Restaurant Reflections

Avocado Spread: Winter Greens

On a recent cold weekend in Detroit, two of the restaurants that I visited were serving avocado in all of its creamy glory. Avocado’s rich green color is a welcome sight, much like the first shoots that peek through the snow and mulch as soon as the weather turns to spring. The velvety texture of avocado is just as warming to the soul as is a drizzle of melted cheese on soup during a wintry spell. Red Dunn Kitchen plated the avocado on toasted wheat bread under piles of arugula, crowned with a poached egg. Selden Standard served creamy whipped avocado framed with beets and micro greens.

During winter, the silky consistency of an avocado boldly stands up to hearty winter flavors — which inspired my pairing of an avocado spread with roasted vegetables. In summer, chunks of avocado are a fantastic complement to the sweet tomatoes used in salsa or they can be added as a welcome layer in picnic sandwiches. Avocado contains many nutrients, and wears its superfood status rightfully all year round.

Avocado Spread

Avocado – 1, ripe

Lemon juice – ½ tbsp

Salt – ¼ tsp

Serrano chili – ½, cut finely (optional)

  • Peel the ripe avocado just before preparing the spread.
  • Remove the seed (but keep aside) and dice the flesh into big chunks.
  • Add the chunks of avocado into a food processor and process until you have a creamy spread.
  • Store the spread in a bowl. Season with salt and lemon. Add the chili for a spicy kick. Bury the seed in the spread, if keeping the mixture refrigerated. The seed prevents some of the discoloration that occurs once the avocado has been cut.

Serve immediately. Spread a thick layer on toasted bread or serve as colorful sauce-like condiment around hearty root vegetables.

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Finding Cultural Cohesion in Middle East Through A Cookbook

I came late to the Jerusalem cookbook, but as always in times of crises, sometimes inspiration finds you. At the end of a week dominated by headlines, I found an eggplant recipe that spoke to the interwoven food histories that exist in the Middle East. While faiths are varied, the food provides cross-cultural links that inspire celebration and conviviality rather than division.

In ancient Levantine, Asian, and European cuisines, eggplant is simply eaten fried. When an eggplant is broiled or roasted over a flame, the charred and blackened skin can be scraped away to reveal flesh that is both moist and sweet. In many Middle Eastern recipes, the resulting flesh is pureed further to make a variety of snack (meze). Keeping some of the burnt skin in the salad mentioned below adds a smoky depth. With minor additions, the salad can be adapted for all cuisines.

Eggplant Salad

(Adapted from: Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sam Tamimi)

Eggplant – 1, cubed and baked

Tomatoes – 1, chopped and cubed

Cucumber – ½ chopped and cubed

Spring onions or shallot – 1, chopped finely

Fresh Parsley – 1½ tbsp

Lemon – juice from ½ lemon

Naan or Pita – 1

Yogurt – 2 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste

Hard boiled Egg – 1, sliced into half

Olive oil – ½ tbsp

Mango pickle – 1 tbsp

Zhoug – 1 tbsp (optional)

  • Mix the cooked eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Add the lemon juice and egg.
  • Warm the naan or pita and lay it across the serving plate.
  • Spread yogurt across the pita bread. (The spread could also be hummus or tahini.)
  • Place the salad mixture over the naan or pita bread.
  • Drizzle olive oil on top.
  • Serve with mango pickle or zhoug.

Note: Zhoug is a condiment that combines fresh cilantro and parsley, green chilies, and dried aromatic spices of cardamom, cumin, and cloves. These ingredients, along with oil, sugar, salt and garlic are blended in a food processor to make a robust paste.


Burnt Eggplant With Garlic, Lemon & Pomegranate Seeds

Eggplant – 2

Garlic cloves – 2, minced

Lemon – 1, zest and juice

Flat leaf parsley – 3 stalks, remove leaves and chop roughly

Mint leaves – 3 stalks, remove the leaves and chop roughly

Pomegranate seeds – 2 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste

  • Broil the eggplant under a broiler for about 1 hour, turning it every 15-20 minutes.
  • When all the sides are charred, remove and cool. The skin comes away easily. Using a fork, scrape the flesh away in a smooth top-to-bottom motion. Let the flesh drain in a colander to remove all the liquid.
  • Meanwhile, mix all of the remaining ingredients, keeping aside a few pomegranate seeds.Add these ingredients to the eggplant.
  • When ready to serve, heap the eggplant mixture onto a plate.
  • Garnish with pomegranate seeds.


Tackling A Classic: Eggplant Parmesan

I recently bought ready-made eggplant parmesan from a small (and authentic) grocery that stocks fresh pasta made in-store by the Italian owners. The parm was delicious. There is everything to love in the two main ingredients – eggplant and cheese! Unfortunately, my new health app registered the accompanying high number of calories which forced me to attempt a healthier version of the classic.

Eggplants are notorious for absorbing unhealthy amounts of oil, and by baking eggplants, my version cuts out frying the eggplant altogether. Cutting this step also eliminates both the eggs and breadcrumbs that coat the eggplant; these add to the amount of oil absorbed, as well as to the dish’s total calories. All that was left to do was to combine good tomato sauce (thickened with celery, carrots, onions, and garlic), fresh basil, and cheese, and bake. The toasted breadcrumbs that were sprinkled in between layers added crunch, but they are not essential.

Tomato sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (28 oz) can – 2

Tomato paste – 1½ tbsp

Onion – 1 medium, sliced

Carrots – 2, diced

Celery – 1 ½ stalks, chopped

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Olive oil – 1 ½ tbsp

Salt – to taste

Chili pepper flakes – 1½ tsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add onions to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent.
  • Add garlic and stir-fry, until light brown.
  • Add carrots, celery and cook for about five minutes or until softened.
  • Remove the mixture from heat, and mix in the food processor to a grainy texture.
  • Add the mixture back to the pan. Start to heat the pan, adding tomatoes and tomato paste to the mixture. Cook the juice down, mashing up the tomato pieces.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
  • Keep 3 cups aside, and boil it down until it is a thick liquid.
  • Freeze the rest of the sauce to use later. I often serve with meatballs, spiralized zucchini “noodles,” and grilled shrimp.


Eggplant – 2 medium sized, peeled and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch strips (10-12 strips in total)

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

  • Heat the oven at 400°F.
  • Place the eggplant slices on aluminum foil and brush lightly with oil.
  • Cook for about 35-40 minutes, turning slices halfway through, until just soft. Keep aside.

For The Assembly Line:

Toasted breadcrumbs or panko – ½ cup

Mozzarella cheese – 12 oz, thinly sliced

Parmesan cheese – 4 oz, freshly grated

Fresh basil leaves – 12-15 leaves

Tomato sauce – see above

Baked eggplant – see above

  • Lightly grease a loaf pan or Pyrex dish.
  • Divide the ingredients in the following order for three layers: sauce, breadcrumbs, overlapping eggplant slices, cheese (parmesan and mozzarella), and basil. Repeat, until you have formed 3 layers.
  • Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes. Set under a broiler for 5 minutes at the end for a crisp topping.
  • Once cooled, the baked eggplant parmesan will be firm. Loosen the slides by sliding a knife along the edges. Flip over on to a serving plate.


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Note: Reduce the tomato sauce, so that there is no excess liquid. Otherwise, your layers will not be firm.


Tackling Tradition: Winter Squash

At the start of Thanksgiving week, I sampled a holiday cocktail made of sweet potato pie at The Commoner bar. The mixologist piped sweet potato pie puree into the alcohol and played around with consistency and flavor. I sampled a near-final version, as she balanced the seasonings and sprinkled crushed nuts on top. A new drink was born!

The playfulness of taking a familiar dish and giving it new life appealed to me. For example, the roasted squash from a Thanksgiving meal can only be enjoyed so many times. However, when the squash is plated on a bed of semi-liquid beet topped with crunchy toasted coconut and crushed pistachio nuts, the savory side becomes a healthy dessert. Winter squash and beets have mellow flavors, which make them both versatile and boring. Squash can be sautéed with spices, absorbing the aromatics readily, but the mild taste never quite beckons for our attention. Combining roasted squash with beets repurposes a traditional dish with texture, and has the added bonus of showcasing colors of the season.




Chinese Hot Pot: Communal Food (Part 4)

It is enjoyable to have friends and family stay over for the Thanksgiving holidays. However, arranging other meals can get tiring after the frenzy of T-day cooking. Communal foods such as fondue, shabu shabu, and injera are stress-free options to feed visiting family. When friends introduced us to the Chinese hot pot last week, I realized that this is yet another communal meal that is easy to put together. There are no hard and fast rules on what to add to the broth or the type of ingredients required. Ingredients can be bought in advance, and the meal can be stretched depending on how many there are present. Your choice of hot pot ingredients becomes more diverse and interesting as more people join!

The Chinese hot pot is built around three soup bases: hot and spicy, white (fish stock), or a vegetarian option. The accompaniments can be ingredients from a regular supermarket such as mushrooms and cabbage or the more exotic lotus root, winter melon, and pre-cooked frozen fish egg balls and fish tofu from the Chinese supermarkets. Everyone can be involved with the meal — whether slicing meats and vegetables or preparing simple dipping sauces.


For the Hot And Spicy Broth:

  • Boil a large pan filled water.
  • Add 2-3 bouillon cubes of fish, vegetable, or meat stock.
  • Add daikon (radish), mushrooms, garlic and ginger slivers to build up the broth flavors. Season with cinnamon, anise, and dried red chilies, and bring the broth to a boil.
  • Season with salt and pepper. Add a tablespoon of sesame oil.
  • Once thickened and flavorful, the broth is ready. Keep the broth simmering to dip the uncooked accompaniments.
  • Alternatively, follow the directions of a ready-made hot pot mix available from Chinese supermarkets.

Suggested Accompaniments:


Bok Choy

Chrysanthemum Leaves



Sirloin or Flank Beef



White Fish Fillet

Sliced Squid

Tofu cubes

Slice all the chosen ingredients into thin strips or small chunks. Keep raw meats and fish on separate plates.

Dipping Sauce:

Mix together light soy sauce (2-3 tbsp), sesame oil (1 tsp), fresh ginger slices (3-4 slivers), and scallions (2, chopped). Season to taste.

When Ready to Serve:

  • Present everyone with plates, chopsticks, and a bowl of dipping sauce.
  • Place all the sliced accompaniments within easy access.
  • Keep the broth simmering: You can use an electric heating plate or have everyone gather around the stove.
  • Use slotted spoons, small strainers, or chopsticks to dip the uncooked ingredients into the broth.
  • Cook vegetables such as lotus root and taro (3-4 minutes), until soft; meat (1-2 minutes) until cooked through; and tofu and mushrooms (30 seconds), until just warm.



Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and a restful weekend filled with communal meals!



Onion Rings And Fritters: The Batter Matters

Whenever I am out of town, as I was last week visiting A. and N., I tend to gravitate to foods that I find difficult to make at home. This time around, I picked onion rings as a side dish with my fancy burger. The much-anticipated meal was a disappointment; the onion rings were crisp, but the coating mixture was tasteless. The ideal onion ring has onions with a silky-smooth crunch and a flavorful covering. The pressure to create perfectly golden and crisp rings hardly mattered, as I realized it was all about the batter.

The batter could be made with chickpea flour (besan) and a host of spices as in the Indian version of onion rings (pakora) or tempura, panko crumbs, or flour mixed with milk, buttermilk or beer. Homemade pakora, when I was growing up, was made without a deep fryer or a thermometer to measure the ideal oil temperature of 350-360ºF needed for crisp rings. Not having the right equipment or the grease factor became distant concerns, and flavor won the day.

How To Check If Oil Is Hot Without A Fryer Thermometer:

  • When hot, the oil on the surface has a shimmer and movement.
  • When holding your palm about six-inches above the hot oil, the heat should be felt on your hand.
  • Drop a small amount of batter into the hot oil, and the batter should fluff up or puff up and come sizzling up to the surface. If it is a pale brown, the temperature is perfect to start frying. If brown, remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool before checking again.
  • The exposed surface area of the pan or wok should be small to keep the heat from dissipating.


Onion – 1

Chickpea flour (besan) – 1 cup

Bicarbonate of soda – ¼ tsp

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Chili powder – 1½ tsp

Garam masala – 1 tsp

Salt – 1-1½ tsp

Water – ½ cup

Vegetable oil – ½ -1 cup

  • Mix all the dry ingredients together.
  • Add the water to make a thick batter.
  • Peel and cut both ends off the onion. Slice in ¼-inch thick rings. Add the sliced onions and mix into the batter.
  • Keep aside for 10-12 minutes.
  • Heat the oil in a small wok or deep frying pan.
  • Add a tablespoon of the onion batter to the hot oil. The batter should puff up immediately and start to turn a golden brown. Flip the onion ring over and fry the other side for a few seconds. Don’t overcrowd the wok. Keep rings separate.
  • Remove and drain on a rack to prevent steam from making the rings soft.
  • Serve immediately.


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Cashew Nuts: Cream, Butter, and Purée

I always stock a bag of raw unsalted cashew nuts for a spur-of-the-moment snack, toasting the nuts with spicy chaat masala or with a generous pinch of rock salt and fresh pepper. Cashew nuts provide the crunch in Asian cuisines’ sautéed dishes. The cashew nuts are processed into a paste that can be used to thicken a curry. This mildly-sweet nut’s versatility has been overlooked until recently in the West.

I have now noticed that restaurants are incorporating cashew nut paste as a ribbon-like swirl around braised meat. The combination of starch and unsaturated fats (the healthy kind) in the cashew nut purée gives the paste a creamy consistency akin to mashed potatoes. A dash of the cashew nut paste on a plate of roasted chicken or grilled ribs serves as both a side dish and as a decorative flourish.

There are several ways to incorporate cashew nut paste into any cooking style, especially because cashew nut is lactose- and gluten-free. The cashew nut paste has a richly-satisfying buttery flavor and a spreadable texture, and can be substituted for peanut butter for those with peanut allergies.The paste can also be diluted with water to create a cream-like consistency and substituted for cream and yogurt to thicken sauces or even diluted further and drunk as cashew milk.

Sold pre-shelled, economy-sized packets of raw cashew nuts are available in South American and Asian supermarkets.

Cashew Nut Paste

Cashew nuts (raw) – 1 cup

  • Cover the cashew nuts with water and soak them overnight.
  • Drain in a colander.
  • Process the softened nuts in a food processor or blender to get a fine paste. Keep the paste as granular (spreadable cashew butter) or smooth to mix with fresh water (cashew cream or milk).
  • The paste can be frozen for up to 2 months in an airtight container.

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Inspired by Molecular Cuisine

I was treated to a meal a year ago at wd~50, Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant which closed its doors around Thanksgiving. I wasn’t initially sure about the fuss over molecular cuisine with its beet foam made with immersion blenders and canisters of nitrous oxide and its fluid gel creations made with agar-agar. However, I came away intrigued by his arrangements and combinations of food such as “peas” (carrots coated with freeze-dried pea powder) and hangar tartare with cucumber curls. Like deconstructed art or modernist literature, I find that the key to appreciating experimentation is to trust your own visceral experience with the food.

As I stacked my shopping cart with the same old ingredients (turkey, potatoes, leeks, and cranberries) and fought the usual madness in the stores leading up to Thanksgiving, I decided to elevate the ordinary up a notch. I drew on Dufresne’s quote, “It’s seeing pita and thinking hummus,” for inspiration to address at least one dish from my Thanksgiving menu. Looking at traditional pairings of Thanksgiving meals, I played around with the idea of cranberries and mashed potato. I combined them so that biting into a bejeweled “cranberry” morsel yielded the surprising flavor of mashed potatoes.

Cranberry Surprise

The dish combines the sparkling texture of dehydrated cranberries and comforting taste of mashed potato. As I don’t own a dehydrator, I dried the cranberries in the oven on low heat which helps maintain the fruit’s rich red color.

Cranberries – 12 oz

Potatoes – 1 large

Butter – 2 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste


Preheat oven to 150ºF

  • Wash and drain the cranberries.
  • Place the cranberries in a single layer on a cookie pan lined with foil. Cover the berries with kitchen paper to absorb the moisture.
  • Bake for 6 – 6 ½ hours, rotating the pan occasionally. The dehydrated cranberries will have a papery texture.
  • Grind them in small batches in a coffee or spice grinder. Store the powdered cranberries in a mason jar.
  • Boil the potatoes.
  • Drain and mash them well.
  • Add the butter and mix in thoroughly until the potatoes are creamy and smooth.
  • Season the potatoes with salt and pepper.
  • Make cranberry sized-balls with the mashed potatoes.
  • Coat the mashed potato balls with cranberry powder. Dust off excess powder.
  • Serve warm.


Note: You can also use dehydrated cranberry powder to rim the lip of a glass filled with a cranberry cocktail!



One for the Barbecue – Bulgogi, Korean Barbecued Meat

Individual bowls of steaming rice, crisp lettuce leaves, red, spicy paste (ssamjang), pickled cabbage (kimchi), chopped scallions, strips of marinated meat – this was my introduction to eating bulgogi at Keum Ho Jung, a Korean restaurant in New Jersey. Bulgogi is barbecued meat – Korean style. At many Korean restaurants, you are presented with a plate of marinated beef, a fired-up table grill with the overhead exhaust turned on, and then you are left  to cook at your own pace. The meal encompasses many flavors (salty, pungent, sweet, and sour) and seemingly covers most of the food pyramid (grains, vegetables, protein, and fat/oil) as well. I was inspired to hear that N. was cooking bulgogi at home.

I thought bulgogi could only be grilled (although N. insisted her version with pan-cooked ground beef made in 15 minutes was just as good)! Grilled beef is folded into a lettuce leaf wrap along with rice, ssamjang, kimchi, and scallions. Assembling the various toppings and stuffing them neatly into the lettuce wrap turns out to be as entertaining as it is tasty. Using leaves as wrappers is a method that has been used in many cultures, and bulgogi is a novel way of eating the familiar skirt steak, and an easy barbecue dish to prepare for a group.

Ingredient shopping is simple as everything can be found in larger supermarkets —  from the base of skirt steak or sirloin and lettuce leaves to the marinade (sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, black pepper, ginger and sugar) that both flavors and tenderizes the meat. Most large supermarkets sell kimchi, and ssamjang is available at Korean or Asian markets.

Here is to summer and to having more barbecues!


Skirt steak – 1lb

Sesame oil – 2 tbsp

Soy sauce – ¼ cup

Garlic – 2-3 cloves, chopped

Scallions – 1 bunch, chopped (reserve a quarter for garnish)

Ginger – 1-inch piece, grated

Sugar – 2 tbsp (preferably brown sugar)

Black pepper – ¼ tsp

Rice – 2 cups

  • Mix all of the ingredients in a bowl, and use this mixture as a marinade to coat the beef. Marinade the meat for about 2 hours.
  • Cook the rice.
  • Grill on high heat until desired (medium rare to medium).

If cooking in a pan:

  • Heat the sesame oil in a pan.
  • Add garlic and ginger, and cook until they sizzle.
  • Add the ground meat and stir-fry until it is uniformly browned.
  • Add the remaining ingredients and let the mix simmer on low for about 15 minutes.

In both cases: Serve the cooked meat with lettuce, scallions, cooked rice, kimchi, and chili paste.









Warm Corn Soup on a Cool Summer’s Day

One of A. and N.’s summer favorites is corn on the cob, grilled with a little chili powder, salt, oil, and rubbed with fresh lime – a popular Mumbai street cart fare. When I came across corn soup drizzled with a trail of chili oil at Legume, a restaurant in Pittsburgh, the flavor was reminiscent of the familiar charcoal-roasted spicy corn on the cob that I was so used to eating.

Our knowledgeable waiter detailed the cooking process: blanching the corn quickly, removing the kernels and pureeing them, blending the stock made with corn cobs with heavy cream, and finally drizzling chili oil.

I enjoyed the texture and flavor of the corn soup, and so I planned on reinterpreting their soup to create my own version. As I was experimenting with the stock, I realized that I could easily make two other kinds of corn soup using the same base — a popular Indian-fusion version (Chicken Corn Soup) and a Mexican version with green chilies (Sopa de Elote con Chile).

It is the peak season for corn, and I decided to freeze some in order to extend the season and enjoy the vegetable for a little longer. Checking the National Center for Home Food Preservation site for tips on properly freezing corn, I learned that blanching corn (for four minutes), cooling immediately (preferably in ice cold water), draining, and freezing with enough space around the storage container would prevent the pasty taste associated with corn that has absorbed too much water. Quickly blanching or plunging the corn into boiling water stops the enzyme action that would otherwise degrade the color, flavor, and vitamins in the corn. Blanching corn is an important step, and it pays to watch the cooking time closely.

Corn Soup Base:

Corn – 7-8 ears of corn

Water – 6 cups


  • Strip the outer husks of the corn cob, starting from the top and working down to the base. Remove any silky tendrils. Check that the kernels are firm. Remove any soft kernels by scooping them out with a knife.
  • Heat the water to a rolling boil in a pan that will hold the cobs (cut them in half if you don’t have a large enough pan).
  • Plunge the corncobs into the water. Blanch them for four minutes precisely.
  • Remove and drain (save the liquid, as this will be the stock) the cobs immediately and plunge them in ice-cold water.
  • Using a sharp knife, and starting from the stalk side, cut the kernels off the cob in one smooth action. Turn the cob and repeat until all the sides are done.
  • Puree the kernels in a blender.
  • Add the cobs back to the liquid and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove and discard the cobs.
  • Use the stock as a base for the following variants:


For Corn Soup with Cream: Add 1 tbsp. heavy cream to the hot stock and add back the pureed kernels. Drizzle with chili oil.


For Chicken Corn Soup: Add 1 ½ tbsp cornmeal to the stock and add back the pureed kernels. Decorate with cooked chicken pieces and spring onion slices.


For Sopa de Elote con Chile: Add 1 cup of milk and 2 chicken cubes to the hot stock and add back the pureed kernels. Add sautéed green chili and onion mixture to the soup.