Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Innocence of Lamb's Lettuce & Parsley

It used be a well-known fact that herbs have "other" properties than just the ability to enhance and garnish food.

Much of this information is narrated in folk songs and folk tales and has made its way down to us in extraordinarily encoded form. Decoding this is, of course, the raison d'être of an academic.

Perhaps you have heard of a classic tale called Rapunzel?

The Brothers Grimm are responsible for its transmission to us. There are two version of their tales — one in 1814 and a revised and annotated version in 1857. As the brothers grew older, they systematically bowdlerized the tales they had collected themselves, stripping them of their sexual content and violence. The earlier versions are unambiguously more interesting.

Let's recap the tale of Rapunzel — a pregnant woman craves "rapunzel" and goes into the neighboring garden to get it. When caught, she agrees to give over the child to the witch. The witch imprisons the female child in a tower. One day, a prince hears her singing and climbs into the tower using her hair. The witch finds out, and she pushes the prince off the tower blinding him. Love prevails and the prince's vision is restored.

Rapunzel is a weed also known as lamb's lettuce. This is a total substitution on the part of the Brothers Grimm and the association with lamb and "innocence" should be noted. Even they weren't above keeping some of the resonance in the story even though it gives it a totally different feel.

The original story is called Persinette and "persil" is French for parsley. Persinette could loosely be translated as "Little Miss Parsley".

The pregnant woman was craving parsley. Most adult readers here would know that pregnant women don't really crave green herbs. Salt, sugar, sour stuff, sure but herbs?

The tale is coded.

She wanted the parsley to concoct a brew because parsley is an abortifacient. The child is not wanted. The "witch" is a woman with a garden who knows the properties of herbs and grows them. Her taking the child away could easily be seen as an act of generosity not of cruelty.

Additionally, the Grimm Brothers change another key component of the tale. In the classic tale, the witch finds out the existence of the prince because she is heavier than the prince. However, the original tale has Persinette ask the witch why her dress doesn't fit any more and feels tighter and tighter.

She's pregnant and Persinette and the Prince have been doing plenty of the ol' in-an'-out rumpy-pumpy.

Now the tale comes full circle. Like mother, like daughter.

Note that the girl is innocent before she is born and still innocent in the sense that she has no clue about sex. This only makes sense in a deeply Christian world of "original sin" as would be typical of an European folk tale.

Also note that the witch's motivations make more sense in the original version. You could easily write a version from her point of view making her the heroine not the villainess.

The tale has so much more resonance when seen in the correct light.

To bring a more modern feeling to the same idea, have you heard of the Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Scarborough Fair"? The song is an old English folk song and the lyrics are coded.

The opening lyrics go as:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.
What on earth are parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme doing there?

"Going to Scarborough Fair" refers to the act of "making the beast with two backs". Bumping uglies, hooking up, doing the dirty in modern parlance.

A concoction made of parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme was a well-known abortifacient. The parsley, in particular as pointed above, is an important component.

The song was written in 1966 when abortion was illegal in the US. It's not clear whether Simon & Garfunkel knew but it seems extraordinarily hard to believe that two talented intelligent men didn't know what they were singing even if their audience was clueless.

A cursory search on the web suggests these ideas are still well-known and prevalent in countries that ban abortion. Parsley is far more easily available that RU-486. Less effective perhaps but definitely easier to find.

The deeper one penetrates into the art of cooking, the more one is confronted with the more elemental and universal aspects of humanity.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Huevos Rotos

After the insane tapas party, the CC needed to make something basic and elemental. He did some searching and, lo and behold, he had all the ingredients necessary for a nutritious and tasty breakfast.

This is not a "fast" dish. However, you don't need to do much. Set the timer and get away.

Best eggs ever. They combine the magic of "home fries" and poached eggs in one easy dish.

You need to serve them with jamon serrano, of course.


(serves 2)

1 large onion (chopped coarsely)
1 green pepper (chopped into matchsticks)
3 fingerling potatoes (chopped into thin rounds)
4 cloves garlic (minced fine)

4 eggs

1/4 cup parsley
1 tsp paprika (agridolce)

olive oil


You need a frying pan that has a lid.

Heat up some olive oil in a pan. When it shimmers, toss in the onion and the garlic. Fry for a bit. Add the peppers and let them fry for a bit. Add the potatoes, turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting and let them cook. Add the paprika, salt and pepper. Let the potatoes cook for at least 25 minutes. Add the parsley and let cook for an additional 5 minutes. (Total of 30 minutes.)

Keep stirring while the potatoes cook. Every 10 minutes is sufficient. No need to break them up.

You will be able to smell the potatoes being done. It's unmistakable.

Spread the mixture evenly over the pan. Crack the four eggs in the four corners. Cover the pan and let cook for 4 minutes. You may need an extra minute but take the pan off the heat once the whites are set.

Serve the poached eggs - two per person with the potatoes below. The yolk will be barely set but that's perfect when you crack it and it coats the potatoes. Enjoy with the jamon in tow.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Power of Positive Drinking

After all this time, the CC decided to throw a serious tapas party.

The goal is drinking but the little nibbles do help the drinks go down. There was amontillado (of course!), cava and assorted Spanish wines. The stars are the little tidbits naturally.

The idea was to have a Spanish party but with nods to the Japanese izakaya tradition (same idea, different country!) and some inflections to the CC's heritage.

Since it's summer and the produce is mind-blowingly amazing, the CC kept it local so the ideas are inspired by analogous tapas dishes that the CC has sampled rather than recreating them literally.

Experienced readers (and eaters) should be able to recognize the thematic patterns of the five sections below.

Banderillas (assorted)
Salted Almonds
Pickled Cauliflower
Sautéed Shishito Peppers

Zucchini Carpaccio w/ Arbequina olive oil & pine nuts
Ensalada de "Cristianos y Moros"
(White & Black Bean Salad)
Karasumi with chives (Bottarga)
Zebra tomatoes w/ fior di sale
Pan con tomate (with Jamon Iberico)

Chickpeas & Spinach
Clams in Green Sauce
Patatas Bravas

Bitter Orange & Olive Oil Cake

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Israeli White Bean Soup

There's an Israeli hole-in-the-wall restaurant that the CC has patronized for more than a decade now.

The owner is a curmudgeon who knows exactly how amazing his food is.

(For US readers: think Soup Nazi from Seinfeld and yes! the CC is perfectly aware of the idiocy and offensiveness of using the term "Israeli Nazi" but that is the only characterization that fits.)

Only two things soften him up — an appreciation for his cooking, and cute chicks, and the latter sometimes doesn't cut any mustard. He once tossed out out two clueless cute giggling girls. Then he turned to the CC and said, "They don't know anything about food."

The CC has always been on the good side but it took time and patience to become an insider. One fine day, the maestro said in a mocking and ironic way, "So you like my soup, eh?"

And that was that. The gates of paradise had been thrown open.

A decade later (yes! it's a slow burn), the CC asked him why his soup was so good and the answer was as blunt as the man, "Everyone knows the recipe. It takes time, and people don't want to spend the time."

The ingredients are humble, the technique is straightforward and there's nothing difficult about it.

People just don't want to take the time.


1 cup white beans

1 large red onion (diced fine)
4 cloves garlic (diced fine)

4 tbsp tomato paste
8 tomatoes (passed through a food mill)

4 tbsp olive oil

pepper (lots!)


Note 1: You can't hurry this recipe up. Don't even try. In fact, this is ideal for a slow cooker kind of situation except that since it involves two steps, it doesn't fit the mold of the slow cooker recipes.

Note 2: For most of the recipe, you are doing nothing. It's eminently week-day friendly. Set the timer and forget about it.

Note 3: It is very important to use fresh tomatoes. If you don't have any double down on the tomato paste. Do not use canned tomatoes. The final color of the soup should be a pale orange not a deep red characteristic of tomatoes. The beans are the star not the tomatoes.

Note 4: You may be tempted to add herbs — the dish is very Mediterranean and Israel is part of that Mediterranean culture but be judicious. Less is more here.

Heat up the olive oil in a pot. When it shimmers, add the onions and garlic. Let them cook at a medium heat until they are translucent. Do not let them caramelize. You want the color to be this sublimely clear white.

Add the beans and stir them around. Add 3 cups of water, salt and black pepper. Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting. Let them cook for an hour. Sample to see if the beans are barely done.

When they still not cooked, add the tomato paste and the tomatoes. Cook for another 20 minutes. The acid in the tomatoes will slow down the cooking of the beans.

Check again that the beans are done. More salt and pepper if necessary. Add more water if necessary. It's a soup after all.

Serve with some pita.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Life's Ceviche, and Then You Die!

The empire of raw fish eating encompasses many realms but the basic idea is very clear. The freshness of the fish is paramount.

Even in older times, people were intuitively aware of the need to "sterilize" the surface of the flesh. They may not have not known about bacteria and clean workspaces but they had empirically figured out that the surfaces of the fish get contaminated quickly in a hot climate.

The solution was a quick bath of the fish in an acidic medium — lime, lemon or calamansi juice, various vinegars, etc.

Different cultures produced variants that lie along a spectrum —  sashimi and sushi (Japanese), kinilaw (Filipino) and ceviche (South America and then transmitted further via the Spanish Empire.)

They range between raw and "cooked" via acid. There's also some form in pickling in the mix.

Sashimi for all its vaunted "heritage" is only possible thanks to modern-day fish processing. It's only modern freezers that allow fish to be consumed safely.

Sushi is an older idea where fish were placed with vinegared rice and allowed to partially ferment to develop intense umami flavors. This older style of sushi is seldom found any more. In fact, even slightly recent forms of sushi (Edo-sushi) are rarely found today. The modern-style involves raw fish placed over mildly vinegared rice. (A full treatment of all the sushi styles would take up a book not a blog post!)

Ceviche is widely known these days. Raw fish is mixed with lime juice, spices, peppers, cilantro and sometimes all kinds of incongruous ingredients (avocado?) — this idea from South America spread across the globe with the Spanish Empire. The idea is that the intense acid "cooks" the muscles of the fish. It's easy to prepare to keeps easy with modern refrigeration. No wonder it's a hit at restaurants since it can be made ahead of time.

Kinilaw (or kilawin sometimes) is an ancient style of  Filipino cooking. Even though it's tempting to assume that the idea came with the Spanish Empire, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests it was an original ancient indigenous idea that the Spaniards encountered and recognized as being analogous to something they already knew.

In fact, for an ancient idea, kinilaw comes closest to the modern-day ideal of sashimi. The fish are bathed in an intensely acidic broth but they are consumed right away within seconds. Kinilaw connoisseurs can feel the toughening of the fish fibers as the minutes tick away.

It's served with rice. Rice is everywhere in the Philippines even for breakfast! The CC's passion for food has limits. More rice? Again?!? SIGH.

There are also added vegetables — radishes are classic but the CC bets that halved summer cherry tomatoes would be killer too from the umami. There is also lato but you can't find that outside the Philippines. SIGH.

As would the dried anchovies known as dilis in the Philippines although the idea of pairing dried and fresh fish would be looked upon as total heresy. The same idea with dried fish is a "separate" dish. SIGH.

A word about calamansi — these intensely flavored citrus limes the size of a small marble are unique. If you can't find them, the next best bet are the yuzu you find in the Japanese markets. If you can't find those, use a mixture of orange and lime juice but you will not reproduce the intensity and uniqueness of calamansi.

Kilawin is also made with cooked pork and goat. It's a pretty general idea and the general etymological difference between kilawin and kinilaw seems to be whether it's cooked meat or fresh fish. (This is a bit unresearched and sorta folksy, and the CC might be wrong.)

Given the sashimi nature of the dish, if you want great kinilaw, you must make it yourself. There is no other choice. At the CC's farmers' market, there is a local fisherman supplying two kinds of sashimi-grade seafood — tuna and scallops. Hence, the CC makes tuna and scallop kinilaw since that is what is possible outside of the absurdly magnificent "wet markets" of the Philippines.


1 shallot (diced fine)
1" ginger (cut into fine slivers)
2 garlic cloves (diced fine)
2 Thai bird-eye chillies (diced into very thin rounds — add more for spice)

1/2 cup coconut vinegar
6-8 calamansi (squeezed fresh)

salt (read below)
fresh black pepper

2 red radishes (cut into thin half-moons)

1/2 lb sashimi-grade tuna (diced)
6 scallops (cut into 4 half-moons each)


Mix all the ingredients except the fish together. Taste. It should have an intensely sour taste but it should also be "rounded". This is hard to explain but easy to taste. You typically won't need salt but you might need a pinch. It should sit together for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to "blend".

Store the mixture and the diced fish in the fridge separately. Mix right before serving.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. The clock is ticking. Eat right away if you want magic.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Three-fold Way with Tomato Broth

Let us first be clear what tomato broth is not. It's not a tomato sauce and it's not a tomato soup.

A soup is a full-bodied dish that could be a meal. A broth is a light flavored memory of the original and is watery and thin but full of flavor. The lines are blurred in the middle but seldom has one been mistaken for the other.

Also since we are all friends here, you can't get from one to the other. A broth is definitely not a diluted soup although you can make an intense soup using a broth because it will, no surprises here, intensify the flavor.

Perhaps the best way is to think of broth is intensely-flavored water that has both nutrients and taste.

Now that the CC has gotten that mini-rant off his chest, it's time to proceed.

Tomato Broth


1 medium red onion (diced very fine)
4 cloves garlic (crushed)

1 lb tomatoes (passed through a food mill)
"seasonings" (rosemary, sage, oregano, etc.)

olive oil
sea salt
black pepper


Fry the onion and the garlic at very low heat for at least 10 minutes. Add the tomato purée, salt and pepper and fry for a bit. Let it reduce at a low heat for the better part of 20-25 mins. All the taste comes out of this extreme reduction so deal.

Add the water to dilute it to the required consistency, and let it come to a boil.

This is the point in time you can add "seasonings". Let it simmer on a low heat for 20 mins.

You need to pass the stuff through a strainer to get the broth. Dilute further if necessary.

Tortellini en Brodo


1 package tortellini

2 cups tomato broth


grated parmigiano-reggiano


If you are going to make your own tortellini, more power to you. The CC gets his from Raffetto's. There are limits to his ambition.

Cook the tortellini as per the instructions. Undercook by a minute or so. They will get heated up in the broth.

Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil. Add additional herbs if needed, salt and pepper to taste. Drop the cooked tortellini and let it cook for a minute. Serve with plenty of grated parmesan and black pepper.

Poached Cod in Tomato-Tarragon Broth


2 cod fillets

2 cups tomato broth
1/4 cup chopped tarragon



Note 1: This is the lazy person's approach to dinner. Of course, you would've needed to have made the broth ahead of time but you do have a freezer, don't you?

Note 2: If you have never poached fish before, add 1/2 cup of white wine. The wine and the water will form an azeotrope and lower the boiling point to about 80°C from 100°C which is where water boils. It's a lot more forgiving if you're a "poached fish" newbie.

Heat up the broth with the tarragon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Poach the cod fillets until they are done. (This depends on the size. They are done when you can pierce them with a knife cleanly.)

Poached Eggs in Tomato Broth


4 eggs
dried out crusty bread

3 cups tomato broth


Note 1:  This is the greatest "hangover" recipe in the CC's repertoire. After a night of carousing, this is both easy on the stomach and wonderfully nutritive (not to mention it provides the much-needed water element.)

This works the same way as the cod recipe above except you poach the eggs rather than the cod.

You serve it over the crusty bread on which you place the poached eggs and gently pour the broth around it. It's amazing to eat the yolk when it breaks over the bread and the broth.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating

The CC is a big fan of the author James Hamilton-Paterson who has probably led one of the most picturesque lives among writers. He spent the 80's living on a remote fishing island in the Philippines — not some picturesque romantic "desert island" but one with real dog-shit on the beach which the "pigs ate for breakfast."

This amazing article was published in the Guardian on May 18th, 1996. The Philippines banned "eating Fido" in 1998 but of course, you can make all the laws in the world but you can't so easily change eating patterns as the Japanese might tell you.

I first woke up to how rigidly one’s own culture defines the edible when I spent a year in Libya back in the mid-sixties. I was interested by my initial revulsion to eating a live locust. Tripoli then was something of a hick town, many of whose older inhabitants were true sons of the desert. In the locust season these people could be seen sitting outside their houses, gossiping and idly eating the insects alive. As though shelling peanuts, they would strip off the wings and legs and pop the body into their mouths.

The day inevitably came when I was hospitably offered a locust. It was partly a tribute to public school food that I was able to eat it with stoical panache, but only partly. I was curious, and that helped. The taste was faintly greenish and suety, and I remember being anxious to chew it all at once before my tongue could detect any tiny movements of protesting mandible or pulsing abdomen.

The tradition of eating in a spirit of curiosity exists even in Britain. Eminent Victorian naturalists such as Frank Buckland and Vincent Holt did it all the time. Buckland ate anything, including exotic zoological specimens, and was the one who wrote “A roast field mouse – not a house mouse – is a splendid bonne bouche for a hungry boy. It eats like a lark.” Holt’s excellent book Why Not Eat Insects? (London, 1885) was full of satisfying dishes which any Briton with access to a garden could prepare, such as Boiled Neck of Mutton with Wireworm Sauce and Moths on Toast. Some years ago a reception was held at, I think, the Royal Geographical Society, at which cocktail sandwiches spread with Holt’s woodlouse paste recipe were served. “Better than shrimp” was the widespread verdict, and one might think a taste for it would catch on if only woodlice were conveniently available by the pint, like winkles. Wake up, Sainsbury’s.

I thought about all this on my most recent spell in the Philippines, which remains my favorite country bar none partly because it offers novel experiences of every conceivable kind with high good humour. Among these are gastronomic pleasures and challenges which leave one lost in admiration at human ingenuity and discrimination. Discrimination, because the recipes often rely on a palate tuned to fine shades of flavour that elude the untrained.

The supremacist reputation of French gastronomy and oenophily have tended to bludgeon us into thinking that tastes become cruder the further one gets from Europe. Yet it is not just Basque chefs who can identify from a beef stew the exact pasture where the animal grazed. Tea experts from Darjeeling to Japan will often identify a source of water from taste alone. Similarly, I discovered, a feaster in the mountain provinces of the northern Philippines can tell to the nearest day how long a piece of salted pork was packed in its earthenware crock simply by its flavour.

I had long since tried all the old party favorites in the village where I live: bayawak (a large, iguana-like lizard); dog in one guise or another; fruit bat; and, of course, that ubiquitous national favourite, balutBalut are hawked in the streets of almost any town: hard-boiled duck eggs which have been fertilized and in which the embryonic chick’s tiny beak and little folded wings are well defined but still soft. Eaten warm with salt they are superb as well as nutritious.

This time, though, my travels took me some hundred of miles to the north, to the late Ferdinand Marcos’s home territory of Ilocos Norte. I remembered Libya as soon as I encountered pinaluksong hipon or “jumping salad”. The hipon are tiny live shrimp which leap and squirm on the plate. I was told they could be subdued with a squeeze of lime juice, but this seemed only to provoke mine. Maybe the juice stung their eyes.

The taste is wonderful, quite unknown to people who have never eaten seafood which has not been locked in ice since it died. They do twitch a little in the mouth: the effect is not unlike the crackling sherbet (Space Dust and Moon Rocks) British children could buy a few years ago.
When you eat jumping salad it is easy to believe in sympathetic magic, which claims that the soul or essence of the victim passes into the devourer – the theory which once gave us larks’ tongue pate. It made me feel sprightly for hours afterwards. Don’t be tempted to dust the shrimp, however lightly, with black pepper: it overpowers them. A judicious drop or two of fresh ginger juice adds bite. 
Like any other civilized people, Filipinos make a firm distinction between pet and pot. Times would have to be hard indeed before old Rover made the supreme sacrifice. Dog dishes are often referred to generically as asosena. This is a felicitous pun on the Spanish word lily (azucena), that deathly plant introduced for their cemeteries by the Philippines’ first colonisers. But in Tagalog aso is dog, while cena is Spanish for supper; so with a small triumphal act of semantics, an indigenous eastern dish flowers to outrage the European invader.

Up in northern Luzon one can eat a satisfactory array of dog recipes, though in the town of Baguio the meat is often sold from door to door already butchered, and gastronomes will tell you it’s important to know the breed you’re cooking, as well as its age, and vary your recipe accordingly. This is where a discriminating palate pays off, since true dog lovers will know whether the dish’s lead character was a dog or a bitch, especially one on heat. Of course puppies, like veal, need bland and delicate cooking.

Filipinos, like the people of many other nations, generally kill their animals by cutting their throats and keeping the blood as a separate ingredient. One reason for this may be that bloodless meat tastes less malansa – an impossible word to translate since English doesn’t recognise what it defines. Dictionaries usually give something like “the smell of fresh fish”; but that’s not precisely it, and both fish and meat may be described as tasting malansa. It’s interesting to discover a sensory perception that is simply not recognised by one’s own culture. Bearing this in mind (for Filipinos consider malansa unpleasant), there are half a dozen common ways of cooking dog – other than straight roasting over an open fire – and plenty of regional variations. It should be remembered that most rural Filipino cookery is of the “open fire” rather than the “oven” type, which gives a distinctive flavour.

Kalderetang aso (caldera, of course, is Spanish for cauldron): A classic dog dish. Garlic and onions are fried in coconut oil until brown, and reserved. The meat (chopped Chinese style, with the bones) is fried in the same oil until tender, then the onions and garlic are put back in and a cupful of soy sauce added. When that has bubbled and seethed enough, any or all of the following can be added: tomato ketchup, peanut butter, margarine, peppercorns, chili, pickles, potatoes, carrots. The ketchup and margarine give a debased and over-sweet taste and may safely be omitted. The peanut butter imparts a slightly Indonesian flavour. To this is added a bottle of San Miguel beer – one bottle per dog – and the whole thing allowed to stew gently for an hour. A fancy asosena might even include pineapple chunks. Adobong aso (adobo being Spanish for pickling sauce): This gets rid of any malansa flavour by a different method.

Here the meat is boiled first in coconut vinegar and soy sauce. It can be embellished into adobong aso sa gata by adding turmeric and fresh ginger and then coconut milk at the end. Depending on the quality of the dog, the flavour emerges rich and clear and muttony. 
Bulacan dog: In Bulacan Province they have a method of boiling the meat with tamarind, onions and garlic to achieve a good, sour, sinigang flavour. Then the meat is patted dry and fried in plenty of oil. It is served with a dip made of soy sauce, chili and ketchup. This is delicious, though I can’t recommend it for cat, which is a dry meat and easily becomes stringy and floury if fried as well as boiled.

I am now in a position to promote dog done alla Toscana, which I tried out in Italy last autumn after a huntsman foolishly shot his own hound. I roasted a haunch in the oven with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. My house guest considered it a great success. Sadly, owing to the lack of rosemary and olive oil in the Philippines provinces it would be hard to introduce this taste sensation there. I feel something very good might also be done with a stuffing of basil, prunes and lemon, held together with mustard flour. Certain Italian friends affect horror – as do some of my Filipino friends – but this is a received response and not based on experience. (Hypocritical, too, since dog meat is still occasionally smoked in the Italian Alps). It’s the old argument of the ayatollahs who hadn’t read a line of Rushdie. “Oh, taste and see,” is the reasonable response.

In any case, cane alla Toscana suggests a whole range of possibilities using exotic ingredients but in a European style. I am familiar with adobong sawa, which is python, and am eager to invent python steaks in Trieste fashion, with white wine and anchovy fillets. They would be fabulous. But alas, it is an idle dream. The most one could hope for here in Europe would be an occasional adder stew with shallots.

The Philippine provinces also have some unusual culinary specialities which, for sheer inventiveness, are a tribute to the human spirit. There is a dish from the mountain provinces that requires a chicken to be plucked before it is beaten slowly to death with spoons. The theory runs that the beating mobilizes subcutaneous fat as well as breaking the capillaries, and produces a flushed, creamy texture.

I have to report – regretfully, in view of the bird’s protracted demise – that in my case it was all for nothing since it tasted to me like roast chicken by any other name. Evidently my palate is still poorly educated. I gather the Ewondo of Cameroon use a similar method on plump dogs, which are tied up and tenderized for a day with small canes before they are cooked in a complicated nine-hour procedure. In any case, readers wishing to try for themselves this method of preparing a chicken are urged to use nothing heavier than one of those light wooden spoons from Habitat. The point is not to break any bones.

Also, the sensitive are advised that even in the cheerful outdoor context of tribal cookery the scene is not without its pitiful aspects. I suppose the bird might be given an anaesthetic; yet this would violate the no-chemicals rule.

Also from the north is pinik-pilkan, which I have yet to try. It, too, starts with a chicken being beaten to death, this time with its clothes on. Once dead it is briefly roasted in its feathers before being cut up and cooked in the normal fashion. A tasty combination is for it to be mixed with itag, which is belly of pork dried and packed in salt in earthenware crocks until it becomes maggoty. This, when cooked with the chastised hen, yields a greeny-greyish sauce described as “hearty”. The sum of its parts is apparently far greater than their individual promise.

Buro dishes, a Pangasinan speciality, are also something I have never eaten. Buro refers to a way of pickling in brine. One celebrated version starts with a stew of pickled vegetables which is allowed to cool before being fed to a dog that has been starved for a couple of days. The dog wolfs it down and after an interval, someone gives the animal a special blow behind the ribs with the edge of the hand which induces immediate vomiting. The regurgitated stew is caught in a bowl, re-cooked with additional herbs and eaten. The dog, which is more cross than injured, is rewarded with a meal which this time it is allowed to digest completely.

A friend who has tried this dish, as well as another version involves fermenting fish and rice in a crock for several weeks, says buro is something you need to acquire a taste for, like kimchi, the Koreans’ pickled vegetables. Yet another Pangasinan dish involves a goat being fed as much grass as it will eat before it is killed and cooked with the grass still inside. The grass-filled stomach is allegedly delicious.

There is a range of papaitan dishes from Ilocos (pait means bitter) which have percolated south to the extent that one can find workers’ restaurants in Manila specialising in them.

A good papaitan will present an interesting taste to a European who is otherwise accustomed to bitterness only in tonic water, or in vegetables like chicory. It is well worth trying and nothing like as bitter as it sounds – far less so than some varieties of Italian salad greens, for instance.

I returned from my trip up north to my home village to find somebody’s birthday being celebrated with an old favourite – a brilliant campfire version of duck à l’orange called patotin. The duck is lightly spit-roasted and then transferred to a large iron saucepan, in the bottom of which is a bed of the Chinese fermented black beans which come in tins. A bottle of Sprite is added (though Fanta is equally satisfactory) as well as a large lump of ice. The ice slows down the cooking – heat control is always a problem with an open fire. After an hour or so the patotin is ready.

Free range duck is delicious in any case; but what makes this dish is the fizzy-drink-sweetened black bean sauce.

It used to be obligatory to end a food article by quoting the 18th-century French lawyer and gastronome, Brillat-Savarin,“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are). I haven’t the least idea what he meant. What kind of judgment was he threatening to make? A class one? Racial? Nationalistic? Economic? Religious? Or merely implying a confident assertion of his own bon goût?

However, if he meant,“You are a curious traveler, soon to be dead and happy to try anything once,” one might allow the old fraud some points. The only form of abuse I remember without pleasure from my schooldays is gastronomic. It is a reminder that we come from a culture which thought nothing of giving Spam fritters to impressionable children. We owe it to ourselves to put our cast-iron digestions to better use, and abandon taboo in favour of new taste experiences.

Any visitor to Manila wishing to do the same might make a good start by dining at Patio Mequeni, a restaurant near Remedios Circle in Malate. Nothing too outrageous, but an interesting range of regional Filipino dishes.

The deep-fried mole crickets to nibble with a cold San Miguel as one waits for the main course are highly recommended, and would have made Vincent Holt’s evening. They rustle agreeably on the plate but are still squidgy and peanutty inside.

Dog-fanciers, on the other hand, will have to ask around, since the restaurants they are looking for tend to lie outside the touristy areas. If you find a taxi-driver who pretends not to understand, you can convince him by telling him you’re looking for aw-aw (rhymes with bow-wow). You can’t get clearer than that. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Chilled Pea-Broth Basil Soup

The CC is finding abundant fresh shelled peas at his local farmers' market these days. The season is coming to a close and this luxury will soon go away.

Experienced cooks know not to throw away the shells of the peas. We've talked about pea-broth risotto on this blog before but there's something else that works like magic.

The peas tend to be starchier later in the summer and this recipe works perfectly with them. It's involves using the pea-broth to make a chilled soup which goes down easy in this absurd summer heat.

The recipe is a little laborious since it involves making the pea-broth and then making a soup based on it but it's easier than it sounds. You just need some pots and a dishwasher (either mechanical or of the human kind!)

The ideal accompaniment to this as a light summer meal is parmesan toast.


Pea Broth

1 lb organic pea shells (yes, they need to be organic!)
1 large onion
olive oil

6 cups water


Pea Soup

pea broth (from above)
2 tbsp butter
2 shallots

1/2 cup peas
3-4 cups basil



Notes 1: You need a lot of basil because flavors are muted with cold soups. Same goes for salt and pepper.

Notes 2: When the soup cools, it will separate out. Just whip it again with a whisk before serving.

Notes 3: Do NOT use cream as you see in a lot of online recipes. Yes, there is a place for cream in the soup world but it has a tendency to flatten out the recipes and make all soups taste the same. This is all about the pure taste of summer peas!

First, make the pea broth. Fry the onions in the olive oil till they are limp. Add the shells and fry them for a bit. Add the water, salt and pepper and let cook for at least 30 minutes until the pea shells are limp. Blend with a stick blender. The shells are fibrous and will never blend completely.

Filter the broth using a strainer pressing down to extract the maximum amount of the broth. Toss the fibrous residue.

In a separate clean pot, heat up some butter. Fry the shallots on a medium-low heat. Add the pea broth and bring to a boil. Add the peas and let them cook for about 10-12 minutes until soft. Turn off the heat.

Add the basil and blend the mixture together until it is very smooth. Check for salt and and some if necessary. You can strain the soup if you want a finer presentation or just leave it as is for a slightly more rustic version.

Chill the soup. It will take at least 6-7 hours before it is nicely cold. Serve.

Saturday, July 4, 2015


Vegetables are bland in flavor. There, the CC has said it.

Before a lynch-mob comes marching in, hear me out.

Vegetables are diluted in flavor by the water in their cells. So is meat, for the record. Hence, the concept of "aging beef" which allows the water to escape and making the meat more intensely "meaty".

There are a standard set of tricks across the globe to make vegetables more "vegetable-y" but since chez CC, we tend to be of the analytic bent, let's dig in further. We're also going to go further into domains not imagined by all these vegetable cultures.

All world cuisine relies on one or both of these tricks:
  1. Dessicate the vegetables to make them more intense.
  2. Dessicate the vegetables and then replace the lost water in the cellular structure by more "interesting" stuff.
There is no "third destination".

There are three standard ways of dessicating vegetables — roasting, frying and sun-drying. Each is standard across the globe although the CC would argue that frying is a cross between [1] and [2] in that it replaces the water with a light coating of fat which is irresistible to the human tongue.

Now, that you understand this, you will realize how bullshit the verb insaporire  ("to infuse with flavor") in Italian actually is. You're doing nothing of the sort. You're dessicating the vegetables by pan-frying them for a long time. No flavor is actually being "infused' because nothing is entering the system. You are pulling water out and the flavor is already present in the amazing vegetables to start with.

Yet, the Italians are onto something important. Pan-frying the vegetables does indeed intensify the flavor and this is the criticism that the CC would lay on the modern world and it's "fast food" concepts. You need to be slow and fry them languidly on a low heat for longer you think possible. The CC routinely catches himself trying to speed up before the analytic brain kicks in and says, "ten more minutes, mofo!" and the food is always the better as the Italians would have it. A great minestrone would have the vegetables pan-fried for the better part of 30 minutes.

The greatness of sun-dried vegetables should be obvious. So should be the concept of fried vegetables — everything from pakoras and tempura to fritto misto.

They are all precise ways of dessicating vegetables.

(Now, you understand why kale chips work, right?)

Once you've dessicated the vegetables, you are can re-infuse the cellular structures with other stuff. Everything from spices to meat and fish broths. The genius of Indian vegetarian cooking can be encapsulated in the fact that they combine steps [1] and [2] in one neat step. The vegetables are dessicated at the same time infusing them with the taste of intense spices. You see the same logic in an Italian minestrone which relies on vegetables being dessicated via pan-frying and reconstituted in an intense tomato broth. (Before the discovery of the New World, the Romans used meat broth to the same effect but the tomato is both cheaper and more intensely umami.)

Armed with this analytic conceit, we're no longer constrained by the arbitrariness of culture. If you want carrots to be more intensely "carrot-y" then dessicate them at a really low temperature and then reconstitute them in carrot juice!

In fact armed with this trick, you can make zucchini taste of meat or tomatoes or whatever you please.

The vegetable world is your oyster!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Notes from an Oyster Shucker

So the CC decided to learn how to shuck his own oysters and here are the notes from that.
  1. It's harder than you think. Way harder.
  2. Safety first. The CC cannot emphasize this enough!
  3. Equipment matters. Please invest in the following:
    1. a "serious" oyster shucking knife,
    2. a set of chain gloves — it's basically chain-mail for the other hand,
    3. a rough scrub-brush, and
    4. some cheap towels.
  4. They are filthy. Epically filthy. Hence the scrub-brush. You will be spending a lot of time scrubbing to prep them so get a good one.
  5. They are seriously jagged. Hence the chain gloves.
  6. It's hard to pry them open in the first place. Hence the chain gloves. Dunking them in water (to warm them up briefly) moves along the process.
  7. Take a look at videos online on how to severe the "adductor muscle". The CC thought this would be hard but it's actually the easiest part.
  8. It's way way harder than you think. Practice makes perfect.
And yes, they are exactly as amazing as ever to eat.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Les huîtres v/s かき (Kaki)

It's always very entertaining when two great food cultures have diametrically opposed views on a subject.

For starters, it doesn't happen very often because the human palate is pretty consistent. What's left behind is the purest form of the arbitrary nature of culture.

The point in contention here is the nature of oysters and how they are best consumed.

First the similarities — both the French and the Japanese agree that oysters are amazing and worth consuming in spite of the incredible effort involved in opening them.

(The CC would like to point out that oyster middens are some of the oldest sites involving ancient humans. Clearly, our ancestors agreed with both the French and the Japanese!)

What they differ on is how.

The French, from whom we've obtained some of our biases, insist that the ideal way to eat the oyster is raw where it "tastes of the sea".

The Japanese are equally insistent that the ideal way is that it be cooked (either grilled or fried) where the "juices are concentrated".

(Frying and grilling are precise ways of concentrating the meat by removing water.)

One would ordinarily have expected the Japanese to be enthusiastic about the raw oyster but they are adamant that oysters are best consumed cooked. There is no "oyster sashimi".

The CC will leave this open as a "striptease" but his views on these subjects tend to be relatively clear.

Weigh in on the subject in the comments.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Trapped (?)

This is pretty much the epitome of a "First World problem" but the CC feels trapped by the fact that he has too many amazing dishes in his repertoire and that the seasons change so fast.

Basically, there are too many dishes that the CC loves with seasonal ingredients with no room for anything else. It had to happen eventually with the CC's obsessive nature.

Two parts of the CC's brain are going to war with each other:
  1. Love it. MAKE IT!!!
  2. Novelty is amazing. Let's make something new.
It's a straight-up function of age. The obvious interpretation would be that there are only so many rounds left on the merry-go-around but the CC is young! It's not that.

It's more to do with how do we hold on to that original sensation when we knew nothing, and the entire world was afresh with the sense of discovery, and how we discover it and make it our own.

The only empirical evidence the CC has about this is that every time he has had this absurd feeling (and he's had it about four times now), there's always been a new breakthrough waiting in an unexpected direction.

Let's hope the empirical truth comes through a fifth time.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Weekend Menu

Just one "fancy" meal on the weekend with an old classic on Saturday. Recipes to follow.

The first meal is classically Italian, of course, but the ingredients came from a Japanese store. They have higher standards of quality.

The correlative in the Japanese meal is the blackness. It comes from the black rice which is representative of squid ink but there's none of that in the rice. The "toban djan" is Chinese in origin but it's amazing how the Japanese have converted the quick stir-fry to their own tastes. The "burdock salad" has mayonnaise but Japanese-style which is much much lighter and once again umami-laden. Okra is emphatically not Japanese but once again their love of slimy substances (natto!) means they've made it their own. There's very little "Japanese" about the second meal except that they have taken all these influences and converted them into a coherent Japanese meal.

The CC has said this many times but he'll say it again. One of the pleasures of cuisine is to be able to see the world through a different pair of eyes. We're all stuck with our origins but we can surpass them with imagination and empathy.

Cuisine is the fastest and easiest way to get there.

Pasta with mushroom sauce

Japanese meal

Three-taste mixed rice (white, brown, black)
Okra ohitashi
Burdock salad (ゴボウサラダ)
Squid toban djan
Miso soup
Smashed-cucumber pickle (タタキキュリ); Myoga

† This is the 1000th post. No need to get all misty-eyed. There will be many more to come.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Weekend Menu

Semi-annual Japanese shopping trip. Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Pav bhaji

Japanese meal

Bamboo-shoot rice w/ fried tofu
Clams with ponzu and garlic chives
Gobō & carrot kinpira
Miso soup with horseradish shoots
Pickles (lotus-root amazuke, carrot shiozuke, myōga)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Soufflé with snails, tomato sauce & chinese chives

Japanese meal

Fresh bamboo-shoot rice w/ sanshō
Okra ohitashi
Scallop sashimi
Miso soup
Pickles (lotus-root amazuke, carrot shiozuke)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Hunanese meal

Poached cod with fermented black beans
Bok choy with garlic & ginger
Carrot Pickles

Indian (Konkani) meal

Malvani-style clams
Stir-fried sprouted channa with kale
Carrot raita
Basmati rice
Fresh green mango pickles

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Epitome of Simplicity

The name of Ferran Adrià will forever be linked to molecular gastronomy but very few know that is a passionate advocate and practitioner of the simple perfection of Catalan cooking.

The freshest of ingredients, minimally touched, delivering magic on the tongue.

Here's one of his simplest recipes (and the CC paraphrases):
Scrape a vanilla seed into a bowl. Heat up some heavily salted water. Put fresh tagliatelle and cook for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, heat some unsalted butter in a pan, put in the vanilla scrapings at high heat. Add a splash or two of the pasta water. Drain the pasta. Toss with the sauce. Add with a lot of grated parmesan.
Some of you might have spotted the sleight of hand behind the simplicity. Fresh pasta takes some effort and it has to dry out for a few hours.

The rest is actually in the traditional sense of the word "simple".

However, the CC can attest that this recipe indeed is magic. Vanilla which is only seen in a sweet context takes on the starring role in a savory context.

Do make this. Even if you have to use dried pasta. This is ethereal.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two meals. Recipes to follow.

Kale-stuffed pasta-shells in tomato-sauce

Japanese meal 
Miso soup with clams
Tuna sashimi salad
Bamboo-shoot rice
Sweet lotus-root pickles; Salt carrot pickles

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Weekend Menu

Three meals. Recipes to follow.

Scallops in XO Sauce
Collard greens stir-fried with garlic

Duck Salami
Scrambled eggs with snails


Filipino Meal 

Pancit Molo
Guisadong Mais (w/ kale & lotus roots)
Rice (w/ garlic bits)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Weekend Menu

Three meals. Recipes to follow.

"Shirred" eggs with snails, persillade & tomato paste
Filipino Meal 

"Guisado" with bamboo shoots, dried shrimp & kale
Umami rice
Salt pickles

Sautéed pea-shoots with garlic & soy sauce
Lobster ravioli in vanilla butter sauce

Friday, March 6, 2015

Poached flounder with baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes & olives in saffron-tomato broth

This is one of the dishes that is extremely simple provided you have the ingredients on hand.

Please read the notes and follow the instructions carefully.


(serves 2)

2 fillets of flounder
8 baby potatoes
12 cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh peas
1/4 cup carrots (sliced into thin batons)
1/4 cup French beans (sliced into 1" length pieces)
1/4 cup black olives

2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup tomato purée

2 sprigs tarragon (chopped)

large pinch of saffron

parsley (finely chopped)

black pepper



  1. You absolutely need both chicken broth and the tomato purée. The umami is a big factor in this recipe. If you don't have chicken broth then you must either make a quick fish broth, or a Japanese-style dashi. This recipe will not work otherwise. The tomatoes and the broth function in tandem.
  2. Tarragon can be overpowering. Use in moderation. Substitute by fennel seeds.
  3. Saffron is non-negotiable.
  4. Obviously, you can use any combination of vegetables you have at hand but use neutral ones. Cauliflower is great as would be some beans. There is considerable leeway here.
  5. You can use any white fish. Cod is great too. Poaching time depends on the fillet thickness.

Bring the chicken broth and tomato purée to a gentle rolling boil. Add salt and black pepper. Add the baby potatoes and cook for 12 minutes. When this happens, foam will come to the surface. Skim it.

Add the cherry tomatoes, peas, beans and olives and continue to cook for 4 minutes.

With a slotted spoon, fish out all the vegetables and put them into two serving bowls which can hold liquid.

Bring the liquid to a boil again. Add the saffron and tarragon. Poach the fish in the liquid till it is cooked through - typically 3-4 minutes per fillet. (The CC had to poach them individually but if you have a large enough pan, you might be able to do both at once.)

Lift out the fish and place it gently on top of the vegetables.

Pour the broth over the fish and the vegetables. Sprinkling of parsley and if desired, more black pepper on top.

Serve with some crusty bread.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Weekend Menu

Two weekend days. Four meals. Recipes to follow.

Strata with caramelized onions, kale & gruyère 
Poached flounder with baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes & olives in saffron-tomato broth

Mushroom ravioli in garlic, rosemary & mushroom sauce 
Japanese Meal 

Nori rice with winter vegetables
Miso soup with clams & wakame
Squid tempura
Scallop sashimi (with calamansi)
Sweet lotus-root pickles (蓮根甘酢け); salt pickles (塩漬物)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On the Delusions of Men

From the Guardian:
Carlo Cracco has cooked alongside Alain Ducasse and earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant in Milan, where the city’s elite feast on dishes such as lemon risotto with anchovies and cocoa, and marinated salmon with foie gras. 
But the chef’s professional pedigree did not stop the local council in Amatrice, a town two hours from Rome, from publicly denouncing and ridiculing him.
Cracco’s sin? The chef confessed on national television that he used unpeeled, sautéed garlic as the “secret ingredient” in his amatriciana, one of Rome’s staple pasta dishes.
According to officials in Amatrice, there are six ingredients that make up a real amatriciana: guanciale (pork jowl), pecorino cheese, white wine, tomatoes from San Marzano, pepper and chilli.
The town’s deputy mayor, Piergiuseppe Monteforte, denied that officials were being too strict. “Use one ingredient for another, it changes not only the flavour of a dish but also the history of it,” Monteforte told the Guardian. “If you use ingredients like garlic or onion in an amatriciana, it means you are ignoring a pastoral tradition that is almost 1,000 years old, passed down from generation to generation.”
Anyone spot the error?


A pastoral tradition with 1,000 years of tomatoes and chili peppers in Italy?

Pass the bong, baby! Don't bogart it.

Italy has only used tomatoes consistently since the late 18th-century or the early 19th century. Chili peppers are also New World. This complete lack of historic perspective is typical for people steeped in a particular tradition. Thankfully, chez CC, we aspire to higher standards of truth.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Adaptation & Appropriation of Dishes

The CC really wanted to include this article under that of The Naming of Dishes but there was a lot more to be said about this subject than just the naming portion so he decided to spin it off into its own little post.

The world has always been global.

We've had traders and merchants traveling the seas trading across countries and continents. It's not uncommon even today to find Roman coins in India when land gets dug up for some new project. The largest collection of gold artifacts in the world was discovered in Surigao in the Philippines in 1981 as part of an irrigation project. Its connections to ancient India of the 10th century is quite well established (Source: Ayala Museum.)

Along these trade routes flowed something else besides spices, grain and gold — recipes and techniques for recipes.

The most famous of these routes is undoubtedly the Silk Road over land but equally important were the three sailing routes. One across the Mediterranean from Alexandria (modern-day Egypt) hopping counter-clockwise, hugging the coast, all the way to Rome and also from Cyrene (modern-day Libya) and Carthage via Alexandria to Rome. The other was the route from the modern-day Gulf of Eden hugging the coast of the modern-day Middle East all the way down the western coast of India to Calicut (modern-day Cochin). And finally the extension of this route around the southern tip of India hugging the eastern coast of India to Burma and from there on to Thailand, Indonesia and the far East.

The most powerful of impulses that the traders appealed to was that of the "exotic". Anything remotely exotic is lapped up by any population as long as it is not too far off from their own conception. Whether these are colorful clothes or dishes or spices hardly mattered to the traders just as long as it could be sold for a profit.

Not knowing anything about a foreign culture — remember travel was hard before the last 75 years or so — local dishes with some exotic ingredient are just the ticket for a sharp businessman with a marketing strategy.

Exoticism sells. Nobody from emperors to laymen are immune.

This is not just a theory. We have evidence.

Queen Victoria was crowned the Empress of India in 1876 and the British went crazy over "anything Indian". There were "Indian-themed" parties and "Indian food" marketed by the East India Company. This is also the birth of the infamous curry powder — a non-existent concept in Indian cooking. This powder marketed globally is now ubiquitous in such far-flung places as France, Thailand, Singapore and Japan all thanks to the marketing of the East India Company.

In the 1950's and 1960's there was a worldwide craze of "Hawaiian". Needless to say the folks from Italy and India and Vietnam or even most of the United States for that matter had never been to Hawaii but "Hawaiian Salad" was all the craze globally. The exotic element was pineapple. Take a typical salad with a mayo-based dressing and toss in some pineapple to get the afore-mentioned dish. Needless to say this had about as much to do with Hawaiian cuisine as chalk has to do with cheese. There were "Hawaiian cakes", "Hawaiian cocktails", you name it! All with pineapple. It was all marketing, of course. (Yes! The "Mad Men" had their hands all over this. We have the ads to prove this.)

The relatively recent movement towards "authenticity" is not more than about 30-40 years old. Sure there were pioneers even in the 1930's towards an honest and detailed assessment of global cuisine but its mass adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon.

This trend towards exoticism isn't relegated to dishes. Ask yourself if you really know what entrée means. It means "appetizer" in French from the verb entrer — to enter. Same goes for hors d'oeuvres which means "first course" in French but has taken on the meaning of "appetizer" in English. (Appetizers would be des toasts — "nibbles" in French.) Clearly some things got lost just getting across the English Channel and if that's the case, you can just imagine how much got lost when recipes migrated longer distances in older times.

Every culture appropriates dishes. Whether it is the Sicilian adaptation of Arabic eggplant recipes or the Malaysian appropriation of Indian recipes (roti canaicanai probably comes from Chennai but the concept is, quite likely, from Kerala), or the Japanese versions of "spaghetti" and "ma po tofu", it's universal. You also have wholescale adaptations like the Hakka-originated "Indian-Chinese cuisine". Not to mention chop suey and the like which are American adaptations of Chinese dishes.

Italian cuisine is a particularly special case. There's the Italian-American branch but that, at least, can be understood as the reaction of new immigrants to a foreign land and its native resources. What no Italian would recognize is Japanese "spaghetti napolitan" (sic) or Filipino "spaghetti" (made with banana ketchup!) or even Indian "masala spaghetti".

It's lost in translation but why?

To truly master a cuisine, you must first internalize its grammar. And every cuisine has an unmistakable grammar. A set of rules, techniques and ingredients that work in a specific set of combinations and in a very narrow context (historically) to create a meal. Only after you know this grammar backwards and forwards can you truly break free into true creativity. Science helps.

Needless to say, mastering different grammars is insanely hard work. It's far easier for cooks to get a superficial understanding of some foreign cuisine, just use the local grammar of cooking instead of mastering a foreign one, and make something vaguely in that style. It would've been even more the norm in older times since travel and authenticity were so hard. In time, the dish gets appropriated into the local cuisine and becomes "native".

So how does one distinguish incompetence at rendering a foreign cuisine from a slapdash effort from a  deliberate rethinking/reworking?

The answer lies in a similar one from the world of art.

In order to break the rules, you first have to understand and master them.

Not many people know that Picasso was a master draftsman and painter. His early paintings where he copies the classical works and even the Impressionists and out-flanks them are not well known. It's only after complete mastery of older techniques that that he broke new ground both aesthetic and technical. The same goes for Matisse.

It always pays to master different grammars. Picasso "borrowed" shamelessly from African art, and almost all painters of that era borrowed extensively from Japanese art. So it goes with any artistic endeavor.

The bias should be towards mastery of grammar and technique. The "going beyond" follows as a natural consequence.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Kale Me, Kale Me Now!

The culinary world, like the world at large, is subject to the ebbs and tides of fashion. Things come and go, they fall in and out of vogue. The seasons change and so does the culinary world.

Anyone that thinks this is a recent notion should be disabused of it rather quickly.

"I hate everything Egyptian", said Goethe once. He can't have been too familiar with Egypt never having been there what with travel being so difficult in those days. He was responding to the aftermath of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria which set off a fad for all things "Egyptian". (There may have been more than a trace of anti-French attitude given the nationalistic times but the point stands nevertheless.)

In the same age, Byron, the hedonist poet of his age and burgeoning metrosexual, who was so terrified of his figure that he weighed himself compulsively, advocated a diet of vinegar and rice and thanks to him being the male Beyoncé of his day, not only did women (and men!) throw themselves at him in disproportionate proportions but also did they submit themselves to the regular bouts of vomiting and diarrhea that came with the dietary territory.

Fun times.

America has always been the land of food fads. What with Fletcherism ("chew your food 100 times in a minute before swallowing") to Kellogg who invented cereals as a "cure for masturbation" (sic) to low-carb diets and the low-carb backlash (Atkins), there has always been room in a new country for a new mechanism to reinvent yourself.

Not that the old world is exempt. Almost all of the modern ideas derive in one way or the other from the ideas of Galen (29 A.D.) The notion of things as "hot" and "cold". There are competing systems in India ("Ayurveda") and China (食疗).

All of which are completely bogus, of course.

The latest fad seems to be kale but most people don't know how to work with the vegetable. It seems to be a "cure all" but nobody in the 19th century would've considered it so. It was peasant food because you have to work to make it edible. It's natural form is not given to tasting good.

Tasting bad is, ironically "mostly universal".  It tastes bad because we have evolved a mechanism whereby something that tastes bad is probably poisonous or rotten and our senses are steering us away from it. Except that we humans, are insanely inventive. We invented cooking which neutralizes these poisons. And we're risk takers so that when we taste something bitter (bitter melons, brussel sprouts, beer!) and survive, it's like a roller coaster and we want more of the same.

This leads us to a digression. If you are going to make something that "tastes good", it takes considerable ingenuity to make it so.

Kale is undoubtedly "good for you". It also undoubtedly sucks in taste in its native form. We've had millennia to figure this out. The rational response has always been to pair it with a completely irresistible umami flavor and whether you did it via meat, mushroom, tomatoes or cheese is irrelevant. We have recipes from across the globe that do this.

There are a few things that need to be done. Firstly the tough central rib must be removed. They would've been fed to the animals on the farm. Secondly, with winter kale, you must massage it vigorously with your hands. You are breaking up the cellular structure. You will feel the kale go limp in your hands. After that, let the umami begin!

The recipes here are not only "good for you" but also "waste very little" and it will also make you roll your eyes back in pleasure.

Kale & White Bean Soup with Parmesan Broth


1 bunch kale
1/2 cup white beans

1 large onion (chopped coarsely)
4-6 cloves garlic (chopped)
2 parmesan rinds
6 cups water

olive oil



First make the parmesan broth. You need to have saved some parmesan rinds. They function like the "bones" in the broth.

Fry the onions and garlic in the olive oil. Add the rinds and the water, bring to a simmer and let it simmer for an hour at a low temperature. Strain the broth through a strainer retaining the liquid.

Meanwhile, make the beans. Simmer in water and salt until just below tender. This depends on the age of your beans. Separate the beans and the liquid and retain both.

Prep the kale. Remove the tough stems, and cut into a chiffonade.

Combine the broth, the beans, the bean liquor and bring to a simmer. Add black pepper to taste (the CC likes to amp it!). Adjust the salt. The parmesan is already salty so you may not need much. When it simmers, toss in the kale leaves and let wilt for 3 minutes.

Serve at once preferably poured over stale bread.

Kale Salad with Buttermilk Dressing


1 bunch kale
4 radishes (sliced paper thin)
1 carrot (sliced paper thin)

4 tbsp.. shaved parmigiano-reggiano (or more!)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tbsp. sherry vinegar
buttermilk (read below - exact proportions are hard)

salt (to taste)
black pepper


Note: When the CC refers to buttermilk, it means real buttermilk. When cream is whipped, it separates out into butter (the fat) and the liquid (the non-fat). The latter is the buttermilk. It has a smooth complexity thanks to the lecithin. Commercial stuff called "buttermilk" is not really buttermilk. It'll still taste good but you will have to thin it with water.

First prep the kale. Remove the tough stems and cut into thin strips. Do the massage thing. They will wilt. (This is important otherwise you will be chewing like a cow and cursing the CC. Not recommended!)

Meanwhile, make the dressing. Add the parmesan, olive oil and vinegar. Slowly pour in the buttermilk while whisking continuously. You will need more than the conventional 3:1 ratio because the parmesan is adding heft to the dressing. Thin till it has the consistency of a dressing. Add the salt and black pepper to taste.

Mix everything together. Let sit for at least 3 minutes. Dig in!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Potato Chronicles

Have you ever had an experience where you ask yourself why something so obvious is so completely unknown?

The CC is going to discuss roasted potatoes and French fries and what they have in common.

It's a well-known fact among connoisseurs of the humble potato that the best way to fry it is in various versions of animal fats. Goose fat, duck fat, chicken fat and horse fat. Expensive but mind-blowingly awesome.

What also makes the perfect fry is that the surface is crispy and brown (tastes come from the Maillard reaction) and the insides perfectly soft and creamy. It's the contrast that makes it work. Here's a refresher to the science.

The potato has been a staple in many cuisines once the New World was discovered. It rapidly spread across the globe. Roasting it aside the meat which shed its fat was a common and delicious idea.

The innovation which surprised the CC last night was simple. Instead of letting the potato roast, the chef took a medium-sized potato, peeled it, sliced it vertically into thin sections that were still attached at the base — leaving the potato whole —  and roasted it. It's simple knife-work. This thin slicing meant that the edges of the potato were completely crispy while the insides were completely creamy. The potato was clearly roasted with some goose fat and served with the roasted goose giving the dish a coherent feel.

It's such a simple idea and yet so radical.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Rules of Buying Cookbooks

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

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

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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Lynchpin of Logistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blackberry Picking

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

-- Seamus Heaney

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lasagna with Cod & Zucchini

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

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

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

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

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

So onwards and upwards.

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

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

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


package of lasagna sheets

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

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

1 cup milk
4 anchovies
1/2 cup flour

2 cups parmigiano-reggiano

olive oil

black pepper


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Creativity and Radish Salad

What does creativity mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


15 radishes (cut irregularly into large pieces)

1 cup basil leaves
Maldon sea salt

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

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

2 cups arugula


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

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

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