Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Black Bean Burgers

Excitingly - and fortunately - I came to this country with a job lined up. Not so excitingly, it takes time to process a new visa and to jump through all of the bureaucratic hoops necessary to get everything done. This can take several weeks and up to a month to complete.

The first week or so I was here, it was pure bliss to have some time to decompress. I'd been living out of a suitcase for the two weeks prior since all of my belongings were packed onto a moving truck back in icy cold Baltimore and are currently making slow, prodding progress across the Atlantic ocean and around a couple of other continents to make its way here.  My last month in Baltimore was exhausting chaos, and then suddenly I found myself with no need to set an alarm in the morning, nowhere to be during the day, and hours and hours to fill. I spent long hours exploring the grocery stores, walking around our new complex, and a baffling amount of time in places like Carrefour.

The second week I was able to settle in a bit more. After the epic trip to Ikea, there were places to put things from the 3 suitcases I'd brought with me. A couple of trips to Carrefour suited us with basic kitchenware. I found a gym that offers yoga and spin, reached out to my handful of contacts here for lunch and beach plans, and began to form my own sort of schedule that stretched to fit the hours of the day that my new roommate (The Gentleman) was at work.

This third week has had me chomping at the bit, however. The newness and basic novelty has worn off, and without any more real "house stuff" to do until my 39 boxes of personal belongings arrive (scheduled for sometime in mid-late March), filling those hours has been increasingly more difficult. There are only so many trips to Ikea one can make, and only so many hours of the day to spend in the gym. There is, of course, the small matter of The Book I Am Writing (story of my entire life), and a litany of excuses to accompany why little progress has been made there, but that's besides the point.

And, for your information, I AM working on The Book I Am Writing. IT'S A CREATIVE PROCESS THAT TAKES TIME. Also, it took me two days to find the proper height for my desk chair and the proper angle that the curtains should be to let in plenty of daylight without flooding the room, and those are both very important aspects to Book Writing.

One massive time waster   procrastination device   new project has been my commitment to eating more healthfully. With nothing but time on my hands for the first time in my adult life, I made the decision upon moving here to try and avoid processed foods as much as possible. After so many years of living off of Lean Cuisines and frozen turkey burgers, I wanted to make an effort to have a little more control over what goes into my body. 

Another goal with this whole "eating clean" project has been to learn to be a better cook. My family will be dismayed and probably feel betrayed by this very public confession, but it is high time for me to come clean on this account: I am not a very good cook. It's not for lack of talent or taste, because when I take the time to learn things I find that I am actually very good at improvising, but I missed some basic cooking skills early on (probably because I was too busy day dreaming about ponies or some shit) and thus know that I have sloppy techniques. Thank God for my iPad and YouTube. The iPad primarily lives in the kitchen and serves as my bible for all things Basic Cooking Skills. The search history is full of things like "how to slice a mango" and "how to dice a shallot" and "substitute for chipotle" (BECAUSE THERE IS NO CHIPOTLE ANYTHING ANYWHERE IN THIS COUNTRY). And with my newfound (but temporary!) unemployment, I finally have time to focus on the basics.

Pinterest was an excellent place to start as there are tons of die-hard foodie zealots who favor not only healthy foods, but flavorful ones as well. One of the sites I've come across via Pinterest is The Foodie Physician who does some pretty excellent healthy spins on comfort food. On a Superbowl Sunday post, The Doc posted some delicious-looking black bean quinoa burgers and sweet potato fries that I decided to try. "Decided to try," completely ignoring the fact that while we have kitchen basics (some pots and pans, one really good knife, one spatula, one rubber spoon, a rice cooker, and 47 varieties of wine and liquor glasses - essentials), we are still lacking many things which are currently in a shipping container heading halfway across the planet.

So, the veggie burger and sweet potato fries recipe seemed like an excellent place to start, mostly because it involved a shit ton of prep work which would give me some valuable knife skills practice and would take up enormous portions of my day which is extremely important when you are procrastinating in writing the Next Great Novel.

The first step involved a shopping trip to Waitrose. I absolutely love Waitrose, a British-owned chain of supermarkets. I'm sure in the UK it's akin to Giant or Publix, but to me it's British and therefore of superior quality and therefore I love it. Spinney's is also not bad, but the location closest to us is on the smallish side, so I usually hit up Waitrose for big shopping trips and walk on over to Spinney's when I realize we're out of, say, canned chick peas or wax paper. 

One of the rules of being an expat here (aside from "There are no rules," which is a hilarious little epithet meaning that just because something is one way one day by no means will be the same the next; this applies to traffic patterns, hours of business, and the whims of personnel working that day) is that if you see something and like it, buy 10,000 of it because chances are very good that it won't be there the next time. Because everything is imported, it's nearly impossible to depend on certain food items being readily available from one shopping trip to the next. And, thus, it would portend that on my trip to Waitrose to purchase items for black bean quinoa burgers that Waitrose would have no canned black beans available. Only these:

With an obvious hole in my culinary knowledge, I purchased 4 bags of said beans because I planned to double the recipe and make enough black bean burgers to freeze for the coming months when I do actually have a job. Only later did I think to look up the canned:dried ratio and discover that one bag of those things is equal to like twenty cans of black beans. Result: we will not have to purchase black beans for the remainder of our time in the Middle East. Also, the freezer is full of soaked black beans. Money saver!

I couldn't find basic rolled oats, but Google told me that British Jumbo Oats can do. I considered the barley and porridge as bonus healthy ingredients.
Thankfully, I was able to forage for and find most of the other ingredients. Except "chipotle peppers in adobo." There were no chipotle peppers or adobo to be found, and I was hesitant to substitute Thai green chilis or random Chinese pickled chiles. I made do with lots of cumin, dried coriander, and ground chili powder and that did the trick.

Now, despite my lack of understanding of basic canned:dry ratios, I have previously made things with dried black beans and I knew well enough to stick them in water the night before a culinary attempt. But what I didn't expect was that the next day - a good 12 hours later - they would still be hard little rocks in their bowls of water. After consulting Ye Olde iPad, I threw them into a wok to add some heat to the process. This took another TWO HOURS until they even began to be soft enough to work with. I cooked them, and cooked them, and cooked them, adding more and more water. The plus side was that I threw in some chicken stock (no vegans here!) and plenty of cumin and chili pepper so that they were at least very well seasoned prior to being mushed into oblivion, but this took for-freaking-ever and completely ruined my other Novel Procrastination Plan of going to the beach in the late afternoon.
I finally managed to get them to a decent consistency. The recipe calls for leaving some of the black beans to the side to work into the paste whole for consistency, and I highly recommend it. 

Here came the second problem, however - without a food processor or a masher, I had to figure out a way to mush up the beans. I started out with my bare hands, then experimented with a small gardening hoe that came with the new set I got at Carrefour (14 dirhams!), and ended up crushing minuscule numbers of beans at a time with a basic fork. It took for-fricking-ever. But, finally, I had my basic bean paste. 

A third problem arose with the rolled oats. How to grind them up into the proper consistency? The oats are a crucial ingredient to these burgers - so many veggie burgers can just totally fall apart, and the addition of a binding agent is necessary. Too often, binding agents used can be unhealthy additions - fatty bread crumbs for example - so I was definitely keen to use the oats but lacked the equipment to prepare it. Hence, some major improvisation took place. 
I took an empty wine bottle from the recycling bin, poured half of the oats between two sheets of wax paper, and proceeded to roll and pound those suckers out using the empty bottle as a rolling pin. When I'd done about as much as I could, I took our one good kitchen knife and chopped the hell out of them until I was left with a nice - albeit somewhat still chunky - powder. In the end it turned out to be a decent enough consistency to hold the burgers together, and I even think the final product benefited from a little courseness. In the future if I make these with an actual food processor, I probably won't grind them into anything finer than what I did here.

I actually already had a ton of cooked quinoa that we'd made with dinner a few nights prior, so that was one time saver. Still, I officially began the veggie burger process the night before around 11pm when I put the beans in to soak. I started chopping ingredients around noon yesterday, and by the time the last thing was chopped, sauteed, and ready to go into the big bowl to actually make the patties it was encroaching on 4:30pm and I still needed to refrigerate the patties for a few hours prior to cooking. Hence, my clean eating project turned out to be a masterful time-taker-upper and I had spent nearly the entire afternoon working on it. Another day of not writing, hooray!

But just look at how they turned out:

Those little orange splotches are egg yolks. The eggs here are bright orange. I have no good explanation for this.

I refrigerated the patties for probably 3 hours before I actually cooked two of them. The rest I wrapped in wax paper and put into freezer bags so future dinners, and I saved two of them for our friends who live in the next complex over. Overall, I made about 12 decent-sized burgers which was a successful doubling of the recipe.

The sweet potato fries turned out to be super easy to make. I - again - underestimate how much a single unit would yield and ended up with enough fries to fill two smallish freezer bags (about 2 portions per bag) which I froze. They will just need to be defrosted a bit, tossed in seasoning, and thrown into the oven for future dinners.

Right before hitting the grill pan
By a stroke of luck, Waitrose did have these in stock: 

I am an avid breakfast burrito eater, and I love these things. They are also good for sandwiches or for toasting to use as a snack with hummus or guac. Or, in this case, as a black bean burger wrapper.

I finally managed to serve dinner just before 9pm which was actually good timing because The Gentleman didn't come home from his swim practice until shortly after that. I served the burgers in a wrap with mozzarella, tomato, and avocado (for me - The Gentleman is strangely highly allergic to avocados) and seasoned the fries with olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, and chili powder. Everything turned out surprisingly delicious, and I could definitely taste the difference of homemade black bean burgers vs frozen. They were more flavorful and fresher, and - despite not having any kitchen appliances to assist in the process - the consistency was much more palatable.

However, I am left with the impression that making all of one's food from scratch takes up a tremendous amount of time. And I didn't even make those tortillas, which are the only processed food there mucking up the balance (aside from the ketchup, but whatever - I LOVE KETCHUP). I think that relegating one day or night a week to making a big batch of food that can be frozen or eaten throughout the week is a decent goal to aim for. 

Besides, I'm supposed to be Writing A Book.

PS: Writing this entry took an hour and a half. But only because halfway through, while the photos were loading, I had to go take a 20 minute nap. There are some aspects of being temporary unemployed that I am relishing, and a 20 minute midday cat nap is one of them.

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