There are many ways to use an ingredient, but I sometimes get into a rut when cooking.
Okra, more commonly known here as lady's fingers, I always think of for fish head curry and maybe as a bhindi fry, crisp and addictive.
But there are many other ways to use it.
Together with file powder and roux, it can be used to thicken gumbo, which is a meat or prawn stew popular in Louisiana in the United States.
Recently, at a friend's home, I had it in another interesting way. The lady's fingers were blanched until crisp-tender, then mixed with ground black sesame seeds, shoyu or Japanese soya sauce, and some sugar. They sat in the fridge for a while and the crunch from the vegetable and the aroma from the ground sesame seeds made them very addictive.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: SIMMERED LOTUS ROOT
1 20x10cm piece konbu
1.2 litres water
30g bonito flakes
1 Tbs rice wine vinegar, white vinegar or lemon juice
1kg lotus root
250g streaky bacon
3 Tbs mirin
Shoyu (Japanese soya sauce) to taste
Sliced scallions for garnish (optional)
1. Make the dashi: Wipe the konbu with a damp paper towel. Pour the water into a medium pot, add the konbu and let soak for one hour.
2. Place the pot on the stove over medium-high heat and let the water heat up until small bubbles appear. Remove the konbu. Discard or reserve to make tsukudani. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add the bonito flakes. Turn off the heat. Allow the fish flakes to sink to the bottom. Strain the dashi into a measuring jug. You should have about 1 litre of dashi. Set aside.
3. Fill a large glass mixing bowl with water. Add the vinegar and give it a stir.
4. Rinse the lotus root under water. Scrape off the mud if needed. Peel off the skin using a vegetable peeler, slice off and discard both ends. After each root has been peeled, place in the acidulated water immediately to prevent browning.
5. Cut each root crosswise into 3cm-thick rounds and cut each round into quarters. Place the lotus root back in the water after cutting. Set aside.
6. Stack the slices of bacon up and cut crosswise into 2cm pieces.
7. Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the bacon. Fry until some of the fat renders. The bacon should not become crisp or brown.
8. Drain the lotus root and add to the pot. Stir fry 1 to 2 minutes. Add the mirin and just enough dashi to cover the lotus root. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low.
9. Add shoyu to taste.
10. Allow the lotus root to simmer until all the dashi has been absorbed, about one hour. Serve at room temperature, topped with sliced scallions if using.
Serves six to eight as a side dish
Long after dinner, we were still picking at them.
At that meal, another side dish caught my fancy and my friend showed me yet another way to cook a familiar ingredient: lotus root.
I usually use it to make soup, which I love; or in a vegetable stir-fry, in which it adds a satisfying crunch; or if I can be bothered, I slice it thin and deep-fry it for a snack.
But a mutual friend of ours, who is Japanese, taught my friend how to make a dead-easy and killer side dish and she nailed it at our dinner.
The recipe could not be more simple: Simmer the chunks of lotus root, or renkon as it is called in Japan, in a dashi broth spiked with mirin and shoyu. The bacon adds some smokiness and makes the dish less earnest.
This is one of those things you can put together quickly and let simmer at the back of the stove while you get moving on other dishes. Lotus root needs a long, slow simmering to get it tender with a hint of a crunch.
Because this dish is so simple, how good it tastes will depend on how good the ingredients are.
This means making dashi from scratch rather than using granules and hot water.
Dashi is one of the quickest and more flavourful stocks you will make and its perfume is enchanting. I used to soak the konbu or kelp in the water for 20 to 30 minutes, but now, I leave the kelp in for an hour or more to develop a deeper flavour.
Never boil konbu because it makes the stock bitter. Remove it from the pot just when small bubbles appear in the water.
Frugal Japanese people will be shocked at people who chuck the kelp. They collect sheets of used konbu and when they have enough, they make tsukudani. The konbu is chopped up and cooked down with water, vinegar, sake, mirin, shoyu and sugar until it is thick and dark.
The resulting condiment is delicious with rice porridge.
But back to this week's recipe.
Lotus root is easy to find and inexpensive. Now that I have a new use for it, I will be getting it more often.
It oxidises after it has been peeled, so soak it in water mixed in with a little vinegar or lemon juice while prepping it.
The rest of the dish comes together very easily and is best served at room temperature.
When you have to worry about the many moving parts in a meal, make this fuss-free dish.
You should have seen us attack it at my friend's place.