March 31st, 2011 § § permalink
Lunch this week at the Moroccan restaurant Cafe Mogador reminded me of just how much I love this lively North African cuisine. Heady spices merge with fluffy grains, piquant fruits, and tender pulses, poultry and fish to create some of the most distinctive, delectable foods that I’ve ever eaten. Of the wonderful Moroccan offerings, the most unique has to be bisteeya. Considered by many to be Morocco’s most complex and elegant dish, this flaky, poultry-filled pastry remains beyond compare.
Bisteeya has its roots in the Middle East. As early as the 7th century, Arab invaders introduced the concept of encasing spiced meats and nuts in dough. They also encouraged the use of paper-thin leaves of pastry, which Moroccans perfected and now refer to as warka. Warka is one of several ingredients that make bisteeya so memorable.
To make warka, you press a ball of well-kneaded dough onto a hot, flat pan. As soon as the edges begin to dry, peel off the leaf and place it on a clean, flat surface. Cover it with a towel so that it doesn’t dry out. Repeat this process until you have enough warka for a bisteeya. It seems to takes mere seconds to create a delicate warka leaf. Yet, in reality three hours could pass before you have the needed 40 or so leaves.
Not only the fragile casing but also the sweet and savory filling contribute to bisteeya’s uniqueness. Traditionally, the stuffing features poached and shredded squab (young pigeon) or chicken. Placed on sheets of warka, the poultry is covered with a mixture of eggs and a lemon-onion sauce before being blanketed with dough. A layer of sugar-dusted almonds follows before the final sheets of warka are tucked around and under the tartly sweet stuffing. Once it’s finished baking, the top of the pastry is decorated with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar.
Cut into the golden pastry and you’ll encounter a warm, aromatic blend of saffron, tumeric, lemon, garlic and cinnamon. Take a bite and you’ll experience the perfect combination of moist and crisp, savory and sweet. It’s otherworldly.
Since I usually lack the time — and patience — to fuss with homemade warka, my bisteeya isn’t as authentic or ethereal as it could be. However, in a pinch, store-bought phyllo dough serves as a good substitute. Should you decide to make your own dough, consult Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (William Morrow, 1987). She devotes an entire chapter to this topic.
Adapted from Sarah Woodward’sTastes of North Africa (Kyle Cathie LImited, 1998)
Serves 6 to 8
1 pound chicken breasts
4 sprigs each fresh parsley and cilantro, tied together
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon saffron
pinch of sea salt
1 white onion, peeled and grated
8 to 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 ounces whole blanched almonds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
4 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 pound phyllo dough
ground cinnamon, for garnish
confectioner’s sugar, for garnish
Place the chicken in a casserole or heavy pan. Add the herbs, cinnamon, black pepper, saffron, salt, onion and four tablespoons of butter. Pour in enough water to just cover the chicken. Bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover and allow to cook for 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
As the chicken cooks, heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a small frying pan. Add the almonds and toast until golden. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once they’ve cooled, grind the almonds in a food processor or blender. Add the 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 1/2 tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar to the ground almonds and mix to combine.
Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and allow to cool before cutting or shredding into small pieces. Boil down the remaining liquid to half its volume and then set aside to cool.
Beat together the eggs and egg yolks until frothy. Add the lemon juice and beat again. Stir the egg mixture into the reduced liquid. Return the pan to the heat and simmer on low, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Check and adjust the seasonings as needed.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a shallow, non-stick pie pan. Melt the remaining butter over low heat and skim off any scum on top.
Lay a sheet of phyllo across the greased pie pan, allowing the edges to hang over, and brush lightly with the melted butter. Lay another sheet at an angle and brush it with butter, too. Repeat with another 4 sheets of phyllo so that the pie dish is completely covered and a circle has been formed.
Scatter the shredded chicken over the pastry. Top with the egg sauce. Fold 2 layers of phyllo in half and place in the preheated oven for 1 minute to crisp up. Place over the egg sauce and top with the almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture. Fold in the overlapping edges of phyllo, brushing the surface lightly with butter. Lay two sheets of phyllo over the surface and gently tuck them under the pie, cutting off any excess dough. Brush the surface with the melted butter.
Bake for 30 minutes and then carefully invert the pie onto a baking sheet. Bake it upside down for another 20 minutes before returning it to the top side. Bake for 10 more minutes, until the top is crisp and golden. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and serve hot.
March 29th, 2011 § § permalink
London chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi’s second cookbook Plenty (Ebury Press, 2010) was released in the U.S. last week but, thanks to a friend in Europe, I’ve had the pleasure of cooking from his colorful book since last fall. “Pleasure” remains the key word for, thus far, every recipe that I’ve tried has been a delight to make and eat.
Inspired by the “New Vegetarian column” that Ottolenghi writes for London’s Guardian newspaper, Plenty focuses on vegetables and how to cook them in flavorful, creative ways. Many of the preparations are quite simple — roasting Jerusalem artichokes or poaching baby carrots doesn’t take a lot of time or effort. Yet, because of Ottolenghi’s thoughtful use of seasonings and inventive pairing of flavors, I end up with fabulous tasting vegetables.
Plenty brims with close-up, full-page, color photographs of each dish. These beautiful photos not only illustrate but also inspire different takes on the proffered vegetables. One glance at the vibrant “tomato party” or “Tamara’s ratatouille” and I start thinking of additions and pairings for these recipes. Chances are that you will, too.
Unlike the majority of cookbooks, Plenty is not organized according to course. Instead each chapter features a favorite, frequently Mediterranean ingredient of the Israeli-born Ottolenghi. “Funny Onions” showcases leeks, garlic and shallots while “Green Things” hones in on cucumbers, artichokes, asparagus and okra. Not limited to vegetables, the book also offers sections on cereals, pastas and pulses. In fact, “Fruit with Cheese” presents just that — figs, peaches, quinces, pears, dates and watermelon all partnered with different cheeses.
Since many of the recipes call for dairy products, I wouldn’t classify this as a vegetarian cookbook. Nonetheless, Plenty should win over “pragmatic vegetarians,” as the omnivore Ottolenghi refers to his readers, as well as those searching for a new vegetable appetizer, side or entree. Some recipes do work, though, for strict vegetarians and vegans. Multi-vegetable paella, Tamara’s ratatouille and soba noodles with aubergine and mango are three such dishes. Unfortunately, most of my favorites, such as caramelized garlic tart with its goat cheese-egg-creme fraiche-heavy cream filling, will not.
March 25th, 2011 § § permalink
I was all set to chat about the imminent arrival of spring produce but then I stepped outside, saw the ice on the sidewalk, felt the chill in the air and decided that I needed something warmer and heartier today than leeks and asparagus. Looking down at my old, red, wool scarf that I had picked up years ago at the department store la Samaritaine, I started to think about France, which immediately made me think of crepes.
I fell in love with crepes on a cold, late December evening in Paris. Famished as well as jet-lagged, I roamed the 1st arrondissement in search of something warm, filling and quick to eat. On a sex shop-lined street near our rented apartment on Rue Saint Denise Impasse I spotted a stout, middle-aged man standing on a street corner, cooking paper thin pancakes on an oversized, portable hot plate. After flipping them once, he filled his crepes with fresh, sliced bananas, the chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella, strawberry preserves or a combination of the three. He then rolled up the griddle cakes, sprinkled them with granulated sugar, wrapped them in sheets of waxed paper and handed them out to the hungry.
Mesmerized by the honeyed fragrance and simple artfulness of his creations, I slid into line and awaited my turn for a confiture d’fraise, or strawberry jam, crepe. In less than five minutes I had in my hand a warm, otherworldly meal. Tender to the tooth and with a delicate sweet touch, they were like nothing I had ever eaten.
The next morning I returned to the crepe stand for breakfast – basically, the same as my dinner but this time consumed at nine in the morning. I continued this pattern throughout my stay and on subsequent trips to the country. Quick and delicious, this treat became the epitome of French fast food for me.
French for “pancake,” a crepe is just that — a paper-thin pancake. Made with either sweetened or plain batter, crepes serve a multitude of roles. They can be eaten as breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert or a snack. Sweet ones usually get filled with fresh fruit, jam, chocolate or a combination of the three and often appear as dessert or breakfast entrees. Savory crepes are stuffed with cheeses, vegetables, meats and/or eggs and provide a highly satisfying meal.
My infatuation with crepes led me to tinker around with some recipes and come up with my own version. While mine don’t surpass those luscious French originals, these crepes rank a close second. I use a minimal amount of batter swirled out evenly on a heated, lightly buttered crepe pan. After cooking both sides, I slather them Nutella or strawberry jam, fold them into triangles, and dig in.
Unfilled crepes can be made several hours in advance and refrigerated. Simply lay the first crepe on a plate then place a sheet of waxed paper over top of it. Lay the next crepe on top of the paper, cover it with a sheet of waxed paper and repeat. After the last crepe has been placed, cover the plate with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. The crepes can be reheated in the crepe pan – roughly 20 seconds on each side – or served cold.
Makes 10 (8-inch) crepes
1 cup all purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ cups skim milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
butter for greasing crepe pan
granulated sugar, optional garnish
honey, optional garnish
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla and butter. Combine the liquids with the flour and whisk these ingredients together until most of the lumps have been removed. Refrigerate the batter for at least 1 hour. Strain out lumps, if necessary, before using.
Using an 8-inch crepe pan or low-sided frying pan, heat the pan then add a dab of butter. Coat the entire surface of the pan with the melted butter. Holding the pan off the flame, pour about 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter onto the pan. Swirl the batter so that the entire surface is evenly coated with batter. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the bottom is light brown and the top has set. Using either a spatula or your fingers, flip the crepe over and allow the other side to cook for 1 minute.
Place the crepe on plate and spoon jam, Nutella or fresh fruit into the center. Fold the crepe in half then into a triangle. Sprinkle sugar or drizzle honey over the top and serve.
March 18th, 2011 § § permalink
I spent much of this week on the West Coast, soaking up the sunshine and tasting the local specialties. For shellfish fans West Coast dining can be sheer bliss. Home to the petite Olympia oyster as well as the gargantuan geoduck clam, it’s the perfect place to indulge in these fresh and savory delicacies.
Among the bivalves – scallops, mussels, oysters and clams – I’m partial to clams. Sentimentality plays a big role in my preference for they were the first bivalves that I’d ever tasted. Dipped in batter, fried until crisp and golden and paired with a dollop of ketchup, they were the most exotic thing that eight-year-old Kitchen Kat had ever eaten.
In all likelihood my first foray into clams featured hard shell, East Coast, quahog clams. Only two varieties of clams exist – hard-shell and soft-shell. Possessing a grayish shell less than two inches in diameter, the East Coast littleneck is the smallest hard-shell clam. Registering at two and a half-inches, the cherrystone comes next followed by the quahog or chowder clam. The quahog measures between three to six inches around. Hard-shells such as Pacific littlenecks, Manilas, pismos and butter all hail from the West Coast.
Contrary to their name, soft-shell clams possess slender, brittle shells that don’t close completely. All soft-shells possess long siphons or “necks” that stick out of their shells. These necks prohibit closure. Soft-shells consist of such well-known clams as steamers and razors. They also include the monstrously large geoduck, pronounced “gooey duck,” whose neck can jut out several feet. If you watch the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs“, you’ll undoubtedly remember Mike Rowe’s day at a geoduck hatchery.
For both soft- and hard-shells size matters. The smaller the clam, the tenderer the texture. Large clams, such as quahogs, usually end up chopped or minced and added to chowders or fritters. Small clams tend to be steamed. All should be cooked gently so that they don’t become tough and chewy. For me there are few things less appealing than having to gnaw away on rubbery clams.
On nights when I crave clams but don’t have the luxury of dining out, I just buy a few dozen live clams at my local grocery store. If I don’t cook the clams immediately, I place them, uncovered, in an empty bowl in my refrigerator. They’ll keep for up to two days here.
When I don’t feel like fiddling around with clam shells, I pick up canned or shucked clams in my market’s seafood section. These are best used in recipes calling for chopped, minced or ground clams such as in fritters and sauces. Dishes such as West Coast Manila clams steamed in an herb-garlic broth will unquestionably require whole, live clams.
MANILA CLAMS IN HERB-GARLIC BROTH
Serves 4 as an appetizer
This clam appetizer couldn’t be simpler to make. Just scrub the shells, boil the wine, steam the clams, add butter and eat. As with all bivalves, if the clam doesn’t open after steaming, discard it.
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic, grated
1 1/2 cup dry white wine
¾ cup clam juice
¼ cup fresh flat leaf parsley, washed and minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 ½ dozen Manila or other small hard-shelled clams, scrubbed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
ground white pepper, to taste
baguette or crusty white bread, sliced
Heat the oil in a medium-sized stockpot. Add the garlic and sauté until softened but not browned. Add the white wine, parsley and oregano and bring to a boil. Tumble in the clams, cover the pot with a lid and allow the clams to steam until opened, about 5 to 10 minutes. Spoon in the butter and ground white pepper and allow to simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes. Serve with slices of crusty white bread or baguette for dunking into the sauce.
March 11th, 2011 § § permalink
Ask that question 30 years ago and the answer would be far different than it is today. Ravaged by the Vietnam War and the reign of the Khmer Rouge, folks there were focused on basic survival, not on crafting their country’s cuisine. Yet, in spite of years of deprivation and starvation, Cambodians have persevered to create some of the most flavorful and freshest foods around. Last Friday I learned this firsthand by spending the day with a Khmer chef from Siem Reap, Cambodia’s Tara Angkor Hotel.
Since Cambodian cooking focuses on fresh, local ingredients, we took a tuk tuk to the market to pick up the provisions for our meal. Lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, onions, string beans and sweet potatoes all made their way into our basket. Along with garlic the first four ingredients would appear in both the curry chicken and amok trey, or freshwater fish amok, that we’d make. Pounded together into a paste, this aromatic mixture is known as kroeung. A distinctly Cambodian or Khmer flavoring, it’s used in soups, stir fries, curries and the aforementioned fish amok.
Vegetables acquired, we moved on to fish and poultry. In keeping with the emphasis on fresh and local the chickens and fish came to the market alive and were butchered to order. The subsequent dishes created from these truly free-range chickens and fish were far richer, tastier — and authentic — than anything that I’d ever cooked with the factory-farmed, plastic wrapped-products from my local grocery store. Startling to see? A bit. Better to eat? Definitely.
Shopping finished, we headed into the kitchen and started cooking. After pulverizing our kroeung ingredients with a mortar and pestle, we assembled and cooked the curry chicken. As that simmered, we pinned together the banana leaf baskets that would hold the fish amok in a steamer. The “amok” in fish amok refers to the steaming of fish, chicken, tofu, etc. in banana leaves. It’s a traditional Cambodian cooking technique that results in a highly succulent, flavorful dish. If, like me, you’re a disaster at basket making, you can always steam the fish in ramekins. It’s not the customary method but it’s also potentially not as messy. Doubt the messiness? Just note the sagging, about-to-spill-over basket in the photo below.
Once the fish had been steamed, it was dressed with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. From here we could have just eaten the fish amok from its individual baskets. Instead we spooned it into coconut shells and served it in that fanciful manner. Moist, flavorful, fresh and fun, fish amok provided the ideal introduction to Cambodian cuisine.
Adapted from Chef Im at the Tara Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Serves 2 to 4
for the kroeung:
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon lemongrass, chopped
1 tablespoon galangal root, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
1 piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon salt
for the fish:
2 tablespoons kroeung
3/4 pound fillet of cod or other firm, white-fleshed fish, thinly sliced
3/4 cup coconut milk plus extra for garnish
1 morinda/noni leaf, chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 eggs, whisked
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
steamed rice or soba noodles, for serving
Using a blender or mortar and pestle, pulverize the ingredients for the kroeung. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the kroeung into a large bowl. Add the fish, 3/4 cup coconut milk, morinda leaf, fish sauce, sugar, eggs, salt and pepper to the bowl and mix the ingredients together until well combined. Spoon the mixture into small, heat-proof bowls or ramekins, filling each about two-thirds full. Place the bowls or ramekins into the basket of a steamer, put the lid on and allow the fish to steam for roughly 15 minutes. When finished, the fish will be firm and cooked through.
Carefully remove the hot ramekins from the steamer. Garnish the top of each with slices of red pepper and a drizzle of coconut milk. Serve immediately with a side of rice or soba noodles.
Note: You can find galangal root, fresh turmeric and morinda/noni leaves at Asian supermarkets.
March 3rd, 2011 § § permalink
For me Vietnam has never meant cuisine. Born toward the end of the Vietnam – or, as they call it in Vietnam, “the American” – War, I’ve long been fascinated by that war and this Indochinese country. The food? It just didn’t captivate me the same way that the history and culture did. Yet, the more time I spend here, the more I grow to appreciate the background, flavors and techniques of Vietnamese cooking.
Eat in Vietnam and you eat with my nemesis, chopsticks. I have 1,000 years of Chinese occupation to thank for the popularity of these tricky utensils. Along with chopsticks the Chinese also introduced rice cultivation, stir-frying, beef and bean curd to the Vietnamese. Without their influence there would be no pho (rice noodle soup), congee (creamy rice soup), banh cuon (rice rolls) or stir fried meals of any kind. Guess I can forgive them for the chopsticks.
China wasn’t the only country to have an impact on Vietnamese cooking. Nearly a century of French rule resulted in affinities for beer, baguettes, cafe au lait, ice cream, soup stocks and wine. France also brought such crops as corn and tomatoes to the country. Through their efforts I can enjoy a grilled ear of corn, tomato-baguette sandwich, chocolate ice cream or cold beer on virtually any street corner in the country.
Although China, France and neighbors such as Thailand have left an imprint on the cuisine, the food here is still unique. Whether I’m dousing rice with the pungent fish sauce known as nuoc mam or nibbling on the prawn-on-sugar-cane-stick speciality chao tom, I know that I must be eating in Vietnam.
On this trip I’ve had the great fortune of dining in locals’ homes. There’s nothing quite like home cooking. A home cooked meal in another country is all the more special. I love that I’m eating just like the locals do, not like how tourist restaurants and hotels want me to believe that folks eat. Plus, I’m breaking bread with families, sharing in their daily rituals and celebrating their fresh, flavorful cuisine.
What have I been consuming? Relatives of my husband’s step-father have rolled out the red carpet, chilling and cracking open home-grown coconuts to drink and cooking elaborate meals for us to eat. Pork and/or vegetable stir fries, vegetarian spring rolls, chicken congee, banana salad and basil-chicken salad are among the many delicacies. These invariably are accompanied by steamed rice, soy sauce and a simple dressing made from salt, ground black pepper and lemon juice.
What I enjoy most, though, is all of the exotic fruit in Vietnam. Sometimes it’s a banana, mango or longan fruit plucked from a backyard tree. Other times it’s slices of cinnamon and ginger-laced jackfruit or a tartly sweet mangosteen bought at a market. Pineapples, papayas, pomelos and lychees likewise hit the spot on these hot, humid days.