The Incredible Hulk in a glass

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The Bride and I were dining at Paiche, an excellent (and highly recommended) new restaurant in Marina del Rey, whose menu offers several intriguing non-alcoholic concoctions. As designated driver that evening, I recused myself from their wonderful wine list, but I wouldn’t settle for fizzy water as my sole potable, so I selected a drink they call The Incredible Hulk. [Cue the ever-litigious Disney (who now owns Marvel Entertainment), likely into its third draft of a cease-and-desist order; by the time you get to the restaurant, it may be called The Bruce (or David) Banner, or something else entirely.]

The Incredible Hulk consists of five simple ingredients: parsley, cactus, orange juice, pineapple juice, and celery. [Here’s a mnemonic for the ingredient list: CC POP.] Living as I do in the Los Angeles area, rounding up some cactus (known at the Mexican grocery store as nopales) was no big deal, and the rest of the items are available anywhere. I kinda cheated and bought pineapple juice and orange juice, rather than making them myself from fresh fruit, as I suspect the restaurant does. I revved up the old Vita-Mixer and ground up six large celery stalks, a pound of chopped nopales (do NOT buy the pickled version or the ones packed in brine for this!), and a bunch of curly parsley with the bottom inch of the stems removed.

Incredible Hulk sits on stove top without fear

Incredible Hulk sits on stove top without fear

I’ve discovered that adding a citrus juice (or any acidic juice) to cactus juice causes foam to rise more or less immediately, so don’t worry if that happens; you can skim it off or discard it. I just mixed it back in. I prefer my juice a little “greener” than the one Paiche serves, so I used less of the orange-pineapple juice blend than they do, but you can experiment to find your sweet (or not-so-sweet) spot.

Looking for vodka in all the wrong places

Looking for vodka in all the wrong places

THE INCREDIBLE HULK
1 bunch parsley
1 pound nopales (cactus), chopped
6 large celery stalks
32 oz. orange juice
32 oz. pineapple juice

Blend greens and a little bit of the orange and pineapple juices (mixed 50-50) in a Vita-Mixer (you’ll need a pretty powerful blender or food processor to deal with the pulpiness of the celery and nopales) until smooth. [You will likely have to do this in two or three batches.] Strain if you wish (I didn’t). Pour half a glass of the greens mixture into a glass with an equal amount of orange-pineapple juice. Stir and serve over ice. Go on rampage. “Hulk smash!”

A refreshing glass of the delicious beverage

A refreshing glass of the delicious beverage

Balkanizing My Kitchen, Part two — Ajvar and Pinjur

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Oops. That's not Ajvar and Pinjur, it's Akbar and Jeff from Life in Hell, with apologies to creator Matt Groening.

Oops. That’s not Ajvar and Pinjur, it’s Akbar and Jeff from Life in Hell, with apologies to creator Matt Groening.

If you happened to see my earlier post on lutenitza, you’ll recall that I promised to return with a further exam of its kissing cousins, ajvar and pinjur. First, let’s have a look at the real deal.

The REAL Ajvar and Pinjur.

The REAL Ajvar and Pinjur.

Although thought to be Serbian in origin, ajvar (pronounced “EYE-var”) is said to have derived its name from the Turkish word havyar, which shares an etymology with “caviar.” [In Russian as well, the word ikra (or икра), can mean both traditional caviar and also a vegetable purée or paté.] It’s made from red peppers, aubergines, garlic, oil, and spices. Both lutenitza and pinjur, which share many ingredients with ajvar, generally include tomatoes, while ajvar does not. Perhaps the most striking difference between ajvar and the other two, though, is its consistency; you can turn a room temperature jar of ajvar upside down without spilling its contents. Pinjur and lutenitza, not so much. Depending on the recipe, ajvar may be made with smoked or roasted peppers or not; in this bottled version, the peppers are not roasted, giving it a lighter, brighter flavour than either the pinjur or the lutenitza.

The FatFree Vegan Kitchen blog has an excellent (and quite healthy) recipe for homemade ajvar, as does the Kitchen Window blog at NPR (where they dub the dish “Serbian Salsa“). In both cases, these recipes opt for roasting the red peppers.

Pinjur (also known as pindur, pindjur, pindzur, and pinđur) is widely available throughout Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Just in case you’re unclear on just where all these places are, here’s a map.

For the geographically challenged, this is where ajvar and pinjur come from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

For the geographically challenged, this is where ajvar and pinjur come from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

Unlike ajvar, which is more of a spread, pinjur (pronounced “PEEN-jur”) resembles a salsa or sauce. And, like salsas and sauces, it comes in a fairly wide variety of styles. It’s generally characterized as being an aubergine (eggplant)-based sauce/relish, rather than a roasted pepper sauce/relish, even though lutenitza generally contains aubergines, and pinjur generally contains roasted peppers. Confusing, ain’t it? In my limited experience so far, lutenitza is a little spicier than pinjur, but there are so many variants on the recipes, it would be impossible to make a generalization that really sticks. Dealer’s choice here.

Both pinjur and lutenitza are terrific mixed in with rice, ladled over vegetables or meat, or as a dip for chips; they can be served either warm or at room temperature. Both are gluten-free and vegan (as is ajvar), and they’re all a great way of dealing with the overabundance of vegetables from the summer garden, offering a tasty treat for home canning enthusiasts well into the winter months… provided you can wait that long to break into those jars.

The Food Network’s UK website has a tomato and pepper-free recipe for pinjur that relies heavily on aubergine for its base, but if you want something closer to the commercially available versions, you can opt for this recipe from the Healthy Food Base blog.

As the Macedonians would say, “Cреќен јадење!” [transliteration: “Sreḱen Jadenje!”] [translation: “Happy eating!”]

In Praise of a Very Fancy Blender

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First off, let me say from the outset that I’m not a “juice guy.” Sure, I’ve seen the infomercials and heard the testimonials and been subject to in-store demos, just like the rest of us. And I love juice; very few liquids on Earth bring me greater pleasure than a fresh-squeezed glass of blood orange juice. But I’m not persuaded that juice can rightly claim the curative powers that its disciples ascribe to it. So it wasn’t for that reason that I found myself on Craigslist, obsessing over finding my first VitaMix (or Vita-Mixer, as it was known then).

Last year, I had promised to make mushroom soup for a Thanksgiving gathering at our friends Rick and Lori’s house, and I knew that some of the attendees had dairy issues. Accordingly, I mused aloud on my FB page as to whether I should substitute almond milk, or cashew cream, or some sort of ersatz non-dairy sour cream substitute as a thickening agent, to give it a “creaminess” without using cream. My pal (and head chef at Papilles Bistro in Hollywood) Tim Carey commented, “I never use cream. Get yourself a VitaMix.” Okay. When you get advice from the guy who has made the best cauliflower soup you’ve ever had in your life, it makes sense to listen.

VitaMix products are expensive. No, really. They are. Very. Expensive. Then again, so are Maybachs, and for much the same reason. I’m pretty sure I could throw a handful of gravel in my Vita-Mixer and come out with a lovely powder, suitable for sprinkling over a fruit cocktail that found itself light in mineral content. The one that I bought — a Vita-Mixer 4000, used, for $200 — had been in service for over a decade and a half, and the guy who sold it did so only because he had been given a new one as a present. It’s a champ, the very one pictured at the top of this post. Easy to clean, easy to use (though I have twice made a pretty comical mess of the kitchen by failing to secure the so-called “Action Dome”). The original cookbook, which came as part of the purchase, claims that one can actually use the device to cook soup, due to the friction of its rotors against the canister’s contents. That may be so, but the idea of having to listen to this device at full throttle for half an hour is about as appealing as being subjected to an extra-innings Justin Bieber concert.

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I made a mushroom stock from water and leeks and carrots and parsley and garlic and dried and fresh mushrooms (dried oyster and black trumpet mushrooms, fresh Eryngii, Maitake, and Bunapi mushrooms), then I sautéed a bunch of fresh mushrooms (I think there were seven different varieties of fresh mushrooms in the soup) and some spices, combined the whole lot (mushrooms, homemade mushroom stock, a bit of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary and oregano, and some salt and pepper) in the Vita-Mixer and puréed like a crazy man.

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

[Incidentally, there are consequences to puréeing hot soup in a food processor whose lid has been too securely clamped; the steam forces the liquid out of the container at high pressure in directions hitherto unimagined at a velocity just barely less energetic than an Olympic gymnast’s free-form floor event. Live and learn.]

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The resulting soup — at least the part of it that I didn’t have to wipe off the cabinets, counters, and floor — was magnificent; creamy, hearty, aromatic. And I owe it all to the wonders of what might be the single most essential countertop kitchen device other than the toaster — the VitaMix[er].