February 26th, 2011 § § permalink
Although I’ve been in Vietnam less than a week, already I’m addicted to market shopping. Found in every city and town, the cho, or market, serves as a one-stop shopping spot for the locals and for me. Forget Western-style grocery stores, which you won’t find anyhow. If you need a new shirt, frying pan, necklace, pound of onions or fresh shrimp, just drop by the local market.
In Ho Chi Minh City I’ve spent hours at the Ben Thanh Market. Built by the French in 1914, this enclosed shopping mall was originally called Les Halles Central. If you’re familiar with Paris or French history, you might recognize the name for Paris also had a Les Halles or “central market halls.” With over 100 vendors in place Ben Thanh is unquestionably the main market hall for HCMC.
What have I found at Ben Thanh? Chopsticks. Chinese-style dresses. Quirky t-shirts. Men’s polos. Silk purses and cellphone holders. Coffee, tea and spices. And that’s just the some of the dried goods, textiles and general merchandise. If so inclined, I could pick up dragon or durian fruit, blue potatoes and even livestock. Highly unlikely that I’d crave a whole, live chicken but, if I developed some strange hankering for one, I could get it here.
Similar to Western shopping malls, markets offer cooked as well as fresh food. When hungry, I can grab a stool at one of the many makeshift cafes and enjoy a bowl of pho (noodle soup) or plate of stir-fried veggies. I can also just buy a bunch of bananas or dried fruit and snack as I browse.
I’d say that all Vietnamese markets are the same but that wouldn’t be true. Traveling south through the Mekong Delta, I experienced a vastly different marketplace in Can Tho. Situated on the Mekong and Can Tho Rivers, this large city is home to a series of floating markets. Vendors literally drop anchor in the Can Tho River and sell their wares from their boats. To see what each vendor has to offer, glance up at the pole on the front of the boat. Dangling from it will be squash, tomatoes, sugar cane and the like. Whatever their speciality is, it will be displayed prominently on this post.
To browse the floating markets, I hopped on a water taxi in Can Tho and puttered downstream to the Cai Rang market. Once there, the taxi cruised around the large boats, stopping whenever I or other passengers wanted to buy something. Smaller vessels paddled up to us and plied us with watermelons, pineapples, cold sodas and beer. Who knew that grocery shopping could be so fascinating?
For lodging in Ho Chi Mihn City, consider the upscale Legend Hotel or mid-range Bong Sen Hotel. Both are within walking distance to Ben Thanh Market.
To pick up a water taxi for the floating markets, head to the Ninh Kiều pier in Can Tho. This is where the majority of boats for the markets are located. The cost should be about $3/hour.
February 20th, 2011 § § permalink
Since I’m traveling around Southeast Asia for the next few weeks and I’m unsure how good or frequent Internet access will be, I’m posting ‘Tuesday’s cookbook treasure’ today. Think of it as ‘Sunday’s cookbook special’ for special this one is.
Long before dining at Alice Waters’ world renowned Chez Panisse restaurant, I cooked from Chez Panisse Vegetables (William Morrow Books, 1996). Truth be told, I’ve ended up loving the cookbook far more than the dining experience. With this book’s beautiful, color illustrations and warm, personal text I always feel as though I’m in the kitchen with the queen of California cuisine. The same cannot be said for eating in an impersonal restaurant.
As the title suggests, this book looks at vegetables — 44, in fact — and offers over 250 fresh, uncomplicated recipes for them. Similar to the restaurant for which its named, Chez Panisse Vegetables displays a high regard for the natural flavors of its subjects. It stresses using local, seasonal and organic ingredients. It keeps the preparations simple so that the vegetables, rather than fancy techniques, are what star in each dish.
Some dishes are quite simple. Take, for instance, oven roasted carrots and turnips. For this I just toss the two in olive oil, salt and pepper and then roast them together. Insanely easy. Others, such as spicy broccoli vegetable saute or wild mushroom and greens ravioli, require slightly more time and effort and a few more ingredients. The end result remains the same — wholesome, delicious veggies!
Freshness is recurrent theme in Chez Panisse Vegetables. Waters emphasizes cooking around the seasons, working with food when it’s at its freshest and best. For each vegetable she provides the growing season and cultivation practice as well as tips on selecting and preparing every one. For farmers’ markets newcomers and season-driven supermarket shoppers this aspect of the book will prove invaluable. One quick glance and they’ll know to cook asparagus and watercress in the spring, shallots in summer and kale and parsnips in late fall and winter.
When vegetables slip out of season, Waters encourages the use of dried versions. Such is the case with lentils, black, cannellini and beans and chickpeas. As she points out, what would cassoulet, hummus or black bean soup be without these veggies?
Likewise, I don’t know what my cookbook collection would be without Chez Panisse Vegetables. Thankfully, I do have this lovely book at my disposal. Whenever I feel like a little Alice Waters and fresh, flavorful vegetables in my kitchen, I merely reach for this Kitchen Kat favorite.
February 18th, 2011 § § permalink
During weeks when I’m juggling deadlines and a dozen other things I lack both the time and desire to make fussy, time consuming meals. Since I can’t, or shouldn’t, order take-out every night, I turn to the time-pressed cook’s friend, the potpie. With potpies I simply plunk fish, chicken or vegetables into a pie crust, place a starchy topping over them and slide the concoction into the oven. In less than an hour I end up with something wholesome and filling for dinner — a pie cooked in a pot, or so to speak.
Obviously, I’m not the first to cut corners with potpies. Indigenous to Northern Europe, this tasty dish has been popular since at least the 14th century. Although long reviled for their cuisine, the British have created a lengthy list of delicious, albeit sometimes quirky, potpies. Pies featuring goose, eel, game, steak and kidney, ham and egg, pork with anchovy paste, and cod, flounder or whiting fill the pages of countless British cookbooks.
Although the traditional potpie consists of both top and bottom crusts, my version frequently goes bottomless. Such is the case with chicken and mushroom “puffpie.” For this I toss cubed chicken together with carrots, onions, mushrooms and stock and spoon them into a baking dish. I then cover the ingredients with store-bought puff pastry and pop the pie into the oven. After 20 minutes I’ve got a succulent, piping hot potpie all ready to eat.
A far more famous bottomless pie is shepherd’s pie. Originating in northern England and Scotland where sheep and shepherds reigned supreme, this entree was born out of the need to use up leftover meat. As a result, it contains scant few ingredients — minced lamb or mutton, perhaps a little diced onion for flavor and mashed potatoes for the topping. When minced beef stands in for the lamb or mutton, you have another quintessential English dish, cottage pie. Most cooks today, though, refer to this beef-and-mashed-potatoes combo as “shepherd’s pie,” too.
Since, for me, potpies are all about saving time, I might replace the mashed potatoes in shepherd’s or cottage pie with simple drop biscuits or store-bought puff pastry. Similarly, I may opt to use two frozen, commercially-made pie crusts rather than homemade dough for any of the standard potpie recipes.
CHICKEN AND MUSHROOM “PUFFPIE”
1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, poached
2 cups chicken stock
¾ cup low fat milk
¼ cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons flour
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
½ cup pearl onions, peeled and halved
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 sheet puff pastry
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
If using frozen puff pastry, unfold and defrost one sheet of pastry.
If you don’t have leftover cooked chicken on hand, you’ll need to poach 1 1/2 pounds of white meat chicken. To do this, place the chicken and 2 cups of stock in a large saucepan or Dutch oven and simmer until cooked. Strain the poaching liquid, add the milk, extra ¼ cup stock and flour. Whisk together and then set aside. Allow the chicken to cool before cutting it into small cubes or pieces.
In a large frying pan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, onions and mushrooms and cook until softened. Pour in the liquid and the cubed chicken and stir the ingredients together. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper, stir and allow the filling to cook for 5 to 10 minutes.
Place the puff pastry on a cutting board. Using a pie pan as your guide, trim the pastry so that it fits over the pan. Once the pastry is trimmed, butter the bottom and sides of pan.
Spoon the heated chicken and mushroom filling into the pan. Lay the pastry over the top of the filling. Bake at 350 degrees for roughly 20 minutes or until the pastry has puffed up and turned a golden brown. Serve immediately.
February 15th, 2011 § § permalink
Whether in Rome, Italy or Rome, New York, there will come a day when you find a to-die-for bread, cake or pastry, one that will linger on your palate and in your memory. If you’re like me, you may pester the baker until he shares his recipe. If that doesn’t work, you may end up rifling through stacks of country/region-specific cookbooks, searching for the secrets to that magical treat. With Warm Bread and Honey Cake (Interlink Books, 2009) food historian Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra spares me from the harassment and the hours of research. Her book showcases the best baked goods from around the globe. Everything from savory Turkish simits and Colombian pan de quesos to sweet Chilean apple cake and Caribbean coconut bread appears within this comprehensive book.
As someone who owns a ridiculous number of cookbooks, I’ve had to stop buying titles indiscriminately. Yet I still picked up a copy of Warm Bread and Honey Cake. What ultimately sold me were the chapters on flatbreads and yeast bread, cakes and rolls. When in Turkey, I fell head over heels for cheese-filled boreks and veggie-topped pides or flatbread pizzas. Unfortunately, I never found one book that did justice to these savory delicacies. Likewise, I’ve not come across a Turkish-American restaurant that prepares these pastries as I remember them. Thanks to Pagrach-Chandra, I can say goodbye to soggy boreks and bland pides for I now have reliable recipes for creating them at home.
Make no mistake — you don’t have to have traversed the globe to enjoy this book. For those inclined to armchair travel Warm Bread and Honey Cake will prove a satisfying read. Likewise, those who prefer laid back baking will find this an effortless introduction to the baked goods of other countries. Along with detailed histories and easy-to-follow recipes, this book possesses countless color photographs, drawings and prints. Similar to many of the previously covered titles, it serves the dual purpose of recipe source and culinary history.
Warm Bread and Honey Cake begins with a section on ingredients and equipment. Wondering where to buy or how to make Indian ghee or North African samn, two similar cooking and baking fats? You’ll find out here. Likewise, you will learn how to replace the thick cream kaymak with creme fraiche and discover why almond paste isn’t a good substitute for marzipan.
In the subsequent five chapters Pagrach-Chandra provides anecdotes and recipes for such familiar favorites as Greek baklava, Mexican tres leches and Austrian sachertorte. She also explores less commonly known offerings such as Indian dal puri, Dutch brown sugar coils and Guyanese fat top. It’s a lovely mix of common as well as exotic dishes.
February 10th, 2011 § § permalink
Forget chocolate and champagne. This Valentine’s Day it’s all about oysters. With their rough, irregular shells and mottled, gray-green coloring, oysters may not seem like the sexiest looking fare. Yet, they have long been considered one of the world’s foremost aphrodisiacs. Ever since the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, rose from the sea in an oyster shell, folks have equated this bivalve with love.
The most coveted of all mollusks, oysters have been culinary darlings for centuries. Their heyday came in the 19th century when quantities were high and costs were low. At that time diners in North America and Great Britain consumed them as if there was no tomorrow. A slew of oyster-based dishes, including Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Bienville, came into being. Whether eaten on the half-shell or in a prepared dish, folks just couldn’t get enough of those delectable shellfish.
Unsurprisingly, overconsumption led to shortages and higher prices. Fortunately, the oyster market has rebounded. Now farmed rather than gathered in the wild, their numbers remain high while their costs stay relatively low.
Think that oysters are too complicated or time consuming for your Valentine’s Day feast? Think again for oysters respond well to a wealth of quick and simple cooking methods. I can grill them in their shells or steam or saute them in a stockpot. I can also stuff them with herbs and bake them or coat them with breadcrumbs and pan or deep-fry them. I can make them into seafood soups and stews as well as casseroles and pies. If pressed for time, I can always resort to the three “S”’s: Scrub, shuck and serve them the on the half-shell with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Elegant and easy, they’ll woo with one bite.
Similarly, oysters partner nicely with a variety of flavors. Butter, cayenne, chives, cream, garlic, lemon juice, parsley, shallots, soy sauce, thyme and white wine all compliment their briny taste.
When selecting oysters, I consider size as well as shell. The smaller the oyster is, the tenderer it will be. In terms of shells, live oysters should have solid, closed shells. If slightly ajar, they should snap shut when tapped. If they rattle when I shake them, I toss those out. In all likelihood they’ll contain dead oysters.
Oysters can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Before slipping them into the fridge, I simply place them in a bowl and cover them with a damp towel. If at all possible, I use them right away. I live by the adage “faster usage, better flavor.”
When I don’t feel like fiddling around with oyster knives and shells, I buy already-shucked oysters. Before taking them home, I check to ensure that the oysters’ liquid appears clear, not murky. I may also pick up canned, frozen and smoked oysters in grocery, gourmet and seafood stores.
Makes 6 shooters
Legend has it that oyster shooters originated in San Francisco during the gold rush era. During that time miners reputedly slipped seasoned oysters into their whiskey glasses and downed the two together. A creative way to kick off your Valentine’s dinner, these one-shot wonders won’t fill you up or leave you tipsy.
Kosher salt, for decorating rims of shooters or shot glasses
6 oysters, cleaned, shucked and liquid reserved
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 teaspoons Tabasco or other hot sauce
6 ounces chilled vodka
juice of ½ lemon
special equipment: 6 shooters or shot glasses
On a small plate or cutting board make a mound of Kosher salt. Wet the rims of the shooters or shot glasses and dip them into the salt. When finished, you’ll have six salt-rimmed glasses. Place an oyster and its liquid in each glass. Sprinkle equal amounts of ground pepper on the oysters. Add 1 teaspoon of Tabasco followed by 1 ounce of chilled vodka and equal amounts of lemon juice to each glass. Serve immediately.
February 8th, 2011 § § permalink
Often I can spin a good yarn about my introduction to a cuisine — that first bite of a warm, soft, sugar-dusted crepe on the frost-covered steps of Paris’s Sacre Coeur or the initial, swoon-inducing sip of sweet mint tea in the chaotic main square of Marrakech. Unfortunately, my early experiences with Mexican food aren’t quite as romantic. That life-changing taste of guacamole came not from a bustling taqueria in the Yucatan but at a nondescript Chi Chi’s in Youngstown, Ohio. While neither exotic nor terribly authentic, it kicked off a lifelong love of Mexican fare. Now, when I crave this cuisine, I reach for Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican (William Morrow, 2007). Originally published in 1987, this classic cookbook provided me with my first, real taste of Mexican cooking.
Before writing Authentic Mexican, chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless and his wife spent years living, traveling, eating and cooking in Mexico. While there, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional, regional foods. It’s knowledge that he shares easily in this 384-page tome. Whether you’re a seasoned or novice cook, you’ll find this a highly approachable book.
Over 20 chapters Bayless covers such standard courses as appetizers, soups, salads, fish/meat/poultry, desserts and drinks. He also explores such uniquely Mexican offerings as salsas, tacos, enchiladas, tamales and moles. With each recipe he provides, as he calls them, “traditional variations” and “contemporary recipes” so that home cooks can substitute ingredients with ease. Such is the case with Seviche de Sierra or lime-marinated mackerel with tomato and green chile. Thanks to his handy sidebars, cooks may consider serving the mackerel seviche on crisp tostadas or replacing the fish altogether with shrimp or scallops.
In addition to detailed recipes Bayless offers fascinating histories and anecdotes about regions, meal courses, ingredients and techniques. He also includes a glossary of ingredients and equipment. That’s one of the things that I adore about this book. I not only learn how to make credible Mexican food but also garner an education about Mexico and how its citizens live, cook and eat. If I didn’t love to cook, I could read Authentic Mexican as a culinary history. It’s that thorough and interesting.
Along with color photographs, illustrations accompany the recipes. With this book I never wonder how to roll a corn husk properly or what the grinding stone metate looks like. All the necessary information is right in front of me.
Whether I’m hankering a simple taco or complex mole, I always find what I want in Authentic Mexican. It’s my go-to book for reliable recipes and traditional Mexican fare.
February 4th, 2011 § § permalink
As a child, I dreamt of becoming an international correspondent, dodging bullets to get the story that would change the world for the better. Instead of global strife I’ve ended up with a safer beat, covering culinary trends. Every now and then, though, my childhood fantasy collides with my adult reality and a place that I’ve visited or topic on which I’ve reported shoots to the top of the day’s headlines. Such is the case with Egypt.
Last fall I spent several weeks in this ancient North African land. During my stay I talked to locals about politics, education, and, of course, food. Strangely enough, I had known the least about the cuisine. Although I had researched it before leaving, I had found little on that topic for Egyptian cuisine often gets lumped under the heading of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cooking. While both in the Middle East and along the Mediterranean, Egypt nonetheless possesses its own distinct flavors and history.
Take, for instance, ful medammes. This traditional dish of fava beans dates back to the pharoahs, who made offerings of these and other legumes to the gods. Today the beans are boiled, mashed and mixed with onions, herbs and spices before being served to diners as breakfast or a snack. Start your day with a protein-packed bowl of ful medammes and hunks of soft pita and you’ll have enough energy to climb a pyramid or two.
Legumes pop up again in koushari. Featuring lentils and/or chickpeas, pasta, short-grain rice, onions and a spicy tomato sauce, koushari has been called the national dish of Egypt. You will find this hearty specialty in homes, restaurants and koushari stalls throughout the country.
Also seen everywhere is shorbat molokhiya, a leafy, green herb soup. Native to Egypt, molokhiya reputedly cured a sickly, 10th century, Tunisian caliph of his illnesses. Rumor of the herb’s amazing curative properties spread across the land. Fearing shortages, Egyptian rulers forbade the lower classes to cook with it. Times have changed and you can enjoy this delicate soup anytime, anywhere. However, if herb soup doesn’t sound appealing, look for wholesome, vegetable-based stews. These stews or tageens frequently contain legumes as well as root vegetables such as garlic, onions and potatoes. Paired with rice or a salad and bread, they’re a meal in themselves.
From what I experienced Egyptians seem to love sweets as much as I do. Creamy custards, honeyed semolina cakes and crisp filo pastries showed up everywhere from patisseries and upscale cafes to simple street stalls. One of the treats that I enjoyed the most was mahallabiyaa. Made from milk, ground rice, rose water, almonds, pistachios and walnuts, this light, cinnamon-dusted custard dates back to the era when corn wasn’t available in Egypt. Hence why this ethereal pudding was – and still is – thickened with ground rice.
The feasting doesn’t end with desserts. Among the common, healthful snacks enjoyed are roasted, sugar-coated chickpeas, toasted pumpkin seeds, fresh dates, figs and pomegranates. Likewise, seasonal smoothies and juice drinks made from bananas, mangoes, melons, cactus pears and carrots can be purchased on almost every main street.
1 pound fava beans, shelled and skins removed
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Pita bread, optional for serving
hard boiled eggs, optional for serving
Place the fava beans in a stock pot filled with 6 to 8 cups of boiling water. Boil the beans, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours, then add the garlic. Continue to cook for another 30 minutes or so, until the beans are tender. During these 2 hours you may need to periodically add water. However, by the end of the cooking time, most of the liquid should have evaporated.
Remove from heat then mash the beans and garlic. Add the lemon juice, cumin, parsley, salt and pepper, and stir to combine.
Spoon the ful medamme into a medium-sized bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Serve alongside warmed pita bread and/or chopped hard boiled eggs.
February 1st, 2011 § § permalink
Long before he became the king of raw foods, NY chef and restaurateur Matthew Kenney wrote a highly approachable cookbook on Mediterranean cuisine. Filled with vibrant photos, stories and recipes, Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking (Chronicle Books, 1997) took readers on a culinary journey through such colorful countries as Morocco, Spain and Lebanon. It’s a trip that I’ve taken many times for Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking is yet another beloved cookbook on my kitchen shelf.
So often Mediterranean cookbooks focus on a few countries; France, Italy and Greece usually are the standard ones. Yet, in Kenney’s book, less familiar but no less extraordinary places such as Tunisia and Turkey also have their day. Sure I can still find Greek moussaka, French ragout and Italian biscotti but I can likewise locate recipes for Lebanese kibbeh, Turkish lamb dumplings and Tunisian couscous salad. In Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking the known and the exotic come together for some fabulous meals.
Kenney’s recipes combine a variety of countries’ signature ingredients, creating highly flavorful, aromatic dishes. For example, Italy’s salsa verde gets seasoned with Middle Eastern cumin and cilantro for Middle Eastern salsa verde. North Atlantic salmon is preserved with Mediterranean spices for cumin-cured salmon. Even India’s basmati rice receives the Mediterranean treatment, resulting in basmati pancakes with saffron, honey and mint.
Along with his creative pairings and exciting locales I appreciate Kenney’s explanations of ingredients and flavor affinities. Never once do I wonder why dried fruit ends up in a meat stew or how yogurt acts as a marinade. Sidebars dedicated to these topics – and more – accompany each recipe. Additionally, suggestions for sides – i.e. serve cumin-cured salmon with tahini yogurt sauce or warmed flat bread – accompany many dishes.
Simplicity has long played a role in my love of this book. Not one of these recipes requires a great amount of time or skill to make. Take, for instance, Moroccan spiced carrots. I toast a handful of pine nuts, cut and saute some carrots, and mix together a few, easy-to-find spices. Toss everything together in a bowl and dig in. Simple and fast!
Beauty also influences my appreciation of Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking. Gorgeous, sun-drenched photos of food, cheery cafes and bustling kitchens pop up throughout the book. Here I receive a feast for the eyes as well as for the stomach.
Whether you crave exoticism or hunger for quick, tasty recipes, take a peek at Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking. Chances are it will become one of your favorite cookbooks, too.