Thursday, October 5, 2017

Three-Culture Octopus

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

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

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

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

What are the tricks?

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

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

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

Why do the tricks work?

Firstly — umami.

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

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

Ingredients

(serves 4)

16-20 baby octopus(es)

1 small piece konbu

1 small carrot
1 small onion
1 tbsp black peppercorns
salt

1 anchovy
1 tbsp tomato paste
olive oil

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

Recipe

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

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

Fish out the octopus and set aside.

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

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



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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Fruit Salad

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

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

What is it?

Fruits in a milk reduction with complex spicing.

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

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

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

And we partied.

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

How does it work?

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

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

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

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

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

What's the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

You'll worry anyway.

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

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

Ingredients

(serves 6)

2 gallons whole milk
sugar

6 cardamom pods
saffron
1/4 cup slivered almonds

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

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

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

Recipe

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

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

Keep stirring.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bifrons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it's without a doubt a masterpiece.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How to Make Better Parathas

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

They did however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Grasshoppers Grilled in the Fashion of Saint John the Baptist

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

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

Just the name of the recipe is so suggestive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Peace, Love, Granola

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

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

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

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

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

(Source: Eleven Madison Park.)

Ingredients

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

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

3/4 cup sour dried cherries

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Store in a sealed container in a cool dry place.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mushrooms on Toast

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

Short answer = umami.

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

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

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

What is it?

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

Why does it work?

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

How does it work?

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

Ingredients

(serves 4 (= 8 toasts))

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

butter
salt
pepper

thyme
parsley (finely minced)

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp cream

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe

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

Cut the reconstituted mushrooms into lengthwise pieces.

Cut the other mushrooms into lengthwise pieces.

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

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

Make some toast.

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Everything

The CC wants everything. Everything at all.

The world is too small.

The CC wants to be Greek - not just "Greek" but Macedonian and Athenian and a punk from Thessaly. The CC wants doesn't just want to be Italian - Ligurian, Tuscan, Roman. Sicilian. The CC wants to be everything - Persian, Indian, Chinese - Cantonese, Xian, Mongolian. The CC wants to be Japanese and French.

The CC wants to be everything before he dies.

Fuck identity. How boring!

Food is the magic coordinator. We can be all these things. Why compromise? We can have it all.

It's just work. Let's get to it.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

R.I.P. Alain Senderens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the first syllable hasn't changed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adieu, maestro, adieu.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A French Summer Lunch Menu

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

Consommé à la japonais aux légumes d'été

Bulots froides avec aïoli aux herbes

Rouille du pêcheur
In translation:

"Dashi" with summer vegetables

Whelks with chive aioli

Octopus and new potatoes with "rouille"

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

That 70's Show

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

Why the 70's?

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

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

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

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

There are a few commonalities which are just extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Middle-East

Arto der Haroutunian (Middle-East at large)

Afghanistan

Helen Saberi

India

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

Sri Lanka

Chandra Dissanayake

Taiwan

Fu Mei-Pei

Philippines

Enriqueta David-Perez

Caribbean

Babette de Rozières

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Sealing of the Pot

The CC received a clay pot as a gift recently.

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

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

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

Clay is also an extraordinarily poor conductor of heat.

These combined facts act as an advantage in fish cookery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Line Drawings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There you have it.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Pav Bhaji

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do the Portuguese come in?

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

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

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

Needless to say, it was an instant hit.

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

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

 

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.