16 April, 2009

Updates forthcoming...

I have been really busy lately. I haven't had much time to post over the past few weeks, but I have plenty of blog-fodder since I recently did my big Easter Lamb-Fest.

I recently made some choices that should free up some of my time. Having all of my friends over to be fed was a big part of that decision. That's what life, for me, is really all about. That means even more posts.

I'm having so much fun doing this, that I'm starting to feel like it must be bad for me in some way. Let's hope not, I have enough bad habits as it is.

I promise that I'll start taking pictures of everything again. It adds so much to a post to have something to look at. I even have a few ideas for some interviews of local producers that should be interesting if I can sell the idea to them.

If that happens, you may see ads on my blog. Sorry, but if google will pay, even a little, for me to do something I love, then I will let them. I still need to sit down and really look at Ad-Sense, but it seems like a good idea.

For all of that, thanks for being one of my few readers and for putting up with sparse posts. Come back, tell your friends.

Until next time,

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

I have recently been part of a creative discussion of the Cubano or Cuban sandwich. This is one of my favorite sandwiches in the world and is right up there next to the Banh Mi (Vietnamese sub) and really good falafel sandwiches.

The essential description of a Cubano includes a hoagie type roll (ideally Cuban bread - with a thin, buttery crust. Thanks D), cut in half and smeared with mayonnaise and a bit of yellow mustard on both sides (well that's how I like it) and then layered with tender roasted pork loin marinated in Mojo Criollo (a marinade made with sour orange juice [Seville orange as I have been reading], lime juice [some say], garlic and oregano [possibly other herbs]), topped with a few lengthwise slabs of pickle and cheese (provolone or swiss, depending on who you talk to). Then the whole thing is shoved into a hot oven or onto a griddle (or flat-top) and pressed mercilessly (I use a cast iron skillet weighted with a full kettle). The result is a gooey, meaty slab of browned bread that is quickened by acidity from the Mojo Criollo, pickle and mustard. Muy Delicioso!

Now this creative discussion revolved around using pork loin that was prepared without the benefit of Mojo Criollo and attempted to get a similar effect. The proffered proof of concept was good, but not really a Cubano. One of the problems was that we used those neon, yellow-green, commercial dill chips for the pickle. While I love them when they are battered and deep-fried, they aren't really my first choice of pickle. The discussion moved onto the possibility of using one of those crunchy, monster kosher dills (which is a favorite type) sliced thinly lengthwise. It was generally agreed that this would be a good choice, but in my mind (I didn't want to go to far), I was missing the citrus. As I drove away, I was thinking about it (obsessed you say? Well probably.).

As often happens on a relatively long drive, I went into autopilot while my brain wrestled with the problem. How to get the citrus in without overly sweetening the sandwich. I wrestled for a long time and, seeing no immediate solution, I forgot about it for a couple of days.

Then, during a break from prep for my annual Easter Lamb-fest, I fell into discussion with my friend D (thanks for your help that day, D). D is of Cuban descent and has spent a lot of time in Miami getting to know his ancestral food and culture. We discussed among other things the Cubano and the importance of the Mojo Criollo to the essential nature of the sandwich. This discussion added an important ingredient to the seething pot that represented my thoughts on the aforementioned problem. It took a few days to get an answer.

What is a pickle? A preserved cucumber. It can be preserved with salt - which if you ask most Kosher Dill aficionados, is the best way - or acidity (usually vinegar). A pickle is a relatively simple thing to make - especially if the cucumber is cut up to expose the tender inner flesh to the action of the brine or acid. I have been experimenting with this lately since I love pickles and the crunchier the better. Bring well salted water (brine) to a boil and pour into a jar stuffed as full as you can make it with cucumber slices and various spices (crushed garlic, allspice, pepper, mustard seed, whole, dried, red chilies and dill seed). Try to leave as little airspace as possible and put into the refrigerator to cool (open for the first few hours. Remember to lid them up after they have cooled). After a day or two, you will have your very first refrigerator pickle. You could can them in a hot water bath at this point if you want to keep them longer, but mine never last more than a week or so. I do add a bit of vinegar to mine (because I like vinegar). I am still working on my proportions, so I don't offer more than the basic process here - there are plenty of places on the internet and in cookbooks where the recipe is presented. By the way, important safety note: If your garlic cloves turn blue, then your brine was probably too weak. Do not eat blue garlic. Throw the batch out.

That thought led to the next one: It didn't have to be a brine did it? Couldn't you use some high-acid preparation to achieve very similar results (like pouring vinegar over a jar full of garden fresh chili peppers)? It probably wouldn't last as long, but it might work.

Then the big one hit me.

Mojo Criollo pickles!

It was so simple. The cellular machinery in the cucumber would soak up all of that wonderful flavor and release it when you bit into it. I immediately altered course to the local grocery and picked up a lime. I already had some oranges left over from the Easter thing. While I shopped, I mused that it didn't *have* to be oregano - or at least, not just oregano - and I still had a full box of dill from the Easter thing. Besides, this was supposed to be a sketch of a kosher dill anyway. So I left the fresh oregano out this time. Maybe for the future.

I got home, excited. I hauled out the cheap plastic and metal mandoline and hacked up the cucumbers (lengthwise). Next the marinade. I had decided not to use the traditional grocery store orange juice because I probably couldn't get a small amount (I tend to forget about cartons of juice until they are fermenting - I'm busy, OK) and it would probably be too sweet. So I juiced the oranges that I had, three. The juice was sweet, but had a delicious tartness. Next I juiced the lime and added it to the orange juice (I strained both in a fine mesh sieve). Pretty tart. Adding a little of the juice to my mini-chop, I then threw in 4 cloves of garlic. I read recently that if you want a finer mince in a food processor, it was worthwhile to add some liquid to the bowl with the garlic (it is). I whirred it until it was fine, the added a good sized handful of roughly chopped dill (tender stems and all) to the bowl and processed until there weren't any big chunks left. I added this mixture to the rest of the juice and added some salt. Tasted. Hmm. The salt may have been a mistake since it seemed to take down the level of the acidity. I had a lemon left over from Easter, so I juiced that too (next time it will be two limes though - for the flavor). Ahh. Just right. I also added a few grinds of black pepper and a little coarsely ground dill seed (I really wanted the dill to "pop"). Then I shoved the cucumber slices slices into a zippie (Ziploc brand resealable baggie) and poured the juice mixture in on top of it and carefully pressed as much air out of the zippie as I could before sealing it up.

The hard part is the waiting.

This morning, I opened my zippie full of joy and tasted one of the slabs. Excellent. Plenty of citrus and dill flavor with a big hit of garlic. Not too sweet and pretty tart. Overall, I felt, a successful experiment.

I will present my findings and proof of concept to my discussion group tomorrow (2 days should be perfect). I'm pretty excited to see how it is received.

Here is the recipe as it stands:

Mojo Criollo Refrigerator Pickle Slabs

1 Cucumber sliced thinly lengthwise
4 Cloves of Garlic minced very fine
3 Oranges juiced
1 Lime Juiced
1 Lemon Juiced
1 small bunch of Dill
.5 tsps coarsely ground Dill seed
.5 tsps salt
a few grinds of black pepper

Combine everything but the cucumber in a bowl, mix well. Lay cucumber slices in a zippie or flat, non-reactive pan, add mixture, cover tightly and refrigerate for 1-2 days before using.

The next step will be to build the perfect Cubano. I'm taking applications for the tasting panel...

16 March, 2009


Italian bread. Kind of like a squashed batard (wider than a baguette). Can't be that hard, right?


The traditional Ciabatta is made with a biga (a kind of sour-dough culture that you start the night before) and contains much more water than you might be used to in your bread making (unless you've been making baguettes). Overall, it seemed like the kind of challenge that I enjoy.

A few notes about my baking methods:

1 - I weigh my ingredients in metric (grams - the cheap-ass scale that I have does English measurements in *fractions*. Not a favorite part of math for me). Metric also seems to be to be more granular in that I can tweak my percentages to a greater degree than I can by guessing at fractions. Overall, working by weight also allows me deal with the percentages more accurately. Mass, especially when working with things like flour (which is compressible) or water (which can change volumes due to temperature), is a more accurate measurement.

2 - I build my recipes on "baker's percentages". Essentially, all of the ingredients other than flour, are expressed as a ratio of the weight of the flour (eg: if you're working with a recipe that features 100g of flour, the 50g of water that you use can be written as 50%. 50g/100g = .50 or 50%). With a spreadsheet and a few simple formulas, this allows you to easily scale your recipes to any size (useful for dinner parties or holidays - if you want to use 200g of flour, your formula will tell you to use 100g of water). The flour is always expressed as 100%. (For an excellent primer on baker's percentages go here)

3 - I like to test a recipe out several times before I put it in front of people. Especially if I'm converting a recipe from English measurements. I'll start by weighing the called for volume, then tweaking it as needed over several iterations of the recipe.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to make bread. I had been baking regularly throughout 2007 but, for one reason and another, 2008 didn't lend itself to much baking. It's a pastime I really enjoy; it involves science (the way I approach it anyway), a deft touch and the strength of my hands to produce. Even though I often use a mixer, I still like to get my hands into the dough and give it a really good knead. There's a special moment when you knead by hand where the sticky mess turns into a smooth, silky ball and sucks the dough right off your hands. The first time it happened properly, I danced around the house congratulating myself on my success (it's also really important in making home-made pasta too). Overall, baking bread is very rewarding on an emotional and physical level.

Since I had decided to bake, I started casting around for a recipe. I had gotten pretty good at a whole wheat sandwich loaf and pizza. I had messed around with baguettes a bit - which I dearly love. I got hooked on them when I worked next door to the Blue Moon Bakery in Asheville. The City Bakery's baguettes - also in Asheville - were simply wonderful and are my watermark for making them. But half the fun of baguettes lies in the shaping and presentation of the wet, loose dough - something I'm still working on. Then it occurred to me: ciabatta. This is another highly hydrated dough that gets relatively little in the way of shaping, so it has a very rustic look. Those of you who know me, know that "rustic" is a mode of presentation that fits very well with my sometimes reckless approach to cooking. I figured it would be a good place to re-start my baking habit and would give me some valuable experience before I moved back into the baguette fight.

Now for the bread itself. What I am looking for is a crackly, hard crust with a tender, elastic and pearlescent crumb. It should have plenty of elaioladophilic* holes to capture other ingredients and condiments at the table. The ciabatta itself should be a relatively flat bread (but not a pizza - that's a whole 'nother article) and should lend itself well to toasting and the production of bruschetta.

So with that in mind, I toddled off to the King Arthur Flour website and looked up their recipes. King Arthur Flour, by the way, is a great company that is employee-owned and produce a very high-quality range of products. Plus it has a picture of a knight on the front (always a selling point for me). They also offer a tremendous amount of information on their website. That's where I learned about baker's percentages and a host of other things that have definitely improved my baking. If you haven't been to the website, it is worth a trip. I'll wait.

Ok, now that you're back. I started with this recipe mainly because I couldn't immediately find the "professional" section which has a bunch of baker's formulas. The website had been re-arranged and I was impatient. The document that I refer to above is very good and I read it pretty thoroughly. The main thing that I think threw me off was that it presented measurement in volume, although they did note English measure weights, but in fractions. So I went through the process of measuring volumes and weighing in metric.

From Good Eats.

Then I made the biga (or starter sponge) and let that sit overnight. The next day, it looked nice and bubbly, so I carefully weighed out the other ingredients and blended the final dough. After a 2 hour rise (with a fold over after one hour), I plopped the dough onto the baking sheet, divided it and let it rise for another hour. Dipping my fingers into water, I carefully prodded at the dough until it was dimpled. After a spray of water from my mister and a cup of ice cubes thrown into the bottom of the oven, I slid the bread into the 425 degree oven to bake for 30 minutes.

I have a layer of terra cotta tiles just above the element in my oven to even out the heat. Sometimes, when I'm not baking a dough that is this loose, I bake right on the tiles.

Somewhere along the line, ciabatta V0, ended up with too much water (almost 90% hydration!) and I ended up with some very flat bread indeed. Because of the various aspects of ciabatta, the beautiful crust was separated by a very thin layer of crumb. It was quite hard, but the flavor was wonderful. The holes in the bread, while fairly small, were irregular and looked quite nice. Well, it wasn't a bad start.

So I wrote up my notes in a spreadsheet and converted to baker's percentages to see where I went wrong - I had kind of figured it out already as the dough had basically pooled on the baking sheet. I didn't bother to take a picture.

Next came ciabatta V0.1. This version did all right, although I didn't get quite the sour-dough zip that the first one had. I forgot to spray the loaves with water just before baking and I didn't steam the oven with ice. They definitely looked rustic.

From Good Eats.

After that came the beautiful looking, but bland ciabatta V0.2.

From Good Eats.

I left out the salt (by accident) and left out the NFDM (non-fat dry milk) on purpose. I also try to use filtered tap water but, for one reason and another, my filter wasn't working. This led to an important lesson: a sour-dough starter made with noticeably chlorinated water doesn't get that sour. I guess the chlorine is there to kill off bacteria whether you want it to or not.

I did try shaping the dough in a fashion similar to baguettes (but looser), by gently folding them over into a packet and placing them seam-side down on the baking sheet. However, at 80% hydration, they were just barely too loose, but it showed that it would work well enough.

Finally, here is ciabatta V0.3. I thought it was going to make the cut to V1.0β, but I want to tinker with the recipe just one more time and I want to work with shaping a bit more (the dough was lively enough that I didn't do much this time around).

From Good Eats.

The inside:

From Good Eats.

*Elaioladophilic: GR: "olive oil loving." I made this one up, but it is a quality that I look for in my breads. This one definitely has it:

From Good Eats.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to my spreadsheet with the formula.

By the way:

NFDM = non-fat dry milk
UAPF = unbleached, all-purpose flour

Even though this is all still a rough draft, it will give you an idea of my process. It's all about getting it right and the fun of precision measurement. Ok. I'm a little odd maybe. Hope you enjoyed it.

Maybe I'll have pan bagna tonight...

10 March, 2009

Curry, curry, curry!

I love curry. Whether it's one of the many Indian curries or a creamy, spicy Thai curry, I have yet to find one that I don't like. Maybe it's the variety of dishes that shelter under the name in common Western usage. Maybe it's the spicy, intense flavors that meld together in a murky sauce and turn even the most common ingredients into a dish fit for kings. Maybe I just like them because it's another excuse to eat really hot food. Like I need an excuse.

But curry is a somewhat misunderstood term in the West. A brief review of Wikipedia's article on curry will show how misunderstood it is. Curry is an easy way to classify a range of dishes from varied, ancient high cultures. It is a term that doesn't always respect the nuances of culture and place. It does however, respect the ingenuity of incorporating new tastes and techniques that marks many of these cultures and our Western experience of them. So, to me, it is a double-edged term. I try to use it respectfully.

Indian curry grabbed my attention first. But India is a large country with many diverse cultural nuances. The cuisine is no simpler. When I first started exploring Indian cuisine with Madhur Jaffrey ("Indian Cooking" and later "World Vegetarian"), I was appalled at the injunction to use only whole spices (which keep very well) and to grind them only in the quantities needed (for for freshness of flavor). What? Grinding spices is a real pain, but because I am who I am, I started seeking out whole spices. At one time a friend converted an unused coffee grinder into a very effective spice mill (which only just gave up the ghost a couple of years ago, after almost a decade of service). Eventually my spice rack of plastic jars of pre-ground spices turned into a chaotic collection of old jars brimming with the shapes and colors of whole spices. When my spice mill died, I pulled out the cast iron mortar and pestle I had received as a gift several years ago and got on with doing it by hand (which is just as easy now as the spice mill was when it was still working). Believe me, a freshly ground curry powder will blow your mind. I am still working on exploring Indian curries, but (even though I've already spent a lot of time on it here) that's not the curry I've been playing with lately.

Thai curry is very different. The curry is a creamy, somewhat soupy sauce made with coconut milk and one of a variety of color-coded curry pastes. It is also distinguished by the use of fish sauce or "nam pla" (Thailand). The curry is then filled with a variety of vegetables and meat of some kind (although there are many vegetarian Thai curries). A lot of fresh herbs (such as cilantro and basil) feature heavily in Thai curries and the dish is often quite easy and quick to prepare (for a certain value of "quick").

I had stayed away from these wonderful curries because I was a little leery of coconut milk in my spicy food but, I finally got around to trying it out and fell in love. My experience with coconut had so often been of the candied variety that appears commonly on cakes (which I don't particularly care for). I had also had unsweetened coconut fresh from the shell (which I did like), so I wasn't entirely surprised when the unsweetened coconut milk in the sauce really captured my imagination. It was a perfect counterpoint to the heat of the chilies of which the Thai are so fond. I could ask for it even hotter, I could sweat more. Alright!

Since my first introduction I have always kept a couple of cans of unsweetened coconut milk kicking around in my pantry - just in case.

A few weeks ago, I decided what I really needed was a nice Thai-style curry to keep me going. So after a trip down to the grocery for a few key ingredients, I was cooking. Following the directions on the jar of red curry paste, I sauteed the shallots and garlic, dropped the veggies in (except for the cilantro) for a quick sautee and then added the coconut milk, a couple of teaspoons of curry paste and about a half a cup of water. Stewed it for a while, added in the cilantro and spring onion at the last moment and had it over rice. It was good, but it wasn't quite right.

The next week, during a bout of high-spirited optimism over the arrival of Spring (temperatures dropped into the 20's the next week), I strolled down to the grocery. There I picked up some delicious looking collards (I felt the need for something green in my diet) and some of the other ingredients for a curry and headed home.

When I was getting started, I had the idea of cutting the collards into long, thin strips and serving them like "noodles". So I got started on cooking the collards in a pretty traditional fashion (steamed with a little pork side meat, vinegar and red pepper flakes). I didn't cook them for too long (about 30 minutes) because I wanted them to hold together and add texture.

Then I got to work on the curry. This is the result:

From Good Eats.

Hmmm. That sauce looks a little watery. Not to mention that I had used red curry paste. Something was definitely not right, but it was pretty good to eat. I liked the collard "noodles" and agree with my friend Mark who suggested that a bit of Southern cornbread alongside would have been a perfect accompaniment. But I was more worried about the sauce.

Back to researching curry. I finally discovered Simply Thai, which I have mentioned before. I was looking at the possibility of producing my own curry paste and had seen another commentator suggest that even most Thais bought a ready made paste. Simply Thai has several good recipes for curry pastes (and a wide variety of other delicious looking dishes), but they are *really* labor intensive. Plus lemongrass and galangal aren't commonly available (although I have found a source for both). For the time being, I decided that I would stick to the pastes. I will try out the "DIY" curry paste eventually - after all, I'm already crushing my own whole spices in a cast-iron mortar and pestle.

While I was there (looking for the "Crying Tiger" recipe), I came across the "Curry" section. There I discovered that I had been doing it wrong. Sauteeing the shallots and garlic was right, but then the curry paste went into the sautee. It didn't matter if it was green (which has a lot of fresh herbs in it) or red or yellow. Then the coconut milk went it - no water anywhere. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

While going over the recipes, I started to realize that it wasn't all that different from Indian curries in some respects. It was a process. Once that clicked, I had it. I don't often use recipes for dishes that I make frequently because I have internalized the process (which is often more important than the ingredients). Once you get that down, the rest is pretty easy.

This past weekend, I was feeling pretty ill due to the aforementioned change in the weather from cold to warm back to very cold again. I had decided, however, that I was going to make a big ole curry and nurse myself back to health with a liberal dose of hot peppers. So down to the Grand Asia Market to shop the produce I went. I came back with some lovely looking stuff. I had:

Chinese eggplant:

From Good Eats.

Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and I like it prepared in a variety of ways. These beautifully colored eggplants were creamy white and delicately fleshed on the inside. I admit, I got a little excited when I cut into them.

Thai Chilies:

From Good Eats.

Hot. I love these little guys and they come in a little baggie that has so many for just a dollar or so. This wasn't even half of the bag, but it's the amount that went into the curry.

Baby Bok Choy:

From Good Eats.

Oh boy. This is another favorite vegetable. These are a little larger than some of the other "baby" bok choy, but every bit as delicious.


So on Sunday, feeling pretty weak after working through my cold, I made my way into the kitchen to start cooking.

Here are some of the other things I had on hand that went into the curry:

Japones chilies (whole, dried, 5)
Canola oil (about 2 tablespoons)
Shallots (minced, 1 large shallot)
Garlic (minced, 5-6 cloves)
Green curry paste (4 teaspoons)
Coconut milk (1 can)
Fish Sauce (about 4 teaspoons or to taste - you could substitute a light-colored soy sauce if anchovy water bothers you)
Spring onion (sliced thinly on the bias, 2)
Fresh Lime (1 half, quartered)
Cilantro (chopped, half a bunch)
Basil (trimmed, washed, the last couple of whole sprigs I had left)

The process:

I started by chopping and mincing and generally getting everything ready to go into the pot. This is referred to "Mise-en-place" in French and is a very good idea for anything you cook. Once the process starts, it is very difficult to stop it and maintain the quality of the finished dish if you have to prep something you've forgotten. I still end up leaving things out on occasion, but I've been getting a lot better since I started doing it. It is especially important when you're dealing with a high-heat, quick-cooking method like stir-frying. Thai-style curries also happen pretty quickly and try to maintain a "just-cooked" crispness to many of the vegetables that appear in them. Again. The "mise" is invaluable.

Then I heated a large pot over medium-high heat (whatever it takes for sauteeing). I dry fried the Japones chilies until they started to blacken and smell like peanuts (I haven't figured out why, but they do). Heating the chilies in this fashion causes them to release more flavor and "hotness" when the rest of the stuff goes in.

From Good Eats.

Then I added the shallots and garlic and sauteed them until they just started to brown. In the west, we often avoid browning garlic because it goes from brown to burned and bitter in seconds. I have found that I enjoy the flavor it lends the finished dish. You do have to be careful though and ready to add the next ingredient to arrest the browning at the correct stage.

From Good Eats.

Now the curry paste goes in and gets stirred around until it stops clumping and becomes aromatic. If you are cooking with meat other than fish, you should add it with the curry paste. The meat will brown somewhat and the curry paste will give it a good coating. After you start to get a good amount of aroma rising from the pan, add the coconut milk and fish sauce and bring to a low boil stirring constantly. Ideally, the coconut milk will separate and a thin layer of oil will appear on top. I have yet to get this part of the technique down. I am used to trying to keep a sauce from breaking and it hurts to do it on purpose - I'll get there eventually though.

From Good Eats.

Next the eggplant went into the pot. I stirred it around well until it was coated, then covered the pot and let it stew on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes. The white flesh of the eggplant melted into the curry and thickened it beautifully.

From Good Eats.

After the eggplant began to break down, I added in the bok choy and Thai chilies and let them cook for a while. Unfortunately judging the precise moment for doneness escaped me this time and it was a little softer than I wanted. As I mentioned before, I feel that a good Thai curry should feature vegetables that have a little crispness or bite to them (and the best that I've had always do). I was also a little inattentive at this stage - not a good idea while currying. Let my mistake be a lesson.

The best timing for this stage is usually about 10 minutes before you want to eat. This is also a good time to add your uncooked fish (cut in bite-sized pieces) or shrimp to the pot (most seafood cooks very quickly).

About 5 minutes before I was ready to eat, I dropped in the spring onion, cilantro, basil and squeezed the lime slices into the pot. I dropped the slices in, but took them out before eating since they can lend a pithy bitterness if they are in too long. Finally, I poured a good amount over rice and dug in.

From Good Eats.

Maybe it was resting for a full day with little more than a trip to the bookstore and a little cooking, but the next day my cold was well on it's way out of my head. Personally, I like to think that the curry had more than a little to do with it. It really cleared out my head, but wasn't as forwardly spicy as you might have suspected. I think that the eggplant and the coconut milk thickened sauce probably took away a bit of the heat (although it was still plenty hot). It was even good cold when I finished off the last of it the next day.

So if you want a little something different that is easy to cook, the Thai-style Curry is your pal. Believe me after the first couple of tries, you'll be throwing together curries in no time. Head out to your local grocery and pick up the staples:

At least 1 can of coconut milk
A couple of jars of curry paste (red and green are most common)
A couple of shallots (you can mince them, put in a resealable freezer bag and freeze if you don't normally use shallots - I never keep mine longer than a week, but freezing is a good idea just in case)

Then grab the fresh veggies. I like bell peppers (red and yellow especially), green onions, bok choy, eggplant, broccoli, etc. Anything will do though. Tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes make good additions as well. Thai-style curries are about freshness, so hit the market and buy the best looking, freshest stuff you can find. Meat is good too: beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, you name it.

As far as the color of the paste goes: Red is pretty hot (often labeled as "Penang"). Green can be pretty mild. It's always a good idea to taste a little of a new paste before you put it in your dish so that you can judge the heat. I have not seen many yellow curry pastes out there, although I am sure it'll turn up at the Grand Asia Market or similar specialty grocery. The yellow is supposed to be quite mild and appropriate for everyone. While you can pick any color you like, the red is often used for beef or other strongly flavored meat. The green and yellow are often used for chicken, vegetable or seafood preparations. If you look around you'll see that, even in Thai restaurants, these aren't exactly rules.

Now get out there and make some curry!

04 March, 2009

Amateur pics of "Hot love on a cold night..."

I wonder how Google's filters will deal with that. I guess I'll find out if my blog gets yanked. Let me know if it mysteriously disappears, okay?

I really am an amateur when it comes to photography, so this is the best I can do until I can afford a camera that's a little easier to deal with (my current rig is an Olympus C-4000 and it has served me well, no doubt).

With that up front, here they are:

The mysterious sauce. It does pack a spicy punch.

The finished dish.

I like to eat big salads anyway. I dressed the salad with the deliciousness that is the sauce. You should try it out (without oil it doesn't coat the leaves like most Western salad dressings do, but it's very refreshing). I think I'm going to keep it on hand for my summer salads. You can never go wrong with a bit of tomato either.

Well, there you go. Now that I've figured out the simplicity of keeping a Picasa album and cutting and pasting the links, I think we'll see some more pictures.

Thanks for reading!

03 March, 2009

Crying Tiger: some hot love on a cold night...

Every once in a while, I run across a dish that really grabs my attention and my palate. I'll get a little obsessive about it and do lots of research while trying to figure out how to make it.

One such dish is a Thai salad known mysteriously as "Crying Tiger" or "Tiger's tears".

I first tried it at a restaurant called "Rearn Thai" in Greensboro, NC. It's a long-established restaurant that most people in Greensboro know about. A few years ago they moved out of their old location into a snazzy new place with glass walls and elegant decor. Here's a link to their write-up on Google Maps.

I like it spicy. So when I saw the name "Tiger's Tears" was starred as very spicy, I figured it was the dish for me (you can't eat curries all the time). After all, it made the tiger cry. When it got to the table I saw a plate of perfectly browned bites of beef surrounded by fresh veggies and a cup of mysterious sauce on the side. Looking into the cup, it was filled with dried, flaked chilis, green onion and cilantro floating in a brownish liquid. A sniff confirmed that it was fish sauce and a hint of lime. Now I like fish sauce, but I was beginning to feel a little disappointed because the sauce wasn't emulsified and kind of looked thrown together. With a little trepidation, I grabbed a piece of beef with my chopsticks and dipped it in. Then I tasted it.


Between the lime and the fish sauce and the toasted chili flakes and everything else it captivated me. I was dumbfounded and immediately attacked the meal, sweat pouring off of me as I went (it does pack quite a punch). No sriracha. No other condiments. Nothing but the "crying tiger".

I would never, I decided, be able to achieve a sauce of that delicacy and balance. It just wasn't possible. Besides, I lived just down the road from Rearn Thai and would be able to get it any time I wanted it. Then I moved away.

As life happens, you often get distracted and forget about things for long stretches. That happened with this dish. I looked for it when I went to other Thai restaurants, but somehow it never appeared. Did I dream it?

About a month ago, I started playing around with Thai curries and was doing the necessary research. I was thinking about how much I like fish sauce and contemplating making it into a salad dressing like I had had in some Vietnamese restaurants. I tried out a version and it was okay. Not quite right. Then I remembered the "Crying Tiger", but I couldn't remember the name. Damn. Too long ago. Too much had happened. So I started a hopeless search with what little I could remember.

Actually it didn't take long. I had a link to very cool blog called "shesimmers" (links to recipe and a good discussion of the name). It looked good, but there was something that didn't quite look right. So bookmarking the site, I went on. A couple of days later I discovered another interesting site. It wasn't flashy or particularly slick, but it had a lot of information about Thailand and looked to be a labor of love. It's called Simply Thai (links to recipe). It's called "Seua Rong Hai" in Thai. Now Simply Thai doesn't mess around. They tell you how to make the dish and make rather stringent warnings about messing around with the recipe. "This is how it's done," is the attitude and I can appreciate that.

Well, after a quick trip to the grocery, I had everthing I needed (ok, I admit, I left out the sweet soy sauce for the marinade. And I did get the "stir-fry" beef at the grocery. Dry run right?). So let's do it. I followed the recipe in the link above, it's pretty simple. Wonderful. I might have gotten carried away with the fish sauce, but not too bad for a first shot at a dish I never thought I'd be able to make.

Before long I was sweating away on an icy cold night. Just the thing.

One note, finding dried chilis isn't hard, but getting one hot enough can be. I used "japones" chilis, flaked them by hand and dry-toasted them on the stove top (you'll know they're ready when the begin to smell like peanuts - at least they do to me). Do not - a warning garnered from personal experience - lean over the pan to sniff them. You'll get an eyeful of vaporised capsicin for your trouble. It stings.

I'll be making this again soon. Try it out if you like it hot. [I'll post pictures later when I figure it all out and have a little more time - j]

02 March, 2009

Gram Flour

Alright! My first "Request" post! I announced my blog at 10pm on Facebook yesterday. I got my first request for "gluten free flat bread recipes" less than 5 minutes later and my second less than an hour after that. Who am I to deny my adoring public?

This is about Gram Flour, I'm still researching other avenues. If anyone else has any requests, I'll try to work 'em in.


Mmmmm. Pakoras.

You know, those little golden-brown nuggets of joy that you get in Indian restaurants? They're filled with minced veggies, onion, garlic and spices and resemble, to my Southern eye, nothing so much as hushpuppies. They're one of my favorite parts of visiting an Indian restaurant. "What," my curiosity elbowed me, "are they made of?"

So I went to my eponymous source on "Indian Cooking" at the time (by Madhur Jaffrey) and found nothing. Pakoras aren't listed among the exciting dishes that appear in its pages. Then I did a little research on the internet - where you can find a surprising amount of detailed information on food and cooking for almost any culture you care to name - and discovered that pakoras are made with "Gram Flour". Hmmm...

To my Western mind, this brought up images of Graham Crackers and the Reverend Sylvester Graham trying to come up with a food that would suppress our more carnal urges. No, something wasn't right about that either.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered that "Gram" (or Gram flour) is a term for finely ground chickpeas. Oh boy! I love chickpeas! I have got to get me some of that!

Alas, I had no clue where to find it. Then fate intervened. While wandering around the Triangle, I discovered the Grand Asia Market. It's a pretty cool place where you can find almost anything you could possibly want for Asian cuisine (including bull penises and sheep uterine - I'm not kidding). It's an old grocery store that's been converted into something that seems pretty far off the traditional Western experience. There's a cafe where they prominently display roast ducks and have giant steamer baskets filled with a variety of bao (steamed, stuffed bun). They sell videos, house wares, jewelry, statuary (I've had my eye on one of those Maneki Neko's that actually wave), and of course lots and lots of food. The air is pervaded by the smell of the fish department and loads of fresh produce (some of the usual stuff and lots of cool, obscure stuff too - frozen whole durrian anyone?). It's daunting the first time you walk into it, but then you get distracted and start exploring.

On one such exploration, I came across the South Asian section. This is a great section and I buy many of my whole spices because it's one of the best deals you'll find. Of course, there was the Gram flour in a 5 lb bag. "How would I use that much?" asked the calm voice of reason. "Gimme!" screamed the inner child as it trampled the voice of reason on the way to the shelf.

Finally. I had it. Now all I had to do was find a recipe for it.

For those of you who have looked up any recipe in more than one source, you will be aware that it can be frustrating to receive advice that is both good and bad in the same recipe. On the internet, that frustration is an order of magnitude higher. But after searching and reading for hours (possibly days), I came up with a simple recipe based on the commonalities of several recipes. This is a pretty good technique to use if you're trying to produce a classic dish on which everyone has an opinion. Just pick the most common ingredients as the core of your recipe, add in a few of the different ingredients that sound like they'd taste good and ignore the wilder suggestions.

Anyway. Here it is:


0.25 Teaspoons Baking Soda
2 Tablespoons Oil (I usually have canola on hand - just something neutral)
1 Cup Gram Flour
1.5 Teaspoons Salt (or to taste)
0.5 Cups Water

The method:
With a whisk combine the oil and baking soda in a large mixing bowl until it turns frothy.
Add Gram Flour, Salt and Water and any spices you desire (commonly, Turmeric, cumin, coriander and black pepper for an "Indian" flavor - but not necessary). Mix well.
Let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes (this is an important step that allows all the gram flour to soak up the water and do its magic).
Add assorted vegetables (minced garlic, chopped broccoli, chopped onions, chopped cauliflower, etc.) - about 2-3 cups.
Scoop out roughly bite-sized pieces of the mixed batter and deep fry at 375 F until golden brown. Drain and serve.

Preferably with chutney and sriracha.

Simple. "But hold the presses," I thought after the first time I made them. I ran to the cupboard and grabbed the box of falafel mix lurking there. First ingredient: ground chickpeas. Reviewing the directions, I noticed that it suggests resting the mixture for about half an hour after mixing with water. Curioser and curioser. [I'll address falafel in another post. -j]

I dug out the "Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines" and turned frantically to page 562 to find the Roman "Cecina" (or chickpea pizza - which is still popular in Italy today) recipe that was lurking there. That recipe used rehydrated whole chick peas. I had tried it years before, ending up with a sodden, tasteless mass of chickpea paste, but I figured that there was a chance it would work now that I had figured out the secret to gram flour.

A little experimentation, led to the following recipe. The first time I made it, I used my cast iron frying pan and it ended up looking more than a little like green cornbread topped with tomatoes. A pizza pan might give it more of a pizza type look. I bet you could even bake it, then top it with tomato sauce, your favorite pizza toppings and mozzarella and then re-bake at 400-450F for a few minutes for a kick-ass pizza. I might leave out the spinach, garlic and rosemary for a proper pizza, but you'll know best. Let me know if you try it.

Jason's Cecina:

Pakora batter made with olive oil instead of neutral cooking oil, rested.
0.5 Cups Chopped Cooked Frozen Spinach (or steamed fresh) Be sure to cool it down and squeeze as much of the water out of it as you can.
Minced Garlic (to taste)
1 Tablespoon Chopped Fresh Rosemary (or 1-2 teaspoons ground dried)
1 Roma Tomato sliced thinly (as thinly as you can)

Add spinach, garlic and rosemary to batter and mix well. Pour into oiled pan (baking dish or whatever you have on hand - I like to preheat my cast iron skillet with some olive oil in it [it will smoke, so disable your smoke alarm] and then pour the batter into it for an interesting texture to the crust) and top with sliced tomatoes.
Bake at 375F for 35 minutes. It takes a while. If you're doing it in a pizza pan, I'd probably check it at 15 minutes and pull it no later than 20 minutes - the old toothpick in the middle will tell you if it's done (if it comes out clean, it's done).

This is a recipe I've tried a couple of times. I wouldn't call it quite ready for prime-time, but it's pretty simple. Sometimes it can be a bit dry (I'll probably try it at 350F for the same amount of time first). If you come up with a better way, let me know. I'll probably play around with it in a day or so and put some pictures up.

One other thing. After playing around with it, I thought it might be kind of interesting to thin the batter out and make crepes with it. It works great. Depending on the thinness of the crepes you desire, add around 0.25 cups of additional water (it should be a pourable consistency like a pancake batter). Scoop it out onto a griddle or crepe pan (preheated to medium-high, a bit higher than egg cooking temp) and spread it around. While it's cooking (it will get brittle if cooked too long) fill it with whatever you think would taste good. Then fold it up into a neat little package, flip it a couple of times to make sure everything is good and hot and serve immediately. I'm betting if you sweetened the batter and filled it with cooked fruit, you'd never even know it was chickpeas.

Gram flour does have a distinctive, "bean-like" flavor, but it is a mild one and can easily overpowered by other flavorings. I have seen some suggestions that chickpeas contain relatively high levels of galactose and can affect fertility for some women (I also read it on the internet, so get your grains of salt). I am neither a doctor nor a nutritionist. If you're concerned about that, talk to someone who is a doctor.

Buon Appetit!

01 March, 2009

hunger. cook. eat.

Welcome to my new blog. Let me tell you a little about me and why I've decided to start this blog entitled "hunger. cook. eat."

I love to read.

That's the hunger part. I was in the wine industry (both retail and wholesale) for 14 years. I loved it and I hated it, but my interest in wine grew up with my interest in food. I spent a lot of time reading and researching wine. There is some exciting history behind wine, but the one thing that my reading seemed to underline again and again was that wine was nothing without food. Sure I've drunk more than a few bottles without something to eat, but to get the peak experience from a bottle of wine you still need something to accompany it. Something for contrast (either texture or flavor). Something to heighten your senses (ever wonder why they call a cocktail before dinner an "aperitif"). A palette upon which to work (after the bite and the sip, there's a lot of chemistry that takes place between them). So after 14 years in the wine industry, I realized that what I was really interested in was the food. I still like wine. I still like to hunt down unusual bottles and great deals, but I'm really more interested in the food and I'm hungry to learn.


Food is an important and vital part of our lives, yet it is often unconsidered or relegated to the status of onerous necessity. This is a problem.

I suppose that food is so plentiful in the U.S., that we don't feel like we have to ask questions about our food supply. However, over the past decade we have been faced with very difficult realities that strike directly at our sense of safety when we sit down to eat. Over the past few years alone, we have heard about contamination in our food sources that we never would have considered possible. Peanut butter. Spinach. Tomatoes. The list goes on. And it will continue. Paying attention to our food sounds a little more important now doesn't it?

We have so many demands on our time that it is tough to sit down and actually eat a meal; sitting down with family or friends even more so (schedules can be so very difficult to negotiate). Then there's the sensory overload. Our cellphones interrupt us. We are bombarded by images and sounds constantly. We're used to it. It's hard to turn off the cellphone, the computer or the television set and really appreciate something special to eat with someone who is special to us. But that's really what life is all about. When you get right down to it. It's easy to become a solitary troglodyte illuminated by the goblin glow of our screens stuffing ourselves with tasteless fuel. I know I've been there. But some of the warmest and best memories I have are of sitting around a table enjoying something that someone at the table cooked and laughing at nothing in particular. Convivial. We need something compelling to cause us to come together anymore and food is, at least it can be, it. But not just any food.

We in the U. S. are accused of being self-centered and ignorant of the world around us. This is often true. For me, opening my eyes to new tastes led directly to opening my eyes to different cultures. "Why," I kept asking, "do people eat so differently around the world?" The answer is in the place where they are. The "terroir" of food. We know this term from wine. It describes the unique qualities that a wine expresses because of the climate, the soil and the cultivation and management of the vines that make the grapes that make the wine. It's the same with food and culture. The place shapes the culture as much as it shapes the produce from the ground. In fact culture and cuisine grow up together, inextricably intertwined. You can bring home something from far away, but not knowing at least some of the background and the culture that brings it to you makes it hard to appreciate. You might not know that most freshly ground spices make the best curry powder and end up wondering what the fuss is about. This is not to say that you won't come up with new ideas in another place and another culture that may even surpass the "traditional" experience of the food. You will, but knowing the history may even suggest those new things. Besides, knowing the custom (if you're ever fortunate enough to go there) might just change a few minds about the self-centeredness of our culture. At the very least, it will help you make friends.

I like to cook.

Cooking is an expression of love and care for our fellow human beings (be they family or friends). Talk to someone working in a restaurant kitchen. Of course it's a job, but you have to consider why they continue to do it. Do they like working in a sauna where knives, fire and treacherously slick floors threaten their safety daily? No. Some just do it for the paycheck, but many do it because they love it. It makes them feel good to put out a product that nourishes and delights so many people. It nourishes them, in a way that we don't often experience in our culture, and they put even more effort and love into the food. It's an amazing cycle, but it's one that you can see at work elsewhere. Within families, between friends, between lovers. It is the cycle of cooking, it's magic and it's why I like to cook.

A lot of the food I grew up with, while it was made with love and extremely nourishing, wasn't the most exciting stuff. When I got into the wine industry I was exposed to a whole new world of tastes that blew my mind. It was like a drug and I wanted more. Along the way, I realized that the "gourmet" food industry was just as driven by fads and market impulses as much as any other business. Once I saw a little way past that, I started to see cultures. Many of them were very earthy cultures every bit as close to the soil as the one in which I was raised. The "gourmet" items were often, when it came right down to it, "peasant food." Something the poor ate because it was plentiful and nourishing. Now it's packaged in tiny quantities and sells for an outrageous price far away. Not everything in the gourmet universe is like that, but more than you might suspect.

Our own culture of food - to take a tangent here - is dangerous. You don't have to go far on the internet to find out about health problems confronting us because of our "culture of plenty". That's part of what should concern us about the "unconsidered" nature of food. Are we eating healthfully? Is our food safe? These are things that confront us all at one point in our lives or another and their answers lie not necessarily in the past, but in building a healthy culture of consumption. I'm as guilty as the next guy on this one, but I'm trying to change.

One of the ways I believe that we can change that is to return to our own roots to find the healthy practices that our grandparents used. Plenty of excercise (manual labor is still excellent excercise), less meat (just because you can afford it, doesn't mean that you should eat it at every meal) and more vegetables (you might not grow a garden like your grandparents did, but you've got plenty of options at the grocery).

Another way is to borrow healthy practices from other cultures. There are so many options and so many cultures around us, that it isn't hard to find those options. In many cases, all you have to do is ask. You can also read about them. I like to do both. You'd be amazed at how helpful people are when you show an interest in their culture and come to them with an open, willing mind.

That's another part of why I like to cook so much. I'm trying to build my own healthy culture.

That being said. I'm not nutritionist. I'm not here to give you advice on how to eat healthfully (I have enough trouble with that on my own). Not everything here will be healthy. I like butter and meat and sugar and salt and everything else that's bad for you. Without them, life just isn't quite as exciting.

Finally. I like to eat.

I like to sit around a convivial table with friends and family and laugh about nothing in particular. I like to make new memories of exciting new tastes and share them with everyone around me. Maybe I'll have kids to share all that with one day, but until then, I'll be sharing it with friends. And now you.