herbs

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.

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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.

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Salsa Criolla And Chimichurri: Fireworks And Spicy Condiments

I was caught off guard when two familiar flavors landed at my table through an unexpected intersection of food cultures. I was instantly transported to two of my mother’s Sunday specials – a lunch featuring fried rice with an accompaniment made of raw red onions, green chili, and vinegar and dosa (rice pancake) with cilantro (coriander leaves) chutney. However, this time, I wasn’t in India, but in Peru – eating the same onion salsa-like combination paired river trout ceviche and a creamy cilantro sauce with roasted chicken.

The connections made through ancient trade routes seemed to have culminated on my table: The exchange of ingredients and preparation styles link us together more than we might expect. In both countries, the condiments combine the crisp piquancy of red onions with the heat and color from the varieties of chilies, and rounded out by the herbal notes of cilantro in almost identical ways. In Peru, I also found a new twist on the classic chimichurri from neighboring Argentina. This parsley-based condiment is a welcome addition to my list of accompaniments for the upcoming holiday weekend. Instead of its usual topping for grilled flank steaks, chimichurri can double as a dipping sauce for chunky slices of bread – exactly how it was served in Peru.

These condiments can be made ahead, and are quick and easy accompaniments to barbecue dishes. Happy July 4th!

Salsa Criolla

Red onion – ½, thinly sliced on the diagonal

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

Aji chili – 1, cut into rounds

Lime – 1, juice

Salt – ¼ tsp

  • Mix the oil, lime juice, chili, and salt together. Keep aside up to couple of hours ahead of when needed.
  • Just before serving, add the sliced onions to the mixture. Toss until the oil-lime juice mixture coats the onions well.

Note: Substitute aji with serrano or jalapeno, but use caution when handling chili. Remove the seeds to lessen the spicy heat.

Chimichurri

Parsley (fresh) – ¾ cup, chopped

Shallot – 1, finely chopped

Serrano (jalapeno) – 1, finely sliced

Garlic cloves – 3, finely sliced

Red wine vinegar – ½ cup

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Oregano – ¼ tsp

Salt (kosher) – ¼ tsp

Pepper – ½ tsp

 

  • Mix together the chopped parsley, shallots, serrano chili, and garlic.
  • Shake the red wine vinegar, olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper well before adding to the parsley mixture.
  • Chimichurri can stay refrigerated for 1-2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Note: If you enjoy the flavor of cilantro, replace a ¼ cup of parsley with cilantro.

 

 

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Shrimp Scampi

Short on time but long on previously-frozen shrimp, I needed two or three easy sauces in order to vary a week’s worth of meals. The simplest that I came up with was the American-style shrimp scampi. In America, scampi refers to a type of dish, (e.g. shrimp scampi), in which prawns are cooked with white wine and served over pasta. Scampi, however, is actually a small variety of lobster that is also called Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn, and lastly by its Italian name, scampi. A fresh langoustine needs just a hint of butter to draw out its sweetness.

The light classic wine and stock combination, which conveniently uses the shells to make shrimp stock, forgives one for using frozen shrimp.

Shrimp Scampi

Shrimp with shells – ¾ lb

Olive oil – 2 tbsp

Shallot – 1, chopped

Garlic cloves – 3-4, chopped

Lemon – 1, juice

Thyme – 2 sprigs

Bay leaf – 1

White wine – ½ cup

Stock – ½ cup

Salt and pepper – seasoning

  • Peel and devein shrimp. Keep the shells.
  • To make a shrimp stock: Boil 2 cups of water. Add the shells and bay leaf. Cook on simmer for 15 minutes. When cool, strain the liquid and reserve.
  • Heat 1 tbsp. of oil in a medium pan. When oil is hot, lay the shrimp out in a single layer in the pan.
  • After about two minutes or when shrimp turns pink, turn the shrimp over. Repeat on the other side. Remove the shrimp and keep aside.
  • Heat the remaining oil in the same pan. Add the chopped shallot and cook until softened.
  • Add garlic. Sauté for a minute or until garlic turns lightly brown.
  • Add the reserved stock and wine to the pan.
  • Add thyme. Cook for 10 minutes on low, until the liquid has reduced in volume by about half.
  • Add lemon juice.
  • Add shrimp and cook until heated through.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Pour over cooked pasta or spiralized zucchini. Serve immediately.

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Note, two mild sauce combinations that also accentuate the briny flavor of shrimp are:

Classic White Wine Sauce: shallots, garlic, and cream.

Coconut Sauce: shallots, garlic, ginger, green chili, and unsweetened coconut milk.

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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Finding A Match With Claudia Roden

I learned cooking by experimenting with my mother’s ‘guestimated’ amounts for a recipe – a pinch of coriander powder, a dash of turmeric, or roughly about a ¼ cup of coconut milk. This seemingly casual style of cooking taught me to taste and adjust for individual and overall flavors while preparing a dish.

I relied on this skill recently when wanting to use up some extra zucchini. I began by following a recipe from one of my go-to cookbook authors – Claudia Roden.  A. noted that Roden’s Zucchini Fritters recipe, with its tangy feta cheese and aromatic dill, is a classic food from Turkey. However, without the two key ingredients, feta cheese and dill, I had to shop my refrigerator for equivalent tastes.

Although Roden’s unfussy recipes are precise, the flavors that are eked out from fresh ingredients are easy to replicate. Goat cheese is tangy and crumbly, and although not as strong as feta, the cheese effortlessly folds into the onion-zucchini mixture. The mixture holds together even when fried. Dill, on the other hand, has a distinct flavor, and so replicating its aromatic essence was key. Parsley proved to be a successful swap, providing the aromatics without competing with the mild taste of zucchini.

Zucchini Fritters

Onion – 1, chopped

Vegetable oil – 3+ tbsp for frying

Zucchini – 2 large, chopped

Eggs – 3

Flour – 3 tbsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

Parsley – 3-4 sprigs

Goat cheese – 7 oz

  • Heat 1tbsp oil in a pan at medium heat.
  • Add the shallots and sauté until lightly browned.
  • Add the zucchini and sauté until crisply tender.
  • Beat the eggs in a bowl. Add the flour and mix.
  • Fold the zucchini-shallot mixture and cheese into the egg mixture.
  • Heat a large skillet with enough oil to fry the mixture. Keep the oil at medium heat.
  • Drop in 3-4 generous tablespoon of the mixture into the hot oil leaving enough space between each in the pan.
  • Fry each side for 3 minutes without disturbing to check if done. Browning each side prevents them from disintegrating.
  • Remove and drain the oil on kitchen paper. Makes about 8 fritters. Use immediately.
  • If storing for later use, reheat the fritters when needed in the oven at 350°F.
  • Can also be served as hors d’oeuvres with a dab of wasabi sauce and cooked tuna placed on top.

I would love to hear from you about your go-to cookbooks, and I hope to add them to my “Cook The Book” featured category. I would also like to hear about why a particular ingredient was swapped, and if it added or took away the original flavor.

Note: Zucchini Fritters adapted from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: a taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon

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Stock to Soup

When A. and N. visit, I always make their favorite foods – a continued legacy from my mother’s practice that signaled my welcome home. Their choice of meals is always the same, but I surprised them this week when I made Pho, the Vietnamese soup, from one of their favorite restaurants. Like all nourishing soups, Pho (pronounced fuh), begins with a flavorful stock.

Stock or broth, a term used interchangeably, is the foundation of a wholesome soup. Making stock is as simple as adding meat, or vegetables and peelings, or fish bones to a liquid (usually water) and letting everything simmer for an extended period. Some recipes add spices, herbs, or sauces during the cooking time to deepen the flavor, but making stock usually requires very little attention. The long-simmered liquid is called a stock if the solid contents are discarded or a broth if some of the meat or vegetables are left in the dish. The stock and broth then become the base for soup. Both stocks and broths can be made ahead — a time-saving options for busy holiday-cooking days. The stock can be bulked up with cooked grains or protein and garnished with fresh aromatics for a substantial soup.

Preparing Stock

  • Add the ingredients (meat or vegetables) to a pan. Fill and cover them with cold water. Bring it to a boil and immediately lower the heat. Simmer between 2-3 hours for meat, 30-40 minutes for fish and vegetables, or until tender (vegetables) or falling off the bone (meat).
  • Skim the scum off the surface. The “scum” is the protein content that is released from meat, lentils, and a few vegetables that float to the surface as dirty-brown foam. Add water back if some liquid is lost in the skimming process.
  • Do not salt. Add salt only when the stock is made into soup.
  • Once cooled, the fat from the meat stock floats on the surface. This can be removed for a lower calorie soup.
  • The cooled stock can be frozen for 3-4 months. In a refrigerator, a stock remains fresh for 3-4 days.

 

I was thinking about recipes to make ahead of time, when I ran into a Vietnamese acquaintance at a grocery store. I didn’t need a recipe when I heard the list of ingredients for pho – a whole chicken, onion, fresh ginger, and star anise spice – a fail-proof, nutritious stock that could be made in advance.

Chicken Pho

Chicken – 1 whole

Onion – 1 large, chopped

Ginger – 3-4, ½-inch slices

Star anise – 3, whole

Fish sauce – 3 tbsp

Dried rice noodles –1 packet

Bean sprouts –1/2 cup

Green onion – 1-2, roughly chopped

Cilantro – ½ bunch roughly chopped

Basil – a few leaves

Lime – 1, cut into wedges

Hot sauce (Sriracha) – to taste

Salt – to taste

  • Add the chicken, onion, ginger and star anise to a pan with enough cold water to completely immerse the chicken.
  • Bring the water to a rolling boil. Turn the heat down and cook for 2½ -3 hours on simmer.
  • As the chicken starts to cook, a foamy bubble scum forms on the surface. Skim the scum off with a spoon or ladle.
  • Once the liquid is clear, add the fish sauce.
  • When the chicken is tender, (the bones separate), strain the liquid through a colander. Reserve the stock and keep the chicken pieces. Add salt to the stock.
  • Meanwhile, soak the rice noodles in a pan filled with cold water for an hour. Then cook in boiling water for a minute.

To assemble:

  • Fill a bowl with rice noodles. Ladle the hot stock over it.
  • Top it with chicken, a few bean sprouts, green onion, cilantro, basil, and a wedge of lime. Add the hot sauce.

 

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HERBS and SPICES: Substitution or Omission

A. wanted to make the Fish in Coconut Sauce recipe from my last blog, but didn’t have any coriander powder. She wanted to know if she could substitute it with another spice.

A specific spice, like coriander, cannot be substituted with just another spice. Each spice has its own unique medicinal property – be it preservative, astringent, digestive, or antibacterial, as well as its own aroma. When the spices are combined, the aromatics act as flavor enhancers and work together to add depth to a dish.

However, note that a recipe will sometimes specifically label a spice as optional. This “optional” spice is used in negligible amounts and does not affect the overall flavor of that dish, in which case it can be omitted from the recipe. Alternatively, you can swap spices as long as you stay within the same family of spices. For example, if the recipe asks for black mustard seeds (available in ethnic stores), you can replace them with yellow mustard seeds (found in all grocery stores). They might lack the piquancy of the black mustard seeds, but they are in the same family of flavors. Cassia bark is cheaper than its distant relative, cinnamon, but it is coarser and less aromatic. Similarly, green chilies can be replaced by jalapeno, serrano, or scotch bonnet – depending on your tolerance for heat!

A spice can be a bark (cinnamon), the stigmas of a flower (saffron), a bud (pepper) a fruit (nutmeg), a seed (mustard), or an underground stem or rhizome (ginger). Herbs are the leaves and young stems of a plant, and in some cases, the leaves (coriander/cilantro) grow on a spice plant.

The use of spices and herbs started out in culinary history to flavor and preserve food at its optimum best at a time when refrigeration was uncommon. Spices and herbs continue to offer health benefits, keep food pathogens in check, and add zest to everyday foods. Herbs, like spices, were added to a dish because of their medicinal properties and fragrance. Tried and tested herb and meat combination such as rosemary and lamb, sage and sausage, or veal, basil and tomatoes have been passed down through the ages. As herbs are usually added toward the end of cooking, there is a little more flexibility with substituting herbs. However, it is important to choose similar flavors. Both rosemary and oregano have strong flavors, and work well with the equally bold flavors of meat or poultry. Chives are in the onion family and can replace leeks in egg dishes. Marjoram is a relative of oregano, and can replace oregano for milder flavored tomato-based sauces. Both rosemary and sage have a minty flavor, and can be used interchangeably with poultry dishes. If the herbs are added to a dish during cooking or are part of a marinade, stick to the recommended herbs in the recipe. Flat-leaf parsley and thyme can stand up to heat, and some herbs like bay leaf and sage develop spicier or deeper tones as they dry, so substituting a herb could result in unexpected outcomes.

Some common spice and herb mixes include Indian (garam masala, panch phoron, kaala masala, goda masala), Chinese (five-spice powder), Mexican chili powder, Ethiopian (bebere), Italian herbs, French (quatre-épices, herbes de provence, boquet garni), as well as mixed (pudding) spice, pumpkin pie spice mix, and mulling spices.

To summarize my answer to A.: Generally, omission is better than substitution. But, when whole spices can be purchased inexpensively and stored for long periods, and fresh herbs can be grown on a windowsill, why not use the originals?!