Month: September 2015

Fennel Bulb: Transitional Vegetable From Summer To Winter

If the first day of fall happens to be cold and stormy, then thoughts immediately turn to comforting soups and stews. For mild autumn days, we can savor summer a little longer with the perfect transitional fall vegetable – the fennel bulb. The season for fennel starts in late September and continues right through to spring. The crisp pale green and white color of fennel bulb is reminiscent of summer, but its aniseed flavor adds warmth for the cooler days ahead.

The supermarkets stock Florence fennel, with its characteristically large bulb that is crowned by few feathery fronds and finger-like stalks. The dried seeds from its yellow flowers are used in herbal remedies for digestion and in cooking, but the aromatic bulb is used as a vegetable. The prominent licorice (or liquorice-like) flavor could overwhelm a dish, and so when added raw in a salad, pair with equally bold tastes of chicory greens such as radicchio or frisée. Roasting or blanching the fennel bulb mellows its anise-like flavor. Fennel bulb can be eaten raw in a salad, blanched, or added to stews.

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Choosing A Fennel Bulb

  • The bulb should feel heavy. It should not have marks or bruises.
  • The feathery fronds, which look like dill or carrot leaves, should be fresh and bright green.
  • The cut-off stalk ends (looks like celery stalks and with an equally high water content) should not be visibly dry or brown.
  • The cut base of the bulb should still appear moist.

How To Clean And Store Fennel Bulb

  • Remove the feathery leaves. They can be used as a herb.
  • Remove the stalks at the point where they meet the bulb. The stalks can be added to stock.
  • Cut the bulb in half (if using it raw in a salad), and remove the small hardened core at the base.
  • Slice the cut halves across or into small chunks.
  • Store the bulb uncovered in the fridge.

Baking Fennel

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F
  • Place the cleaned fennel bulb on an aluminum foil.
  • Cook until tender, about 40 minutes. The bulb should have a slight crunch.
  • Season with salt and pepper.

Suggestions For Using Fennel

  • For a warm salad: Mix the roasted fennel with cooked beets and crisp frisée or endive for a colorful and flavorful salad. Drizzle a light vinaigrette of olive oil, champagne wine vinegar, and lemon juice. Toss and serve.
  • Slow cook slices of fennel with olive oil and use the caramelized fennel with broiled salmon.
  • Blanching fennel slices also reduces the sharpness of aniseed flavor. Serve with other vegetables or with asparagus and poached eggs.
  • Add chunks of fennel to stews along with carrots and potatoes.

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Edible Flowers: Unique Flavors And Textures

This week, my local public library displayed books alongside a few items picked from their garden patch. I chose both books and the edible nasturtium blossoms to enliven my rainy Saturday afternoon. The orange-red blossoms provided a shot of color against the salad greens, but I was totally unprepared for, but pleasantly surprised by, the peppery zing from these tiny petals! Edible flowers can enhance salads, but they can be also be filled with goat cheese (zucchini blossoms), steamed and served with dips (artichokes), or stir-fried (banana blossoms).

Edible flowers have distinct tastes – bittersweet and perfumed rose petals, peppery nasturtium flowers, pollen-dusted flavor of zucchini blossoms, and hints of banana flavor in banana blossoms. Inspired by the taste of nasturtiums in the salad, I revisited a recipe from my cookbook, Kerala Cooking, which highlighted canned banana blossoms.  This time around, I used fresh flowers.

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Banana blossoms make for an excellent stir-fry, and are available in Indian, Chinese, and Thai food markets, countries where whole or parts of the flower are cooked and served as a side dish. Deep purple petals of the banana blossom protect inner florets, which look like bananas in their early formative stage. Once the outer petals are stripped away, the core is a pale yellowish center of tightly packed petals. I tackled the slightly onerous task of quickly oxidizing flowers by prepping ahead (see below). I also didn’t include the florets, which have to be separated individually for a sliver of the flower. The cooked blossoms tastes floral and light, and yet the dish is substantial like a heart of palm or mushroom salad. Banana blossoms can be stir-fried with your favorite vegetables or served as in the following recipe for a more exotic accompaniment to grilled fish or meat.

Banana Blossoms With Shredded Coconut

Banana blossoms – 2

Lemon – 1 (or 2 tbsp vinegar)

Shallots – 2, chopped finely

Oil – 1 tbsp

Mustard seeds – 2 tbsp

Cumin seeds –1 tsp

Whole dried red chilies – 2

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Grated coconut – ½ cup

Salt – to taste

  • Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze in the juice of ½ a lemon or vinegar to get an acidic solution. This prevents the oxidizing flowers from turning black (similar to what happens when bananas are peeled).
  • Rub the remaining lemon over the chopping board and knife, which prevents the sliced petals from sticking together. Slice the stem off the blossom. Remove the tough or faded outer petals. (Keep a couple of petals aside to use later as decorative containers.) Discard the tiny clusters of banana-like florets, and keep peeling away the petals until the pale purple-yellow ones appear. Remove and slice them into rings. Put them immediately to soak into the bowl of water. Cut the firm yellowish core into rings, and soak them in water. Keep aside for 15 minutes.
  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds.
  • When the mustard seeds start to pop, add the cumin seeds.
  • Once the cumin seeds burst (almost immediately), add the shallots and stir-fry until they turn golden-brown.
  • Add the chilies and turmeric and stir for a few seconds.
  • Add the coconut, and stir for a minute until well incorporated into the mixture.
  • Drain and add the blossoms to the mixture.
  • Cover and cook the blossoms on low heat, about five minutes.
  • Serve the cooked blossoms in one of the petal servers.

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Leaves Every Which Way: Oven-Dried Fresh Herbs And Kale Chips

A few weeks ago, I had a situation with bolting basil, and I spent some time looking for ways to preserve the leaves without sacrificing their flavor and aroma. Herbs that are stored in the freezer are a good substitute for when nothing fresh is available. However, frozen herbs, especially the delicate basil, sage, and cilantro, have an unappealing papery-thin texture and lack potency. An easy way to preserve the flavor of freshly-picked herbs is to remove their moisture completely.

A dehydrator or an oven can dry out the leaves while maintaining their freshness and taste. Freshly-dried herbs are an easy way to harvest and preserve herbs that are bolting or growing rapidly, seeing you well into winter. Oven–dried basil can be crushed easily and delivers a fresh punch of concentrated flavor and bouquet. Basil is known as a powerful anti-bacterial and nutrient-rich herb, and I added powdered basil into salad dressing as well as mixed it with tea leaves for a jolt of healthy tonic.

I also experimented with sage and lavender gathered from my outdoor pots (soon to be indoors with the recent onset of cool weather!) The kitchen smelled much like an imagined idyllic French countryside when I amassed small mason jars of dried herbs. Carried away by the concept of drying leaves, I extended the process to make kale chips brushed with sage-scented oil.

Oven-Dried Basil

Basil – 1 bunch

  • Heat the oven to 170°F.
  • Rinse the basil in cool water and shake-off excess moisture.
  • Spread the cleaned leaves on parchment paper.
  • Bake for about 1- 1½ hour, until the leaves have wilted and curled. They should crumble easily.
  • Remove and cool.
  • Store in glass containers.

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Kale Chips

Kale – a handful

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

Salt – ½ tsp

Pepper –1tsp

Basil – 2, dried

  • Heat the oven to 350°F
  • Wash and dry the kale leaves. Remove the thick stalk.
  • In a bowl, mix the oil, salt, pepper, and crushed basil leaves.
  • Coat the kale leaves, using your hands to coat the oil over the leaves.
  • Lay them on a foil and bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove and turn the leaves over. Continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes.
  • Remove and cool. The leaves should be crispy and brown at the ends.
  • Eat immediately.

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Milk And Cookies

When I was young, my cousins and I would help ourselves to milk powder that was stored in the pantry for our baby cousin S. Milk powder had a fresh breadcrumb texture that dissolved to a creamy, slightly sweet, doughy taste at the back of your mouth, and made it a peculiarly addictive snack. Despite the many lectures, since milk powder was prohibitively expensive in those days, we couldn’t stop ourselves! Recently, I came across a great cookie recipe that uses milk powder to add both chewiness and that silky rich taste of the milk solids.

Christina Tosi, baker at Momofuku Milk Bar compares the taste of milk powder to MSG – it makes everything taste better without adding a detectable taste of its own in the final product. Milk powder didn’t taste as good as it did in my memory, but when added to a mixture of flour, white chocolate chips, and dried red chilies, the resulting chocolate chip cookie is both grown up and strangely comforting.

White-Hot Chocolate Cookies

Adapted from Christina Tosi’s milk chocolate chip recipe

Unsalted Butter – 2 sticks (225g), melted

Egg – 1

Flour – 1½ cup

Milk powder – 3 tbsp

Light brown sugar – 1 cup

Salt – 1 tsp

Baking soda – ¼ tsp

Baking powder – ½ tsp

Dried red chili – 4, deseeded and skins cut into tiny slivers

White chocolate chips – 6 oz

  • Heat the oven to 375°F.
  • Sift the flour and add to it the milk powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  • Mix the melted butter and sugar in a bowl.
  • Add the egg and continue to blend into the mixture.
  • Add the flour mixture to the butter and egg mixture, and mix until everything is well combined.
  • Add the chili and chocolate chips. Mix.
  • On a parchment-lined cookie pan, add two tablespoons of the cookie dough at a time, leaving sufficient space between them.
  • Bake for 10 minutes or until the edges turn brown.
  • Makes about 20 wafer-thin cookies.

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