September 7, 2011

The Eaten Path

Just had my second Thailand article published at The Eaten Path. This great website is run by my friend James Boo. Have a look and let me know what you think.

August 29, 2011

Seviche (or Ceviche)

I've always spelled it Ceviche, but this is a picture of my friend Omar's Seviche, and that's how he spells it.

I first heard about Omar's seviche when his wife Paola mentioned that they were going to a book party because Omar's seviche recipe had been published in this book.

(In the "small world" dept., also in this book are some recipes by the manager of the soccer monster's former soccer team, a man who was once unspeakably rude and mean and awful to us. Imagine my surprise when, looking through to find Omar's recipe, I came across this man's name and recipes. Oddly enough—or perhaps not so oddly—knowing he could cook improved my opinion of him.)

I've always had a funny relationship with ceviche (or seviche). I'm often not thrilled with the idea of eating it, and when I see it, it doesn't really look that appetizing to me. But then, when I take the first bite, it's usually unfailingly—and surprisingly—delicious. It's like rediscovering that I like ceviche, every single time.

Anyway, when I discovered that Omar's seviche was good enough to be in a cookbook, I was of course very intrigued and started dropping obvious hints about getting invited over for some waiting patiently to be invited over for some. I figured that a) it would be delicious and b) it would finally cure me of my ceviche problem.

But you know what? When I eventually did get invited to their lovely home to eat Omar's seviche, it was the same as ever. I looked at the seviche, all beautifully plated like this:

And I just thought, "Wow, I'm not going to like this much!"

Boy was I wrong!

Omar's seviche is, I can say fairly unequivocally, one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth.

It's just a totally harmonious combination of ingredients—the sourness of the lime and lemon juice, the bite of the raw ginger, the crunch of the celery, the smoky hotness of the roasted jalapenos. All of these combined with  the chewiness of the clams(he doesn't always put clams in, but he did this time) and the tenderness of the fish (he used tilapia) just made for amazingly happy mouthfuls. I couldn't stop eating it. We had the seviche on a gloomy, rainy sunday and the taste of it on my tongue just made the whole room seem bathed in sunshine. It's that good. Really.

As you can see from the picture above, he serves it with sweet potatoes and corn (and bread) which really turns it into a meal. And he also plates it beautifully on a piece of romaine lettuce. But you don't have to do either of those things. You can just make the seviche, leave it to marinate for a while (the longer the better) and then dig right into the bowl with a fork, transporting yourself directly to flavor heaven.

Not that I know anyone who would do such a thing.

Omar's Seviche
(serves 6)

2 pounds of tilapia or flounder
3 lemons
5 limes
salt to taste
2 stalks celery
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 red onion
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 jalapeno peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large can whole clams or 2 dozen shucked fresh raw clams or 3 dozen cooked and shelled Manila clams (optional)
3 sweet potatoes (optional)
3 ears of corn, (optional)

1) Slice the fish into 1/2 inch strips and put into a bowl. Add clams if using.
2) Squeeze the juice from the lemons and limes and pour over the fish.
3) Add some salt. (Go easy at first and add more later if you need it.) Let the fish "cook" 30 to 40 minutes in the refrigerator.
4) Finely dice the celery and red onion. Grate or finely dice the ginger.
5) Roast the jalapenos over a flame until the outer skins blacken and burst. Let sit 10 minutes, then slide the burnt skins off and thinly slice the peppers.
6) After the fish has marinated, add all the other prepped ingredients and mix. Let sit an additional 20 to 30 minutes before serving. The longer you wait, the richer the flavor gets.
7) If using sweet potatoes and corn, boil them while the fish "cooks." Cut the sweet potatoes and corn cobs in half and serve the seviche accompanied by half a sweet potato and half an ear of corn.

Eat and swoon!

July 25, 2011

Potato Parathas

It's hard to post if you don't cook. And I haven't been. But not because I've been worn out or disinterested. It's just that for the past few weeks I've been in the warm embrace of my family in Thailand. This means that I eat a lot of Thai food, either out at a restaurant, or brought in. Or that my mother cooks delicious meals for me. She loves to do it, and I, being a dutiful daughter, have to let her.

Or it means I eat delicious things like this:
These are vegetarian Burmese style noodles made by Goma, my parents' housekeeper, who is Burmese but  of Nepali descent, and a strict pure-veg Hindu. She's always making delicious things and leaving them on the stove for us. As you might imagine, the Vegetarian loves Goma and has been in heaven.

But I've been sitting on this post for a while. For one thing, I love the ladies whose recipe I'm showcasing and have been wanting to give them a shoutout on my blog. For another, this post is a total counterpoint to the one I did on bao in which I extoll the virtues of letting other people make things for you.

In this case, I did the opposite.

I made potato parathas instead of buying them.

But, before anyone points a "j'accuse!" finger of hypocrisy at me, I will confess that I do usually buy them, on my Indian shopping sprees to Patel Bros. in Jackson Heights—about a dozen bags at a time. You see, potato parathas are a staple in my house. The kids can't live without them, and if they go a few weeks and there aren't any around, the whining will begin.

This winter, it so happened that I didn't get to Patel Bros. for months. Our paratha supply ran dry. The wee ones went into withdrawal.

I had to do something. So, inspired by these lovely ladies, I decided to try making my own.

I had avoided making filled parathas for years. It just seemed so hard, encasing the filling in the dough and everything. But you know what?

It was easy. Really, really easy. Here's the link to the recipe. And, now that I've done it a few times, a couple of tips:

1) the potatoes need to be really dry. I usually microwave mine or use leftover baked. If you boil them, drain as soon as they are done and put them back on the stove in the empty pan and shake the pan over high heat until they dry a little. If the potatoes are too wet, the filling will be too wet and it will ooze out of the paratha, making it impossible to roll the bread out and also making a big big mess. Trust me. I speak from experience.

2) If you can't find chaat masala, you can use another spice blend, or make your own. I have used both chana masala mix and sambar powder. I also add a few whole toasted cumin seeds to the filling.

3) a cast iron griddle (I use my cast iron tawa, or indian griddle, that I inherited from my mom) works great. These breads don't stick, but a little oil brushed on them during cooking improves the flavor immensely. As does a little butter or ghee put on top before serving. And keep the heat at medium, so that they can cook through before the outsides get too brown.

4) The first time I made the parathas with atta, Indian chapati flour, but then I ran out and, since I couldn't get back to Patel Bros. to get more (if I had, I would have just bought the parathas), I had to find a substitute. White whole wheat flour works very very well. I would give atta a slight edge, but white whole wheat flour is a) available almost anywhere, unlike atta, and b) can be used for other things as well.

5) Stack the cooked parathas in a covered container like tortillas and they will keep at room temp for a few hours and in the fridge for a few days. They even freeze beautifully. (Reheat in a toaster oven. This is a breakfast/snack staple in our house.) I've been on the lookout for a stainless steel lidded container like my Indian aunties use, but so far no luck. Here they are stacked:

But honestly, the first time I made them, I was amazed at how good and easy they are. They're very forgiving. Plus, they're nutritious—what with the whole wheat flour and potatoes and all. 

I'm happy every time the soccer monster scarfs a couple up.

June 29, 2011

Pie Time

If it's not too hot to turn on my oven, June means strawberry-rhubarb pie for the Vegetarian and me. It's our favorite.

I was worried that this June would go by without us making one, because after a cold spring it's been hot as hades around here and we have all been super busy to boot.

But last week the urge hit us hard and I bit the bullet and agreed to turn on the oven. (which I then forgot to turn off for hours, all the while wondering why the house was so damn hot)

The filling for this pie is easy. Just some strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, and the the thickener of your choice. I like tapioca starch for most fruit pies except apple.

Then comes the crust. The Vegetarian really enjoys making crust—mashing it all up in the bowl with her hands. This one turned out a litte too short, mainly because I used some lard but then forgot to cut the quantities (Lard, not having much water in it, is purer fat than butter, so you really can't substitute 1 for 1 in recipes.)

Which brings me to the real purpose of this post, which is to rant about pie crust.

I think I must have made my first attempt at crust over 20 years ago. Since then I have made many, many pies and learned a few things along the way. I've also tried almost every trick out there—using vodka, or milk, or orange juice instead of water; using the food processor, or a pastry blender; sticking the bowl in the freezer every 2 seconds; adding cream cheese (one of the few that I adopted) or whatever.

And you know what I have decided? They are all beside the point. Pie should be simple and easy to make, and too many of these recipes fetishize it. In the "Pie and Pastry Bible" Rose Levy Berenbaum wants you to stick the crust ingredients in a ziploc bag, chill it heavily, and then mix through the ziploc, so that the warmth from your fingers doesn't soften the butter too much. It does make nice pie crust, and if that's what works for you, great. Go for it.

But I just think it's all too much trouble. Pie is something farm wives used to get up and bake by the dozen at dawn, to be served at lunch when the men came in from the fields. They didn't have freezers, or ziploc bags, or food processors, or vodka.

So here are a few of my personal thoughts on pie crust, for anyone who is just starting out:

1) Find a recipe that works for you and stick with it. I have a friend who makes very good pie crust using oil. It's never worked for me, but it works well for him.

2) Don't be afraid of the liquid. Beginning crust makers are often afraid to add enough liquid, because all the recipes exhort them to use just enough to moisten. Then they end up with a dry dough that they have to knead until it's the texture of cardboard. If you're new to crust-making, too much liquid is better than too little.

3) A combo of lard and butter makes a superior crust, but all butter makes a great crust, too. I don't like all-lard crusts because the flavor isn't as good. And I don't like shortening crusts that much. They leave a greasy mouth feel.

4) Use your fingers to mix the dough and, if you do it enough, you'll get a feel for what the proper texture and moistness should be. Most recipes suggest about a stick of butter (1/2 cup) for every 1 and 1/4 to 1 and 1/2 cups of flour. I like the more flour ratio because I prefer my crusts not to be too short—it makes them crumbly.

5) Even good pie makers create dud crusts every once in a while. Trust me. I'm known for my pie and I still make a less-than-stellar crust sometimes. (See pie photo above.) It happens. Just note what you didn't like about it and adjust the next time.

6) Unlike free-form tarts, pie is not a last minute thing. The making and baking of a pie usually takes close to 2 hours, and then most pies need another 3 or 4 hours to cool down. I actually prefer pie the day after it's made. Store it covered or in an airtight place (I use my microwave) but please don't put it in the fridge, unless it's a dairy-based pie. The fridge ruins the crust.

7) One great trick I did pick up from Rose Levy Berenbaum is to place your pie directly on the floor of the oven for the first 20 minutes or so of baking. This keeps the bottom crust from getting too mushy. Of course, put a baking sheet underneath it unless you want fruit syrup all over your oven.

8) For double crust fruit pies, don't forget to dot the filling with butter before putting on the top crust. This step, which might seem unimportant, actually adds a lot to the finished pie.

9) And finally, don't be afraid of pie crust and pie. Many cooks and bakers are. A summer fruit pie is one of the most delicious desserts known to man. Others feel the same about apple pie, and, while I make a lot of apple pies (see my post on the lard man) I have never taken to them the way I have to summer fruit and berry pies. And pecan pie, perhaps my favorite.

I am southern, after all.

June 20, 2011

Braised Beef Bao

I'm back! I guess my hiatus was longer than expected, but I needed a break. Mr. Coffee took over cooking duties for a while, though he didn't document them.

At first the kids were a little wary (the Vegetarian: "I don't think it's such a good idea for Daddy to do the cooking.") but they soon warmed up to the idea of having completely different dinners from the ones I made.

Then spring finally made a late appearance and my desire to cook came rushing back. So here I am.

Pictured above is my attempt to make a bao, or bun, sort of a la Momofuku. I was shopping at a giant Asian grocery store one afternoon and saw the buns in the refrigerated section and thought, "Why not?"

The standard filling is pork belly, but in the same market they were selling delicious looking pieces of boneless beef shin, so I bought that instead. I brasied it in some soy sauce, sugar, star anise, black vinegar, and ginger. Then I steamed the buns and piled strands of the brasied beef on there, along with some of the cooking juice, some cilantro, some quick pickles I made with persian cucumbers and rice wine vinegar, and some sri racha. I debated adding some peanuts, but decided against it.

The verdict? Mr. Coffee pronounced them delicious, tho he would have like the beef juices a touch sweeter. I think next time I'll go for pork belly, and buy some of the pickled mustard greens to go with.

The real revelation for me was how easy the bao are to use. I tend to sometimes get daunted by the thought of using something that seems complicated. But these just required a quick ten-minute steam and they were ready to go. I'm sure there are many people who would swear by making your own, but when I can easily buy these (with no more ingredients in them than the kind you would make at home—trust me on this—I'm an incorrigable label reader—that's why it takes me hours to shop.), I just don't see the point.

I used to fantasize a lot about being stuck out living in the country where I would be forced to cook and bake absolutely everything from scratch, but lately I'm in a phase where I truly embrace the idea that living in NYC means you happily get to let other people make certain foods for you.

Anyway, my main point is that if you have something delicious stuffed into a steamed bun at a restaurant and you think you can't do that at home, not because of the filling but because of the bun, you're wrong!

Get yourself to an Asian grocery store, buy some buns, steam away, and then stuff them with whatever you want.

You'll be happy you did. I promise.

February 7, 2011

Potato Salad

Today's post is about the humble potato salad. There are probably more ways to make potato salad than there are varieties of potato, which is saying something, as, according to Wikipedia, there are close to 4000 varieties of spuds.

This post is not for those of you who like an elegant salad, made of new potatoes boiled in their skins until just tender and then lightly dressed and gently tossed, sophisticated enough to sit alongside some cold poached salmon at a luncheon. I know there's a time and place for that kind of potato salad, but since I never serve cold poached salmon, I don't serve that kind of potato salad, either.

I really only serve one kind of potato salad. (Or maybe two, if you count the maharashtrian style potatoes with tomatoes and coconut that I sometimes serve room temperature on Indian buffets. But it's not really a salad, just a cold potato dish. There's a difference. I think.)

I serve a classic style, down home, southern potato salad, chock full of eggs, mustard, and mayo, with a little chopped pickle and some parsley thrown in. And some celery. Or celery seed if you prefer.

The potatoes can be any kind, but I actually like it best with regular whites or russets (though yukons do a fine job, too) because as you toss the salad the potatoes get smushed and their starch bonds with the egg yolk and mayo and mustard and forms this delicious creamy dressing that is close to heaven. This is the potato salad for those who secretly want to eat egg salad by the spoonful, but don't.

It's great at a barbecue, next to hamburgers, on a picnic. Last night I served it alongside NC style chopped barbecue sandwiches with coleslaw. It was perfect.

You can alter this potato salad to suit your tastes. My mother adds sour cream to hers. (You can take the lady out of Hungary, but you can't take the Hungary out of the lady.) I, being from the south, like a little sweetness in mine, so I add half bread and butter pickles and half regular dill pickles. But some people like all sweet pickles and some like all dill. Just don't use relish—it's not as good, unless you're in a total hurry and then it's an acceptable substitute. Also, a little minced sweet onion is a fine addition, but often I'm just too lazy busy to do all that chopping.

Try it. Even if you're not Southern, it will bring you down home.

Potato Salad
3 pounds potatoes, boiled whole in their skins
2 sticks celery, diced, or 1 tsp celery seed
about 1/2 cup sliced pickled, diced
1/4 cup minced parsley
6 diced hard boiled eggs
1/4 cup mayo
1/8 cup mustard
vinegar (any kind but red wine or balsamic)

Boil potatoes until done. Cool slightly, then peel off skins and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Toss in a large bowl with a couple of tablespoons vinegar and about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
Add in celery (or celery seed), pickles, and parlsey and mix. Then mix in mayo and mustard. Mix well, then add diced eggs and mix well again. Egg yolks should sort of mix with the dressing and potatoes should be getting a little smushed.
Now taste. Add more vinegar, salt, pepper, mayo, or mustard as needed. If you like it on the sweet side, you could also add a little sugar. Mix again and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. But don't serve it too cold straight from the fridge. It's best just slightly cooler than room temp.

January 30, 2011

Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Cookies

I love peanut butter in all its forms. On sandwiches, as ice cream, in cookies. I love peanut butter cookies, love their chewy sweet saltiness.

Unfortunately, my family doesn't. And, since I make cookies for my kids and not myself (I don't need to eat an entire batch of cookies), peanut butter cookies don't get made around here.

But the other day, rummaging around in my cupboard, I found an old jar of natural peanut butter and was struck with an intense desire to make peanut butter cookies. Besides, I had to do something with the jar. It was too old to eat on sandwiches, and my family hates natural peanut butter on sandwiches, anyway. (We're Jif extra-crunchy people.)

I figured  I could seduce my family into the peanut-butter-cookie-loving camp by making peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies. Two great tastes and all that. We all love Reese's peanut butter cups.

I tooled around on the web and decided on this recipe. (Actually, I didn't tool around very hard, since this was the second recipe that came up when I googled "peanut butter chocolate chip cookies") The recipe was easy, which I liked, but what particularly intrigued me was the addition of two tablespoons of corn syrup to the dough. I suspected that the corn syrup helped keep the cookies chewy, since corn syrup is a moisture-retainer in baked goods. I was looking for a chewy cookie, because my kids definitely lean in the soft-baked direction. (Mr. Coffee prefers a darker, harder, crunchier, more caramelized cookie, but of course, once we had kids, what he prefers became irrelevant around here.)

So I made these cookies. And they came out pretty good. The kids loved them. Me, I didn't think they were peanut buttery enough, but perhaps that's why they were such a hit with the kids.

In the pic above, the cookies are from two different batches. The one on the left is from the first batch, the one the kids loved. The one on the right was from a second batch. In an effort to boost the peanut flavor, I added chopped peanuts to the top and baked them for a little longer, hoping to create some delicious caramelized toastiness. The peanuts on top ended up being a nice addition, but baking longer didn't really work with these cookies, because the corn syrup keeps them from getting a crisp, caramelized consistency. So they end up tasting slightly toasty but weirdly chewy. Underbaking for a soft cookie is the better way to go.

This recipe is definitely a winner with the soft-baked crowd, if that's who you're baking for. They're easy, and you'll be popular. They were devoured at my book group, too.

January 10, 2011

Cherry Strudel

When I was a kid, my mother used to make meggyleves—Hungarian sour cherry soup—quite a bit. I hated that soup. I didn't like cooked sour cherries, and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to eat a sweet fruit soup before a meal. I, who loved soup more than anything in the universe, used to push my spoon through the bowl and sigh. It just seemed so unfair!

Fast forward many, many years later. My dislike of meggyleves hasn't abated, but I have come to like cooked sour cherries—in pie and strudel, at any rate.

In the waning days of 2010, the first great NYC 21st century blizzard came roaring in and we were stuck at home for a few days. On Monday, still in denial about just how stuck at home we were, I began making cherry strudel to take to dinner at a friend's that night. But with no subway, or bus, or car—or even car service—we were not making it all the way to Bed Stuy.

I hadn't made cherry strudel in a while, and I had forgotten about what a dream the dough for it is. This isn't filo dough (I didn't have any in my freezer) or the authentic studel dough that you stretch out over a floured tablecloth (though I would like to try making that sometime). Instead, it's a sinfully rich sour cream-butter dough that my mother-in-law taught me. The dough comes together quickly, since you just mix all the ingredients in, but then it has to sit in the fridge for at least two hours. It requires planning ahead, but then, so does filo, since it has to be defrosted.

I made the dough. I made the studel filling. Which was good but not great, because the canned cherries I used were subpar. Do yourself a favor and get jarred morello cherries (You can find them at Eastern European stores.), which are much better than watery canned sour cherries.

After I realized we were snowbound and going nowhere, I put both dough and filling in the fridge and forgot about them.

However, my mother-in-law is in town, and the other night she came over for dinner. Scrounging around  for dessert, I came across the strudel makings and decided it was the perfect time to bake them. With the dough and filling already made, it took me less than 15 minutes to get them into the oven. The results were pretty darn good.

Better than sour cherry soup, at any rate.

Cherry Strudel

For the Dough:
2 cups flour
2 sticks soft butter
1 cup sour cream
half teaspoon salt
• mix all ingredients together in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Shape dough into a flat oval and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least two hours or up to three days.

For the filling:
2 jars sour cherries, liquid drained out
half cup almond flour
half cup bread crumbs
quarter cup sugar
half a stick of melted butter
• mix all ingredients together and set aside.

To assemble:
1. preheat oven to 375.
2. Take out chilled dough and divide into four pieces. Keep one piece out and put others back in fridge. Roll the first piece out on a floured board into a thin 8-by-12-inch rectangle.
3. Spread a quarter of the filling in a 3-inch wide line across the width of the dough, leaving a one-inch border at the wide end and at the two long ends. Then, starting at the end with the line of filling, roll the dough up, width-wise, tucking in the sides. Place the dough, curved into a full-moon shape, on a greased cookie sheet.
4. Repeat with remaining three piece of dough and rest of filling, placing finished strudels on the same sheet. If desired, brush tops and sides with melted butter. Cut four slits into the top of each strudel.
5. Bake until strudels are golden brown, about 35-45 minutes. Let cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar before slicing and serving.