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.

Ingredients

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.

Cooking.

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.

Ingredients

(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)

Recipe

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


(Source: LiveScience.com.)

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.

Ingredients

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)

Recipe

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.

Vegetables

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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

Seaweed

Ingredients

1/2 tsp dried wakame
1 sheet nori

Recipe

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

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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.

Ramen

Ingredients

2 packages frozen ramen
2 tbsp. roasted sesame seeds

Recipe

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.

Michelada

Ingredients

(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)

Recipe

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)

Ingredients

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)

salt
pepper

Recipe

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

Ingredients

8 slices of good bread

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

salted cultured butter

Recipe

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.

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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.

Ingredients

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)

Recipe

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.

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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

Ingredients

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

Recipe

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.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ginger x 2

Ginger is a unique substance. It's origin is clearly in South Asia from where it has spread far and wide. Its use in everything from the Japanese gari to ginger ale to gingerbread and ginger snaps means that it's about as ancient as spices come.

The CC would like to talk about a very specific thing. Dried ginger.

The flavors are completely different from the fresh variety and they are not substitutes for each other. You will see the dried version most often in the context of Moroccan, Tunisian, or Indian cooking.

Fresh ginger has a pungent edge. Dried ginger has an edge but it's a lot more mellow. It has a positively fragrant disposition.

The CC has seen dried ginger in two forms. One is the whole root. You cut off as much as you need and grind it as needed. (A coffee grinder rocks out just fine.)

The second is pre-ground which is fine too but you need to store it in the fridge. It has a tendency to absorb moisture and will spoil.

There's also a half-way house which is dried ginger slices that you can then grind.

One of the classic uses of dried ginger in the pan-North-African-made-its-way-to-India context is its use as a sprinkling over pulped fruit. Specifically fruit that is very sweet. Specifically mangoes.

The dried ginger acts as a tonic cutting through the absurd sweetness of the fruit. Salt is another way of doing the same and you frequently see dried ginger in this context.

Of course, its also used in innumerable spice mixtures but that's not very surprising.

Many cookie recipes from Europe also call for dried ginger not the least because it doesn't have any moisture which would change the ratios of the ingredients needed although these days the hipsters are sneaking back in fresh ginger.

However, as the CC has already stated. They are not substitutes. They are fully equals and just different things even though the derive from the same source.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Asparagus, Peas & Parmesan Purée

This is another one of those magical combos which is perfect for spring and easy to make.

The CC made it with fresh peas because he had some but frozen is fine here.

The CC has served this on a bruschetta topped with the asparagus spears and also as a pizza base. Toss with pasta if you like. It's truly amazing.

Ingredients

1 bunch asparagus
1 1/2 cup peas (frozen is fine)
1 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano

black pepper
salt (if necessary)

Recipe

First cut up the asparagus. Separate the tender spears and set aside. Then for each stem decide by pressing where the woody bottom portion is and discard. Set the stems aside.

Steam the stems and the peas for about 8 minutes.

Then steam the spears for no more than 1 minute. Be careful. You want some texture left here. They are very soft and will just go limp and disintegrate.

Blend the stems, peas, parmesan, and black pepper in a blender with some water.

Add some more salt to the paste if it needs it. Depends on the saltiness of the cheese really.

(You can also thin the paste if you like if you want to toss with pasta, etc.)

The paste and the spears are now your friends. Top a toasted piece of bread with the paste and top with the spear. Watch them disappear!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bacterial Overload

Recently the CC went to one of those outdoor street fairs where there was a pickle stand. They were also selling some of the pickled juice blended with tomatoes as a "Bloody Mary Mix". The vendors kept apologizing and warning clients who wanted to buy it that it was not pasteurized.

And the CC was completely nonplussed, "So it has come to this?"

It doesn't need to be pasteurized!

There is a fundamental lack of understanding by people who work in food about our relationship with other bio-agents and particularly the organisms that we are deeply symbiotic with namely bacteria.

At this point in time, advertising agencies have basically convinced consumers that bacteria are "evil" but nothing could be further from the truth.

The standard mechanism of cultivating bacteria in the lab is creating something called a "culture". Basically, a swab of bacteria are grown on a substrate and then examined under a microscope. Based on this, it was estimated that something like 1% of a human mass was actually bacteria. Little did people know how wrong this estimate turned out to be.

In the early part of the 21st century, the price of DNA sequencers fell precipitously. What used to be an expensive tool became dirt cheap. Scientists had the entirely brilliant idea of not measuring bacteria by mass but by what percentage of DNA of our body was made up of bacteria. Turns out the answer is between 90-99%.

Remember the two estimates are of different things. One is by weight and the other is by percentage of DNA that is non-human. They are different things but the latter estimate is clearly the more important.

To put it differently, we humans exist for the benefit of the bacteria not the other way around. Of course, we are extraordinarily symbiotic with them. We provide them the food and they provide us both protection by repelling all the "bad bacteria" and do significant portions of body work for us.

In fact, the bacteria on your left and right hands are completely different.

So why did the earlier scientists get it so wrong? How can the estimates be so off?

You should be able to guess the answer. Not every bacteria can grow in the "culture". In fact, they can only survive in that localized environment inside the body that they have adapted to.

The answer is even more complex. There's no such thing as "good" or "bad" bacteria. It's contextual. You move the "good" bacteria from the right spot where they are supposed to be into the wrong spot and they will become "bad" bacteria. The context is completely important.

The bacteria that we are the most symbiotic with is a family called lactobacillus. Every time, you eat yogurt, eat or drink miso, eat pickles, cheese, kimchi, drink beer or wine, you are basically consuming them in vast quantities. They do the fermentation for us, and in turn, they repel other harmful bacteria for us. We are completely reliant on them.

So now maybe you can guess why the pickled juice blended with tomatoes did not need to be pasteurized?

The lactobacilli would repel any invader which there are not that many of to start with because of the acidity of the environment. The lactobacilli are the rare family that has adapted to the acidic environment thanks to their symbiosis with us.

Fermented foods have a long history of being considered "good for you". It was just an empirical observation over large swathes of human history in vastly different regions and contexts but they all came to the same conclusion.

Only in the 21st century is science able to actually dissect how all these various extraordinarily-complex mechanisms actually work.

But the CC's point is a lot larger. How have we gotten to a point where the most basic food interaction is fraught with anxiety? The answer is that Madison Ave. has made you paranoid.

The CC never relies on the expiration dates for milk. Just smell it. It's pretty obvious. Sometimes it will go bad before the expiration date!

The same goes for fermentation and fermented products. They work in a complex way and made correctly will last forever. Experienced picklers never throw out the juice. They use a cup of it to start off the next batch because it has the complex blend of bacteria all ready to give the next batch the right start.

Pickling is one of the greatest achievements in food technology. Just remember that for most of human history, humans were food deprived. Our modern calorie-rich environment is an extraordinarily recent development barely 50 years old. Pickling was the trick that allowed humans to store food for the winter. It also gave variety and complexity to their diet and the symbiotic relationship with the bacteria made for healthier humans.

The CC hopes that this explanation convinces people not to think of bacteria as "evil" but our necessary partners in the game of life. We need them; they need us. We can't actually function without them.

So the next time you're at the fair eating a pickle-on-a-stick, you should not think to yourself "Ooh! crunchy cucumber", you should really be thinking "Ooh! Tons of bacteria with a side helping of crunchy cucumber!"

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chilled Beet Gazpacho

It's still winter here which means even though the weather says spring, all we have are winter vegetables. Beets are the answer.

If you use golden beets instead of the red ones, you will have a gorgeous yellow soup. There is just enough vinegar in the recipe to wake up your taste buds.

Speaking of which, our taste buds behave very differently with hot and cold food. It takes a lot more of the same stuff to make an impression at lower temperatures — obvious enough ("kinetic energy of the molecules") — so you need to amp up the seasonings a tiny bit.

Ingredients

4 large beets
5 cloves garlic
1 onion
1 tbsp. French mustard
6 tbsp. sherry-wine vinegar (your best)

sea salt
chives (for garnish)

Recipe

Steam the beets until they are soft. The skin will peel off. Dice.

In a blender, combine all the ingredients with 2 cups of cold water. Process to a smooth-textured purée. Refrigerate.

If you want a finer soup, re-blend the soup right before serving. Garnish with chives.

Even a few hours is very little time to allow it cool down sufficiently in summer. Empirically, the CC had to toss in a few ice cubes after 4 hours to make it taste like it should. You should make it at least 8 hours ahead of time and let it chill. Even a day ahead is not too much.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fowl Technical Tricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is something so simple so magical?

Three reasons.

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

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

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

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons & Green Olives

(serves 4)

Ingredients

4 chicken thighs
1 large onion (grated)

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

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

large pinch of saffron

2 cups chicken broth

salt
3 tbsp. duck fat

Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Assemble the tagine.

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

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

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

Serve over couscous. (Recipe below.)

Couscous with Chickpeas, Raisins & Scallions

(serves 4 generously)

Ingredients

2 cups couscous

1/2 cup chickpeas
1 cup raisins
2 scallions

2 tbsp. cultured butter
2 1/2 cups water

salt

Recipe

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

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

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



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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Orecchiette with Peas and Buttermilk-Parmesan Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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



Ingredients

(serves 2 generously)

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

1/2 tbsp. butter

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

Recipe

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

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

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

Serve.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Classic Fish Pie

Amazing British Food? Surely that's an oxymoron.

Not so fast, my fine friends.

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

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

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

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

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

It was all completely annihilated.

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

It took another 60 years to recover.

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

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

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

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

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

What's presented below is a classic fish pie.

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

How does it work?

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

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

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

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

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

This is technique at the highest level!


Ingredients

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

1 cup water
1 cup milk

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

1 small carrot (diced)
1/2 cup peas

1 bay leaf
12-20 black peppercorns
parsley

nutmeg
parsley

3 large potatoes
milk
chives

sea salt

Recipe

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

Filter and retain the broth.

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

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

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

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

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

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

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

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

Serve with a salad.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Clam, White Bean & Saffron Soup with Parmesan Toasts

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

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

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

Parmesan Toasts

(yields 8 triangles)

Ingredients

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

Recipe

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

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

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

Clam, White Bean & Saffron Soup

(serves 2)

Ingredients

2 dozen clams

1 small onion (sliced into thin half-rounds)

1/4 cup white beans

olive oil

large pinch of saffron

black pepper

Recipe

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Ballad of Bouillabaisse

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

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

Is this a great poem? Emphatically not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . . . .

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

Indian-Style Chinese Corn Soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a classic corn soup.

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

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

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

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

"Of course! They are using MSG."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

Paste

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

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

5-6 cups dashi

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

1 tbsp. corn starch
6 tbsp. ice water

salt
white pepper

To Serve

1 scallion (diced into fine rounds)

cilantro (finely chopped)

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

soy sauce

Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serve with the fixin's!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Black Chickpea Sundal

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

1 cup black chickpeas

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

coconut oil
salt

Recipe

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why Does My Kitchen Get Dirty?

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

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

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

"Why does it splatter in the first place?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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