Cooking Outside the Box

I am in complete agreement with Sybarite Sauvage who recently remarked that it was just “too darn hot” to mess around with elaborate stories. Hot weather makes creative juices dry up, and one needs an extra effort and a reason to get excited about writing and cooking. So, why not use a little trick, and challenge yourself by using fun new ingredients?

1. Cucuzza squash

During a recent trip to the farmer’s market, I was delighted to see an old friend, – gargantuan-sized Italian squash that goes by the name of “cucuzza”. When we were hiking on the Amalfi coast last September, we saw cucuzzi hanging down from the trellis like some alien baseball bats:

So, I quickly bought the smallest specimen I could find, and spent a good part of my yoga practice thinking about what I was going to do with the darn things. All-in-all, they could be used like other types of summer squash; but they tend to be more flavorful and nutty, plus they keep their shape very well during cooking.

Once I started thinking Italy, squash, zucchini,…the next thing I was remembering was the fabulous zucchini pizza from Forno Campo de’ Fiori in Rome:

Thus, it was decided: it is going to be quasi-pizza, with WholeFood’s tandoori bread as the base:

The first creation was “pizza bianca” with cucuzzi, mountain oregano (indigenous to Amalfi), whole-milk ricotta blobs, a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice, freshly ground pepper, and shredded Pecorino (salty and sharp sheep’s milk cheese). Before serving, I sprinkled it with finely julienned mint.

It was followed by “pizza rossa”, built with a very thin layer of arrabiata, cucuzzi, Pecorino, pepper, and combination opal & Italian basil. Here is what it looked like just before I put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 400F:

Ok, now I have used up half of the smaller squash…the question is, what in the world am I going to do with the rest???

2. Tamarind

My must-have dish at any good Vietnamese restaurant is Hot and Sour Soup (Canh Chua), the current favorite being from Saigon Café (located across from Eden Center in Virginia). It is, essentially, a shrimp, tomato, and pineapple soup in tamarind broth. My goal was not to recreate anybody’s version, – I was not following any particular recipe, nor did I have all the ingredients that traditionally go into the soup (such as the wonderfully spongy elephant ear). However, I wanted to make sure it maintained its distinctive taste.

This type of soup epitomizes everything that I love about Vietnamese food, such as the use of fresh ingredients (a variety of herbs and vegetables) to provide different textures and flavors within one dish.  The goal is to create perfect balance of hot (from the chili paste or chili flakes), sweet (from the pineapple), and sour (from the tamarind and lime juice) components.

So, first, you must make your stock using vegetable broth (or shrimp stock), water, tamarind paste,  fish sauce, lemongrass, chili flakes, or chili paste (such as the Pantai paste I used, complete with chilis, garlic, shallots, spices, shrimp paste, etc.). Strain it, and if you can, let it sit in the fridge overnight, in order for all the flavors to marry. The rest takes no more than 10 minutes, as you throw in the pineapple, okra (my approximation for elephant ear), and tomatoes.

A symphony of flavors and colors

At the last possible moment, add shrimp, lime juice, and aromatic herbs (I happened to have opal basil and cilantro on hand). Serve with additional basil and cilantro, if you wish.

In order to push things just a bit further, try a Txakoli (pronounced “Chacoli”) from the Basque region of Spain with your makeshift pizza and soup. In general, it can range from a simple, undemanding quaffer to a wine of extreme focus and character. Getariako Txakolina from Mokoroa certainly has enough acidity, minerality and freshness to bring out the most harmonious chorus from the crazy symphony of textures and flavors of the hot & sour soup.

Singing flavors *are* the best remedy for heat-induced sloth!

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I Like a Good Beer Buzz Early in the Morning

Ok, I lied. Actually, it is entirely untrue: I have never even tasted beer early in the morning. But, on Friday night I came close to purchasing VIP tickets to Drink the District (Beer Edition) for 11am entry, if only to find out whether I did enjoy an early-morning buzz. In the end, I could not bring myself to spend the morning with hundreds of others in the 95-degree heat clamoring for unlimited 3-oz artisanal beer pours. But a good idea is a good idea, and we started our own search of refreshing ways to beat the hot weather (and taste craft beer).

The ever-refreshing Summit Lake

A cool 40 degrees, even with a ray of sunshine…

Certainly, the best escape from the heat would involve going back to Mt.Evans, the closest fourteener  to Denver where we spent our 4th of July holiday.

Yes, the white patches are snow…

On top of the world, with a bigger picture perspective…

By the way, that was a fantastic trip full of culinary delights, such as the amazing omakase from Sushi Den (one of the very best sushi restaurants I have ever been to), Paul Bara champagne, and a perfect sundried tomato risotto made from scratch by my dear friend The Blissful Adventurer.

courtesy of sushiden.net

However, Denver is not exactly stone’s throw from DC, and we had to get creative.

So, we hid in our apartment and had a picnic lunch on our cool granite floor (one can sit or lie on a sheepskin rug). We fortified ourselves with Watermelon & Feta salad and Fattoush, before heading to a local watering hole by the name of Churchkey, in order to taste through some stellar locally produced stuff.

Just in case the pictures are making you hungry, and you would like one of your own, the W & F salad features sheep’s milk Greek feta from Lesbos co-op, watermelon chunks, spearmint, salt-packed Sicilian capers from Il Mongetto, lemon juice, a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar, and baby local red onions.

My version of Fattoush (a popular Lebanese peasant salad) is made with toasted pita strips, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, purslane, red onions, parsley, mint, green bell pepper, lots and lots of lemon juice, olive oil, and sumac.

After a couple of scoops of Talenti sea salt caramel gelato (highly recommended!), we finally embarked on our tasting adventure. Churchkey boasts a 555 unique label selection from 30 countries, including 5 authentic cast conditioned ales, and 50 draught beers, in different tasting formats. As I prefer variety, 4oz pours is my usual format of choice.

We tasted through some 10 microbrews (all on tap), ranging from summer ales and pilsners to American IPAs to Altbier and cask ale. All-in-all, nothing over 7% (so, no imperial stouts, tripels, double IPAs, etc).

Thus, our Top 5 list of local artisanal summery brews (from East Coast microbreweries) was born. The general criteria were aromatics, complexity, refreshing mouthfeel (must be appropriate for summer), and of course, the looks, such as a pretty head coupled with a beautiful translucent amber-hued body. (That doesn’t make me a shallow person, does it :-)?

Here is goes (in alphabetical order):

1. Dominion Hop Mountain by Coastal Brewing Company, DE. An American Pale Ale (authentic cask ale), dry-hopped in the cask with Chinook hops. Dangerously smooth and balanced. Piney, citrusy, hoppy, and moderately malty.

2. Prima Pils by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A German pilsner made with whole-flower Czech & German hops. (***Jeff’s strictly summertime favorite). Lemony, grassy, bitter, crisp, and earthy.

3. Smuttynose IPA “Finest Kind”, NH. An American IPA made with Amarillo, Simcoe, and Santiam hops. (***Jeff’s overall favorite). Floral, very grapefruity, pleasantly bitter, and balanced.

4. The Corruption by DC Brau, DC. It is an American IPA made with Tomahawk hops. (***my overall favorite, – perhaps, not surprisingly, as I am very familiar with the concept of corruption :-)). The most intense, aromatic, and complex of the bunch.

5. Victory Altbier by Victory Brewing Company, PA. A lively Altbier that is spicy, hoppy, earthy, and bready.

The efforts of these breweries are quite refreshing, although I am unsure if I would drink them first thing in the morning. I think maybe you have to warm up your body and mind first, to be able to cool down and fully appreciate what they have to offer. Those are not just some brainless blonde ales but, to borrow the wine world term, “birre da meditazione”, – beers that command contemplation.

Cheers!

A Creature of Habit

A few years back, my orange tabby Kuzya really disappointed me. He was totally unexcited by Wellness Chicken & Lobster, Turkey & Duck, and Sardine, Shrimp & Crab flavors that I had lovingly picked out for him at the store (instead of his usual boring Chicken & Herring flavor). I thought he would be all over the new delectable-sounding entrées, but he plain refused to eat them. When I eventually gave up and fed him his Chicken & Herring stuff, he was in heaven. I was miffed and confused. How can he not want to eat lobster, duck, and crab? Even more importantly, how can he keep getting excited by the same dish every single day?

“Oh boy, it’s dog food again!”

When you think of it, we humans are not that different. Three of my co-workers eat the exact same thing for lunch every day (and we are talking about senior management, not starving college students). A real-life example: a turkey sandwich on white bread, a pint of milk, and applesauce for dessert. Every single day.

Heck, I am not all that different. I start every morning with coffee and a Balance protein bar (cookie-dough flavored). Granted, the actual coffee changes (today was  5 de Junio Maragojipe Microlot from Las Sabanas, Nicaragua; tomorrow will be Santa Elena Pacamara from Santa Ana, El Salvador, or perhaps Haru, an Ethiopian high-elevation heirloom coffee from Yirgacheffe(all of them freshly roasted by Counter Culture coffee) . But still…

I could eat good-quality tomatoes, bread and sea salt every day (actually, I do!). In our household, Odwalla Superfood shake and WholeFoods-brand lemon flavored sparkling mineral water are also consumed on a daily basis.

Les tomates mon amour

At least every other day, I eat warm whole wheat pita by The Perfect Pita and 365 brand Greek or Lemon hummus; 0% fat Greek yogurt with tangerine & clementine marmalade or Skyr (an Icelandic style dense yogurt); and scrambled eggs with tomatillo salsa. It is almost a rule…

Unless we are traveling, every Saturday, after the trip to the farmer’s market, I make Horiatiki, or Fattoush (Greek and Lebanese classic peasant salads, respectively). More often than not, they are repeated during the week, as well. Here is my version of Horiatiki made with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, dried oregano, red wine vinegar, EVOO, mild banana peppers, olives, green bell peppers, and French goat or sheep’s milk feta:

At least once a month, I have to cross the state lines, and drive to Eden Center in Fairfax, VA to get good Vietnamese food.

And this is not even the end of the list…

It is rather ironic I almost never write about the things I love the most (and apparently, cannot do without). Instead, most of the time, I choose to write about deviations from the norm, – about things I make rather rarely, or even about once-in-a-lifetime food&wine experiences. But definitely about something food-blog-worthy, such as this pea shoots, fava bean, and shaved Pecorino salad dressed with EVOO and lemon juice:

Or perhaps, a memorable meal, such as dinner at Annissa on the most recent trip to NY featuring:

  • Fluke crudo with black lime and radishes

  • Eggplant with two Turkish chilis in yogurt water

  • Seared fois gras with soup dumplings and jicama (naturally, the dumplings are stuffed with fois gras as well :-)).

Alternatively, I go on and on about an interesting tasting, such as our self-guided aged European beer exploration at DC-own Churchkey this weekend. (Apparently, aged beer is all the rage these days, so beverage buffs, pay attention!). And of course, there are visually striking and delightful dishes I often come across in my travels, be it the simple house-made pickles at Cha-An Japanese tea shop in the East Village,

or a Grapefruit Givré at Boulud Sud (aTurkish-inspired concoction made with sesame halva, rose loukoum, and grapefruit sorbet):

And yet, when I return home, I keep craving tomatoes, bread, and sea salt…

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 SicilianViolet. 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…

Goats (and Sheep) Do Roam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last weekend we went to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Before any of you make any smart-alecky comments like, “Why???”, or, “Is there something I don’t know about you?”, let me explain.

No, I am not interested in animal husbandry, nor do I have a secret sheep shearing hobby. Simply put, animals are one more participant in the farmers’ market experience, usually as the donor of wool, meat, milk, or eggs. Someone we don’t usually get to meet.

Besides, they are terribly cute, sometimes to the point of grotesqueness:

The Festival, one of the biggest of its kind in the US, is not just about the sheep to shawl contests, showcasing hundreds of breeds, or working sheep dog demonstrations (which are pretty cool, by the way).

It is also about fantastic locally produced food, be it lamb, goat milk products, or sheep’s milk cheeses. A large variety of local farmstead meats and meat products were available for purchase, or immediate consumption (tasty lamb burgers, barbecued lamb ribs, grilled lamb, 100% lamb hot dogs, kabobs, etc.).

my homemade version of Provencal lamb shoulder, about to be slow-roasted with ramps, thyme, zest, lavender, peppercorns, EVOO, and red wine

Besides the a la carte options, one could buy tickets to the Shepherd’s Feast, which is a full-blown lamb-eating bacchanalia…

 

drool-worthy French chevre…sigh

Besides the meats, I was suitably impressed by the artisanal raw sheep’s milk aged cheeses from Shepherds Manor Creamery that reminded me of simple Pecorinos. But for me personally, the real stars of the show were goat cheeses from Caprikorn Farms, as after being in France, I am desperate for fresh goat milk products. The chevre was made earlier that week, and was still quite goaty, even though it was made with pasteurized milk. The 60-day raw milk goat Gouda was delectable, as well. I ended up with a nice supply of both, and left the festival to enjoy them in the privacy of my own home.

Reminiscing about France, the first thing I put together was a vegetarian-friendly version of salade lyonnaise, with warm herbed fresh goat cheese discs instead of lardons:

My mock lyonnaise shows off the striking indigo frisee, paired with cage-free local poached eggs, the aforementioned goat cheese, and a simple vinaigrette dressing.

The next appetizer appeared in the form of grilled baby zucchini from the farmers’ market stuffed with fresh chevre:

It was followed by more goodies from the market: goat butter, French breakfast radishes, Persian cukes, fleur de sel de Camargue, cornichons, chives, rosemary boule, and raw milk goat Gouda:

 

And finally, a rustic salad of roasted new potatoes, raw milk 60-day goat Gouda, chives, roasted ramps, and cornichons:

Everything was washed down with a fantastic little-known white from a pioneering wine region in eastern Languedoc called Larzac (classified vin de pays de L’Herault) : 2010 Domaine du Pas d’Escalette Les Clapas. It is an amazingly complex, fresh, and elegant field blend with great limestony minerality.

Thank you, goats and sheep, for a lovely lunch!

Julia Child’s Legacy: Magic in the Kitchen

One of Julia's favorites: tender escargots bobbing in garlicky butter!

I. These chickens are “so chickeny!!!”

Just before we went on our Paris and Provence trip, I started reading “My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it is a collection of stories recounting in detail the culinary experiences Julia and her husband enjoyed while living in France. I found it rather curious that I was about the same age as Julia when she first moved to France (in her late 30’s); and as I was following along, involuntarily I found myself comparing my reactions to hers. To my disappointment, next to her spontaneous, excited, persevering, restless, enterprising, and always joyous “virtual” personality, my enthusiasm for gastronomy seemed flat.

Granted, my French experience was not nearly as eye-opening as for her. I was a seasoned traveler with several prior visits to France under my belt, well versed in the high art of Food (yes, in France cooking is regarded as a combination of national sport and high art):

a thing of French beauty at L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles

Yet, I could not help but envy her giddiness, her falling in love with la belle France, her first morsel of perfection (sole meuniere)…

II.  “Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere with the right instruction.”

It is absolutely astounding how devoted Julia Child was to the rules of “la cuisine francaise”. She and her fellow “gourmettes” believed in a scholarly approach, with a strong emphasis on skill and technique. Quite different from “fast and effortless cooking” marketing scheme so ubiquitous nowadays…

I am a queen of culinary shortcuts and cheating. I am not a cookbook/recipe person, and usually reserve precision for my financial analyses. As a result, the simplest dishes (such as a perfect omelet) terrify me. But, not unlike Holly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, I could totally whip up a “roasted pheasant stuffed with pomegranates and persimmons”.

My favorite tricks: truffles, butter, scallops...LOTS of room for error!

And so, after reading the book I was inspired to challenge myself, and to attempt the so-called “flat French omelet”. The proper way.

I watched a couple of Julia Child’s original TV episodes, and learned the following:

  1. It is all in the wrist (and I don’t mean the whipping up of the eggs, as she simply used chopsticks to blend the yolk and the white). I am talking about the perfect motion of rigorously moving the eggs up and down the sides of the pan during the 20 seconds it takes to make a perfect omelet. Also, it helps to have the right pan (here goes my disdain for gadgets).
  2. Have no fear. You have to have the confidence to crank up the heat to HIGH.

Making this beautiful omelet took SEVERAL tries; that was a true lesson in humility. But for a perfectionist, such as Julia Child, nothing less would do. My fourth simple flat French omelet (omelette nature) turned out glorious, – silky, airy, moist, and rich. It was almost like magic: it tasted as if it were full of luxurious ingredients, like whipped cream.

And yet, it only contained two eggs, salt, pepper and water…

I felt that it could only be improved upon by a morel cream sauce because takeaway number three is:

III. Keep oneself open to creative exploration, because “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!”

omelette aux morilles

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!

A Fish-and-Potatoes Kind of Gal

When asked by a fellow foodie earlier in the week what I was cooking, I replied, “Nothing too exotic!”

We are adventurous and experienced eaters; however we do realize that not everyone seeks the thrill of the unfamiliar. Not everyone gets excited about eating tongue, spicy Indian curries, Japanese delicacies, and drinking austere wines. Last week we had family visiting, so perhaps it was time to come back to Planet Earth, and try to make something an average person would be comfortable with. My mother-in-law loves salmon, so I can certainly be a fish-and-potatoes kind of gal for a week. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep myself amused while cooking, and to give the ubiquitous dishes a bit of a makeover without making them too demanding. Of course, since we were busy all day looking at cherry blossoms, etc., our meals had to take less than 20 minutes of active time to prepare.

So, here we go:

  • Wild sockeye salmon steamed in a banana leaf (previously marinated in garlic, lemon juice, and fresh cilantro) with cumin potato cakes. Make a neat little parcel when wrapping the fish in a banana leaf, and place in the oven inside a glass dish at 350F. 15 minutes should do the trick (or even less, if you like a lean fish like that a bit more rare).

To make the potato cakes, bake potatoes (50 min at 375), scoop out the flesh, mash with cumin, toasted cumin seeds, chives, egg, a touch of cream, and salt. Form patties and fry 2 min on each side with butter in a skillet. (For a quick lunch, I also threw in some roasted fennel with lemon and wild oregano for my husband since he is not pescetarian).

  • Oven roasted grey (lemon) sole with thyme, capers, and a side of slightly charred smoky artichokes (available already pre-cooked in the WholeFoods produce department). Serve with roasted fingerling (Russian banana) baby potatoes with a paprika and lemon scented fat-free yogurt dip. You simply half the potatoes, season with olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper, and roast for 15-17 min. In the meantime, mix plain fat-free Greek yogurt (preferably Fage brand) with lemon juice, Spanish smoked paprika, salt and pepper.

And finally a superfast and simple dessert to polish it off:

  • Meyer lemon yellow cake with lemon infused mascarpone frosting/filling. Beat ½ Betty Crocker mix with ½ cup Meyer lemon juice instead of water, zest of 4 lemons, 2 eggs, and ½ cup olive oil on medium for 2 minutes. Fold in 4 egg whites beaten till soft peaks form to lighten the cake. Bake for 20 min on 350-325 depending on the baking dish (as always, till the toothpick should come out clean). Only 5-7 minutes to prep!

Combine mascarpone cheese with Meyer lemon juice, zest of 1 lemon, blood orange segments, and chill. It works both as a filling and a frosting. (Douse with Grand Marnier for an additional kick if really you want to). Nothing too crazy… it is a great reminder that simple is nice.

 

 

P.S. As I was uploading the post pictures, I came across a few shots I took in NYC the previous weekend, – a slightly grotesque but very familiar world, far removed from the potatoes and yellow cake reality…

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”.

Playing with New Toys: Black Sesame Seeds

The highlight of my week was definitely a client lunch on Thursday at a little Italian place on Capitol Hill called Acqua al 2. It was a perfectly unhurried outside meal (the thermometer registered an uncharacteristic 71F in the sun!), with competent food and good conversation. The whole experience was almost surreal, as it seemed very far removed from the frenetic DC. As I was enjoying my branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) with trumpet mushrooms and braised fennel, with a nice Falanghina by Mastroberardino, I was thinking to myself, “I am so foolish. Why do I not eat fish more often?”

And so, come Friday night, I had an intense craving for a nice fish, especially since I had just picked up a jar of black sesame seeds. I feel about new ingredients the same way I feel about freshly bought clothes: I have to take them out for a spin immediately! At the store I was quickly reminded of why fish was not usually on my short list: more often than not, I have a hard time finding one that I am excited about, even at the most reputable of fishmongers’. Tonight, I needed something I could encrust with black sesame seeds, but nothing spoke to me. After much hemming and hawing at the fish counter, I left with large scallops.

The perusal of food blogs gave me an opportunity to steal a New York restaurant chef’s idea of serving fish with soba noodles, on top of a little pool of yogurt-based sauce. Granted, I was no longer working with fish, plus I was in the mood for more earthiness and more zing, so here is what I did:

I cooked some 100% buckwheat soba (most of the soba sold in stores is a combination of wheat and buckwheat, which makes it milder, less nutty and earthy, – not what we are going for here), and finished it off with a tiny bit of good-quality soy sauce and toasted black sesame seeds.

Then I seared my scallops with a little butter, and a mixture of black sesame seeds and nanami togarashi (a traditional Japanese spice mix that includes chili pepper, orange peel, ginger, seaweed, and Japanese pepper. After 2 min on each side, I quickly deglazed the pan with soy sauce (with the scallops still there), in order to impart a little extra flavor. And finally, my simple but intense yogurt sauce combined fat-free Fage Greek yogurt, wasabi powder, a mineral-laden salt (preferably Hawaiian pink or Indian), and fresh lime juice.

After tasting the yogurt sauce, my husband got jealous of my scallop dish (not being pescetarian), and I was practically forced to experiment with silken tofu whose texture is not far from that of a scallop :-). This is how silken tofu also came to be encrusted with black sesame seeds, atop a light soy glaze: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The logical closure to this kind of meal called for something that could reconcile our dietary differences 🙂 : a black sesame seed panna cotta. It is infinitely more smoky, nutty, and exotic than the panna cotta one is used to (it is not your usual soothing blob of cream and sugar). You will need:

1 pint heavy cream

1 tbs French good-quality sea salt

5 tbs sugar

1 packet unflavored gelatin

3 tbs cold water

2 tbs sesame oil

3 tbs black sesame seeds, more for sprinkling

The first step is to infuse panna (heavy cream) with the sesame seed essence from good-quality sesame seed oil (I used La Tourangelle brand) and toasted black sesame seeds. Warm up the oil with the seeds for 3 minutes, pour in the cream, and remove from heat. Let the mixture sit for at least a couple of hours. Strain the cream, warm it up on medium, and stir in the salt and the sugar. In the meantime, sprinkle the cold water with gelatin and let it stand for 1 min. When the cream is close to a simmer, stir in the gelatin, and remove from heat. Pour it in a metal bowl inside another metal bowl filled with ice, and keep stirring while it cools down. Pour in ramekins, top with lightly toasted black sesame seeds, and chill for 6 hours.

Et voilà!