May 29, 2010

Thai Food #1

Lately Bangkok has been on my mind a lot. Last week I was very very worried about my family there, and sent them quite a few e-mails begging them to leave early for the summer and come here, which they sort of ignored but hey, then things calmed down and it looks like everything is okay at the moment.

It has been a little strange, in following the coverage in the New York Times, to see pictures of streets and areas you know pretty well looking like battle zones or on fire.

Oh, and that mall that burned down? That would be like the Macy's in Herald Square burning down. Hard to believe it's not there anymore.

With Bangkok, and by extension, Thailand, on my mind, I was going through some photos of our visit last summer and found a bunch of food pictures that Mr. Coffee—secret wannabe food blogger that he is—took. Looking at the pics made me think that I should post a little more about Thai food on this blog, because Thai food is perhaps the Thai people's greatest gift to the rest of the planet.

Thai cuisine, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the world's best. I start salivating the minute I know we are making one of our trips to Thailand, just thinking about all the yummy stuff I will soon eat.

I don't know if my experience in Thailand is typical. I suspect not. Not a lot of Thai food gets cooked in our house, my mother not being Thai and my SIL, while Thai, not being someone who cooks a lot. However, Bangkok, and Thailand in general, is the land of takeout and snacks, and there is never a moment in my family's Bangkok apt when some delicious Thai treat hasn't been brought in and left for everyone to enjoy.

My SIL is also crazy about fruit and every week goes to the market and brings back boatloads of it for the kids and everyone else to eat. We usually go to Thailand in the summer, and while not all my favorite fruits are in season in the summer, there are plenty of great ones to go around.

So I thought I would offer you guys a kind of Thai fruit primer, starting with the ones pictured above (and again below).

Let's go over them, shall we? Starting from left to right:

1) The big round one that looks like a melon was new to me last summer. Unfortunately, I never got an english name for it and can't remember the Thai name either. You cut it into wedges and eat it—it's a little bit like a cross between a melon and some sort of squash. Not bad, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.
2) The little tan orbs mottled with black are longans. These are some of my favorites. You peel the thin skin and inside are usually two sections of a pale, translucent, juicy fruit, sweet but with a slight sour bite. Kind of like lychees, but less perfumey. I like them better. I don't care for lychees much, but these are a delight. I can eat a whole small bunch of them for breakfast.
3) The elongated apple-shaped red ones are rose apples. Super crisp and refreshing, but without a very strong taste. These are great for after exercising or sitting by the pool. In my mind the same function as watermelon, but with less flavor.
4) In the back are the small Thai bananas, which I love. First of all, the size is perfect—I don't need much more banana than that. Also, they are somehow creamier, richer, and more custardy-tasting than the bananas we get here.
(Those green things underneath the longans are apples—they don't merit discussing here.)

5) Mangosteens—These are the queen of fruits and I never get tired of eating them. I read somewhere once that Queen Victoria offered a knighthood to anyone who could successfully grow her a mangosteen in England, and I believe it.

I first encountered this fruit about 20 years ago, when Mr. Coffee and I were traveling around Sri Lanka, during their horrible civil war, as a break from traveling around India. (Explaining that would take up another post.) We were staying at a guesthouse in Kandy where we could use the kitchen, so we went to the market and marveled at all the things we could get there that we hadn't seen in India. Avocados, pineapple, real Pepsi—it was a deprived person's delight. We bought some mangosteens, which I had never even heard of, and took them back to the guesthouse, where our lives were changed forever.

Basically, you use your two thumbs to break into the hard outer shell of the mangosteen and inside are between 5 and 7 segments of snow-white, juicy flesh. You can tell how many segments you're going to get if you count the petals on the blossom end, a neat little trick my SIL taught me. (the one in the lower right that is blossom end up would have 6 segments inside.)

And the taste? I don't even know how to describe it, other than to say that it's close to heaven. If you're ever in a place where you have access to mangosteens, please don't pass them up. I have noticed that you can now get them in chinatown (in both Flushing and Manhattan) and if I didn't have access to them on a semi-regular basis, I would break down and buy some there, even though they are exorbitantly priced. But if you've never had one, I suggest you fork over the dough for them at least once, cause you just don't know what you're missing.

Have I made myself clear? Seriously, they're delicious.

6) Rambutans—These are the ones on the far right in the top picture, but unfortunately, I don't have a close-up pic of them. (What's up with that, Mr. Coffee?) I think a bowl of rambutans makes a great decorative item for your dining room, but I don't love eating them. They're okay, I guess. You break open that bright red, prickly looking shell and inside is translucent white flesh surrounding a seed. Much like lychees. Slightly perfumey. I prefer longans, which aren't as sexy on the outside but are much tastier inside.

And there you have it. There are plenty of other Thai fruits that I don't have pics of: mangoesdragonfruitThai papaya, which is pinker than the kind we get here, guavaspomelo, which is kind of like a grapefruit and the soccer monster's favorite, custard apples, which are one of my personal favorites, and, of course, durian, the king of Thai fruits, which, when ripe, is so stinky that it's often not allowed in hotels and other public places. (When my FIL came to Thailand once, he was staying at a hotel that had a sign prominently displayed saying "No Durians Allowed!" Being a human rights activist, this greatly upset my FIL, and when I came to pick him up at his hotel the first day, he hotly asked me, "Who are the durians and why are they being discriminated against?")

May 16, 2010

Pressure Cooker Kitchen-Sink Soup

I've learned a lot of things having a blog. One of them is that I need new plates. Vintage Mikasa black and yellow stoneware from the 70s just doesn't photograph that well. Nor does it make food look very appetizing.

Which is a shame, as this is a very appetizing soup. Also a thrifty one. The Vegetarian loves soup and I am always looking to make a hearty, nutritious one for her.

About once a week or so  I make what I call kitchen-sink soup, which is basically a lot of the leftover vegetables, beans, and rice in my fridge simmered together with a magic ingredient: a parmesan cheese rind. The rind is essential for a vegetarian soup—it adds that meaty, salty, umami quality that I used to to get by adding bacon or salami in the PV (pre-vegetarian) days.

In the old days I didn't make kitchen-sink soup as often as I wanted to because it involved a couple of hours of stovetop simmering and when it occurred to me to make the soup, I usually didn't have that much time before dinner.

But then enter my pressure cooker (HIMHMILMPC?). Now I can bung all the ingredients in there and voila!—soup in about 30 minutes.

The kitchen-sink soup pictured here contains some chinese-food leftovers (stir-fried spinach and white rice)  a can of cannelini beans, some leftover canned tomatoes, parsley, garlic, thyme—and the parmesan rind. All of it was languishing in my fridge, except the parmesan rind, which i keep a bag of in the freezer.

You can start the usual way by sauteeing some aromatics (onion, garlic, carrot, celery, etc) but this time I just threw everything into the pot with some broth and water. Sometimes I sneak chicken broth into the soup, but this time I think I used vegetable broth. I can't remember. I brought everything up to a boil and then cooked it on high pressure for about 20 minutes, letting the pressure come down naturally.

If I'm giving the Vegetarian the soup for dinner, I'll sometimes poach an egg in her serving, for added protein. Together with some whole grain toast, it makes for a fast and delicious vegetarian meal.

May 6, 2010

More Cake

Before anyone groans about two cake posts in a row, just know that it is birthday season around here. Both my kids have their birthdays in the spring, as do many of their (and our) closest friends. So springtime is always cake time.

This is one I made for the Vegetarian's friend, Arlo. I wrote on the cake and then the Vegetarian decorated it. Arlo asked for a chocolate cake with orange frosting. When pressed, he clarified that he wanted orange-flavored frosting, not orange colored frosting.

As with the German chocolate cake, I made this cake using ideas from a few different recipes.

The cake layers themselves were the recipe on the back of the Hershey's tin again, though I swapped the milk for sour cream and the water for hot coffee.

The middle was filled with a chocolate ganache, like this:

Then the top was iced with an easy version of Italian buttercream that I got from this chowhound thread, to which lots of orange zest had been added.

I enjoyed this cake. I liked the contrast between the ganache filling and the buttercream icing. A cake with ganche filling and frosting is often too richly chocolate, but if it's filled and frosted with buttercream i miss the moussy chocolate flavor of the ganache. So this cake lets you have both. The orange zest added just the right touch to the buttercream, which i sometimes think can be a little boring. I would make this cake again, tho I think that I might try a different cake layer recipe. This cake could use richer, denser, more poundcake-like cake layers, I think.