Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shortcuts for the Old Ways

Guy: In the early 70's, my paternal grandmother, Ellen, left Britain and came to live with us in Perth, Western Australia. My father, her only child, was pleased to say the least to have his childhood chef back in the house. Gran was a reserved Anglo-Indian woman from the part of the Bengal now known as Bangladesh. She brought with her recipes and techniques unfamiliar to my mother. However, the master cook my mother is soon had these recipes adapted to the more modern, Western kitchen. In this installment we will examine some of my mother's labor saving attempts to recreate my Gran's arcane recipes. We'll also look at some little tricks I've learned along the way from friends and relatives. The corner piece will be a simple dish I must have eaten a thousands times in my youth. It's economy made it especially popular around my house after the death of Gran and the transition of my mother to a single mother parent. It's daal and rice.
In the original recipe taught to my mother, Gran's method was an old Bengal technique of straining the stewed lentils of the daal through a cheesecloth to make it smooth and creamy. There are obvious problems--the most obvious being creating sieve. Labor intensive, no? Anyway, my mum found a quick way around this: use a food processor. My more modern interpretation is to use a hand blender.

This recipe calls for a chopped onion (to be sauted in the pan)--as found in the base of any curry. My friend Nehru has enlightened me in the last year to the use of the pre-fried, packaged onion. These can be purchased for about $2 a bag at most Indian grocery stores. They're a great flavorsome, quick option. Use about 1/3 bag in this recipe.

I c. dried split lentils (any color)
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1 small tomato chopped
1/2 Tbsp ginger
1/2 tsp garlic
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
salt to taste
1/4 c. butter or ghee
4-5 curry leaves
The essential element of the basmati rice is to make sure you heat the rice on high before adding the water--don't burn it! I got this technique from the Hari Krishnas. Many a free meal was consumed at the East Perth Temple by my punk friends and I back in those dole days of the early 80's.

Basmati Rice:
1 1/2 c. basmati rice
2 Tbsp butter or ghee
salt & pepper
2 3/4 c. water
1/4 tsp tumeric
Melt the butter/ghee. Add the rice and cook on high for 3 min. Add water and spices, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 40 min.

Here's a little tip about papadums. The traditional way to cook the "lentil chip" that is the papadum is to deep fry it very quickly in very hot oil. I remember watching with fascination in my mother's kitchen as the small chip explodes into life as a papadum (see picture of papadum below exploding into life). My mum recently told me that just popping the papadum in the microwave for about 30 seconds does the same thing. This tip has been confirmed by my Indian friends. Although the papadum does not have the benefit of the flavor of hot oil, it is still crisp and "benefits" from being less greasy.

I dedicate this entry to the memory of my Gran.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Warm Pasta Meal (Italy)

Zola: We named our dog, Deano, after Dean Martin - he loves the ladies, tends to indulge, and, in his youth, really was the party pug. Sometimes when we tell people his name they ask, "Is he Italian?"

Jim: This is perhaps my most culturally powerful, favorite, nostalgic, happy, funny, and strange (as in I don't think any other county does this and this is not a recipe for humans) food memory from Italy. Intrigued?

We often house sat for some dear friends in the south of Italy - Calabria, Greco-Roman to the core, a place far off the tourist trail where life is still simple in all the best senses of the word. These friends had several dogs and a cat who preferred to live in a tree. Every evening after we had eaten, I would get out a huge old pot and begin to cook pasta for the critters. Yes - the animals get a warm pasta meal, too. In Italy, in the animal section of the grocery store, there is the usual canned dog and cat food variety but there are also 25 and 50 pound sacks of large macaroni, tube pasta (made with lower grade flours - this is not our pasta) like our dry dog food. So, I would boil up a big pot of pasta each evening to which I would add old leftovers, vegetables a bit past their prime, meats, and or a very large can of gravy type dog food for flavor and nutrition. I sometimes added broths (from the dried cubes) for flavor, too.

The dogs would smell their pasta cooking and begin to get excited, standing at the door, smiling and wagging and turning in circles. When it was ready, I would haul it outside and with a large ladle begin filling their large bowls - a nice, warm dinner for all. You will have to borrow a pack of four legged critters - dogs and cats, too (although American cats may be too spoiled by rich canned foods, on the other hand this is a warm meal and that might be the enticer) to test this one. Also, a heavier wheat or organic pasta of some sort might be the closest thing here to Italian animal pasta (canine teeth al dente is what you are aiming for). That is the only basic ingredient, after that you are free to add whatever delights you have on hand or wish to add that you think will please (meat scraps from the market is always good - you will have to make an arrangement with your favorite butcher to save you some doggie goodies), cooked in whatever manner you choose (boiled in the pot with the pasta or cooked separately and added to the pasta after draining). Your culinary efforts will be amply rewarded by this audience (and remembered the next time they see you I expect - of course that could just be the "I remember they feed me" response).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sugar Pie (Canada)

Zola: What could be more appropriate for Valentine's Day than some sweet sweets? This was sent from my friend Nicole, who is, in my humble opinion, one of the best human beings walking the planet. Full stop. She also has an ability to eat an inordinate amount of sugar. I am tempted to say it's her only vice, but it hardly seems to qualify as a vice. She still has her "wisp of a girl" figure, all of her teeth, and isn't moody or weepy (my personal specialties after large sugar doses).

Nicole:In about 1994 we celebrated Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day with our friends France and Tom, and France's brother Claude, visiting his sister from Quebec to spend the summer tree-planting.

We went to the only Quebecois bar in Vancouver, had La Fin du Monde beer (very important part of your cooking process, you must find it) and ate sugar pie. Which was a complete revelation to me. Pie. Made of sugar. No ridiculously healthy fruits or nuts, just sugar, cream and butter. Who could come up with something like that? Needless to say it is delicious, served with unsweetened whipped cream. And beer. Or whiskey.

I asked France for a recipe and she got her mom to email me (attached). Enjoy my clumsy translation attempts - you can see that I didn't even attempt to translate the second recipe. I'm an embarrassment to my country.

The only "Canadian" dishes I could come up with were all from Quebec, which I'm sure says something important about our culture (the others were tortierre,
poutine and maple syrup (which is not technically a dish, but could I suppose be a drink if you were not very thirsty) (And beaver pie. Kidding)). Having said that, I'm sure that if I were from the Maritimes I would know all sorts of regional dishes. But I'm not. So you get sugar pie. And very short sentences. Enjoy.
Zola: This a picture of my first attempt at sugar pie. My French must be even worse than I thought (though, that hardly seems possible?) because when I put it in the oven I remember thinking, "What the? It's mostly butter and cream". Not ingredients that tend to get firm when you stick them in an oven. It turns out, they really don't get firm in the oven. I felt like an embarrassment to my (albeit former) profession as a pastry chef.

So I had to try it again. This time I was hanging out with my friend Kathleen. Oddly enough, Kathleen reminds me a lot of Nicole. They speak with exactly the same cadence - it's some freaky children-of-the-Irish thing. Anyway, Kathleen & I had a pie date. She's a keen pie baker and with her as my back-up, I was determined not to let this pie take me down.

So I tried a new recipe:
1 c. maple sugar
1 c. Light brown sugar
1/4 c. heavy cream
1 egg
1 Tablespoon flour
2 Tbsp melted butter

Pour that into a 9" unbaked pie shell and bake at 400F for 25 min.

Now I didn't know what maple sugar was so I used "sugar in the raw". Um. Don't do that. It didn't dissolve properly and was pretty crunchy. I feel like I break out in a cold sweat every time I think about it.

Otherwise, this attempt was better although still mind-numbingly sweet. If I ever gathered the courage to attempt sugar pie again I would do it in little tart shells so that my sugar to pie dough ratio was a little was a little more balanced.
Happy Valentine's Day. Go brush your teeth.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Arroz con Pollo (Panama)

Zola: Swiss is one of my dearest friends in the world - the closest thing I have to a sister. She's cute as pie and can be mean as a snake. There's no bullshit about her and she's loyal beyond measure. She has also - for some godforsaken reason - gone and moved to Kansas so I miss her all the time. This food tasted like hanging out in her apartment. It brought back memories of late nights, punk rock clubs, a closet full of Black Label, a pretty black Comet, and learning to cook good food. Cheers, Swiss!

Swiss: My childhood food memories are few and far between because both my parents worked full time. For the children, it was a fend for yourself thing–a Lord of the Flies meets the latch-key kids.

My parents were hippies. The only groceries their species comprehended were those that took excessive preparation. This was daunting for a kid. Hippie-dippy-coop-food takes hours to cook. It was a nightmarish endeavor full of soaking, peeling, and foraging in the garden out back. To this day, I don't know how to grocery shop for a quick fix meal, i.e., something that is healthy and instant yet not sheer junk. I sometimes observe other peoples' carts hoping to find the answer to my shopping dilemma, but all that obese Midwesterners seem to consume is wretched processed shit.

I was making crepes and chocolate eclairs when I was five so you would think I could always come up with a great meal. Not so much. Each year I had one meal that sounded consistently good to me in case my mother "created" a dish that was repellent. One year it was cold cereal. After that it was tuna sandwiches or maybe peanut butter and honey. But, thank God, sometimes my dad would make dinner due to my mothers failed experiments. My father's kitchen rescues contributed to one of my finest food memories: Arroz con Pollo. He learned the recipe growing up in panama where his father was an engineer during the construction of the canal. I finally got to visit Panama the early 90's. It was great; endless rum drinks and world class empanadas. Best of all, was a little restaurant on the beach that served authentic Arroz con Pollo. It might have been the setting, but I swear it was the best thing that I have ever had. It was different than what I was accustomed to, and there must be hundreds of variations, but this is mine, which in my opinion, is a quick and perfect dinner:

Arroz con pollo

2T oil

1 onion

2 ribs of celery

2 carrots

1 bell pepper (if you like them)

2 thighs and 2 legs

1cup rice

1 bay leaf

1/2t turmeric

salt& pepper

2t chicken base + 1 ½ cups water or 1 ½ cups of chicken stock

1/4 cup peas

1/4 cup green olives

1/4 cup golden raisins chopped (whole raisins are gross)

cut onions, celery and carrots into 1/4 inch dice

heat oil in a pot, salt, pepper and turmeric chicken

brown the chicken then remove from pot drain off excess oil

saute onions, celery and carrots for 2 minutes

add the rice and bay leaf for another minute

put the chicken back into the pot

add chicken stock

bring to a boil, stir

turn down to low and cover for 35 minutes

then add the peas, olives and raisins

let sit for five minutes

(By all means, smother in sirachi)