Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rules of Buying Cookbooks

Over the years the CC has amassed a pretty large trove of cookbooks. Even more importantly, he has disposed of a vast quantity. Much money, time and energy has been expended over the problem so before you fork over your hard-earned money, read through the following:
  1. Never buy a cookbook for the pictures. In fact, never look at the pictures because most of the "styled" pictures are not even food. They are make-believe just like magazine covers.
  2. Never buy a cookbook that is too broad (Great Recipes of the World, Fish Cooking, Splendid Soups) or too narrow (Grill Cooking, Oysters, Biryani).
  3. Never buy a cookbook on vacation. The fantasy clouds your judgment. You'll never cook from it ever again.
  4. Most cookbook authors just like novelists only have one book in them.
  5. Don't give up your classic cookbooks when the author recycles them for an "anthology". This means they have run out of ideas.
  6. Rarely should you buy "celebrity chef" cookbooks. Remember, you pay for their talent at their restaurant not for a shittier home-made version thereof.
  7. Books that teach technical skills are worth their weight in gold. (The exceptions to the "celebrity chef" rule are ones that are technically engaged.)
  8. Always gauge how long an author has engaged with a culture before buying a book. The longer they have spent time, the more authentic the cooking is likely to be. The CC has made this mistake in three entirely separate languages. It's universal. The categories below are the only ones that should be purchased — they are in no specific order.
    1. A cookbook from someone within the culture.
    2. A cookbook from a first-generation immigrant of that culture.
    3. A cookbook from someone who has spent their life understanding that culture.
  9. Conversely, if an author seems to flit about cultures, all the books are crap.
  10. Shamelessly sell, donate or recycle. Cookbooks are worse than cars. They depreciate to zero the moment you buy them (with some rare exceptions.) So dispose them off if they no longer serve a purpose.
Happy Holidays!

† Frequently, the first one is a masterpiece. In fact, the greater it is, the more skeptical you should be about the second. ("They poured out all their energy on the first one. There's nothing left.")

‡ The people living within a culture and first-generation immigrants are not necessarily the best judges of their own culture. In fact, their logic tends to be faulty or filled with superstitions and half-truths. It frequently takes an outsider to write cogently and analytically about something.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Lynchpin of Logistics

The role of logistics in cooking is axiomatic to trained chefs but it seems to be unknown, unheard of, and unrecognized by regular folks cooking daily meals.

Let us first define the goal. It would be to make nutritious, interesting meals daily, or at least, most evenings. This is what chefs do daily in exchange for money. The home cook tries to do it and, more often than not, fails. The blame is placed on the our harried lives and the "demands on modernity" never mind the fact that we have more instruments (blenders, food processors, dishwashers) that do all the hard work for us than in the bad old days of yore.

The failure can be attributed to the failure of logistics or to put a positive spin on it, the secret to success in the culinary arts lies in logistics.

Great cooking on a regular sustained basis is closer to mobilizing a military campaign than it is to the airy-fairy world of recipes, tastes and thoughts. Creativity, knowledge and technical mastery all play a role but these are pre-requisites in almost any domain of human endeavor. The logistical aspect of cooking gets short shrift from most, particularly cookbook writers, who assume that the audience will pick it up by practice and osmosis.

Importantly, this skill is not ethereal vapor. It's objective and it can be taught and one gets better at it just like the classic Carnegie Hall joke. ("How do you get to the CC's kitchen? Practice, practice, practice.")

There is a skill to the logistical aspect of things and the CC could walk into most people's kitchens and gauge their culinary ability within a minute or two just by observing the organization of their pantry and tools. There would be no role for conversation. A simple cursory observation would do the trick.

The biggest juggling act that a cook must master is managing the pantry.

One of the problems of juggling a pantry is that you must "know yourself". You need to be absolutely crystal clear about your strengths and weaknesses, your desires and hatreds and more importantly, the loves and hates of your target audience. (All cooks have an audience whether it's the paying kind or the not-so-much-paying family and friends variety. If you want to get really technical then all cooking has a serious element of theater in it as well. We, the cooks, are performers.)

Mastering your own pantry and knowing its contents is hard work. It requires you to juggle a ton of variables — long-term stuff (pickles, preserves), frozen stuff (vegetables, preserves, sauces), fresh stuff (herbs, vegetables, meat, etc.)

This is painstakingly difficult work and its complexity must not be underestimated. The price of failure is clear. You toss the waste out but if you want to keep this to a minimum then you must juggle this information either in your head or via a spreadsheet.

You can easily appreciate how important this aspect is in a professional kitchen since it is first and foremost a business. Any wastage accrues directly and negatively to the bottom line.

Planning is also needed in the shopping aspect of things. If you want the best and you want it on a budget then you must juggle all the various ingredients and their locations and their costs. This is something that needs to be learnt and is particularly true of most places in the world that still have separate grocers, butchers and fishermen. (New York is one of the few places in America along with older cities like Boston that still have these supply chains still intact.)

Remember the comparison the military campaigns? The CC was not kidding.

The military has always considered this aspect to be of importance. Now you too can appreciate what Napoleon meant when he said that "an army marches on its stomach" and why the role of quartermaster has always been performed by a relatively senior officer.

The same level of planning goes for the actual execution of the dish. Professional cooks always have a mise en place — French for "putting it in place". All the ingredients are neatly chopped up, arranged and organized in bowls so that the actual cooking is swift and mistake-free. This is particularly important for dishes that require ingredients to go in at a rapid pace e.g. Chinese wok cooking where speed is of the essence and there is no time to dilly-dally with chopping and the like.

Planning extends to cleanup as well. Great home cooks clean as they go and for those with dishwashers, stack as they go. The same goes for professional kitchens where the space is not only cleaned during the execution of dishes but there's also a final cleaning at the end of the night where everything is scrubbed down. Most good cooks will have a clean workplace before the first dish even hits the table.

Traditionally, these skills were under the purview of a course in "Home Economics" since the relationship between money and logistics has always been very clear. This was considered so important that the English classic "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management" has never been out of print since 1861 (although it has been revised by successive generations to keep up with the times.)

The book represents everything that is positive about Victorian England — its progressive, rational, Enlightenment-seeped nature. The preface by Isabella Beeton says it best:
I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways.
We can excuse Mrs. Beeton for her sexist assumptions which were typical of her time but the progressive sentiment of "teaching the skill of household management" jumps out with etched clarity.

This is never going to be a popular subject because there is no "market" for this. Could you imagine a modern-day book that teaches you how to shop for food or how to organize your pantry? Even worse, are we talking about a Japanese pantry or an Indian one since the needs are so different? What if you wanted multiple pantries like the CC?

The greater your ambition and the wider the net of your daily cooking in terms of multiple cuisines, the larger the role of logistics looms. If it's hard enough to cook a single cuisine daily then it is even harder to manage the pantries of multiple cuisines with conflicting demands and juggle everything so that nothing goes to waste.

Somewhere somehow these skills have gotten lost in the modern shuffle but they are absolutely critical if you want to make amazing food on a regular basis.

To blatantly rip off Napoleon, "a great chef marches on his organization."

† No sexism is implied. As any legal textbook might tell you, "his" includes "hers" as well as "theirs".

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blackberry Picking

Summer is over and the CC does (occasionally) go picking wild berries (and mushrooms) and he can personally attest to the sentiment alluded at the end of the poem.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

-- Seamus Heaney

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lasagna with Cod & Zucchini

There is no sugar coating this one. This recipe is "heavy".

It's absolutely rock-solid and amazing but the CC only recommends making this if you have like 8+ guests who are dining. Seriously. We're talking small portions because of the sheer heft of this recipe.

This recipe is great for making ahead of time. When your guests arrive, just pop it in the oven and let it bake while you enjoy a nice de-stressing cocktail. It also really helps if you've made the tomato sauce ahead of time.

It's heavy on the prepping time and the oven time so you might want to make it in the waning days of summer when the ingredients are in copious supply and it's not so hot that you want to kill yourself.

Now that the negative juju's are out of the way, this recipe is killer. And heavy. And a heavy-killer!

So onwards and upwards.

There are just five components here all easily available or made in summer — cod, zucchini, tomato sauce, béchamel, and herbs. The CC will not judge you if you use commercial lasagna sheets. In fact, they might even be preferable since it's summer and this is not a delicate dish.

The steps are classically Italian. Waste not, want not. Each step goes back into the previous step to enhance the dish and waste nothing of the flavors acquired so far.

Why not step back right now and try and guess the recipe like a crossword puzzle?


package of lasagna sheets

1 large piece of cod
3 zucchini (cut into large rounds)

4 cups tomato sauce
fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, oregano

1 cup milk
4 anchovies
1/2 cup flour

2 cups parmigiano-reggiano

olive oil

black pepper


Take 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce and add water and bring to a boil. Poach the cod in it till medium done and lift out. Flake the flesh in a bowl and separately strain the broth. Discard the solids and reserve the broth.

Meanwhile reheat the tomato sauce with the fresh herbs. Set aside. It should be thick and glossy so that you can layer it with the lasagna.

Heat up some olive oil in a pan and fry the zucchini. Do it in batches until they are limp and have given up most of their moisture. This is important. If you do not do this, you will have a very soggy lasagna. You can bake it but it's simply not the same. Set aside.

Make the béchamel sauce. Pre-heat the milk in a pan. A microwave works great here. Heat up some butter in a pot. When bubbling, add the flour and let it fry at a medium heat until it is golden in color but not dark brown. Add the anchovies and let it fry a little. Add the hot milk and stir. When the milk is fully denatured, add the fish broth from the cod above and let it reduce to a thick sauce. (If you add it earlier, the milk will curdle.)

Assemble the lasagna. Grease the dish. Add the sheets to the bottom. Layer it with the zucchini, the flaked cod, topped with the béchamel; then more sheets; then with the tomato sauce; then more sheets. Keep repeating the layers until you use up everything. Top with some tomato sauce and the cheese.

Bake covered in a 400°F for 20-25 minutes and then uncover. Bake for an additional 10 minutes till the top is browned.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Creativity and Radish Salad

What does creativity mean?

Creativity doesn't exist in the void otherwise babies would be creative geniuses which they clearly are not. They are a pile of mewling and shitting neuroses.

Creativity works in a context. You take what has come before you and you push it further. Edgier, more vibrant, more in tune with the society of today and tomorrow not yesterday.

Whether scientist or artist, creativity lies in pushing the boundaries outwards in different directions and not in the trivial way.

It's straightforward to make an Indian dish with a non-Indian ingredient like fava beans but true creativity comes from reimagining something that is a classic for good reason in a radically different context.

The triad of radish, salt and butter is a classic one. Radishes, cold butter, sprinkle of salt, sprinkle of herbs. Not exactly rocket science but a potent combination that has gotten many a French housewife and her English counterpart in the 19th century through a dry spell on the table.

Today that butter would be cultured unsalted butter but once upon a time that's all that was available. The defaults have changed so we have to work with the times and specify it.

Why does something so simple work? First off, you have the pungency of the radishes particularly in late summer that is cut down to size by the fat of the butter. The salt is necessary otherwise you wouldn't taste any of the herbs at all. Fatty, pungent, fragrant and salty. Your tongue and nose are loving it.

This combination is well known across the world. There is a classic Persian salad platter consisting of radishes, feta, and herbs. They are just piled onto a dish side by side and the eater can pick or choose as they please. The herbs can be more than one — parsley, mint, tarragon, pepper cress, flat chives all work. Paired with a flat lavash and tucked in, it's as simple as it is delightful.

It's the same combination of pungent radishes, salty fatty cheese, and herbs.

The CC is a big fan of the chef April Bloomfield. She's best known for her "nose-to-tail" eating philosophy which is ironic because she made her name cooking vegetables. Her vegetable dishes are beyond superb.

What's presented below is her version of the classic salad above. Note the care with which she reworks the classic combination and adapts it to an entirely different medium. You still have the same four ingredients — radishes, herbs, salt and fat.

Her description of how to make the salad is a little bit romantic but there's logic there. You can't make this without engaging your hands. You need to knead it to make it work.

This is not a salad you can make ahead of time. You have to serve it at once because you are smashing the basil with the salt and the aromatic component will be lost otherwise. You can prep most of it ahead of time though just there's a last minute component which is quite easy.


15 radishes (cut irregularly into large pieces)

1 cup basil leaves
Maldon sea salt

parmigiano-reggiano (cut into irregular chunks - some large, some thin)

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (your best!)
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

2 cups arugula


In a large bowl, combine the radishes with the basil and 3 healthy pinches of salt. Using your hands, grab handfuls of the mixture and sharply press the basil and salt against the radishes for about 30 seconds to release the basil's aromatic oils.

Add the parmesan and mix again with your hands until some of the cheese is creamy, some is in little chunks and some is still in larger dime-sized chunks.

Combine the lemon and olive oil into a vinaigrette. Toss with the arugula, and the mixture above and serve at once.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


In today's absurd New York heat, the CC could really go for a halo-halo right about now.

The CC is not a big fan of desserts as many of you might have noticed but this one is different. It's textural complexity and visual delight lead many into temptation.

Two entirely different renditions demonstrate how generic and "meta" the recipe really is. The second is made with one of the best renditions of classical flan that the CC knows — remember that the Spaniards ruled the Philippines for almost 400 years so they've had a lot of practice.

Little House on the Prairie

Well, it's that time of the year again in the large city. 40 pounds of tomatoes all bubbling away on the stove into tomato sauce that will be preserved.

What's sauce for the summer is sauce for the winter, as they say.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stracci con Ragú di Pesce

This recipe is serious work so it's not for everyone.

This recipe requires access to the freshest seafood and that means a local fisherman not a supermarket!

This recipe isn't here to feed your pathetic little palate. It's here to ensure the perfection of your soul.

It only works in summer when you have access to fresh seafood, fresh tomatoes and basil but what a recipe!

If you don't understand why tomatoes, you should read this.

The CC is also assuming that you have made the tomato sauce ahead of time. It's always there in the CC's kitchen in summer but if not you will need to make that as well.

So get cranking!

Stracci con ragú di pesce

(serves 2)

Note: This is the rare recipe that pairs fresh pasta with seafood and tomatoes. It's the exception that proves the rule. The idea is that both the tomatoes act as an accent. They are definitely not the main show here. The fresh seafood is.


Fresh Pasta

1 cup 00 flour (substitute by sieved all-purpose)
1 egg

Ragú di pesce

6 scallops
2 squid
12 clams

8 cloves garlic
1 dried red chili
16 cherry tomatoes (half yellow, half red — cut in half)

1/3 cup white wine
1/2 cup tomato sauce

2 sprigs basil

pinch of saffron

olive oil
sea salt
black pepper

few basil leaves (cut into thin ribbons with scissors)
basil (ripped by hand into rough shreds)


First, make the fresh pasta. (If you don't know how, you're probably going to need something a little more precise than the instructions below. Ironically, it's one of those things that's trivial to demonstrate and hard to write about.)

Dump the flour in a bowl. Make a well. Crack an egg into it. Add some salt. With a fork whip the egg, incorporating the flour as it goes by. Do NOT add water. Use your hands when it looks mixed in. Knead the dough to a silky mass adding only the tiniest amount of flour to make your hands not stick.

Set aside for at least 20 minutes.

Using a pasta maker, crank the dough repeatedly through all settings down to 5.

(Pasta machines have a scale from 1-8. One is coarsest and eight is finest. The reason to not crank it down to 5 straight away is that each pass through "kneads" the dough correctly to make it smooth and uniform. So you need to go through 1-2-3-4-5. Experienced chefs even repeat the 1 and 2 folding the dough into "threes" if they want a particularly refined pasta.)

Do not make it too thin. Cut into long thick ribbons and lay out on a tray to dry for at least an hour or even more in summer if it is humid. Two to three hours is preferable. The dough must dry out substantially otherwise it will fall apart.

(Yes, the CC knows that this is not stracci which refers to "rags" — irregularly cut pasta. You can cut the thick ribbons into irregular pieces. To make a true stracci, you'd have to hand-roll the pasta. If your spirit is willing and your flesh not weak, go for it!)

Then make the fresh seafood ragú.

Put the clams in a pot with half a cup of water. Heat them at high heat till they open. Fish out each one as it opens. Shuck them making sure to retain the liquid. Pass the liquid from the clams as well as the liquid from the pot through a paper towel (to eliminate the sand) and retain the liquid.

(The reason to shuck the clams is so that the shell doesn't tear the delicate pasta. With dried pasta, the clams are tossed with the shell to good effect but here we're working with fresh pasta and the clam shells would tear the pasta into shreds which we don't want.)

Heat up some olive oil in a pan. Add the garlic and red chili and let it fry for about 6 minutes at low heat. Make sure the garlic doesn't burn. Add the white wine and the clam juice from above and let it reduce a bit.

Toss in the cherry tomatoes and let cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and basil strips and let cook till it is reduced somewhat.

Now make the pasta. When the water is boiling, add the pasta and let it cook. 3 minutes no more.

While the pasta is cooking, add the raw seafood, cooked clams and the saffron to the hot ragú. Do not overcook. You can even turn off the heat if the sauce is hot enough.

Drain the pasta and toss everything together. Add the torn basil and black pepper. Serve at once.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dark Side of Tarragon

Beckett's famous play, Waiting for Godot, has as one of its two principal characters by the name of Estragon.

This is not a real name that people actually have. It refers to "tarragon" in French.

What's not so obvious is that tarragon had an association of being "dragon-like" or "serpent-like" most likely because its anise-like flavor will overpower any dish.

Estragon is definitely serpent-like in the play and "earth-bound" as opposed to the intellectual and "air-bound", Vladimir. Beckett explicitly calls for instructions for the actors to be fat and squat versus tall and skinny respectively. He also has Estragon continually near the ground while Vladimir is always standing up.

Estragon is repeatedly willing to compromise to get his way (serpent-like?) versus the more idealistic Vladimir who will not until the end of the second act when he has a brief moment of panic.

Did Beckett intend this? Almost certainly. The name doesn't exist so what else could it be other than a form of association?

Unfortunately Beckett's (very copious) notes leave no indication about this part of his imagination so we will just have to contend ourselves with conjecture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Science and Art of Indian Cooking

Indian cooking is synonymous with its use of an immense array of spices. In fact, that's what makes Indian cooking unique. The sheer amount of technical apparatus that is brought to bear on the subject of spices.

Chez CC, we tend towards the obsessive and completist bent so let's expound on it.

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start — as Julie Andrews once sang.

What constitutes a spice?

It's a dried seed, dried root, dried bark, or dried vegetable/fruit whose primary role is for flavoring food. They rarely have nutritional value although most spices have considerable anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties which are an important reason that they are so heavily used. The other reason would be pleasure, of course.

There are at least 20-25 spices in the Indian repertoire and that's just what the CC can think of off the top of his head. There are at least 20-25 relatively more obscure ones. (Obscurity, needless to say, being relative.)

Simple combinatorial mathematics tells us that the number of combinations of these spices is going to be vast§ particularly when they are combined with other ingredients like nuts, souring agents, oils, etc.

There are eight basic techniques (and a bunch of auxiliary ones) that you need to master to really get a feel for the complexity of the subject.

On the first axis are the state of the spices. They can either be:
  • Whole, or
  • Ground.
On the second axis are things we can do to the spices. We can keep them:
  • "As-is".
  • Dry-roast them.
  • Fry them in oil.
  • Soak in liquid overnight.
You can do the combinatorial math yourself: 2 x 4 = 8.

Classically speaking, if you were to take a class on Indian cooking, there would two techniques that would be emphasized — bhunaao and tadka (a.k.a. chaunk, baghar, etc.)  Except that both of these are best understood as variations of exactly one of the eight. They are whole spices fried in oil. We'll come back to a discussion of these important techniques but it's useful to point out right now that both the two classical techniques fit into exactly one of the eight categories. Whole spices fried in oil.

There's seven more that we need to discuss in detail and that's even before we get to the variants of one of them. (Brevity only works if the subject can be distilled down into a brief summary.)

The biggest distinction is whether the spices are left whole or ground up into a powder.

When they are left whole, they will flavor the dish but they are meant to be left at the side of the plate when eating since they turn inedible. They give up their flavor to the dish but they are disposable. Smaller spices like cumin, caraway, sesame, etc. are edible but the larger ones are not. They won't do any harm just that it's not fun to chew them.

There is a reason that spices are stored whole. Spices mainly consist of a vast array of aromatic molecules which  is what we love about them. The moment they are ground, we are increasing the surface area by an incredible amount and the volatile molecules start escaping. Even worse, the complex organic compounds start oxidizing. That's why pre-ground spices basically taste like dust. All the good stuff is long gone. There are a few exceptions like ground dried green mango (aamchur) and ground chili peppers (laal mirch) but they are the exception not the rule. (Really experienced Indian chefs will tell you that fresh red chilies have strong citrus notes but the dried and ground ones do not.)

The greatest gift of modern times to the art of Indian cooking is the simple coffee grinder. It makes easy work out of the hardest part which was pounding the living daylights out of spices in a mortar and pestle to get them to a powdered form. (Ironically, we lazy-ass modern-day soft-as-silk cooks can make far superior food compared to our rugged "hard-working" ancestors. Take that, bitches!)

Whole spices as-is generally apply to the smaller spices — cumin, caraway, nigella (kalonji), ajwain, sesame, fennel, etc. You get the taste the spice as it actually is.

Ground spices as-is is a common occurrence in desserts e.g. cardamom, nutmeg, etc. You will get a much stronger hit of the spice because of the surface area. You also see this in savory cooking with spices like dried ginger (saunth)  and dried green mango powder (aamchur).

One of the two great techniques of Indian cuisine is dry roasting the spices. It intensifies their flavors. You dry roast the spices on a skillet in the order of size in order to prevent them from burning. As each spice is done, you set them aside to use individually or together as the case may be. This is a complex transformation and changes the nature of the spices. Cardamoms take on an intensity beyond the normal. Small seeds like cumin, caraway (shahjeera), and fennel will turn darker and far more intense. Black pepper will puff up and become even more aggressively black-peppery and cloves change shape and take on a dark fierceness. Mace (javitri) and dried cinnamon leaves (tej patta) turn pale brown and stronger in flavor.

The CC can't think of any dish that just uses the dry-roasted spices (but his knowledge is not infallible.) They are almost always ground to a powder. Almost all the masala's that you get commercially follow this pattern. They are dry roasted and ground. Learning how to do this in the right proportions is the single most important feature of Indian cuisine.

Soaking spices in liquid and using them is another technique. Traditionally, there are only two soaking agents — water and milk. Soaking mellows out the more aggressive notes of the spice and gives them a very subtle and rounded flavor. The milk used is almost always full fat since a lot of the compounds will dissolve in fat but not in water. The grinding is mostly done so that the larger more inedible spices can actually be eaten. (Yes, technically speaking, this is a paste not a powder. The CC gets it but the classification still makes sense.)

The same technique is used for nuts which while not technically spices are frequently treated by Indian cooks as being under the same umbrella. Both soaked nuts and soaked finely-ground nuts feature heavily in Indian cooking.

Why do the spices and nuts transform? Many of the spices and nuts are actually seeds so when you soak them in liquid, you are starting out the sprouting process which is a complex transformation and you get a different set of complex volatile compounds to work with.

While the spices soaked in milk would be ground with the milk, the nuts soaked in milk e.g. walnuts are drained and the milk discarded. The milk takes away the more aggressive bitter notes of the walnuts and makes them sweeter and more rounded.

One of the great technical pastes is that of poppy seeds soaked overnight in just a bit of water. The resulting paste is just absolutely superb. Stir-fry with a few other spices (cumin, whole red chilis) and almost any vegetable and you have a rocking dish.

The second great technique of Indian cuisine is to fry the spices in oil or ghee. Two things happen when you do this. You get the same effect as dry roasting because of the way frying works. In addition, the volatile compounds, which are generally soluble in oil, make the oil intensely flavored. When the dish is cooked with water in it, the emulsion of the oil and water brings out the spice flavorings. (Note that this would not be possible with just water because the organic compounds are typically insoluble in water.)

This complex change in chemistry means that this technique has a bunch of variants. One is to pan-fry the spices in the barest minimum of oil and then grind them to a powder. These various powders can be stored but not for long because the oil has a tendency to go rancid in the intense Indian heat. However, it will store in a dry cool place for about a year or the refrigerator which is the typical usage pattern of these ground masala's. (You will often see the use of nuts or dried coconut all ground with spices in masala's of this nature.)

The second is to pan-fry it with some oil until it just starts to stick and brown. This is the classical technique of bhunaao which is one of the most important arsenals in the repertoire.

Classical bhunaao is tricky. You use both whole spices and powdered ones. Generally speaking, the powdered ones are also dry-roasted first although this is not a given. You need high heat at the start to get the oil really hot but then you need to turn it down when the powdered stuff goes in and you need to stop right before the mixture burns by adding wet stuff. Experienced chefs add either a tablespoon of water to make it stop burning or wet ingredients like chopped onions. It's not as hard as it sounds but it does take some experience.

The last technique is to intensely heat up a small amount of oil in a specialized ladle. Whole spices are added to it and when they fry the entire mixture is plunged into a pre-made dish which is generally quite watery. This means that there's this wild theatrical aspect to watching sizzling oil and a hot metal ladle go into water which can be quite dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. This is the classical technique of tadka. The spices sizzle and pop dangerously in the oil but the final dish will be intensely flavored by the spices and the oil.

These techniques are not mutually exclusive. Many complex dishes rely on combinations of these three techniques. You may first fry a few whole spices in oil then cook the dish, and add some dry-roasted ground spices when cooking and finish off the dish either with a tadka or with more dry-roasted ground spices. The complexity of the layered flavoring comes from the interaction of these simpler techniques.

Indian cuisine has a seemingly infinite aspect to it because of the sheer number of spices, combinations and techniques. However, almost all of it is reducible to just these eight ideas. The number of combinations is vast mathematically but it's possible to get a handle on the subject by approaching it in analytic fashion.

† The CC was sorely tempted to title this post The Eightfold Way but he refrained.

‡ All the other techniques of drying, roasting, frying, grilling, steaming. boiling, par-boiling, and baking are universal. These eight techniques were already enumerated in classical Sanskrit literature. The complex usage of spices is what sets Indian cuisine apart from the rest of the world.

§ Not kidding. We're looking at something like 240 (= 1012) combinations. Not all combinations will be tasty but even accounting for that we're looking at something like 109 combinations.  As long as you live for a million years eating Indian food thrice a day, you'll get to try them all. Even in a practical way, there are at least a thousand combinations which will take you three years to get through. The "vast" part is not being exaggerated.

¶ Obviously, it can't be infinite.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Naming of Dishes

How are dishes named? What are the mechanisms by which they get the name?

The CC is going to talk about naming but only within the context of "traditional" dishes. "Traditional" is a loaded word and chefs these days give all kinds of fanciful names (which is also traditional) but we'll keep it relatively well-known.

The classification of naming depends on the language in question but the type of structures are definitely universal in that there are similar ideas in every cuisine.

Descriptive Names

This is the easiest category and also the largest. This describes the vast majority of dishes in almost all cuisines. The titles are self-descriptive and anyone who understands the grammar of a specific cuisine could with high probability just reproduce the dish without even looking at a recipe.

Fanciful Names 1 (Metaphor)

The older the cuisine and the greater the level of Imperial involvement, the greater the chance you are going to have metaphors do the heavy lifting for the dish.

The Japanese tatsuta age (竜田揚げ) refers to the river "tatsuta" where the leaves in autumn float down all brown and beautiful presumably. The dish is diced chicken deep-fried. Presumably the brown-ness of the perfectly fried chicken is the correlative.

Chinese cuisine (especially of the Imperial derivation) is particularly adept at this level of poetic metaphor. It's extremely hard to know what the dish is even if you read Mandarin fluently. If you already don't know the answer, you are not going to figure out that "desert boat sails on greens" refers to "camel's foot with hearts of rape".

The Japanese oyako don (親子丼) refers to "parent and child in donburi (bowl)". The parent is the chicken and the child is the egg. It's a rice dish topped with chicken and eggs.

We as a species have been this for a while.

Distilled alcohol in Latin is acqua vitae ("water of life"). Then translated into Gaelic we got uisce beatha which when rendered in English became whisky. (That's how the first word is pronounced.)

Lest this sound all too poetic for words, let us observe that even the "Bloomin' Onion" falls under this category.

Fanciful Names 2 (Euphemism)

Rocky Mountain Oysters.  (Prairie oysters in Canada.)

They are fried bull calf testicles with the obvious parallel to fried oysters. The euphemism makes the dish go down easy (pun intended!)

Chicken feet are "phoenix claws" in Chinese. Bottarga refers to the dried and salted ovaries of the red mullet.

And restaurants regularly feature squab because few people would eat it if it just said young pigeon which is exactly what it is.

One of the most common ways euphemism is executed is by substituting a foreign word or phrase for a concept that would be unpalatable locally. Escargots (French) instead of snails. Calamari (Italian) instead of squid. Boudin noir (French - black sausage) instead of "blood sausage", etc.

Euphemism is a large part of human food naming. It's pretty global. We find new and innovative ways to disguise certain blunt truths about our omnivorous eating habits.

Fanciful Names 3 (Alliteration)

We humans are suckers for alliteration. This is one of the figures of speech that exists in almost every language in the world.

The examples are endless — Rump Roast, Crispy Chicken, etc.

This concept goes hand in hand with the next one — that of onomatopoeia. Rendering the sound is nice but adding in the alliteration (typically via repetition) makes the name of the dish really memorable.

Fanciful Names 4 (Onomatopoeia)

The CC's favorite example is that of biángbiáng noodles from China's Shaanxi province. The kanji for "biáng" is not even standard. It refers to the slapping sound of the dough on the table when the noodles are made in the traditional way.
Another example is the Japanese shabu-shabu (swish-swish). This is Japanese hot-pot where you cook the meat and vegetables yourself in the hot boiling broth at your table. The "swish" refers to the sound that you make while swirling your food in the broth while it's cooking. (Note the importance of onomatopoeia because while shabu-shabu refers to the food just mere shabu is Japanese street slang for heroin. You don't want to confuse the two.)

Fanciful Names 5 (Parallel Association)

The dish Carpaccio specifically referred to raw beef because the paper-thin slices of raw beef resembled the pinks used by the painter Vittore Carpaccio. It only dates to about the 1950's when refrigeration made serving of raw beef possible. The origin is from Harry's Bar in Venice.

Today it refers to any thinly shaved meat or vegetable. Hence you have "tuna carpaccio" and "salmon carpaccio" and "zucchini carpaccio" even though the colors have nothing to do with it any more.

The association jumped from the color to the thinness of the shaving of the ingredient.

This sort of association is a weak form of metonymy in which the concept got so strongly linked to some aspect of the original dish that it jumped out as a generic descriptor.

Country Names

As a general rule, if the dish contains the name of its own country, it's origin is likely to be somewhere else.

This is counter-intuitive at first but logical on closer examination. You don't need to label something as "native" if it were actually native in the first place. Only if you wish to convince someone that something from the "outside" is really "inside" then you go about naming it after your own country.

Pad Thai is emphatically not Thai. The stir-fried noodle dish is unambiguously Chinese in origin even though the sauces and tastes are very much Thai. The government was heavily involved in promoting this dish as "Thai" in the 1930's and 40's.

Local Names

This is the wild card in this list. It could go either way.

Buffalo Wings probably did originate in the city of Buffalo. The Black Forest Cake is an English translation of the German Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. (Note: The German does refer to the "Black Forest" but it's also more precise that it's a cherry torte. The original dish is using a metaphor of the Forest for the black chocolate but the English treats it like a place of origin which it is not.)

Worcestershire Sauce is almost definitely not from Worcestershire. There's a bit of dubious branding (read below) going on. It's based on the ancient Roman garum (fish sauce).

Baked Alaska was invented in New York at the famous Delmonico's in 1876 to commemorate the acquisition of the territory.

And the various "chowders" floating around the East Coast originated no more locally than the CC originated in Siberia. They are all variants of ancient cooking styles even if the strong regionalization is a matter of preference and tradition.


This list is really endless particularly in the 19th century. Flattering your patron whether it's a king, the king's courtiers, or the modern day version - movie stars is always good business even if the idea is mostly recycled.

The list can either be of the originator (Caesar Salad, Fettuccine Alfredo - see next section on "branding") or that of the some famous personality - mostly opera and movie stars (Peach Melba, Melba Toast, Turkey Tetrazzini).

The famous Auguste Escoffier, codifier of French haute cuisine was a master at this game and he learnt it from his teacher Marie-Antoine Carême. He played this game shamelessly with everyone from kings to composers to theater personalities (the movie stars of their day).

Please note modern day examples like the "Shirley Temple" and the "Baby Ruth" candy bar.


This is largely a 20th-century American thing but it would be remiss not to mention it even if just in passing.

Brands have entire units to promote their ingredients. Everything from Coca Cola to Heinz have entire research units pumping out recipes for their ingredients and have had them for at least the last 70 years. The purpose is to "support" the brand. Examples abound.

This is not limited to companies. The "Can" in Canola oil refers to Canada. It didn't sell very well as rapeseed oil ("raped oil" anyone?) but when they changed the name euphemistically to the country that was promoting it, it became popular and then generic. That's what it's called all over the world now. (Note: Canola didn't originate in Canada. The rule of countries applies. They just branded it.)


Do dish names matter? The CC would argue that they do.

A great dish with a memorable name will turn into a classic. Even a so-so dish with a catchy name has a great shot.

Just like rhyme and assonance gives a sort of memorability to poetry, the same set of rules lend a mystique and power to the names of dishes. It has more to do with humans and language that it has to do with cuisine but it's just as important.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Panha (Green Mango Drink)

In this insane heat, you need a drink to cool you down. This is a classic Indian drink found all along the West Coast of India.

The two spices added (cardamom, fennel) are quite cooling. The salt is needed to balance the sweet-sour taste and also to act as a restorative in the insanely hot summers when you're sweating out all that salt.

The recipe below basically makes a concentrate. You add ice and dilute the drink with some cold water and drink it. Even though it's not traditional the CC really loves to add seltzer water instead of ice water.

The saffron is non-negotiable. You need it for both the taste and the color. The drink should be this really beautiful yellowish-orange color.


2 raw mangoes (frozen is fine)
1 cup jaggery (substitute by brown sugar)

2 tbsp. cardamom
1 tbsp. fennel
1/2 tbsp. black salt

1 large pinch saffron

Recipe (Panha Pulp)

Note: Raw mangoes are found in the frozen section of most Indian stores.

Cut up the mangoes if you have fresh ones. Otherwise combine the frozen mangoes, the jaggery (or brown sugar) with some water and bring to a boil. Cook for about 12 minutes at medium heat until the mangoes are tender. (You'll only need about 6-7 minutes for the frozen ones).

Meanwhile, combine the cardamom, fennel and black salt and grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder.

Take the mangoes off the heat and add the spices (including saffron) to it. Let it sit for about 2-3 minutes.

Put the mixture in a blender and blend really fine.

Pass the pulp through a fine sieve and store. This will easily last 2-3 weeks in your refrigerator. More if you freeze it.

Recipe (Panha)

Take 2-3 tbsp. of the panha pulp and combine with ice and cold water. Mix thoroughly and consume. You can add some more salt and/or sugar to taste.

Pigs in English

It's pretty astonishing how many animal words in English are derived from pig — hedgehog, guinea pig, porcupine (thorny pig), porpoise (pork fish). warthog, aardvark (earth pig).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Golden Beet & Beet Greens Soup

This is the ultimate meta-recipe for a simple soup based on the barest minimum of ingredients.

The modern-day conception is unmistakably French although soups of this nature undoubtedly floated all around Europe before the codification of national cuisines in the 19th century.

They rely on only a handful of ingredients for flavoring and they can be tailored to both the seasons and the occasion. The soup can be made limpid and elegant or hearty and robust using just a few tricks.

The recipe at its heart is simple. Onions and/or related alliums — leeks, garlic, shallots are sautéed in olive oil till they are golden. Then water (or a clear broth) is added and the mixture brought to a boil. To this are added some vegetables which are cooked until tender. The vegetables (typically root vegetables) add their own flavor to the broth. At the last minute, finely chiffonaded greens are added and the soup is taken off the heat and served.

The recipe is so extraordinarily simple that naturally the CC needs to explain it in copious detail.

Simplicity frequently belies an underlying deep complexity.

The allium family, of which onions are a member of, are rich in volatile sulfur compounds. This is what causes their pungency and all the tearing. Only a small amount of molecules make their way to your eye but it's enough for you to start crying. It's a defense mechanism to prevent them from being eaten by animals but, of course, we humans figured a work around.


The flavor is coming from the sautéeing of the alliums. The sulfur compound that causes the tearing (1-propenyl sulfenic acid)  converts in the presence of heat into another compound (3-mercapto-2-methlylpentan-1-ol) that is strongly present in meat broth. This is perceived to our tongues in the presence of salt as a very strong savory flavor. We're using alliums but our tongues and stomach are screaming  "MEAT!!!".

This is why many cuisines worldwide use onions as the base of any recipe. It also shows how strongly the evolution of our tongue and diet has relied on meat, the last few thousand years of modern-day vegetarianism notwithstanding.

The addition of vegetables to this broth increases the savory quotient and results in an intensely flavored broth. The greens add complexity, nutrition, textural and visual interest.

The vegetables are almost always paired with their corresponding greens. Beets and beet greens. Turnips and turnip greens. Carrots and carrot fronds. Potatoes and dandelion greens (weeds). You get the idea.

This recipe is clearly a peasant recipe that got refined and passed upwards into the nobility. It's origins clearly betray the fact that it was meant as a recipe that doesn't waste anything. You use the beets and the greens that come up with the beets. The entire plant and no wastage. Something that should appeal to the present "back-to-the-past waste-not-want-not" movement.

Heft can be added in one of four different ways:
  • Broth instead of water.
  • Cooked beans which add more protein.
  • Soup poured over stale bread.
  • Sprinkling of parmesan on top (more umami.)
The plainest recipe works superbly as a first course in an elegant meal. The recipe with all the bells and whistles performs perfectly as a light but nutritiously complete one-pot meal. It works particularly well as the ideal light lunch.

For the record, the CC once made the lightest alternative for his mom as part of a three-course lunch and he was greeted with, "I want a second helping."

This is a meta-recipe that clearly belongs in the Pantheon of the Greats.


(serves 2)

2 small golden beets with greens attached
2 onions
1 head spring garlic

3 cups water

sea salt
black pepper (lots!)

1/2 cup white beans pre-cooked (optional)
4 slices stale bread (optional)
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano (optional)


Note 1: The recipe is made with golden beets because it respects the "clean" broth look that this recipe entails. The water has a light golden color. Regular beets would work but they would color the broth pink. The recipe has a clear limpid texture even though that's not obvious in the picture above.

Note 2: For a more elegant presentation while adding heft, make some parmesan toasts.

Separate the beets from the greens. Cut out the central stem of each frond retaining just the leafy green part.

Peel the beets and chop into flat medium-thick rings.

Chop the onions into quarter rings. Chop the garlic into slivers.

Sautée the onions and garlic in some olive oil at medium heat. Add the black pepper. When they are golden (but not colored) add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down. Add the beets and beans (if using) and let cook covered for about 6-7 minutes at medium heat until the beets are done.

Taste the broth for salt and add as much as necessary.

Once more bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Add the greens and turn the heat off. Let them sit for 1 minute.

Serve at once over bread (if using) with parmesan (if using).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Anchovy School


This is cool.

Is it wrong that it also makes me hungry?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rouz Jerbi (Riz Djerbian, Tunisian Spinach Rice)

This is one of the strangest yet most awesome recipes that the CC has seen.

When the CC first encountered it he was mystified. Wouldn't 50+ minutes of steaming turn the vegetables into mush? Was he getting something wrong?

No, he was just forgetting something.

Rice is deeply hygroscopic.

It will absorb moisture like nobody's business so you need to store rice in a humidity-free environment. In fact, it is so hygroscopic that if you ever drop your cellphone inside water and it doesnt' work, first dry it out and then put it inside a sealed bag filled with dry uncooked rice. Chances are it will work in a few days.

The CC has given this advice to quite a few people and they were just baffled. The CC argued, "What do you have to lose? A few cups of cheap rice, right?" Right down to the last man and woman, the smartphones have come back to life. One friend whose young daughter had mastered the art of grabbing his smartphone and throwing it in the toilet particularly appreciated the CC.

Science. It works, bitches!

The recipe is from the island of Djerba in Tunisia. The CC has provided the French spelling as well since Tunisia was a French Protectorate and you are more likely to encounter the dish under that name.

In this recipe, a mélange of dry rice, spinach, parsley, vegetables, chickpeas, optional meat, and a ton of spices are steamed for about 50 minutes. The rice does most of the absorption (including the liquid given off by the spinach and vegetables) and what you get is a perfectly steamed mixture that is intensely flavored and smells magical.

The dish can be extremely spicy but you can control the heat with the amount of harissa that you add to it. It has a slow burn.

It's not a hard dish in the least. You could do the prep in 30 minutes but you will need to endure two phases of steaming with by a precise interlude where you turn everything over and recommence.

Just think two de-stressing cocktails because minus the prep and the tiny amount of the interlude, you're not exactly working very hard. Even the prep is easy.

A steamer works perfectly here but the CC improvised since he has none in his apartment. The recipe is quite forgiving.

You absolutely need a long-grained rice. Short varieties are not going to work in this dish.


1 1/2 cups long-grained rice (e.g. basmati)

2 large onions (chopped fine)
4 cloves garlic (chopped fine)
1 large potato (cubed into large pieces)
1 large carrot (cubed into medium pieces)
1 large tomato (chopped into fine pieces)
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup peas

2 large bunches of spinach (chopped into fine slivers)
1 large bunch parsley (chopped fine)

chicken/lamb/beef ‐ (optional) ‐ cubed into small pieces

1/2 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup olive oil

1-2 tbsp. harissa

4 tbsp. coriander seeds (roasted and ground fine)
1 tbsp. caraway seeds (roasted and ground fine)
1 tbsp. turmeric
2 tsp. red chilli powder (or to taste)


First, toss the rice with the tomato paste and olive oil and mix thoroughly. The goal is to coat the rice with the oil to make sure that each grain remains separate. This is the aesthetic hallmark of Arab cuisine which you will see everywhere from Northern Africa to Iran to India.

Then you just add all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix them thoroughly.

The mixture must then be steamed in a tightly-sealed steamer for about 25 minutes. At that mark, you must pull it out into a bowl, very gently mix everything together and steam it again for about 20-25 minutes. (Add more water to the bottom if necessary.)

The length of the second steaming depends on the age of your rice. The older it is, the less you will need to cook it.

Rouz Jerbi

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hiyashi Chūka (冷やし中華)

Literally "Chilled Chinese", this is the summer dish in Japan that only shows up on menus when the summer heat turns oppressive. Restaurants love it, since except for the ramen, the dish consists only of assembly. All the components are pre-made and chilled down ahead of time.

It's exactly as rock-star as it sounds. Perfect cold dish for the insane summer heat just like this week here.

There is an ugly fact here that is going to upset most readers.

Precision of effect frequently requires substantial expenditure of means.

Each piece needs to be precisely made, cut up, and "chilled" and then the whole gets put together. It's not at all hard but it does go against that "effortless" summer dish mojo.

So why is the CC sabotaging his own readership with something that takes effort?

The answer is the sheer awesomeness of the dish with ingredients that can be stored for another day.

What is it?

It's cold noodles with a umami-laden gingery sweet-and-salty sauce and cold toppings. Unlike salads, the sauce sits at the bottom of the dish. You mix whatever ingredients you like for the "next slurp" and, let's face it, you need to slurp the ramen, people! The ingredients have been arranged at the top for visual interest not for "mixing". Each mixed-up slurp is going to be unique and umami-laden thanks to the personal mixing and the sauce.

The dish can only be described as "cold magic for a hot summer's day".

It is absolutely modern and in spite of its name it's no more "Chinese" than the CC is. It's Japanese through and through. The name is advertising. Every culture likes "foreign" stuff because exotic stuff sells and this dish fits the bill. It could never have existed before the age of refrigeration. The tastes are purely Japanese and only the noodles are "kinda sorta vaguely" Chinese. Don't let the name fool you.

(There's a general trend here. Names of dishes that contain a country/place rarely originate in the country/place named. For example, French Fries, Chinese Chop-Suey, Pad Thai, Baked Alaska, Hamburger, etc. This list is long!)

The dish follows the rules of washoku (和食) even though it is not really traditional. Five flavors; five colors; visual interest.

Typically, you would work with five ingredients plus the ramen but the CC had most of the stuff in his apartment; he was bored, and he is a little bit crazy (Really?!? Who'd think that?)

Let's enumerate the ingredients starting from the "6 o' clock position".
  • Simmered lotus roots.
  • Simmered shiitake mushrooms in savory sauce.
  • Wakame.
  • Eggs cooked "mollet".
  • Pickled carrots with sesame.
  • Crab-stick.
  • (Egg).
  • Crab-stick.
  • Cucumber.
In the center we have cherry tomatoes, strips of nori and "Chinese chives" (nira - にら).

There is one deviation that makes it "modern modern" (to ape the modern way of talking.) Traditionally, the eggs would have been cooked in a Japanese-style omelette and cut into strips. The rest is pretty much conventional.

As pointed out the dish is a game of assembly. Each of the ingredients was cooked or cut up and chilled in the refrigerator. When the time came to serve the dish, the ramen was cooked and quickly chilled in ice-water and the dish assembled. It's also easiest if you just chill the plates in the freezer ahead of time. That way everything stays cold.

Everything serves two but you are welcome to make more and store it. Each cooked component stores really well and you can always quickly cut up the other stuff in a few minutes.

Also if you read the recipe carefully, the sequence in which to make things is clearly to make the dashi first, then simmer the crab sticks, then the lotus roots, then add the ingredients to make the mushrooms, and use the reduced sauce as a component in the dipping sauce. That way everything gets used up and no flavors are wasted.

This sort of complex sequencing is really the heart of many "hard" dishes. In order to not repeat things, you must sequence them out correctly up-front.



8 cherry tomatoes
1 small cucumber
Japanese-style pickled carrots (just use fresh if you don't have this)
4-5 Chinese chives


Cut the tomatoes in half. The cucumber, carrot and chives must be cut into long thin strips. Set aside and chill.



1/2 tsp dried wakame
1 sheet nori


In a small bowl add cold water to the dried wakame. The nori must be cut into fine strips. You can drain the wakame just before assembly.

Crab Sticks, Lotus Roots & Egg


2 cups dashi
4-5 crab-sticks
1 small lotus root.
1 egg


The crab sticks are generally frozen. Bring the dashi to a boil and cook them for about 3 minutes. Lift out and set aside.

Add the lotus roots to the dashi and let them cook for about 4-5 minutes. Lift them out and set aside.

Cook the eggs mollet-style in a separate pot with some water. 7 minutes. Immediately plunge them into an ice bath. Peel when cooled and set aside. You can slice them right before serving.

Simmered Mushrooms


8 dried shiitake mushrooms.
1 cup dashi
4 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. brown sugar


Combine the ingredients and bring to a boil. Let it cook uncovered for about 8 minutes until the shiitake mushrooms are cooked through. You can reduce the sauce and use it in the dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce


1/3 cup dashi
2 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. black sugar
2 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. grated ginger


The measurements are a little approximate. Mix everything together like a vinaigrette. You will need to taste it and make sure it has the right balance of sweet and salty tastes. The dashi will provide the intense umami.



2 packages frozen ramen
2 tbsp. roasted sesame seeds


NOTE: The frozen ramen available in the Japanese grocery store are the preferred ones. They are the ones made traditional-style with alkaline water. They will look pale yellow.

Roast the sesame seeds on a medium-hot skillet until they are golden and set aside.

Prepare an ice-bath. Then in a large pot, bring water to a boil and add the frozen ramen. Cook as per the instructions. The ones the CC had said 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Yes, this level of precision matters.

Immediately drain them and plunge them in the ice-bath to ensure that they stop cooking and chill down. Drain.

Now assemble everything. Ramen in the center. Pour the sauce over it. Add the toppings all around. and on top. Strew the sesame seeds all over. Serve at once.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Tomato Bomb

The CC loves savory cocktails particularly when they involve tomatoes.

The first time the CC had this particular beer cocktail at a Mexican restaurant, he knew he was tasting something other than the salt on the rim. The liquid had an intense umami flavor which was from something other than the tomatoes.

The answer which the CC observed by watching the bartender is sure to shock the "gourmandistas". He was using Maggi seasoning which has an intense umami flavor. The alternative from reading recipes online is Worcestershire sauce which has a similar umami flavor. Vegetable bouillon cubes, crushed and dissolved in hot water would work too.

The umami synergy is created by the salt, the tomatoes and the seasoning which are amplifying the taste beyond the sum of its parts.



(makes one cocktail - scale as necessary)

1 lager
2 tbsp. tomato purée
1 tsp hot sauce (Tapatío works great)
dash of Maggi seasoning
1 lime

fine sea salt
finely ground chili powder

1 lime (for the glass rims)


Squeeze the lime into a flat bowl. This is to rim the glasses with the salt and chilli seasoning.

In a separate flat bowl or plate, mix the fine sea salt and chili powder and set aside.

First, dip the glass rim into the lime above. Then rotate it in the second mixture till the rim is coated.

Add the tomato purée, juice of 1 line, hot sauce, and seasoning into the glass. Top with the lager and stir briefly.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Basil, Basil, Basil

Now that it's summer (finally!), it's time to talk about basil.

The Greek name for basil (ocimum) which is where the scientific name comes from "to smell" — clearly the principal virtue of this herb.

The English word "basil" also comes from the Greek and it means "monarch" — entirely appropriate for this "king of herbs".

1. Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum = O. basilicum)

This is the traditional variety used in Italian cooking. It's mild and most known for its characteristic aroma. This is what you need to make pesto.

2. Thai Basil (O. basilicum var. thyrisflorum)

It's a variant of sweet basil and it's called bai horapa in Thai. This is the predominant type used in Thai cooking.

This has a strong peppery taste and at least chez CC this is frequently preferred even in Italian dishes that call for black pepper. It has a muscular taste that goes particularly well with pasta dishes that contain vegetables. It's too aggressive for pesto however. For that, you will need to stick with sweet basil.

It's also more heat stable under the classic stir-fry methods of Thai cooking under which sweet basil discolors rapidly. Carefully washed and wrapped in paper towels in a bag, it lasts a lot longer in the fridge as well with its smell intact.

3. Holy Basil (O. sanctum, O. tenuiflorum)

It's called bai kaprao and it's also used in Thai cooking.

It has a strong aggressive anise-like flavor which is a variant to the above. Also used in stir-fries that need a strong taste.

One of the stranger things that the CC notes is that even though this variety is completely widespread in India and even "worshipped", it doesn't make its way into any dish. Devout Hindus will eat one leaf daily and even plant it but it doesn't get eaten. "Basil chutney" rocks the world with samosas and the like and the CC offers up this idea gratis to enterprising Indian chefs.

Followers of politics might be amused that one of the "biggest" controversies in Thailand in 2013 was the banning of the dish pad kaprao (stir-fry with holy basil) in army canteens because of the aggressive flavor spreading throughout. Entirely rational journalists asked why the ventilation fans were not up to the task and a parallel was drawn to the coup. The army commander-in-chief had to personally make a statement that he too loved pad kaprao and he had nothing to do with the ban.

Moral: Men will wage war and put up with military coups but never mess with their beloved foods. That way lies defeat.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup

It's such a classic American food combination that it's practically a cliché.

The CC was desperately craving it on today's dark and stormy morning and nothing else would do. Even if the ingredients were not already present, he would've braved the elements to get them. Cravings will do that.

Recipes follow but first we are going to discuss the origins of the dish and what makes it so "classic".

The easier part to start with is the "grilled cheese". While toasted bread and melted cheese and the combination go back into antiquity — we have evidence since at least Roman times — the modern incarnation dates back to 1920's America.

America has consistently been a leader in food technology of both the wildly innovative variety (and it's dark sinister underbelly) since its beginnings. Everything from grain silos to rail transportation that allowed it to supply Midwestern grain to 19th-century Europe cheaper than it could manufacture itself speaks to the country's muscular prowess in food innovation.

The innovation in this case was two-fold.

One was the invention of bread-slicing machines by Otto Rohwedder of Iowa. The other was the invention of processed cheese patented by James Kraft. Cheese went from a perishable product to something that could be canned. (The CC has a strong memory of opening a can of Kraft cheese sometime in his childhood.)

The eponym "grilled cheese" didn't exist till the 1960's or so. It was all "toasted cheese sandwich"  or "melted cheese sandwich" before that. The origins are ancient, remember? It's just the speed of preparation that was new.

The popularity really took off after the Kraft corporation invented "Singles" sometime in the late-1940's but it really took off when supermarkets stocked them in the mid-1960's. The convenience factor took off.

And thus the grilled cheese became the best invention since sliced bread (sic).

You can guess where the rest of the story is going.

Tomato soup is also a reasonably classic idea. It just follows the template of most vegetable soups from ancient times even though the tomato is a New World product. The difference between other soups and that of the tomato is its absurd umami. Its popularity is entirely unsurprising.

The popularity comes from the innovations and marketing efforts of the Campbell Soup Company. It became something that you didn't have to work too hard. You just had to open a can and heat it up. Convenience once again.

But what about the combination? Why does it work?

You could argue that it is "comfort food" but then that begs the question, "What makes comfort food comforting in the first place?"

We have a partial answer to that. As a general rule, comfort food is high in carbohydrates and fats.

This dish doesn't follow that template directly. For starters, the cheese has proteins and the soup is made with stock. The bread is insubstantial compared to the "high protein" factor.

Comfort food also has a strong "memory factor" as being something from your childhood that you loved which also brings us to the analogous question, "Why did you love it in your childhood in the first place?"

Chez CC, we are strong believers in ur-reasons not reasons which just push along one concept in favor of a differently named one thus passing the buck but explaining absolutely nothing.

The "magic" of the combination comes from three factors.

Firstly, the absurd interplay of umami between three ingredients — the cheese, the tomatoes and the stock that is used to make it. As we have noted, the combined umami coming from animal products and from vegetable products has an amplifying effect. In this case, the cheese and stock on one hand and the tomatoes on the other.

There are specialized umami receptors on our tongues and if they fire at some response from either cheese or tomato they will fire between 15-20x that amount at the combination. The sum is greater than the parts. You will perceive the combination to be extraordinarily savory.

Secondly, there is still the high-ish carbohydrate and fat factor which definitely makes the dish appealing. Also, there's the combination of salty cheese, sweet and sour tomatoes. Your taste buds are firing from a lot of combinations.

Lastly, it's the textural interplay. The toasted crunchy bread, the ooey-gooey melted cheese and the wet tomato soup. They each play a role. No two bites will be exactly alike just because of the variation in dunking time and eating time. Each bite is just slightly different enough to provide and sustain interest.

Children would particularly appreciate the dish since it doesn't have any bitter elements at all. This is what most likely accounts for the memory factor.

These days we have come full circle from the production of these dishes. We balk at opening a can for the soup or using crappy cheese and the dish isn't even hard to make. It took the CC no more than 30 minutes. Of course, we have the modern-day convenience of immersion blenders, dishwashers, and the like.

To understand the seemingly-backward nature of this, you'd have to first understand that the three products talked about above were very different 70 years than they are today. The tomato soup was really tomato, broth, salt and pepper. The breads had long fermentations. The cheese was actually cheese. There were no preservatives and the shelf-life was similarly constrained. As time went on the products just got worse and worse and today it bears no resemblance whatsoever to its original conception.

And hence it's back to the past.

The CC is not a purist. The tomatoes came from a can but they were real tomatoes and salt. Nothing else. The bread is one made with a long ferment but it's a standard Pullman bread. The cheese is the only place where the CC went "fancy" but that's because he had all three in his refrigerator.

The recipe is going to be exactly as good as the ingredients that go into it. Even poor ingredients will make it work but good ones will turn it into magic.

The combination is exactly as magical as the CC remembers it.

Tomato Soup

(serves 4)


l large onion (or 4 shallots)
4 cloves garlic
1 32-oz San-Marzano canned tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock (read notes below for substitutions)

2 tbsp. unsalted cultured butter
2 tbsp. olive oil

1 sprig sage

sugar (optional - read below!)
water (optional)



Heat up the butter and olive oil at medium heat. Sautée the onions and garlic in them for about 6-7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sage and the broth and bring to a low simmer. Add salt and pepper.

Skim the fat as it comes to the surface. Let it cook for about 20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, purée the mixture.

Taste it. You may need to add a little sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. Also additional salt and pepper. You may also need to thin the soup a little using some water. You can prepare it until this point ahead of time.

Reheat and bring it to a boil again. Serve.

Note: If you are vegetarian, instead of chicken stock, you must make a quick Japanese dashi using just kombu. You absolutely need the umami. Plain water is not going to cut it and vegetable broth would change the flavor towards a more bitter element which is not what you want either.

Grilled Cheese


8 slices of good bread

1/2 cup cheddar
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano
1 cup gruyère

salted cultured butter


Note: The tomato soup calls for unsalted cultured butter but this one calls for the salted variety. Just sprinkle salt on the buttered side otherwise. Yes, the CC demands some perfection.

Shred the cheese using a grater.

Classically, this is made using a skillet but it's time-consuming work. The oven works just as well for a larger crowd.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Butter one side of each of the 8 slices of bread. Assemble them on a baking sheet. Between two slices you put in the grated cheese. The buttered slices are on the outside. Yes, this is messy work.

Put the pan in the oven for 10 minutes.

At the ten-minute mark, flip each of the sandwiches and put them back in the oven for 6 minutes.

Slice them diagonally. Yes, this matters. It makes the dunking work in a clean and elegant fashion.

(Sorry Mom, you are still not forgiven for slicing it wrong occasionally but you need to know that the CC had good intuition even as a kid but now can express the same fact analytically.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On Never Joking in New York

A few months ago the CC went out with a Greek friend for lunch. The restaurant was by a fancy Greek chef and the CC started joking that the chef's cook book opens with cooking a whole lamb.

He remarked, "When am I going to roast a whole lamb in my apartment?"

The friend misunderstood the jest, "Let me know when you want to do it. I own a spit and can order you the fresh lamb."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Som Tam (Thai Green Papaya Salad)

This is a classic street recipe from North-East Thailand (Isaan) that has become so popular that it you can find it all over Thailand now.

It combines the classic Thai tastes — hot, sweet, salty, sour. It's a textural masterpiece and it has umami like no other. It's also visually impressive — something that is most important from the sales perspective of street food.

It is important to understand that the Thai conception of a "salad" is different from Western expectations. It's just a side dish. It might be topped by "pickled blue crab" or "fried pork". It just acts as a base register.

Note the seamless integration of the entirely New World tomato into the mixture. The reason is clear. It's umami as the CC has explained before.

Seasonings in the Thai conception are a little hard to give precise instructions for. The ingredients are precise enough but the quantities rely on "balance" — something that can only be learned via experience. You keep adding counterbalances until it all makes "sense". This sounds vague but it really is not. It's taking into account the variability in the ingredients that make up the mixture.

(Experienced eaters and makers of most South-Asian street food — Indian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Filipino — will probably recognize what the CC is saying a lot easier.)

A very quick note about some of the techniques. You need a mortar and pestle which is easy enough. The long beans must be quite young because they are eaten raw. This is simply not possible where the CC lives so a quick blanching is in order. It's the only way to make them edible. Fidelity to the source can only go so far when practicality drives the truck crashing through the door.


1 small raw papaya

8 long beans (cut into 2" lengths)
16-24 cherry tomatoes

1/3 cup dried shimp
1/3 cup peanuts (roasted)

2-4 Thai green chillies (sliced really thin)

2 cloves garlic
2-3 tbsp. palm sugar (substitute with brown sugar)
4 tbsp. nahm pla (fish sauce)
2 limes


If your beans are young, ignore this. Otherwise blanch them for no more than 60 seconds in boiling water and put them in an ice-cold bath. Drain and set aside.

Make the sauce. The garlic needs to be finely chopped. Add the garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Taste to make sure it has the right balance. You may need to add more of the palm sugar, fish sauce or lime juice.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves.

The papaya needs to be shredded into thin strips. Either a mandoline or a grater make quick work.

In a mortar and pestle, add the papaya, long beans, shrimp and roasted peanuts. Pound lightly to crush the ingredients just to release some juices and to break up the shrimp and peanuts a bit.

Toss everything together and serve at once.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Boiled Peanuts

This recipe is so rock-star around the globe that it's hard to believe that it's only a few hundred years old.

Peanuts are ancient. We have evidence. They come from the Andes and date back about 5000 years.

However, their modern incarnation dates back to the Spanish conquest of Hispaniola (modern-day: Haiti and Dominican Republic) in 1502.

The nuts spread quickly across the globe. First to Europe and thence to South-East Asia, China and Africa. They also played a disproportionate role in the slave trade. Many Africans consider the peanut to be "native" but the CC would like to disenchant them of this entirely fictitious notion.

The peanut is not a "nut". It's really a legume more akin to peas and beans than to walnuts and hazelnuts.

If you've never had boiled peanuts, you are totally missing out. This is one of the great joys of life.

The CC presents three recipes from different parts around the globe. Add the ingredients and boil them with the peanuts. (A pressure cooker makes quick work but it's not strictly speaking necessary.)

Eat them with beer. Champagne if you want to get fancy. It's not exactly rocket surgery. But it's delicious.


1 lb. whole raw peanuts
6 cups water

Ingredients 1: Classic

4 tbsp. salt

Ingredients 2: Chinese

4 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. palm sugar (substitute with brown sugar)

2 star anise
1 small piece of cinnamon
4 cloves
2 dried red chillies

Ingredients 3: Thai

4 tbsp. nahm pla (fish sauce)
2 tbsp. palm sugar (substitute with brown sugar)

2 Thai green chillies (slit lengthwise)


Boil the peanuts with the ingredients. About 45 minutes. Test to see. This is hard to predict.

(In a pressure cooker, it takes about 10 minutes.)

Serve with beer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pea Soup with Miso

The weather has still been unseasonably cool out here and this soup is a perfect little pick-me-up. It's equally versatile served warm or cold and it's a cinch to make.


1 leek (both white and green parts - chopped)
4 cups peas (frozen is fine)

4 cups dashi (or chicken broth)
4 tbsp. white miso
3 tbsp. mirin (substitute with 1 tbsp. sugar)

1 scallion (finely chopped for garnish)

2 tbsp. butter

black pepper


Note: You don't need to add salt because the miso is salty enough.

Heat up the butter in a heavy pot. Fry the leeks until they are softened. Add the peas, black pepper and the broth and let it cook until the peas are tender. About 10 minutes.

Purée the mixture and pass it through a sieve. Toss out the solids.

Reheat the mixture. In a small bowl, add a little bit of the broth to the miso and let it dissolve. Add the mixture back into the broth. Thin the soup if desired. Taste for salt (you shouldn't need any.)

Do not boil the miso.

Serve at once. Garnish with the scallions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sinigang na halaan

This is a Filipino meta-recipe.

You can have Sinigang na X where X can be a large variety of different kinds of meats and seafood. The three classic versions for the X would be pork, chicken and bangus respectively.

A word about bangus (milkfish). It's a fish that was traditionally found in the sea but can grow in brackish water. It's one of the older examples of aquaculture — at least 800 years old in the Philippines. The fish are bony — very bony and it's a skill to eat them.

Sinigang is a sour clear broth with one or more sources of meat and/or seafood, a ton of vegetables, and one souring agent. There is a purity of flavor coming from one very clear-cut souring source which neatly dovetails into the umami of the broth from the meat/seafood.

It is traditionally eaten with rice. The rice is frequently topped with fried garlic and/or fresh scallions but these are all details.

There are traditional recipes but there are clearly two dimensions to the dish — what meat/seafood you choose and what souring agent you choose.

Filipinos love sour food. This is a necessity forced by a tropical climate and a few millennia of no refrigeration turned into a cultural trait. It's one of the few ways to preserve food in a tropical climate so that there is no wastage. There is a difference though. The souring agents are cooked through. It gives them a "rounded mellow" flavor rather than the aggressive hit of acidity that you would get without cooking. There has to be enough sourness to wake up the taste buds but not so much as to make it pucker and inedible.

The list of souring agents is endless — vinegar made from all sorts of sources (coconut, palm, sugarcane, pineapples, etc.), tamarind, calamansi, kamias, santol, green mangoes, green guava, star fruit, green pineapples, even leaves of various plants, etc. This list barely even scratches the surface of this subject. The Philippines probably has the longest list of souring agents of any culture that the CC knows about.

Needless to say the souring agents are not substitutable for each other. It does matter whether you are making a sinigang with a hearty ingredient like pork or delicate ones like seafood. Santol which has an astringent tannic component would be most inappropriate for a seafood sinigang while almost all delicate fruit-based versions would work wonderfully.

There are also some classic touches about the choices of vegetables in a sinigang — a starchy root (taro, banana hearts or "New World" potatoes), some "green protein" typically long beans, and some greens in many many different forms — everything from sili (chili leaves) to bok choy, kang kong, and malunggay. Needless to say once tomatoes were discovered and transferred to the "Old World", they became irresistible additions for reasons we have covered on the blog before.

The ingredients are rotated with the combinatorial game that we have talked about extensively on the blog — you will see corn, carrots, radishes, eggplants and all kinds of other vegetables in there. There's a pairing bias though. You see lighter vegetables with seafood and more aggressive ones like eggplants with meat which makes logical sense based upon the palate profile.

Make no mistake though. The star is the sour broth.

One last word about the use of Filipino-style fish sauce called patis. It's basically the same concept as the Roman garum or the Thai nahm pla but it's arguably different. The CC would have no trouble distinguishing it in a blind tasting. You could substitute but it won't be the same.

Just like in Thai recipes, you don't add salt to the dish. The salt comes via the addition of the patis. Additionally, for this recipe with clams, they will give off plenty of salty liquid. Traditionally, the patis is always added towards the end where you can control the level of saltiness. (It also adds substantial umami to the dish.)

This makes a perfectly good soup even in the absence of rice which is heresy as far as the Filipino world is concerned but the CC can live with that.

After all this long explanatory buildup, this is not a difficult recipe. It's what Filipino moms make when they are too lazy to make something. It's really so simple as to defy its excellence.

Sinigang na halaan


1 large onion (sliced)
1" ginger (chopped thinly)
2 pieces ginger (chopped thinly)
1 chili (sliced lengthwise - optional)

2 small tomatoes (chopped into large pieces)
24 clams
2 cups tamarind water (read below)
2 cups water

1 lotus root (cut into 1/3" slices)
2 cups long beans (sliced into 2" pieces)
4 pieces baby bok choy (tough bottom parts cut off)
2 sprigs chili leaves (sili leaves)

patis (to taste)
vegetable oil


Note: Various markets (Filipino, Indian, Thai) carry frozen "green fruits" and both fresh and dried tamarind. They are perfectly excellent in making the various sour broths because the textural component is not important in the least.

First make the tamarind water. Heat up 2 1/2 cups of water with tamarind pods and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Let it sit in the cooling water. When it has cooled down, separate the water from the pods using a strainer. Discard the solids. Retain the tamarind water.

Heat up the oil in a sturdy pot. Add the onions, ginger, garlic and chili (if using) and fry for a bit till soft. Roughly 6 minutes.

Add the tamarind water, the water and bring to a boil. Add the lotus roots and let cook for 3 minutes. Add the long beans and let cook for 4 minutes.

Add the clams. Let them cook till they open. Roughly 8 minutes.

Turn off the heat.

At the very end, add the tomatoes, the bok choy and the chili leaves and let them sit for a few minutes to wilt. Add the patis to taste.

Serve immediately with rice (or not.)