Month: April 2014

How to Shop a (Greek) Specialty Market

As I set off to the Greek store yesterday, I could hear A. and N. wondering how to shop a specialty market without feeling intimidated. As you walk into any specialty store, your nose is immediately assailed with unfamiliar aromas of spices, oils, vegetables, and cheeses. You are bombarded with aisles and aisles of unusual items: baked biscuits, dried fruits, glass bottles and jars of oils and pickles, salted dried cod stacked in cardboard cartons, and sacks of cashew nuts and almonds. Usually, the patrons are rushing around knowledgeably restocking their own pantry, and the staff, who usually know their regular customers, are getting them their special orders or catching up on gossip. What ends up happening is that you quickly buy something vaguely familiar, such as stuffed green olives (which you get at any grocery store), or buy prepared food, like spanakopita, without exploring these repositories of authentic flavors.

Here are some strategies that I use to maximize the benefits of specialty store shopping:

First, pick two or three ethnic recipes that you might want to make.

  • In my case, I wanted to make the roasted red pepper and feta dip, tahini, and the classic Greek salad. This narrows your focus to items that you require.

Next, make a list of all the specific ingredients that you will need.

  • If you don’t, you will almost certainly be confused between the subtleties between sheep’s milk from Greek, Croatia, and Israel, or by the difference between feta made from goat milk vs. sheep’s milk. (As an aside: after sampling both, I picked the tangier feta made with goat milk.)

However, once you finish your planned shopping, keep an open mind, and above all, be an opportunistic shopper.

  • Many of the specialty markets, keep a wide range of items. For example, the Greek store sold ingredients for Mediterranean, North African, Arabian, Turkish, and Indian cuisines. From the three grades of bulgur wheat available (light, medium and coarse), I chose medium grade bulgur that I needed to make tabbouleh, and as a bonus, I picked up anchovies that I use in my Italian-style eggplant dish.

Lastly, remember to check out all the bins for bulk produce.

  • I picked up long, tightly rolled cinnamon sticks that were much cheaper than usual because they were sold in bulk. Additionally, the store had many different varieties of couscous, dates, rice, wheat, and lentils. By filling a brown bag with a small quantity of an item, you can sample while avoiding a huge investment in something you may not cook with again.

 

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Unleavened Breads – Matzo, Flour Tortilla, Chapatti – Easier Than Expected!

N. didn’t run the Boston Marathon this year as she did in 2013, and so I didn’t get to visit Boston and support the runners. I missed hearing Bostonians, who came out stronger than ever, cheering on runners and their city; and I missed eating the famous creamy “chowda,” made with juicy, plump clams and topped with herb-scented oyster crackers.

I often wondered how the crackers, which do not contain oysters, came to be associated with chowder. As it turns out, the popular clam chowder had its beginnings as humble fish chowder. Fish chowder, like fish soup, included the catch of the day along with vegetables and leftovers that were also thrown into the cooking pot. Oyster crackers, or ship’s biscuit as they were also called, were used to thicken the chowder. Oyster crackers were made with flour and water and used no leavening agent (yeast or other agents that causes flour to rise), which meant that the crackers would remain fresh on long voyages. Old recipes don’t change completely, but instead, they adapt to what could be sourced locally. In New England, clams were available cheaply as were the cream and potatoes, which became the new thickening agents. The oyster crackers now serve as decorative crunchy elements.

Oyster crackers are comparative newcomers to the field of unleavened foods. Unleavened bread was the theme of last week’s Passover and Eucharist meals. When my friend shared her homemade matzo recipe (commenting how easy it was to make), I looked into the three unleavened breads that could be made at home with the most basic of ingredients: flour, water, salt, and oil. Matzo or matza, flour tortilla and chapatti (or roti) are all unleavened bread or flatbreads. (Note all flatbreads are not unleavened breads.)

You do not require special equipment, just a spoon to toss the compacted packaged flour to let some air into it and elbow grease (really your knuckles or base of your palm) to knead the dough. The dough is flattened to a disc with a rolling pin, and cooked in an oven (matza) or on a preheated skillet or griddle for the other two breads. It is as simple as that, and as a bonus, does not take up much time either.

Matzo Bread

Matzo is traditionally made with one of five grains, and follows strict guidelines if you make it for religious purposes. This version, using all-purpose flour, is an easy way to make a cracker-like snack. Matzo can be added to a soup or eaten with a dip.

All-purpose flour – 1 cup, plus 1tbsp.

Water – ¼ cup

Kosher salt – ¼ tsp.

Olive oil – 1 tsp.

  • Preheat the oven to 450°F.
  • Sieve the flour.
  • Mix the first three ingredients together, until they are well incorporated and form a ball.
  • Work in the oil. Knead lightly.
  • Spread the extra flour on a clean counter top.
  • Take a small amount of the dough and roll it out on the flour-dusted surface into a disk. Flatten the dough with a rolling pin to about the size of a water cracker.
  • Place it on a baking pan lined with foil. Poke the dough with a fork in several places. This allows the steam to escape and cook uniformly.
  • Cook for about 4 minutes on each side for a slightly soft center (more if you want it crispy).

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Flour Tortilla

I never thought I would go through the trouble of making flour tortillas, especially as they are readily available in convenient packages. Usually made with specially treated maize flour or corn, this is an all-purpose or wheat flour version. You will re-think  buying store-bought ones after trying this! I made these tortillas with both lard (new to me, given all the health warnings) and butter. Given that you will likely eat only a few at each meal, each tortilla was worth its calories: the taste was soft and flaky, and better still, there are no additives. To my surprise, the version with lard tasted better.

All-purpose flour – 2 cups, plus 1tbsp.

Water – ¼ cup of warm water

Kosher salt – ¾ tsp.

Vegetable oil – 1 tsp.

Lard (or butter) – 4 oz. at room temperature

  • Sieve the flour.
  • Mix the flour, salt, and lard (butter) together, until they are well incorporated.
  • Add water to the mixture. Knead the dough, until your can roll into one big, smooth ball. Cover with saran wrap and keep aside for at least an hour.
  • Preheat the griddle.
  • Spread the extra flour on a clean counter top.
  • Take a small amount of the dough and roll it out on the flour-dusted surface into a disk. Flatten the dough with a rolling pin to a 6-inch diameter.
  • Place it on a preheated griddle. Allow it to puff up, before flipping it over to the other side. It should have warm brown specks on the surface.

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Chapatti

This simple bread is made daily in India and neighboring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and the Caribbean. Chapatti is eaten with meat, lentils and vegetables. It can be cooked on a griddle or cooked directly over the flame of a gas stove. If you prefer less dense bread, add a ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to the whole-wheat flour.

Whole-wheat flour – 1 cup, plus 1-2 tbsp.

Water – ¼ cup of warm water

Salt – ½ tsp.

Vegetable oil (ghee) – 1 tsp.

  • Sieve the flour.
  • Mix the flour, salt, and water together, until they are well incorporated.
  • Add the oil to the mixture. Knead the dough, until your can roll into one big, smooth ball.
  • Cover with a damp kitchen cloth and keep aside for a half-hour.
  • Preheat the griddle.
  • Spread the extra flour on a clean counter top.
  • Take a small amount of the dough and roll it out on the flour-dusted surface into a disk. Flatten the dough with a rolling pin to a 6-inch diameter.
  • Place it on a preheated griddle. Allow it to puff up with little bubbles, before flipping it over to the other side. It should have dark brown specks on its surface.
  • Continue with the rest of the dough.

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Fusion Flavors

A and N. grumbled when I spiced up meatballs for dinner, stating that the dish wasn’t really Italian anymore! I admit to adding couple of dried red chilies to the tomato sauce and a hefty pinch of red chili powder in the meatballs, but I tweak every recipe to suit my palate. Even the classic dishes, I think, can benefit from a change occasionally. There is a lot of leeway when you are experimenting with food – ultimately, you, the taster, determine whether the new flavor is worth repeating or abandoning.

Fusion cooking entails combining two different styles of cuisine. Both cuisines are represented on the plate, and neither style should dominate; rather, they should complement and round out each other. At one of my favorite restaurants, Tamari, owner Allen Chen combines Asian and Latin flavors. “The gateway to exploring a culture is through food,” comments Chen, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Mexico, subsequently married his Mexican wife, and now creates food encompassing both cultures. One of the dishes, Pork Cheek Quesadilla, is served with aged cheddar, sweet shishito pepper and a creamed winter squash called kabocha that replaces sour cream. The main dish looks and tastes Mexican, but has an Asian overtone. In another dish, Asian Sea Bass, the broiled fish is placed on top of a bed of finely chopped Brussels sprouts, watercress, and pomegranate, and spiced with mojo and chili oil. An overtly Asian dish now has hints of Latin flavors through the sauce, mojo. A mojo sauce is made with olive oil, heaps of garlic, vinegar, and juice of a citrus fruit (lemon, lime, orange juice), and variations of this sauce is used in Spain, Cuba, Caribbean, and the Dominican Republic.

I grew up on Indian-Chinese food, a hybrid cuisine that was developed out of the Hakka Han community. This group settled in Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta), India around the 18th century. Indian-Chinese cuisine is one of the most commonly chosen fast foods in India, and a growing fan base exists in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States due to the cuisine’s spiciness quotient. Indo-Chinese food is prepared by slightly altering the steps of a traditional Indian meal. First, ginger, garlic, and chilies are sautéed; next, instead of adding spices, soya sauce and cornstarch are introduced; and for the final stage, vegetables, chicken, or noodles are added. The nomenclature is simple: The protein or vegetable’s name is tagged on to Chinese descriptions, such as “Manchurian,” “Chop Suey,” “Fried Rice,” and “Chow Mein” – resulting in dishes like Chicken Manchurian, Vegetable Chop Suey, and Prawn Fried Rice.

Blending two cuisines at home is easy. There is no right or wrong way of doing this, but your taste buds may try to protest at the thought. Begin by choosing a familiar dish and substituting one or two ingredients from another cuisine. Maintain similar textures, such as grits, polenta, and cream of wheat (semolina) or brown rice and quinoa. Stick with elements you favor from the original dish and introduce only one or two flavors from a different cuisine. However, it comes down to experimenting and practice, practice, and more practice to make the perfect fusion food!

My attempts at Mediterranean-Korean fusion even impressed A. and N., who are here this week. I made Mediterranean-style Shrimp with Garlic, with bay leaf, lemon, and dried red chilies, served over couscous. I paired this with an Asian-inspired salad of baby spinach and Korean-flavored vinaigrette. To make the vinaigrette, I combined 1/3 cup of rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon of plum sauce, 1 tsp. of sambal paste, ½ tablespoon of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

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Spring Stew

On a blustery spring morning, army reserves trained on frost-laden grounds – evidence of a lingering winter. Nearby, college students lugged boxes of color for the spring festival, Holi, while two Orthodox Jewish boys raced up the hill for Saturday service clutching their black hats tightly, and javelin throwers, bundled in sweatshirts, trained before their competition. In the same neighborhood, carts serving Korean noodles, vegetarian lunch, Thai basil chicken, lamb kebabs, and kielbasa hot dogs had begun preparations for the lunchtime crowd.

For a moment, this corner of the world was in harmony, even as people and their differences brushed by one another as they went about their business. Was this a melting pot, a salad bowl, a symphony, or a mosaic of cultures? Maybe because I was cold, I thought that this moment was represented well by a stew analogy. A good stew starts with hearty ingredients that form the base: meat, fish, or plenty of vegetables; next, add wine, water, or stock, and let the dish simmer slowly; finally, season with herbs and spices for the perfect balance. The stew encompasses all the distinct flavors from the disparate ingredients to become a satisfying one-pot dish!

It must have been happenstance, as I returned home to a message from my Mauritian friend in Britain with a recipe for octopus stew. The recipe was perfectly light for a spring meal, but the stew was a warming dish to combat the chills.

There wasn’t any octopus available when I went to buy them, so I looked for similar flavors and textures (squid, cuttlefish, and octopus are in the same family with arms and bodies called mantles) amidst the seafood on display. I added mussels (my favorite seafood and besides, they have a bite to them) to complement the flavor and texture of squid. My modified version of the stew used 24 small mussels and 1lb squid.

Mauritian Octopus Stew

Serves 4

Octopus – 1 large, chopped into ½-inch pieces

Vegetable oil – 1 tablespoon

Shallot – 1, chopped

Garlic cloves – 2, sliced

Ginger – 2–inch piece, sliced

Red chilies – 3

Sprigs of thyme or curry leaves

Tomatoes – 8 large or 1 can

Coriander/cilantro – 1 bunch, chopped

Spring onions/Green onions – 3, chopped

Salt and pepper

  • Heat the oil in a pot.
  • Add the shallots and stir for a minute until it browns
  • Add the ginger, garlic, and chilies. Stir for a few seconds.
  • Add the herbs and tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes are soft.
  • Add the octopus. Cover and cook until soft (about an hour). (I added the squid to the pot, along with ½ cup of the liquid from the steamer. I steamed the mussels separately. Squid cooks in about four minutes before it becomes rubbery and chewy.)
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Sprinkle the spring onions on top.

My friend suggested pairing the octopus stew with sautéed spinach.

To make this, fry 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a 1-inch piece of chopped ginger, and three red chilies in about 1 tsp. of oil. Add a bag of spinach. Spinach cooks very quickly, releasing a lot of moisture; cook it uncovered at high heat for about two minutes or until the leaves wilt. Season with salt and pepper.

I was in the process of emptying out my fridge, so I used a bag of spinach, two boxes of mushrooms, garlic, ginger, and dried red chilies. It made for a substantial vegetarian side dish.

 

Learning a trick or two

I was taught to re-purpose things, and I hopefully have passed that message on to A. and N. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn a trick or two in NYC, serving as reminders that just about anything can be salvaged and made fresh again. Although I saw two impressive installations of reprocessed everyday items (Ingo Maurer’s elegant chandelier made from broken white plates and ceramic kettles and Xu Bing’s rising phoenix assembled from remnants of  industrialized waste), it was the creative takes on food that inspired me to experiment in the kitchen when I returned home.

I normally discard broccoli stems as I dislike their woody, fibrous taste. Yet, I happily ate a plateful of Chinese broccoli stems at Red Farm. When I decided to give broccoli stems another chance at home, I began by peeling the tough outermost layer to reveal a soft, slightly sweet inner core. I cut the stem on the diagonal, and after eating some raw, I steamed the rest for a couple of minutes (my advice on using a colander as a steamer can be found here). The cooked stems can be dressed up with your favorite vinaigrette or light soy sauce to make a quick veggie side. The dish was both visually attractive as well as light on the palate.

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I love eggs, especially when they retain both shape and texture of the white and yolk! I was delighted to see that a house specialty at Red Rooster Harlem was devilled (also known as deviled or stuffed) eggs, a dish that seems to ride in and out of fashion. Deviled eggs are shelled, hard-boiled eggs that are sliced in half; the yolk is removed and combined with mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper, mixed to a creamy-smooth consistency and reassembled back. The eggs are often dusted with paprika or decorated with a piece of anchovy or finely chopped red pepper. At Red Rooster, the yolk is mixed with a spicy chicken skin mayonnaise and served with crispy leaves on the side. Devilled eggs could also be spiced up with fried green chilies, ginger, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro leaves, or served with crunchy, baked kale leaves to balance the velvety smoothness of the creamy yolk and the bite of kale for a more filling brunch.

In keeping with color-themed restaurants, Blue Hill served the most amazing beet burger as an amuse-bouche. The “burger” consisted of whipped beet puree placed between two minuscule halves of almond bread. When I experimented with beets at home, I began by roasting beets (recipe here). Grate the roasted or boiled beet in a food processor or with a grater. Season the grated beets with salt and pepper. Shape a small amount of grated beet such that it sits compactly in a toasted brioche or slider roll, or on open-face toasted rounds. Top the beets with goat cheese and a red onion ring for a crunch.

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