Month: July 2015

Summertime And Livin’ Should Be Easy: Mixed Seafood Grill

On a hot and lazy summer afternoon, I channeled the Gershwin brothers’ lyrics and decided on an easy and simple menu – grilled seafood. Inspired mainly by a large not-often seen cleaned octopus at the supermarket, I added a few squid, shrimp, and scallops as well to throw on the barbecue. The well-thumbed copy of The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen had a recipe for the octopus with a few ingredients and little effort that would be in keeping with theme of the afternoon.  The grilled octopus, however, had enough flavor to balance the other seafood that only needed a light seasoning of salt and pepper to make for an easy summertime, grilled meal.

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Grilled Octopus

Octopus – 1lb, cleaned and trimmed

Red wine vinegar – 1 tbsp

Lemon juice – 1 tbsp

Oregano – 1 tsp

Salt and pepper – ½ tsp each

Olive oil – 3-6 tbsp

Parsley – 3-4 sprigs

Lemon wedges – 2

  • Preheat the grill to high.
  • Peel, scrape the reddish skin off the octopus and rinse the octopus, if not already cleaned.
  • Oil the grill grate, and lay the octopus on the grill. Keep turning with tongs until nicely charred, about 3-6 minutes on each side.
  • Cut the octopus into small bite-sized pieces and put them into a bowl.
  • Combine all the remaining ingredients and whisk. Pour this marinade over the grilled octopus and let the octopus sit for 10-30 minutes.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serve with coleslaw or green salad and grilled corn.

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Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Italian Tomato Sauce (Part 2)

One of my favorite Italian dishes in the summer is mozzarella and tomato salad. This is especially delicious in the season as the locally-available heirloom tomatoes are at their most flavorful. Any leftover tomatoes get thrown into a skillet and made into simple marinara sauce or tomato sauce. Having eaten a variety of delicious homemade Italian food in friends’ houses, I’ve noticed that the classic tomato sauce is always served on the side. This rich sauce can be paired with pasta and Parmesan cheese for a simple meal or served with meatballs for a more filling meal.

Unlike the plain marinara sauce that combines whole tomatoes and garlic, tomato sauce uses several ingredients that play a part in creating balance. Tomatoes contain both the sour element and natural glutamates required for umami, that savory taste. Garlic, onion, black pepper, and chili pepper provide pungency. Carrot and celery provide texture, adding colors that seem to deepen the bright red of tomatoes, and impart sweet and bitter flavors respectively. The herbs round out the balance giving warmth of peppery and astringent tones.

Tomato sauce is easy to prepare, and the sauce freezes well. The sauce has all the qualities of a perfectly balanced dish combined with color saturation, texture, and a full-bodied taste.

Tomato Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (or other canned tomato) – 28 oz

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Carrot – 1, diced

Celery – ½ stalk, diced

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Salt and pepper – ½-1 tsp each

Whole red dried chili – 1

Oregano (fresh or dried) – ½ tsp

Fresh Basil – a handful of leaves

Tomato paste – 1 heaping tbsp. (optional)

Sugar – ¼-1 tsp

Parmesan cheese – 3 tbsp

  • Pour out the tomatoes from the can into a bowl. Using the back of the spoon crush them, until they are broken up into small pieces. (Beware the red juice splattering on your clothes and kitchen counter.)
  • Heat a skillet.
  • Heat oil and add the onion and stir for a minute or more, until they are soft.
  • Add the garlic, carrot and celery to the onions. Sauté until they have softened.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet and mix into the onion-celery mixture.
  • Add the red chili and let it simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (this creates a deeper red sauce and thickness) and oregano and basil.
  • Continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the oil appears to float on the top of the tomato sauce.
  • Add the salt and pepper. Check for balance. If the sauce is sour (from tomatoes), start with a ¼ tsp. salt and sugar, and continue to add incrementally until no one flavor is prominent.
  • Remove the chili pepper before serving.

Serve with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, meatballs, or zucchini spirals.

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Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Cuisines (Part 1)

My mother had a remarkable ability to balance flavors and textures in even the daily multi-course Indian meal. This sounds very simple to achieve, but when done correctly, aromatics abound and color saturates the meal, while flavors pop on your tongue. In the Indian Ayurvedic healing practices, a healthy body requires a balance of sour, bitterness, salt, astringent, sweet, and pungent tastes. When I learned of yet another flavor, umami, I wondered how this elusive taste could transform what A. and N. call a “meh” meal to one loaded with a multi-sensory experience.

Umami, in Japanese, loosely translates as delicious food, and is the fifth taste after salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. The “meaty or hearty” sensation felt on the tongue is the taste of glutamates or salts of glutamic acid, made famous by MSG, the now much maligned food additive. Glutamate salts exist naturally in seaweed, some vegetables, seafood, and meat. In Far Eastern cooking, they are used commonly as fermented fish sauce and soy sauce.

I experimented with fish sauce as I reworked a Thai recipe for my favorite papaya salad with ingredients that were available at home. When I attended a Thai cooking class recently, our instructor would remind us to “check for balance,” just before we plated our creations. By pounding individual flavors of chilies, salt, sugar, and tangy lime before adding fish sauce, it became easy to savor the fifth element both in conjunction and separate from the others. The process also led me to want to learn how other cuisines, especially those not served in groupings, manage the delicate balance.

Green Apple And Cucumber Salad

(Adapted from a Thai-style Green Papaya Salad)

Green Apple – 1, cored and finely shredded

Cucumber – 1 medium, peeled, deseeded and shredded

Green beans – 5, sliced thinly in 1-inch pieces

Serrano chilies – 2-3, deseeded and sliced

Garlic –3 cloves, peeled and sliced

Tomato – 1, quartered

Salt – ¼- ½ tsp

Fish sauce – 1 tbsp

Sugar (white, brown or palm) – 1 tbsp

Lime – 1-2 tbsp, juice

  • In a mortar and pestle, crush the chilies and garlic.
  • Add the sugar and pound until incorporated.
  • Add the beans and crush lightly. (If the following ingredients don’t fit into the mortar, move them into a larger bowl.)
  • Add the shredded apple and cucumber into the bowl. Gently crush them with the pestle.
  • Add the limejuice, salt, fish sauce, and tomatoes. Toss gently. Taste just once (or else your tongue gets overwhelmed) to adjust and balance the flavors.
  • Serve immediately.

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Leavened Bread Versus Weather

A. loves channa-batura, a delicious Indian combination of chickpea curry and bread. This meal, however, cannot be whipped up immediately. Batura is a leavened bread, which means that the dough needs between 8-12 hours to rise. Since we were in a rush, we went out to our local Indian restaurant to enjoy the meal. Much to A.’s dismay, the batura that we were served was burned – instead of its normal golden hued puffy and light appearance. Upon sending it back, we received another that looked exactly like the rejected one with an explanation that “you can’t help the weather,” apparently daring us to complain again!  Although we were disappointed, this is a common occurrence with bread that uses leavening agents like yeast.

Yeast, after all, is a living organism. Yeast cells grow and multiply best at 78°F creating bubbles of carbon dioxide that cause dough to rise. The only way to guarantee this steady temperature is by leaving the dough to rise and rest in a bread maker. Without a bread maker, it is still possible to make leavened bread despite the vagaries of weather.

There are also a few other factors that can help in the fermentation process of dough left out at room temperature. Here are a few of the ways to ensure optimal conditions for dough to rise.

  • Flour – sift to aerate the flour until it is loosely packed.
  • Yeast – add a ¼ – ½ tsp more if the temperature is going to be below 78°F, and add less if the temperature is higher. Mix yeast with warm water so that the temperature of the mixture is raised when the yeast is added to room temperature flour.
  • Salt – add less as it hampers yeast cells growth. A ¼ tsp. is plenty (as in the below recipe).
  • Water – adding more water to the flour mixture is typically good, even though this may cause the dough to be sticky. Yeast cells like moisture. After the dough has doubled in volume / risen, more flour can be added as needed to knead the dough.
  • Time and patience – do not rush the process. The longer the yeast has to work with flour mixture, the more time for the dough to double in volume.

Batura (Fried Leavened Bread)

Flour – 2 cups, sifted

Dry active yeast – 2 tsp, mixed with 2 tbsp warm water

Oil – 2 tbsp

Yogurt – 1 tbsp

Salt – ¼ tsp

  • Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.
  • Knead and shape into a ball.
  • Cover with damp cheesecloth or towel.
  • Keep aside for 12- 14 hours. (This is where the weather comes into play. On a damp, summer day, it took more than 14 hours. Be patient.)
  • Roll out the dough into 4-inch disks (or into a size that can be submerged in a wok or deep pan with oil) on a lightly floured surface, adding more flour if the dough doesn’t hold shape or warm water if the dough is too dry.
  • Heat the oil in a small wok or deep frying pan.
  • Add the flat disk, pushing down the dough lightly with a spatula so that it remains submerged in oil. It will start to rise and once a large bubble has formed, flip the disk over to the other side until it has a golden-brown color.  If the dough starts to brown too quickly, lower the heat.
  • Remove and place on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.

Note: Serve Batura with chickpea curry or with any dish that has a sauce.

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