Monday, January 31, 2011

Rare Food Finds

Yesterday's culinary finds at Russo's Market were quite thrilling - the store transforms every season with epicurean delights; our last trip in the fall yielded pumpkins and gourds, and this time around they had moved on to winter squash and citrus fruits galore (someone may have gone overboard and bought a bushel of oranges ...) A winter wonderland of food - what more could you ask for?

Among yesterday's rare food finds were:
  • Ugli fruit: a Jamaican tangelo, a citrus fruit created by hybridizing a grapefruit or pomelo, and orange and a tangerine. It is actually quite ugly:

  • Culantro: not to be confused with cilantro, an herb of Latin America and the Caribbean:

    • Yellow chives: popular in Chinese and Japanese cooking, yellow chives are milder and sweeter than their common green counterparts.

    • Black trumpet mushrooms: black chanterelle mushrooms are popular in French cuisine because of its unlikely flavor: these fresh black beauties can actually taste like apricots!

    • Shusie leaf: frankly I'm stumped on this one. I found it near the Asian herbs and I can't figure out what it is or how to use it! Now that's rare.

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    On Soup

    "I live on good soup, not on fine words."


    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Lentil Soup

    Upon yesterday's snowstorm I knew that a hot spicy soup was in order, and my lentil soup did the trick. It's a hybrid recipe I've developed by marrying a few different lentil soup recipes that I really like, to create my own:

    3 cups lentils (I use a mix of dark and light)
    1 yellow onion
    3 tablespoons minced garlic
    3 spicy Italian sausages
    1 Yukon gold potato
    4 cups low sodium chicken broth
    3 cups water
    1/4 cup ketchup (I used as a tomato paste substitute)
    dash red pepper flakes
    palmfuls each: cayenne, cumin, chili powder, Hungarian spicy paprika (or to taste)
    pinch ground cloves
    1 tsp. dried basil
    1 tsp. dried rosemary
    3-4 dashes of Tabasco
    salt and pepper to taste


    1) Soak lentils in a bowl with water for a few hours before cooking.
    2) In a large dutch oven on medium heat, saute chopped onion and minced garlic with red pepper flakes in good olive oil (I get mine directly from Italy ... just saying) and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove and set aside in bowl.
    3) Add sausage to remaining bit of garlic-infused olive oil and brown, breaking into meat lumps. Once browned on all sides, add onions and garlic back in.
    4) Boil 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup chicken stock in a small saucepan. Peel and dice potato into 1-inch chunks and pour into boiling water, simmering for five minutes before adding to sausage mixture.
    5) Season with spices and dried herbs, stirring to coat meat and vegetables evenly. Add chicken stock and water; then add lentils. Turn up to a boil.
    6) Reduce to simmer and add ketchup (if using tomato paste, use more like a tablespoon) and stir, covering pot. Simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours, checking to stir at least every half hour.
    7) Once liquid has mostly absorbed into lentils to create a creamy effect, taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste. Here I add Tabasco sauce - what can I say, I like my kick.


    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Pizza Pizza!

    Homemade pizza with freshly made dough, tomato sauce from scratch, and a plethora of toppings:
    (From left:) caprese with tomato, mozzerella and fresh basil, then cherry tomatoes and cheese, then spinach with mushrooms, artichokes, and sundried tomatoes ... then pop that veggie paradise in the oven to bake and voila!

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    La Bella Vita

    Beacon Hill is known for its upscale restaurants such as Toscano and Beacon Hill Bistro, but I've found its less pricey cafes are just as lovely for a nice meal. Most recently I went to Bella Vita, which advertises its Italian gelato but this time of year with Boston blanketed in snow I wanted exactly the opposite: a mug of steaming hot chocolate. (Has a culinary obsession formed? Perhaps, but I make no apologies for this brewing love.) So after my excellent hot chocolate discovery in New York I decided to see what Boston has to offer, and Bella Vita certainly delivered: less than $5 for a massive mug of chocolate covered in frothy cream and sprinkled with cocoa, so good it warms you to the toes:

    Combined with Bella Vita's cozy chic decor, a nice selection of hot soups to choose from, including the classic New England clam chowder, chili, and veggie minestrone, the coffees and dessert counter just bring it all together for the perfect lunch place or coffee date.


    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Easy Entertaining

    This "salmon pie" - salmon with wild mushrooms and spinach baked in puffed pastry - is the perfect entree for easy entertaining when you want to impress your guests with an elegant-looking dinner, that is actually really easy to make! Here's how I did it:

    1) Cut filets of salmon into strips, seasoning with salt and pepper, lemon juice, and dill (as a general rule get 1/3-1/2 lb. of fish per person.)
    2) Dice wild mushrooms, saute in olive oil in skillet with salt and pepper and thyme until the mushrooms are a nice earthy brown.
    3) Drain frozen chopped spinach (I used about 2/3 a package for six people) and saute in olive oil with garlic, shallots, and salt and pepper. I mixed a little fresh parsley in as well.
    4) Roll out puffed pastry sheets (I had only phyllo dough, which resulted in a crispier texture) and dab with a little oil and water to keep them moist.
    5) Spoon a palmful of mushrooms onto the pastry sheet, place salmon on top, and cover salmon with spinach mixture.

    6) Wrap up the pastry around the salmon (making the most gourmet "pigs in a blanket" ever") and place on a baking sheet, brushing each with a little olive oil on top to give in a nice brown color.

    6) Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Bon apetit!

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    Punjab Palace

    You know it's an authentic Indian restaurant when there's a tv with Bollywood music videos playing continuously in the background. (This did result in my wanting to dance in he middle of the restaurant, but I held back.) Punjab Palace in Allston is just a stone's throw from my front door and though I'd passed it countless times and heard good things, I never tried it out until this week. I'm a big fan of Indian food and I've had some great authentic Indian meals before (the best was in Brick Lane, London, I must say) so my standards are pretty high. And Punjab Palace is quite good.

    Punjabi cuisine, from the Punjab region of northwest India, is diverse and filled with vegetarian dishes. Vegetable dishes with paneer, as well as the popular Tandoori food preparation, are typical of Punjabi cuisine; pakoras and naan bread are also classic staples. So it was only fitting that we sample the lot at Punjab Palace, from the vegetable samosas to the onion naan - their homemade bread selection has a variety of savory and sweet breads, from garlic naan or keema pratha (whole wheat tava bread stuffed with minced lamb and peas), to pashwari naan, made with coconut, raisin, and honey. From the extensive vegetarian menu including various traditional combinations of chickpeas, potatoes, and lentils we selected the dal makhani - I love these creamed lentils and suggest that if you like spicy, go for the extra spicy! The delicate flavor is naturally mild and takes well to extra heat. They also have okra cooked in Indian spices, a definite must-try for culinary novices experimenting with real Indian food.

    In addition to Punjab Palace's separate Tandoori menu, another sign of its authenticity is the absence of beef on the menu - meat options are lamb, chicken, seafood and goat, but following Hindu tradition cow is considered sacred - Hindu cooking is heavily vegetarian, in fact - (and Muslim law deems pork unclean) so the red meat of choice is lamb. For each protein at Punjab Palace are the classic masala, curry, vindaloo, and saag (spinach), and many more to choose from, so it's a good place to dine out with large groups so everyone can share. And of course finish it off with a cool and creamy mango lassi! And a Bollywood dance party ...

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Bizarre Foods

    My neighborhood is filled with a solid variety of authentic ethnic cuisine, from the Turkish shop to the Russian market to the Brazilian bakery to the Afghan restaurant down the street, a true cultural mixing pot of international foods. Naturally I've delighted in perusing the different shops and exploring the different worlds of food, and discovered some strange things, even.

    My recent visit to the Asian grocery store at the Super 88 foodhall was a trip through the "Real East Asia," wading through hundreds of imported products such as different sauces, pastes, different kinds of noodles, and even jelly-filled Asian candy - of course none of the packaging has any English translation to identify the contents so shopping here can be a kind of mystery meal game. In the seafood section they have huge vats (swimming pools, really) filled with live crabs, tilapia, and fishtanks filled with finfish swimming about, in such massive quantities the air smells overpowering of the docks at a fisherman's wharf. They have buckets of eels, jellyfish, even stingrays - imagine buying a whole jellyfish to bring home and cook for dinner. Wild.

    I also saw an airtight case of durian, one of the smelliest fruits imaginable with a custard-like texture encased in a large spiky shell, a delicacy from Southeast Asia:

    Anthony Bourdain says it leaves your breath smelling "like you've been frenching your dead grandma." That's lovely. (And explains why they had it in a padlocked cooler.)

    Exploring the meat section I saw every part of the animals imaginable, from pig's heart to various tripes (cow's stomach) to chunks of loin with the skin still on, the make pork rind. I saw a whole skinned black chicken wrapped in plastic, head on and everything - apparently Asian cooks like black chicken for the deep, gamy flavor; and I discovered quail eggs, like tiny little speckled jewels or precious stones, they seem to me. Who knew all these seemingly otherworldly foods are literally a few blocks from my kitchen? What wonders to behold ...

    Then a few nights ago I saw the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman - we don't have cable so this was a first for me - which was a perfect follow-up to my Asian market experience, especially watching the process to make stinky tofu ... gross. The Morocco episode was a lovely trip down memory lane for me, delving into the same market sights and smells I witnessed while backpacking through the exotic North African country. Here are some of the extreme foods I captured on film during my travels:

    Live snails writhing in a basket, waiting to be boiled up on the spot and eaten right out of their shells.

    Donkey's head.

    Intestines of sorts, and clusters of hooves hanging above. The raw meat I saw in the markets - this one was in Fez - are swarming with flies in the blistering heat.

    I'll never forget walking through the souks of Marakkesh and seeing a coup of live chickens, and a man who held one up and broke it's neck to spray the blood out in front of my face, to prove its freshness (and to tease me a bit no doubt.) I had a banana for dinner that night.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    Fortunate Food

    Every New Year, my mother made black-eyed peas for good luck - I never knew where this tradition stemmed from but assumed it's "a Southern thing" as so many of her family's habits are.  I researched the practice and found that the good luck traditions of eating black-eyed peas go way back - recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled around 500 CE!) at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. In the United States the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Georgia in the 1730s, and have lived there continually since.  The Jewish practice was apparently adopted by non-Jews around the time of the American Civil War.  Now considering that my mother's family lived in Georgia ... well now I have to make them every year, or risk having a bad luck year ...

    Here's a big ole pot of piping hot spicy black-eyed peas, starting with sauteed bacon, onions, red pepper and a jalapeno, and the beans, properly soaked over night, along with some diced tomato and a cup of chicken stock and enough water to just cover them, simmering in the spices (I use Creole spice blend, chili powder, paprika, cayenne and of course salt and pepper to taste.) Cook the beans for at least an hour until they've plumped up and soaked in all the flavor.  Real Southerners eat these with a shot of Tabasco.

    For my New Year celebration dinner I decided to make roasted Cornish hen filled with cornbread stuffing - after all, what's Southern food without meat and cornbread?  And I must say it turned out positively pretty:

     Note I served up the hen - so cute! - on a platter adorned with fresh parsley, pecans and cranberries for some color.  I prepared the Cornish hen by the classic stuffing-trussing-roasting method: 
    1) I began by making cornbread stuffing with chicken sausage, onions, carrots, parsley and pecans.
    2) I prepped the Cornish hen by removing the giblets, washing that baby, filling it with stuffing and lacing the legs up with cooking twine.
    3) I lay the hen in a baking pan on a bed of sliced onions, carrots and lemon segments, seasoning the bird with salt and pepper and grating some lemon zest over top, squeezing the juice from the lemon over the skin.  I tucked fresh rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley in between the legs and the breast and fit two cloves of garlic in the skin, to infuse the meat with herb flavor (this part is rather fun, like decorating a little Christmas tree ... of raw poultry, that is) and then drizzling melted butter all over the bird - I use the organic alternative but go for the real thing if it suits you - and then pop it into the oven at 425 degrees.
    4) I roasted it for about 45 minutes, then switched to broil to brown up the skin for a few minutes and turned off the heat, letting the hen cool down in the cracked oven to distribute the juices evenly.  Slice into this girl and find the flavors of the cornbread stuffing have all melded together, encased by soft meat and a sunny yellow crispy skin.  I discovered Cornish hen to have a delightfully sweeter flavor than boring baked chicken, with a natural delicacy and tenderness that's positively regal.  Happy New Year, may it be filled with deliciousness abound!