Month: May 2014

Pairings – Companions Plants and Companion Foods

When my uncle gave me chili seeds this winter, the gift also came with a piece of advice: Plant the seedlings with tomatoes and basil. Companion planting is a method of fostering a symbiotic relationship between certain plants. These plant groupings support the arrival of the right insects for pollination, while simultaneously discouraging pests, and avoiding competition for the same nutrients in the soil. When I looked for other plants that could be compatible with the chili seedlings, I found brightly colored Venn diagrams and charts that offered different options for small urban gardens and even container pots. My research paid off; my tiny 8×3 ft. vegetable patch is now packed with Swiss chard, tomatoes, basil, and chili pepper seedlings. The cover provided by basil, a low-growing plant, should increase the humidity required for the chili plant to thrive, and its fragrance will repel the pesky tomato hornworm. The big tomato leaves should protect the chili peppers from the sun while the roots of the chili peppers block the growth of certain fungi.

As I was mapping out my patch, I wondered if the adage “what is grown together goes together” was why our family often enjoys juicy sweet tomatoes and freshly-plucked basil together. Pairing this combination with fresh mozzarella and whisked red wine vinaigrette (1 part red wine vinegar to 3 parts olive oil, plus kosher salt and pepper to taste) creates our favorite go-to summer flavor. Another companion plant/companion food combination that I will enjoy this summer is Swiss chard and tomato. I am excited to try them in combination with dried beans and couscous for a new summer salad.

It is not just plants and food that go together. Food and beverage pairings such as Chinese food and black tea or steak and big red wines are universally enjoyed. Tannins found in both tea and red wine are astringent (which is what creates a dry sensation in your mouth), and work well with the fat in meats to accentuate the taste of protein. It is this same astringent taste in beer that has us eating bowls of salted peanuts!

In ayurveda, an ancient Indian holistic practice, certain food pairings are discouraged as they are said to create an imbalance in the body. Eating foods that create opposition in our bodies (such as iced drinks after food) is tamping down the heat created by digestion, thereby slowing the process. Similarly, fruits and cold milk are never combined as milk acts as a laxative while fruits act as a diuretic, resulting in poor digestion. Yet I love my fruit (specifically, mango) shakes!

Do culture, current fashions, or our environment dictate our choices? When in doubt, simply follow the advice of a chef with a passion for local and seasonal ingredients – Alice Waters writes simply in The Art of Simple Food: Notes, lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: “Let things taste of what they are.”



Riffs on Vegetarian Sandwiches

Making meat-filled sandwiches with leftovers is easy – a Cuban with cooked pork, an Italian sub with meatballs, a croque-monsieur with grilled ham, a Churrasco with cooked veal, a Banh mi with barbecued meat or roast beef sandwich. However, if you are a vegetarian, your choices are a little limited; the filler ingredients, such as grilled vegetables for a sandwich, do not stay fresh as long.

N., who visited last week, is trying to incorporate more vegetables into her diet. To avoid the “what’s for lunch?” dilemma, I looked at two vegetarian street foods for inspiration – pau bhaji, a mixed vegetable sandwich from India, and falafel, the fava bean and chickpea snack from Mediterranean and Middle East cuisines. Both options could be cooked ahead, and more importantly, would stay fresh as a sandwich filling for later.

Pau bhaji

Pau bhaji, loosely translated as “bread and vegetables,” is a mainstay of Mumbai street food. The bread, similar to a brioche, is smeared with butter and grilled over hot coal, and the traditional mix of vegetables for the bhaji is cauliflower, carrots, potatoes and peas. The key element is the pau bhaji spice mix, a blend of tangy flavors of mango and acrid taste of asafetida, which gives the dish its unique flavor. The cooked vegetables are sautéed in spices and mashed in the process, so any combination of vegetables works in this dish. The spice mix is readily available in Indian stores or online. The ready-made spice mix is an easy way to try it out instead of buying the 12-15 different spices that make up the pau bhaji spice blend.

Potato –1 cooked, diced into small cubes

Cauliflower – ½ of a cauliflower, cooked and diced

Peas – ½ cup

Carrots – 3 cooked and diced

Onion –1 chopped finely

Garlic and ginger – ½ tsp. minced

Pau bhaji mix – 1 ½ tsp

Chili powder – 1 tsp.

Tomatoes – 3 diced or ½ cup of diluted tomato paste

Salt – 1 tsp.

Vegetable oil – 1tbsp.

  • Heat the oil in a wok.
  • Add the onions and cook until soft.
  • Add ginger and garlic and sauté for a minute.
  • Add the pau bhaji mix and chili powder. Sauté until well incorporated with the mixture of onion, garlic, and ginger.
  • Add the cooked vegetables and tomatoes. Stir well until the vegetables are mushy.
  • Serve on pan-fried/grilled bread.

Natural Wrappers: Cornhusks, Banana, Grape, and Cabbage Leaves

Having recently eaten the moistest tamale EVER in a diner-style Cuban restaurant, Puerto Segua, I was inspired to make tamales at home. I wondered how hard could it be to make a cornmeal dumpling stuffed with meat, wrapped in cornhusks, and boiled until firm? However, the challenge lay in replicating the experience: inhaling the mild fragrance as you open the cornhusk parcel, slicing the cornmeal that was springy to the touch, and discovering well-seasoned morsels of pork within the moist tamale.

I followed my own instructions on shopping a specialty store (although this time it was a Mexican market), for masa harina or precooked yellow cornmeal and corn. I picked up banana leaves as well. As trade routes introduced new foods across the globe, each cuisine developed them uniquely alongside the abundance in their own countries. As a Malayalee, I am familiar with multiple uses of banana leaves in cooking: roasting fish, steaming sticky rice and molasses dessert, and making other rice-based ceremonial dishes. I often roast salmon (15 minutes for salmon at 375°F) in banana leaves, and thought that if the cornhusks don’t work (or if using frozen corn), then a banana leaf parcel would work just as well.

Grape (Greek and Lebanese dolmades), lotus (Chinese sticky rice with chicken), banana (Latin, African, and Asian cuisines), cabbage (Polish, Irish, Middle Eastern with meat), and avocado leaves are natural food wrappers. Lettuce leaf wraps are used in Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, filled with slivered vegetables, sprigs of herbs, wispy spring onion, a mouthful of steaming white rice, or minced pork.

The use of leaf wrappers or cornhusks is an ingenious way of sealing in moisture and retaining the juices within the parcel. The mild flavor imparted from the husk or leaves lend a subtle fragrance as the sealed packet is opened. Some cooks dab a little oil on the leaves to prevent rice or cornmeal from sticking to the sides, but the moisture generated while cooking acts as glue and usually keeps the starch compacted.

Tamale in cornhusk or Tamale en hoja

Minced pork – 1lb

Onion – 1, minced

Green pepper – ½, chopped finely

Garlic – 2 cloves, minced

Tomato – 1, chopped

Red chili flakes –1/2 tsp.

Olive oil – 1-2 tbsp.

Salt and pepper – to taste

Sweet corn – 3 or ½ lb frozen corn

Ground yellow cornmeal – ½ cup



  • Heat a skillet.
  • Add oil and once it is hot, cook the onion, garlic, pepper for about 2 minutes, or softened.
  • Add the pork and red pepper flakes or a little chorizo (I always like a kick to my food!). Sauté for about five minutes or until all the meat is browned.
  • Lower the heat and cook for 20-25 minutes.
  • While the meat is cooking, remove the husks and silken ears off the corncob. Wash the husks. Dry.
  • Strip the corn off the cob. (To do this, hold the stalk straight up, and using a sharp knife run it down the sides scraping the corn off the cob.)
  • Puree the corn in a food processor and cook for about two minutes.
  • Add small amounts of the cornmeal and mix in thoroughly, until you get a doughy mix. Remove from heat immediately.
  • Boil a large pan with water.
  • Lay three of the husks, overlapping each other, on a flat surface.
  • Add a small amount of dough and spread it in a rectangular shape. Make a small indentation in it to hold the cooked meat.
  • Place some more of the dough on top.
  • Fold over the husks to cover the dough and form a parcel.
  • Wrap tightly with twine – in the middle and top and bottom.
  • Add the parcel to the hot water, and let it boil for 20 minutes.
  • Serve immediately.
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