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!

 

Ingredients

(serves 4)

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

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

butter
salt

3-4 tbsp pav bhaji masala

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

12-16 pieces pav

Toppings

red onions (finely chopped)
lime
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.

Recipe

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)

Ingredients

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.

Recipe

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)

Ingredients

4 sheets nori

3 cups ichiban dashi
soy sauce
mirin

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.

Recipe

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)

Ingredients

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.

Recipe

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.

Ingredients

(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.

Recipe

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.

Ingredients

potatoes
melted butter
salt

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.

Recipe

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!

Green Peppercorn Pickles

The CC is not the sentimental type and he's certainly not the rhapsodising type but if there ever were something to send him into a Proustian "madeleine" moment, it would be these pickles.

What are they?

Fresh green peppercorns that have been pickled with just salt and lime.

A good friend of the CC's used to eat them with yogurt-rice. He couldn't cook if his life depended on it (still can't!) so these were "a lifeline for kitchen failures and the lovelorn". Bit of a harsh judgment on the CC's part.

Back to the peppercorns.

Only going to work with fresh peppercorns which are hard to find. Ideally, you would use just salt but you need lime to get the pH of the liquid down to the right level. The lime does not participate in the final product as a taste since the canning process neutralizes it.

If you're going to make truly great steak au poivre or the classic Thai green fish curry with green peppercorns (พริกไทยอ่อน), these be the peppercorns that you want to use. In a wondrous world, you'd have fresh peppercorns all year around but it's not a wondrous world. We can just make it a little more wondrous with food technology.


Ingredients

(based on your canning jar size)

500 grams green peppercorns
8 tbsp sea salt
4 limes (juiced and passed through a sieve)

water

Note: Canning jars come with a sealant. The sealant is activated when inverted in boiling water.

Recipe

Wash the peppercorns really carefully. Set aside.

Bring water to a boil. Dump the bottle inside and fish it out. You are just sterilizing the bottle. In this bottle, drop the peppercorns, the salt and the lime juice. Add enough cold fresh water to top off the jar.

Add the sealing mechanism and seal carefully. Gently put the bottle upside-down in the boiling water. Bring to a boil and let it boil for about 5-6 minutes.

Fish it out and let it sit.

Takes about 2-3 weeks to pickle. Once you open the bottle, you must keep it in the fridge. Use a clean fork/spoon to fish out the pickles. Add more salt and water to cover them when you do so.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Noodles with Dried Shrimp and Scallion Oil (开洋葱油面)

When you cook a lot, you develop a "nose" not just literally but also when reading recipes of where magnificence may lie. This one is from Fuchsia Dunlop's latest book Land of Fish and Rice which are recipes from the Jiangnan region of China.

It was invented by a street food vendor which is evident since everything except the noodles and the very quick stir-fry can be made ahead of time.

Literally "spring onion oil noodles", this recipe is simplicity itself. She rightfully compares it to the Italian spaghetti aglio e peperoncino.

The textures blend perfectly — the soft noodles slippery coated with the oil, the crunchy shrimp soaked in flavor, the crispy and soft spring onions, the umami.

This recipe is also "naked". The short list of ingredients tell you that. It's also an umami-bomb. Perfect for a light lunch or a snack.

This stuff is seriously addictive. The CC will not be surprised if some (most?) of the blog readers here start craving it weekly.

(Source: Fuchsia Dunlop)

Ingredients

(serves 2)

7 oz dried noodles

2 tbsp dried shrimp
2 tsp Shaoxing wine

4 spring onions (cut into 2" pieces - both green and white)

4–5 tsp light or tamari soy sauce (to taste)

6 tbsp cooking oil

Note 1: The CC increases the amount of shrimp if he wants a heartier meal.

Recipe

Soak the shrimp in the Shaoxing wine along with some hot water to cover it for 30 minutes. Drain the shrimp. Discard the liquid.

In a wok, heat up the oil and add the onions. Stir fry till the white parts turn golden. Add the shrimp and stir-fry until the onions are browned but not burnt.

In parallel, cook the noodles and drain.

In a bowl, put the soy sauce at the bottom, the noodles above it, and pour the spring onion, shrimp, oil mixture over it. Mix with chopsticks and eat at once.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Menu

Lamb chops with rosemary, anchovies & lemon

Saffron Roasted Potatoes

Brussel Sprouts with Parmesan & Pomegranates

Champagne with Pomegranates

Russian Cookies

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Saffron Roasted Potatoes

This recipe is also the epitome of simplicity. The CC got it from a friend who used to subscribe to the old Gourmet magazine. The CC would just like to record it here before it disappears.

Easy to make ahead of time, a sleeper hit, and easy to reheat.

Ingredients

1 lb new potatoes
3-4 tbsp tomato paste
saffron

salt
pepper
olive oil

parsley

Note 1: The CC likes the new potatoes in their jackets. You could par-boil and remove the skin if you prefer. If so, cut back on the cooking times.

Note 2: Don't skimp on either the tomato paste or the saffron.

Recipe

Heat some olive oil, fry the tomato paste in it. Add a few tbsp of water to it. Toss in two large pinches of saffron and take off the heat.

Lay the potatoes in a baking sheet, pour the liquid all over it, and bake at 400°F for 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are lightly browned.

(You can also par-boil the potatoes and then finish the cooking in the original vessel. Both methods work equally well.)

Finely dice the parsley and sprinkle on top right before serving.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Brussel Sprouts with Parmesan & Pomegranates

Every year when Thanksgiving rolls around, the CC remembers a little too late that he has forgotten to post this recipe. This year he's determined not to repeat the same old error.

This is simplicity itself and yet amazing.

Ingredients

(serves 2)

20-24 brussel sprouts
olive oil
salt
pepper

1 cup coarsely grated parmigiano-reggiano

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

Note 1: Under-salt the brussel sprouts a little because the parmesan is salty too.

Note 2: This recipe is actually better at room temperature or just warm rather than hot. You can make it ahead of time.

Note 3: Not kidding when saying that it serves 2. The CC has continuously increased the amounts over the years and there are never any leftovers!

Recipe

Shave the brussel sprouts with a mandoline. If you don't have one, cut them real fine with a knife.

In a shallow vessel — a wok works great! — heat up some olive oil. When hot, dump in the shaved sprouts, salt and pepper, and sauté until they are done.

Take off the heat and toss with the grated parmesan.

Top with pomegranate seeds right before serving. Adds both a visual punch and a sweet crunchy counterpoint to the umami and salty flavors.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Soy Me Up, Soy me Down!

There are soy sauces and there are soy sauces but they are neither equivalent nor substitutes.

Historically, soy sauce arose in China but it spread across South-East Asia and then the world. As it spread, the production became local and its irresistible umami flavors were tweaked to local tastes.

That means that Chinese, Japanese and Thai soy sauces (just to use three as an example) are totally different. Even within a single culture there are multiple kinds of soy sauce that have different end uses. This parallels the equally different kinds of fish sauce each tweaked to local tastes.

The CC can hear the screams from the peanut gallery already.

"You mean to say, that I must now stock different kinds of soy sauces?!? Are you nuts?"

Sadly yes.

If you want to get the right flavors then yes, and yes the CC is nuts. (Not much doubt, was there?)

The point about the "right" flavor is made most memorably in one of the episodes of the serialized food manga Oishinbo (美味しんぼ).

The name is a portmanteau word between oishii (= 美味しい, delicious) and kuishinbou (= 食いしん坊, glutton). On the one hand, the manga has a simple format which is important in a serialized format just like a sit-com, which is why it ran for 30+ years, but it's so heavy-handed and Oedipal that Freud might have objected!

However, it's both excellent and makes important points. At one point, the father upstages the son by making the same dish with the same ingredients but using Chinese soy sauces rather than the equivalent Japanese versions because the dish is of Chinese-Japanese origin not truly Japanese. (As stated, heavy-handed but still with a point.)

If you choose to engage in this journey, these are not expensive products and they store indefinitely in a cool and dark environment so it's not as big a burden as it sounds.

How many can you get away with at the bare minimum?

The CC is guessing between four and six — two for Thai food, one or two for Japanese, and one to two for Chinese. More if you want to cook Indo-Chinese or Filipino.

Sorry.

Just don't shoot the messenger.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Pad See Ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว)

This dish is a favorite in Thai restaurants everywhere and the CC has spent plenty of money on it in increasingly dubious renditions. It was time to take the bull by the horns (or the wok by the handle) and get it right.

There is one massive hurdle that all home chefs are going to have to jump over. Your stove (and the CC's too!) simply don't generate enough heat. They don't pump out enough BTU's. There is no way to recover from this and compare your dish with the street food that it is. You'll get a very good approximation but you'll never match the street.

(If you happen to have one of those professional ranges, the CC is jealous as all hell.)

There is another thought that the CC has had on and off over the years.

The CC was near Chinatown for jury duty when he thought that he should he make this recipe. He did pick up one or two of the ingredients that he was missing. It would've been effortless to pick up the Chinese broccoli since it was plentiful and cheap. However, the CC knew that he had a ton of kale with splendid stalks in his fridge.

It's very easy to just duplicate a recipe but in order to get to the next level and understand its internal grammar, you must understand what makes it really tick.

This recipe is street food. Do you genuinely believe they care about anything more than what makes them a profit and what is locally available?

There is a secondary point. The first time the CC made it for himself (solo siempre solamente solo), he fucked up so spectacularly that it was embarrassing. What was interesting was that even though the noodles were absolutely inedible, the chicken, kale, eggs and sauce were absolutely delicious. Noodles got discarded and the rest was more amazing than any restaurant could make.

So the flavors had been nailed but the texture had some issues. No problem. Tried a few days later. Got there.

(On a related note, why don't food writers talk about their failures? Failures are vastly more instructive than success.)

The dish literally just means "stir-fried with soy sauce". Its name betrays its Chinese origins. You'll see the same dish as char kway teow in Singapore and Malaysia or lard na in Laos. However, just with a few tweaks, the dish has been made "Thai" and it's truly amazing how such small tweaks can make a dish "native". It also points out how immigrants have made cuisine richer through cross-pollination.

There's a massive difference between Chinese broccoli and anything else you could use. It's softer and eminently workable as a stir-fry.

Kale would work as would just regular broccoli. What would totally kill would be broccoli rabe. The trick for the home cook since they don't have the heat for the wok is to make sure the stalks and the florets have the right texture. French chefs have been dealing with this forever. It's called par-boiling. The CC will give you the general parameters but for once you will have to par-boil for yourself. Early winter kale is very different from later winter stalk-y kale. There is no way to standardize. Just par-boil until the stuff is "barely chewy" and then drain, dry completely before you stir-fry.

For the record, the kale slayed. The CC's intuition was absolutely on target. The darker slightly more bitter taste held up much more to the sweetness and umami of the stir-fry and made it vastly more interesting. The balance of flavors corresponds to the Thai ideal.

Lunch is served.

Ingredients

(serves 1 - read note about scaling)

rice noodles (sen yai)

1 cup Chinese broccoli (gai lan)

1-2 cloves garlic (minced)
1/4 cup chicken (sliced against the grain)
1 egg (beaten)

1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1/2 tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
black pepper
sugar

peanut oil

Note 1: Make sure that the total "wet" sauce is no more than 2 1/2 tbsp per serving. You will never get your home wok hot enough to counter that. This is IMPORTANT.

Note 2: Because of the above, you may need to use salt to balance out the sugar. Normally, you'd just use more soy sauce or fish sauce but it's not going to work if you make the stuff wetter than necessary.

Note 3: This ain't no "health dish". You'll need to add some extra oil so that the stuff doesn't stick.

Note 4: The max "scaling" for a home cook is 2 portions. There is just no way to get the wok hotter and make it work. You'll have to clean the wok and start over for more.

Note 5: The original recipe calls for "white pepper". It's a Thai aesthetic thing except this particular sauce is black. Ain't no one that got time for such shenanigans. Just use black pepper finely ground.

Note 6: The rice noodles (unless fresh which are hard to get) must be par-boiled according to the instructions. They must be drained, dried and separated.

Note 7: They also add carrots sliced very thin (stir-fry, stir-fry!) steeply on the diagonal. Highly recommended not just for the color pop but also the taste and nutrition.

Note 8: This is a stir-fry. The drier you get your ingredients, the more success you will have. Invest in paper towels.

Note 9: Thank you, David Thompson.

Recipe

The recipe is quite straightforward but do try and follow it. Make sure everything is diced and ready to in quickly.

Mix all the sauces in a container. Taste. Modify according to what you like.

Heat the wok. Just let it heat for at least 5-7 minutes.

Add 1-2 tbsp peanut oil. When it is shimmering, add the garlic and immediately add the chicken. Stir quickly. Add the egg and mix it up. Push it to the edge of the wok. Add the stalks first and fry for a bit. Then the leaves. Push everything to the edge.

Add the rice noodles which have been par-cooked. Stir and separate. You may need to use your hands and add an extra 1-2 tbsp of peanut oil.

Let the mixture stir for a while. Once the noodles have caramelized a bit, add the sauces and stir-fry for a minute or two. Serve at once.

This recipe has no shelf life.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Watalappam

This dessert (also frequently transliterated as watalappan) is probably one of the CC's favorites even though the CC is not much of a dessert person to start with!

It's related functionally to the very Spanish flan which is another one of the CC's favorites.

The massive difference between the two is that the Sri Lankan dessert substitutes coconut milk for the cream and milk in the original. This changes the chemistry in a significant way. It also adds a ton of "sweet" spices that flourish on the island. The sugar is substituted by a very specific palm jaggery which adds a smoky flavor and brown color to the product.

Flan is notoriously hard to make. It's very finicky about the percentage of fat in the cream and the milk and the water content. Flubs are common and the act of making it requires real skill.

Almodóvar films an entire flan recipe in his movie Volver. It's both a love ode to the wonderful dessert and a character study in the great tradition of silent films. By eavesdropping on a character who's clearly very talented at making it, and watching her do the thing she loves, we learn more about her than could be inferred from mere dialog.

The chemistry of coconut milk is much simpler than that of cream plus milk. Some genius made the substitution historically and it's a knockout since the proportions in coconut milk are exactly right to get the correct consistency and hence, flubbing is kept to at a minimum.

The jaggery that needs to be used is a palm jaggery called kithul jaggery. It's a little hard to find but it has a characteristic flavor that's hard to reproduce. Regular jaggery simply doesn't have the smoky flavor and it's not sweet enough.

The CC found it in London of all places which led someone to remark, "What does the CC do in London? He buys Sri Lankan jaggery and hauls it back to New York." This has irony written all over it since the CC was in Sri Lanka earlier in the year and didn't haul it back then. However, the bottom line is "Globalization, baby!"

The dessert is traditionally steamed but you can easily make it in an oven with a water bath as long as you have large pans. It also scales effortlessly. Best of all, it needs to be made ahead of time and cooled so you will be able to impress your guests without much effort.

It's just pure magic.



Ingredients

(serves 4)

100 gram kithul jaggery
200 ml coconut milk

2 cloves
1 large stick cinnamon
1 vanilla pod
3 cardamom pods
nutmeg

5 large eggs (read notes!)

Note 1: The jaggery is conveniently sold in 100 gram units wrapped in the dried palm leaves.

Note 2: The amount of milk in a standard can of coconut milk is close to 200 ml. Good enough. This recipe is quite forgiving. Shake it well before opening.

Note 3: The CC has seen pandanus leaves (called rampe in Sinhalese) added to the coconut milk. Great taste if you have some. Can be found frozen and work like a charm.

Note 4: The jaggery is quite hard and tradition calls for shaving it. The CC smashed it with a hammer and used the pieces. It made no difference since it dissolves completely and you will filter the product anyway. Tradition frequently wastes time without asking the obvious questions.

Note 5: If you use regular jaggery, you will need 4-8 tbsp of brown sugar to get the right sweetness.

Note 6: There is no way to predict how many eggs will be needed. Firstly, the coconut milks have different amounts of liquid. Secondly, the eggs are of different sizes even within the same grade. Lastly, the yolks are of different sizes. The CC started with four and then was forced to add one more to get it right. Chances are you might need an extra egg or one less. Start with four and go from there.

Recipe

Remove the cardamom seeds from the pod. Crush the cloves and cardamom in a mortar and pestle.

In a saucepan, heat up the ground cardamom and cloves, vanilla pod, cinnamon and ground nutmeg with the coconut milk and the jaggery. Bring it to a boil and turn down the heat to very low. Stir until everything dissolves and the spices steep into the liquid. Roughly 12-15 minutes. This also has the advantage of removing some of the moisture from the coconut milk.

Taste it. It should be cloyingly sweet and the spices should be prominent. (Don't worry. The final product will be nowhere near as sweet. We still have the eggs, remember?)

Strain the liquid into a bowl and let it cool down to room temperature. (Stick it in a freezer if you're in a hurry.) Discard any spices or solids left behind. Make sure that the mixture is cold otherwise the eggs will scramble when you incorporate them.

Beat the eggs but not too much. Don't incorporate too much air into them.

Strain the egg mixture using a fine sieve into the cold coconut milk liquid above. You will need to use a whisk to get the egg mixture through the sieve.

This step is CRUCIAL. The final product will simply not work without it.

Mix the batter gently to incorporate it completely. It should be slightly dense and thick but still liquid.

Split the mixture evenly into four oven-proof bowls. Cover each of them tightly with aluminum foil.

Now, you have two choices.

Steaming: Steam the four bowls in a steamer for 40 minutes. Check at that mark. They should be jiggly. If not, steam for an extra 5 minutes.

Baking: You're not really baking. You will need a deep pan that can hold the bowls. Preheat the oven to 350°F for 10 minutes. Heat some water in a kettle. Place the bowls in the pan. When the oven is heated, and the water is boiling, pour it in the pan around the bowls. Cover the pan itself with a separate piece of aluminum foil and put it in the oven. Steam for 40 minutes. Check. If not jiggly enough, steam for an additional 5 minutes.

The trick with the water is that all the energy is going into vaporizing the water so that the egg mixture itself never goes above the boiling point of water. Very clever and this clearly scales effortlessly.

Let them cool down to room temperature. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. They are frequently topped with more cashews and raisins but this is a bit of gilding the lily.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pickles

It's not well known but the CC is crazy about pickles.

Broadly speaking, the world of pickles is divided into two kinds — acid-based and oil-based.

This has everything to do with botulism which is a bacterium that grows in the absence of oxygen. You need some technical chops to make oil-based pickles.

Acid-based pickles are vastly easier. Firstly, the acid prevents the growth of bacteria in the first place, and secondly, they're just tastier by the CC's taste buds. So life is easy for the CC.

The CC has grown up with pickles. He used to make them routinely as a kid with his grandmother and his great-grandmother (!) growing up. Looking back, it seems painfully clear that the grandmother wasn't that particularly interested in them. She continued for a few years after her mother died but that tapered pretty quickly. The family was even less interested which leaves the CC as the sole flag-bearer. And so it goes.

Except for the absolutely amazingly awesome green-peppercorn and lime pickles, the CC doesn't care for any of them. (They were mostly oil-based. Except the one that the CC likes. Hence the bias.)

The Indians and the Japanese have an vast tradition of pickling. (Other cultures obviously do too but the CC is just pointing this out as a compare-and-contrast.)

It's quite extraordinary. It was much more needed in the Japanese case because of the short growing season. It was completely unnecessary in the Indian case but the CC assumes they just loved the taste?

Fast forward to the modern world and the Japanese have an amazing device that allows you to make pickles without mistakes. It's just a plastic doo-hickey that presses down. It serves two purposes. It allows you to keep the vegetables below the water line, and if necessary, it presses down to allow vegetables to release their juices.

It works like a charm.

The absolutely simplest pickle involves just three ingredients — four, if you count water.

It's called 塩漬け (shiozuke - salted pickles.) The konbu and the salt combine to add a magical umami to the final product. Salt lowers the pH. They are acid-pickles in all but name.

The firmer the ingredient, the easier it is. It's pure magic with such things as the stalks of rainbow chard or watermelon rind.

Theoretically, the hard stalks of kale or broccoli should work but the brassica family simply doesn't taste that great. The CC has tried it. It basically sucks. Let it go.

These pickles are best eaten within three to seven days because the ingredients will continue to soften but you want that crunch!

Ingredients

rainbow chard stalks
4 tbsp salt
2 small cuts of konbu

boiling water

Recipe

Cut and wash the stalks. In a clean sterile container, layer the konbu followed by the stalks. Top with the salt.

Pour boiling water all over it. Figure out a way to make sure that the ingredients stay below the water line.

Ready in three days.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Kaeng Som (Thai Sour Curry - แกงส้ม)

This is the ultimate grande dame of Thai curries.

On the one hand, it's so simple to make that it's made almost weekly in Thai households. On the other hand, simply because of that everyone, their mother, their grandmother, their dead great-grandmother and her long-dead ancestors have an opinion about it!

(Read the post about food and identity to understand this phenomenon.)

That having been said, the dish is easy to make casually but extarordinarily hard to make expertly.

It's hard for the same reason that chefs routinely test novices with making an omelette, or that you end up skating naked making certain Italian dishes.

You're using a minimal set of ingredients, and there's no place to hide. Either you nail it or you don't, and if you don't, there's no way to fix it.

It's the ultimate test of technique. It's doubly hard for those of us who didn't grow up with a Thai grandmother beating us up while we were learning. We're going to have to take our beatings the ol'-fashioned way via experience.

What is it?

It's a simple water-based "sour" curry that's really quite "primitive" (to use David Thompson's description) in which vegetables and fish are simmered. It's served with rice (of course!)

There are only five ingredients that matter - chillies (which are emphatically not Thai but New World), garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, and tamarind.

There are also ingredients that will "balance" it - e.g. palm sugar, etc.

All the magic is in the paste which takes a bit of effort with a mortar and pestle. Thai curries simply don't work with food processors. You need to pound the ingredients.  (The neighbors rang the bell to check that everything was OK since the sound of pounding wafted out the kitchen window. It sure was, kids, it sure was!)

For the record, it's harder to pound soft ingredients into the right consistency than hard ingredients. This one is filled with soft ingredients — garlic and shallots.

If you persist, and the CC is sure that the readers on this blog are the kind that would do so, you'll be rewarded with sheer magnificence. Everything that is so wonderful about Thai food distilled down into one elegant minimalist package.

Ingredients

Paste

2 tbsp dried shrimp

4-6 long red chilies
3 red shallots
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp shrimp paste

2 cups water
tamarind water (thin)

vegetables
fish

fish sauce (nahm pla) to taste
palm sugar (optional)

Note 1: The kinds of vegetables you can add varies. Long beans are classic as are bamboo shoots, or raw papaya but the CC has seen modern stuff like cauliflower, cabbage, etc.

Note 2: The village roots of this dish should be "obvious".

Note 3: There is a relatively modern variation that plonks in a square-piece of cha-om omelette. Cha-om is going to be impossible to find outside of California. It has a strongly sulfurous smell exactly like that of kala namak in Indian food. The texture is not dissimilar to samphire. If you're feeling particularly flush with money, the combination would do the trick. Otherwise substitute a bitter green and kala namak for a rough approximation.

Note 4: You still need to make the square "omelettes". Cook them thick with egg in a pan like a frittata. Flip, cook the other side. Cool and cut into squares. (They should be quite dry since you're going to plop them into a curry.)

Note 5: This is not a "fancy" dish. All the crazy caveats aside, this is closer to the fast and the furious. You should be able to make it in at most 30 minutes if you get all your ingredients in a row.

Note 6: There is considerable warfare even among the Thai population about how "thin" the curry should be. The CC is going to stay out of this particular "Vietnam".

Note 7: Side dish. The ultimate test of serving Asian food. Keep it simple. The dish is spicy hence sliced cucumbers.

Note 8: You need a fish broth ideally. David Thompson suggests pounding some dried shrimp as the first step of the recipe. Works like a charm. Instant "fish broth" as the deeply dead great-great-great-grandmother would've understood and appreciated.

Note 9: The "correct" sequence of pounding is the driest hardest first to softest wettest last. This just makes it easy to do the pounding. In this case, it would be dried shrimp, soaked chilies, garlic, shallots. and finally shrimp paste.

Recipe

First make the tamarind water. Soak the lump of tamarind in 1/2 cup of boiling water for 20 minutes. Strain it squeezing the tamarind. You can do this directly into the boiling water later.

Soak the separately chilies in boiling water for the same 20 minutes. Pull out the chilies. Reserve the water to add to the broth.

Roast the dried shrimp briefly on a skillet. Put aside. On the same skillet, roast the shrimp paste wrapped in aluminum foil. Flip and keep roasting until it gives off its characteristic smell. Be careful not to burn it.

(These first three steps can clearly be done in parallel.)

Start making the paste. Pound the dried shrimp followed by the chilies, the garlic, and the shallots. Add the roasted shrimp paste and make a smooth paste.

Combine the stock, tamarind water and paste and bring to a boil. Add fish sauce to taste. Add some palm sugar to balance the flavors. Let it simmer for 4-5 minutes.

It should taste hot, sour and salty.

Add the vegetables and let them cook through. Add the fish and let it poach for 2-3 minutes.

Serve at once with rice.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Caesar Salad

Probably the CC's favorite salad. Its salty umami-laden magic is just off the charts and it's truly sad that it's turned into a bad cliché with horrible ingredients.

Years ago, the CC visited April Bloomfield's justly famous restaurant where the "star" of the dinner was a whole pig. The lead-in to the dinner was this amazing Caesar salad and since the entire dinner was unlimited (minus the pig), at some point there was a call for salad seconds.

The table was ambivalent and after a pregnant silence, the CC shouted out a very loud, "YES!"

The table staff got some more and then they teased the CC while they served him, "I guess you don't want any more, right?"

Right.

This is her recipe unexpurgated. The CC doesn't know why it took so long to make it. It's literally perfect and the CC is smacking himself upside the head as we speak.

If you have a deep measuring cup and an immersion blender, this is a cinch to make.

There are a few changes. She prefers "neutral" oil but the CC overwhelmingly prefers olive oil. The vinegar change is marginal.

She goes with a a classic Caesar salad. Romaine, dressing, croutons but if you want a complete meal, feel free to top it with a grilled chicken (along with the filleted anchovies mentioned below.)

(Source: Directly from April Bloomfield's book A Girl and her Pig.)

Ingredients

Dressing

1 large egg
7 whole anchovies (separated into 14 fillets)
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
2 medium garlic cloves
3 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2-1 cup olive oil (very approximate!!!)
1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano (grated coarsely)

Salad

romaine lettuce (separated, washed, dried)
croutons
parmigiano-reggiano (for grating)
a "few" anchovy fillets (for topping)
pepper to taste

Note 1: The raw egg is non-negotiable. Buy eggs from a reputable source. Wash them thoroughly in warm water with soap and dry before you crack them. All the germs are (mostly) on the surface. The egg has strong properties to repel invaders even if mildly cracked. That's why raw eggs last longer in the fridge than cooked ones!

Note 2: You only need half the dressing since there's no way to make "half" an egg. That's how it goes.

Note 3: The dressing will last for at most 3 days in the fridge afterwards because of the raw egg. You'll just have to eat this excellence twice. The CC's heart bleeds for you.

Note 4: The CC used a blend of 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup sherry vinegar. It makes a difference. The champagne vinegar by itself would be too tart.

Recipe

Drop everything for the dressing into a deep measuring cup except the oil. Blend gently. Add the oil a little at a time and blend it.

(She dumps the stuff one at a time but frankly, the CC saw no difference between dumping everything (minus the oil) in at once. Adding the oil a little at the time is mostly because you want it to get to a certain consistency. The CC did not need anywhere near 1 cup of oil. Chances are the CC's egg was larger.)

Taste.

It should be sharp (from the mustard and vinegar), salty, and umami-laden. You should not need to add salt. The ingredients should be salty enough. Balance the ingredients if necessary.

Mix the salad thoroughly with half of the dressing. The filleted anchovies and the parmesan are on top. Chill for at least 5 minutes and then serve.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tom Yum

This is hands down one of the absolute favorites of the CC's in the Thai repertoire. It was requested so frequently by the CC's friends once that it was practically a standby as appetizer before "other" meals.

It also happens to be extraordinarily easy provided you have the right ingredients.

At its heart, it involves the simmering of extraordinarily fresh ingredients and then topping with some protein and aromatics.

Once again, it's a meta-recipe where you can have tom yum goong (shrimp) or tom yum gai (chicken) or tom yum talay (mixed seafood.)

David Thompson's recipe is ultra-minimalist and ultra-purist and it would work if the CC lived in a tropical climate and had access to the very best of produce in large quantities. It also eliminates shallots which is fine for royal cuisine but that's not what you're getting on the street.

Not having access to that quality of produce perenially, the CC's version is closer to that of Kasma Loha-Unchit's which tweaks the parameters to get the same taste profile.

The soup is an exercise in freshness. Simmer it at the last moment. Ideally, the boiling hot soup should be poured over the fresh meat/seafood and served at once. They will cook in the boiling broth and be both perfectly cooked and tender at the same time.

The CC once had a the sister of a friend who refused to eat barely cooked shrimp until we persuaded her to try it. Then she wanted seconds and thirds (of which alas, there were none!) A convert to the excellence of barely cooked seafood.

The existence of this soup on menus across the country may be a cliché but there's a solid reason it is one. It's a masterpiece of flavor.

Ingredients

3 cups water

1 small block tamarind

3-5 kaffir lime leaves
3 pieces lemongrass (sliced at a diagonal, pounded lightly)
1" galangal (sliced, pounded lightly)
3-4 Thai chillies (or to taste)
1 tbsp nahm prik pao (roasted chili paste/jam)

2 shallots (sliced lengthwise into thin slivers)
1 small tomato (sliced into quarters)
1/2 cup straw mushrooms

fish sauce (to taste)

chicken/shrimp/seafood

1-2 limes
cilantro leaves

Note 1: It's best to use water rather than broth. You get a very sharp clear taste profile. Broth muddies the waters so to speak. Think of it as the difference between limpid watercolors and an oil painting.

Note 2: The fresher the chicken/shrimp/seafood and also the aromatics, the more this soup will shine.

Note 3: The chicken should be sliced thinly against the bias. The shrimp can be left whole. The seafood should also be sliced finely.

Note 4: Since the galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are not eaten, technically you could strain it. That's not the Thai way and yet the CC has seen it done in a superb "fancy" Thai restaurant in Manila.

Note 5: Scallions are fairly traditional too but the CC doesn't like the clash between the shallots, scallions and cilantro. He likes the sharper watercolor flavors.

Note 6: There are excellent brands of nahm prik pao on the market. No artificial ingredients, etc. You could be a purist and make it but the CC finds that these are not just acceptable but positively excellent.

Note 7: The CC would like to draw your attention to a powerful concept. The idea of a background "mellow" sourness (tamarind) allied with a perfumed "fresh" sourness (lime). You will see this idea as a conceptual framework all along Southeast Asia whether it's kudampuli + lime (South India) or dried raw mango (aamchur) + lime (North India) or tamarind/vinegar/raw mango + calamansi (Philippines.) You'll see it Italy too (vinegar + lemon). It's an extraordinarily potent idea.

Recipe

Smash the galangal and lemongrass lightly. Add them, the chillies and kaffir lime leaves to the water.

In a separate bowl, pour hot water over tamarind and let it soak for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve into the same bowl of liquid. Discard the remnants.

Bring the liquid to a boil. When it is boiling, turn the heat down to a low simmer. Add the nahm prik pao and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add fish sauce and check to taste. It should be aromatic, spicy and salty (and a little tart and sweet from the tamarind.)

Add the shallots, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Bring to a boil again for 2 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Squeeze the lime juice into it.

Pour over the chicken/seafood in individual bowls. Top with the cilantro leaves.

Serve at once with jasmine rice.

The Medieval Myth

One of the most pernicious lies about medieval cooking is that cooks used spices to cover up the smell of rotting meat (or fish.)

It just persists and persists and persists and it's just ludicrous on the face of it.

If we can distinguish between these things via smell, surely our fore-bearers were equally talented at it.

Also, spices were not cheap. The Arab and the Venetian middle-men had a stronghold on the supply and they charged pretty hefty premia for these things.

The upper classes who could afford the spices could obviously also afford the best meat and fish that money could buy since it was all local back in those days.

The idea has been thoroughly debunked by scholars like Paul Freedman but the popular imagination keeps it alive. It's absolutely amazing that so silly a meme has persisted for almost a few centuries at this point.

It's very clear to see the antecedents of medieval European cooking in modern terms. Just pick up a Persian or an Indian cookbook. They still have the same relation to spicing that would be expected in Europe in the middle ages.

Nobody in history has ever wanted to eat rotting meat. We have extraordinarily sophisticated tuned apparatuses in our systems to detect against poisoning. They even go into complete and utter overdrive to prevent us from doing so (e.g. vomiting during pregnancy, etc.)

Consider this idea as debunked.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tom Kha

No, the CC hasn't lost his marbles. He knows that the soup is uniformly referred to as tom kha gai in the US except that the soup is not a soup and the "gai" (chicken) is basically optional.

It's really a family of stews at the heart of it.

For starters, there is neither the concept of "soup" nor that of "courses" in Thai cooking. A rich dish such as this would be served with rice and it would be a blowout meal (because of its richness.)

The tom roughly suggests a soup or a stew and the kha refers to galangal. Substitutions are pointless since galangal is the main feature.

Secondly, it's really a meta-dish in the sense that the basic stew is prepared first and then other stuff added. You can have tom kha tao-hoo (with tofu) , tom kha hoi (with shellfish), tom kha talay (with mixed seafood), etc.

The dish is all about the aroma, and you have an insanely umami-laden broth with a mildly sweet, savory, sour broth and a solid kick on the back-end.

The CC will provide a recipe with a mild variant that he once had — it had a slight amount of pandanus (screwpine).

Superb in every way.

Ingredients

3 cups coconut milk
3 cups chicken broth (substitute with water)
1 stalk lemongrass (sliced on a bias)
10 pieces of sliced galangal
2 chillies
1 piece pandanus
2 cilantro roots
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp palm sugar

fish sauce

12 pieces chicken (sliced against the bias into thin slices)
1 cup straw mushrooms
2 shallots (sliced lengthwise)
1-2 lime(s)
1/3 cup cilantro leaves

Note: The chicken is cut into very small pieces. It's poached in the broth. This preserves its tenderness because it's barely cooked through.

Recipe

Smash the lemongrass, galangal, and cilantro roots gently in a mortar and pestle. Add them to the coconut milk, broth, chillies, pandanus, palm sugar, and kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a boil. Simmer very gently at a low heat for 12-15 minutes.

Add fish sauce to taste (this provides the salt.)

Taste it. It should be intense, faintly sweet and fragrant. It will become tart once you add the lime later.

(Technically, you can strain it at this point but that's not the Thai way.)

You can stop the process here if you like. (Remember it's all about the smell and it dissipates so don't wait too long.)

When ready to serve with jasmine rice, bring once again to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add the chicken, mushrooms, shallots, and lime. Let it sit for 3-4 minutes.

Serve with the cilantro leaves on top.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Dark Side of Food

One of the most important concepts associated with food is that it is pretty much the only activity that we do daily. There's also shitting but that's the end result of eating.

We eat to live. Literally. Our bodies are just a mechanism by which food gets transformed into fuel for our brain.

Every other activity that we do daily is basically optional but not eating.

There are many consequences to this simple observation. We'll proceed from the relatively trivial to the relatively profound.

No, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's not even "typical". It's probably even shit. Let's start with that.

It's just something you ate on a daily basis and hence established the basis on which you rest your (very shaky) foundation of food. You may even perpetuate that because it's the only thing that you know. If you want to break out of the arbitrariness of your birth, and it is extraordinarily hard to do so, then you must first accept this brutal fact.

Did you notice that the CC referred to your mother's cooking as "shit"?

Notice how the metaphor neatly connects to food. We work symbolically through food. Everything from "no free lunch" to "corny" to "sour grapes" to "dish fit for the gods" — Shakespeare made the last one up as he did also "salad days", "in a pickle" and "the milk of human kindness".

There are literally no languages that don't have wondrous phrases related to food. It's so elemental that it's taken for granted. Everything from "essere buono come il pane" ("to be as good as bread" = "as good as gold") to 羊頭狗肉 ("sheep's head, dog meat" = "false advertising".)

Since eating is literally the only mandatory activity that we do, it goes without surprise that it's the ideal mechanism of enforcing group conformity.

There are absolutely no religions in the world that don't have a mandatory taboo on some form of eating. Judaism has kosher laws, the various religions in India have strange forms of vegetarianism, Christianity imposed rules of eating on Fridays, etc.

Needless to say this is all bullshit. Humans are famously omnivore. What one group eschews another embraces. The Chinese would laugh at the Jews. The meat-eaters mock the vegetarians. Fish on Fridays? Please.

Notice the bullshit metaphor also works via food. The only thing worse than your own shit would be the shit of a bull.

These rules have nothing to do with food and everything to do with enforcing group identity. You define yourself not only by what you are but also but what you are not.

The group identity mechanism works via what the Japanese would call  内外 ("uchi-soto" = "inside-outside"). Follow the food rules and you're an insider. Don't and you will be brutally excommunicated.

Lest you think that this mechanism is "religious" in nature, the CC will be happy to pontificate.

Try arguing barbecue in the US. There's great barbecue everywhere from Virginia to South Carolina to Kentucky to Texas. However, none of these groups agree with each other. Everyone seems to think their own version is the "best" — an entirely laughable notion that any outsider (like the CC!) might care to disabuse them of. They're all great; they are just different.

So you see, your mother's version of that dish is not the "best". It's your own fierce form of enforcing identity. You are sticking by what little you know and even if your mother is a terrific cook, you are trying futilely to convince others that it is food fit for the gods.

The most famous example of this "food as identity" enforcement was the Spanish Reconquista — the re-establishment of Christian rule in Spain. The Arabs and the Jews were forced at sword-point to eat pork in public as proof of their "conversion" to Christianity. The Spanish then took their concept to the Philippines which had no particular ban on pork and hence turned the pig into a newly formed "religion".

The great ramen maker, Momofuku Ando, neatly also turned these religious identity rules to his advantage by casually observing that there was no religion in the world that didn't embrace the chicken. The first ramen noodle flavor was chicken. (He wasn't particularly interested in the vegetarians.)

Which brings us to the fact that vegetarianism is another example of an entirely post-facto-rationalized system erected on extraordinarily shaky foundations.

Humans are omnivorous. We will literally eat anything which you can plainly observe because what one country or ethnic group rejects, another will happily eat. Since they all can't be right and they're all equally human, it stands to reason that they all must be wrong.

Science backs it up in spades. We are omnivorous, and we definitely evolved because of our capacity to eat meat. Arthur Clarke famously points this out in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kubrick gives this profound notion the utmost respect by filming it most memorably with a magnificent jump-cut.

We even have specialized meat receptors in our stomachs. Evolution at its finest. It gave us a powerful concentrated source of fuel and pushed our brains to much larger sizes.

Is there a point to this depressing discourse which is almost tailor-made to offend just about everyone? Why yes, there most certainly is.

If you really want to get to understand another culture, the ideal mechanism is through its food. Not only will you be wearing a different identity, it will make it far easier to discard your own. Discarding your identity is not for the weak. You will be left adrift and will be forced to fend on your own. The group enforcement mechanism will kick in dressed in full riot gear.

However, it's one of the few ways to throw off the arbitrariness of your birth (which you had no choice over) and get to enter into entirely new mindsets.

When phrased like that, you're looking at the greatest adventure in life. Needless to say, it's highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ikan Kuning (Fish stew with Lime, Turmeric and Basil)

The CC bought some amazing black bass from the local fisherman and was going to make the afore-mentioned steamed fish with fermented black beans, ginger and scallion except that the CC hates repetition and is easily bored.

This is a wondrous dish from southern Indonesia. You see the Indian influences right off the bat (turmeric) and the Southeast-Asian influences (galangal, kaffir lime leaves, basil, etc.) The New World shows up as chilis, of course.

Ideally this dish is cooked with a whole fish or fish segments with bones but let's get real. Just make it with a fillet. It's not the same and it does matter but not substantially so.

Pair it with the most basic rice you can make because the flavors in the dish are already overwhelming.

Ingredients

black sea-bass
4 tbsp lime juice
tamarind

2 shallots (chopped coarsely)
2 cloves garlic
1 red chili
1/2" ginger (chopped coarsely)
1/2" galangal (chopped coarsely)
1 fresh turmeric (chopped coarsely)

lemongrass (sliced diagonally)
1" pandanus leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves

peanut oil
salt

2 cups water

lemon basil (or Thai basil or Italian basil)

Recipe

Note 1: Once you combine the lime juice with the fish, the clock is ticking. Do it after you make the paste, and right before you start cooking.

Make the tamarind water. Pour boiling water over the tamarind and let it steep for 20 minutes. Pass the mixture through a sieve keeping the water and discarding the residue.

Pound the shallots, garlic, chili, ginger, galangal, and turmeric to a paste. Set aside.

Combine the fish gently with the lime juice and tamarind water set aside. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

Heat up some peanut oil till it shimmers. Add the paste, lemongrass, pandanus, kaffir lime leaves and let it fry till the raw smell disappears. Add the water and bring to a boil. Let it cook for 5 minutes.

Add the fish and the lime juice and tamarind water. Let it cook through. This is swift. No more than a few minutes.

Top with the basil and serve at once.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mugi Gohan (Barley Rice)

The CC is insanely fond of this dish.

This is the ultimate "poor people" dish in Japan and even today there's a slight disdain towards it.

Historically peasants paid rice as taxes in the feudal era. They had a tendency to hide stuff from the authorities — tax evasion is as old as mankind! — a point memorably made in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (七人の侍). The peasants frequently mixed other grains that were not taxed to their cooked rice — barley, millet, etc. which contributes to their "lower class status". Ironically, this is why the they  never suffered from beri beri but the upper classes did.

It was also served as army rations and today is often served in school lunches, all of which add up the reasons that it is really resented.

Which is too bad because it's freakin' awesome!

Since the CC has no associations with it, the CC is free to love it. It has texture, nutrition, lack of boredom (white rice?), flavor and chewiness.

Ingredients

1/2 cup barley
1 cup rice

3 cups dashi (or water)
salt

Recipe

Note 1: The only "trick" is that the barley needs to be soaked ahead of time for 30 minutes so that they can be cooked together.

Note 2: You can vary the proportions. More barley, less rice, etc. This is the median that the CC likes.

Note 3: Use dashi if you can.

Soak the barley for 30 minutes. Rinse the rice under cold water until it runs clear. Let it sit for about 10-15 minutes.

Put all the ingredients in an open pot. Cook until the rice is done. Depending on the humidity you may need to add a little more water at the end.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Hiyashi Tan-Tan ((冷やしたんたん)

One of the wondrous things about ramen is that it gives Japanese chefs full freedom to explore creativity outside the traditional norms of washoku. It allows them to escape the "wa" (和) of the washoku (和食) — the "Japanese-ness" of meal formats, rules, etc.

Every culture has some escape pod by which they can break the rules and are no longer subject to the dictates of "traditional culture". You need a release mechanism for creativity and rebellion.

Ramen is unambiguously Chinese and hence "foreign" however the Japanese have adapted it, refined it, and taken it to great heights. In the spirit of experimentation, it's not unusual to find "Thai Ramen" and "Indian Ramen" and "Italian Seafood Ramen", etc. in Tokyo. Any number of tricks from other cuisines are amenable as long as they ultimately get integrated into the ramen format.

The CC first ate the dish at a restaurant near his former workplace. It's a riff on a riff on a riff.

The owner of the restaurant is Burmese who ran away to Japan, lived there for a decade, and in spite of marrying Japanese, was unable to get a permanent visa. The couple opted for "life, liberty and happiness" and Japan's loss is New York's gain.

Tan-tan men is a variation on the classic Sichuanese dan-dan mian (担担面) — the spicy-tingly noodles with ground pork, pickled vegetables, and chili oil.

The Japanese version sticks to the idea broadly. It somehow got caught up with the very Sichuanese doubanjiang (辣豆瓣酱) possibly because its umami is very similar to miso.

So the ground pork is stir-fried with ginger, garlic, scallions and toban jan (as it's called in Japanese) until you have a loose dry mixture.

The ramen noodles are topped with an intense pork broth, the spicy ground pork mixture, slivered scallions, etc. This is a broad idea. The specifics depend on the creativity of each chef. You'd probably find slivered cucumbers or bean sprouts. It may be topped with rayu (chili oil.) It all depends.

Ramen, being served piping hot is cold weather food. Japan has blistering summers and a history of a lack of air-conditioning. The very hot weather dish, hiyashi chūka, featured here often is a response to that.

Hiyashi tan-tan is the bastard love child of hiyashi chūka and tan-tan men as conceived by a Burmese entrepreneur trained in Japan to satiate the ramen-crazy Yankees in a blistering New York summer.

What could be cooler than that?

There are some elegant subtle melodies inside it that make it sing.

Traditional ramen is frequently made with stock made from pork bones. It has a milky-white color.

The stock here is much lighter as befits a summer dish. Seafood-based or chicken-based which has been hit with a solid amount of sesame paste. Traditional Japanese sesame powder (gomashio) is made with roasted sesame seeds and has a brownish color. This one is clearly made with unroasted ones which gives the broth the same intense milky-white color. The CC strongly suspects that the restauranteur is just using tahini thus introducing a Middle-Eastern ingredient. It's New York, after all. Why not?

The advantage of cold-ingredients pre-prepared to a restaurant should be obvious but one of the complete non-negotiables is that the ramen has to be made fresh. You can dunk it in ice-water to cool it down but it must be freshly made.

Since the recipe clearly has diverged so far from its roots, such as they are, the CC feels absolutely no shame in diverging further. It would almost be regretful to stick to the format. The pork has been subbed by ground seafood (non-traditional) and bamboo shoots (absolutely traditional.) The cucumbers and scallions are retained in the summer heat.

It's the beauty of ramen. Within the broad tradition, as Cole Porter might have put it, "Anything goes".


Ingredients

(serves 2)

Dashi

2 pieces kombu
4 cups water
1/2 cup dried shrimp (or bonito flakes or both)

1/3 cup sesame seeds

Ground Pork

1/2" ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp toban jan
1 tbsp soy sauce
sugar (to balance)
peanut oil

1/2 cup ground pork (or ground seafood or ground chicken)
1/2 cup bamboo shoots

2 packages ramen

cucumber
carrots
scallions

sesame oil

Recipe

Note 1: Once the sesame paste is stirred into the cool broth, you cannot reheat it again. The broth and paste will separate which will destroy the texture. It must have its ice-cold white texture.

Note 2: Mound the pile of the ground pork mixture in the center. The toppings should be to the side. Yes, this is "only" aesthetics but it really goes a long way to emphasizing the cold-hot nature of the dish. The spicy pork with the ice-cold ingredients. It will all turn red-gold once you start slurping.

Note 3: If you have time, soak the sesame seeds in water. Don't worry too much about this step. You can always loosen the sesame paste with the dashi you make.

Note 4: The whole recipe is eminently scalable and can be made ahead of time. Except the ramen. They must be made fresh. You'll probably learn the hard way the science behind this step.

Note 5: It takes a while to chill all the ingredients especially the broth. Maybe the CC's fridge is crappy but it took more than 6 hours to get it down to the right temperature.

First, make the dashi. Heat up the kombu with the water. Just before the water boils, fish the kombu out and discard. If you don't do it, the broth will turn bitter. Add the dried shrimp/dried anchovies/bonito flakes and bring to a loose boil. Let it steep for at least 15 minutes. Pass the broth through a double layer of paper towels. You should be left with a clear golden broth.

Meanwhile, take the soaked sesame seeds and grind them to a fine paste in a mortar and pestle. Add some of the above dashi if you need to loosen the paste. Add the paste to the dashi and add salt. Set aside and let it chill.

Cut up the cucumber, carrots, scallions into long very thin batons of the same size and set aside to chill.

Make the ground pork mixture. Smash up the ginger and garlic in a mortar and pestle to a paste. Heat up some peanut oil in a skillet. When shimmering, add the ginger-garlic paste. Fry for a bit. Add the toban jan and fry for a little bit. Add the ground pork, soy sauce and sugar and let it cook until it is dry. You will probably need to add 2-3 tbsp of water to make sure it doesn't burn. Add the bamboo shoots towards the end. Take off the heat and cool. You can store this for a few days. Chill it.

When ready to serve, make the ramen. The ones the CC has require 2.5 minutes. Immediately dunk in an ice bath.

Top the ramen with the chilled dashi. Put the ground pork mixture in the center. The cut up scallions, carrots and cucumbers to the side.

(You can add sesame oil but that's gilding the lily.)

Slurp the intense icy awesomeness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Stir-Fried Squid with Long Beans, Thai Eggplants, Shrimp Paste & Green Peppercorns

There's this wonderful Thai restaurant near the CC's old workplace which has a dish that the CC is obsessed with.

It ticks off all the right notes - funky, umami, complex with enough heat to set your mouth alight and yet, in that precise Thai way, it works!

The CC has had plenty of opportunities to "reverse engineer" this particular dish. It looks like a variation on the equally famous pad prik khing.

The CC is totally a sucker for the green peppercorns that come in the dish. They are not easy to find but you must get the ones pickled in brine not in vinegar.

There seemed to be a complex metallic note behind it, and the CC figured it the old fashioned way when he spilled some on his shirt. It was fresh turmeric. The CC was out a shirt but had gained a recipe. Cosmic balance and all that.

Ingredients

Paste

4 kaffir lime leaves (sliced very fine)
4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
2 tbsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp fish sauce
1" galangal
1 lemongrass stalk
1 small turmeric
2-3 Thai bird chilies
sugar (to balance the taste)

Stir-Fry

peanut oil

2 squid (read notes below)
6 Thai eggplants (quartered)
8-12 long beans (cut into 1" pieces)
1/2 cup bamboo shoots
3 tbsp green peppercorns

Thai basil

Recipe

Note 1: You will need a mortar and pestle to pound it to a paste. A food processor is simply not the same.

Note 2: Traditionally, the paste may require more or less ingredients depending on the quality thereof. For example, the CC only used 1 chili pepper since it was super hot. You need to taste and adjust based on the ingredients you have.

Note 3: The squid are cut into 1.5" x 1" pieces and cross-hatched with a knife. They will curl up and quickly cook in the stir-fry.

Note 4: The stir-fry goes at a rapid pace. You will need to have everything ready.

First prepare the paste. In a mortar and pestle, pound all the ingredients together to a fine paste. You may need to add more fish paste to loosen the sauce, or a little more sugar if it feels too salty. The paste should be thick, pungent and definitely have a bite from the chilies.

Heat the peanut oil until it is shimmering. Add the paste and fry for a bit. Add the eggplants and continue frying for 2 mins. Add the bamboo shoots and the long beans and fry for 2-3 mins. You may need to add 2-3 tbsp of water to loosen the sauce at this point. Add the squid and the peppercorns. Take off the heat as soon as the squid curl.

Top with the basil leaves.

Serve at once with jasmine rice.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Steamed Fish with Fermented Black Beans, Ginger & Scallions

Many moons ago, when the CC was in school, the CC learnt this simple dish from his friend. We'd get together to make this because we needed to pool our money to afford the fish and this is not a dish that reheats at all. Make it, eat it, be done with it.

When described it has the barest of ingredients but it is simply bursting with flavor.

The salted preserved black beans (豆豉) are actually fermented and salted soy beans. They are intensely flavored with a salty umami taste (much more intense than soy sauce, say.)

Traditionally, this would be made with a whole fish which is stuffed with the ingredients and steamed. Additional slivered ginger, black beans and scallions would be scattered over the top while serving. A few drops of intense sesame oil completes the dish.

When the CC saw black sea bass at the farmer's market, he knew right away that he needed to make this dish again.

You need to use fish with the skin on. The skin has all the flavor. The CC never understood the idea behind removing the most flavorful part. As the much older Japanese mother of a friend once said, "Why do they remove the best part?"

Why indeed?

Ingredients

fillet of white fish (with skin)
1 tbsp preserved black beans
slivered ginger
slivered scallions

sesame oil

Recipe

Note 1: The recipe below has been adapted to fillets but you can always make it the traditional way. Stuff half the stuff inside the cavity and sprinkle half on top.

Note 2: Don't add salt. There's plenty already in the preserved black beans.

Note 3: You will need a skillet which has a cover.

Heat up some oil in a pan. When hot but not shimmering, place the fillet skin side down on it, Toss the ginger, scallions and black beans over it. Add four tbsp of water and cover the pan. Let the fish steam at medium-low heat until done.

Serve over rice with the other ingredients from the pan. Add a few drops of sesame oil to the fish, and more ginger and scallions if desired.