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!


Pig Seeks Duck (and Chocolate)

On Saturday morning we woke up to cold rain which soon turned into a nasty, relentless combination of sleet and high winds. “Lovely weather for duck”, I thought to myself and could almost taste the intense, earthy and rich broth of a duck soup.

For me, a big part of eating pleasure is the anticipation, which is both craving the known and preparing your mind and senses “to be surprised”. I am always excited about the prospect of going to Present, an “imperial Vietnamese cuisine” restaurant in Falls Church. Present’s extensive menu is full of such great whimsical names like Warm Heart Piglet, Silken Shawl Imperial Autumn Roll, and Adventurous Bull. The soup I could almost taste that morning was Sleeping Duck on the Golden Pond, which, according to Present, is a “special egg noodle soup with roast duck simmered with herbs and exotic mushroom served in a delightfully enriched broth”. And it features Chinese broccoli, one of my very favorite vegetables!

Sleeping Duck on the Golden Pond

 I feel that soups are their real forte; it is obvious that their soup bases are made from bones, not bouillon cubes or other gimmicks; and as far as I know, the kitchen does not use any frozen ingredients.

Besides the soups, l always look forward to little things like shaved young lotus root as palate cleanser; lightly salted lemonade (a delicious crushed Vietnamese preserved lemon (Chanh Muối) drink, – a nice counterpoint to a number of dishes, especially lemongrass-infused ones); a “simple” appetizer called Smokey Petals (baby clams sautéed with special herbs and spices, and served on exquisite sesame rice crackers), etc.


Completely satisfied with savory offerings, we skipped dessert. Besides, a leisurely but cold and wet afternoon, like no other, inspires unhurried tasting of single origin chocolate in the privacy of one’s home. We live in fortuitous proximity to Biagio Fine Chocolate located on 18th street in Adams Morgan, – easily the best chocolate shop I have ever been to. Chances are, if there is a chocolate product worth getting excited about, Biagio has it, or has every intention of getting it in. It represents close to a hundred names, most of whom are bean-to-bar artisanal chocolate makers. What that means is that those producers “make chocolate” in the true sense of the word: import cacao beans from plantations, roast and husk them, and then grind the cacao nibs into a fine paste. After they add sugar and grind some more, they swirl the mixture in conches, in order to smooth the texture, and blow off acids and other unwanted flavors. Making chocolate the right way is complicated and demanding work; we do our part in supporting artisanal chocolate makers and do not settle for mass-produced stuff. Besides, I am pretty sure Jeff is allergic to lesser quality chocolate  🙂

Here are just a few of our 2011 favorites:

  • Artisan du Chocolat (Kent, UK) Vietnam  Origin Dark Bar (72% cocoa, made with Vietnamese ground Trinitario cocoa beans)
  • SOMA Chocolatemaker (Toronto, Canada) Green Tangerine (microbatch 66% cocoa Madagascar chocolate bar infused with the essence of green tangerine)
  • Pralus (France) Cuba (single origin 75% Trinitario cocoa)
  • Fresco (Lynden, WA) 209 Prototype Jamaica 70% cocoa (subtle conching)
  • Amano Chocolate (Orem, Utah) Dos Rios 70% cocoa from the Dominican Republic.