Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Cambodian Feast for a Baby

My friends Mony and Neang Lon who are Cambodian had a baby shower Sunday September 19, exactly one month after baby Giovanni was born. In Cambodia it is considered unlucky to throw a shower for an unborn baby because of  age old superstitions. Cambodian showers are just like any you might have been to with family, friends, colleages and neighbrs dropping by all day, some with gifts for the baby or the proud parents but the food is different. Mony and Neang run a restaurant in Miami Springs called Thai Rama (alas no Cambodian dishes) and they know how to enetertain. With Mony's mother cooking you know the food will be delicious. If you are not familiar with Cambodian food, I'll explain. Cambodia lies in the region of Southeast Asia known by the French as Indochine (Indochina) as it lies between the huge countries of India and China. The food has been influenced over the centuries by India (thats where complex spicy coconut curries originated) often served over rice noodles (from China) or sliced baguettes (the gift from the French who ruled Cambodia during the colonial days). Neighboring Vietnam, Laos and Thailand also contributed threads that weave together the tapestry of Cambodian food. It tends to be less spicy and more subtle. On a trip to Cambodia years ago I fell in love with the cuisine, eating roasted chicken that had been smeared in a black pepper, lemongrass, and lime juice paste mixed with salt that was crispy golden on the outside and meltingly juicy within that I tore apart with my fingers. I  also remember eating steamed freshwater fish with green mango salad from the great Tonle Sap Lake area near Angkor Wat (the largest religious structure in the world, now Buddhist but originally built to the Hindu god Vishnu). But back to the shower in Pembroke Pines. When I arrived I was escorted into a room to coo over baby Giovanni who had red strings tied around both wrists for good luck and then headed to the buffet in the backyard overlooking a manmade lake. Canopies shaded tables and guests helped themselves. There were spring rolls with tuk trey (sweet and sour dip made from sugar, vinegar and fish sauce), a huge pan of roasted pork chopped into hunks, ground pork stir-fried with glass noodles, grilled satay sticks of spice-marinated chicken, barbecue chicken smeared in hotly red spices, and a red coconut curry called nom banchock namya served over a skein of soft rice noodles to be mixed with with slivers raw cabbage, bean sprouts and sliced banana blossom. It brought back my trip to Cambodia with its complex spicing and richness, cut with lime juice. Then I was served light spongy slices of cake cemented together with thick layers of whipped cream and bits of candied fruit and sprinkles from an Asian bakery. My friend Perun who is also Cambodian was there and brought boxes of longan from her farm in the Redland. They are a bit like lychees but the size of large marbles, smooth and dark golden with sweet honey-scented translucent flesh. In the center, reached by sliting the thin shell with a finger nail and popping it open is a small shiny black seed you have to nibble and in the end suck around, one reason they are also called dragon eye fruit. I'm sure Giovanni will grow up a happy and well fed little dragon with a good eye as his dad is a graphic designer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

More on Spices

Indian food is far less complicated to make than it tastes. What can seem intimidating at first are the long lists of ingredients, but when you take a closer look, you’ll find that the majority of the list consists of spices. Once you assemble the spices, the rest is easy. It is the variety and combinations of spices that distinguishes Indian cuisine. Sometimes one spices flavor predominates; more often relative proportions of spices are balanced with seasonings and other flavorful ingredients to compose a vibrant mosaic of complementary and contrasting flavors, including sweet, bitter, nutty, pungent, salty and astringent. Balancing enticing colors and textures is important too.

 How you use spices determine a successful dish. Spices can be used whole, ground, fried or roasted. In this blog you will learn the techniques to unlock each spices special property. As you gain confidence, you will instinctively balance spices and bring out the best flavor of each one. This can be accomplished by dry toasting and freshly grinding spices to add at various stages or sprinkle over a finished dish, or whole spices can be sizzled in hot oil to start a dish or pour over a finished one for extra aroma and flavor. Most of the same spices are used throughout India, but are manipulated differently depending on the region. In the north, whole spices are toasted, then ground and added while cooking. In the south, both whole and powdered spices are blended into wet pastes, often with grated coconut and used in various stages of cooking. A pinch of the warming spice blend, garam masala is sprinkled over dishes in the north. Cooks in the south finish off a dish with a seasoning of curry leaves, dried chiles and mustard seeds spluttered in hot coconut oil.

If spices are the heart and soul of Indian dishes, spice mixtures (masalas) are the spine—the underlying foundation of most Indian dishes. When Indian cooks ask for a recipe, they are requesting the special masala that makes each cooks dish unique. Every housewife has their special blend that makes their fish curry sing or spicy chicken sizzle. Like a musical raga, recipes are melodic patterns with plenty of room for riffs off the classical foundation. Commercial spice blends are sold in Indian markets, but no self-respecting cook uses them—instead the blends are made in the kitchen from freshly roasted and ground spices as the recipe is cooked. Some blends that are used on a daily basis can be made in large batches and stored in airtight containers.

Stay tuned for yet more spice talk with tips on assembling a spice box....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where Spices Are The Variety Of Life

                                         INDIAN  SPICES AND AROMATICS

For centuries spices have served three important functions in Indian cooking---medicinal, preservative and seasoning. Today the main focus is on the flavor spices impart to a dish, although traces of their original uses still linger. Turmeric with antiseptic properties is rubbed on fish before cooking and is added to pickling mixtures as a preservative Turmeric also stops bleeding and can plug a leaking car radiator, one reason truck drivers in India travel with a bag of ground turmeric for emergency patch jobs. Legumes are usually cooked with a slice of ginger to reduce flatulence. Cumin features in cooling digestive drinks and chiles are used liberally to stimulate the liver, which tends to become sluggish in hot weather. According to Hindu scriptures, spices are classified as “warm” or “cool” depending on whether they generate internal body heat or take away heat from ones system. Black cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, mace, nutmeg, cassia leaf (a type of laurel related to cinnamon), peppercorns and red pepper are warm spices. Larger amounts are used in the winter to create a warming effect. All the other spices fall into “somewhat cool” to “moderately warm” categories and are used anytime in various amounts to keep the system in balance. Herbs and spices that harmonize with certain foods are cooked together to promote the body’s own healing properties. Ghee, honey, rice and yogurt, for example are cooling. Meat, mangoes and cashews are heat-inducing foods eaten in moderation.  Spicy hot foods are eaten in larger quantity in hot weather as they induce perspiration. You sweat, then feel cooler as even tepid air hits your damp skin—all the better if its an icy blast from an air conditioner. Not all Indian food is fiery hot as you might have come to think after a meal in the old guard curry houses that specialized in super macho, hot dishes. Some spices do impart heat, but work in tandem with more subtle aromatics, infusing dishes with heady fragrances, beautiful tints and piquant notes. Many spices also help thicken and bind sauces and some act as a natural tenderizer. A few, such as saffron, turmeric, cayenne and fresh green herbs lend flavor, aroma and color.

Stay tuned for more on spices....

Eggplant and Chickpeas with Garlic

This recipe is from northeast India, a region integrating the cuisines of both the north and Bengal. Anita Sen, a friend and colleague from our days in Singapore cooked this for me when I visited her in Kolkata (Calcutta) on a rain-chilled night when all Bengalis wrap themselves in shawls to ward off the dreaded cold. We sipped spiced chai over stories of her idyllic childhood growing up in Assam on the tea garden her father managed in the foothills of the Himalayas. She recalled the cool mists, the tea shrubs clinging to the hillsides in neat pruned rows and the meals cooked over glowing embers in a clay oven, adding special flavor in her memories. This dish combines succulent chunks of eggplant with nutty chickpeas in a simple spice mixture (masala) with coconut milk and is a family favorite. She learned this dish from the family cook who was a Buddhist descended from a line of Mogs. They were tribal people from the Chittigong hill tracks in Bangladesh bordering Myanmar taken as galley slaves by the Portuguese and later hired as cooks by the British. This is Bengali in essence but less pungent. The flavor is deeper than the list of ingredients implies.  Eggplant and chickpeas are fried with ground spices and slow simmered in coconut milk until the eggplant is tender and falling apart and the chickpeas start to become creamy. The final touch is a to stir in gently fried golden garlic and sliced bits of jalapeño with a garnish of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves. I prefer the silky texture and mild taste of long slender Asian eggplant, but any type will do, from the small oval ones sold in Indian groceries to the striking mauve and white Pandora Striped Rose or elongated white Casper varieties sold at farmers markets. If using small eggplants halve or quarter them depending on the size.


1 large eggplant or 2-3 slender Asian eggplants (about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
1generous tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2-3 small dried red chilies (such as japonés or chile de arbol), snipped in half and seeded
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided use
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
1 cup canned coconut milk (shake the can before opening to mix the top layer of cream into the thinner milk)
Juice of half a freshly squeezed lime (about 2 tablespoons)
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 tablespoon)

PREPARING THE EGGPLANT. If using a large eggplant cut in half lengthwise. Cut into quarters lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2-inch sections. If using Asian eggplants cut them in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise on the diagonal into 2-inch thick slices. Set aside.

ROASTING AND GRINDING THE SPICES. Heat a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Drop in the coriander seeds, cumin and dried red chiles. Roast until the spices darken a shade and smell fragrant, shaking the pan a few times, about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and grind until fairly finely powdered, stopping once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape out into a small dish.

COOKING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEAS. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-low heat. Add the ground spice mixture and fry for about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon.  Add the eggplant, salt, turmeric, and chickpeas and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring and scraping up from the bottom of the pan almost constantly until the eggplant is encrusted in the spice mixture, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and simmer until the eggplant is tender and all the liquid is dried up, about 20 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and turn off the heat and keep covered.

FRYING THE GARLIC. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Sizzle the garlic, watching carefully and stirring from time to time until starting to become slightly sticky, in about 6 to 7 minutes. Keep frying until starting to become crispy and light golden, about 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir into the eggplant and chickpea mixture. Keep covered until ready to serve.

GARNISHING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEA CURRY. Stir in the jalapeño and transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with the coriander (cilantro) and serve. Makes 4-6 servings

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mermaid Seasalt Toffee

Spicy Salty Sweet Toffee is back

Over a year ago I started making toffee under my own label, Mermaid Seasalt Toffee. I've always been intrigued by the idea of mermaids, love swimming in the ocean and grind my own Indian spice mixtures so came up with a toffee infused with spices to create a buttery delicious treat that is brushed with chocolate and sprinkled with homemade curry powder and Himalayan salt ground from marine fossils that are 2 million years old from the time when the mountains were an ocean. Each batch is hand made with the idea of candy that is sweet and just a little bit salty. I'm glad she's back after taking the summer off. It felt good to sweat again, cutting burning hot toffee before it got too hard to cut into bite size pieces.  I like that my apartment is once agian filled with the scent of almost burnt sugar and I have the mantra-like task of cutting wax paper and wrapping the little pieces of toffee. If you haven't tried it, you really should. 

The Bengali feast I cooked with Seema

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An Old Friend Resurfaces and I'm Hungry

A few days ago my friend Seema Desai found me on facebook (isn't the social networking age great?) I met Seema in Miami who is a scientist and was working at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (she's now an assistant professor in Chicago at RUSH). In Miami we would meet to cook Bengali food and the seafood dishes of the Koli fisherwomen who were the original inhabitants of the cluster of islands that became Mumbai (Bombay). Seema is from the Juhu Beach area of Bombay and worked in the Koli community before living with a Bengali family when she was doing research in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). I haven't told anyone yet about my passion for Bengali food, but my mouth waters thinking about carp in yogurt custard and greens cooked in mustard oil in a paste of ground spices. Bengalis are clever but smart enough to back themselves up and have a creative streak a mile wide. Seema is a genius.  She found frozen smelt to make a deliciuos Bengali fish dish and taught me to stuff mild finger peppers with fake crab among many adapations to life in America. She's not like any woman scientist friend you could have who happens to be Indian in this life (she jokes I must have been Indian in a past life and I'm sure it could be true). She calls me Kalindi Mukherjee, a great Hindi-Bengali pen name. The best news is I'll be seeing her in January when I am in Chicago and we plan to go to Divine Devon Street, a great artery of Indian shops and restaurants mingled with old world Jewish shops selling kosher meats, pickles and yogurt. It is a great river of life like the Indus  that was the birth of one of the great civilizations in the world. There's just some people you meet along the river of life that become a current so strong you can never lose them and Seema Desai in one of them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dumplings with the neighbors

Last night I met my neighbor Michael, a graphic designer and his wife, Manal an accountant  at their home, three blocks from me. Michael had written to me regarding a barbecue place I wrote about in my column in the Miami Herald. Next thing I know he invited me to his bi-weekly Friday night gathering. Then I am helping make Chinese dumplings with Monica and Theresa--they are from China and Taiwan and friends. I stripped fresh thyme and rosemary from the stem and we mixed the herbs with chopped basil and minced garlic with ground turkey, chopped shrimp and spinach to make the filling for the dumplings. Monica directed us and my job making eggrolls at Jins BBQ when I was at university in Carbondale, Illinois came in handy. I placed a spoonful of filling on a round won ton wrapper and smeared beaten egg around the circle, then folded it up to create a half moon and pinched it closed. We steamed the dumplings in a pot with a bit of oil and water until crusted on the bottom and soft on top. Very delicious plain or dipped in vinegar or fish sauce. We all mentioned the fact that today is 9/11. I remember being on day 11 of a trip to India that started September 1st in Delhi. On September 11th I was in Jaipur in Rajasthan. I went to a village fair, rode a camel, went on a little Ferris wheel and ate the food of the desert at a low table with my fingers, mixing dal and rice and scooping it up with torn pieces of blistered flat bread punctuated with hot and spicy chutneys. I rode home with my Indian host and friend and stumbled into bed dreaming of the village fair and woke up at 4 a.m. to pack and head to the airport to Mumbai. I skidded into the lobby in the dusky early hour and grabbed a newspaper. I saw a picture of the world trade center twin towers collapsing and went into a semi state of shock. I knew my friend was on the way to take me to the airport but another part of me went numb. I saw a TV that was replaying the image of the towers going down and I started to cry. What in the world had happened? Then my friend arrived on his motorcycle and with tears in my eyes and a huge ache in my heart we headed to the airport and next thing I know I was airborne on my way to Mumbai where a friend from Miami I met at Rajas little down town eatery met me and took me for a bite to eat and comforted me in the hour of no mans land. So there I was in Mumbai on 9/11

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cookie Connection

In my Miami food writings I have met hundreds of people from owners of small cafes with Indonesian and Indian food good enough to make you want to move to Bali or Bombay to homecooks with brillant dishes from Bolivian soup-filled empanadas to Venezuelan corn pancakes folded around cheese, all with various stratifications of stories to accompany the dishes. Last week Gil Katzman, the Israeli-born proprietor of  a  dessert company he runs with his wife Smadar called Cookie Pursonality (the collection of cookies are packed in Deco-style cardboard "purses") got in touch with me and  told me about a book called The Hundred-Foot Journey, written by Richard C. Morais, a classmate of Gil at Zurich high school in Switzerland. I got the book yesterday and finished it tonight. It's about being displaced and having to answer the question, where are you from? In the novel a young Indian boy moves to England, then France discovering his gift for cooking, and after winning his 3rd star for his haute French cuisine, he realizes it is a thousand year journey back to his roots in India when on winning his prestigious star he peers in on a hole-in-the-wall Indian place that has closed but he smells the familiar curry and yearns for home--and a home he is not sure he has after so many years abroad. The lives of the people I write about reflect my own life of living in many countries. My life, Gil and Smadar's, my friend Yonder, my friend Shar, my friend Barry, my friend  Shiny--almost everyone I know has had their life intersected by life circumstances for good and bad.To answer where are we from? The World.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Eggplants of Friendship

On Sunday my friend Lisa brought me a small curry plant (the leaves are added to curries--it's not curry powder growing on a tree!), a mango from her parents tree, her homemade mango chutney and some long slender Asian eggplants that I like as they have smooth (not bitter) skin and sweet flesh that is succulent when cooked and absorbs the flavors of what it is cooked with. They came with the curry plant from Asia Grocery on SW 56th Street in Miami which is really an Indian market where one can get jars of lime, mango and carrot pickles in mustard oil and spices, whole and ground spices, lentils, basmati rice, and Southeast Asian-Indian produce like the slim eggplants, bitter melons and long beans. Lisa had an appointment in that part of Miami and was kind enough to get what items I asked her to get for me. So last night with the leftover curry base from the chef friend, half a can of coconut milk and the eggplants I made eggplant curry. I just heated some olive oil, tossed in mustard seeds and cumin seeds and fresh curry leaves. When they were sizzling I added the chef friends curry base (who he adapted from a North Indain chef he met in Egypt) and chopped up eggplant, turmeric, cayenne, fresh cilantro and salt. I stir-fried the eggplant in a a wok from my friend Eleanor until it started to soften and poured in the coconut milk with a splash of vinegar and cooked it down until the sauce was thick and clinging to the eggplant and then threw in the remaining baby spinach I had in my fridge. I ate it with rice and Lisa's savory mango chutney. Today, Labor Day, Lisa invited me for dinner. By coincidence--or maybe because she had been shopping in an Indian grocery--or because we were on the same wave length--she had cooked Indian. I brought over my eggplant curry and we feasted together on this last night of summer as lightning splintered in the sky and rain streaked her windows. She had made chard with coconut and tamarind, basmati rice scented with cumin and cloves steamed with peas, corn and carrot shreds, potato cubes cooked with whole spices and red lentil dal. It's the end of summer but I'm sure many more Indian meals remain with my circle of friends to extend the season--isn't it called Indian summer?.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Northeast India

West Bengal and Assam form the main mass of the northeastern part of India and share a similar cuisine based on rice, fish, dal (stewed lentils) and vegetables. These regions encircle East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Most of West Bengal lies on the western delta of the Ganga where numerous rivers, including the Ganges, and its branch, the Hooghly pour out into the Bay of Bengal. The bay is bordered by mud flats and mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans in the far south. To the far north is Darjeeling meaning, “region of the dorje”, or thunderbolt, perched in the shadow of the cloud shrouded Kanchendzonga mountain range and surrounded by forests and terraced tea gardens. In southern West Bengal, summers are hot and humid, followed by cooler, clear winters. This region is called Sonar Bangal, or “the golden land of Bengal”, a rich gold and green landscape of rice paddies with stands of sugarcane, coconut palms, and bananas. Bengalis are crazy about the wild, leafy greens that poke up in the wet lushness of monsoon season and get cooked with coconut, chickpeas and chiles or added to dal (stewed lentils). Water lilies, taro, bitter gourds, banana blossoms, potatoes, crab, shrimp and sweet water fish are all relished and plentiful. Dal-bhat (boiled rice and split lentils) with a little fish is everyday sustenance in Bengal. Rice is a must at every meal, but puffed deep-fried bread is also popular with the soft collapsed balloons torn and used to scoop up fish curries. Panch phoron is a 5-spice blend indispensable to Bengali cuisine. Unlike most spices, the seeds are not ground, but roasted and used whole. Mustard seeds are also widely used, sizzled in hot mustard oil or ground raw into a pungent paste and added to vegetable stews or smeared on fish pieces steamed in banana leaves. White poppy seeds are also wet-ground into pastes for thickening stews. Bengali cuisine is highly ritualized, with emphasis on freshness but also how each fish and vegetable is cut on a boti, a terrifyingly large upright blade clamped onto a wood block.  Also unlike other regions, dishes are always eaten in a precise order, based on age-old beliefs that relate to the aid of the digestive process. A bitter vegetable melange called shuko starts the meal, followed by fritters, rice, lentils, vegetable stew and roasted vegetables then fish, possibly a meat dish and sweet chutney, lentil wafers and thick, sweet yogurt called misti.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Joy Luck Curry

Today I was lucky enough to get a plastic container holding a curry base from a chef-friend who obtained the mother base from an Indian chef working with him in the Middle East. The roots were ground spices with yogurt intended for a north Indian lamb curry. The chef-friend adapted it with coconut and his own spin with the backbone of a ginger garlic paste and onions fried almost to burning and dark brown and pureed with the the ginger-garlic paste and tomato to weld together a great meal that using the base curry can include what ever you can imagine. I thinned the base slightly with a little coconut milk, reduced it down and added fresh spinach by the handful, then some chopped boiled eggs. I added a bit of sambal (Indonesian chile paste) and ate it spooned over rice and was happy. Next time I'll try crab or shrimp or tofu. I just joined the joy cook club.