (ack!). To top it off, it was a Tuesday night. So we had to leave work, shop for ingredients, prepare food, host a dinner, and have them out the door by a reasonable hour.

Oh God.

It was this blog, of all things, that saved us from my rapidly approaching panic-attack. Do faced this minor calamity by very simply going to our blog and skimming through our 'All Time Favorites' posts. About 40 minutes before our guests arrived, he propped up his laptop on the kitchen counter and threw together his Pasta Arrabiata, which took about 15 minutes and next to no ingredients. Brilliant.

Do talks over Neen for a moment, before remembering to grab the talky stick: Well, as we all know I like spice. Something that I have always been curious about is how to tone down a spicy dish once the damage is done, so to speak. I have noticed before, that dishes that involve tomatoes tend to require more hot sauce to get the same amount of kick. So, floating in the back of my mind has been this idea that, if I just add more tomato sauce, the heat of a dish should decrease. Well, after adding 4 Serrano peppers, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper to my Pasta Arrabiata - I got a chance to test that hypothesis.

It worked like a charm. Before adding the additional tomato sauce, Neen was crying after taking one bite of the sauce. I added in two tablespoons of tomato sauce and all of a sudden Neen found the sauce pleasant, even slightly mild. Mild! From crying to mild in 10 seconds or less. I love it.

I have been trying to figure out why, but the internet has been no help. Capsaicin, shown to the right (image stolen from Wikipedia), is the molecule that binds to receptors on the tongue, giving the sensation of spice or heat. It is a pretty standard looking hydrocarbon. Since I don't know exactly how Capsaicin binds, it is hard to be sure why tomato is affecting it, but it may be a weak acid-base reaction. The back tail group (the part from the HO to the NH-C=O), which is conserved across a family of molecules with similar effects, has a couple possible acidic or basic components. It may be that the tomato sauce, being slightly acidic, is reacting with the molecule. Of course, that would suggest that lemon juice or any other acidic addition should have the same effect. And that is easy enough to test (oh yes, that is an experiment coming soon to a kitchen near me)! If it's not an acid-base reaction, then it may be a more complicated interaction between the Capsaicin molecule and something more specific that is found in tomatoes. Possibly an interaction resembling the Capsaicin-Dairy Fat interaction. Dairy fat dissolves Capsaicin, so that when you eat a spicy, dairy food, the Capsaicin can't bind to the receptors on your tongue because it is all tied up with the dairy fat. Which is why cream-based food doesn't tend to taste as spicy.

Neen grabs the talky stick away before Do scares all the readers away with too much science talk.

In the meantime (ahem), I forged ahead with the absolute best emergency recipe in my arsenal. This is my bang-for-your-buck, gourmet-in-30-seconds Ace. Giz and Psychgrad, if you host another Tried and True event, I'll be sending this recipe over. Mint pea soup. Ridiculously refreshing and light, perfect for a summer meal or an appetizer.

This soup is a godsend. It required no cooking, no prep, no exotic ingredients. In fact, chances are you may have all the necessaries in your pantry right now. Literally, you throw all the ingredients in a blender and have at it (or, if you have an immersion blender, throw the ingredients straight into the serving bowl). Serving it in wine glasses makes it fancy-shmancy; ah, the deceptions of presentation! For our dinner on Tuesday, I even had enough time left over to make homemade garlic croutons.

Someday, when I'm a harried mom or a broke, harried graduate student, this soup will be my saving grace. The original recipe is from "Real Simple: Meals Made Easy," the cookbook that introduced us to our first kitchen. The book has a whole section of No-cook meals, as well as no-shop meals, 30-minute meals, etc. When we sooner or later lose the luxuries of time and disposable income, and have to set aside overachieving cookbooks like Silver Palate or Madhur Jaffrey, Real Simple will be there for us. We will still eat well. Thank God. Because I'm so freakin' tired of apathetic dinners.

We're sending this Mint Pea soup recipe over to Joelen, who is compiling Blender recipes for her monthly Tasty Tool event. We can't think of a single better use for your blender!

Mint Pea Soup. Serves 4

2 10oz packages (4 cups) frozen peas, thawed slightly
3/4 cup fresh mint (or more!)
4 scallions, roughly chopped (1/4 onion works too)
3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar
Optional garnish: torn mint leaves, plain yogurt/creme fraiche, or croutons.

Place all the ingredients in a blender. Puree until smooth, at least one minute. Pour in individual bowls. Garnish with mint leaves, a dollop of creme fraiche or plain yogurt, or garlic croûtons.


Cookie baker Lynn said...

Wow, that is seriously geeky. I'll show it to my husband who will love it. He would not, however, love the soup as he calls peas "little green dirt balls." I think it looks fabulous.

That Girl said...

Do is so much smarter than me. I always think tomatoes = sweet. If something is too spicy, add sweet, OR TOMATOES.

thomas said...

Delicious! Are we going to get a chance to hang out with y'all before you head west?

PS: If I get into Boalt Hall and/or Stanford, I'm sure a trip to California will be in order.

giz said...

I so would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the discussion started on "what to make for dinner guests"... that kind of narrowing in the throat where you think "oh shit".

I like the pea soup - you just hold that thought.

melissa said...

I love the science talk! He he. I also am a big fan of large amounts of capsaicin. :) Steve has adjusted somewhat, but it took years.

Good thing you have some old favorites you can go to. Every time people come over, and in our life, it's almost always last minute, I panic a little.

Hope everything is going well. Where are you moving in California??

Psychgrad said...

I'm starting to understand what the glazed over look people get when I talk about stats means. I'm definitely not a science person. But, I am excited about the tip to add a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce to tone down the spice.

Kevin said...

The mint pea soup is looks so vibrantly green and good.

kittie said...

Oooo - I love the science bit! There used to be a show called "The truth about food"(not the one about diets!), which would talk like that - it was brilliant ;) Also, Heston Blumenthal's "In Search of Perfection"... How to make the perfect pizza/bolognaise???? What's not to love about that??!

Uh oh - I think I'm a food geek... I'll shut up now (blush)