Monday, March 28, 2011

Cambodian Curry

I decided to make Cambodian curry for dinner last night, using as authentic ingredients and traditional cooking methods as I could, but WITHOUT a proper RECIPE. Seem like an impossible challenge? Sounds like fun to me. The first step, of course, was to research Cambodian food. Considering that I (a) have never been to Southeast Asia, (b) have only had legit Cambodian food a few times ... ever, and (c) did I mention I'm from Maryland? Yeah. I had my work cut out for me. I did a little reading on Khmer cuisine (the name for Cambodian food) and found it is similar to that of Thailand, though generally not as spicy, and Vietnamese, a fellow former French colony. Rice noodles, fish, curries, tropical fruit - sounds good to me. Then I came across descriptions of national specialties such as crispy fried spiders (stomach lurch) and photos of insect-filled market stalls such as this:

No thank you. I figured I'd stick to the basics. The staple of the Cambodian diet? Rice. Check. Next on my list, the favorite of Cambodian curries? Coconut milk. Then I found a description of a traditional Cambodian dish I really liked the sound of: a fragrant sauce with lemongrass, shallots, and garlic - with tofu, plum tomatoes, hot peppers and Asian basil. Could I recreate this dish in my kitchen in Boston, without a recipe? I decided to try.

So I got all the fresh produce, including fresh lemongrass from the Asian market near my house: I've never cooked with lemongrass before, so I researched that, too. I learned to prepare it properly I should slice along the grain into tiny wisps, the "grass", and then blend it with minced garlic, ginger, chili, and a little water, to create a paste. *I found that if you blend it in the blender with about a cup of water to really loosen up the little shreds of lemongrass and then pour through a strainer, it achieved the desired consistency.

I heated oil in the wok, added the lemongrass-garlic-ginger-chili mixture, cooked for a bit to infuse the oil with the flavor, and then added the vegetables, mixing to coat. I diced the tofu and browned it first in a separate pan, sprinkling in a little cornstarch to crisp up the edges, and then added the tofu in with the veggies and spices. I added some chicken broth and raised the heat (ensuring that the bit of cornstarch dissolved in the hot broth and thickened it), a dash of curry, then lowered the flame and stirred in some coconut milk. (You'll note there are no measurements to this as I "winged it" as they say - if trying to recreate this I'd say about a cup of fat-free, low sodium chicken broth to half a can of light coconut milk, using two lemongrass stalks, a container of tofu, and a ton of veggies.) I added a dash each of fish sauce, soy, rice wine vinegar, and some sesame oil, stirring to combine and simmering to let the flavors meld.

Then I ripped up some fresh basil to stir in, added chopped scallions for garnish, and served the steaming hot curry over brown rice. The verdict: not bad for my first try ...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Food for Family

I recently found myself visiting family unexpectedly, and was reminded by what a central role food plays in my family - it is the source of entertainment, comfort, and togetherness; quite literally, it is the lifeblood that unites us.

Family holiday gatherings are centered around food; the traditions of the old country, the old family favorites, the Christmas/Easter pastimes and the same recipes passed down from generation to generation ... they all spring from the original source - Grandma.

So it's only natural that in the bad times, along with the good, my grandma springs to action and brings out the rolling pin to beat us (figuratively) back to health. Upon tragedy she went into crisis mode and first made her infamous chicken and dumpling soup, the ultimate comfort food derived from an Eastern European classic not unlike matzo ball soup, warming us to the core with the timeless taste of ... home. And her. To me that soup is the essence of Grandma, it spells love in every broth, and along with her incredible homemade peanut butter fudge, I am instantly transported back to childhood.

Next she filled her house with enough food to feed an army, to ensure we were all properly fed, and while I must admit that my family is in fact rather large, we still had more than enough to suffice. The days went as such: wake up to breakfast with one aunt and family, then brunch at Grandma's, where she happened to have an entire ham, and then proceeded to go from there to my other aunt's house for lunch to dinner - an ongoing buffet of meats and cheeses, pasta, fruit, cookies, galore; somehow platters of food seemed to cover every surface - naturally Grandma called my aunt before we left for her place to tell her, "don't worry, I have a turkey." Just in case, of course. I wondered where she'd been hiding it.

Just as Christmas cookies had always meant "celebrate!", this food took on a different meaning - it meant "I love you" and "don't worry" and even "everything will be okay." Through the simple act of feeding us all, make sure our bellies were full, Grandma showed us her unwavering love. She wasn't going to let us feel that empty pit of loss in our stomachs, even if it meant she had to fill it with chicken. In this way, she was not only Grandma to us all, she was Mom again to her fully-grown children, mother bird welcoming them back into the nest. The truth is, she has built this family, created the intricate web that just keeps growing. Having birthed many cooks now spanning the country, we've all tried to replicate her classic family recipes. I remember so clearly the day my Grandma taught me how to make her peanut butter fudge, in my noble but vain attempt to go on to make it without her whenever I pleased, but of course it never tasted as good as when she made it. Family cooking is an act of passing along traditions; of teaching the young the techniques they will go on to use for the rest of their lives; of providing each other with comfort, security, and most of all, love.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Macaron (not Macaroon!)

On my most recent visit to New York City I happened upon the quaint little Macaron Cafe on the Upper East side, a stylish café featuring, what else, the macaron. This French pastry, once found only in Paris and the occasional upscale bridal luncheon, is coming into fashion in the American culinary scene. For me it raises the question: when is food "in style" and how does it become so? Like the fashion industry, the culinary world sees trends rise and fall over time (see my post "Dinner at the Plaza", which comments on the rise of simple comfort classics served at galas in response to the recession: - apparently this year chicken pot pie was all the rage at Paris and New York fashion weeks, celebrating down-home comfort food as the preferred menu of the nouveau riche ... who saw that coming? But food need not be stylish to be in style.

Now the macaron, like so many of the recent popular food trends to arise in the last decade, has a decidedly feminine flair. When the Cupcake Movement, as I like to call it, moved from New York City's Magnolia Bakery across the country like wildfire, with cutsie little cupcake shops sprouting up all over cities like daisies, one couldn't help but identify this genre as "chick food." What does this say about market trends, you ask, other than that apparently many teenage girls and doting mothers are willing to spend $5 on a small but pristine sugar cup? To me it signifies that the concept that "food is art" is back in style, the notion that food's beauty conveys a greater reflection, a whole eating experience. The stateside growing interest in macarons follows suit, as the puffy little morsels traditionally made from almond flour. with creamy fillings, are as fussy as they sound - not the easy-to-make confections found in your average American kitchen, the macaron is real edible art. Now straying from the traditional chocolate/vanilla/etc. flavors, pâtissiers are creating macarons of all colors of the rainbow, from fruity, florals, to bright green pistachio. At Macaron Cafe I saw every flavor from the classic raspberry (homemade preserves in the center, of course) to passion fruit, coconut, and cassis. I went for the espresso.

In my mind, the perfect way to enjoy a macaron is with a frothy cappuccino, to bite into the fluffy little sugar pillows joined by heavenly buttercream, ganache, or jam-filled centers, to let the light texture slowly dissolve on your tongue, and to dip the next half into the cappuccino foam, soaking in to the delicate sweetness. Macarons are made to be bite-sized delights but it can take me many nibbles to devour this elegant "cookie" - I highly recommend you visit the cafe and splurge on one to enjoy this experience for yourself. Just don't buy a whole box to take home ... I can assure you they'll be gone before you get there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pie Day

In honor of Pi Day, 3/14, here are my all-time favorite pies for every season:

Spring: Key lime pie or lemon meringue pie - tart and fruity, these pies are the light sweet treats that I want this time of year.
Summer: tie between fresh strawberry rhubarb pie (I made this for the first time with the fresh produce from my friend's Maine farm last summer and it was incredibly good) and "mudslide pie" - coffee ice cream pie in a chocolate cookie crust, perfect for cooling you down in warm summer months.
Fall: pecan pie, followed by my recent experiment pumpkin chiffon pie (the fluffy take on the traditional Thanksgiving favorite) - using my mother's homemade pie crust recipe ALWAYS, never store-bought, thank you.
Winter: chocolate mousse pie. This has become a holiday favorite of my family's, garnished with fresh raspberries, and it may be the single best pie on the planet.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Big Easy: Gumbo

Gumbo as a culinary entity is the quintessential embodiment of the multicultural melting pot that is the city of New Orleans. The stew begins with a French cooking technique, the roux, whisking flour into animal fat, often butter, to create a thick gravy that flavors the dish. The Cajun dish combines New World ingredients with African flavors, using the bay leaves and spices introduced to the French Lousiana settlers by the Native Americans, and the vegetable okra, which was brought over by West African slaves. Gumbo was adapted over time, and as the locals with tell you, there's no one set recipe for gumbo. Here's mine:

Few tablespoons of butter and flour
Gumbo seasoning mix from French Quarter, New Orleans (the real stuff)
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/8 cup chopped carrot
1/3 cup chopped green onion
2 tbps. minced garlic
1 cup sliced okra (fresh is best, but defrosted frozen will do in a pinch)
2 cups chicken stock/2 cups water (can use fish stock if going super-seafood flavor)
1 bottle of clam juice
1 can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 tbsp. Cajun seasoning blend
1-2 tbps. cayenne pepper
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried parsley
1 tsp. dried basil
1 package Andouille sausage, sliced
2 lbs. shrimp, peeled and deveined (I use tail-on - all the shrimpy flavor's in the tail!)
black pepper to taste (I found no extra salt necessary with all the salty flavor from the sausage and Cajun seasoning blend, which is super salty on its own!)
dash Tabasco (as usual, I like it hot)
1-2 scallions, chopped, for garnish
*Serve over rice to soak up all the broth's flavor.

1) In a large heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, add in the flour and whisk in, stirring constantly, until the roux is dark brown in color. (This can take up to 30 min.) In a separate pot I poured the Cajun gumbo seasoning into a few cups of water and brought to a boil, stirring until the lumps were dissolved.
2) Add the onions, celery, garlic, and peppers to the roux, sauteing until the onions are translucent. Then season with spices and herbs and pour the Cajun gumbo seasoning in the pot, stirring to evenly coat.
3) Mix in the okra, then pour in the stock, clam juice, water, diced tomatoes with their juice, bay leaves, and bring up heat to medium.
4) Add the shrimp and sausage and simmer over medium-low heat for up to an hour.
5) Remove the bay leaves and adjust seasoning to taste, serving over white rice.

This gumbo tastes even better the next day!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mardis Gras Feast

In celebration of Mardis Gras I made a Cajun feast for Fat Tuesday last night, using authentic Cajun and Creole spices I brought back from New Orleans. Traditional New Orleans food includes gumbo and jambalaya, my all-time favorite crawfish etouffee, Po-boy sandwiches, red beans and rice - it's a culinary celebration of seafood and spice. Classic sweets are the famed beignets, bananas foster, and of course the famed King Cake. Cajun cuisine, the style of cooking created by the French-speaking immigrants of Louisiana, stems from French cooking combined with Native American and African influences, taking on a bold flavor. Likewise, Creole cooking exemplifies the cultural melting pot of the New Orleans food world; the distinction between Cajun and Creole is that Cajun stems from rustic provencal cooking whereas Lousiana Creoles use a more classical European cooking style adapted with local ingredients. The result is an incredible culinary style that has come to define the city.

A taste of my New Orleans culinary experiences:

Beignets and coffee at the famed Cafe du Monde in the historic French Market

King Cake, adorned in the Mardis Gras classic colors purple, green and gold

The baby I discovered in my piece - it signifies good luck for a year!

Of course perhaps the most iconic New Orleans treat of all ... the hurricane.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Year of Squash

We love squash so much in my kitchen that I realized I've made enough different squash recipes to use a new one each month of the year! Here's the year in squash:

January: winter squash soup with kale and white beans
February: African peanut squash stew
March: spaghetti squash with beets, feta and walnuts
April: gratin with baked butternut squash, leeks, goat cheese, and hazelnuts
May: butternut squash risotto
June: Vegetable Napoleon: summer squash, zucchini, portabella mushrooms, tomato, caramelized onions, on bed of sautéed spinach with saffron jus
July: sauteed yellow squash and zucchini "pasta" / summer squash topped with fresh pesto
August: grilled farmer's market vegetables (squash, onions, portobello mushrooms, etc.)
September: butternut squash bisque
October: Native American kabocha squash soup with black beans
November: Thanksgiving squash casserole (savory with cheesy yellow squash or sweet butternut squash with pecans)
December: roasted winter squash with sage maple glaze

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Love (and food)

"There is no love sincerer than the love of food."

-George Bernard Shaw