Friday, April 18, 2014

Fowl Technical Tricks

One of the ways in which great chefs distinguish themselves from routine ones is a whole array of technical tricks that make all the difference in the world.

Here's one that works wonders. It will give the chicken a depth of flavor even if you use it in a context where the crispiness of the skin is not important.

The magical step is to first pan-sear the chicken in duck fat. Of course, Maestro Maillard is doing his magic. The chicken is then lifted out, blotted, and the fat is discarded.

There is an additional advantage here. You need to wash the chicken and dry it before you pan-fry it but you don't need to cut off the fat. The fat will get rendered and "disappear" and you won't need to deal with it. Laziness raised to pure perfection in the arms of technique!

You can then proceed to make the chicken in whatever fashion you like. Even in a conventional stew or soup, the difference is striking. The CC has had friends ask if the dish was cooked in "tons of butter"? Not even close.

The dish below is a classic Moroccan dish. It's the "little black dress" of Moroccan cooking. You need to have it in your repertoire. It's a total crowd-pleaser and one for the ages.

If you don't have a tagine use a solid pot that you can seal with foil. The seal is necessary.

Why is something so simple so magical?

Three reasons.

Firstly, the Maillard reaction with the chicken plus the miniscule remnants of the duck fat on the surface cells which make their way into the sauce. Secondly, the depth of flavor by a long slow braise where the chicken effectively cooks in its own juices. Lastly, the intense burst of both flavor and umami from the preserved lemons which add a  delectable citrus note as a baseline flavor. The fresh herbs add their own contribution as well.

Is this technique "traditional" (whatever the hell that word means)?

The answer is borderline. Traditionally, the meat is not seared in the classical Moroccan tradition but the CC is willing to bet a substantial amount of money that this is the way that true geniuses make the dish even while avowing the technique. Ultimately, it's the end that matters and the end is scrumptious!

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons & Green Olives

(serves 4)

Ingredients

4 chicken thighs
1 large onion (grated)

2 preserved lemons
2 cups green olives (pitted)
1/2 cup parsley (finely chopped)
1/2 cup cilantro (finely chopped)

1 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 1/2 tbsp. cumin seeds
1 tbsp. whole black pepper
1/2 tbsp. dried ginger
1/2 tbsp. sweet paprika

large pinch of saffron

2 cups chicken broth

salt
3 tbsp. duck fat

Recipe

Dry roast the coriander, cumin and black pepper in a skillet and grind them finely in a coffee grinder. Combine with the dried ginger, sweet paprika and saffron and set aside.

Prepare the preserved lemons. Discard the innards retaining only the skin. It will peel off easily. Chop in to strips about 1" long. This means first chop them length-wise into thin strips and then halve them. Set aside.

For the olives, there are two schools of thought. Those that prefer them left whole and those that halve them length-wise. The CC is mystified why the world would be so divided (pun intended!) since it makes so little difference to the end result but as the Japanese might say, 十人十色 ("ten people, ten colors" = "different strokes for different folks").

In a flat pan, heat up the duck fat and fry the chicken thighs until they are lightly browned on both sides. Roughly 10 minutes. Lift out and set aside. Discard the fat.

Meanwhile grate the onion with a box grater. Set aside.

Assemble the tagine.

Combine the grated onions, salt, broth, and the spices and put them in the tagine. Add the chicken. Cover it and let it cook at the lowest possible heat for 35 minutes. (The chicken should be very tender at this point.)

Add the preserved lemons, olives, the two greens and combine.

You can let it sit at this point and reheat gently in the tagine when your guests arrive.

Serve over couscous. (Recipe below.)

Couscous with Chickpeas, Raisins & Scallions

(serves 4 generously)

Ingredients

2 cups couscous

1/2 cup chickpeas
1 cup raisins
2 scallions

2 tbsp. cultured butter
2 1/2 cups water

salt

Recipe

The CC is perfectly aware of the fact that, theoretically speaking, couscous should be steamed but you can't get that kind of couscous even in New York so you live with the brute reality that you have on the ground.

Cook the chickpeas ahead of time. They need to be al dente.

Add all the ingredients to a pot except the couscous and bring to a boil. Add the couscous and turn the heat off. Wait 5 minutes. Fluff it to get perfectly cooked couscous.



† The Mallard is a wild duck which makes the pun with Maillard all too irresistible.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Orecchiette with Peas and Buttermilk-Parmesan Sauce

This is emphatically not an Italian dish. It's clearly a riff on "Alfredo Sauce", which while invented in Rome and which was itself a riff on fettuccine alla Romana, was definitely made for Americans. Rumor has it that its popularity owes itself to the Hollywood duo of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

The substitution of cream by buttermilk makes sense. For one, you get a much stronger tangy lactic flavor. Secondly, you get a strong umami taste. It's also lighter. The emulsification works the same way as in the original.

The peas come from another classic Italian dish - pasta with peas, ham and cream. Similar idea just with fresh peas. Fancier versions substitute the ham with prosciutto.

The combination works magic and it requires a light hand. The peas definitely need to be fresh. Frozen is not going to cut it. It's also a dish where you need to make the sauce quickly while you are making the pasta at the last minute and toss it all together.

The reason to use orecchiette is to cradle the peas while holding on to the sauce. Substitute with conchiglie (shells) in the same logical vein.

Even with questionable authenticity, this dish is definitely both simple and magical.



Ingredients

(serves 2 generously)

2 cups conchiglie
1 cup fresh peas
1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 tbsp. butter

1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano
black pepper
1/3 cup chopped parsley

Recipe

Bring the heavily-salted pasta water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook till al dente. Roughly 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat up the butter in a pan at medium-low heat. When melted add the peas and let the sautée for a bit. Add the buttermilk and let it warm up and boil at the lowest possible heat. Add the parmesan and whisk the sauce.

Add the drained pasta, black pepper and parsley and toss thoroughly.

Serve.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Classic Fish Pie

Amazing British Food? Surely that's an oxymoron.

Not so fast, my fine friends.

In the 18th century, there was very little difference between English, French and Italian food. If you look at the recipes, and they are almost all from the upper-crust of society who could afford to have servants and cooks and people who actually wrote the recipes down (as opposed to just make them), you will notice a strikingly similar set of palates and techniques. All the variation is just in what modern-day parlance is referred to as "locally-sourced ingredients" — what other choice was there back then?

It's the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the extreme productivity of the early industrial society that led to a sharp distinction in cuisines. For lack of a better phrase, it was a form of "nationalistic branding". Even then, assuredly British cuisine could hold its own against the rest. After all, this was the richest society on earth. Surely nobody rational can believe that they ate badly, right?

It is also important to note that Britain's primary source of wealth was its Empire. A young stalwart called America was muscling onto its economic terrain using the power of technology — in this case agricultural and transportation technology. Midwestern grain could reach Europe cheaper than anything they could produce there. It was just economies of scale.There was a long slow decline in Britain's fortunes that has been documented extensively.

What laid utter waste to British Food was the Great War — World War I.

It destroyed the aristocracy. It destroyed the wealth, the food sourcing, the elaborate techniques, and the accumulated knowledge. You have to remember that a British aristocrat using the power of the nascent telephone (and canning technology!) back then could source food ingredients from all over the world. It was the proto-typical Internet.

It was all completely annihilated.

After that, between the loss of reserve currency status, loss of Empire and World War II, the culture turned into an economic wasteland with predictable effects on its food.

It took another 60 years to recover.

So the CC is going to argue quite forcefully that people who deride British food are looking at it through myopic eyes. Was it awful for about a century? Emphatically yes, but that's for non-reproducible reasons in what is but a twinkling of an eye in world history which happens to be the same as food history.

So you are going to have to dial back the clock and not just look at a modern-day recipe but what exactly were its antecedents. Once you do, you see the same "fresh herbs" and "fresh ingredients" and "attention to detail" that you see in other places.

What would classical English spicing be? Any herbs that grow in a colder climate. Just remember than the British Isles are nowhere near as cold as Scandinavia because of the warm North Atlantic Drift.

English thyme, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, rue and mint (which is basically a weed and will grow anywhere). The entire cornucopia of spices imported from India since Roman times (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, etc.) and also from the West Indies (nutmeg, etc.)

The sauces are a little complex and heavy for modern palates but then the same goes for Classical French Cuisine which has fallen out of favor as well. All that can be easily addressed. You can lighten the sauce to make it more amenable to a contemporary audience. It's not even hard.

What's presented below is a classic fish pie.

Note the extensive use of fresh herbs. Note the careful three-part technique upfront before the final baking where each step neatly turns into the next one so that not even the slightest iota of flavor or ingredients are wasted.

How does it work?

In the old days, you would have sourced whole fish, whole prawns, etc. Our modern fillets and cleaned fish waste most of the parts that are used to extract even more flavor into the whole. This is our loss both economic and culinary.

First you use all the "remnants" of the fish (heads, shells, etc.) to make a fish broth (step 1). Then the fillets and the shellfish are poached with milk and fresh herbs (step 2). The fish is separated and the milk is strained and reserved and made into a classic béchamel (step 3) with vegetables and the fish broth and more fresh herbs are added into which the flaked fish will be folded in. Optionally, cheese might be added. (If it is, it's with a light hand. It would be a traditional cheddar which has nothing like the aggressive flavor of a modern-day cheddar. It's very mellow and has insane umami particularly when combined with the fish broth.)

The vegetables would've been "seasonal". People back then were just as bored eating the same-ol'-same-ol' as they might be today. Leeks, carrots, cauliflower, peas, asparagus, spinach, sorrel.

Separately, you make mashed potatoes. The dish is layered with the fish below the potatoes and baked till you get a British gratin. The killer step which so few people bother to do these days is that the mashed potatoes on top must be carefully raked like a Japanese Zen-Garden with the tines of a fork so that when they bake, you get not only a gorgeous presentation but crispy-brown bits thanks to the Maillard Reaction.

In the old days, the béchamel and the mashed potatoes would have had cream in them. It would also have have been presented in a pastry crust for formal presentations. All of this can be "lightened up".

This is technique at the highest level!


Ingredients

1 large piece of cod
12 clams
6 whole prawns (reserve the shells)

1 cup water
1 cup milk

2 large leeks
butter
8 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup cheddar (grated)

1 small carrot (diced)
1/2 cup peas

1 bay leaf
12-20 black peppercorns
parsley

nutmeg
parsley

3 large potatoes
milk
chives

sea salt

Recipe

First make the fish broth. Heat up some water with some prawn shells and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. (If not using prawns, use dried fish or dried shrimp to make a broth. Yes, this is important.)

Filter and retain the broth.

Take the clams and add the above broth to it. Steam them in an open pot until they open. Fish them out. Filter the clam broth through a cheesecloth and reserve. Chop the clams and reserve.

Heat the milk, the bay leaf, some parsley and the peppercorns. Bring to a boil. Put in the cod and let it poach for about three minutes. Fish it out. Put it in a bowl and flake it discarding the skin and bones.

Filter the milk combination discarding the bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns and reserve.

Now make a classic béchamel. Heat up some butter and when it is bubbling, add the leeks and let them cook for a bit. Add the flour and let it cook until light golden. Add the milk combination from above and let it reduce till it is thick. When the milk is denatured, add the broth. Be careful not to add the broth until the milk has denatured otherwise it will curdle. Add the grated cheddar, the remaining chopped parsley, black pepper, grated nutmeg and fold in the flaked cod, prawns, and chopped clams.

Separately, cook the potato in salted water till it is tender. In a bowl, mash it with some milk. Add the chives to this mix. The mixture should be on the thicker side not like traditional mashed potatoes which have more liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In an oven-proof dish, layer the seafood in the béchamel sauce at the bottom. Top with the mashed potatoes. With the tines of a fork, rake the surface of the mashed potatoes with deep ridges in an attractive pattern.

Let it bake for 30 minutes till the top of the potatoes are lightly crispy.

Serve with a salad.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Clam, White Bean & Saffron Soup with Parmesan Toasts

This is a very simple recipe. The CC has seen it made with mussels as well.

The parmesan toasts are simply superb. They would work with most soups.

The advantage of making them is you do get a subtle umami flavoring from the parmesan as you dunk them in clam soup but at no point does it overwhelm the purity of the clam flavor which would be the case if you just added parmesan directly to the soup.

Parmesan Toasts

(yields 8 triangles)

Ingredients

1 1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
4 slices bread

Recipe

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

On a tray lay out the slices of bread and evenly divide the parmesan onto each.

Bake for about 10 minutes. Be careful that they do not burn. Cut into triangles and set aside.

Clam, White Bean & Saffron Soup

(serves 2)

Ingredients

2 dozen clams

1 small onion (sliced into thin half-rounds)

1/4 cup white beans

olive oil

large pinch of saffron

black pepper

Recipe

First make the beans. Cook them in very lightly salted water till done. Roughly 20 minutes. Reserve the broth. (Do not oversalt the water because the clams are briny and the soup will become overly salty)

Cook the clams with some water. When they open fish them out. Pass the clam broth through a cheesecloth to eliminate the sand. Reserve the clams and broth separately.

In a pot, heat up some olive oil. Add the onions and cook till they are limp but not colored. Fry the cooked beans for a bit. Add the two broths and black pepper. Bring to a boil and let it cook for about 8-10 minutes. Add the saffron at the last minute. Turn off the heat.

Divide the clams into two bowls. Top with the soup. Serve with the parmesan toasts.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Ballad of Bouillabaisse

William Makepeace Thackeray was a great food enthusiast, and his enthusiasm has been documented more than a few times on this blog. Chances are that most people only know him from either his novel Vanity Fair, or Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

Modern day readers might not be familiar with the notion of an écaillère — it still exists today. It's the guy — and it's still mostly a guy! — who opens your huîtres (oysters). Also, roach refers to a carp-like fish. Dace is the French loup de mer or the Greek branzino.

Is this a great poem? Emphatically not.

However it's elegiac tone using the device of the memory of the constancy of the dish acts unambiguously like a thumping ostinato that grounds innumerable music compositions in innumerable music traditions.

It's a terrific idea.
A street there is in Paris famous,
For which no rhyme our language yields,
Rue Neuve de petits Champs its name is —
The New Street of the Little Fields;
And there's an inn, not rich and splendid,
But still in comfortable case;
The which in youth I oft attended,
To eat a bowl of Bouillabaisse.

This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is -
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew,
Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes,
That Greenwich never could outdo;
Green herbs, red peppers, muscles, saffern,
Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace;
All these you eat at Terré's tavern,
In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.

Indeed, a rich and savory stew 'tis;
And true philosophers, methinks,
Who love all sorts of natural beauties,
Should love good victuals and good drinks.
And Cordelier or Benedictine
Might gladly, sure, his lot embrace,
Nor find a fast-day too afflicting,
Which served him up a Bouillabaisse.

I wonder if the house still there is?
Yes, here the lamp is as before;
The smiling, red-cheek'd écaillère is
Still opening oysters at the door.
Is Terré still alive and able?
I recollect his droll grimace;
He'd come and smile before your table,
And hoped you like your Bouillabaisse.

We enter; nothing's changed or older.
'How's Monsieur Terré, waiter, pray?'
The waiter stares and shrugs his shoulder -
'Monsieur is dead this many a day.'
'It is the lot of saint and sinner.
So honest Terré's run his race!'
'What will Monsieur require for dinner?'
'Say, do you still cook Bouillabaisse?'

'Oh, oui, Monsieur,' 's the waiter's answer;
'Quel vin Monsieur désire-t-il ?'
Tell me a good one.' 'That I can, sir;
The Chambertin with yellow seal.'
'So Terré's gone,' I say, and sink in
My old accustom'd corner-place;
'He's done with feasting and with drinking,
With Burgundy and Bouillabaisse.'

My old accustom'd corner here is —
The table still is in the nook;
Ah! vanished many a busy year is,
This well-known chair since last I took.
When first I saw ye, cari luoghi,
I'd scarce a beard upon my face,
And now a grizzled, grim old fogy,
I sit and wait for Bouillabaisse.

Where are you, old companions trusty
Of early days, here met to dine?
Come, waiter! quick, a flagon crusty -
I'll pledge them in the good old wine.
The kind old voices and old faces
My memory can quick retrace;
Around the board they take their places,
And share the wine and Bouillabaisse.

There's Jack has made a wondrous marriage;
There's laughing Tom is laughing yet;
There's brave Augustus drives his carriage;
There's poor old Fred in the Gazette;
On James's head the grass is growing:
Good Lord! the world has wagged apace
Since here we sat the Claret flowing,
And drank, and ate the Bouillabaisse.

Ah me! how quick the days are flitting!
I mind me of a time that's gone,
When here I'd sit, as now I'm sitting,
In this same place-but not alone.
A fair young form was nestled near me,
A dear, dear face looked fondly up,
And sweetly spoke and smiled to cheer me.
— There's no one now to share my cup.

. . . . . . . .

I drink it as the Fates ordain it.
Come, fill it, and have done with rhymes;
Fill up the lonely glass, and drain it
In memory of dear old times.
Welcome the wine, whate'er the seal is;
And sit you down and say your grace
With thankful heart, whate'er the meal is.
— Here comes the smoking Bouillabaisse!       

Friday, March 21, 2014

Indian-Style Chinese Corn Soup

If you are not aware of the concept of "Indian-Chinese" food, you are in for a small shock and a treat to follow.

Chinese immigrants migrated from the Hakka region to Calcutta in the 19th-century when it was the de-facto economic capital of India under the British Raj. The laborers were the dark underbelly of the opium trade. Like all immigrants, the path to not being bonded laborers was to open food eateries. (It's the same today right now in modern-day New York!)

They brought with them their techniques but rapidly discovered that neither pork ("Muslim") nor beef ("Hindu") was going to work in the new situation. Additionally, the population wanted a different set of spices than what the immigrants were used to. However, adaptability is the name of the game as you might guess from the entirely analogous fact that there's no such Cantonese dish as "Chop-Suey" — it's a Chinese-American idea catering to vague Chinese ideas about American tastes in the 19th century from whence it spread nation-wide and thence world-wide.

And in the same vein, "Indian-Chinese" fusion cuisine was born.

It was a blockbuster hit from day one because the one fact about human nature that never changes is that we crave novelty.

Money makes the world go round so when the economic capital of India moved from Calcutta to Mumbai, the immigrants and the dishes followed. Now they are ubiquitous all over India.

This is a classic corn soup.

Corn is not Chinese, of course. Nor Indian. It's New World. Its global nature originates from the Spanish conquest of the New World after which it made its way to Europe and eventually along the Silk Road to most of Asia. There are multiple layers of fusion hooked up in this single dish.

It's emphatically not a high-falutin' dish. It's pretty low-brow.

The CC has wondered for the longest time how they got the tangy flavor in the vegetarian versions that they make?  How was it that you could get a superior version in any crap town in India than what he was making at home?

It took a while but it finally struck like the biggest "DUH!" of all times.

"Of course! They are using MSG."

We can now add Japanese 20th-century science to the fusion. Just to recap, we are now talking about Pan-American corn, Spanish conquest, Chinese immigrants and adaptation, Indian flavors and techniques, and Japanese food technology in a single dish.

It's umami that is making all the difference. So by substituting the MSG with the functionally-equivalent dashi, we have a winner with the exact same taste. BINGO!

Why does the recipe work in the first place? What makes it successful?

It's corn soup that's nutritious with a "hit-me-again" umami taste that's off the charts. You can add any protein to it. It's cheap, easy to make, and easy to sell. It reheats well. You can make it ahead of time. It's basically street food is what it is. The only thing stopping it from being street food is the fact that it's a soup — too hard to serve on the street.

So as the CC unambiguously pointed out above, it's low-brow but he means that in the best non-pejorative sense of the word. This dish is simply awesome.

There are a few standard variants — you can add shredded chicken or shredded crab or prawns; and/or a beaten egg.

If you have never had this, you are totally missing out.


Ingredients

Paste

1/2" ginger
3 cloves garlic
4 green chillies
2 scallions (both white and green parts)

1 can "cream-style" corn
1 cup fresh corn (frozen is fine)

5-6 cups dashi

1 cup carrots (diced fine)
1 cup green beans (cut into very thin rounds)

1 tbsp. corn starch
6 tbsp. ice water

salt
white pepper

To Serve

1 scallion (diced into fine rounds)

cilantro (finely chopped)

3 green chillies (diced into fine rounds)
1/2 cup vinegar

soy sauce

Recipe

The recipe is straightforward. It's the side servings that require a little explanation.

There are four conventional ones — soy sauce, finely diced cilantro and scallions are self-explanatory. The last is the super-spicy chillies plonked in a neutral vinegar (rice vinegar works!)

You can add as much of each as you like including the fact that you can just add the vinegar minus the chillies.

First prepare the paste. Just use a food processor to grind the ginger, garlic, green chillies, and scallions together.

Heat up some oil. Fry the paste languidly for about 6 minutes. Add the carrots and beans and let it fry for 3 minutes. Add the creamed corn and the dashi. Add salt and white pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil. You can skim off the fat if you like. Let it cook for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, add the corn starch to the ice water and let it mix. It will not "dissolve". You are making a suspension. Whip well and add to the mixture.

Serve with the fixin's!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Black Chickpea Sundal

This is a street food snack from South India that's easy to prepare and quite healthy.

You can prepare it with a variety of lentils and legumes. The version swapping out the black chickpeas for fresh peanuts is particularly tasty.

The black chickpeas are the small chickpeas that you find in India. They are much smaller than the regular chickpeas and dark black in color. They also have a higher protein content.

Experienced readers will note that the recipe is not substantially different from that of sukke except for the addition of the urad dal which when fried adds a nutty taste and crispy textural note.

Also, since the CC belongs to the "anal-retentive" category of humans, you really want shredded coconut not grated coconut here for the textural interest. Yes, it makes a massive difference. It's available frozen. Just make sure you thaw it before you make it.

Ingredients

1 cup black chickpeas

8-10 curry leaves
1 tbsp. mustard seeds
1 tbsp. urad dal
3-4 dried red chillies
1/2 cup shredded coconut
pinch of asafetida

coconut oil
salt

Recipe

First cook the chickpeas. Soak them overnight and cook for about 20 minutes until they are tender enough to eat. Drain and set aside.

Heat the coconut oil in a wok. When it heats up add the mustard seeds and wait for them to pop. Add the urad dal, red chillies and asafetida till the dal turns golden in color. Add the curry leaves. Be careful. They will tend to splatter.

Add the chickpeas, coconut and salt to taste and combine thoroughly. Sautée for 4-5 minutes and serve.

This snack is great either luke-warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Does My Kitchen Get Dirty?

For most people the answer to the question would be because they cook a lot and it splatters.

To which the CC would just ask the logical followup, "So why does it splatter in the first place?"

"Just because," is not really an answer. It's a cop-out saying "I don't know but I think I have the illusion that I do."

"Why does it splatter in the first place?"

We are going to get down to fundamentals because that's just the way the CC rolls.

A more practical reason is once you understand the "mechanism of splatter", you are going to be better equipped in cleaning your kitchen or getting your kitchen cleaned, whatever the case may be.

There are a few mechanisms of splatter and they are all very different because they work via vastly different principles.

The first and most obvious one is that people drop stuff on the floor. Nobody is perfect and while prepping food or cooking it, stuff will drop. It's even worse when there are dishes that are time critical. There's no time to pause and mop up the floor.

The second and more subtle reason is that when you are either pan-frying or frying you are really removing moisture via a precise process. The interaction of steam and oil which are immiscible turns the oil into a fine aerosol which because of the heat will rise in the air typically to a height of about 6-12 feet. When it cools off, it will rain down in miniscule droplets which are too fine to even see. If  your kitchen has air movement of any sort or a draft, these droplets will travel at a height before they cool off enough to rain down.

(For those of you who wear glasses, there is a simple empirical test to demonstrate this. After you have finished frying, touch the inside of your glasses. It will be oily because the aerosol has rained down from above into the gap. If it were just splattering directly the inside would be absolutely clean.)

This is not the only problem. The aerosol tends to be highly ionized and will attract ionic molecules. Dust tends to be ionic for many complex reasons so these microscopic splatters will attract the neighboring dust to them where they will cluster. When it gets large enough, you will notice it as being "dirty".

(This is the same reason that your television, computer screen, computer fans, electronic equipment, get disproportionately dusty. They are attracting ionic dust  because the surfaces are mildly ionized themselves. In the case of computer hardware, highly ionized.)

The third common reason is that of the bubbling of a sauce (think: tomato sauce). When the viscosity of a sauce gets really thick, the water is trying to escape in the form of steam but the sauce is so thick that it doesn't allow the tiny bubbles to rise to the surface. They form lots of tiny bubbles internally which coalesce inside the sauce to form a large bubble. The large bubble can counteract the density of the sauce and rises to the top. When this large bubble pops at the surface, it splatters the sauce all over. Generally, these sauces are easy to clean which is why experienced cooks just do a quick clean right after they finish unlike the oil splatters which are so tiny as to be practically invisible. It also helps to keep the sauce bubbling at a lower speed.

Experienced chefs also use splatter screens although the CC will be the first to point out that they are not always practical and not always applicable to certain styles of dishes.

Armed with this knowledge, go forth and cook! (and clean!)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Irritating Clichés Strike Again

Here's a list of phrases that the CC believes should be banned from reviews or food writing in general.

They suggest a lazy approach to writing. A lack of a thesaurus and/or a complete absence of a deep pool of metaphors from which to draw upon.
sinfully rich - Who the fuck made it "sinful"?

extravagant tipples - Nobody below the age of 70 calls them "tipples".

cooked to perfection - As opposed to "cooked with numerous flaws"?!?

meltingly tender - If it's not fondue, don't use it.

pillowy - Have you bitten down on your pillow lately?

-tastic - Completely -tackalicious!

toothsome - Nobody enjoys dental work.

yummy - NO!

heavenly - There's no such place and no such thing.

to die for - Would you really? Really?!?
Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

No, This is Not a Restaurant!

Many a home cook is dazzled by the sparkling execution of amazing dishes in restaurants and then they find themselves slightly disappointed when they try to recreate it at home.

Quelle surprise!

A restaurant is a professional enterprise whose goal is to make money in exchange for fine food. Your home is where you need to make food daily. There are significant differences between the two kitchens.

Firstly, there's just a question of simple energy. Unless you have a professional range stove at home, there is no way you are pumping out the BTU like that of a professional kitchen. You need power. Real power. Power that makes it hard to breathe in the heat. Most restaurant kitchens are insanely hot. So fuggedaboutit. You don't have it. Just enjoy the meal when you go out and forget about reproducing it. Certain dishes are impossible to cook at home.

Secondly, only someone who has never gone behind the scenes at the finest of professional restaurants would assume that they grind pepper out of the ludicrous pepper grinders. It's all pre-ground. The salt and pepper is sitting in large bowls which they can use to toss by the handful. And they do toss by the handful!

The single biggest difference between a restaurant and "home cooking" is that a restaurant uses vastly more salt. The CC believes that most people go for it under the rubric of "indulgence" which a spirit of abstemiousness prevents at home.

The same is true of the "fresh" spices. Pre-chopped. So are almost all of the ingredients. It's all pre-prepped and sitting in a refrigerator including the fish. Particularly the fish.

Thirdly, the idea that they are going to whip up a five-course meal for you at the drop of a pin is beyond ridiculous. Of course, it's all fuckin' pre-made. The sauces are pre-made. Everything is. How do you think you get a dish on your plate that takes hours to make within minutes?

Fourthly, it's only the last step of the execution that is left to the kids. And yes, they are kids. They are in training in the kitchen. Yes, they may have talent but no famous chef has ever made your meal not unless you are a billionaire.

Ironically, it's the third fact that cuts two ways and there are two separate lessons that one may learn from it.

The easiest way for a great home cook to compete with a restaurant is to offer meals at dinner parties which rely on speed of execution. Last minute speed where reheating would kill the product. A fancy restaurant can't compete simply because of the economics. (Incidentally, when you have great meals in Madrid, Rome, Istanbul, Mumbai and Singapore, this is the trick. The restaurants run in cheap rent districts. They are playing this game.)

The second more pragmatic version is that you need to learn what can be made ahead of time. This is crucial to greatness in the home kitchen.

So go ahead. Say it already. Liberate yourself.

No, this is not a restaurant. This is entirely different!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sprouted Lentils

The CC is a total sucker for sprouted lentils.

What you get in the supermarkets sucks but the process of sprouting lentils is shockingly easy.

Even in the dead of this frozen winter, the CC has had no problems getting them to sprout. The reason is that sprouting is an exothermic process which means that the sprouts themselves are giving up both heat and moisture.

You soak the sprouts overnight at first; then put them in a cheese cloth in a transparent bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Put in a warm spot that gets some indirect light. Each day you must wash them to make sure that they stay moist and remove any possible fungal buildup. They will sprout like champs in two days. Wed. night soaking for Sat. breakfast (Thu. for Sun.)

Easy peasy.

The following is a great breakfast dish as nutritious as it is simple.

Ingredients

3 cups sprouted lentils
pinch of asafetida
1 tbsp. dhanajeeru (coriander and cumin roasted and powdered)
1 tsp. red chili powder

oil
salt (to taste)

1 lime (cut into quarters)

Recipe

Fry some oil in a pan. Toss in the asafoetida and fry for a bit. Toss in the dhanajeeru and the red chilli powder and the sprouts. Sautée for 2-3 minutes.

Add water (about 1 1/2 cup.) Let it simmer on low heat until the beans are edible. You may need to add more water.

It's done when the beans are cooked and the liquid is still a little watery but not soupy.

Serve at once squeezing the lime on top. The CC loves sopping up the broth with a crusty baguette.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Panch Phoran

The CC has posted about this classical Bengali five-spice mixture before but the sheer beauty of the spices compelled him to post it again.

It composes of equal parts of cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella, and radhuni.

The CC is aware that most online sources suggest mustard seeds but this is wrong. The spices may be fried in mustard oil but you need to have radhuni which are arguably closer in flavor to celery seeds than anything else.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Cactus "Fries" Tacos

Cactii (nopales) are hell to clean. They have both thorns ("modified branches") and spines ("modified leaves"). Generally speaking, the thorns have been cut away before you even buy them but the spines are the size of an individual hair and extraordinarily sharp.

The CC got one stuck in his thumb when he picked up some paddles at the Mexican grocery store and there was hell to pay for three days until he finally managed to get it out.

Of course, this is a defense mechanism against omnivores like us who like to eat them.

Cleaning them is a slightly laborious process. You first have to cut away the spines on the edges so that you can even grasp it flat. Then, you have to scrape away each individual one with a sharp paring knife cutting against the direction of the spine. You need to remove not only the spine but the hard bumps as well. It's best done in the sink with occasional washings under running water.

The cactus as this point will ooze slimy juice which is its defense mechanism against getting injured. You need to wash this away.

You will need to carefully inspect the entire paddle with your fingers to make sure you haven't left any spines in there. You don't want these babies stuck in your throat!

Finally, it must be dried before you can cook it in the recipe below. (There are other ways e.g. boiling for which this is not necessary.)

Is this all worth it? You betcha!

They have a unique taste that's sort of like green beans but with a more tart flavor. They are absolutely terrific with eggs as well just like asparagus but with a sharper flavor.

Ingredients

(makes 8 tacos)

1 medium sized cactus
1/2 cup flour
1 egg
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

salt
ground cumin
chili powder

8 small tortillas
1 small onion (cut into thin rings)
lettuce strips
1/2 cup salsa roja
queso fresco (crumbled)

lime (cut into quarters)

Recipe

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Prepare a flat baking tray on which you assemble the cactus "fries".

Cut the cactus into long thin strips that are about 1/2" across and 2 1/2" long. Each tacos will be stuffed with 3-4 of these.

Assemble three bowls. One with the flour, one with the beaten egg and one with panko breadcrumbs. Coat a cactus piece with egg; dunk it in the flour; dunk it back in the egg; roll in the breadcrumbs and lay it out on the flat sheet. Repeat with the rest.

Bake for 12 minutes in the oven. Check at the 10 minute mark. You want the panko breadcrumbs to be golden brown. Pull out.

Meanwhile, each tortilla must be heated on a griddle (comal) and kept under a pair of paper towels (or kitchen cloths) to keep them moist and flexible.

Assemble the tacos. Each taco is topped with a few cactus fries, some onion, lettuce, a quick drizzle of the salsa roja and the queso fresco crumbled on top.

Make sure you squeeze a lime on it right before you eat it.  A dash or two of hot sauce is also a great addition.

R.I.P. Tarla Dalal

The CC just found out that Tarla Dalal passed away a few months ago.

A housewife who turned her skills at cooking into a food empire, her books were the original recipe books in modern-day Indian vegetarian cooking. She was no academic but she was a terrific home cook. Her focus was the vegetarian recipes of India and beyond. She changed the food habits of an entire generation of housewives.

"Every recipe is guaranteed to work!" was her catchphrase.

And they absolutely do.

Her recipes were scrupulously researched initially by her and then when she had "made it" by an army of assistants at a time when it was unusual to even think of such an idea. They are literally perfect. There are no mistakes which is a rare and wonderful achievement in any domain.

R.I.P.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Parsley, Potato & Parmesan Soup

The CC was confused. How come he saw fresh parsley along with the usual panoply of winter vegetables at the farmers' market?

Turns out that parsley is a biennial and has another component that is not generally well known — parsley root which as a winter vegetable is not very different from turnips, parsnips or potatoes.

This French-style soup which uses fresh parsley is just perfect for chasing away the winter blues.

Ingredients

1 large bunch of parsley
2 medium potatoes (peeled and chopped)
1 medium onion
5-6 cloves garlic

butter or olive oil (or a mixture)
4 cups broth

1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano

salt
black pepper

Recipe

First prepare an ice bath.

Wash the parsley discarding all thick roots. Leave the thinner ones on. In a large bowl, pour boiling water over the parsley and let it blanch for about a minute. Plunge the parsley into the ice bath. This helps preserve the vibrant green color otherwise you will end up with a dull green soup.

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Sautée the onions and the garlic for 6-8 minutes at a low heat. Fry the potatoes for at least 8 minutes till they are fraying around the edges and coated with the fat.

Add the stock, salt to taste, black pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer at a low heat for 25-30 minutes until the potatoes are soft. (It really depends on the size of the pieces.)

Skim the fat as it comes to the surface.

Add the parsley to the soup and blend really fine. Add the parmesan. Bring to a quick simmer again and serve.

You can pass the soup through a fine sieve if you want a really smooth version. A drizzle of crème fraîche works great for serving as would a crumbling of blue cheese.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pomiane's Tarragon

The CC has mentioned Edouard de Pomiane before.

Whenever the CC reads all these articles about city-slickers waxing eloquent about gardens and farming, he is reminded of a wonderful paragraph from Cooking with Pomiane. The recipe is "New Potatoes with Tarragon".
I used to fancy myself as a botanist, but my illusions were shattered when I asked a charming young saleswoman for seeds of parsley, chervil and tarragon. "Tarragon does not produce a fertile seed," she replied. "If you want a plant, here you are. In three years it will die. Come back again and see me."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tarhana aka Trahana

If Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language as George Bernard Shaw so memorably put it, then Greece and Turkey are two countries separated by a common cuisine.

Oh the horrors and the wars! And Cyprus. Let's not even go there.

The difference in most of their common food names is "nationalistic branding". Something that you see in many adjacent "warring" countries which share a common cuisine. The choices are both boring and endless — India and Pakistan; Israel and Palestine; Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It gets depressing after a while.

The CC definitely belongs to the distinct minority of "Make food not war!" but it's a hard, not to mention, impossible sell to fanatics with no education and millennia of hatred.

But we will always have linguistic adjacency to remind us that you can theoretically separate ideas but, in practice, the same ol', same ol' geography dominates as it logically should.

Which brings us to tarhana or trahana. Pick your favorite one. The former being Turkish and the latter being Greek.

Tarhana, Trahana, let's call the whole thing off!

What is it?

It's an ancient mechanism of preserving both wheat and milk for the long winters. In an age of refrigeration and air-transported food, this is a fairly quaint notion so we appeal instead to its deliciousness.

The idea is simple. Take wheat flour, mix it with sour yogurt, pass the dough through a fine screen so it breaks up into tiny pieces and let it dry in the abundant Mediterranean sun.

The chemistry is complex. By introducing sour yogurt, you are lowering the pH to acidic levels. By drying it, you are reducing the moisture levels. This makes the environment inhospitable to most pathogens and you still preserving the wheat and milk proteins.

You cook it by just introducing it to some broth. The wheat thickens the broth and acidity introduced gives it a tangy umami flavor.

There is a separate product called "sweet trahana" which is the same idea except with milk rather than yogurt. It lacks the lactic tang and is much harder because of the need to remove moisture even further and so needs to cook a little longer.

The presence of both wheat flour and yogurt means it acts as a thickener typically in soups and stews.

You can pretty much thicken any soup which could use a sour lactic tang. Tomato soup is a classic. Less commonly is a mushroom soup referenced by Diane Kochilas presented below for your delectation.

The CC was informed that this was a "superior" mushroom-barley soup.

"Fair enough, it's the same concept just with superior food technology."

The mushrooms came from a Japanese market with some others brought by a Russian friend from the Russian markets all to make a Greek soup. Not exactly world peace and arguably closer to whirled peas but it's a step.

All raise your hands and shout out, Trahanosoupa me Manitaria!

Ingredients

4 cups mixed wild mushrooms (coarsely chopped)
2 garlic cloves (minced)
2 medium onions (sliced thin)
olive oil

1 cup trahana
6 cups water

salt
black pepper
lemon juice

1/3 cup grated kefalo-graviera cheese (substitute by feta)

Recipe

Heat the olive oil and sautée the garlic for a minute. Make sure it doesn't burn. Add  the onions and cook over medium heat until wilted for about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook leisurely till for at least 10 minutes.

Add the trahana and stir for several minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot with lemon juice and the cheese as topping.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Indian Peas' Process

"What is it about Indians and peas?" a friend asked the CC recently, "Why are they so obsessed about them?"

A most worthy question and certainly one that requires more than an offhand answer and since its her birthday, the CC will answer at leisure.

("Does the CC ever answer not at leisure and without copious footnotes?" is the query from the peanut gallery which is a question he will ignore.)

Perhaps this should be a series? "What is it about Russians/Korean/Japanese and mushrooms?", etc. which follows roughly the same line of questioning and the same analogous answer as well.

The answer, slightly speculative as it might be, involves geography, growing seasons and plant biology.

Peas are ancient and have grown all along the Mediterranean and the near East since ancient times. Even in what is modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are talking at least 2500 B.C.E. or earlier.

Peas are annual plants. They produce a seed within the year and die.

Peas are a cool season crop. They can only germinate from late spring to early summer. In fact, last summer, the CC couldn't get fresh peas at all the farmers' market because the waves upon waves of heat destroyed all the pea crops.

India lies just north of the equator and has a short winter but an even shorter spring. Summer arrives with a vengeance right around April.

So the answer should be clear. You can only grow these for the shortest of growing seasons in the winter which is not as cold as the rest of the world. The window is barely a few months (Feb. to late Mar.) which explains its nature as "delicacy" not particularly different from the way that asparagus is considered a delicacy in Europe or North America.

In fact, the Mughal emperors used to grow them in Kashmir which has an extended growing season for peas because of its altitude. We have additional evidence from ingredients in rare royal dishes which are paired with peas like mushrooms. These are not any old mushrooms. They were morels (gucchi) from Kashmir. Morels are seasonal, rare and expensive and require foraging since they couldn't be cultivated easily.

(We are just beginning to understand the science to cultivate them right now!)

Also, if you look at it from the Emperor's perspective, you can't just chomp down a bunch of foraged stuff. You have to have an "official taster" to make sure you're not getting poisoned from mushrooms which means you need even more of them than just for the dish.

Almost every modern-day Indian dish that substitutes the common button mushroom comes from these rarefied dishes that served Emperors once upon a time!

In the modern world, all of this is not particularly germane because you can get ingredients shipped from anywhere in the world right down to your home. Not to mention frozen stuff which doesn't matter if you are going to purée the peas anyway.

However, cultural habits are reinforced by geography first and foremost and modern technology cannot make up for millennia of habit. (Have absolutely no argument for the fact that "habit" and "culture" are nothing more than pseudo-legitimatized bias in some shape or the other!)

So peas. And Indians. And pea-shelling, pea-eating, pea-loving Indians.

Of course, this wouldn't be complete without the CC providing a favored recipe. This one is a Gujarati classic that is both simple and lip-smackingly delicious.

Ingredients

2 cups fresh shelled peas
3 small tomatoes (chopped really fine)

1 tbsp. dhanajeeru (equal parts cumin + coriander, roasted, and ground fine)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp amchur (dried green mango powder - NON-NEGOTIABLE!)
1 tsp chilly powder (or to taste - not so important)
pinch of asafoetida

1 tbsp. corn flour or chickpea flour

oil
salt

Recipe

Heat up the oil. Fry the asafoetida till it is fragrant. Add the rest of the spices and the tomatoes and fry till they are soft. Add the peas and some water and let it cook till done.

Sprinkle the flour all over and mix vigorously till the sauce is thickened.

Eat with rotis or parathas. The CC is biased. He prefers the latter.

This stores well. Easy to reheat too although the peas will not have the starchy crunch which is partly what makes the dish so irresistible.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Polyglotism of a Chef

If you truly want to be a great chef, you are going to have to be really good at picking up languages and cookbooks in those languages.

This is both insanely difficult and yet not as hard as you think.

Arabic and Japanese are fairly difficult languages particularly for people trained in the Indo-European tradition. (The same goes in reverse. No chauvinism is either intended or even entertained.) And learning a language is hard no matter what since it takes time and energy both of which are in finite supply.

There's a silver lining though. Cooking is a fairly narrow and technical subject and it's easy to master narrow and technical matter in almost any language given a little aptitude, a ton of work, and the usual panoply of modern-day tools.

The payoff is stupendous beyond belief.

Let's first talk about the two adjectives stated above — narrow and technical.

Cooking is narrow because we do not need to understand the full massive vocabulary of a language that pertains to all the various kinds of situations we could ever possibly encounter in our lives. We only need to know the names of food items and instruments (nouns), how much of the food (cardinal or weight measurements), what things to do to the food (verbs) and how long to do it to them (time measurements).

This is a very narrow amount of vocabulary.

You are not being asked to master linguistic flourishes, idiomatic phrases, or cultural complexity just a very straightforward act of doing things to other things in so much size for so much length of time with prescribed patterns that are insanely repetitive. (Any good cook with a solid knowledge of the grammar of a culture is surely bored silly with reading a recipe book. You read the ingredients not the recipe! The CC can scan almost any recipe is less than ten seconds unless it is suitably complex which happens increasingly less often as time goes by).

Technical refers to the fact that the basics of cooking are (mostly) the same in any language. Just learn the verbs and a few oddball quirks of verbs — do they take direct objects or not, some dative and genitive cases, the conditional constructions ("if, when") — and you're pretty much there.

There are not a lot of verbs because there is not a whole lot you can do. About 30 verbs gets you 90% of the way there and surely you can manage to memorize all the forms in any language which should be around 125-ish (if that). Also, you are not being asked to conjugate the verbs in all their complexity just read them. The CC is pretty sure that he would be hard-pressed to conjugate "bake" in multiple languages but he damn sure can read the recipe which, as sure as sunshine, calls for some "baking". (Comprehension is not the same thing as fluency.)

Technical also refers to the fact that a recipe written in Japanese follows the absolute same rock-solid pattern as one written in Italian. The structure of the format is perfectly predictable. It follows a very strict pattern of logic — ingredients followed by process (with the rare exception of notes for complicated stuff or variants to be made.) In addition, the process always consists of verbs in the imperative mood. ("Do X. Take Y. Mix P with Q. Bake for N minutes.").

There is very little linguistic legerdemain. ("If only X had procured P from Q, and had Y not intervened then Z might have been able to bring A to B's office for a tête-à-tête").

Nope, never happens in a cookbook. Not in the recipe section anyway. That's strictly for the gossip column or the pseudo-literary bullshit that accompanies a cookbook.

Which brings us to the payoff.

The payoff is that you can read cookbooks that are vastly more complex than those that show up in translation in English, or that are historical in nature of which there will never be an English translation. The best cookbooks have always been written for natives and while it is increasingly true that these "best" cookbooks nearly always have an English translation, this is by no means a law of nature. It's a commercial decision and these things have a tendency to drift towards the capriciousness of both editors and the market.

The Internet additionally opens you up to recipes written in all the languages in the world. There are blogs on just about any culture but you will need to be able to read it at least roughly. (The automated translators are a little "iffy" even at this point.)

All of this depends naturally on your level of commitment to the culinary arts and to languages as a whole and there may be a natural tendency to think, "Why do it? The CC is there to translate." to which the CC only can say, "You have no idea of how little makes its way to the blog."

So push your culinary linguistic boundaries outwards and watch your culinary skills strengthen!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Spaghetti with Foriana Sauce

This is an interesting and obscure Italian recipe from the eponymous town of Foria on the island of Ischia near Naples. The CC has tried but failed to find any references for it in any of his cookbooks in either English or Italian.

It's a Lenten recipe so no meat (but seafood is fine.) Its Moorish and medieval origins should become obvious when you read it.

It's truly great tossed with spaghetti. Add a few cooked scallops or seafood of choice and watch the recipe shine.


Ingredients

1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup raisins
2 cloves garlic
6 anchovy fillets

1 tsp. dried oregano
pinch of red pepper flakes

olive oil
sea salt
black pepper

parsley (to serve)

Recipe

Place the walnuts, pine nuts, garlic and anchovies in a food processor and pulse until it is ground into coarse pieces like granola. Do NOT grind it to a pulp. You want some texture left.

Heat up the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the above mixture with the raisins and cook for 3-4 minutes. Keep stirring. It has a tendency to stick and burn. Add some water if it cooks too fast. Do not add pasta water like most recipes since this mixture is already considerably salty.

Serve over spaghetti with seafood (if using), parsley and black pepper.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Caldo de camarónes secos (Dried Shrimp Soup)

One of the great achievements of traditional food technology is drying various fish and meat products. This calls for a longer post which the CC promises but a highlight is "dried shrimp".

It may not be immediately obvious but shrimp come in a variety of sizes from the size of your smallest fingernail to the size of your palm. The various cookbooks frequently call Mexican dried shrimp as the "best" but the CC has found zero evidence for this culinary chauvinism. Your best bet is the Chinese markets where these babies are literally dirt cheap. A few dollars keeps the CC truckin' for a whole year. Just keep them in the fridge if you buy them packaged. (The CC buys from the bins mostly.) It's the humidity that spoils them. They are already "dried". In a fridge, they will last a year or two. In a freezer, they will last five years or more!

This recipe originally started in Mexico as a "bar recipe" whose goal is to keep you on target and "keep on truckin'". It's also insanely delicious and very nutritious so it's jumped the fence and become a regular home recipe for kids.

Yes, kids, it's so delicious that a "bar recipe" served for free with beer and booze has become a "kids' recipe". Such is the wonder of life.

The "keep on truckin'" portion comes from the absurd umami that is embedded in this recipe. You want more, more, more. The hangover recovery part comes from the fact that it is very high in protein and it's a very light broth. So you are getting rehydrated and getting a solid boost of nutrients while you are it.

The two dried peppers that go into it are not spicy at all. They have this intense complex smoky flavor which is unmistakable. Substitutions are not going to work. The tomato and the shrimp do all the heavy lifting of the umami with the synergistic effect.

The CC has a friend who hates shrimp and yet when the CC served him this he claimed that this was the best thing the CC had ever fed him. Seriously, dude?!?

And so it goes with things that you don't know about!

Ingredients

Salsa Roja

2 guajillo peppers
1 ancho pepper
3 small tomatoes
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic (unpeeled)

1 tsp cumin seeds

olive oil (or lard)

Caldo

1 cup dried shrimp

1 small onion
6 cloves garlic (peeled)

6 cups water

1 tbsp. epazote

sea salt

Serving

2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 lime

Recipe

First make the salsa roja. Heat a dry skillet (comal). When hot, put the peppers on it and dry roast them till they are fragrant but not burnt. Remove. Open them up when cool and remove the seeds and the veins. Don't stress. We are going to purée these babies.

Add the unpeeled garlic and the onion to the dry skillet till they are brown in spots. Put the garlic in some aluminum foil and let it sit for a bit. Peel the skin off when they are cool.

Roast the cumin seeds.

If using fresh tomatoes, put on top of the skillet and dry roast till they are burnt in places and soft. Peel the skin. If using canned tomatoes (like the CC is right now in winter), skip this step.

Add everything for the salsa to the blender and blend to a very fine sauce. Pass through a fine sieve and set aside.

Heat the lard (or olive oil) in a pan. When shimmering and very hot, add the salsa and fry. Be careful. This has a tendency to give off a lot of splatter but this step is absolutely crucial to the taste. Stop when the salsa has cooked and no longer has a raw smell. Set aside.

In a separate pot, cook the dried shrimp, onion, garlic, and epazote with the water for about 20 minutes at a low simmer. The time depends on the size of the shrimp. No less than 15 and no more than 30.

There will be a lot of nasty froth that comes to the surface. Skim, baby, skim.

Blend the mixture really fine. An immersion blender works great here. Pass the mixture through a very fine sieve retaining the liquid and tossing the solids.

Combine the two liquids and bring to a rolling boil. The idea here is to emulsify whatever fat there is left in both liquids. It is a bar food after all but it's a tiny amount. Most of it has been skimmed away and if you wish, you can skim away more by heating a lower speed which will cause the fat and the broth to separate.

Serve hot with a topping of cilantro and a big squeeze of lime. The lime is non-negotiable. It's what brings the tangy soup to life at the last moment with that "hit me!" taste.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Saffron v/s Turmeric

The CC comes across endless references in medieval cookbooks for turmeric as a "substitute" for saffron.

They are nothing alike.

Saffron depends fundamentally on smell. You add it as the last or semi-last step to a recipe with the volatile liquids suspended in warm water or warm milk as it were.

Turmeric has a strongly metallic taste that is sui generis. You wouldn't mistake one for the other in a million years blindfolded in your sleep. It would be like conflating cats and cheese.

It's obvious why one would be substituted for the other. Turmeric is dirt-cheap. Saffron costs more than gold. Even today the CC sees these two being "substituted" and he scoffs.

For the record, saffron is the only spice even today that you need to get from a really reputable source. What you get in the routine markets is garbage. They are hustling you silly.

Saffron is so valuable that there are specialized merchants in Spain, Switzerland, and India — the three prime producers — whose only job is to supply unadulterated saffron. They are banners of quality and you can bet your goddamn economic ass that they charge a premium to do so.

Which is still superior to getting ripped off.

The CC has met plenty of people who think that saffron is not "worth all that" and it's "over-hyped". To which the CC can only respond, you've been ripped off all your life. How would you even know? It's absolutely worth all that from pasta to pastries.

Sad, isn't it?

Even in the age of the internet where everything is everywhere, you need reputation to get the good stuff.

Where is the arbitrage, O Nobel-Prize Winnin' Efficient Markets' Theorists of Univ. of Chicago?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mexican Chili Linguistics

The art of Mexican cooking depends on understanding the chili landscape but you really need to know the various names. One of the problems is that the same chili has different names depending on whether it is dried or not.

This makes logical sense in a cuisine where the chili is so fundamental to the cuisine but it's a hurdle to people who are just learning it.

So the CC is just going to do a "brain dump" of all the names for various peppers.
Fresh Dried
Poblano Ancho
Jalapeño Chipotle
Mirasol Guajillo
Pasilla Negro
Puya (Pulla)    Puya
There's more but that will do for starters.

† Be warned that sometimes Ancho's are labeled as Pasilla's in Mexican markets. However, they are nothing alike. Pasilla's are long and thin and Ancho's large and fat. Think Laurel & Hardy (respectively) and you won't go wrong.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sopa verde de elote (Green Corn Soup)

This is an insanely brilliant dish made of innumerous "green" components and it's the ideal thing to be eating in the depths of this bone-chilling winter that we are having here in New York.

This recipe is quite easy but do follow the instructions scrupulously. The tastes do not quite come together until the end so you will need to have some faith.

The source is Diana Kennedy whose research is fastidious and the recipes correspondingly mind-blowingly delicious.

The idea is "green, green, green". There are five green components in the recipe and they are all necessary to get the taste right. The corn is the supporting player because, well, corn and Mexico, right? Originator of the product and all that.

The real stars are the greens.

Ingredient

4 large tomatillos (or 10-12 small ones)

1 large onion (finely chopped)
2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

4 cups corn kernels (frozen is fine)
2/3 cup green peas (frozen is fine)
6-8 sprigs cilantro
2 poblano chillies (prepped, read below)
3 large romaine lettuce leaves

5 cups chicken broth

butter
salt

fried tortilla strips

Recipe

Remove the papery skin of the tomatillos and cook the fruit in water till they are soft. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, prep the poblano's. Roast them directly over an open flame till they are scorched. Put them in a paper bag or just wrap in aluminum foil for 10 minutes. When they are soft, remove the blackened skin. Do not wash them. Dip your hand in water if you need to and rub off the skin. When skinned, cut open and remove the seeds and the veins from inside and chop into large pieces. Don't worry too much. They will get puréed.

Turn the tomatillos into a sauce in the blender and set aside in a bowl.

Put the corn, green peas, cilantro, poblano peppers, lettuce leaves, and 2 cups of broth into the blender and blend to a fine mixture. Pass this mixture through a medium food mill and set aside in a separate bowl.

Heat up the butter in a large pot. Add the onions and garlic and let it fry for at least 5 minutes. Add the tomatillo sauce and let it cook until the raw smell disappears. This step is crucial.

Add the second blended broth with salt to taste and let it cook for 5-6 minutes. This mixture has a tendency to stick to the bottom so make sure you keep scraping. Add the rest of the broth and let it cook for at least 20 minutes.

Serve with the fried tortilla strips on top.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Matar ka Nimona (Green Peas in Green Pea Curry Sauce)

This is a reasonably obscure dish from the Northern agricultural belt of India, and like all rural recipes, it is both simple and superb.

Even the name is outstanding. All those m's and n's caressing each other. The CC has been muttering (sic) the title to himself all day long sometimes a little bit sarcastically but mostly sweetly.

The recipe is made at a time when fresh green peas flood the rural markets which explains the dual purpose of the peas. You need to make the excess work somehow.

Let it be noted that this will not work with frozen peas. The curry portion will work fine but you need the starchy nature of fresh peas to make the other component work.

Lately the CC has been seeing fresh shelled peas from Georgia in the markets. He also sees them, of all places, in the Korean markets. So try and hunt around. You'd be surprised where they can be and you really don't want to miss out on this recipe.

Ingredients

3 cups fresh peas

2 cups cilantro leaves (yup!)
4 Thai green chillies
4 cloves garlic
1 piece of fresh turmeric (or 1/2 tbsp. ground)

1 tbsp. cumin seeds

water
salt

Recipe

Take 1 cup of the peas, the cilantro leaves, chillies, garlic, and turmeric and grind to a paste. A food processor makes quick work here.

Heat up some oil in a pan. When shimmering, add the cumin seeds. Let them color but not burn. Add the liquidized sauce from above. Be careful because it is wet and will splatter.

Let it fry until the "raw" smell has disappeared. Roughly 5-6 minutes. Add the remaining fresh peas and salt to taste until they are tender. Be careful not to overcook.

Serve with parathas or rice.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Fetishization of Seasonal and Local

One of the great tragedies of the culinary world is that it is not only faddish but also completely ignorant of science, history, economics, and the mechanics of trade.

In an ideal world, we would all eat seasonal and local but it's not an ideal world. For starters, there are 7+ billion people in the world and they can't all eat locally. An increasing amount of the world's population lives in cities so it is literally impossible that everyone in the city eat locally. It's just a simple mathematical argument about the population versus the amount of arable space and the steepness of its value. (The value comes from the fact that the population provides steep "value" on the economic food chain.)

Simple economics argues against it. The crux of a modern city — and by modern we have to understand that this is at least 500+ years old — is upwardly-mobile cheap labor. The desire to have a better life propels the cheap labor into the cities in the first place. The idea that these people can eat "local" is risible beyond the extreme. If cheap labor propels cities then by definition, it's cheap food that propels the cheapness of the labor.

So cheap means invoking Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. Source the produce from wherever labor is cheapest and that means Africa, Asia and South America.

Seasonal is another bugaboo.

Places that have absurdly short growing seasons (think: Japan, Korea, Russia, Poland) rely to an unprecedented degree on pickled salted food.

Before World War II, Japan had the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world. It was so high as to be a routine tear-jerker movie cliché most memorably exploited by Kurosawa in his masterpiece Ikiru (生きる). It was definitely due to a heavy reliance on salted, smoked, and nitrate- and nitrite-rich foods (cured meats), the heavy incidence of the bacterium H. Pylori which thrives in stomachs with heavy salt diets, heavy tobacco usage, and above all, the lack of fresh vegetables for all but the briefest of growing seasons.

The same happened in Korea, Russia, and most of Eastern Europe. The common factor is the "short growing season" which means a reliance on "pickled foods".

Compare with both China and India where in spite of the heavy smoking and an equally important pickling tradition, the vegetable-rich diet traditionally traveling along trade routes had stomach cancer incidences at de minimus levels.

This is not just speculation. We have evidence for this.

After World War II, when vegetables flooded the Japanese markets thanks to free trade, the rate of stomach cancer plummeted precipitously. (Even then today, it's still 4x the rate in the UK!)

Do we really want to go "seasonal" so that we can go back to these bad old days?

To rephrase, going non-local caused stomach cancer rates around the world to plummet. Is this a bad thing?

Seasonal and local are not bad things.

For one, the seasonal component gives you an extreme rush of excitement. There's an anticipation to looking forward to something pleasurable that won't come around for another six months. There's also the fact that seasonal actually means cheap. Whatever is plentiful is cheap by the simple laws of supply and demand.

Local is a good thing too.

You can talk to the farmer. You can actually ask for something that lies outside the norm and since you are there to pay for it, they will do it. (Try doing that at a supermarket!)

What's wrong is the fetish. The hide-bound rules that don't allow for five thousand years of trading history (think: spices!), and science (think: stomach cancer) and a certain flexibility of both thought and process. A certain give and take (trade pun intended!) in the approach to food and markets.

Why not have a rich understanding of the subject and the best of both worlds?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Avocados

Something about avocados in the markets sends the CC into a apoplectic rage.

The culprits are the little stickers that say "Ripe".

Are you fuckin' shittin' me? This is complete and utter horseshit!

If they were ripe, we'd know it so we don't need you to hustle us because your avocados suck. In fact, the CC has never found an avocado that needed less than 10 days worth of "ripening". More like 15 days.

They just sit on his counter radiating guilt about how fucked up the supermarket system actually is.

What is the problem?

Supermarkets assume that shoppers want "green" avocados because "green" is the color of "fresh" which in this case means totally unripe. A ripe avocado is almost black and melting and supermarkets want stuff that doesn't spoil but that's not going to work for the avocado.

So it sucks. And we put up. And rant endlessly.

Such is life.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cod in Pistachio & Za'atar Crumbs

Cod is one of the most versatile fish out there. It's light and neutral so it takes on the flavor of whatever it is that you serve it with.

Sadly, for decades it's been overfished so it's gone from being one of the cheapest fish of all times to relatively expensive. Do try and get line-fished cod instead of the generic overfished crap. It really matter. Its flavor is so delicate and mellow that it will quite literally melt in your mouth.


Ingredients

2 fillets of cod

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup ground pistachio nuts
4 tbsp. fresh bread crumbs
1 tbsp. za'atar
1 tsp. nigella seeds
salt

1/4 cup olive oil

Recipe

You will need three shallow plates — one with the flour; one with the beaten egg, and one with the mixture of the ground pistachios, bread crumbs, za'atar, nigella seeds and salt combined.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet.

Dredge the cod in the flour, followed by the egg mixture and finally roll in the bread+spice mixture.

Cook for about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown. This depends on the thickness of the fillet. The CC likes it barely cooked so that the interior is still moist.

Drain on paper towels and serve at once with a tart green salad.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fusion

The CC has never been against fusion. How could he?

We are nothing but the sum total of all our influences and that is true about all cuisines.

Indian food, both classically and modern, is an outgrowth of Persian cooking and New World foods. Japanese curry owes itself to British traders and an American commodore. New Orleans cuisine is based on French and African models with innovations (shrimp!) pushed by Filipino workers. Brazilian food grows out of Portuguese and African models and is reinforced by the importation of Japanese agricultural workers — the largest Japanese-speaking population outside of Japan.

Spanish cooking is based on Arabic models. In fact, most of the words for food substances have Arabic origins — aceituna (olive), azafran (saffron), naranja (orange). The word "lemon" comes from the Spanish limón which in turn comes from the Arabic laymoon which in turns come from the Chinese limung (modern-day Chinese: níngméng - 柠檬.)

Chinese food owes itself to Persian models with the extraordinarily heavy influence of Buddhism from India. Japanese food is an import of classical Chinese models. Even the language is an import of Chinese (kanji) and Indian phonetic models (Sanskrit - hiragana and katakana.)

Americans brought beef to Japan and its influence owes itself to the British Empire which in turn owes itself, ironically, to classical Persian models. The idea that meat was the food of the "rulers" not the "ruled" is based in ancient Persian hierarchical ideas about cuisine.

In the native Americas, Mexican cooking was heavily influenced by the Spanish invasion. Filipino food is based on Spanish and Mexican food because it was administered by Spain through Mexico.
 
Ancient Greek and Egyptian cuisine grows out of Persian models and even ancient Roman cooking is unambiguously based on Greek and Egyptian models (thanks Cleopatra!)

The CC can go on forever.

If one wants to look at the truly ur-models then it would be the Babylonian and after that Persian models (wheat, barley) because that's where the crux of all political organization (and hence cooking) began.

So whither authenticity?

All food is ultimately fusion. It just matters how far you go back and look.

That's because humans have been trading with each other for millennia and good ideas have a way of germinating in other places and great ideas spread fast.

The traders were the original internet.

The Chinese traders taught the Indians how to steam circa the 10th century. The British brought curry powder to the Japanese and the French. The French brought classical technique to Haiti and New Orleans.

So anytime someone complains about "fusion", the CC just goes "Huh?!? What are you smokin'?"

For the record, even marijuana has Persian origins. Quelle surprise?

Simon Hopkinson's Amazing Parmesan Biscuits

This was completely outside the CC's comfort zone but if we don't try new things, what good are our paltry lives?

Simon Hopkinson's recipe is similar to a "shortbread" but it's not really. It's not as crumbly and has a lot more "chewy" conventional texture.

It's also absolutely smashing with champagne. Did the CC mention that he made them for New Year's?

Do follow the measurements exactly. In baking this matters a lot but this recipe is pretty forgiving.

The CC doubled the recipe and yet, three women, just three, went through the entire batch like a bunch of banshees. You have been warned. There will be no leftovers no matter how many you make.

Pictures? Surely you are joking!

Ingredients

(makes around 15 biscuits)

100 grams flour
100 grams butter
50 grams cheddar (finely shaved)
50 grams parmigiano-reggiano (finely shaved)

1 cup garlic chives (finely minced)

1 tbsp. fine salt
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 egg

4 chili peppers (sliced at a bias into elliptical rounds)

1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano

Recipe

(The CC modified the recipe to add garlic chives. They rock but you can skip them.)

This recipe is easy to remember if you think 100-100-100.

100 grams of flour, 100 grams of butter and 100 grams of cheese combined.

Stick your mixing bowl in the freezer for an hour. Yes, this will make your life eminently easier later.

Chop the butter into tiny pieces. Add the flour, cheese, garlic chives, salt and mustard and start cutting it with a pastry cutter. You want to mix everything together but make sure that the butter doesn't melt.

Add freezing water by the tablespoon. Be really really careful. You want to make sure the dough is comes together but stays cold and that the butter stays in pieces not melts.

This can be done in a food processor and it does an awesome job. You will just need to trust the CC that the processor will need to run for a lot longer — think 6 minutes but the dough will come together so just let it run.

Wrap the dough in some plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Pull it out and put it between two sheets of parchment paper. (Aluminum foil works in a pinch.) Roll it out carefully to about 1/2" thickness.

If the dough heats up, stick it back in the fridge. (You see the pattern?)

Cut with some cookie cutters and place the biscuits on a heavily greased baking tray.

(You can reuse the dough as long as you chill it again before you roll it out. The CC had to do it thrice to use up all the dough to eliminate all wastage.)

Stick the baking tray in the fridge before you are ready to bake. You can do this even a day ahead of time. This is pretty fool-proof stuff.

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Whip the egg. Pull the sheet out of the fridge. With a pastry brush, gently coat each biscuit with the egg wash and top with one chili pepper round each. Sprinkle the remaining parmigiano-reggiano over each biscuit.

Roast in the oven for about 10-15 minutes. Check at the 10-minute mark. You want the tops to be golden-brown. It sometimes take closer to 18 minutes depending on the thickness.

Pull out of the oven and let them sit for 5 minutes. They are still cooking. The CC knows you are tempted and heaven knows, the girls just wanted to grab them but do resist. The CC set a timer to cool off the maenads and yes, when the timer went off, guess what happened?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mung Beans with Caramelized Onions & Nigella Seeds

This is a truly superb dish. It is apparently one of the most loved recipes at the Çırağan Palace in Istanbul and this version comes courtesy of Silvena Rowe.

It's a masterpiece of textural contrast so do follow all the steps as mentioned down to the last step.

The salad is on the bottom right. (Remaining recipes to follow.)


Ingredients

1/2 cup mung beans

2 small onions (sliced fine)
3 shallots (sliced fine)

1/4 cup olive oil (your regular)

3 tbsp olive oil (your finest)
6 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1 tsp Dijon mustard

sea salt
black pepper

8-10 sun-dried tomatoes (chopped)

1 tbsp. nigella seeds (toasted)

Recipe

Cook the mung beans for about 30 minutes until tender. Be careful not to overcook them. You want a little bit of crunch. Drain and set aside.

Toast the nigella seeds lightly in a skillet. Be careful since they will burn easily. Set aside.

Heat the regular olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add the onions and sautée for 20-25 minutes until they are soft and lightly golden. Do not let them caramelize. Add a tbsp. of water if they seem to be cooking too quickly.

(Note: the onions are cooked but the shallots are not! The textural game is important.)

Combine the fine olive oil, shallots, vinegar, parsley, mustard, sea salt and black pepper to make a fine vinaigrette.

Toss the vinaigrette with the mung beans and the sun-dried tomatoes. Top with caramelized onions and the toasted nigella seeds.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New York, New York

The CC realizes that this is not useful for many readers but here's an absolutely smashing set of articles on where to buy groceries in the five boroughs of New York.

Chinese in NYC
Indian in NYC
Italian in NYC
Mexican in NYC
Thai in NYC

(Source: Serious Eats.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Orecchiete with Brussel Sprouts, Anchovies, Preserved Lemons & Hazelnuts

It may be counter-intuitive but winter is the season for citrus fruits. Of course, they all come from warmer climes than New York.

The CC is always reminded to update his batch of preserved lemons because of all the great Meyer lemons that are to be found in the markets.

So it's also time to use up some of them with this truly great recipe. You get umami from three separate sources — the anchovies, preserved lemons and the parmigiano-reggiano.

Also, the lemons are just mellow enough so they don't have that aggressive lemony flavor and yet they still have the all the fragrant citrus notes. This makes the dish easy to pair with wine which is difficult in the presence of aggressively sour flavors.

Lemon, black pepper and rosemary are a magical combination. Lemon and parmigiano-reggiano is also a magical combination.

The citrusy, resinous and umami notes pair perfectly while the hazelnuts act as the crunchy textural counterpoint to the dish.


Ingredients

18 brussel sprouts (halved)

1 onion (sliced into thin rounds)
1 whole preserved lemon (pith removed, cut into thin strips)
2 anchovies
1/2 cup hazelnuts

1 tbsp. finely chopped rosemary

olive oil
salt
black pepper
parmigiano-reggiano

2 cups orecchiete

Recipe

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Roast the hazelnuts for about 12 minutes. They have a tendency to burn so make sure you don't overdo it. Remove from the oven. Process in a food processor until they are broken and uneven but not crushed to a powder.

Toss the halved brussel sprouts into the oven. Roast for about 18-24 minutes until they are just slightly brown but not charred.

After this, you need to time these two steps together:

Cook the pasta until al dente. Roughly 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat up some olive oil. Toss in the onions and let them fry for about 6 minutes until languid. Add the anchovies and fry for a bit. Add the brussel sprouts, rosemary, salt and pepper and toss together. Add some pasta water to make a thin sauce.

When the pasta is done, toss everything including the preserved lemons together.

Top with the hazelnuts, parmigiano-reggiano, and more black pepper.