25 Jul 14

The other day I was whipping up Mridula Baljekar’s  kela na sambhariya, or spicy stuffed bananas, and I had leftover chickpea flour filling; usually when I have extra spicy chickpea flour I add a little water, make a batter, then throw in vegetables for pakoras: chopped or sliced onions for my fave onion bhajis, whole leaves of spinach or mustard greens for spicy spinach fritters, sliced zucchini or sweet potato are wonderful too. This time, however, I don’t know: I didn’t feel like chopping vegetables, I didn’t even feel like eating pakoras. What I felt like was a thin pancake, something on the order of socca, the olive oil-browned chickpea pancake of Nice, France.

My mixture of toasted chickpea flour mixed with cumin, coriander, chile and cilantro was ready, i just stirred in enough water to make a pancake batter-like consistency, heated a tablespoon or two of evoo in a nonstick frying pan, and ladled in the batter. It cooked on one side, I flipped it and it cooked on its second side. It was delicious, tasting at once of France, at once of the Mediterranean, and at the same time, like having dinner with Mridula.

1/2 cup/2 oz/50 g chickpea flour (besan)

1/2-1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed

About 1/2 fresh chile, depending on its heat and your preference: a mixture of both green and red looks nice, but you can use either, or none, as you like

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1-2 tablespoons coarsely chopped coriander/cilantro leaves

About 3 tablespoons evoo

25 Jul 14

Szechuan-ish Cucumber Salad
i’d like to say serves 4, but two of us ate it for lunch

1 english cucumber or 4-5 small persian/japanese cucumbers, unpeeled, and cut into spears about 3-4 inches long, half to 1 inch thick
1 teaspoon salt
1 big fat garlic cloves (or two modest ones) chopped
1 teaspoon Chinese hot bean paste, or ordinary bean paste/brown bean sauce/or even miso
2 teaspoons to 1 1/2 tablespoons Szechuan chile paste, the kind that is deliciously oily–amount depends upon heat of your brand
1/2 teaspoon coarsely crushed toasted szechuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon wine vinegar

Toss together the cucumber, salt and garlic; mix well and leave for about an hour.
Add everthing else, mix well, and eat or chill until ready to eat.

Optional: add a spoonful of chile oil, either commercial or from the chile-oil-paste

24 Jul 14

Those who know my husband, know he can’t resist a bargain. Thats how we ended up, this evening, with our kitchen table piled high with carrots. No room in the fridge, which is a long story in itself because our fridge is the tiniest mini-fridge in existance and our owning/depending on it rather than a nice big ordinary fridge is the stuff spun from bad decisions made under the influence of jetlag.

So we have a mountain of carrots, and we’re having a heatwave, and we need to eat things quickly before they rot. Until the temperature dips back down to normal our lives are a race against time–the time it takes for stuff to decline from moist-plumpness into decay.

Which finds us tonight eating carrot soup. My husband has fond memories of carrot soup I made for him, but it involves a myriad of other vegetables, too. I just wanted to simmer some carrots and get out of the kitchen before I passed out. We do not have air conditioning.

I thought: a nice COOL carrot soup, one as easy to prepare and it is soothing and refreshing to spoon up. I had no idea where the flavour direction would go, however, so I started by making a light little puree of carrots; after that, I reasoned, I could turn it into a soup.

To start, I simmered a lot of sliced carrots and a small handful of rice with a mixture of water and chicken broth until tender. The small amount of rice thickens the vegetable lightly, without interfering in the character of the vegetable, or making the soup too heavy, like flour or potato can do. Next, I pureed the carrots, stock and rice until smooth; I used a hand held stick blender but you could use a food processor or jar blender if that is what you have in your kitchen.

When I tasted the lovely oranged-coloured mixture, I thought: garlic. (This might have just been me, I usually think: garlic), so i stirred in one chopped garlic clove. The soup was hot, the garlic didn’t exactly cook but its raw fiery taste was tamed a bit.

I let it cool to room temperature and then decided how to finish it off. It was hard to decide, in that way when the weather is really really hot, and it is hard to think or decide about anything….and while there were only two of us, I had enough for at least 4 bowlfuls. We could eat it two nights running, flavoured completely differently each night.

The first night, we ate it at cool room temperature with a bit of cream,  swirled but not completely stirred in, as well as a scattering of fresh tarragon and some chopped toasted hazelnuts. It was wonderful, sipped in the garden as the evening cooled somewhat.

Carrot Puree:

If you want to make the carrot puree, and do as we did, eat half one way and half the other, here is the basic recipe; if you want to make the basic carrot puree and then come up with your own way to go seasoning and flavouring and character wise, here is the basic recipe. Otherwise, each of the recipes include this step of cooking and pureeing the carrots.

About 10 nice plump firm carrots, peeled and sliced

2 -3 tablespoons raw rice

About 1 litre/6 cups liquid: I used a mixture of half water and half chicken stock

1 clove garlic

Combine the carrots with the liquid and rice; bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook until the carrots are tender and the rice is soft, about 10 minutes.

Puree using a food processor, blender or hand held stick blender.

Chill until ready to use.

Creamy Cool Carrot Soup, with Tarragon and Hazelnuts

Serves 4

About 10 nice plump firm carrots, peeled and sliced

2 -3 tablespoons raw rice

About 1 litre/6 cups liquid: I used a mixture of half water and half chicken stock

1 clove garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

About 1/2 pint heavy whipping cream

About 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, coarsely chopped

About 4 tablespoons toasted, chopped, hazelnuts (see end of recipe for directions)

Combine carrots with the liquid in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Cook over medium heat until the carrots are tender and the rice is soft, about 10 minutes. Puree until smooth in either a blender or food processor, or use a hand-held blender.

Leave to cool or chill, and ladle into bowls, then pour or spoon in a few tablespoons of cream per bowl, and sprinkle generously with the tarragon and hazelnuts.

Cool Carrot Soup with Turkish Flavours: Cumin, Dill, and Yogurt

Serves 4

About 10 nice plump firm carrots, peeled and sliced

2 -3 tablespoons raw rice

About 1 litre/6 cups liquid: I used a mixture of half water and half chicken stock

1 clove garlic

About 6 fl oz/ 175 ml Greek yogurt, enough for several tablespoons per bowl

Large pinch ground cumin

Large pinch smoked paprika

2-3 tablespoons coarsely chopped dill

A drizzle of evoo per bowlful

Ladle the cool/chilled carrot puree into bowls and top each with a big spoonful or two of Greek yogurt. Sprinkle the top with cumin, paprika, and dill, then drizzle with evoo.

Sit outside in the garden and enjoy.

23 Jul 14

These are great dumplings: first of all, sniff the air around them: that fresh starchy smell of just-steamed noodle: inside are spiced leafy greens chopped finely into an intense vegetable paste; next to it on the plate you see a puddle of Szechuan chile paste, already smudged because i’ve dipped the first dumpling (see the empty space on the plate) into it. On the other side of the plate is cloud ear fungus though it might have been braised fresh shiitakes, simmered in its savoury sauce . But more about dinner a bit later in the blog: How I got to this plate of dumplings goes like this:

19th-28th May 2014 The World Gourmand Bookfair and Best in the World Awards for cookbooks, food television, food and drink books were to be held in the rural-ish outer borough of Bejing (fifth ring road) called Daxing.

In recent years, Gourmand Bookfair and Awards Ceremony have been held in Paris where it is known as Paris Bookfair–last year it was held memorably, thrillingly, at The Louvre (where I made chopped liver on the cooking demo stage but thats the subject of another story). But Gourmand has moved around the world at various times–I discovered them way back when in Perigueux when I was sent by the BBC to interview Chinese cookbook author and tv cooking guru, Ken Hom, and have been somewhat of a devotee since, attending the events in Barcelona, the Loire, as well as an amazing gathering in a  completely different part of Bejing way back in 2009 where the Peruvians brought what seemed like vats of Pisco to what became a week-long party and the breakfast buffet was so filled with Chinese delicacies just visiting each morning was a lesson in regional Chinese cookery.  One year, marking Malaysia’s Truly Asia tourist campaign, the awards were held there, and journalists were taken to the far reaches of Malaysia, to open-air  palaces in jungles that we needed to get to by taking a boat upriver, eating tuna curry in a Terrenganu marketplace, and swimming in water so clear it was like swimming in a fish bowl, only it was for real: we were with the blue and yellow and rainbow of fish….just us, together in the deep blue sea. Oh, and learning the secrets to making a perfect rendang, too. Then there is the annual Frankfurt Bookfair in Frankfurt, Germany,  where Gourmand throws a party at Villa Bonn; once,  the potato gratin they served was so good I put its recipe into my cookbook Yummy Potatoes (Chronicle Books).

While I had no cookbook nominated for an award nor foreign rights to sell, ie nothing to draw me practicality-wise to the event  (and justify the expense of the trip), emails trickled in luring me: friends around the world who were going, up for awards, participating in the bookfair. Gourmand is the only world event, where material in all languages can be submitted and is awarded. There were little teasers to the schedule: the watermelon museum visit would co-incide with a watermelon festival and visit to Mr Song’s Melon Garden (post to come). (Daxing is China’s watermelon capital, famous for its sweet juicy melons).  There was promise of a Szechuan food festival, and you know, no one does Peking duck the way they do it in Beijing. I thought about the spicy cucumber salad and the dan dan noodles (jiang jiang mein).  I changed my mind: who needs an award (this time). It would simply get in the way by making me feel anxious ahead of time, and if i didn’t win, disappointed after. I would only take the fun stuff and go along for the ride!

Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’  and Paris/Beijing Cookbook Fair founder, Edouard Cointreau lives in Beijing where he is, among so many other titles, President of Honour of China Food Television as well as President of World Association of Food TV Producers, hence the choice of Beijing as a venue. Instead of the sophisticated, international hub of central Bejing, though, the gathering was to be held in Daxing, a rural district on the outskirts of the Capital. Daxing is local, authentic and utterly lacking in any pretentiousness. In the not too distant future, Daxing will have its own international mega-airport, which, combined with its space for offices, factories and international business; no doubt its quaintness and quietness will fade

But in the meantime, it was so unspoiled. So unspoiled. It was essential Chinese culture, circa 2014; my guess from the way people looked at me, and most of us, and how caring they were for our perceived delicacy, most had never seen a foreigner up close and in person before.  I felt like the belle of the ball. People were friendly, they were intrigued, they offered to help, they stared, they took out their phones for selfies posed with this exotic creature who had landed in their midst.  Our hotel which had never hosted foreigners before and they had a special group from the university hospitality and language dept to translate the needs and wants of these people who are so different.

Wherever we went, people were amazed. Life stopped the moment we walked in, and by we, I really mean me, because it happened even when I wasn’t in a group. My blond hair was like a flag, so different from their own, my pink and big red lips, they didn’t know what to make of me. They wanted their pictures taken to show family and friends: Look what/who I MET!  I started to really feel like a celebrity, especially when women would stroke my blonde hair and say: “preh-teeeee”. I fell in love with them, each and every one of them.

here i am at a boutique, the salegirls all wanting a picture with me!

I would look at these gorgeous women, with their gleaming black hair and usually trim figures, so young looking and energetic, and think: oh you guys, do you have any idea how adorable YOU are? any idea how LOVELY you make me feel?

a grandma on a bike saw ME taking HER picture, was burst into the biggest smile of delight, as you can see!

at the Great Wall, such a hot hot day, fanning myself to cool off and having my picture taken....

Meanwhile, back to the start.

I landed in Beijing’s Capital Airport and by the time I got to Daxing, Bejing being a huge city with a big traffic problem, it was time for dinner.

It started with the dumplings, and proceeded…..on to the next page, the next blog entry.

22 Jul 14

Cauliflower, sauteed with cumin, and served with garlicky, lemony tahina sauce is a classic Middle Eastern meze, but i’ve added a few embellishments here which makes the whole plateful  resemble a fauvist painting; of course the bright yellow plates help a great deal in that direction.

In Israel, a plate of anything with tahina will bring a garnish of olive oil, poured in a swirl, and a scattering of pickles. Usually it will be pickled cucumbers…..maybe peppers…….and so I’ve served the classic Middle East salad of tahina with cauliflower with pickles–but in this case, decorated all prettily with bits of pickled turnip–check out my pickle page, or buy a jar at an Arab or Middle Eastern grocers. The bright pink of the pickles looks jewel-like when it is cut into small pieces and balances the beige-ness of the cauli-tahina, while the sharp tanginess of these turnips perfectly balances the richness of the tahina and the blandness of the vegetable.

After I scattered the pickles, I looked at the plate. It needed something fresh, again, in the spirit of the Middle East where it might be a little parsley or cilantro/coriander. But when I went out to the garden to snip a little bit, the scent of fresh oregano pulled me towards it, so I plucked a few sprigs and put it on the plate. It was so good with the tahina, cauliflower and pickles. I felt like i was conducting a little orchestra of tastes and colours by now. I looked at the plate again, then thought: a little green onion? Instead I grabbed a leek and chopped a little bit, then scattered it around–the leek was great because it had a kind of crunchy, dry, texture, and didn’t blend into the rest of the ingredients the way the more moist green onion would have.

1 medium sized cauliflower, cut into bite-sized and smaller florets

2 tablespoons evoo, or as desired

Several generous pinches of ground cumin

Salt to taste

1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed

About 1/2 cup/ 125ml  tahini

Juice of 1-2 lemons

3-4 tablespoons water, or as needed

A generous pinch of ground coriander seed

A few drops of a delicious preferably garlicky hot sauce, any ethnicity will do–I use a Chinese or Vietnamese garlic-chile sauce often, which works really well; other times? Cholula!

Garnish–all optional, but pretty:

Several slices pink pickled turnips, storebought or made from my blog, cut into tiny jewel-like bits, or pickled cucumber or mixed vegetables (giardiniera), diced

A few sprigs fresh oregano, and a few leaves to strew around the dish

A little bit of chopped leek, again, for sprinkling

Precook the cauliflower in the microwave or steamed until it is nearly tender. Remove; you can do this ahead of time or not, as you like. Heat about a tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy frying pan until moderately hot, and add the cauliflower florets, cooking as you saute them, sprinkling them with cumin and salt as you go. You want to lightly brown them a little, which should only take a few minutes.

Remove from the heat. This, too, you can do ahead of time, up to a few days.

Make the tahina sauce: combine the garlic with the tahini and mix well, then stir in the lemon juice; the mixture will thicken considerably, then add a few tablespoons water, one at a time, until it thins out to the consistency you wish, which should be like thick paste. Taste for seasoning and add salt, cumin, coriander, and hot sauce to taste.

Arrange the tahina sauce on a plate and arrange the cauliflower on top of it; alternatively but less prettily, you can mix it all together.

Garnish with the pickles, a swirl of the remaining evoo, and serve with lovely fresh pita or crusty French/Italian/levain bread…..

16 Jul 14

Frankfurter Gruen Sosse, or green sauce from Frankfurt, Germany, is a thick, creamy mixture of as many herbs as you can find, bound together with chopped hard-cooked egg, sour cream, yogurt, and seasonings. It’s like the best party dip you could imagine, and it’s eaten on nearly everything: sold in delis, dabbed onto a plate in a traditional restaurant, dolloped onto plates in homes.

My first gruen sosse experience was at the Konstablerwache marketplace where my big fat potato pancake–aka latke– was served with a gigantic blob of this most luscious of substances. It was a cold autumnal day, apples were in season and an apfelwein bar was set up with long tables filled with drinking folks. It looked and felt like a Bruegel painting, and there i was, so looking the part: my blonde hair in braids, cheeks pink from the chilly air as well as apple wine, surrounded by happy townspeople sipping from their big glasses and eating wurst and potatoes.

I’m including two different green sauces here: the first an authentic one direct from Frankfurt; the second is the one that has evolved in my kitchen, one that keeps evolving depending on the herbs that are growing in my garden or the dairy products in my fridge. It is only a guideline, which is part of green sauce’s great charm. That, and the fact that it is so good!

Kartoffel mit Frankfurter Gruen Sosse

Hot Buttered Potatoes with Frankfurt Green Sauce

Serves 4

This recipe is from my book Yummy Potatoes, published by Chronicle Books; it is an adaptation of Rebecca Hecht’s who lives in Frankfurt and is kind of the queen of green:  gruen sosse that is. Her–and my– friend, ballet choreographer Noah Gelber–told me often about how good her version is, and how I had to taste it. One bite and I thought: this is the nirvana of green sauces. Rebecca tells me that a typical Frankfurter Gruen Sosse consists of seven different seasonal herbs and follows the season throughout the year. In spring these include parsley, sorrel, chervil, burnet, lemon balm, borage, chives, and watercress, while later in the season basil might make its fragrant appearance. (The potatoes its served on: young, old, tender, mealy, changes with the calendar too).

1 egg per person

1 ounce fresh spinach leaves, or about 6 tablespoons frozen spinach (you want to end up with cooked, chopped, and squeezed-dry spinach)

4 to 6 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons chopped watercress or arugula leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

2 to 3 teaspoons chopped dill

1/2 cup sour cream

1/3 cup yogurt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon mild Dijon or German mustard

Small pinch sugar

Salt and pepper

1 pound tiny baby waxy potatoes such as La Rattes, fingerlings, Pink Fir Apple, or assorted potatoes, unpeeled

Unsalted butter, for buttering potatoes

To make the Frankfurter Gruen Sosse: Hard boil the eggs, and run them under cold water for a few minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and coarsely chop. Set aside.

Cook the spinach leaves in a little water until wilted and darkened; remove from the hot water and set aside. When cool enough to handle, squeeze dry and finely chop.

Combine the egg, spinach, green onion, parsley, watercress, tarragon, and dill in a food processor and whirl to purée.

Transfer this finely ground green herby mixture to a bowl, add the sour cream and yogurt to taste, and stir well, then add the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir together well.

Chill at least an half hour before serving; several hours is even better.

Cook the potatoes in gently boiling water until they are tender. Drain and place in a bowl.

Let your guests serve themselves, open up the little potatoes, dab them with a nubbin of butter to melt in, and then top each with a spoonful of the green herby sauce.

Summer in Waterlooville Green Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

Serve it with a bowl of cooled boiled new or small young potatoes.

About 200g raw spinach leaves, cooked down to 1 ounce fresh spinach leaves, or about 6 tablespoons frozen spinach (you want to end up with cooked, chopped, and squeezed-dry spinach)

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped, or as desired and lusted after (this is how i feel about garlic, you may be less….uh……passionate about it. Use less in that case, more if you, like me, feel the love).

About 1/3-1/2 bouillion/stock cube, grated or smashed, or melted in the vinegar below

1-2 green onions, thinly sliced or a handful of chives, chopped

3 tablespoons chopped watercress or arugula leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

2 to 3 teaspoons chopped dill

2-3 teaspoons chopped mint

2-3 teaspoons chopped cilantro/coriander leaves

1 cup Greek yogurt

1/2 cup mayonaise

1 teaspoons white wine vinegar or to taste

Black pepper to taste

Combine the spinach with the garlic, crushed bouillion cube, then mix everything else in. Taste for seasoning and chill until ready to serve.

10 Jul 14

I always find that each season, each year, has its theme: like a song that you hear and you think: YEAH, that was from the summer of 1996 when each day was hotter than the next and my zucchini grew like insanity. To me, food and drink  does the same thing. For instance, last year–or was it the year before–was really my summer of Pimms, or faux Pimms, as we had a cheap knock off of Pimms which was really quite delicious nonetheless. I think it was called Austin, and I spent the summer gathered around that bottle and all the fresh fruit and mint i could gather from the garden, and don’t forget the cucumbers–anyhow, you can read about it in my blog archives.

This year, though, I had already started thinking Gin, Gin and Tonic, quite early on, while the weather was still cold and I couldn’t imagine how it would even feel to be warm: but closing my eyes, deep in imagination, I was thinking summer, sweltering, and ohhhhhh how refreshing a G & T would be.

The weather IS warm now, very warm. My zucchini is growing once again insanely, my cucumbers are happily threatening to take over this little corner of the forest. I was ready for my G & T.

But to be honest, I’m not the worlds biggest drinker and i need a bit of a push into the delightful world of refreshing alchohol. Usually this is accomplished by a lot of other people and a party. And you know, I live in a forest, I have no friends anywhere near, and it was unlikely that there would be a party, gin and tonic or not. So I figured, like with so many other things, something would happen. I’d get my gin and tonic,  I’d go to a cocktail party, I’d go somewhere, there would be a Gin and Tonic. But I didn’t think I’d spend my summer sipping, each evening, the most refreshing of drinks. And that is exactly what has happened.

It started like this. My friend, Jordan, had invited me to a swank cocktail (and canape!) party up in London. I tried to go, really I did, but you know, the train and all, and my forest, is far away.

So a few days later,  the doorbell rang. And there was a box. And inside: Gin. and tonic. and citrus fruit. I got ready for cocktail hour.

The tonic was lovely, my fave Fevertree; the citrus fruit were ready to be chopped into wedges and stuffed into the glasses. Oh and there was a glass just for ice and a fabulous ice…..spoon? shovel? what are those things called? (I should know as I LOVE ice). It was a very classy gift for someone who missed your party! And the gin: hmmmmmm Beefeaters, yes, but a very different one from my usual. Very fancy embossed bottle, and the number 24, what did this mean?

I had been thinking about what goes into gin, in general, before the box arrived, so I went online for info.  Beefeater 24: distilled in London like the rest of the Beefeater gins, within steps of the Cricket Pitch, The Oval. But what sets 24 aside is that it is infused with tea and added botanicals and citrus. Apparently Master Distiller Desmond Payne had long been fascinated by the idea of tea in gin, then discovered that the founding father of Beefeater Gin was a tea merchant to the Royal Household. He felt this was a good omen.

It took him 2 years.  To the classic Beefeater taste profile– juniper berries, coriander seed, angelica root and seed, Seville orange peel, lemon peel, orris and almond–he added liquorice, grapefruit, and teas: Chinese green and Japanese Sencha. This was perfect: I started the summer thinking: gin would be nice. But I wanted a gin that was fragrant and refreshing with aromatics. One that would blend with beautiful artisanal tonic water like a dream, like a ballet, with the intertwining of fragrance, the bitter and the aromatic, all weaving a lovely pattern in my mouth, as I sipped. That is what I wanted from this summer, and Hey!  Universe!  Thank you for bringing it to me.

So, I’m not going to wait for a party, because I’ve discovered this: a G and T in the afternoon, when the heat of the day has kinda frizzled my world and I just want to kick back and ease my body and brain: really: its all the party I need.

So my summer of gin and tonic is segue-ing to a summer of gin cocktails. Even catching up on social media is better with a g & t alongside.  But this afternoon, when I sat down as my laptop, g and t in hand, I realized: there is a culinary world out there to be made with g and t.

I am thinking:  you know……..a G and T sorbet would be lovely.  And a G and T gelee, a lovely jellied dessert, a grown up jelly/Jello with that fragrant bitter edge of tonic, the aroma of gin…..yes!

4 hours later: the gelee is chilled, and it is delicious: refreshing and herbal, slightly bitter from the tonic, and not too sweet though you can adjust the sugar level however you like. I recommend you eat it with the fresh raspberries–their sweetness, tanginess and aromatic berriness is perfect with the gelee.

Gin and Tonic Gelee with Raspberries

Serves 2 in a dessert portion, up to 4 in a refreshing tasting portion

1 envelope powdered unflavoured gelatin (USA), i’m not sure of uk powdered gelatin, this recipe is going to evolve into gelatin leaves……

2 tablespoons hot boiling water

1 1/2 cups/350 ml water

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 cup/150ml tonic water

2-3 tablespoons gin

Fresh ripe raspberries, as is, unless sour: then sugar than lightly

In a small bowl sprinkle the gelatin over the boiling water; let it soften.

Meanwhile, combine the water with the sugar and bring to a boil and stir so that the sugar dissolves.

Pour into the melted gelatin, stir in the lemon juice, and tonic water. Let cool.

Stir in the gin, combine well, cover and chill.

Serve with raspberries.

4 Jul 14

While I was in China recently, I began to seriously consider breakfast=rice. I know there are noodles, dumplings, jook, soups, steamed savoury and stuffed breads, but it was the rice: so beautiful pristine and fragrant, that called me back every day, as soon as I woke up. The first few days I ate my way around the breakfast buffet, until I hit upon the things I really loved; along the way I discovered a window where I could walk up and ask for special ingredients such as hot chile oil. One of the things about being in a land, like China, where the language is so far off your points of reference there is no common ground. You don’t speak THEIR language, they don’t speak YOURS, you have to find another way of communicating. Luckily, I was always good at mime.

So, asking for chile oil using mime was bound to be a lot of  fun! I pointed to my mouth, I took an air-bite, my eyes popped, i looked shocked, i fanned my mouth: it never failed: the women in the kitchen window making these special things broke into laughs. They called their friends to come see me for a repeat performance, and then they smilingly handed over a bowl of chile oil, and sometimes when i could figure out how to ask for it, a lovely fried egg. (fried egg+chile oil+rice=best breakfast ever).

Here is a snapshot of my lovely kitchen ladies in their little window-kitchen handing over special stuff such as my daily bowl of hot chile oil, or here I think it is an egg. A delicious fried egg.

Okay, I’m skipping over the part of the story that has me discovering the window-ladies, and how when I overheard any of my conference buddies expressing an interest in a fried egg, I would run over to the ladies and put up my finger: one, for one egg, two for two. The ladies laughed, they liked me, I was so exotic to them. They had, in fact, never had westerners in this hotel, so I can only imagine how they perceived me.

My buddies who I ran back with the fried eggs on a plate were amazed at how I had achieved this magical thing, producing a beautiful fried egg almost momentarily. I never told them my secret: the ladies. You know, shamefully, I liked the illusion of being a magical creature.

Getting back to my rice breakfast. I know, I know, blogs, they tell you what they ate today, they tell you things like, how this is the best whatever ever! and how their kids eat every bite. And how you’re going to yoga later. stuff like that, which you probably don’t want to hear.

So you’re going to ask me: why is YOUR rice breakfast, inspired by YOUR TRIP to China (already I can see you stifling yawns and reaching for the click on your computer) different? why is it any more interesting?

I’ll tell you: good steamed rice, topped with spicy (as in Sichuan) chile oil/paste, is delicious, something you can eat every day and vary it according to what else you have in the kitchen, in the garden, in your mind. A fried egg, oh yes! tofu in any shape or form? of course! some leftover meatballs, did you even need to ask? garlicky cucumber salad? (yes! and it was on the breakfast buffet, EVERY day, garlicky cucumber salad is possibly my favourite Chinese dish, though of course to me any cucumber salad will be my favourite dish wherever I am).

But really, keeping things simple, the other morning I noticed the lush growth of my laksa leaves (Vietnamese rau ram, Vietnamese coriander, culantro) and wondered what a few leaves in my rice+chile paste would be like. It was brilliant, and when I scattered a handful of toasted crisp salted peanuts on top, I’m telling you: incredible and so simple. The sort of dish you can eat for breakfast lunch or dinner, with freshly cooked rice or rice that has cooled to room temperature. It is the most perfect dish you can imagine if you like all of the ingredients. Because all of the ingredients are at their most delicious best, yet: combined? they are AWESOME.

My (and YOUR) rice breakfast

Steamed rice: The thing about a bowl of beautiful rice lies in the soaking. Somehow it is the soaking that releases the fragrance as the rice cooks; also letting it sit for a little while after cooked, to settle down, that helps make good rice really beautiful. I recommend soaking for all white rice that you are cooking by steaming, even for Persian rice or chelo.

Right now my favourite rice is Thai jasmine rice: it is fragrant, and though long-grain has just enough starch/stickiness to make it come together delightfully. Here is how I make my rice, these days. First: rinse the rice to get rid of its starch, talc, etc; place rice in saucepan and cover with cold water. Let sit and soak for about 30 minutes.

Drain, then return to pot, add enough water to cover the rice by about a finger-knuckle, cover and bring to the boil. Here is where I get very unscientific. Boil it a minute or two. Turn off the heat and let it sit for about 8 minutes and steam; the smaller batch of rice the shorter cooking time the larger pot of rice, the longer it will take. I like to add a few pinches of salt at this point. And sometimes, if i’m really in the mood for a richer rice, a small amount of chicken fat. But thats not when I’m eating it this austere, chile+herb+peanut breakfast way. Remove the lid, taste a grain or two, if the rice is dry add a small amount of water, if too wet, sigh….take lid off and cook it a few minutes without the lid. OR you could use a rice cooker which really is the best. OR you could just attach yourself to someone Asian and learn their family rice-cooking techniques. I am on the look-out for this situation as we speak.

For your breakfast:

Your beautiful rice, and I am happy eating it leftover from the day before, not refrigerated, but at room temperature

Handful salted preferably dry roasted peanuts

A few leaves rau ram, vietnamese coriander, laksa leaf, culantro, etc whatever you call it: tear up a few leaves–and i prefer the young leaves for this dish, if you have them

Sichuan chile paste and oil, as desired

Using a rice paddle, or a big spoon, scoop out as much rice as you like into your bowl, then scatter with the toasted peanuts and rau ram herb, torn into small pieces or chopped, as you like.

Dab as much Sichuan chile paste with some of the oil onto your rice, and enjoy your breakfast.

If your rice is too spicy from the chile paste, just add more rice. Oh, yes, and really: don’t fool yourself that you can eat this with a fork or spoon: the chopsticks are of acute atmospheric and aesthetic importance! (though you’ll probably need to put the bowl near your face as you ferry the rice to your mouth).

4 Jul 14

Today the mercury is climbing. I’m stretched out in the garden surrounded by three panting Jack Russells and one sprawled in the shade kitty. Its humid, its beyond languid, and lets face it, too hot to cook. Luckily we have salad. And this salad is a perky one: only a few ingredients and, really, they don’t match.  You’ve got your lettuce leaves, nice for all salads and your cucumbers, good, then you’ve got your feta cheese and you’re probably thinking: oh yes, Greek salad!

Forget it, I’m grabbing a handful of Thai basil and throwing it in: aromatic,  anisey and redolant of Asia: somehow, together with the salty jolt of really good feta, it is like magic. I stuck a little chopped green onion in, too, though you could use red or white salad onions; then dressed it as if I were on a Greek island: lashings of extra virgin olive oil, and a good hit of wine vinegar.

The bowlful is all about refreshment and vibrancy and ease. Two things I recommend however: accompany by a nice hunk of good good bread like a pain levain, and if you can, bring your plate outside to the garden, or your terrace, or even into your front yard. If you have no outside access at all, eat it next to the window. The important thing that is the salad seems meant to be eaten as near to the open air as possible.

Summer Evening Salad of Lettuce, Feta, and Thai Basil

Serves 2 as a nearly main course

1 head butter letter or small green leaf lettuce, cleaned, washed and dried, separated into leaves

1/4 English cucumber, cut into thin slices

4 ounces feta cheese, cut or broken into bite sized chunks

Onion of choice: 2-3 green onions, thinly sliced, or about 1/2 red onion or mild white/yellow onion, thinly sliced

Big handful Thai basil leaves (tough stems removed); if leaves are big, coarsely tear or cut them

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

About 2 teaspoons, or to taste, white wine vinegar

Salt and pepper (the amount of salt depends upon saltiness of the feta)

Arrange the lettuce in a salad bowl or plate, and scatter the cucumber, feta cheese, basil, and onions around the bowl or plate.

Drizzle with the evoo and vinegar, salt and pepper as desired, and eat!

1 Jul 14

A little bit of everything that came out of my summer 2014 vegetable pickle jar: cauliflower, red bell pepper, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and one bay leaf!  in some jars, there are sliced jalapenos. The pickling mixture is a salt water brine plus a bit of vinegar.

They have been about 2 weeks in their pickle, and are pickle perfection right now: crisp crunchy sour and salty. Perfect for the first heatwave of the season.

The fetching little shocking pink jewels below, are diced pickled turnips: its hard to explain exactly why they are so luscious: I mean: a turnip? but oh, what happens to a turnip in its salt water and vinegar brine: it gets crisp, and tangy, and turns a flattering bright pink (from the addition of shredded beets/beetroots). I added a few cloves and a hunk of mildish hot pepper for flavour, too. You can’t tell its either clove or chile, but it just gives a bit of depth.

Both of these pickles are at their best chilled until crisp and COLD, eaten as part of a summer mezze or even breakfast: with feta or other white cheese, freshly baked bread or flatbread, sliced cucumber and maybe a handful of fresh herbs like dill, mint, tarragon, coriander. You can  just eat the pickles out of a jar–remember not to double dip your fork, you’ll want to if you’re like me–or you can put the pickles out on a plate looking really really pretty, like a summer pickle party, like this plate below which has both the pickle selection plus the pink turnips:

A snapshot of my pickle shelf: the chillies, the turnips, and behind them is the jar of mixed vegetables. Sitting in the sunshine for a few days with the light streaming through them, they are beautiful, like stained glass.

If the weather is quite sunny, however, at some point I put them into the refrigerator, or into a cool dark shelf; the heat from the sunshine on hot days is strong enough to “cook” the vegetables, and i want them to remain crisp and snappy!

And since it would be cruel of me to show you my pickles, then not tell you how to make them, following is a recipe of sorts. The important thing is 1. the size of the jars 2. the ration of the salt-water-vinegar.

And no, i never measure but will give you measurements here; after a few times you can take it way and make it your own.

My Mixed Pickles of Summer

Really, these are just a riff on giardiniera, most delicious for their freshness. These are short-keeping pickles, which should be refrigerated once ready–a few days–after starting off in a sunny window. They only keep about 2 weeks if we’re following the rules, but you know: i use so much salt in my pickles that I don’t worry about nasty bacteria–not sure they can withstand it!

About 4 jars, aprox 2 pints/ 1/2 lires each, with lids

Salt as needed (about 6-8 tablespoons)

about 1 cauliflower, broken or cut up into small bite sized florets

2-3 carrots, either sliced or cut into short sticks

2-3 celery stalks, cut into bite sized pieces

1/4 cabbage, cut into small chunks

2 red bell peppers, cut into bite sized pieces (or similar amount red romano peppers)

1-2 onions, cut into bite sized chunks

6 garlic cloves, cut into slices or slivers

a small piece of fresh chile or hot pepper, sliced, as desired

4-8 bay leaves

Optional: 1/2 tsp turmeric

Optional: about a teaspoon mustard seeds

Vinegar, any kind, as needed (about a cupfull  in total)

Prepare the jars and lids by either running through the dishwasher, or washing then pouring boiling water into each jar, taking care to place a spoon or other metal utensil in the jar to keep it from exploding or breaking.

When cool enough to handle, pour out the water.

Into each jar place about a tablespoon of salt, then start layering the vegetables, a few pieces of cauliflower, carrots, celery, cabbage and so forth, sprinkling with a bit of salt as you go until you reach the top, somewhere along the way adding the bay leaves; when you reach the top add the turmeric and mustard seeds if using.

Pour cold water over the vegetables until the liquid is about half to 2/3 way up the side of the jar, then finish up with vinegar until it reaches the top. Finish by adding a spoonful of salt to the top, then close each lid.

The vegetables will be fermenting and will be short-lived pickles; the liquid may leak, and you’ll want to open it every so often to be sure that they have enough liquid; add more water or vinegar if they don’t, and sprinkle the top with salt so that any vegetables that bob up above the liquid line won’t rot; once the top vegetables go bad, the whole jar goes bad and needs to be thrown away.

These vegetables keep about 2 weeks according to sources of safety, but really, they have so much salt in them, I feel they are safe for much longer. I have been eating through the jars for several weeks already; if there is any food biochemist out there, please let me know. I was all of us to be safe and happy, and i know we can’t be happy unless we are EATING PICKLES!

Once they have pickled themselves, keep them chilled in the fridge because they are at their best crunchy cold!

Middle Eastern Pickled Turnips

About 4  2-pint/ 1.2 litre jars (alternatively, you can use smaller jars; that way you only have one open at a time).

About: 1 kg/ 2 1/2 lbs turnips, preferably fresh and crisp; youngest are best because their insides are firm and crunchy

3-4 raw beets/beetroots or if only cooked and vacuum-packed beetroots are available, use them

About 6-8 tablespoons kosher salt

Vinegar–any kind, as needed

Optional: a few mildy spicy chillies, a few whole cloves or allspice berries per jar

Wash and peel the turnips. If you cut them into chunks they will pickle themselves pink much sooner and be easier to fish out of the jar. You can pickle them whole, it is traditional, but i have long gravitated towards the chunk sized pickles. Also its easier to put them into the jars. So after you wash and peel the turnips, cut them into thick slices or bite sized chunks, say, a little larger than a big fat grape or about the size of a quails egg, or slightly smaller than a hens egg. Or any size you want.

Prepare the jars and lids by running them through the dishwasher, which is easiest and most effective, or washing well and then pouring boiling water into each jar and lid, with a metal fork or spoon in each to conduct the heat so that the jars don’t break. I don’t have a dishwasher so i always just use boiling water.

Pour out the boiling water and you’re ready to go once the jars have cooled enough to handle.

Meanwhile, bring a lot of water to the boil; i suggest an electric kettle because i am in love with mine.

Now, into each jar place a tablespoon or two of the salt, then start to pack in the turnips and a little beets; when you get about a third of the way up, add another spoonful of salt, then continue with the turnips and beet/beetroots. Two thirds of the way up, you’ll want to add some more salt, then more turnips and beetroots. Along the way stick in the chillies and cloves or allspice berries.

When you get to the top, Pour boiling water about two thirds up, then add enough vinegar to reach the top, above the turnips.

Finish with a last spoonful of salt, then when it is cool enough, close the lid. You won’t need to do anything else. these pickles will be alive as they ferment, and every so often you will need to see what level the liquid is at, adding more water or vinegar, and topping with another bit of salt so that the vegetables, if they rise above the liquid level, are salted and therefore pickled, and not rotten. If they rot, your whole jar is spoiled.

When they are tasty and crisp, you will want to transfer them to the fridge as these salty crunchy pink jewels are at their most delicious when they are CHILLED.