Purple Cauliflower Is a Cosmopolitan Polyglot

Emboldened by the postmodernist innovative ideas from our recent trip to Chicago, I embarked on culinary experimentation of my own. Inspiration was promptly provided by a beautiful purple cauliflower from Dupont Circle farmer’s market called Sicilian-Violet. I thought it to be a particularly appropriate choice, given the fact that my good friend The Blissful Adventurer has just returned from a trip to Sicily.

The idea was to start with a simple base (such as oven-roasted cauliflower florets), and to pair them with a few different flavors. Clearly, I was already nostalgic about playing with the succulent brine-and-butter Glidden Point oysters from Maine, and a set of tinctures at the Office on our Chicago trip (green peppercorns, smoke, curry, lemon, ginger, and fennel, for anybody interested :-)).

Speaking of Chicago, we had a tasty cauliflower dish at the Purple Pig (a “cheese, swine, and wine” kind of place, by their own description), which involved charred cauliflower, toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons, and parsley. I think it is only logical to eat purple cauliflower at the Purple Pig, if it is too hot to eat pig…

Our favorite homespun combination turned out to be furikake-seasoned cauliflower (a perfectly balanced Japanese mixture of sesame seeds, salt, sugar, and seaweed). This method is also perfect for Hakurei turnips that remind me of the Russian baby turnips (“repka”) that I liked to snack on when I was growing up. I ate them raw – they had delicate skin, and were as sweet as honey, as a Russian would say. As you can imagine, roasting makes them even sweeter.

The other two combinations involved dips: a Greek yogurt dip ( seasoned with lemon, salt, mint, red pepper, and sumac, which is one of my very favorite Middle Eastern spices), and Thai sweet and sour curry made with a Por Kwan-brand Tom Yum paste, light coconut milk, and kefir leaves.

Cauliflower and turnips were washed down with a Spanish Verdejo, which, to me, is the ideal summer wine. It tastes of the salty ocean and tropical fruit, and has the acidity and backbone to stand up to garlic, spice, aged cheese, char, and just about anything else you throw its way. Besides, you can get a very tasty version for as little as $12.

To complete my light lunch menu, I made a super-quick summery Russian-style sorrel soup with new potatoes. Just in case you are unfamiliar with sorrel, here is what it looks like:

The fastest way to make sorrel soup is as follows: cut up new potatoes (I don’t bother with peeling them), and cook them in vegetable organic stock. Once they are very close to being done, add the sorrel, and lots of lemon juice. Cook for another minute. To serve the soup, add quartered boiled eggs, and sour cream, or crème fraiche, to ramp up the tang. You can eat it hot or cold.

So, to recap: a Sicilian cauliflower variety with a Japanese seasoning, also served with a Greek dip with a Middle Eastern spice, and with a Thai curry. A Japanese turnip as a Russian childhood food memory. A Russian soup with American cage-free organic eggs, stock, and French-style crème fraiche.

This is one tasty melting pot…

A Weeknight Provençal Getaway

In order to balance out the rigors of credit analysis, I felt like a little getaway was in order on a Wednesday night. No, we are not travelling AGAIN, don’t worry :-). I just wanted to recreate a little piece of Provence in my own home. Nothing fancy, just honest rustic food.

French are big on apero (aperitifs). They don’t like rushing into anything, especially not a meal. The first question from your waiter is ALWAYS what aperitif you would like. Armed with a kir, a pastis or something else that suits your fancy, you can leisurely ponder the menu and the wine list.

I want a kir, dammit!

On a side note, your language proficiency in France is always judged by your confidence. The French always know what they want, and make drink ordering decisions quickly and confidently. Hesitation is interpreted as inability to understand the question, or speak the language altogether. That was a steep learning curve for me who likes to hum and haw :-)

A kir is easy to make and to like; it is a sparkler or white wine topped off with crème de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur). Now you can relax, while munching on pain complet and pain aux cereales with goat butter (I LOVE the 89 cent Harvest, olive, and whole wheat rolls at WholeFoods, they are pretty awesome!) 

A little asparagus with homemade hollandaise for Jeff, and au pistou for me (think pesto, but sans pinenuts, – a Provencal specialty). Speaking of hollandaise, I used one of Julia Child’s recipes who describes this sauce as being “well within the capabilities of an 8-year-old child.” Granted, this is the easy, shortcut version made in a blender, – MY kind of French cooking!

It takes a whopping 1 minute to make, and it is error-proof, unlike numerous other versions that have a strong tendency to curdle . 3 yolks, salt, pepper, 1 tbs lemon juice. Beat for 2 seconds on high, and without turning off the blender, slowly pour in hot melted butter (1 stick). Drizzle over asparagus blanched for a minute and a half. Et voila!

I have a new secret weapon – European-style goat butter! It was perfect for making a little sauce for my monkfish (lotte). Take a tablespoon of goat butter, salt, pepper, a few strands of saffron pre-soaked in hot water, a dash of nanami togarashi (a fantastic Japanese pepper and spice blend which I love as much as the goat butter) and a squeeze of lemon. Baste the fillet with the butter mixture, place a few spring onions in the baking dish, and roast in the oven at 400F for about 15 min, depending on the thickness of the fillet (mine was plump!).

To serve, arrange on a bed of primeurs (first spring vegetables), and drizzle with a bit more jus (a simpler version of what we had at the wonderful restaurant L’Oustalet in Gigondas). I used little carrots, sugar peas, spring onions, and asparagus which I had blanched for a couple of minutes, and then quickly tossed with a bit of pistou. By the way, if you do not feel like getting out a mortar and a pestle on a weeknight, you can often find decent fresh versions of that at a local organic foods store.

Jeff’s vegetarian ways prompted me to do one more classic: pommes persillade. Persil is parsley, so once again, we are looking at a mixture that is olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and herb-based (with possible additions of Parmesan, anchovies, chili flakes, and zest). Here is my quick version: parboil slices of potato for 7 minutes, cube and toss with a persillade spiked with chili flakes. Saute for another 5 minutes or so in olive oil (the South is olive oil country!), give it a lemon squeeze, and serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!

A little piece of sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees pushed us right over the edge, almost into the arms of Morpheus, and a nice long postprandial walk was certainly in order… just like in Provence!

The Advantages of Gluttony

“Gluttony is a lust of the mind”.         -Thomas Hobbes 

Despite my size, I don’t eat “like a little bird”; however, I rarely seek out the tasting menu format for two reasons. First, because I like to be in control of the meal, and second, because the quantity is always more than is absolutely necessary. But, sometimes it is the only format available, and all you can do is reconcile yourself with the prospect of sheer gluttony (or, shall we say, piggishness :-)), marvel at the intricate interplay of flavors and textures, and hope to learn something in the process. It is always wonderful, and it is always too much food.

But, after all, I am currently in training for Provence, where one spends several solid hours eating daily, and I have to build up my chops. Following the old adage, “Practice makes perfect”, I spent Saturday and Sunday consuming immoderate amount of Thai food, served family-style at two fantastic restaurants here in DC called Little Serow and Thai X-ing.

Besides the immediate gratification of this extravagant indulgence, I was hoping to draw inspiration from those meals to cook Thai food at home (which I had never attempted before). Especially with Little Serow (the second brainchild of the incredibly talented Johnny Monis, I wanted to identify some of the flavors I was interested in replicating in my kitchen. Both family-style meals were big on flavor and low on presentation, which was exciting and liberating for me as a home chef.

Little Serow focuses on Isan cuisine native to the NE part of Thailand bordering on Laos; it is all about spicy, salty, sour, and herbacious flavors. You see a lot of spicy sour meat and herb salads (larb), and lots of vegetables, herbs, limes, and sticky rice served alongside the meal. The curries are a bit different, too: more bright, sour and salty from shrimp paste, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass.

All that sounded right up my alley! The only drawback was that pretty much all of the dishes at Little Serow were meat- or seafood-based. But, at Thai X-ing, as part of their all-vegetarian line-up(!), I had a fabulous curried pumpkin dish, which inspired me to do things to kabocha squash and tofu so that my husband does not starve to death during my Thai experiment.

I bought the basics (such as Thai chilis, herbs, Thai jasmine rice, peanuts, coconut milk, lemongrass, fish sauce) at a neighborhood store, and ordered a few items online from Grocery Thai.com (hot and sour paste Por Kwan, shrimp paste, and kaffir lime leaves).

Dish #1a: spicy Thai salad with shrimp

Briefly saute large shrimp in a galangal, crushed chili flakes, and lemongrass stir-fry sauce (use the WorldFoods brand, or feel free to make your own). Toss with cilantro, lots of lime juice, crushed peanuts, julienned cucumber or zucchini, basil (Thai basil if you have it), red onion, mirin, ginger, and diced Thai chilis.

 

 

 

Dish #1b: same dish, but with tofu cubes sautéed in the same sauce and roasted in the oven for improved texture, together with some red and yellow bell pepper strips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dish #2: spicy sour chicken larb salad

Chop the chicken breast very fine (I prefer to cook with air-chilled boneless skinless chicken breast), and marinade in lime juice and mirin for 10 minutes. Saute till the meat turns white (fully done), and cool completely. Add mint, cilantro, green onions, basil, ginger, fish sauce, finely grated and sliced lemon peel, Thai peppers or chili flakes, minced garlic, diced fresh lemongrass, salt and pepper. Serve with romaine lettuce leaves as wrappers.

 

Dish #3: Curried kabocha squash

Heat 1 can of coconut milk (I used Native Forest Organic Light coconut milk, which is 60% lighter than regular stuff) with 2 spoonfuls of the hot and sour Por Kwan paste (made with lemongrass, galangal, chilis, dried shrimp, kaffir lime leaves, and palm sugar). I adore the flavor of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, so I added a whole stalk of lemongrass, and a half-dozen or so kaffir leaves to the curry. Place pieces of squash into an oven-proof ceramic dish (you can leave the skin on for presentation, if you want) and submerge them completely in the curry.Cook in the oven for 15-20 min at 400F, and serve with the fragrant Thai jasmine rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dish #4: Leftovers! The next day most of the squash was gone, but there still was a fair amount of curry left. I combined it with tofu slices and mung beans for Jeff, and chicken and mung beans for myself. Even better, more integrated flavors a day later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these dishes were washed down with a bottle of 2007 Pierre Sparr Pinot Blanc Reserve from Alsace purchased from a local shop for a mere $10.99. I specifically wanted to list the price point, lest I be accused of my ever-so-snooty wine tastes :-). Wine should be appropriately chosen for the occasion, and here we are talking down-to-earth, casual eating.

All in all, it was a success, and I have assurances from my husband that I will be allowed to make this again :-). I like quotations, and so I will leave you with yet another quote, this time from Nigella Lawson:

“Moderation in all things including moderation”.

Don’t Fret – Try a Galette

I love most things French, but I have always been much more of an italophile than a francophile. One of the reasons for that is that I find the Italian light-hearted, happy-go-lucky attitude to be very attractive. Same thing goes for cooking: many classic French recipes are not very forgiving, and require strict adherence to the measurement and process. So, whenever I attempt French dishes, I still avoid blindly following a recipe, and try to understand it and make it my own (so that I could deviate from it to suit my fancy). I think of it as applying the Italian attitude to French cooking. For me, cooking is fun, and I don’t want to take it too seriously.

Consistent with my theory of savory food supremacy, I have a serious weakness for savory buckwheat crepes, known in France as galette. They hail from the Northwest of France; more specifically, from Brittany. All-in-all, the batter is not difficult and Bretons themselves don’t use a recipe. Typically, the night before they simply mix buckwheat flour, sea salt, and water to make a paste. The next day, they thin it out until it reaches the consistency of melted ice-cream. As you can see, the true galette is pretty minimalist, and frankly, I feel intimidated by such a simple recipe (because as we know, simpler is more difficult). I perused a bunch of very different recipes (as the version from Normandy is quite a bit richer, and includes eggs, cream, and milk), and trusted my intuition to arrive at the following:

1 cup of buckwheat flour (Arrowhead Mills organic), 1 cup of water, 1 egg, 1 tbs olive oil, and 1 tbs French sea salt. To prepare the batter, you combine the flour and the salt in a large bowl, make a little well in the middle, and put in the oil and the whole egg. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon to incorporate the wet stuff, and slowly start adding the water. Keep stirring, till the batter is smooth and homogenous, without lumps.  Let it stand for at least an hour. In the meantime, get your fillings ready:

To make galettes, I used a basic non-stick pan. Pour a small ladle-worth into a hot pan primed with a tiny bit of butter, and swirl the batter to distribute it evenly. Cook till light golden brown, flip the galette, and spread the filling on top. Once the other side is cooked, and the filling is nice and melted, slide the crepe onto a plate. Fold it in half, and serve it immediately. It yields about 6 crepes (of course, don’t forget that the first one’s a dud, so plan accordingly). I find it to be an appropriate amount for two piglets two people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To get a good feel for making galettes,I subjected my poor husband to two meals of buckwheat crepes this weekend (albeit with different fillings). I made our galettes with:

- shredded Gruyere, softly fried egg, and chives;

- roasted orange & yellow tomatoes with parsley and goat cheese;

-Turkish-style eggplant & potato salad with onions and parsley;

-smoked wild sockeye salmon, crème fraiche, and chives (if you do not eat fish, a galette with crème fraiche and chives alone is very yummy);

-sauteed shitake mushrooms with thyme and shallots;

- and the most dangerous of them all: lightly smeared with burnt caramel sauce from Recchiuti. (I apologize in advance for introducing everyone to this product :-)).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Galettes are traditionally paired with artisanal French ciders, and so I picked up a couple from Whole Foods for our latest experiment (Etienne Dupont Cidre Triple 2010, and Etienne Dupont Cidre  Bouché Brut de Normandie Bio 2010 (biodynamic, unpasteurized, and unfiltered cider). The latter, a crisp, earthy and funky cider, turned out to be an absolutely amazing accompaniment to all the savory galettes; I simply cannot imagine anything better. The fuller-bodied Triple, with a big nose of both tart green and caramelized apples, was better on its own, and was also a winner with the caramel sauce galette.

As a result, we spent the rest of the afternoon singing French children’s songs such as J’aime la Galette (I Love the Galette), Sur le Pont d’Avignon (On the Avignon Bridge), and the original version of the chicken dance called the Ducks Dance in France and most of Europe (La Danse des Canards). If you are unfamiliar with those, you can easily find them on YouTube sung by puppets, kittens, and penguins.

 

 

See, French cuisine does not have to be serious…

Muse from the Northwest

I am easily pleased. I eagerly go to my “happy place” aided by something simple like crispy duck fat potatoes with a nice olive-tarragon aioli. Add to that a glass filled with an obscure Italian varietal (a 2007 GrosJean Freres Vigne Rovetta Torrette Superiore from Valle d’Aoste, perhaps?), and the job is definitely, positively done.

 

My blog is a journal of things that please me and that I get excited about. Sometimes I like to stop and think about the culinary “Muse” that generated the interest and produced the visceral response that made me cook and write. Especially after such a great trip as our last weekend in Portland, Oregon!

Portland is a culinary paradise and a place with real food snobbery in the best sense of the word (most of the time, sadly lacking in DC). I am generally not interested in re-creating restaurant dishes but I quite happily steal small ideas and ingredients when I eat out. Also, I am a planner, and I start getting excited about places when I first read their menus online. Often I just look at the combination of ingredients, and can almost taste the dish. Yes, I am excited by words…a true mark of a blogger :-)

Here are just a few of the memorable moments from our weekend in Portland:

-          Snacking on pickled things (a salad of pickled chanterelles with fennel, herbs, and citrus at Navarre; house-made pickles at Avignon (including golden beets and green tomatoes); a pickled tongue sandwich and pickled carrots at the Jewish deli Kenny & Zukes;

-          Drinking a 2005 Vina Cubillo Rioja by Lopez de Heredia by the glass (!) at Le Pigeon;

-          Slurping plump and briny Washington state and Oregonian oysters at Avignon;

-          Getting stuffed on grassy olive oil and Ken’s Artisanal bread at Navarre (before 4 more dishes arrived)

-          Savoring barbecue eel toast at Le Pigeon

-          Sneaking a cardamom sesame truffle from Alma Chocolate into Heart (which may not offer the best cup of coffee in a town packed with fantastic coffee shops, but is big on atmosphere).

Heart: a quintessentially Portland institution

On my trips I am wide-open to wine exploration, but my heart truly belongs to Burgundy and weird Italian varietals.  The biggest revelation of the trip came from Puglia, Italy (where we just went last September!). I have no intention of knocking Puglian wines, but they can be monochromatic and what I call “friendly” (a yummy, jammy cuddly bear of a wine). I am interested in elegance, acidity, and out-of-this world aromatics. The delicious and relatively inexpensive Alberto Longo Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera from Puglia, Italy had it all.

 

 

Every now and then, the best, most inspirational experiences come about by nothing more than happenstance. Last Saturday night, loopy from lack of sleep and tango hangover, we set off for a restaurant that does not take reservations and that is recommended by all foodie sources, without a backup plan (!!??). After being told that the wait for Pok Pok was going to be around an hour and a half, we backtracked several blocks to check out the place we saw from the cab on the way to the restaurant. It was called Avignon, which happens to be where we are going in a month – quite providential! After we got the aforementioned Torrette, duck fat potatoes, and the eerie good paprika-spiced hazelnuts from Freddy Guys farm (despite being from Oregon, my husband Jeff usually does not eat hazelnuts at all), our Saturday night dining luck turned a full 180 degrees…

By the way, their food, while certainly not ugly, was not picture-perfect or especially picture-worthy. That was probably true of most of the places we visited. Pinterest junkies would be disappointed, but I guess true inspiration really does come from within…

And sometimes, inspiration comes purely by association. When we got back to DC, I kept thinking about rainy Oregon, wet earth, forests and mushrooms. I also fondly remembered the wonderfully textured grain dishes we had at Noble Rot: the lemony barley bed for my wild sturgeon, and Jeff’s delectable lentil, quinoa, and oat cake stuffed with mozzarella and served with tomato sauce, melted leeks, and mushrooms.

My love of quinoa goes back to the time I discovered Karen McNeil’s “Wine, Food and Friends” series some 10 years ago; it is where my favorite quinoa recipe came from. Yesterday I had no morels on hand, so I reconstituted dried porcinis (yet another staple in my pantry), and cooked quinoa in the fragrant porcini broth (in a 1 to 2 ratio). When it was done, I added fresh shitakes sauteed in butter, with shallots, garlic, and thyme, and spiked the dish with a bit of soy sauce, in order to kick up the umaminess another notch. In accordance with the principle of “what grows together, goes together”, this dish called for an Oregonian Pinot, such as an excellent 2009 vintage bottle from PatriciaGreen Cellars.

There is only one drawback to having such a prolific Muse: you may end up like this piglet, lying on the bathroom floor in the corner unable to move…

A most appropriate mascot at Le Pigeon