Notstalgia

I’m not one for watching teevee, but lately, for a number of reasons, I’ve had too much time on my hands. As I was flipping through channels I didn’t even know I had, I came upon a what I assumed was a rerun of The French Chef, Julia Child’s archetypal 1960s cooking show. Turns out it was a re-rerun in the form of a new PBS cooking show, Dishing with Julia Child, a paean to the grande dame of TV chefs – and despite my reservations, it was every bit as entertaining and educational as its progenitor. It featured celebrity chefs José Andres and Eric Ripert doing play by play and color as they “watched” her program on a mockup of a retro TV screen. Not only is the concept too cute by half but it also solved the technical problem of the difference between 60s broadcast television’s 4:3 aspect ratio and today’s 16:9 frame.

In this episode, she was preparing the iconic French dish, sole meunière. Now, I seldom do any French cooking – it requires more patience than I can muster and more proper training than I possess – and when I do, I never post about it, even if I’ve snapped a pic of the aftermath. But I do make basa meunière from time to time since basa is inexpensive and the dish requires very little patience and even less proper training – dredge in seasoned flour, pan fry in brown butter, plate with capers, lemon and parsley, take photo, consume. It reminded me that I had a couple of photos hanging around from my Cooking in the Time of COVID series that I had never posted (I don’t really do French cooking, right?) so here are the consequences.

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I had been playing around with truffle fries as an accompaniment. A toss of steamed veggies on the side, because how much Fried can you eat? (Don’t answer that!)


Served with some incredible simply roasted honeynut squash. (I sang its praises in part of my Winter Squash Deep Dive series here.)
 
 
Finally, a use for the “French” tag in a post – marginally at least!
 
 

Chinese-Italian Inspiration

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Other than as a source for ideas, I’m not one to slavishly follow others’ recipes; my preference is to innovate rather than replicate. (Not to mention that in doing so, no one can complain that I didn’t “get it right”. 😉) I was once asked where I find inspiration for my own concoctions, so apropos of that question, here’s a recent story:

I had been chatting with a charming woman who maintains a patch in a local victory garden. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she was half Chinese and half Italian. (Imagine being a kid growing up with two sets of holiday traditions – so jealous!) She offered me some Chinese long beans that she had grown which I eagerly accepted. I was pondering how to prepare them: I could adhere to some classic time-honored long bean technique but I felt inspired to do something more with them, perhaps to create a dish that might reflect the dual heritage of the person who had cultivated them.

So this was my process. Looking at the shape of the Chinese beans, long, thin, and cylindrical, it was a cinch to come up with an element from Italian cuisine that would match: a member of the spaghetti family was the obvious choice. For this application I chose bucatini (aka perciatelli) since when fully cooked it would be nearly as thick as a long bean.

Now for some vegetables: I decided that Chinese dried mushrooms (aka shiitake) and fresh Italian cremini would harmonize nicely so they became a significant component along with chopped onion and red bell pepper in the base because those are cross cultural, and garlic, of course. Lots of garlic. For a bit of protein, ground pork went into the mix since pork is common to both regions.

And a sauce to bring it all together: Was there one that made use of some ingredients associated with both cuisines? Sichuan Yu Xiang sauce would be perfect. (Yu Xiang means “fish-flavored” but don’t be misled by the phrase – it neither contains nor tastes like fish; rather this delicious blend refers to a combination of ingredients, a little sweet and sour, a little spicy and salty, often used in preparing fish.) It comprises an assortment of classic Chinese condiments including doubanjiang (chili bean paste), Zhenjiang black vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine and soy sauce plus, the way I make it, some tomato based sauce, so that’s a loose nod to Italy.

IMHO, the dish totally worked.

That’s the cool thing about inspiration – you never know where it’s going to happen, but it always happens when you least expect it.
 
 
Only one question remains: Do you eat this with chopsticks or a fork?
 
 

Tahdig

I was listening to The Splendid Table, the podcast hosted by Francis Lam, and one of his guests was Naz Deravian, author of the Persian cookbook Bottom of the Pot. I don’t own the cookbook (yet) but if the recipes are a fraction as compelling as her poetic storytelling, I’m already a fan.

They were discussing tahdig, the Persian saffron rice dish that’s all about that crispy layer that forms at the bottom of the pot – that is, it forms if you are either a seasoned culinary genius or extremely lucky in the kitchen. (In Persian, tah means bottom, and dig means pot.) This delicacy is rightfully beloved among many cuisines worldwide – you may be familiar with socarrat in the preparation of Spanish paella or Chinese guōbā. Wikipedia has a page titled Scorched Rice that includes it, but if that’s not an off-putting name, I don’t know what is.

During Ramadan last April, I made fesenjan with duck and decided to see how well the (meager) leftovers would freeze. (For the record, it was as successful as any reheated leftover stew-like dish, which is to say not bad at all.) So, charmed and encouraged by Ms Deravian’s narrative recounting her experience with her mother’s tahdig, I set out to try my hand at making it as an accompaniment for the revivified khoresh. I perused a number of recipes on the interwebs and came up with my own simplified (of course) procedure. Here’s how it came out:

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I think I may have initiated a new personal tradition for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year that heralds the spring equinox – that is, assuming I get extremely lucky in the kitchen again!
 
 

Vegetarian Alert, Part 2

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I wrote a post not long ago about some remarkable vegetarian “meat” and another about some incredible spicy peanuts that I found during a Chinese supermarket expedition and how I could easily see how they might figure into a stir fry.

I am thrilled to report that this experiment turned out so well – supremely simple and decidedly delicious – that I uncharacteristically wrote down what went into it. So here’s a somewhat compressed version of what I did:

Prep/mise en place: I boiled, drained well, and set aside some basic fresh Chinese noodles from my local supermarket (amazingly enough). Diced some onion and fresh red bell pepper. Cleaned and sliced fresh cremini mushrooms. Set aside a handful of those amazing peanuts along with their one-two punch of málà peppercorns and dried red chili peppers. Using two forks, I shredded the “meat” as if it were meat:

For the sauce: I usually keep a shortcut combination of ingredients ready to go in the fridge (yes, that’s cheating) for when I’m in a hurry, but if you have a favorite, go for it. This is what went into mine: soy sauce, Zhenjiang vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine, microplaned fresh garlic, microplaned fresh gingerroot, sugar (trust me), MSG (yes, really), a little Yibin Yacai (minced preserved mustard greens, optional), and a hit of sesame oil.

Abbreviated procedure: Get your wok as hot as you possibly can (pro tip: I avoid using a wok ring – gets the wok closer to the flame). Add some peanut oil and heat to the smoking point. Stir-fry the onions and peppers to cook through, add the mushrooms and stir-fry to cook through, add the “meat” and continue to stir-fry, add the noodles and stir-fry, add the sauce (you don’t need much) and stir-fry, add the peanuts and mix in. (Proper technique would have you do this in batches, but I was all about improper in my rush to the finish line.)

I happened to have Thai basil on hand so that’s what I used for garnish along with some scallions, but it’s certainly not authentic. Of course, there’s nothing about this dish that’s authentic, but it was so tasty that I wanted to share it with you, at least virtually.

(BTW, you don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it! 😉)
 
 

A Fish Story

If you’re wandering around Greenpoint in Brooklyn searching for Polish and Eastern European goodies, you’ve probably covered the relevant sections of Manhattan and Nassau Avenues – but you may not know about AS Warehouse at 276 McGuinness Blvd because it’s somewhat isolated, about a block off the beaten path. “Warehouse” describes the physical plant pretty accurately: the place is huge and is anything but welcoming. I’m not suggesting that it’s a must-visit or the best in the neighborhood, but they do stock a variety of items that might not be found in other markets nearby.

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Since I like herring and on-site decisions are anathema to me, I bought one of each kind from Seko, a Polish brand, to be sampled across a few days.


The first one I opened was Koreczki Śledziowe po Meksykańsku (lower right in the first photo), Herring Corks Mexican Style, because it was the most intriguing. Ossssstry smak means ssssspicy taste (although the chili pepper on the label would have afforded sufficient giveaway) and it featured marinated onions, also depicted on the label.


I unrolled two of the “corks” to give you an idea of the product. In all cases, the filets were very yielding and a little fishy – which is to say that they’re not the sweet Vita herring filets in wine sauce that you might know from the refrigerator aisle in the supermarket. (Note that sugar is the fourth ingredient on the label but you couldn’t prove it by me.) The oil was slightly spicy; the onions weren’t especially sharp but they did provide a welcome foil to the modest heat, not to mention the overall texture. Okay, but not my fave.


Next up was Śledzik na Okrągło po Myśliwsku (moving counterclockwise, upper right) translated as Round ‘n’ Round Herring with Onion and Mushroom Stuffing (okrągło means round, myśliwsku means hunter style, which I gather implies mushrooms and tomato).


After one taste, I quickly realized that all of these herrings would essentially be the same but with a dollop of different stuff in each container and I’d better get creative with them if I didn’t want to bore you or myself. So I gave a nod to presentation in this round. The onion and mushroom “stuffing” is the clump in the middle.


All right, so presentation alone wasn’t going to cut it. I had to do something to the fish itself. I opened the Śledzik na Okrągło w Oleju Wiejskim (upper left) translated as Round ‘n’ Round Herring with Countryside Oil – another shot of onion in this one along with some red bell pepper.

I chopped the herring, incorporated the adjunct vegetables plus dill weed, dill seed, celery and scallion, and spread it over a bed of lettuce on rye toast. So Act Three had no serious presentation, but I succeeded in doing something tasty with the herring filets rather than letting them speak for themselves (a good strategy in retrospect since they didn’t have much to say).


Finally, Herring Corks in oil, Koreczki Śledziowe w Oleju (lower left). I decided to pull out all the stops (corks?) with this one and go for flavor as well as presentation.


Unsurprisingly, the unadorned herring was like its mates, so I blended mustard, horseradish, and onion plus capers and scallion for the flavor component, and plated it with Swedish crisp bread and Danish butter, along with thinly sliced cucumber.

Finally got a satisfying lunch out of the expedition.

That bit of garnish in the middle was the kicker though: baby coriander seed fresh out of the garden that played perfectly with the Eastern European themed fish. I had never even seen it IRL, let alone worked with it, but it looked pretty and tasted just right in this context.

But don’t ask me how I came by it. That’s a story for another day.
 
 

Green Jackfruit Confit with Fish Mint

Part eight in a series of reports.

Some folks look forward to the annual celebration of their birthdays or anniversaries; for me it’s the occasion to cover America’s largest food and beverage trade show right here in New York City, Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show. (Check out full coverage and a description of a past event here.) Aside from the fact that it affords the chance to hob and nob with other professional foodies, see what products and brands are trending and poised to make a breakthrough, and get a sense of what the industry thinks the marketplace is craving, it gives me the opportunity to turn you on to new products to watch for locally or order online.

The 2020 FFS was, like almost everything else, canceled because of the pandemic, but the organization has announced a 2021 iteration of the event coming soon. At a previous show, I was introduced to Nature’s Charm canned Young Green Jackfruit Confit; in its yellow ripened form it’s one of my favorite fresh fruits, but the unripe green version also figures into a number of cuisines (particularly Southeast Asian) as a savory ingredient and is especially popular as a meat substitute among vegetarians and vegans.

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I used this confit variation in a stir-fry with fresh Chinese noodles, peas, and cashews. The dish started out with caramelized onions, shallots, pressed garlic and ginger plus a paste containing dried chilies, tomato paste, and a bit of coconut milk to loosen things up. The outlier ingredient was fish mint used two ways here: julienned and sautéed with the aromatics, and fried as a garnish.


Fish mint (botanically, Houttuynia cordata) does have something of a vaguely fishy character, but that doesn’t really describe it precisely. Its common name is almost calculated to drive you away (like “mugwort”), even though it does have a toe dipped in accuracy. It’s also known as rainbow plant and chameleon plant. Better.


The jackfruit confit straight out of the can is falling-apart tender (it’s a confit, after all), not sweet in the least, and it picked up the flavor of the aromatics beautifully. I also used the seasoned oil in which it was packed as an ingredient for the sauce.


Ready to try some experiments of your own? Find Nature’s Charm Young Green Jackfruit on Amazon.com.
 
 

Shrimp Patia – Masala Mama

Part seven in a series of reports.

Some folks look forward to the annual celebration of their birthdays or anniversaries; for me it’s the occasion to cover America’s largest food and beverage trade show right here in New York City, Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show. (Check out full coverage and a description of a past event here.) Aside from the fact that it affords the chance to hob and nob with other professional foodies, see what products and brands are trending and poised to make a breakthrough, and get a sense of what the industry thinks the marketplace is craving, it gives me the opportunity to turn you on to new products to watch for locally or order online.

The 2020 FFS was, like almost everything else, canceled because of the pandemic, but the organization has announced a 2021 iteration of the event coming soon. At the last show I attended, I was pleased to see the folks from Masala Mama and their Organic Spice Kit for Shrimp Patia, one of those Indian dishes that’s so delicious but so labor intensive.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Unlike many of the curries you find on local Indian restaurants’ menus, shrimp patia is a spicy, sweet and sour dish that has roots in ancient Persia. It’s based on tomatoes (whole, paste, or puree) for umami, gets is sour component from tamarind, lemon, or lime, its heat from red chilies, its sweetness from a touch of jaggery (brown sugar), and a variety of herbs and spices which are found in this handy packet.

It’s a sauce that accompanies shellfish, chicken, lamb, or even paneer equally well. And it’s also a pain to prepare. But Masala Mama makes hunting down and measuring out the spice component easy and the dish tasted like it came from a restaurant. (The rice and parathas are my own.)

They’ve also got a line of jarred sauces – even easier! Check out their website, masalamamafoods.com, to shop online and see what they’re up to now.
 
 

My LGBTQ Sandwich!

I can’t let Pride Month slip away without sharing this treat that I created some years ago, my culinary contribution to the cause.

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You all know the classic BLT, of course: Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato; those ingredients are all present and accounted for in the LGBTQ. It’s customarily dressed with mayonnaise but I upped the ante by using Guacamole instead of mayo and added a hint of sweetness with Quince paste (aka membrillo) to balance the touch of tart lime juice, aromatic onion and garlic, and spicy jalapeño pepper – how I do guacamole.

Usually, I serve this on marble rye bread so I can include swirling carbs of color, but I couldn’t score any recently, so this version has a slice of rye bread on the bottom and a slice of pumpernickel on top.

And for those who prefer the acronym LGBTQI, well that is Iceberg Lettuce in there! 😉


And here’s something sweet to celebrate Pride Month: a rainbow bagel with mixed berry cream cheese and local (and by “local” I mean from a garden three blocks from my apartment) blackberries, pink champagne currants, and strawberries.
 
 

 
 

Schav

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In my last post, when I enumerated the odds and ends of greens that were dwelling in my fridge, I didn’t mention the two bunches of young sorrel that had been keeping them company. That’s because I had set them aside to try my hand at making schav, an Eastern European soup sometimes referred to as green borscht.

The character of sorrel is sour – in a good way like lemons are sour, but in this case not citrusy or floral – due to the presence of oxalic acid; its tartness is mitigated by cooking. Since I had never made schav before, I set out to do an utterly basic version, reserving any culinary experimentation for future investigation. Some recipes include potatoes or eggs (beaten and added to the soup as it cooks to thicken it or hardboiled as an addition for serving), but I went with just a bit of diced carrot and onion sautéed at the outset.

Instead of relying on raw eggs and the tempering technique required to thwart their propensity for scrambling when added to hot soup, I opted for a flour and butter roux cooked with the aromatics, added a few cups of very light chicken broth (very light because I didn’t want it to dominate the flavor), brought it to a boil and then down to a simmer, added the sorrel and stirred in a little sour cream which also softens its acidity. (Those of you who have been following me lately know that that was not sour cream. 😉)

I plopped a dollop of “sour cream” in the middle and scattered some herby garnish and cracked black pepper on top and that’s where I stopped.


The inner workings. Pretty good considering it was a maiden voyage.

Schav can be served warm or cold but I had been tasting continually as I was going along, so sadly, it was gone before I had a chance to sample it chilled.

Parting is such sweet sorrel.