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!

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!

Food Porn: A 2-Michelin Star Restaurant L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel

Sometimes there is just nothing like eye candy… but rest assured it was as delicious and complex as it was beautiful.

And also inventive, fun, whimsical, and lighthearted… Enjoy!

 

 

“Creations” tasting menu at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.

April 7, 2012 in Arles, France (in no particular order). For French (and food&wine) buffs, here is the file with the line-up, including the wine pairings:

The Man Himself

 

 

Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

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”.

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