Wednesday, July 11, 2007
The Real Potato.
When we were in high school, my friend Kara had a dream in which she was in a grocery store where all of the food was plastic, except for one real potato. The potato had a sign pointing to it that said "The Real Potato."
For years we've been kicking ideas back and forth about doing something with that name. I think, in addition to being easy to remember and spell, it conveys something about what I'm trying to do with this blog.
I know that it's a little much, sometimes, to be simmering dal for an hour and a half or spending an afternoon kneading dough or breading zucchini, although often I find the process as rewarding as the meal. But what I'm trying to do is to make real food-- Slow Food, if you will-- in the middle of a sea of plastic food.
I work full time, as does Joe, and we live paycheck to paycheck. We're not the sort of foodies you see profiled in the New York Times, sitting in their Upper East Side co-ops arguing over whose olive oil is best. I don't think that's what real food is about. It's about finding things that are fresh and local and authentic, however you choose to define that, and putting love into what you make. It's about getting recipes from your grandmother, and your friends' grandmothers from around the world. It's about paying attention to your food-- how it tastes, where it came from, and what goes into it. It doesn't have to cost a fortune or take forever.
I've eaten plastic food my whole life-- I'm a working-class American. But I don't think that being working class means you have to settle for plastic (or high fructose corn syrup and red #5). And while more and more of our food comes from fewer and fewer sources, food-related problems like food allergies, diabetes, irritable bowel and celiac disease are on the rise. More people are being forced to look beyond processed food-in-a-box and find new ways to eat. That's what this blog is about. I've been looking for better, tastier and less harmful ways to eat for a while now. I'm looking for the Real Potato. I hope you'll come along for the ride.
Monday, July 9, 2007
I used a gift certificate from work to pick up two food-related books this weekend: The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, and The Indian Grocery Store Demystified by Linda Bladholm. Haven't cooked anything from the Mexican book yet, but it seems, in my limited understanding, like a reasonably comprehensive guide to Mexico City cooking. Should be fun. The Bladholm book...
OK, here's the thing about the Bladholm book. The introductory material is fairly Orientalist.
Here's an example of what I mean:
You pull open the door and a string of brass bells jangle, ushering you intoAnd so on and so forth. This is worthless at best and racist at worst. However, the explanations of various spices, their origins, uses and alternate names, are incredibly useful, as are the sections on cooking instruments and produce that are hard to find in the US. I'll at least stop confusing kalonji with black cumin!
another land. The heady aromas of cardamom, black pepper, perfumed
incense, and rose-scented sweets fill the air. You are surrounded by
exotic provisions with colorful wrappers and labels. The strains of a
sitar resonate from a far corner. There is the rustle of a saree...
If you're going to be in Philadelphia this weekend (and I am not), the White Dog Foundation is sponsoring a local food event at Yard's Brewery:
All Local Ingredient Cheese Steaks
(Pastured Beef and Veg.) * Hand Crafted Ales * Live Music * Dunk Local Food
Leaders in Dunk Tank
Sunday, July 15th 2:00pm - 6:30pm
2439 Amber Street, Philadelphia, PA. Located in the
Kensington neighborhood of Philly. The brewery entrance is on Martha Street
close to Hagert St.
There will be a dunk tank at the event in which Local Food
Leaders (including Judy Wicks) from Fair Food, Farm to City, Reading Terminal
Market, The Book & The Cook and The Food Trust will be submerged — that is,
provided you can hit the target.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
While I love "Nalla Sappaadu," it's maybe not the greatest blog name. Non-Tamil-speaking readers can't remember it, and thanks to the magic of transliteration nobody can spell it. I hate to do it, but I think I need a new name, one that's easy to remember and would make a good domain name. I'll probably migrate to a nicer blogging site at some point too, but I need a name first.
So, dear readers, I need your help: what's a catchy, witty, easily spelled and remembered name for this blog? The winner gets... um... the people's ovation and fame forever! And possibly dinner, if you're anywhere near Philly.
The dal has to simmer for an hour and a half, the kheema has to simmer for an hour, and the chapati dough has to rise for at least 30 minutes, so I made the dishes in that order.
The dal recipe is actually incredibly easy. I've made some fairly complicated dals in my time. When I first went on a gluten-free diet after being misdiagnosed with celiac disease, I was totally broke and didn't know what was safe to eat, and pretty much survived the first month on dal and rice. It's nutritionally fantastic and very versatile, but it can be an intricate pain to make. Not so much this dal. Anyone with a pot, a pan and an hour and a half can pretty much do this one with their eyes closed.
Get yourself some moong dal. The lentils should be split open, dark green on the outside and light yellow on the inside. Put 10 oz. in a pot with two pints of water, and boil. Clean the scum off the top with a strainer. Throw in a few cloves of garlic, some ginger (no need to chop), turmeric, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and chopped cilantro or parsley if you have it (I didn't). Turn down the heat, cover but leave a little vent open, and leave it for an hour and a half, stirring every ten minutes or so. Try to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. I was sure, initially, that this would run out of moisture, but it didn't. About ten minutes before it's done, throw in one lemon's worth of juice and some salt. Then, right before service, melt ghee in a pan-- about 3 tbsp-- and put in a pinch of asafetida and an equal amount of whole cumin seeds. When the asafetida starts to snap-crackle-pop, pour the whole thing into the dal. Sprinkle with a handful of fried onions and serve immediately, with a lemon wedge on the side.
While that's simmering: kheema. I halved the recipe, because two pounds of ground beef is too much for two people. This has both warm spices and a bit of heat. First, you need to fry some onion half-rings, because both this recipe and the dal are finished with them. Just put them in hot oil and keep stirring until they get nice and brown. You don't want them to burn. Make sure you start taking them out of the pan just before they are done, because these little suckers are slippery and you don't want them burning while you're still struggling to get them out of the pan.
Keep the oil from the onions. Throw in two bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and six cloves. Once the leaves change color, throw in a finely chopped onion, three cloves chopped garlic and a spoonful of chopped ginger (I admit it, I used the emergency ginger jar). Keep those going until things are just barely starting to brown, then add your classic North Indian spice mix-- ground cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric. Mix and fry. Then add a tablespoon of plain yogurt and stir that in very quickly. Give that a minute, then put in one chopped tomato. Fresh would be great, but I was out so I used canned chopped tomato, which actually works beautifully and even gives a slightly more consistent texture. Next time I use fresh, I think I'll run it through the food processor!
Give that a few minutes, then add the meat, chop it all up with your flipper, mix well with the sauce and let it start to brown. Then add your warm spices: mace, nutmeg, cayenne and salt, plus a few ounces of water. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for an hour, stirring every ten minutes or so. If you are not making chapatis, what you can do at this point is go zone out in front of Law & Order, and get up at every commercial break to go and stir your pots. (I know, it's an awful show, but I'm addicted. You never know what character actor will show up-- Aasif Mandvi was on last night! Aasif-- if you're reading-- call me!) About halfway through the simmering, put the fried onions in (reserving some to top the dal) and stir. That's it.
Now for the chapatis. I was worried about having enough time, so I had Joe do most of the kheema prep while I kneaded chapati dough. I needn't have worried-- I had time to spare, as it turned out. Chapatis are the easiest Indian bread I've tried-- spelt flour and water in about equal parts, knead for 8 minutes, let rise for half an hour. Knead again, divide into 8 balls. Roll each ball into about a 5-6 inch circle, flouring all the while. To cook, put the chapatis, one at a time, on your very hot tava or cast iron pan. Once they solidify and start to get brown, grab with tongs and hold over an open flame until they puff. Brush with a bit of butter, and repeat with the next chapati. These ones came out fluffier than previous chapatis-- we had some excellent puffing action this time.
All this should be served with rice, by the way. We still had some of this rice left over, so we tossed it in the microwave and it went perfectly.
So: rice, kheema, dal with a lemon wedge and fried onions, chapatis, Wild Goose IPA. Both the kheema and dal had a kick to them, more so than a lot of the food I've made from the Jaffrey book so far. Joe and I found our sinuses clearing by the end of the meal, but it wasn't so hot that the flavors were disguised. We were amazed at how well the flavors complemented each other.
I wasn't sure I'd like this dal. When I was growing up, most of the veggies we ate were of the frozen-microwaved variety or the slimy-okra variety, and I didn't like them one bit. My stepbrothers still tease me about the time I gagged over a bowl of peas. It's only recently, under the tutelage of a former-vegetarian husband and Indian vegetable-eating friends, that I've started learning to like my vegetables. (My friend Gagan's mom's okra blew my mind.) But I'm still a bit leery about anything green and savory. So when I was cooking these lentils, and they were very green with lots of brown liquid, and they smelled sort of pea-like, I was worried. But once I added the spiced ghee, I started to relax. And by the time it got to my plate, I was thrilled. The vegetable-ness of the lentils is balanced with the richness of the ghee, the heat from the spices, the tang of the lemon juice and the sweetness of the fried onions. The lemon juice, in particular, really made the flavors from the spices bright and vivid. There's a lot going on in this deceptively simple dish, and I have to say that I am now looking forward to eating this particular vegetable. I hope you're reading this, Mom!
Saturday, July 7, 2007
The article explains that cold-brewed iced coffee is way better than the usual stuff- it's less bitter, and its flavors are more complex. I'm a big iced coffee fan, but I'd never heard of this before, so I was intrigued. One of Joe's coworkers also swears by cold brewing, so we decided to give it a try.
Iced coffee is usually made in one of two ways:
(a) you brew a pot of coffee, let it cool and pour it over ice; or
(b) you make a few shots of espresso, dilute them with cold water, and pour it over ice.
If you are fortunate, your local coffee shop will have some simple syrup on hand for sweetening-- otherwise, you'll find yourself sucking unmelted sugar crystals through your straw, which is not (everybody say it with me now!) good eats.
Cold brewing, however, is done thusly:
Get yourself a big glass jar-- a Mason jar would be perfect. Fill it with 4 cups water and 3/4 cup of medium-course ground coffee. (We got ours at La Colombe, a well-loved local roaster.) Cover it and let it sit on your kitchen counter overnight (at least 12 hours).
Strain it twice-- use a really fine strainer if you can. The Times recipe recommends "a coffee filter, a fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth." We didn't have any cheesecloth, so we tried a paper coffee filter, but it broke pretty quickly. Joe (who did the actual work on this one) used our fine-mesh strainer, but found that the coffee still had a lot of sediment. Fortunately, I have a very resourceful husband. He took the top from our super-neato coffee maker, which has a very fine mesh filter, and filtered the coffee through it into a thermos.
This makes a coffee concentrate-- you dilute it to drink it, unless you're way more hardcore than we are. The Times recipe calls for a one-to-one ratio of water to concentrate, but we found that a two-to-one ratio of coffee to water was about right.
Joe also made some simple syrup-- great for iced coffee and also for cocktails. This is really easy-- get yourself equal parts sugar and water. Put the water in a pot to boil. While it's heating up, start stirring the sugar into it in small parts until it dissolves. Bring it just to a boil. You'll know it's ready because it'll be cloudy, and then suddenly start to clear up-- that means it's done. Put it in a squeeze bottle and use it for everything.
So: the finished product. Add your water to taste. You can drink this black even if you're not normally into black coffee-- it really isn't bitter. I still prefer mine with half-and-half and simple syrup. The result was a surprisingly flavorful coffee. We both used to think it was sort of silly how people would talk about a coffee as having 'chocolate notes' or some such wine-like descriptors, but now I kind of get it. This is good stuff.
Joe's coworker also recommended making ice cubes with this stuff, so that you can ice your coffee without it getting all diluted at the end.
Another yummy option is to add sweetened condensed milk for what my corner coffee shop (which is wonderful, by the way) calls a Thai iced coffee. They charge four bucks for it there, and this is way, way cheaper in addition to being really delicious.
The article is absolutely correct in its argument that ethanol production is in fact not environmentally friendly. However, I would clarify that the overproduction of corn is so high in the US that it's not a matter of shortages; in fact, the push toward ethanol production is profitable because it allows agribusiness to grow the same amount of corn without the downward push on prices that is an inevitable result of overproduction. We produce too much corn; massive agribusiness producers receive huge subsidies from the federal government (subsidies originally intended to protect small farmers from the vagaries of the market); prices have to be kept artificially high in order to protect profits. Producers have for decades dumped billions of tons of grain (mostly wheat and corn) into the ocean in order to keep prices high-- an unforgivable crime in a world in which people still starve to death. But shipping free grain to, say, the Sudan wouldn't inflate prices; creating a new fuel industry that puts the grain glut to use does.
Furthermore, the article is right that ethanol production doesn't do a damn thing about global warming. Its carbon emissions are slightly lower than those of gasoline, but such massive quantities of fossil fuels are used in the production of the corn that the net lessening of emissions is negligible. (Agriculture produces more carbon emissions than any other US industry.) The only claim to 'sustainability' ethanol has is that it is a renewable energy source, unlike oil.
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's eye-opening tour through food production in the US, Pollan demolishes these claims-- and points out that the milk we drink, like other industrial food, is artificially cheap. Paying a dollar for a gallon of milk-- or even $3.50-- doesn't reflect the true cost to our health, our economy and the environment involved in the production of that milk.
So the next time you see a slick ad for BP or Shell telling you how very environmentally responsible and kind-hearted and lovable energy companies are-- don't buy it. And consider getting your milk from your local farmstand, where the cows might just eat grass, like their bodies are built to do. It'll be better for you, and the way prices are going this summer, it might just be cheaper.
Friday, July 6, 2007
1 lb boneless chicken filets
Trader Joe's Red Molé Sauce
Shredded cheddar cheese (told you it wasn't authentic!)
Chop some chicken into 1-inch cubes. I used chicken filets from Trader Joe's-- a boneless cut is easiest. Heat a small amount of oil in your cast iron pan, just enough to cover the bottom. Throw in the chicken and let it start to brown. When it's not totally raw anymore, add a few generous spoonfuls of molé and stir to coat the chicken. (I'm looking forward to learning to make my own molé, but TJ's will do for now; you can also get good ones in the Goya aisle at your local grocery or Latin American foods store, but they won't be gluten free like TJ's is.) Cook, stirring periodically, until the chicken is cooked through.
Meanwhile, if you have a gas stove, you can make your tortillas tasty. Put a tortilla directly on the burner and put the flame on medium. Use tongs to flip it once it gets just a little charred. Try not to let it catch on fire. Do this until all of your tortillas are toasted and just a bit crispy.
(If you don't have a gas stove, put your tortillas on a plate, cover with a moist paper towel and microwave for about 30 seconds.)
Assemble tacos and top with sour cream and cheese. Tomatoes, lettuce, or guacamole are also good; if you want to be a little more authentic about it, top with chopped cilantro and raw onions. Serve hot, with cold beer.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Zucchini parm is a relatively simple dish, but there are a few stages involved in its making, so it can be a little time-consuming.
First: get yourself some good, fresh zucchini. Ideally, it'll be from your backyard, but if you're like us and don't have a backyard, the local farmer's market will do. Three or four small ones will be plenty.
Next: Slice it lengthwise, as thin as you can get it. We used a mandoline to do the slicing, which makes things much easier. Make an egg wash in a bowl: two eggs, a splash of water, and some salt and pepper. Then spread some bread crumbs out on a plate-- you can use boxed, but we just threw some leftover bread into the food processor for a minute. Dip the zucchini slices in egg and bread them, then fry them in about 1/4 inch of oil until they are nice and brown.
It's helpful to have two people for this stage-- one breading and one frying. If you're slicing as thin as you can, you'll have a lot of slices to fry!
As you finish frying the slices, let them cool for a few minutes, then put a layer of zukes at the bottom of a casserole pan. Cover the layer with marinara sauce. (Yes, we used a jar-- the organic stuff from Trader Joe's is perfectly fine if you don't have the time to Martha Stewart some from scratch.) You can add a bit of cheese at this point-- parmesan is good; we used Idiazabal. Add another layer of zucchini, top with another layer of sauce. Repeat until you're out of zucchini. Top with sauce and mozzarella cheese.
Put the casserole in a 350-degree oven. It won't need long-- 20 minutes at most, but keep an eye on it. You just want to heat it through and brown the cheese.
Slice and serve hot with a glass of red wine. Good stuff-- tasty, soul-satisfying, and great for vegetarians.
First I cut a potato very thinly. I fried the slices in some canola oil until they were nice and brown. Drain and set aside.
I ground three tablespoons of peppercorns (assorted if you have them), a tablespoon each of black cumin, cumin and coriander seeds and a teaspoon of chili powder in a mortar and pestle. Salt the tuna, and then coat in the spice mixture and set aside.
Slice one shallot and some ginger. Heat a small pot or saucier over med to med high heat. Add the shallots, ginger, a half cup of red wine of your choosing, a quarter cup of black beans, salt and pepper. You want to reduce the wine completely. After the wine is about gone, pour in a quarter cup of cream. When the cream comes to a boil remove from the heat to a blender. Blend on high. Add 3/4 pound of cold butter in one inch slices until the sauce is smooth. You can keep this warm in a double boiler.
Put a small amount of canola oil in a pan and get the pan very hot. Saute the steaks until the spices turn brown. You are looking for a nice crust and medium rare inside.
To serve, cut the steaks on a bias. Arange the potato slices on the plate and put a slice of tuna on each potato. Drizzle sauce on the tuna and on the plate.
Sarah: This was a tasty dish, and beautifully presented. I think the spice crust was a bit much-- it tended to overwhelm the tuna. This probably would work better with a thicker tuna steak-- ours was only about an inch thick, which makes it hard to get a nice sear and still be rare inside, and I think that a higher ratio of tuna to spices would balance the flavors better. Amazing sauce, though!
Monday, July 2, 2007
Chung King Garden is in Philadelphia's Chinatown, a few convenient steps away from Market East Station. When we lived in New York, Joe and I loved to explore Chinatown on the weekends, but when I was diagnosed with a wheat allergy we stopped going, with heavy hearts. Now that I know it was a misdiagnosis, I'm thrilled to be able to eat my way through Philly's Chinatown.
This particular spot comes highly recommended by my friend Lynn, who grew up in Taiwan and loves spicy food. Chung King is known for super-spicy, authentic Szechuan cuisine. She suggested we try out Chung King and get lots of different dishes, and if you know me you know I'm not about to turn down an offer like that. So Lynn, my friend Joel, and my husband Joe and I met up last night and started ordering.
The menu is long and involved, with sections for dry-panned meats, water-boiled items, soups, etc. There's also a page at the very back with "American Chinese Food," which is clearly for the tourists. I don't know how Chung King's General Tso Chicken rates, and I don't care. This is Chinese food far above and beyond what corner takeout joints deliver.
Joel is a vegetarian, so we ordered a mix of meat and veggie dishes. Lots of the vegetable dishes here do contain meat, but when Lynn asked in Chinese, the servers were happy to leave it out.
Ma Po Tofu: I've had this dish in its gloopy American form, and wasn't impressed, but this was divine. Cubes of creamy, silky tofu came in a light but fiery orange sauce, with dry spices sprinkled liberally on top-- black pepper and anise, definitely, and I think possibly cloves as well. They left the pork out, and I'm curious what that would be like, but the dish certainly didn't suffer.
Quick Fried Lamb: Visually, this looks the most like what Americans expect: a meat stir-fried with vegetables and served with rice. The lamb was sliced thin and surprisingly tender for having been quickly stir-fried. There were fried pieces of garlic and ginger as well as bamboo, and some seriously tasty wood-ear mushrooms. The heat was slow but intense. (Joe had the leftovers for lunch today and says that it got even hotter overnight.)
Bok Choy with Mushrooms: A non-spicy dish. This was very simple, just bok choy, mushrooms, and a basic white sauce, but the ingredients were fresh and the mushrooms had a savory, deeply satisfying flavor.
Loofah: Yes, like the sponge. This dish wasn't on the menu, but apparently it's a special fairly often, and Lynn asked for it. This is the outer part of the live sponge, stir-fried in a light white sauce. It has the color and texture of a honeydew melon, but the taste is more savory and green-vegetable-like. Lynn, who's had it before, said it wasn't the best example she'd had-- it gets slightly bitter if it's not very fresh. We all ate and enjoyed it anyway, though.
Chicken with Spicy Peppers: This is the dish I'm still craving today, even though my body is punishing me for eating so much of it. I've never had such a flavorful, addictive variation on popcorn chicken! The dish is simply tiny breaded chunks of chicken meat and pieces of dried red chilies, apparently fried quickly at very high heat. There's no sauce, and there doesn't need to be-- you just pick out golden brown bits of fried chicken from their hiding places among the peppers. It's very hot, and absolutely impossible to stop eating, even when you are very full.
We washed everything down with $2 Tsingtao-- I'm not normally much for lagers, but this had a pleasant fruity quality and really matched the spicy food.
Oh, and the bill? $63, for four of us, alcohol included. Can't beat that. The service was on the slow side, but they were friendly and helpful. It's a clean, pretty, roomy restaurant, and we spotted a karaoke room in the back. And it didn't hurt to have such excellent company!
I'm definitely looking forward to going back and experimenting-- there are lots of creative soups (tomato and scrambled egg soup? I'm in!) and after a couple of Tsingtaos you might even talk me into trying some organ meats. Maybe. Either way, I need more of that spicy chicken, just as soon as my system recovers!
Sunday, July 1, 2007
We got a pound of small tiger shrimp at the Reading Terminal Market, along with some absolutely bursting ripe tomatoes from Livengood Farms. I can't believe how juicy and flavorful those tomatoes were.
OK. Chop two tomatoes and put then in the blender with half a cup of dried coconut, three cloves of chopped garlic and just a bit of ginger. I ended up also putting a chopped onion in there, because I neglected to tell Joe not to grab it. Didn't seem to have any negative effect, though!
Fry a finely chopped onion. When it starts to brown and get soft, add the paste from the blender, three tbsp of tamarind paste (my new favorite ingredient), half a cup of water, ground coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper and salt. Mix, bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes.
Then throw your (peeled, deveined) shrimp into the liquid and bring to a boil again. Keep stirring until they're cooked. You're done. Simple.
As for the rice: Our foodie friend Nagesh made this for a party last week. (I hope he won't mind my giving away his culinary secrets here.) I may have missed an ingredient or two, but it was quite simple: five cloves, five cardamom pods, and a generous pinch of black cumin into the water just before turning on the rice cooker. Lots of flavor, minimum effort.
This was delicious! The shrimp were done perfectly, and the sauce was sweet and coconut-y. I thought the bitter edge of the black cumin was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the sauce. It was a light meal-- we probably should have made some bread as well. Next time-- and believe me, there will be several next times for this dish.