Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Spicy Alcohol Burn

It's always entertaining to learn some brand new linguistic content.

Historically, the Japanese adjective for spicy -- karai (辛い) -- didn't mean spicy as we understand it now.

It referred to the burn of raw alcohol as it went down your throat. By extension to pain in general and hence to the relatively modern concept of spicy.

Both mustard and horseradish are 辛い because they have that "burn".

A smooth alcohol without that raw burn wouldn't be characterized as such.

Such linguistic terms are interesting. The CC referred to the conceptual category of "smooth" which only makes sense in English but in Japanese it would be "sweet".

Saturday, October 13, 2018


Game Market (Source: LACMA, Los Angeles.)

Fish Market
(Source: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.)

Originally a set of four paintings (along with Vegetable Market and Fruit Market), these are masterpieces by Frans Synders in the Dutch still-life tradition.

The peacock feathers don't come across that well in rendition. You will have to visit LA to see the gorgeous plumage in person. (And yes, peacocks and swans were definitely eaten in the middle ages!)

The CC particularly loves the little cats (and kittens!) all clawing away at the fish and meat.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Tricky Transformations (or the Panic of Your Senses)

Every year the CC goes through the same ritual at the end of summer. Making tomato paste.

And each year he goes through the exact same set of demons. It's time to exorcise the demons and put them to rest.

First, the CC always uses too small a vessel to boot up the process. Today he used the most massive vessel that is available at his disposal and yet inevitably, it was still too small. However, for better or worse it's (mostly) been fixed.

Second, the CC doesn't trust the "clock". Just let the stove do its job.

Thirdly, the CC panics midway through — it's all water not tomatoes and it's never going to turn into a paste. This is completely an error of the senses. There really is this sense half-way through that it's all water and it's all going to evaporate but suddenly it changes phases (in the chemistry sense) and you're dealing with paste.

The final panic which is real is that you really must stir it towards the end otherwise the sugars have a tendency to burn. That at least is real.

At the end of the day, the CC has a deliverable tomato paste.

When the icy fingers of February approach, the CC will be prepared.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Eight-Vegetable Mac-n-Cheese

So the CC posted on his Instagram a suitably random post about how even vegetable-hating kids love the CC's mac-n-cheese. Lo, to his surprise, there was an inundation of requests for the recipe.

The recipe will be provided but since chez CC we tend to be of analytic bent, let's back up a little and ask ourselves a few questions.

Why is what the CC doing working for kids?

Why exactly?

Here are the claims:

[1] Kids are irrational.
[2] Kids won't eat anything green.
[3] Kids hate vegetables.

These are empirical observations that can be backed up in spades. The CC is not going to contest these observations and concerns. They seem to be real.

They are also demonstrably false as the CC's recipe would contest. After all, the CC is working empirically in the real world against a real set of kids and it's working great!

So let's back up one more time and ask why is this even happening?


There are two plausible answers - one evolutionary and one cultural.

Evolutionarily, all bitter flavors are banned. There's a very good reason for this. Bitter flavors generally speaking correspond to alkaloid poisons. It takes a very sophisticated palate to start appreciating bitter flavors in vegetables — okra, eggplants, broccoli, kale, spinach, brussels sprouts — even beer and wine!

Culturally, basically kids will eat whatever you shove in their face. Shove enough spicy food slowly amped up and they will learn an appreciation for spicy flavors. Shove bland food in their face and they'll only eat chicken nuggets.

So now we're ready to proceed — kids will eat complex flavors as long as you keep the vegetables on the "sweeter" side and the flavors "familiar".

Both of these words are basically garbage - "sweeter" is all relative - if you roast brussels sprouts properly, they'll turn "sweet" and of course, and as the Greeks might've told you in 3rd century BCE, all of "familiarity" is in the eye of the beholder.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's proceed.

What we're gonna do is pick vegetables that kids perceive (falsely) as sweet and we're gonna cut them into small enough pieces so that they don't stand out (very chef-like) and we're gonna go back to the two classical evolutionary devices — carbohydates and fats.

We're also going to the use full panoply of French and Italian classical cooking devices to make a superior meal — yes, that means understanding bechamél and sauce Mornay. Escoffier to the rescue!

Hey, think of the kids!!!

You wouldn't expect otherwise with the CC and yet, not so hard. Also, it's eminently available for assembly ahead of time. Just pop it in the oven later.


(serves 6)

2 cups macaroni

2 tbsp butter (no substitutions!)
4 cups whole milk (no substitutions!)
4 tbsp flour

2 cups gruyère
2 cups parmigiano-reggiano

1 large zucchini (diced)
1 large carrot (diced)
1 cup french beans (diced)
1 cup broad beans (slivered)
1 cup fava beans
1 cup peas
1 cup cauliflower florets (cut as small as realistic)
1 cup celery (skin shaved and then diced - skin shaving is not optional!)

fresh rosemary/sage (slivered finely - optional)


panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)


Cook the macaroni in heavily salted water until done. Depends on your brand. Roughly 12 minutes.

Make the bechamél. Heat the butter in a pan. Add the flour and let it "cook" until it is golden. Immediately add the milk. Let it cook completely till it thickens.

(What is really happening is that the milk proteins are denaturing.)

Add the salt and pepper. Add the rosemary/sage (optional.) Taste and adjust. Don't forget the cheese will add extra salt.

Toss in the vegetables one at a time in the order of "hardness" - first the carrots, then the french beans and broad beans, then the fava beans, then the cauliflower and zucchini and celery - finally the peas.

Add the cheese to turn the bechamél into what is technically called sauce Mornay — you can do it at the same time as adding the macaroni. Toss it all together.

Layer in a baking dish. sprinkle heavily with the panko breadcrumbs all over.

The next step depends on your baking dish.

If you have a shallow baking dish, preheat your oven to 350° F. If it's deep (like the CC's), preheat to 400° F.

Cook the dish covered for 25 minutes. Cook uncovered so that the surface crisps for about 10-15 minutes. Check towards the end because there's a tendency of burning.

Serve with a crisp salad (for the adults).

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Shave the Celery!

Celery is a completely misunderstood vegetable mostly because people get the technical details wrong.

To fully appreciate it, you must shave it. Take the skin off. No different than a carrot (and not particularly hard either.)

After that, you get a very different vegetable. Very aromatic, even elegant, one that is completely worthy of a first course in a fine French meal.


(serves 4)

8 celery stalks (the best you can find - preferably celery hearts)

1 cup chicken stock (substitute by vegetarian dashi)




Skin each celery stalk using a potato peeler. Be careful because the tops are likely to break when you do that.

Cut each stalk into halves.

Poach the stock in the broth with the salt and pepper for about 8 minutes until the stalks are tender. Pull them out.

Mix the cream, vinegar, mustard with extra salt and pepper like a vinaigrette. Add water. It should be reasonably liquid. Poach the celery stalks into that and refrigerate.

This is best made the day before.

Serve as a first course.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Sopa de elote y calabazín

Mexican chefs think of soup as an all-purpose instrument not just a winter thing. In fact, in the dog days of summer when nobody feels like eating, soups work better than heavier meals.

This dish is only going to work at the height of summer when corn and zucchini are at their very best.  It relies on the very best of ingredients and the chicken broth must be homemade not store bought.

Epazote is an herb that divides. It has a stinky smell analogous to asafoetida but once you love it, you won't be able to live without it. It is claimed to have the same anti-flatulent effect as asafoetida and it's heavily used with beans, corn, and most interestingly, zucchini!

This dish is complexly spiced in that Mexican way with chili peppers but it's emphatically not hot. It's very mild and soothing and absolutely phenomenal in this summer heat.


6 ears of corn (stripped into kernels)
2 small zucchini (diced into even cubes)

1 large onion (diced)

3 sprigs epazote

3 cups chicken broth (substitute by water)
3 cups water


1 ancho chili
1 guajillo chili

"neutral" oil

1 lime quartered (to serve)
queso fresco (to serve)
crushed ancho chili (to serve)

Note 1: Since this is a summer dish, there were magnificent fresh onions in the market. This dish is a marvel with them. Use both the white parts and the green parts.

Note 2: Do not ignore the lime. This dish will not come "alive" until you squeeze it all over the soup.

Note 3: The reason to dilute the chicken broth is to make sure that the primary flavor is corn. In Mexico, they probably would go with straight chicken broth. However, the CC thinks that this tastes better.


First roast the two chilis on a dried skillet until they are puffed and mildly charred on both sides. Let them cool. Slit them apart and remove the seeds and the stem. Set aside.

In a large pot, heat up some oil and toss in the onions and let them fry for 5 minutes at a medium-low heat. Toss in the chilis and the corn and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the salt and pepper.

Add the epazote and the broth and water. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Pull the sprigs of epazote out. Don't worry too much if a few leaves fall off. That's part of the flavor.

With a hand-blender, blend the soup as fine as possible. You have two choices at this point. Strain the soup for an elegant product or leave it rustic.

The soup should take on a rust color because of the chili peppers.

Back in the pot, bring the mixture to a boil and add the diced zucchini and cook for about 8 minutes till they are cooked through.

Serve with the lime, the crumbled queso fresco and sprinkles of the crushed ancho chili.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

2-acetyl 1-pyrolline

Do you love Thai food?

Do you love fresh bread?

Do you love basmati or jasmine rice?

If so, you're in love with this particular molecule.

It amplifies itself in both Indian and Thai culture with their love of jasmine blossoms and pandanus leaves — both of which have the above molecule as a dominant fragrance — and which are added to rice to amp up the already existing fragrance.

Sanskrit literature has a tendency to have lovers' meetings beneath jasmine trees. The majority of Indian miniature paintings in the "romantic lovers' mode" feature jasmine trees. Even today, jasmine is the dominant flower for weddings in India.

Clearly in the modern parlance, 2-acetyl 1-pyrolline, you got game!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Scrambled Eggs with Green Peppercorns & Feta


(serves 2)

5-6 eggs

2 small shallots
1 tbsp green peppercorns (pickled in brine)

goat-milk feta (crumbled loosely)

pinch of black pepper


There are only two tricks here.

One is that half the green peppercorns must be loosely crushed in a mortar and pestle so that the scent pervades the eggs and the rest left whole to be crunchy.

The second one is two slightly under-salt the eggs since the salty feta will be sprinkled on top.

Heat up some butter in a pan. Add the shallots and the green peppercorns (crushed and whole.) You should have a amazingly rich smell come up through the pan. Add the eggs and scramble them into large curds until soft.

Serve at once sprinkling the feta sprinkled on top.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Constructing a Meal

(This article was written earlier but Blogger has a rather annoying "auto-save" feature and the article got deleted. The CC had to rewrite it from scratch.)

One of the things that perennially bugs the CC is that neither home chefs nor professional chefs give any insight whatsoever into how a meal is actually constructed.

This has something fundamentally to do with the "recipe" format of cookbooks. One really needs an entirely alternate model that works at the meal level.

Cookbooks also rely on the entirely unreliable fact that people just magically absorb knowledge by "osmosis" and "culture". Both of these seem to be demonstrably false assertions. Since one is not always granted the luxury of an Italian nonna or an Japanese obaachan and since kids are not born knowing complex culinary logic when yanked from the womb, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that all knowledge is learned.

That means one should be able to both teach it and learn it.

The CC is going to use himself as an example.

The only thing planned before the Saturday was that the meal would be Japanese and it would feature some form of clams - either asari gohan (= あさりご飯 = clam rice) or asari no miso dashijiru (= あさり味噌汁, clam miso soup.)

The CC arrived at the farmers' market on a frigid Saturday morning only to find that most of the vendors were missing. It was already turning into a disaster.

Thankfully there was one vegetable vendor and the fishmonger was around.

Cauliflowers were obtained (purple, romanesco) as were some carrots. The CC noted that he had exactly two Italian flat beans and two cherry tomatoes at home. This was going to be a tricky operation.

The CC noted that there were no scallions at home and none at the market neither. However, he did have some homemade furikake already prepared. That put paid to the idea of the asari gohan (because of the black furikake) and hence it was going to the be the clams with miso soup.

(Note how we rarely make decisions. They are made for us already.)

Luckily, the CC still had one of the last of the late summer cucumbers so a quick sunomono (vinegar pickle) was added to the mix. The CC still had some pickled ginger in his cabinet. The vegetables were steamed and combined with a modified tare sauce that the CC just loves. The dish can be made ahead of time and is actually better at room temperature rather than warm.

The CC needed a fifth dish (rice doesn't count) and he had carrots so he made the classic quick stir-fried dish with carrots and hijiki.

The meal follows the entirely Japanese principles of washoku (= 和食) — there are five vegetables of different colors, five methods, five tastes, etc.

The rules above might have a Japanese origin but they are not laws of nature. They are just an excellent set of rules-of-thumb to ensure nutritional completeness and stave away boredom. The CC finds himself using the rules even if he's making a classically French dinner or an Indian one.

Dinner is served.
Five autumn vegetables with modified "tare" sauce

Clam miso soup

Cucumber sunomono

Sweet-sour hijiki

Pickled white ginger

White rice with furikake

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Japanese Dinner

Tuna croquettes (マグロのコロッケ)

Baby potatoes fried in duck-fat with gomashio
Truffled foie gras
♦ ♦ ♦
Oyako Don (親子丼)

Miso soup with acorn squash & ginger

Greens with calamansi vinaigrette

Homemade Japanese pickles — carrot; watermelon radish; ginger

Winter vegetables in tare sauce.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

The CC was "traditional" — American, Filipino, French, Indian, Italian, Japanese. (Thai couldn't make it sadly.)

Lamb chops with rosemary & anchovies

Brussel Sprouts with parmesan & pomegranates

Stuffing with chestnuts & sage

Champagne with pomegranates

"Fruit Salad" with apples, tangelos, pomegranates

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Beef Rendang

This is the CC's second-favorite beef dish with the honors going to steak tartare.

A true masterpiece of Indonesian cooking but it does take some work to make. It requires a ton of time and it's even better the next day. The CC once started it at five in the evening which turned out to be a terrible idea. The hungry hordes waited and we ate at ten at night.

The CC suggests starting at noon for dinner. The dish literally makes itself. All you need is a timer and towards the end a little bit of stirring every 10 minutes. (This is one of those places where a large non-stick flat pan works great!)

Rendang is actually a preservation technique not significantly different from the French duck confit or the Philippine adobo. It's as much a mechanism of preserving the meat in the absence of refrigeration as it is a cooking technique.

(There's a reason that the meat is tender but almost dry and coated with a fatty sheen and the list of spices includes garlic, shallots, ginger, galangal, and especially turmeric all of which have strong anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties.)

The recipe is adapted from James Oseland. (He skips a few crucial spices but since these are old-hat to people used to Indian cooking, the CC has restored them.)

Traditionally, made with water buffalo, you really want the leanest cut of beef that you can get — boneless chuck, top round, bottom round, or even shoulder. It's going to be braised in coconut milk and a ton of spices so there will be the plenty of time for the dish to turn meltingly tender.

James Oseland does have one of the great lines of all time:
Rendang has its own lethargic cooking rhythm, so that the more you try to rush it, the longer it seems to take.
This is talking truth to lazy cooks. Just let it do it's own thing, stir it occasionally, indulge in a book or a crossword, and it will make itself.  It has its own meditative rhythm which cannot be rushed.

The accompaniment (shown below) is a classic nasi kuning (= turmeric rice) which is nothing more than rice boiled with fresh turmeric and salt — pandanus leaves if you have them.

(Note that traditional nasi kuning would generally be cooked with coconut milk but if you do that for such a rich dish, the two would clash so you should go with the simpler style.)

While the recipe is complexly spiced, it's emphatically not "spicy". It has a layered complexity not pure heat.

You will need a side salad and while the CC went with greens and tomatoes (which is a tad French); you'll be equally well served with the classic — slices of cucumbers, salt, and whole chillies.


Flavoring Paste

1 whole nutmeg (cracked)
5 cloves
2 cardamoms
1/4 tsp cumin

5 candlenuts (read notes)

1 largish piece of turmeric (or 2 small ones)
2" ginger
2" galangal
3 stalks lemongrass (sliced diagonally very thin)

5-7 fresh red chilis (more if you like it spicy)

3 cloves garlic
6 shallots (coarsely chopped)

dash of palm sugar (substitute by brown sugar)


2 lbs boneless beef chuck (or bottom round) - cubed in 2" pieces
2 1/2 cups coconut milk

1/2 cup asam keping water
1/2 cup roasted dried coconut

3 thick stalks lemongrass (tied into a knot)
1 piece cinnamon stick
7 whole kaffir lime leaves
5 whole daun salan leaves (read notes)

To Serve

1 tbsp kaffir lime leaves (very finely shredded)

Note 1: You will need a mortar and pestle. No, the food processor will not work. Deal with it! The CC knows that people claim it does including Oseland but it gets the textures all wrong. Oddly, the shallots are not soft enough to just dice finely. You need to pound them.

Note 2: Add kosher salt to the mixture while you are pounding soft ingredients. It makes it far easier to control the texture. You won't need to add salt to the final product.

Note 3: Candle nuts are hard to find outside of specialty stores. While most recipes call for macadamia, the CC finds that hazelnuts actually provide the right kind of fat content and taste. You will need 10 hazelnuts since candle nuts are larger.

Note 4: You're bluntly going to have trouble finding asam keping (= "garcinia atroviridis".) Your best choice is to use kudampuli from Southern Indian cooking (= "garcinia cambogia"  or "garcinia gummi-gutta".) If you are totally stuck, use the North Indian kokum (= "garcinia indica") or even in the worst case, plain ol' tamarind. (This makes less difference than you think. It's primary job is the both tenderize the meat and make it less "meaty" while adding a subtle sour flavor.)

Note 5: The remaining fresh spices are easily available at your local Thai store. They're so popular now that the CC found all of them this weekend at his local farmers' market. The dried spices are Indian classics. You should be able to find them in any supermarket or even cheaper in the Indian markets. Use whole ones freshly ground not pre-ground ones!

Note 6: The leaves known as daun salan are actually dried leaves of the cassia tree. Not cinnamon but cassia. They are called tējapattā in Hindi (= तेजपत्ता, literally: "cinnamon leaves") and you find them in Indian stores labeled as "bay leaves" which is complete nonsense since they taste nothing like traditional bay laurel. (If you don't have them, your best bet is a smattering of cinnamon or cassia although the dried leaves are stronger in flavor so amp it up a notch or two.)

Note 7: The two absolute non-negotiables are lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves both of which add very strong citrus notes. In fact, as you read in the recipe below, you need more kaffir lime leaves finely slivered to add to the beef as you serve it (easily seen in the picture above.)

Note 8: Nutmeg is also crucial. Enjoy your happy vivid dreams!


To make the asam keping water, just add the dried ingredient to some water and boil it for a few minutes. This is one of the places the microwave works great. (If using tamarind, just cover it with boiling water. When it cools down, squish it with your hands and pass through a sieve. Discard the solids.)

Take all the ingredients for the flavoring paste and pound them using a mortar and pestle. First do all the spices and the hard ingredients then all the soft ingredients. (They are listed in the order that you should do them above.)

Don't worry if your mortar gets full. Just empty it into a bowl and mix afterwards.

This pounding will take the better part of 20-30 minutes so patience is required.

(It's harder to pound soft ingredients rather than hard ones since they just squish and slide around rather than get pounded into a paste. Very counter-intuitive but important to know.)

Combine the paste, all the other ingredients including the beef, coconut milk, leaves and spices into a large pan. Stir gently to mix them all. Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately turn the heat down to medium-low.

Let it bubble away stirring every 20 minutes so that the paste and coconut milk do not stick to the bottom and burn.

James Oseland describes the rest vividly:
The meat, coconut milk, and flavoring paste will now go on a fascinating journey. At first, the broth will be thin and gorgeously bright orange. As it cooks, the coconut milk will reduce, its fats (as well as the fat the meat renders) separating from the solids. It will be become progressively thicker and darker eventually turning brown.
Keep stirring until the meat becomes rather glossy with a very thick sauce. This will take the better part of anywhere between 3 to 4 hours. The meat should be tender enough to easily poke with a fork. (You may need to add some water from time to time.)

When all the liquid has evaporated, reduce the heat to low and allow the beef to brown in the fat. Stir every 5 minutes because it has a tendency to stick.

The beef should be coffee-colored and barely moist with a glossy sheen.

(As a general rule, there should not be any fat left in the pan but if there is skim it with a spoon and store for later use. It's great for a classic Indonesian dish made with new potatoes!)

Discard the whole lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, daun salan leaves, and cinnamon.

Allow the beef to rest at least 30 minutes before serving. More if you can swing it. It's best served at room temperature (or slightly warm rather than hot) topped with the finely slivered kaffir lime leaves.

† from the turmeric.

‡ This may very well be an underestimate. Five hours is not out of the question if the cut of the meat is extremely lean.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sri Lankan Fish Patties (Malu Paan)

One of the great things about "fusion" cooking is how seamless it can actually be.

Canned tuna is not exactly the most exotic of ingredients. It's quite boring and bourgeois and very middle-American. We're just going to use Sri Lankan magic to amp it up a few notches.

There's nothing new about Sri Lankan spices either. They're all there in India but it's the combinations that are new and as the CC has pointed out endlessly, this is just a combinatorial game.

You're most likely to encounter this stuff as "fish cutlets" — the mixture is deep-fried. However, a little dig underneath the surface and you see it also as "fish patties" and "fish rolls" and "fish balls".

There's also the ubiquitous malu paan which is the same fish filling inside a bread that is baked.

For the record, the paan is from the Portuguese pão and is the same as the Japanese パン (pan), the Filipino pandesal (bread with salt), and the Indian paav (a much more accurate transcription of pão.) The Portuguese spread the cult of yeasty bread baking all along South-East Asia.

What matters, of course, is the filling at the center of these concepts.

All the CC has done is to take the patties and stick them in a burger bun (which is vastly simpler) and achieves the same purpose.

Dinner is served.


1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp black pepper

1 sprig curry leaves
1 piece of fresh turmeric (or 1 tsp ground turmeric)
1" ginger
4-5 green chilis

2 large potatoes
1 can tuna

1 medium-sized onion (diced finely)

cilantro (finely chopped)
1 lime

salt (to taste)

Note 1: The combination of cumin, coriander, and fennel in the ratio 2:2:1 along with ground turmeric is often used in Sri Lankan cooking particularly in dishes involving fish. It gives it that characteristic "Sri Lankan" taste.

Note 2: While this mixture is freely available in Sri Lanka pre-made, the CC assumes that the majority of the audience will not have access to this. Also, if you're going to add black pepper to the final mix, you might as well grind it all together.

Note 3: Fresh turmeric adds a complexity that ground turmeric simply doesn't. The CC vastly prefers the former but feel free to use the later.


Grind the spices to a fine powder.

Grind the ginger, green chilis, and turmeric to a paste. (If you grind the spices in a mortar and pestle, you can do this in the same step.)

Boil the potatoes in water until tender. Peel and mash gently.

Heat some oil in a pan. Add the diced onions and curry leaves and fry for a bit until the onions have softened. Add the spices and ground paste and fry till the raw smell has dissipated. Roughly 2 minutes.

Add the tuna from the can and break it up. Let it cook for 4-5 minutes. Add the boiled potatoes and mix it all well together.

(If you are going to deep-fry into "fish balls", make it drier than normal. Otherwise it should be wet enough to form into patties.)

Dump the whole stuff into a bowl. Let it cool for a bit. Pick out the curry leaves and discard. (They don't do this in Sri Lanka but then the leaves there are more tender than the ones found here.)

Add the chopped cilantro and the juice of one lime and crush gently using a potato masher. Mix and check for salt.

To make the patties, you can just either pan-fry them with some oil (which is the way the CC prefers) or for a fancier richer taste, do the same after an egg-wash and coated with breadcrumbs.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Three-Culture Octopus

The CC briefly worked at a job whose main redeeming feature was the absolutely killer Korean grocery store across the street. The store was always crowded any time of the day or night with the stock continuously being refreshed since it was small in that New York-kinda way.

One of the "features" was that they almost always had baby octopus for purchase and it was extremely cheap. (It was frozen and then thawed but given the rather tough nature of octopus in general, this was a feature not a flaw.)

This recipe pulls out all the stops from three cuisines to make a completely elegant meal.

The CC generally serves it with a vegetable-heavy side dish like mixed vegetables in vinaigrette but he's also served it with a cauliflower gratin successfully. You could also make a great pasta out of it.

What are the tricks?

First make a light dashi. In this, dump carrots, onions and black peppercorns à la française and poach the baby octopus until tender.

(You can store the octopus in the fridge after this for a few days after this step. It allows you to scale. Never let it be said that CC doesn't adore convenience like the rest of the world!)

Finally, stir-fry it with anchovies and tomato paste quickly at the last minute and serve.

Why do the tricks work?

Firstly — umami.

Secondly, the poaching with carrots and onions gives it this sweetness that is not possible just otherwise. (It also allows you to scale effortlessly. As easy to cook for eight as it is for two.)

Finally, the anchovies and tomato paste add even more umami to the mix.


(serves 4)

16-20 baby octopus(es)

1 small piece konbu

1 small carrot
1 small onion
1 tbsp black peppercorns

1 anchovy
1 tbsp tomato paste
olive oil

Note: Frequently, the octopus is called to be poached using red wine. The tannins in the wine definitely give it a specific taste and structure and the wine-water azeotrope lowers the boiling point in the fish-cooking style. However, the CC finds the final product to be less flexible as far as adopting it to different ideas afterwards so he skips it.


Heat up some water with the konbu. Right before it comes to boil, remove the konbu (otherwise it will turn bitter.) Add the carrots, onions, black peppercorns, and salt, and bring to a simmer.

Add the baby octopus and cook until tender. Roughly 25 minutes. The CC sometimes stops it early if he wants the octopus to have more of a bite. (This really is personal preference.)

Fish out the octopus and set aside.

(You can filter the broth and store it for later use. Discard the solids.)

Heat up some olive oil in a skillet. Add the anchovy and fry for a bit. Add the tomato paste and fry until it gives off an aroma. Add the octopus and fry for about 3-4 minutes. Serve.

† The plural of octopus is octopuses or since it's derived from the Greek — octopodi. It is not under any circumstance octopii since it's not a Latin word (like radius) but a Greek one. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fruit Salad

The CC just adores the name mostly because it totally lies about the underlying subject — well, maybe not about the "fruit" part — but this ain't no bloody salad!

This Indian dish has so much amazing science and trickery inside of it that it's worthy of the slipperiest of slippery gods. (Oh, Agni! Oh, Loki!)

What is it?

Fruits in a milk reduction with complex spicing.

When stated like that, it sounds so boring which it totally is not. It's a masterpiece of complex chemistry with that assured magician's sleight of hand which veers it towards genius.

One day the CC returned to his apartment where his roommate greeted him sheepishly, "I'm sorry. I ate it all. I couldn't resist."

The CC knew even back then the kinda effect this dessert has on people so he just said, "Why don't you go shopping? We'll make it again, and we'll make a party of it on Friday?"

And we partied.

He grilled the steaks, his girlfriend (now wife) cooked the rest of the meal, and the CC had already spent his time earlier reducing milk for dessert. We were poor graduate students but we had a blast.

How does it work?

You reduce whole un-homogenized milk until it resembles a thick soup. You add cardamom, saffron, and slivered almonds. Then you cool it down till it's really ice-cold. You add fruits in a bowl, pour the soup all over it and eat it.

When the CC added the citrus fruits to the bowl, the roommate yelled, "It's gonna curdle." Logical thinking but dead wrong! That's the magic trick.

When the proteins are denatured and the final product ice-cold, the citrus doesn't have enough time to make the milk curdle. Eat it right away or GTFO, as the kids might say these days.

The more variety of fruits you add the better. The CC prefers apples, oranges, pomegranates. You may prefer something else. Go nuts!

(The citrus fruits must be peeled. The tannins in the skin have a higher probability of making it curdle.)

What's the problem?

It's hard work. It's an insane amount of work specifically since the kinda burners that we have in apartments are rather puny.

All you're doing in the most important step is "reducing" milk i.e. you're removing the water from the milk and simultaneously denaturing the proteins.

This is one of the truly rare cases where the CC is going to talk about specific equipment. You are best off with a enamel-coated cast-iron pot — something like a Le Creuset.

There's a reason for this. The CC grew up with this dish. It took hours and hours and hours and hours of stirring. It always does. Back in the day, the CC thought that having a book would be an antidote which was logical until he dropped the book into the flames and the house almost caught on fire. Not so great after all.

What's so great about the enamel-coated iron pot is that it heats the milk uniformly.  From the sides as well as the bottom. The milk bubbles away at a uniform rate. You stir occasionally and try not to worry too much.

You'll worry anyway.

You want the milk to reduce by half. It'll change color because the water goes away and the bright white milk turns cream-colored.

The CC wants to point out that most Indian desserts involve reducing milk into various levels of submission. When looked at in that light, this is the easy end of the spectrum!


(serves 6)

2 gallons whole milk

6 cardamom pods
1/4 cup slivered almonds

1 orange - segmented, skin peeled
1 apple - cut into cubes
1 pomegranate - seeds separated

Note 1: The product itself is not amenable to storage but the milk mixture absolutely is. You can make more and just pour it over the fruits right before serving.

Note 2: When you serve it, it's great if you can chill the bowls ahead of time. It's not strictly necessary but it's nice.


Heat up the milk in a pot. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and start stirring. Keep stirring. This is gonna take the better part of two hours or so.

Add the sugar to taste. The CC prefers less but your tastes may vary.

Keep stirring.

Seed the cardamom pods and crush them to a powder in a mortar and pestle.

The milk should reduce by half and the color changed from bright white to almost cream-colored.

You didn't miss the memo about keeping on stirring, right?

When reduced by half, add the cardamom powder, the saffron, and the almonds and take off the heat. When it has cooled down, stick it in the refrigerator till it is ice cold.

Put the fruits in a bowl. Pour the milk mixture all over it. Serve at once.

Friday, September 22, 2017


Bifrons refers to Janus — the double-headed Roman god of beginnings and duality after whom January is named.

There's no such author, of course. It was the nom de plume (= pseudonym) for a French art critic who also happened to be a terrific home cook. His name was Jean Bouret.

There's only one book Recettes secrètes de la cuisine française (horribly translated into English as: "Secret Recipes from the (sic) French Cuisine.")

Really, translators? "The (!!!) French Cuisine"?!? From?!? Not "Secret Recipes of French Cuisine"? How unidiomatic!

Every single recipe has a coup de main (= "sleight of hand" or "twist") in French. You will only be able to use this book if you're already familiar with the idiom and then you will be surprised in every single one. There are exactly 200. (They are also neatly numbered in that French style of precision. Please note that the recipes start at 001 and end at 200. Those three digits precisely rendered in gorgeous typography. This is exactly how the CC falls in love!)

They are not strictly speaking recipes. Most are, of course, but there are also general instructions and tricks and all kinds of ups and downs inside. It's quite idiosyncratic and the CC says that with the highest praise possible. (For example, there's a truly exceptional "dessert" omelette. Also, a killer recipe for fish in red wine. That kinda thing.)

The English translation has six of them missing which is exactly the kind of thing that would drive the CC crazy (because now the numbering is all off! Why for the love all that is good in this world? Why?!?)

Since the CC has a completist bent, here are the six missing recipes:

048 - Sanguinette de pigeon
099 - Le poulet au sang
122 - Filet de cheval en venaison
144 - Marmite corsoise
164 - Queues de sarrigues
188 - Les champignons

Most are being omitted to preserve the (supposedly) delicate American sensibilities of the time — chicken blood, horse-meat, pigeon, possum, mushrooms. The original is from 1965 and the translation from 1967.

Ironically, possum is traditionally American as you can clearly find in ol'-school Southern cookbooks.

The most galling one is the last which just translates as "mushrooms". It's rather critical of North American culture in that they don't appreciate mushrooms. Welp, boys and girls, fifty years later, it's a totally different ball game. Even the CC goes mushroom picking!

The French tome is a masterpiece of design. The typography is absolutely gorgeous — the CC happens to be a font geek. The American translation is a crappy paperback. However, from the point of view of translation, it's actually quite decent. It systematizes the French work from the stream-of-consciousness style into the traditional explanation-ingredients-recipe style of modern cookbooks.

The book truly deserves the misused moniker of one-of-a-kind. The CC has never seen anything like it.

If you read French, get the original (very hard to find!) Otherwise, the American translation (dirt cheap!) suffices.

However, it's without a doubt a masterpiece.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How to Make Better Parathas

The CC once bought a large number of books online through a fairly shady Delhi-based bookseller on Abebooks. He wasn't even sure that the books would arrive.

They did however.

One of these books was something called "Indian Bread Basket".

The book seemed slightly dubious even back when the CC ordered the book. It was published in 2000. However, there's no publisher by that name and there's no publisher by that address if you search online. Even the author's name seems to be fake. Seems to be ghost-written. Interestingly, the design was done by some firm which has an address and that seems to be fake as well. They even have emails which are the Indian equivalent of a shady "hotmail" address. Either fake or long since defunct.

None of this would matter but the book itself is pure gold (even Sharbati gold - to indulge in a little paratha-based humor!)

It has a few amazing tips for parathas which the CC will share. (If you don't know how to make them, the CC is not going to go there. You will have to do your homework yourself.)

[1] It is much better to use rice flour rather than wheat flour to roll out the parathas. It's lighter and doesn't stick to the dough.

How did the CC not know this? This seems to be a "standard trick". When he asked around, he got big fat DUH's all over the place.

[2] In order to make tomato juice to knead dough with, take four tomatoes, put them in a blender and strain.

This the CC can guess. It's umami except he's never seen this trick before. Kneading with tomato juice. Totally freakin' works!

[3] Flour should be kneaded at least 30 minutes in advance so that the preparations turn out softer and smoother.

This the CC knew. It's ol'-school. It's just time for the protein (gluten) to unwind when the water hits the flour.

[4] Parathas should be roasted (baked) on both sides first and only then should they be fried in ghee.

This the CC did not know but it totally makes sense. It allows for uniform cooking because they are cooked through and only afterwards are they pan-fried.

This ain't no Delhi Paranthe-wali gali style paratha's where they deep-fry them in a vat of ghee but they will definitely improve your technique!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Grasshoppers Grilled in the Fashion of Saint John the Baptist

It is not very well known that the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was a terrific cook. We have descriptions of his endlessly inventive cooking and drink recipes during the belle epoque.

He clearly thought that food and art were collinear. He is once said to have ended a meal by unveiling a masterpiece of Degas, "Gentlemen, here's your dessert."

Just the name of the recipe is so suggestive.

As everyone knows St. John the Baptist was beheaded at the request of Salomé in Herod's court. The Biblical themes of locusts and beheadings resonate as does the exquisite detail to color (yellow, pink, red) characteristic of Toulouse-Lautrec's work.

From a large swarm of grasshoppers, choose the most beautiful, the pink rather than the brown or the yellow.

Put them on a screen and let them grill lightly over a charcoal fire while at the same time sprinking them with a few pinches of coarse salt.

Tear off the the head by turning them so that they whole digestive tract will come out intact.

Lay the grasshoppers on a dish garnished with rounds of lemon; season to taste with salt and ordinary red pepper.

Shell and eat the desert grasshoppers (locusts) in the same way as "grasshoppers" of the English Channel, that is to say shrimps, which have the same savor.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Peace, Love, Granola

Granola is the CC's favorite breakfast cereal. The CC doesn't eat breakfast very much but even so over the years he's bought tons of this stuff from various places. He finally decided to make his own.

The concept is really simple. It's just basically toasted oats. The rest is all putting a bow on top - nuts, dried fruits, sugar, fats, salt. You are making a pre-made ready-to-eat nutritionally complex mixture.

It's already cooked so when you either eat it with yogurt or milk, it hardly matters. You could eat it straight up but it would be too dry.

The recipe is from a famous three-Michelin star restaurant in New York. They apparently hand this out when you leave for your breakfast the next day. (The CC doesn't know. He hasn't been.)

It looked terrific and the CC had all the ingredients in-house. It definitely tastes terrific.

(Source: Eleven Madison Park.)


2 3/4 cups rolled oats
1 cup pistachios
1 cup coconut chips
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 tbsp kosher salt

1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup olive oil

3/4 cup sour dried cherries

Note 1: The three groups in the ingredients are deliberate in the recipe.

Note 2: You can substitute the sour dried cherries for a mixture of raisins, dried cherries, and barberries.

Note 3: This is deliberately not too sweet. You can always add more honey when you are eating it.

Note 4: There are two kinds of "kosher" salts. Ones that have been pressed and hence are more salty and others that are not. You want the natural kind here otherwise you will have a salty mess.

Note 5: You can totally gild the lily in the last step by adding roasted sesame seeds and slivered almonds .The CC did.


Combine the first group - oats, pistachios, coconut chips and pumpkin seeds - in a bowl.

Mix the brown sugar, maple syrup and olive oil in a pan. Heat till dissolved. (You can also do this in a microwave on low heat for about 90 seconds.)

Pour this mixture all over the mixture in the bowl. Combine thoroughly.

Spread it on a pan and bake in the oven at 300°F for about 30-40 minutes. You will need to keep mixing and spreading the mixture every 6-7 minutes. (Yeah, a bit of a pain but otherwise it'll burn.)

Add the sour dried cherries and combine again. Let it cool to room temperature.

Store in a sealed container in a cool dry place.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mushrooms on Toast

This is a classic English dish and it's really easy to see why it's amazing.

Short answer = umami.

The CC has always ranted about the lack of respect given to English cooking.

This is another one of those neglects. It's totally ironic since the recipe is entirely vegetarian and yet it's not well known. In an era of "avocado toast" — which fucking sucks! —  one should be shouting this one from the rooftops.

(If you do put an avocado on top of this, the CC really doesn't need to know in exactly the same way that he really doesn't need to know about your bowel movements!)

What is it?

A vast amount of mushrooms gently roasted in butter to which fresh herbs are added along with a judicious amount of both Worcestershire sauce and cream. The last two with an extraordinarily light hand.

Why does it work?

The insane off-the-charts umami — mushrooms, animal products (= butter + cream), and Worcestershire sauce (which is basically umami-central!) The toast adds all the wonders of the Maillard reaction.

How does it work?

You make some toast and put this stuff on top of it. DUH!!!


(serves 4 (= 8 toasts))

1 lb assorted mushrooms (the more varieties the better!)
2 dried shiitake mushrooms


parsley (finely minced)

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp cream

Note 1: You can totally substitute the Worcestershire sauce. Its goal is to add umami. Soy sauce will do the trick. Fish sauce will also do the trick. (You'll need a dash of vinegar and pinch of cayenne with the last two alternatives.)

Note 2: The thyme goes well with the mushrooms. Don't get hung up. They wouldn't have been in old England. Chives will work as would most herbs. Tarragon would NOT work. Too much anise flavor.

Note 3: The CC is going to amp this up one more notch by using dried Chinese shiitake mushrooms because why not? Once you grasp the principles, it's hard not to.

Note 4: You can totally gild the lily by adding parmesan. Why not? We've already dialed it up to 17. By all means, go ahead and dial it up to 29.

Note 5: Yes, the barest amount of lemon would rock this dish. The CC knows. One surmises the "limeys" didn't have access to fresh lemons?

Note 6: The CC knows what you are thinking. One pound serves four people? Yep. Talk to me AFTER you make the recipe and everyone wants more.


Pour boiling water over the dried shiitake mushrooms. Not too much. After 10 minutes, pull the mushrooms out and filter the water through a paper napkin. Reserve the water.

Cut the reconstituted mushrooms into lengthwise pieces.

Cut the other mushrooms into lengthwise pieces.

Heat the butter until just under foaming. Toss in all the mushrooms and let them reduce at a medium heat. Add the water from the mushrooms. Add the thyme, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and cream towards the end and let cook until almost dry.

Salt to taste. (The sauce already has a ton of salt so check before salting.)

Make some toast.

Top the mixture on toast with the minced parsley as topping.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

R.I.P. Alain Senderens

Alain Senderens is probably one of the greatest chefs that nobody has ever heard of.

Most of the modern clichés and techniques were invented by him. It's actually a tribute to his genius that they are so widespread that they have turned into clichés.

Just to mention two — the notion of "wine pairings" in restaurants, and the originally shocking pairing of lobster and vanilla.

The CC just happened to be in Paris a few days before M. Senderens passed away and he just happened to eat at a restaurant run by his most famous product, Alain Passard.

It isn't well known but L'Arpège was originally L'Archestrate. It's literally the space where the pupil learned from the master.

Note the names being rather classical. Arpeggio for the former, and Archestratus, the famous gastronome, for the latter.

Even the first syllable hasn't changed!

(And note that master and pupil share the same first name too.)

L'Arpège is deeply deeply based in French gastronomy at a level that no restaurant in New York ever will be or ever can be.

New York is too much of its own device. The whole world's cultures clash and rub against each other here generating furious sparks of electric energy and it's impossible for chefs not to be influenced by it. The offerings in a truly great restaurant reflect that unease and friction, and the sheer joie de vivre of new cultures and new ideas. Concepts could very well be incoherent but there's a furious sense of experimentation with ideas yet unexplored.

L'Arpège exists in a different space. It's inside a culture that understands itself, is entirely comfortable, and brings refinement to the palate. It may borrow from other cultures but its own sense of identity stands as rock-solid as the terroir.

Read a book of M. Senderens and you will understand in even a few pages that he may borrow ideas from Thailand, India or Japan, but at no point in time will the original French concept be subordinated. It will be integrated into the food grammar coherently.

Once you understand the difference, his genius just simply sits there in plain daylight.

Adieu, maestro, adieu.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A French Summer Lunch Menu

Inspired by my recent Paris trip, here's summer lunch à la Provençale.

Consommé à la japonais aux légumes d'été

Bulots froides avec aïoli aux herbes

Rouille du pêcheur
In translation:

"Dashi" with summer vegetables

Whelks with chive aioli

Octopus and new potatoes with "rouille"

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

That 70's Show

The CC is absolutely obsessed with collecting recipe books that date back to the late-60's and early-to-mid 70's.

Why the 70's?

It's the first transformation of many of these societies into the modern consumer world and it set off a wave of rather "naïve" cookbook writers almost all women who were documenting the recipes of an earlier age.

The naïveté shouldn't be taken as a pejorative. It's actually a compliment. They were literally writing down what they knew without any filter. These are really amazing documents.

These cookbooks have been updated but they have never been bettered. They are actually the source of inspiration to most modern cookbook writers who all down to a fault refuse to acknowledge the immense amount of ideas that they have nakedly stolen from these earlier writers.

The CC is always collecting these things as he travels. (They tend to be rather cheap.)

There are a few commonalities which are just extraordinary.

One is that they all tend to be obsessed with a level of precision. It is very important to them that the reader make the dish perfectly. The instructions tend to be rather precise and detailed. (This, of course, just warms the cockles of the CC's cold analytical heart.)

The other is how they were marketed. Not through the traditional channels. Often via "nail salons" or "beauty parlors" which was the domain of women. It was word-of-mouth and viral marketing at its earliest and finest.

The third is the primitiveness of the publishing industry at the time. They are frequently published in indifferent editions. Pictures are rare. The print is not glossy. The binding is falling apart. Spelling mistakes abound. However, the passion just jumps off the page!

The fourth is a level of awareness of nutrition. It's not the modern gluten-free fat-free version but they are rather interested in the fact that in an era where budgets are tight that the food not only be delicious but also nutritious.

Last but not least is the obsession with the pineapple. No, the CC is not joking. Hawaii only became a US state on Aug 21st, 1959. There was a massive global marketing campaign to sell pineapple across the world. You can see the obsession everywhere from Life Magazine to newspapers and magazines in all the corners of the world. Think "Mad Men". These women were not exempt from the pull of the siren song. Rest assured that there will be a recipe or three for pineapple in these books!

The CC has had plenty of books go in and out of his kitchen but you will take these books out of his cold dead hands!

Here's an extraordinarily incomplete list — roughly going westwards:


Arto der Haroutunian (Middle-East at large)


Helen Saberi


Tarla Dalal (Gujarati vegetarian)
Ummi Abdulla (Kerala Muslim)
Joyce Fernandes (Goan)
Kamalabai Ogale (Maharashtrian)
S. Meenakshi Ammal (Tamil vegetarian)
Katy Dalal (Parsi)
Minakshie Das Gupta (Bengali)

Sri Lanka

Chandra Dissanayake


Fu Mei-Pei


Enriqueta David-Perez


Babette de Rozières

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Sealing of the Pot

The CC received a clay pot as a gift recently.

It was a classic meen chatti (मीन चट्टी - literally: fish clay pot). The first word is from Sanskrit (= fish) and the second most likely from the local vernacular.

Instructions were provided to "season it" but the CC needs to understand what that means so he proceeded down the rabbit hole (as he is wont to do) about what that really entails.

Clay is quite porous as a material. However, it can be fired at high temperatures after which it becomes hard. That's how bricks are made which has been known since at least Sumerian times.

Clay is also an extraordinarily poor conductor of heat.

These combined facts act as an advantage in fish cookery.

The critical point about a clay pot is that no matter how hard you try to heat it in a reasonable time (= less than five hours, for example), it's very difficult to raise the temperature of the interior of the pot to above 70°C — which is the outer limit of the temperature that fish proteins denature.

Of course, if you fired the crap out of the pot, eventually it would rise to the temperature of the flame but we're talking cooking here not cremation!

The other critical point is that if you don't raise the temperature beyond the denaturation point of fish proteins, they will stay soft independent of the cooking time. If you held the temperature precisely at a certain point, your fish would stay perfectly tender whether you cooked it for ten minutes or ten hours!

This is how airlines control food, for the record. The temperature is never allowed to get above the denaturation point of the proteins in question — chicken, beef, fish, vegetables, whatever!

The principle of clay-pot cooking is the same as that of sous-vide cooking except that it is being done in an intuitive way rather than formally. It also has a massive advantage over sous-vide in that you can fry or sear the fish and have it cook in the complex juices generated by it. You don't need to worry about the problem of precise timing either which was a useful fact in the frenetic frazzled world of yore unlike modern day times.

There's a price to be paid for this freedom. Nothing comes for free.

The pot is a complex apparatus. If you drop one of your metal pots, it'll get dented. If you drop a clay pot, it shatters and you get to start all over again. (Luckily, they are cheap but that's not the point.)

Poor conduction also goes both ways. It's really hard to raise the temperature and it's equally hard to lower the temperature. A certain boring-ness is required in the usage of a clay pot. You can't just dial the temperature up and down like a metal pot.

Much more importantly, you can't add hot water to a cold pot, or cold water to a hot pot. It will crack. The poor conduction means you cannot have the interior and the exterior at significantly different temperatures.

The seasoning of the pot is really quite simple once you grasp the concepts. You alternate boiling cold water in the pot and toss it out followed by coating it with cooking oil overnight. The water percolates through the pot and mends micro-holes in the clay and the oil conducted via the water generates enough carbon residues to plug the holes. It also generates a non-stick surface at the bottom of the pot over time (exactly like a great cast-iron frying pan.)

There are two fallacies about clay pots and since chez CC, we tend to be the analytic sort, we're going to dismiss them.

The first is that the seasoned clay pot is not porous — it absolutely is! The water inside the seasoned pot has to be going somewhere. It's not evaporating significantly at 70°C so it must be disappearing somehow. It's evaporating through the porosity of the pot. It's being wicked§ away.

This porosity created a bit of a problem for the CC in the second round of water seasoning when the pot had been coated with oil overnight. Enough oil/water was being wicked away through the porous clay that the CC's gas flame went a little crazy. It's basically a baby version of a grease fire. It was such a minuscule amount of oil that it posed no risk whatsoever but it was quite unnerving until the principles had been grasped.

The second which is really the flip of the first is the myth that you can't cook in a dry pot without water. You absolutely can as long if you want to raise the temperature above 70°C. You could quite plausibly cook the clay pot to up to 1000° C but the CC really doubts that your puny stove generates enough BTU's for that. (Your oven only goes up to 275°C!)

Remember, if you do amp up the temperature of the pot, you will not be able to add cold water to it. You must either cool the pot down and start over or heat the water to the same temperature and add it. Most cooks do the former not the later since it's too risky.

In fact, many recipes ask you to first boil stuff till the water disappears, take the fish out, and then use the pot just like a frying pan adding the fish back at the last step. (The reverse is also true. Some recipes ask you to use it like a frying pan and then add the fish and warm water a little at a time thus lowering the temperature back down.)

Let's abstract out the principles of the perfectly seasoned clay pot.

[1] With water inside, the temperature will not go above 70°C until the water disappears.

[2] The clay pot is a very poor conductor of heat.

[3] The dry clay pot will allow you to fire it up to 1000°C.

Now that we've grasped the principles, we're ready to roll.

One of the great glories of Mughal cooking is the perfectly cooked daal. This involves the denaturing of lentil proteins and some of these lentils tend to get slimy if the skins split. The clay pot is the ideal apparatus since it preserves the skin perfectly while letting the water and spices to enrich the dish via osmosis but not allowing the lentils to burst.

The truly great dish of Gujarati cooking is undhiyu (ઊંધિયું — literally: upside-down.) The Mughals totally envied this dish! It's a classic mélange of spring vegetables, complex vegetarian meatball-esque preparations, and spices cooked in a sealed upside-down (sic) pot in the dying embers of a fire overnight at low heat. Same logic goes for long-term low-temperature cooking and the denaturing of the proteins.

If you go to North India during winter, you'll find yogurt served in clay pots. The clay pots are being used for two purposes — heat preservation and water-evaporation. Even in the cold temperatures of the North-Indian winter, the clay pots retain the heat of the warm mixture of milk and bacteria and wick away enough water to make the yogurt rich and delicious.

So this device which is at least 20,000 years old (based on Chinese excavations that date back to 18,000 BC) is truly a magic apparatus. It just requires a little understanding.

We're just the latest in a truly ancient lineage.

† You can verify this quickly and empirically by sticking a finger for less than a second into the water that has been boiling in the clay pot for an hour. Nothing much will happen. If you stuck your finger in real boiling water for even less than a second, you would get second-degree burns!

‡ The CC will not bore you with the details but roughly speaking in an environment with no air-flow (e.g. your exhaust fan) the evaporation rate is linear in the temperature differential between water and air for temperatures around 100°C. Estimating your house to be about 25°C (80°F), you are only getting roughly 60% of the evaporation of boiling water. The rest of the water has to be going somewhere!

§ You can test this by covering a pot and heating water in it. It will never boil but soon much of the water will be gone.

¶ The clay pots have the advantage of porosity. The yogurt bacteria are sitting in there and they help develop the culture implicitly particularly if you make yogurt every day or week in the same pot. (The clay pots that they use are small. Individual use, one might say, in modern parlance.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Line Drawings

The CC is a complete sucker for line drawings rather than photographs in cookbooks.

Years ago, the CC once met an illustrator who interestingly was employed in both the Paleontology and Egyptology (sic) departments. They actually fought over her to the point where they "agreed" to a 50-50 time-commitment split. (Needless to say, she was excellent at her job!)

When she talked about line drawings, the CC blurted out, "It's obvious, right? A photograph shows all details. With a line drawing, you can highlight or suppress details at will."

She started laughing and asked me how the CC figured it out. It was cookbooks naturally.

It's particularly useful in architectural stuff especially when the ancient monuments have deteriorated. You can do a theoretical reconstruction. While the CC is talking about black and white line drawings, he also understands that there is room for subtle polychrome work too.

Many of the greats — Julia Child's classic, for example, feature line drawings not photographs.

Years later, the CC read an interview with the formidable Anna Gosetti della Salda who pointed out that "Styles of photographs go in and out of fashion. Line drawings are classic and don't need to be updated."

There you have it.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Pav Bhaji

What do the laws of electromagnetism, the Portuguese, the price of cotton, time zones, vegetarianism, and the American Civil War all have in common?

They came together to invent the iconic Mumbai street dish known as pav bhaji (pronounced: paav bhaaji — the two "a"'s are actually long vowels.)

Every good military general would tell you that the best way to win a war is through economics. The naval Union Blockade of April 1861 which heavily targeted New Orleans (Louisiana) and Mobile (Alabama) made the cotton exports of the South come to a grinding halt. The savvy Gujarati speculators of the old Cotton Exchange in Bombay knew the drill. Rates were wired in and orders wired out late into the night when the corresponding exchanges in Chicago would've been open.

(Bombay made its fortune on the basis of its cotton mills — a fact that is quite clear even today in its geography. The point being that the price of cotton mattered hugely and the American Civil War and the telegraph provided a mechanism to speculate on the price swings. Note that the world was on a Gold Standard back then so that exchange rates between the dollar, the pound and the rupee, which was basically the pound, would not matter.)

The word for trader in both Hindi and Gujarati is dalal (दलाल) — it's not a neutral word. It has a slightly shady connotation to it. No trader would self-describe themselves as a dalal even though that's exactly what they are. It carries with it the negative connotations of both "speculator" and "pimp". The Japanese equivalent is kabuya (株屋) — stock-broker/stock-slinger (= speculator.)

Now you have a bunch of traders working hard into the deep night. They're largely vegetarian. They're rich (or wanna-be rich) but in the classic tradition of rich people, they're also cheap. When you have a demand, a corresponding supply opens up. It has to be fast, tasty, and yes, cheap.

Where do the Portuguese come in?

India had no tradition of baking leavened breads before the 15th-century just like most of Southeast Asia. The Portuguese were responsible for introducing the yeasty bread (pão in Portuguese) which is paav in Hindi and パン (pan in Japanese).

The dish is made from the cheapest of ingredients — potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Plus fried bread. It's a street dish. It's not fancy. You toss in whatever vegetables you have lying around. It's also infinitely configurable with different toppings depending on the individual taste buds.

The critical point is that everything could be made ahead of time. You're basically stir-frying at the last moment. Even the bread could be made ahead of time. It could even be slightly stale because it would be fried again. Every corner that could be possibly cut was actually trimmed. This is one efficient caloric machine.

Needless to say, it was an instant hit.

Nothing's changed since 1861. This dish is still a hit and will continue to be so.

It's endlessly addictive. It's one carb-laden umami-laden butter-laden bomb!



(serves 4)

6 small potatoes (or 3 large ones)
8-10 tomatoes

1 large onion (finely chopped)
1" ginger
4-5 cloves garlic


3-4 tbsp pav bhaji masala

chopped vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower, french beans — optional)

12-16 pieces pav


red onions (finely chopped)
cilantro (finely chopped)

Note 1: Some of the toppings are missing in the photograph. Specifically, the red onions with lime and cilantro. (The toppings are frequently mixed together so you just add as much as you like including the lime juice.)

Note 2: The CC knows that the bread in the picture is not fried. As Julia says, butter makes everything better, but sometimes a little restraint also works. (People also add extra butter on the bhaji itself which is kinda "over the top".)

Note 3: Yeah, the CC is totally aware that the picture below isn't the "real" paav but one must work with what one has in New York not what one wishes one had. It's the closest approximation to the "real thing". The bread pictured above has the right texture — hard exterior and soft interior. It's from a local bakery.

Note 4: For once, the CC is not going to post a recipe for the spices. You are better off buying this at a Indian grocery store. You could do it yourself but the proportions would be all off unless you plan on making a year's supply. Sorry.

Note 5: Note the presence of two different kinds of sourness — amchur (= dried green mango powder) in the pav bhaji masala and lime juice. This is a consistent theme in Southeast Asian cooking. The presence of a dry "mellow" kind of sourness allied with a wet perfumed "fresh" kind of sourness.

Note 6: The CC knows that it's much more tricky to describe a street dish than it is to describe a more conventional one. However, when you are faced with alternatives and problems, the key question you need to ask yourself is "Would a street vendor in 1861 worry about this problem in the middle of the night?" If the answer is no, then the CC says, "Wing it!" Except for the butter, the spice mixture, onions, potatoes and tomatoes, it's all up in the air anyway!

Note 7: If you've ever watched it being made on the street, you'd realize that your puny home cooking range simply doesn't have the BTU's. Additionally, the tomatoes are simply not ripe enough. They toss whole ripe tomatoes onto the sizzling skillet and de-skin them with their spatula. You have neither the heat nor the skill to do so. Do it the CC's way, OK?

Note 8: The vegetables may or may not have been part of the original recipe but they've become "traditional" with the advent of healthier eating.


First boil the potatoes. Skin them and set aside. Mash gently.

Pass the tomatoes through a food mill to get just the pulp. If the tomatoes are not completely ripe, you may need to par-boil them for 5-6 minutes each to get them to soften.

Pound the ginger and garlic into a paste.

Heat up the butter in a pan. Add the onions and fry till they turn pink. Do not let them caramelize. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry for a bit. Add the tomatoes and let it come to a boil. Skim if you prefer that. Let it cook for at least 10 minutes. Add the pav bhaji masala.

Add the mashed potatoes and let it cook for 8 minutes or so. This concoction has a tendency to act like molten lava splashing everywhere so cover the lid partially otherwise you will be cursing the CC.

Taste. You may need to add more pav bhaji masala. It's hard to predict how much exactly.

Split the bread into two without cutting all the way. Take a skillet. Add butter and let the bread fry on both sides. (This is optional.)

Serve the bread, the pav bhaji and the toppings on the side (as needed.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Anna Gosetti della Salda

Anna Gosetti della Salda (1918-2011) was an extraordinary woman.

She published the ultimate book of regional Italian recipes, Le Ricette Regionali Italiane, that is the mainstay of Italian cooks everywhere. Even Michelin-starred chefs in Italy go into rhapsody when talking about this book.

First published in 1967, it's never been out of print (current edition: 17th, 2001.) It was printed out of her own publishing house of whose catalog it's the sole item. She has never authorized a translation.

She made a "small concession" in 2002 allowing a pronunciation guide in Japanese to be added as an insert because "if they were going to go to all that trouble to learn Italian, she would help."

It's 1206 pages long nearly 5 lbs featuring 2174 recipes — 13 are "base recipes" (e.g. besciamella = bechamél.)

She made four arduous trips up and down the "Italian boot" in the days when such trips were absurdly difficult. She did it as a single woman (never married) and she was adamant about having her own way in everything from the fonts to the paper to the illustrations.

It's a product of a singular mind which admits no compromises.

The regions of Italy are organized in the order that a theoretical motorist could actually traverse them. They form a Hamiltonian Path which warms the cockles of the CC's mathematical heart. (The two island regions of Sicily and Sardinia come last.)

There is no table of contents — in her own words, "Why have it when the indices are perfect?"

Indeed the indices are perfect. All 116 pages of them. Each recipe is numbered. There are two indices organized by "region" and "analytics" (theme/topic). There's a meta-index of one page that tells you where to go find the indexes. The end of each of the regional indices has a excellent curated list of the "wine types" of that region. The cross-indexing admits no mistakes.

The paper is deliberately yellow (to indicate "old school" yellowing) and the illustrations are black and white line drawings. (Her initial career was in advertising. She opened her own agency. The book was published when she was nearly 50!)

Each recipe not only has exact details (tested, of course) but also any regional and family variants.

Even though the CC speaks no Italian, he can handle recipes in the language — limited vocabulary and content;  context makes things "obvious". The illustrations help. You are left in no doubt whatsoever about what the recipe entails.

The CC's favorite part is an excerpt from an interview she gave when she was nearly 90, "I recently read the book one more time, very carefully, just to find out what new criticisms I might have. I'm my most severe critic, yet I can't help admitting I did such a good job. I looked deeply into every recipe and technique; there's no room for superficiality in my work. If I were to start again I would do just as I have."

The book is just a staggering masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Fickleness of Chili Peppers

Ever wonder why you have trouble reproducing that amazing dish featuring chili peppers that you had elsewhere? Ever wonder why there is such a proliferation of different kinds of peppers both spicy and sweet and everything in between?

The answer is actually quite complex.

Peppers which definitely came from South America are rather complex objects. They are incredibly sensitive to what the French might call terroir.

The soil matters; the amount of sunlight matters; the temperature of the warm day versus the cool night matters a lot. In short, they are rather fickle little things.

Take the same strain and plant it in two different places — warm Louisana as opposed to cooler Oregon, just to take two places at random and you will get diametrically opposing results from the same plant. Even the same strain in the same location will differ from year to year because the weather is variable.

That's just one of the problems.

They've also had a solid five centuries to spread all over the world. The different sub-species were pushed not only by natural selection but also cultural selection into the hundreds of varieties all over the globe. (Contrast with oranges which are completely ancient but there aren't that many sub-species of oranges out there even with all the human-controlled cross-pollination.)

This is the reason that some of the magnificent dishes of Sri Lanka really cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Even if you got the seeds, you don't have the weather.

It's the same reason that Hungary keeps a really tight lid on one of its products — Hungarian paprika. You will get arrested if you try to steal the seeds and smuggle them out. They did smuggle them successfully and tried to reproduce them in Oregon. All the efforts failed. The climates might be "similar" but they are not similar enough. The soil certainly isn't.

The same goes for the different varieties of Spanish paprika.

The story of Tabasco which is a product of Louisiana follows the same pattern. They've had a limited amount of success reproducing it in Mexico but it wasn't easy. (The story of Tabasco is rather fascinating since it has all the elements of a financial thriller — competitors, corruption, patent laws, politicians, bankruptcy, questionable tactics, possible illegality, etc.)

All to protect a brand that, truth be said, the CC is kinda fond of.

It's actually rather hard to get the truly great peppers of Peru. Even in New York. Only the dozen or two of so most-commonly used peppers actually proliferate. The most common ones are probably more "robust" than the other strains.

What it does mean though that if you want to eat truly great peppers, you'll just have to go to the source.

It's good to reminded from time to time that travel matters and  that "variety truly is the spice of life."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Amazing Edible Seaweed

What classic vegetarian combination resembles seafood so strongly that it acts as a stand in? Would it help if the CC provided the clue that this is the one thing that the Japanese and the Welsh have in common?

The answer is  nori — "laver" in English but today, everyone just refers to it by its Japanese name.

The combination of nori and soy sauce is legendary. It rivals other classic combinations for sheer force because it ticks off all the right notes — salty, umami, seafood-y except that it is vegetarian.

Years ago, when talk of radioactive "dirty bombs" were all the rage in New York, people at the CC's dinner party were talking about stockpiling "iodine pills". The CC just scoffed, "Just come over. I'll cook with nori. That's got more iodine in a sheet than any pill." The CC stands by that statement. If you're gonna die, you might as well have a good time doing it.

It's also very "Japanese". The combination of nori and soy sauce over rice is one of the most-frequently requested items on bento boxes. Apparently, it's so "alien" that non-Japanese can't appreciate it. The first time the CC ordered it, the delivery boy claimed that the CC must've made a mistake and couldn't possibly have ordered this dish. After the CC told him to "fuck off!" in extraordinarily polite Japanese (= "does your head hurt?" = "are you stupid?"), he was charmed. Broad grins ensued as exemplified by the classic bonding moment of bumping fists. Such is the beauty of swearing in a foreign language as done in the context of a genuine appreciation of food.

Nori Tsukudani (海苔佃煮)


10 sheets nori

1 cup dashi

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sake
3 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp mirin

sesame seeds/sesame oil (only when serving)

Note 1: This is like a pickle or a preserve, You can make it fresh but it will last for a long time because of "osmotic pressure" and salt. The Japanese would just make a small batch and leave the rest in the fridge for later.

Note 2: This is seriously intense. A small portion goes a very long way. You'd place a small amount on top of a mound of white rice. It's a classic breakfast "power dish".

Note 3: The sesame or sesame oil are added at the last minute. You need one or the other for nutritional reasons. The CC prefers the seeds. They're easier to store.


Tear the nori into rough pieces. It doesn't matter much. Just cut it into squares if that's faster.

Bring the dashi to a boil. Add the nori and let it cook down. When the water is almost gone, add the rest of the ingredients and continue to cook until the liquid is almost gone.

It will last for a long time in the fridge. (You can halve this recipe too.)

Nori Sumashijiru (海苔すまし汁)


4 sheets nori

3 cups ichiban dashi
soy sauce

Note 1: The "home-style" recipe often contains a scrambled egg. It's then "nori tamago sumashijiru".

Note 2: If you've forgotten ichiban dashi (literally: first dashi) is the stuff that is made first. It should be completely clear which is part of the charm. The crystal clear broth contrasting with the black seaweed.

Note 3:  Ideally, you should use clear soy sauce for this as well. It's a visual thing. The CC assumes nobody here has it so just go ahead and use the regular stuff. Call it "home cooking" rather than "fancy cooking" and be done with it.


Oh, the recipe?

It's trivial.

Shred the nori. Heat the dashi. Mix and serve immediately.

Nori no Furikake (海苔の振り掛け)


4 sheets nori

1 tbsp sesame seeds
kosher salt

Note 1: This is rather painful and intense to do in a mortar and pestle but the coffee grinder makes mince out of it. You'll just have to do your best.

Note 2: The first time the CC made it for a friend, he was like, "This would be so amazing on popcorn." — "Yes, my good friend, yes, it would!"

Note 3: It's traditionally a sprinkle on "boring" white rice.


Pound the nori and the salt in a mortar and pestle. This is just painful painful work. It takes forever.

When crushed "sufficiently", add the sesame seeds and pound some more.

It stores forever in a tightly sealed container and ironically, it's easier to make in large quantities than in small ones.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Holi Hai! (होली है। )

It's the festival of colors and even though New York is hit by the largest snow storm in years, it would be remiss of the CC to not present the ne plus ultra of Indian recipes.

It's called thandai (ठंडाई - literally: coolant.)

It's traditionally served with bhang (edible cannabis - which is legal in India!) but even without that it's truly terrific. It's very sweet but you can cut back.


(serves 2)

2 cups milk

8 cashew nuts
8 blanched almonds
8 pistachios
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 long peppers (pippali)
4 green cardamoms
4-6 dried rose buds
1 tsp poppy seeds
pinch of saffron

2 tbsp sugar (or more to taste!)

Note 1: The CC has gone easy on the sugar. It's much more sugary than this.

Note 2: The rose buds are not optional. That's what gives the dish its characteristic fragrance. You can find them in your local Chinatown.

Note 3: It also sometimes features magaz seeds (edible kernel of watermelon seeds) but it's reasonably exotic and the CC left it out. Add 8 of them if you have them.

Note 4: The sugar in the recipe catalyzes the bhang in your brain and gives a "higher high". The nuts which have fat help dissolve the fat-soluble cannabis.

Note 5: The recipe has connections to Mughal culture. The Mughal Emperors were massive opium addicts. Oddly, alcohol wasn't much in fashion possibly because of Muslim edicts. The same logic of catalysis and sugar applies to opium.

Note 6: All the spices used are considered "cooling spices" in Indian cooking which makes sense since Holi comes on the cusp of the absurdly hot Indian summer.

Note 7: The black pepper and long pepper are "hot spices" and they're there for "balance". A ridiculous concept but you must enter into the medieval Indian mindset.


Soak all the ingredients in the milk for at least two hours. Blend in a blender finely.

Strain and serve cold.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pommes Anna

When your life is in total disarray as is wont to happen from time to time, only Julia Child will do.

Structured potatoes and butter because you need some structure in your chaotic life. And as Julia says, butter makes everything better.

(A judicious amount of duck fat makes it even better. Oh, Julia!)

Most likely, the dish was prepared by Adolphe Dugléré who was a pupil of Marie-Antoine Carême who was quite possibly the greatest celebrity chef of all time. The eponymous Anna is unknown although theories proliferate.

Do we care? No, we don't bloody care. Potatoes and butter, does the CC really need to upsell this?

It's on pages 394-397 of Vol. II.

It should be trivially obvious that when a recipe features just four ingredients — butter, potatoes, salt and paper towels — and yet occupies three whole pages of explanation, it's going to be awesome.

Ironically, it's not hard. It's very easy. It just requires the one thing that's missing in modern cooking — patience.

All you have to do is "nothing". Can you patiently sit with your thumb up your ass for a longish time? That's all it takes.

That and a mandoline.

What is it?

It's a potato pie that looks really pretty and bejeweled if done right except it's made in a skillet.

It's been modified somewhat from Julia. This is more la bonne cuisine femme than it is la cuisine de roi.

Thank me no thankings, Julia, nor proud me no prouds.


melted butter

pepper/herbs (optional)

patience (metric tons of it!)

Note 1: You will need a cast-iron skillet or a non-stick pan with a loose cover. Don't sweat it. Even a simple aluminum foil will do. The heat never goes above medium. It's much more important that the heat be uniform than anything else.

Note 2: You need to cook the potatoes as soon as you slice them. You need the starchiness of the potatoes to make sure the dish sticks correctly.


Melt some butter in a pan. Take off the heat. (This is what makes the recipe awesomely stress-free. No need to work in real-time. Chillax is the name of the game.)

Now, slice the potatoes as thinly as possible on a mandoline. Layer them in the pan so that they all touch and overlap and look pretty.

Drizzle some more butter over them. Season with some salt. (Add some finely chopped herbs here if you'd like.)

Overlap a second layer. Repeat with the butter, salt, and a third layer and a fourth one.

Put the pan back on the stove at medium heat. Once the butter melts, you should start hearing it sizzle at a low pace. This is when your patience kicks in.

(A generous pour of butter or olive oil around the edges doesn't hurt at this point.)

The pan will sizzle and the fat spit a little. Cover the pan for just  a minute so that the potatoes soften gently. Uncover.

Gently rock the pan to see if the starch in the potatoes have made them attach to each other. Let them keep cooking at medium heat. There should be a continuous sizzle.

When you smell the potatoes turn golden and toasty, it's time to gently turn them over. This is a bit tricky. Use a dish if you need to. You most likely will not need it.

Cook until the other side is also golden and crispy.

Enjoy your, "Oh sweet baby Jeebus, Julia is so much better" moment!